When you release a song called ‘The One That Got Away’ you’ve got to be sure that someone is going to ask you who it was. The High Plains Drifters are the band that dropped the song, and we weren’t going to let them get away from us, so we asked them some questions – and got a lot of fun answers.
Thanks for agreeing to talk to us today!
Larry Studnicky: We thank you for doing this interview with us. We have some of the band here to chat with you: our two guitarists, John Macom and Mike DoCampo, and our producer, Greg Cohen, who co-writes with us, plays all of the great synths you hear on some of our songs, and does some of the keyboards. Missing are Charles Czarnecki (piano, accordion), Kyle Cassel (drums), Dave Richards (bass), and our backup singers Christina Benedetto and Sabrina Curry.
The video for your recent single, ‘The One That Got Away’ was shot in Norway. Was that your choice, or that of your director, Lars Skaland? Did you go to Norway yourselves or was it done remotely by Lars?
John: I thought Larry said the video was being shot in Sweden, so I ended up in the wrong place. Malmo is pretty nice in February though. Just kidding – I think Lars did a remarkable job remotely, and it worked in our favour by not having us in the video. The cinematography is great, and Julie Bjelke was perfectly cast as “the one that got away”. It’s really an old-school MTV-style video where a Norwegian supermodel plays the main character and the music tells the story. If this had been released in 1984, we would have been bigger than The Beatles, Elvis and J Lo combined.
Larry: Lars lives in Norway. Lars came up with the concept for this video and did the casting of the remarkable Julie Bjelke. All that I did was greenlight the treatment. If I could’ve seen this video in advance of its being shot, I might have insisted on attending some of the filming. Maybe next time, for we’re still using Lars, who’s currently working on two more videos for us.
Outside of the song, name one occasion when someone or something that was dear to you got away from you – and what did you do to get them back?
Greg: Funny enough, I just spent some time abroad with my “one that got away”. She’s currently living in a distant, undisclosed location and that story is ongoing…
John: I once had a girlfriend who called me to breakup, and I calmly said “ok, I’m sorry you feel that way”, and then I nicely said goodbye. About 15 minutes later she called back all annoyed saying, “You’re not even going to try and get me back? I’m gone just like that?” I replied, “You have made your decision, and there is nothing I can do to bring you back, so why prolong the agony?” Later that night, she appeared at my apartment wearing nothing but a raincoat…
Larry: John, you’re an idiot. Your wife is going to read this! That said, I think like John on this issue. Love is hard enough to find without having to chase some gal who’s not into you, or who’s into playing games in raincoats…or maybe a French maid’s outfit…
Mike: I’m on the same page as my bandmates. When a love is over, let it go, don’t chase it. The best way to think about it, no matter who initiated the breakup, is “good riddance”. When you’re lucky, the breakup inspires a song or two, like ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’, and ‘The One That Away’.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected you? Have you found yourself limited as a band, or are you more inspired by the down-time? Have you put your time into writing?
Greg: The pandemic froze us all for those first three months. Then in June 2020, Larry called and said he didn’t think Covid was going to kill us, so let’s start on the second album. So we did, first just Larry and I, but we had the whole band back in the studio by the end of August 2020. It was great for us, but it was important also on another level – recording studios were getting killed and were at risk of closing forever. In our small way, we counteracted that.
Mike: I’ve been a professional musician my whole life, so I couldn’t let Covid shut that down. I never stopped making music. I kept recording, rehearsing, writing, etc.
John: Recording during the pandemic was challenging initially. Greg, Kyle, Charles and I have our own home studios and were able to work on early demos remotely. When we finally got back to live tracking at Kaleidoscope Sound (a fantastic studio in Union City, NJ), we were in masks and full hazmat suits. Additionally, being forced to work from home during the pandemic turned out great for me as a songwriter. I have a big backlog of non-HPD songs that I’ve always wanted to complete. The pandemic gave me the time for those songs and made me more productive. If rickets or scurvy makes a comeback, maybe I’ll finish the rest of my projects.
Larry: I can’t say that all the down-time “inspired me”. Rather, it pissed me off and made me think that, if there’s even a remote chance this dang virus will eventually kill us all, then we’d better get back to making music and making the best of whatever time is left to us.
Now that things seem to be opening up again, what’s on the horizon for the band? Will there be more touring?
Larry: For us, this is the one thing that the pandemic really messed up – being able to play live. It’s still a challenge. But I hope that we’ll figure something out by summer’s end.
Mike: We’re a seasoned band (leaving the gals aside) where everyone has some kind of domestic ball-and-chain to deal with, so touring has to make sense, including economically. We’re not 20-somethings who can just cram into an Econoliner van and hit the road.
If you could go back in time and talk to yourselves as you were first starting out – what advice would you give? Is there anything you’d do differently, and if so, what and why?
John: I would have bought Amazon stock.
Larry: I’ve known the other guys doing this interview with you for a long, long time. I just wish that I had the vision ages ago to think that we’d make a great band. But I did buy Amazon back in the day, so I’ve got that going for me.
