At 80, the tireless and talented fiddle, banjo and guitar player, Ur-punk provocateur, former Rounder, Fug, devotee of Harry Smith, Spike Jones, Pete Seeger, Little Richard and the Beats, is recording songs for every year of the 20th century, playing with musicians young enough to be his grandchildren and still believes his real job is to have fun
There’s nothing so defiant as an 80-year old man singing about fucking in a graveyard. Then again, there are few things as flat-out fun as watching Peter Stampfel perform.
A long-time musical provocateur, Stampfel has been playing music in and around the New York City area since the early 1960s. When PKM asked me to write about Stampfel, I knew little of his work outside his involvement in the folk-based Holy Modal Rounders and the experimental Fugs. Those two far-out 1960s groups are largely known for their other players: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard, who sat behind the drum kit for the Rounders, and radical poets Ed Sanders and Naphtali “Tuli” Kupferberg, who wrote and sang for The Fugs.
In researching Stampel, I discovered a fiddle, banjo and guitar player who musicologists revere for his ear and his varied melding of musical traditions. I also found myself on the trail of an insightful, hyper-connected, eager-to-collaborate, self-described former speed freak who loves to make music. In going to see Stampfel play last month, and then talking to him in person, by phone and by email, I’ve come to realize I’ve met a unique talent and a tireless mind. The most striking thing about Stampfel is his physical and mental energy; he’s kinetic in every way.
Stampfel can demystify almost any topic, including the function of melody or the value of dissonance, and make it as approachable as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He made two statements in the course of our interviews that struck me as “different”. The first is about how he likes to “hear” a band work, Stampfel explaining, “You’ve probably noticed that we don’t have any solo breaks. I like what happens when people are playing together as opposed to, like, ‘Okay, shut up. It’s my turn.’ It’s just more interesting when everyone plays together at the same time. A group of people can do something that’s more interesting than almost anybody can do by themselves––no matter how amazing they are.”
“Next to Bob Dylan, Stampfel is the closest thing to a genius that [the folk scene] produced.” –Robert Christgau
The second is his take on Easy Rider, the 1969 Dennis Hopper film that employed The Holy Modal Rounders’ “If You Want To Be a Bird” in a highway-drive vignette [Editor: The “I-got-a-helmet” sequence when George, the Jack Nicholson character, joins Hopper and Peter Fonda in going to New Orleans]. Stampfel admits, “I never saw the movie. I read the reviews and thought ‘This is fucking stupid. These people really don’t know anything about the scene. Besides, who cares about some far-fetched, hippy-come-lately trip?’ It sounded clueless. Eventually, I will watch it; I decided that a couple of years ago. I had been ‘fuck-it-forever’.”
In the 2006 documentary, The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose, a look at the Weber and Stampfel legacy, Sam Shepard recounts “the renegade insanity” of the band and its idiosyncratic success, expressing shock they had opened for Pink Floyd and for Ike and Tina Turner. Shepard concludes: “People were dumbfounded by the band. They couldn’t figure us out, but they must have liked something about us because they kept hiring us.”
Folksinger Dave Van Ronk claims, “They were stoned out their birds all the time; everybody knew it and they made no bones about it.”
Part of the attraction was certainly Stampfel, who has gone on to play with an A-to-Z list of musical talents, from Bob Dylan to Yo La Tengo. In the documentary, Village Voice music editor Robert Christgau reaffirms his opinion that “next to Bob Dylan, Stampfel is the closest thing to a genius that [the folk scene] produced.” Here’s Stampfel, in his own words, from a conversation we had earlier this month. No helmet needed, but strap in; Stampfel’s having fun in a way few do.
PKM: I really enjoyed your show the other night at the Mercury Lounge. The fun you have stage is infectious.
Peter Stampfel: Thank you. Did you find the instruments too loud in relation to the voices? How well were you able to make out the words? That’s my gold standard: people hearing the words of a live performance. Otherwise, they’re only getting a word here and there, or a phrase here and there. People should know what the fucking song is about, otherwise the meaning is elusive.
PKM: No, the vocals were great; I could hear them, but, then again, I’ve been listening to a lot of your music of late. You’ve been recording as The Atomic Meta Pagans. What prompted you to form that band?
