Words by Jim Testa
Somewhere between forming the landmark psyche-folk combo The Holy Modal Rounders in the Sixties and the loveably quirky recordings he’s made in the last several decades with Jeffrey Lewis, Baby Gramps, the Ether Frolic Mob, the Worm All-Stars, the Atomic Meta-Pagans, the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Banjo Squadron, and his daughter Zoe, Peter Stampfel had a band called the Bottle Caps.
With Stampfel on fiddle and vocals, he and the Bottle Caps recorded three albums of often amusing and sometimes cantankerous folk-rock on Rounder, Homestead, and Blue Navigator Records in the mid-Eighties to late Nineties, all long out of print and only available on used vinyl or CD’s through eBay and the collector market.
Enter Joe Steinhardt, an enthusiastic record collector in his own right and co-proprietor of Don Giovanni Records (which has released four Stampfel albums since 2014.) While digging through a collection purchased from a well-known* rock critic, Steinhardt discovered a cassette labeled “Peter Stampfel & The Bottlecaps: Demo ‘84.” It turned out to be a collection of 4-track recordings made for friends and fans. Even Stampfel had forgotten it existed. Eight songs on the demo wound up on the Bottle Caps’ self-titled debut full-length, released by Rounder in 1986, along with “When It’s Springtime In Alaska (It’s Forty Below,)” which wouldn’t be recorded again until the third LP, The Jig Is Up, came together in the late Nineties.
Now, Don Giovanni has released Demo ‘84 digitally, bringing these delightfully goofy but exquisitely well-rendered ditties to a new generation, including the hilarious “Funny The First Time,” the urban commentary “Random Violence,” several sublime covers, and the brilliant “Surfer Angel,” which mashes up “Wipeout” and the rockabilly classic “Endless Sleep” into a surf/death song.
Stampfel, who turns 82 in October, never seems to rest. Besides churning out new work consistently for the past several decades with an international array of collaborators, he’s released two collaborative albums with anti-folk hero Jeffrey Lewis (a third is on the way,) as well as 2015’s Have Moicy 2: The Hoodoo Bash, a compilation that served as a sequel to the critically-praised Have Moicy! (Robert Christgau’s #1 pick of 1976, and considered to be among the finest folk albums of the rock era.)
Sequestered with his wife and family in a Soho loft during the pandemic, Stampfel – whose voice has always exhibited uniquely shambolic properties, with a yodel that could shatter glass – has been dealing with dysphonia, which causes involuntary spasms of the vocal cords or larynx. It’s made it difficult for him to sing, but sing he must – besides the Jeffrey Lewis project, Stampfel is preparing to release his magnum opus on Louisiana Red Hot Records, “Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century,” a collection (with extensive liner notes and an interactive web site) that will showcase one song for every year from 1901 to 2000.
We caught up with Peter to talk about the lost story of the Bottle Caps, his voice, and what he has planned for the next few decades.
Off Shelf: I understand that you actually had forgotten that the Bottle Caps had made a demo cassette until Joe found it and asked about it.
Peter Stampfel: Yes, I had completely forgotten about it. It was interesting hearing those songs again. I had actually listened to the record about six months ago for the first time in decades, and it’s a pretty good album. I’ve been having “Impossible Groove” and “Oh What A Night For Love” and “Funny The First Time” ear worm me. Good songs.
OS: That was a really good band too. You had some good players. Peter Moser on drums, Al Greller on bass, Jonathan Best on keyboards, and guitarists W.T. Overgard and John Scherman.
PS: Yes, that was a really good band, yes. John Scherman and Tom Overgard are both dead, sadly. Scherman could be really exasperating to work with, on so many levels, but he had his positive aspects as well.
OS: Are the sessions we hear on the demo tape different from what wound up on the albums?
