Peter Stampfel and The Atomic Meta-Pagans channel folk music’s past, present and future
Peter Stampfel has been a vital part of the New York City folk music scene since his days playing fiddle and singing with The Holy Modal Rounders in 1964. The Rounders were the acoustic duo – the other original member was guitarist Steve Weber – that may have invented folk rock by playing traditional music with a rock attitude.
The band went through many incarnations during their long history. They played quirky acoustic folk on The Holy Modal Rounders (Fantasy, 1964) and The Holy Modal Rounders 2 (Fantasy, 1965); electronic flavored jams on Indian War Hoop (ESP, 1067) and full on folk rock on Good Taste Is Timeless (Rounder, 1971). While the duo was breaking up and reforming in various incarnations over the years, Stampfel always stayed busy with other projects. In the 60s, he briefly joined The Fugs. He fronted Peter Stampfel and the Bottle Caps in the 80s and, more recently, had a brief collaboration with Seattle’s Baby Gramps.
His excursion into pure avant folk improvisation with the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Fiddle/Mandolin Swarm continues with Peter Stampfel and The Atomic Meta-Pagans, another group exploring the outer boundaries of folk and acoustic music. Don Giovanni Records recently released their second album, Welcome to The Ordovician Era. The album includes folk songs, country standards, Broadway show tunes and Stampfel’s disjointed originals. It’s another mostly acoustic free for all. Stampfel spoke about the band, and the new album, from his Manhattan home.
How did the band get together, and when?
We started in the early oughties, but no one from that iteration is still in the band, except myself. They were into more traditional stuff and they could travel and tour, which I can’t do. The current lineup is me and my daughters – Lily and Zoë – and Eli Hetko on mandolin, with others as needed. Singer Shelley Hirsch joined about three years ago and Heather Wagner was also the drummer in Jeffery Lewis’s band. We’re all in different bands at the same time.
Did you consciously choose to have such a wide range in ages?
Yes, I just turned 80 and we have players in the extended band who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. I like playing with younger people. They tend to be more open to stuff. Young people jam more interestingly than older people. People from different decades also have a different musical knowledge that covers a lot of ground. The band is half male and half female, which is another conscious thing.
What notable experiences did you encounter making this record?
We had a budget from the record company, so we were able to have do overs. The first Meta-Pagans album, (The Cambrian Explosion), had to be recorded in a three hour period, due to our limited budget. Back in the 20th Century, you got a recording budget. Nowadays, they expect you to deliver a finished product for which they don’t reimburse you. This one was recorded with Dok Gregory, who also plays in the band. We co-produced. He’s an engineer and mixer and does it for a minuscule amount of money because he’s into the group.
I was gonna go to the mixing session with him, but he did such a good job recording, there was nothing I could add. He has a really good ear. When we were recording, a number of times I thought we had a successful take and he’d say, ‘Do one more.’ He could tell we weren’t there yet, better than I could. Some tracks are the whole band playing together. Others are me, Hubby Jenkins (guitar) and Steve (Espinola, keyboards) doing the basic tracks, with overdubs added later.
It sounds like it was cut live. Did you have arrangements or was it all improvised?
Some arranged, some improvised. I like doing both. ‘That Old Black Magic’ is in C modal tuning, that we slowed down into a hillbilly style version, although C modal is not singer friendly. “New Football Bluse” was originally on Indian War Hoop. I added more words and updated it. Live, we follow the recorded versions, but leave room for improvisation.
Do you all make a living playing music?
Steve’s other job is repairing electric keyboards. Zoë just got her masters degree in Early Childhood Education. Lilly holds down two jobs. Heather works with energy massage and is in a couple of different bands. Eli’s getting a degree in library science. Sam has a straight job and I work at my wife’s publishing company and I have no intention of quitting. It’s that way for most musicians I know.