Peter Stampfel: That’s a name I’ve had since about 1999; hanging around. The Ether Frolic Mob is what you saw onstage [Mercury Lounge, NYC, February 4]. The Atomic Meta Pagans was originally The Ether Frolic Mob plus [avant-garde vocalist] Shelley Hirsch. On my new albums, I’m playing with Shelley and with just three members of The Ether Frolic Mob, for the time being, to keep it tight; more clear and together, basically.
PKM: Do you have a mission for the recording group? Is there a place you want to take us? Or, that you want to see the band go?
Peter Stampfel: As far as the albums go, I’m shooting for the feeling of a freeform radio station from 1967. That was for me the high-water mark of variety, when you might hear The Ride of the Valkyries, then The Kingsmen and then African percussion. I’m trying to have the music be more far ranging as the albums go on.
Each album is going to be named after a geological era: the first one is The Cambrian Explosion, and The Ordovician Era is what came after. The next album is The Silurian Period. I’ve had to look into all that. Basically, it’s Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian; they go on. In each case, I’m picking some critters from the era and [Maakies and Sock Monkey cartoonist/author] Tony Millionaire is putting them on the cover.
PKM: That’s great.
Peter Stampfel: I’d like to do at least two albums a year; that’s what I’m shooting for. My record company, [independent label] Don Giovanni, is willing to release anything I want, as often as I want. Practically speaking, three a year is above the limit.
PKM: Three a year? Like a ‘60s pop group?
Peter Stampfel: Yes. But my next one is not the Atomic Meta Pagans. Let me back up a bit: I was invited by [improvisational musician] Alexi Pliousnine to a music festival he hosts in St. Petersburg in 2014. That’s where I met Dok Gregory, who is now my engineer and co-producer; through Dok and Alexi, I met Shelley Hirsch.
At the festival, percussionist/conductor Don Moye organized an improvised piece. It was 13 musicians, doing a 40-minute show, with all these different parts to it, improvised but arranged. The resulting music was pretty extraordinary and I’m on it, mostly doing high falsetto noises [Laughs]. That’s the album coming out next.
That’ll be followed by an album I’ve made with [modern folkies] Eli Smith and Walker Shepard––who’s Sam’s son. After that, is the next Atomic Meta Pagan album. The thing is, at this point, we already have enough material to clear two-plus Atomic Meta Pagan albums. I’m keeping busy.
PKM: What inspires you to have all these albums already lined up?
Peter Stampfel: I really love playing music. It gets me off fantastically. It’s an intense and profound joy, an ecstatic experience. And, I’m playing with all these amazing people.
The old line is that every band has a Courtney Love and a Mike Love, various kinds of assholes, and you find yourself saying, “Yes, I know, he’s a jerk and he’s a junkie, but the girls loves him. Or, he’s a big fuckup, but he writes great songs”. I took that for granted, that, of course, there’s some jerk in the band––like it comes with the territory. But, about 10 years ago, I realized that there was only one dick I was playing with, who had anger management issues and ego problems, and, when I quit playing with him, suddenly everyone I was playing with was eager to try anything, fun to be with––even when not playing music.
Now I’m trying to play with as many people as I can, as well as having a steady bunch that I’m playing with. My ongoing ideal is play with people for the long-term, because the longer you play together, the more telepathic you get.
PKM: What started you playing music?
Peter Stampfel: Well, I always loved to sing. My singing career started on the toilet when I was two years old. My mommy would sit with me when I was on the potty and I would sing popular songs to her. Whenever we’d go out on a visit, people would want to hear me sing. That was fun, singing songs like “Blues in the Night”, “Paper Doll”, the Marine Hymn, “Put Your Arms Around Me”, “Honey, Hold Me Tight”, things like that.
Then, when I was six, my fucking grandmother, Gladys, came to visit. When I was singing, she’d go into such paroxysms of, “Squeals, squeals, squeak; Cutie, cutie, cutie.” I just quit doing it; I quit singing. If that’s going to happen when I’m singing, fuck singing.