PS: Oh no, no, no. Completely different. We did all new recordings. We couldn’t get “Springtime In Alaska” on the first album because we had a strict time limitation and a money limitation when we did the album. The budget was $5000 and John kept wanting to redo “Impossible Groove” over and over and over and over and over and over. We wound up going $2,000 over budget and me, John, and Tom wound up splitting the cost of extra studio time three ways. The same thing happened with the second album, The People’s Republic Of Rock N Roll. We had a $5,000 budget for that and went $2,000 over and again the three of us ponied up the difference. It was a step away from vanity publishing in those days. Rock ‘n’ roll. Working with Homestead was the same as Rounder. We couldn’t get as good a deal for the studio time for the second album either. The console that recorded our album, by the way, was the same one that Springsteen used to record Born To Run.
OS: I understand you also found a box of old live tapes too, and someone is going through them now trying to see if there are enough good tracks to put together a covers album.
PS: Yes, Jennifer Levy has been going through tapes, and found 11 possibilities so far. It’s both the Bottle Caps and the Unholy Modal Rounders. The Bottle Caps really did the best covers. That’s the idea, to put together an album of just our live covers. It’ll be called Copy Cats. Our covers were really fucking great. “Be True To Your School” and “96 Tears.”
OS: How are you doing? I know you are having some health problems.
PS: It’s allegedly an incurable condition called dysphonia. I’m trying to find some work-arounds. I had started working on it before the shit hit the fan with this virus. Starting in March, I went on an 80-day regimen of vocal exercises, meditation, and working on music. I’ve been working on about, I don’t know, about 30-40 songs. I’ve written four new songs in lockdown, and they’re very good songs, I think. One’s called “The Other Side,” and another is called “Hoo Day,” which is a variation on an old Leadbelly song. And another rewrite of Leadbelly called “Zombie Cowboy.”
OS: What else have you been working on? I know you have that “100 Songs” project.
PS: We’re looking for a November release for that. I have to finish the liner notes by the end of the month. I’m writing liner notes for each of the hundred songs. I haven’t done a word count, but it’s about 300 words per song, times one hundred songs is what? 30,000 words. I’m up to the 1950’s.
The release will be 5 CD’s, and a vinyl “Best Of” collection of the best songs of the century. And there’ll be a booklet with the liner notes, which will also be online. And they’ll be interactive. I’m asking people to contribute, sign in and comment. I want corrections, additions. Tell me why you would have picked another song for that year instead of the one I picked. I’d like to hear people weigh in on The Great American Songbook.
By me, it started with Jerome Kern’s “Begin The Beguine” in 1915, that was a groundbreaking structure. But the question is, when did the Great American Songbook come to an end? Since Jerome Kern kickstarted it, you could say for the sake of neatness that it ended when he died in 1945. Or you could say it ended in 1950, when Irving Berlin wrote his last good song. I go pretty far into the Irving Berlin catalog. He allegedly wrote about 1,500 songs and of course, I’ve never heard most of them, but most of the ones I have heard are shit. Like, he wrote all the songs for “Cocoanuts,” the first Marx Brothers play, and they’re all crap. You ever see the movie “Easter Parade?” “I’m wishing, wishing, wishing again/that I was back in Michigan.” That’s a really shitty song. His last Broadway musical was called “Mr. President” in 1962, and all the songs are crap. His last good musical was “Call Me Madame,” which had three good songs, three songs that I had no idea that he wrote. I figure he had about 38 years of good songs.
You have to ask who had the best batting average of good songs compared to crap, or who wrote good songs for the longest? Offhand, Bob Dylan has had as good a ride as I’ve seen. But that’s the kind of thing that this project is going to discuss.
Also, when I mention a songwriter, I list other songs they wrote and we’ll see if it’s possible to hook it up so you can find other songs by the same writer on Youtube. This could be the starting off point for quite an archive, looking at the whole century. I’m really happy with the way this is working out.
OS: I heard you were working on a third album with Jeffrey Lewis too. How is that coming along?
PS: Actually, we’ve been working on it for years. It’s two albums worth of material. My dysphonia cut in while we were recording it, and when I was trying to do harmonies, I was having a lot of problems. At his point, our intention is to release it as is. There’s one particular track that I want to excise all my harmonies except for one word, and if that could happen, I could live with the rest. But it’ll be a double album and it would be nice if it could come out this year, maybe the same time as the 100 Years project.