Greg: Tough question, but for me the answer is “nothing”. I’d have done nothing differently, because everything that I and the other guys have done has brought us to this place where we’re making really great music together. It’s about the journey, not the destination.
Mike: Agreed. I wouldn’t do anything differently. I can’t tell your readers that there are “rules” or a “formula” for success that I’ve learned along the way. As a musician in a band, you bring your unique talents. You hope that you and your bandmates will share a common vision and develop a special chemistry together. I think that, on this second HPD album, we’ve been lucky and have found that magic.
Do you have any favourite brands of musical instruments to use?
Mike: I have over 30 top-flight guitars, but my “desert island choice” is my 1958 left-handed fiesta red Fender Stratocaster.
John: I have a custom-made Fender Stratocaster called a “Plus-Ultra” that I love. It’s pretty rare, and I haven’t seen any for sale. But I might trade it for a certain Norwegian supermodel. I also have a Gibson J-100 from Montana as my main acoustic guitar (the built-in pickup sounds so natural). When I’m allowed to jangle, I break out my Rickenbacker 360, which is just dreamy.
Greg: As a keyboardist, I love the sound of vintage Oberheim synthesizers like the OBXa and the LinnDrum drum machine.
Larry: I’ve never played an instrument of any kind, other than to occasionally hit a keyboard to pick out a melody line for a new song. But I can say that, when John or Mike picks up a Rickenbacker, something really cool is about to get added to one of my songs. Honestly, being around these great musicians I work with, I sometimes feel like a loser. But they all manage to figure out the music I’m hearing in my head. I’m lucky to work with them.
What’s the songwriting process for you? Do you come up with a tune or a lyric first?
Greg: Larry tends to start each song by singing his earliest lyrics into his iPhone. He and I will usually work together refining those ideas, while he continues writing that song. Once the song has its basic structure, we’ll usually bring one or both of John and Mike into my home studio and work out the chord progressions – sometimes Larry hears the basic chords in his head, but sometimes not.
Larry: Yeah, the iPhone has been a life-saver for me. I never know what might trigger a song idea or when, but whatever happens I’m ready to record it. When I’m lucky, an idea for a song gets triggered by something I’m thinking about, or some stimulus in the outside world, and the first few lines of a song – sometimes it’s a verse, and sometimes I know it’s a chorus – pop into my head along with the melody and sometimes accompanying instruments. I don’t usually hear naked melodies in my head. It’s almost always words with music for me.
John: For me it’s always the melody line that comes first, and if I’m lucky a phrase will come along with it. Sometimes I’ll write a line (or the line will write itself) and then work backwards to fill in the blanks – almost like coming up with the punchline and then writing the joke. With the High Plains Drifters, Larry spearheads the main idea, and then we try to interpret what he’s hearing, like a giant puzzle piece. Sometimes there’s only an A/B section, and maybe a little musical motif needs to be added to bridge the two parts together. I like listening for things like that – the song always tells me what to do. That’s why collaborations are great, because it’s much easier to work on the foundation of an existing structure instead of designing something completely from scratch.
What question do you wish someone would ask you in an interview, but nobody ever does? And what is the answer?
Mike: I wish that someone would ask my why do I bring tons of expensive guitars and gear to every recording session and every live gig? The answer is that I’m always pushing to get the best out of myself, and to get the best sound for whatever song I’m recording or playing. When I’m playing live, I want to be on fire for the audience – because they’ll sense when it’s bullshit and the musician just doesn’t care. You never know when it’s going to be your last time, so my credo is “until the last note is played”. You’ve got to light up the studio or the venue until the last note is played.
Larry: Nobody has ever asked me whether I set out to be the frontman and lead singer of a band. Well, I didn’t.
I grew up being told I couldn’t sing (e.g., by the nun who ran our church’s choir). I believed it, and for ages I’d only sing when alone in a car, or back in college I’d sing around a certain jukebox while drinking with my buddies. The first four songs that were recorded and released by The High Plains Drifters were not sung by me. John sang two of them, and Charles Czarnecki sang two. Then, as we started recording my song called ‘Summer Girl’, Charles told me, “Larry, you’re singing this.” I resisted but Charles, thank God, finally convinced me that it was “in my range” and I could handle it because it’s such a 70’s style “storyteller song” and is as much spoken as sung. So, I did my best, and it sucked – we had to do a painfully huge number of takes of my vocals to give Charles enough to salvage and cut and paste into a lead vocal. But the song got some radio airplay. Soon after, I was giving a public presentation (in my other life, where I’m a lawyer), and a woman in the audience went out of her way to thank me afterwards. I learned that she’s a professional vocal coach and a former opera singer. I sent ‘Summer Girl’ to her. She said to me, “You have all the notes you need, but you don’t know how to sing.” I said, “Well, duh, no kidding – can you teach me?” She said yes, and so for about 8 months I took weekly voice lessons from the great Maria Fattore. Then, in the studio, I sang the lead vocals for ‘Virginia’, which became the first single released from the HPD debut album. And I sounded really good. I was shocked. Every time I open my mouth now to sing, as the lead singer of this wonderfully talented band, I thank Charles and Maria for what they’ve done for me.