“Having fun is all I’ve ever wanted to do since I first listened to Little Richard. I thought: he’s having more fun than I am; he’s having more fun than anybody I’ve ever seen or heard––in fact, more fun than I thought it was even possible for anyone to have. I realized decades later that my goal has been to have that much fun.”
PKM: When did you sing next?
Peter Stampfel: The only singing after that was in school. They made us sing these awful songs, with words like: “Bonny Betsy, blue eyed Molly Molly; come and join the April folly, folly; who can stay at home all day; when Jenny Wren is building in the willows.” I would try to just mouth it because how can you say those words without turning purple and gagging? The teacher would say, “You’re just moving your lips, I need you to sing.”
Then again, on the other hand, we had these incredible assemblies where everyone would sing, the whole fucking school, these 1940s popular songs like “Buttermilk Sky” and, the one on the Ordovician album, “It Might as Well Be Spring”. Singing was agony and ecstasy.
PKM: When did you start playing an instrument?
Peter Stampfel: I got talked into playing violin when I was 10. In Milwaukee in the 1940s, they sent these people to all the kids’ houses with a book of musical instruments asking, “Which one do you want to play?” Trumpet and violin, those were my two choices. I picked the violin because I was sick and hallucinating that day. The hallucinations coming out of the violin were intense so I pointed at the violin. But the teacher was this fucking monster. I won’t even go into the details; he tortured the soul of the kids and made the music, made the violin learning, an absolute, horrific ordeal. I quit after about eight months. In seventh grade, there was a big pitch about learning music: it’ll make you so happy; it’ll fix you up just fine for the rest of your life; you’ll be so glad you did this. I did violin lessons for the junior orchestra and I was in senior orchestra in high school but quit playing as soon as high school was over.
I was the first kid in my family to go to college. My background is lower middle class; my dad’s a factory worker. I met my first Bohemians after about a month in college [1956, at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee] and they introduced me to folk music, Pete Seeger and the five-string banjo. When I heard Seeger playing the banjo, I had this instant knowledge that I had to do that; I had to play that. It wasn’t thinking; it was just like a switch was flipped. Being a procrastinator, I didn’t really start playing until ’58.
PKM: In ’58, how did you start playing again?
Peter Stampfel: I went to San Francisco to see what this “Beat” stuff was all about. I wanted to see what the fuck was going on over there; it looked interesting. I had this customized ‘46 Ford coupe––I bought it from the guy that did it; I’m not very handy with things like that––and I drove my hot rod, from Milwaukee to North Beach. I didn’t want to stay because I thought it’d be like going to Paris in 1925––it would be a cliché thing to do––and as a nineteen-year old snob, I didn’t want to be a cliché.
I went south and ended up moving with my grandmother for the summer to Compton, California––Compton was more integrated back then. I rode the land rail to Los Angeles and went to the music store that was run by the guy that was [musician] Spike Jones’ weird instrument wrangler. I was like, “Can I touch the hem of your garment, sir?” I wanted to bow; Spike Jones was one of my fucking idols.
Anyway, there was a sign for banjo lessons on the wall and I started taking lessons there. That’s where I started with it; it took me a while to get even halfway decent.
I got to New York in ’59 and everybody played banjo better than me, but there were only two fiddlers. I’d been dragging my violin along almost unconsciously for years, so I started playing along with the Smith Anthology [Harry Smith’s Anthology of Folk Music; 84 early recordings that became the bible of folk]. All of a sudden, I was in demand. That’s when I started being a fiddler.
Dylan once said, “If not for the Harry Smith Anthology, there wouldn’t be a Bob Dylan.”
PKM: How long was it after that that you started the Holy Modal Rounders?
Peter Stampfel: That was May ’63. The Rounders were really engineered by my ex-old lady, Antonia. She went out with a guitarist named Steve Weber before me. She told stories about Steve, about this insane speed freak and made him out to be one of the scariest people ever. I finally met Steve when he came to visit us that May. He looked like my long lost older brother, or younger brother; he was 19 and I was 24. We took a bunch of speed and basically played together for three days.
It was Antonia’s idea that we start playing professionally; only she just arranged it without ever suggesting it. Back then a woman wasn’t supposed to direct a man; that was not considered proper. But, a woman could sneak him into situations so that the man would think it was his idea when actually it was her idea. It was her idea of proper feminine behavior; she’s responsible for The Rounders.
PKM: How did you describe the Rounders then?
Peter Stampfel: I called it, “progressive old timey music”.
PKM: Did people get it?
Peter Stampel: [Laughs] Mostly, no. I had a catch-all phrase when people asked then, “What kind of music do you play?” It was something like “Paleo-Hillbilly Rock”. It’s like what I do now: 21st-century music played in a wide variety of 19th– and 20th-century styles. I try to put in as much of American musical history as I can.
PKM: In each song?
Peter Stampfel: Yes [Laughs] with different styles of playing. Do you know about my 100-song project by any chance?
PKM: No, I don’t.
Peter Stampfel: It’s been going on forever but I’m trying to get it to a climax. I’m recording a song for every year of the 20th century, 1901 to 2000. I’ve recorded about 70 at this point and I’m going to finish the rest this year.
I’m doing the project with [studio engineer, composer, sonic adventurer] Mark Bingham; it’s called The American 20th Century in 100 Songs. There’s a Facebook site and when you go there, you’ll find links to the music and to the 4000-some words that make up the first introduction, letting you know what the fuck this whole thing is, along with individual song descriptions.
Here’s one of Stampfel’s 100 we want you to see––1976/ I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend/ Tommy Ramone 1949-2014. The liner notes read:
Slowing it down like this and making it bluesy was Mark’s idea, and it took me a while to get used to, but I sure did. I had a bad case of the don’t-wannas in the mid 70s regarding live music, and never went to CBGBs to see them, or the Talking Heads, or Blondie. Whatta dummy. I did see Television and wasn’t that knocked out. But I played there a number of times with the Unholy Modal Rounders (1975-77). For the definitive take on Punk Rock on the Lower East Side, see the Jeffrey Lewis epic musical explanation on YouTube. It ends with the Ramones going to the UK, and people are thinking: Punk is born. But Jeffrey says it was already a quarter-century old, beginning with Harry Smith’s arrival on the Lower East Side in 1950.
My take on Punk is that it was a reaction to the often bloated arena rock that arrived in the 70s and an attempt to get back to the simpler days of rock ‘n’ roll, only with a potty mouth. I felt the Fugs were the first Punks—bad attitude, no musical knowledge, let’s write 60 songs, like “Coca-Cola Douche” and the immortal “Bull Tongue Clit.” Lewis predates them in his Punk history with the Holy Modal Rounders (1963). I can live with that.
PKM: How did you describe The Fugs in 1965?
Peter Stampfel: I thought they were “Smut Rock”. [Laughs] I thought they were the first punks, actually. They had all these songs; they didn’t know anything about music, and they had this bad attitude.
Weber and I volunteered to be their backup band. There was just Tuli, Ed and [Ken] Weaver.
I quit playing with Weber in the middle of ’65, because he was going totally fucking berserk. I couldn’t stand playing with him anymore. He was not showing up for gigs and when he never showed one night, I said, “Well, fuck this”. I was so pissed at him; I quit playing with The Fugs as well. In retrospect, it would’ve been fun if I had kept playing with them.
Holy Modal Rounders cover the Fugs’ “Boobs A Lot”:
PKM: How would you describe The Fugs now?
Peter Stampfel: They were totally revolutionary, and they got better technically. They were an eclectic, interesting and groundbreaking group. Ed is a motherfucker; his writing style influenced mine to a great degree. He and Tom Wolfe are my big literary influences.
PKM: What was Harry Smith’s role in The Fugs?
Peter Stampfel: He was the engineer-producer; he recorded the first Fugs album. Let me backtrack though: I met Jeffrey Lewis at a birthday party for Ed Sanders at The Bowery Poetry Club. I see this kid in his twenties, get on stage and launch into what he calls “A History of Punk Rock on the Lower East Side from 1950 to 1975”. I thought, “Ha. Fat fucking chance, you punk.” But he starts with Harry Smith getting to the Lower East Side in 1950 and then he sang a little piece from the Anthology, then he goes to The Rounders and sings a snippet of our song, “Euphoria”.
Then he goes to The Fugs and then name checks every group, like The Velvets, and every punk prototype, up to 1975. It took about 12 minutes, going through every group until The Ramones go to England. It was a perfect job of picking up every goddamn stitch in the evolution of punk. I was blown away and I went up to him, did the fan-boy-gush, and we became fast friends. He basically traces punk from Harry Smith’s garage.
PKM How are the fiddle and the banjo instruments of rebellion for you?
Peter Stampfel: Every instrument is an instrument of rebellion. The guitar: this machine kills fascists. The saxophone: what is this rude instrument? Maybe string instruments are more rebellion-ish because they accompany songs. You can’t sing songs with horns stuck in your mouth.
PKM: [Laughs]. Who are the people who inspired you?
Peter: Early on, Spike Jones. When it came to rock ‘n’ roll: Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles were my main men. Then my college bohemian friends turned me on to Pete Seeger, who became a massive idol. I became aware of bluegrass after that, which completely blew me away until I started getting bored after a couple of years. I bought the first New Lost City Ramblers album in ’58; which is before I heard the Smith Anthology in New York in ‘59.
PKM: You shifted from reverence for the Pete-Seeger-old timey-music and turned its structure into something else. You’ve been playing with musical forms ever since. Was there anybody who inspired you in that shifting and blending of styles?
Peter Stampfel: The Ramblers. Until I heard the Ramblers, I wasn’t aware of what came before bluegrass. Bluegrass, you could say, started about 1940. What happened before bluegrass was much more interesting than bluegrass. It wasn’t as fancy and it was ever so more varied. And a lot of it was just goofy as shit: The Dixie Dew Drops, The Skillet Lickers, The Horsehair Pullers. I thought that wackiness was really, really, really cool. All the other people playing traditional music were super-serious about it; they went at it like they had to reproduce every scratch on the record. I thought they were missing out on its supreme goofiness. Just listen to “Indian War Whoops” by Floyd Ming & His Pep Steppers, for Christ’s sake. I was deeply attracted to that because goofiness is fun. I try to be as goofy as I can as often as possible, within reason, because I think that goofiness has an almost a semi-magical quality. It’s fun to be silly; it’s fun to be goofy.
PKM: Well, it beats the alternatives.
Peter Stampfel: It sure does. The thing is, much of our culture, much of our art, despises silliness and goofiness, like they are “bad” and “wrong”, like “how dare you mock me or it?” I’ve always had an antipathy towards the super serious approach to anything. Existence is some really wack shit and there are people who go through life with a broomstick up their ass.
PKM: And measure out their days with things they have to do.
Peter Stampfel: Yeah. That’s so much of what history has been: you worked six days a week and then you went to church and you don’t dare fucking crack a smile on a Sunday. You don’t “play” for Christ sake. Ugh. I’m so glad I wasn’t born any earlier than I was.
PKM: You seem to have a connection to science fiction. Where did that come about?
Peter Stampfel: I read a Robert Heinlein book in fifth grade; Rocket Ship Galileo. And back then there was a science fiction radio program called Dimension X, which I found fascinating. In 1950, I was at a flea market with my mom and this guy, who had a whole stack of science fiction magazines, said, “Here, read this.” So I did. My big hero became Theodore Sturgeon; you ever hear of Theodore Sturgeon?
PKM No. I’d have to look him up.
Peter Stampfel: Pick a book called More Than Human. I’ve read it four times. The premise is that the next evolutionary step is “homo gestalt” which is, basically, a small number of people working together to make a kind of communal entity, so to speak. Anyway, I have been reading science fiction ever since. My wife is Betsy Wollheim; her dad, Donald A. Wollheim, was the first person to put the words “science fiction” on a book, back in 1943. He also invented “the con”: the science fiction convention. It’s led to all the subsequent cons, with a con being a place––they’re really a phenomena––where creators and fans get together and interact.
Betsy’s father was an editor for Ace Books; he was the first publisher of Robert Silverberg, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delaney and dozens of other writers. He published Dune. He started his own company, DAW Books, in ’71. [At Ace, Donald Wollhein published William Burrough’s first book, Junkie, as well as JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.]
Betsy started working with her dad in ’75 and I started working there as a first reader in 1980. I’m still working there as a first reader; part of my job is reading “the slush pile”, which are unsolicited manuscripts. We’ll accept a manuscript from anybody; hardly anybody does that in publishing any more.
Interviewer: You have a day-job reading science fiction?
Peter: Yes. My wife is my boss; she runs the company now. Her dad got sick in ’85 and she took over.
PKM: You’ve collaborated with so many people. Who would you like to collaborate with now? You can reach anybody…
Peter Stampfel: That’s a good question. [Silence] I have no idea why I’m having such a hard time with this. [Silence] On one hand, there are hundreds; on the other, a lot of them are dead. Like [Bahamian guitarist] Joseph Spence; he finger-picked the guitar with more syncopation than anyone I’ve ever heard. I met him once and he was a scary person. [Silence] Jesus, who would I like to play with? Christ, this so weird.
PKM: Is there a contemporary of yours that you never played with, or is there somebody doing something now that you think would be a hoot to get down with for a little bit?
Peter Stampfel: I’d love to play with Bob Dylan again; that’s kind of an obvious one. [Laughs] We played some in ‘61 and it was pretty amazing. The only song he’d written back then was “Song for Woody”; we were playing Anthology stuff and other traditional stuff. Dylan once said, “If not for the Harry Smith Anthology, there wouldn’t be a Bob Dylan.”
PKM: Ok. Let’s let that go; write me if names come to you. My last question is a strange one. How do you experience time? Do you experience it spatially, like a linear continuum or circular one or as a sphere or spiral; or, do you experience time visually, like with dimensions, shape and color; or, do you experience it aurally, like with beats and rests and tones and vibration?
Peter Stampfel: I experience time when I’m playing music. At that point, it’s like a beat, like a pulse. My ex-old lady Antonia wrote a song called “Time is Getting Better All the Time”. That’s an interesting take on time. I try to be in the moment: the big pitfalls in life are being resentful of the past and being afraid of the future. A great deal of humanity spends a great deal of time fearing the future and resenting the past as opposed to experiencing the moment, which I try to do as much as possible because it seems to be the best way to exist, and it makes for the most fun.
PKM: How do you make fun?
Peter Stampfel: Having fun is all I’ve ever wanted to do since I first listened to Little Richard. I thought: he’s having more fun than I am; he’s having more fun than anybody I’ve ever seen or heard––in fact, more fun than I thought it was even possible for anyone to have. I realized decades later that my goal has been to have that much fun. I’ve worked on having fun ever since. That’s my job.
How can you make fun? I like having fun; I work at having fun and I’m indeed having fun. I have a lot of fun when I play music. Nothing else I have been able to do has been more fun than making music, so that’s what I do.
Postscript: An email From Peter
About a week or so after this interview, Peter Stampfel wrote me, eager to be more eloquent about the people he’d like to play with and his attitude toward what he calls “fun”:
In response to who would I like to play with, the main people I want to play with are the ones I’m playing with now. As I said, everyone is willing to try anything, devoid of substance abuse problems; they’re punctual and fun to hang with when we’re not playing music. Shelley is one of the wonders of the world. And singing with my daughters is wonderful beyond description.
When it comes to other people, I’d like to play with more banjo players. I love the sound of multiple 5-string banjos. The Ether Frolic Mob has three banjo players, and Eli and Sam play banjo, too. I’ve been thinking about how many banjo players can play together and still hear each other. One way is trading 4’s and 8s, like in jazz. One group plays on four beats while other is silent, then vice-versa. Fun experiments beckon.
I played with Little Nora Brown, who takes lessons from Eli Hetko, one of my bandmates; I’d love to play with her more, she’s amazing. I just heard Michael J. Miles, a fantastic banjo player; I’d love to play with him, too.
In response to having fun, add in: The thing about fun is it requires other people. You can’t have as much fun by yourself, or at least, I can’t. So I’ve been looking for the people I have the most fun playing with, which took me about 70 years. The last ten years have been the most fun ever.