David Champagne

david champagne

Veteran Boston musician David Champagne, who was born in Oklahoma, grew up in Kansas City, and has lived in both New York and California, came to Boston to play in a rock and roll band in 1977. Since then he has played in the Shane-Champagne Band, Pink Cadillac, Treat Her Right (with Mark Sandman), the Jazz Popes, Super Eight and the Junko Partners. He currently makes music with his wife, Katie, in the Heygoods, and plays in Andrew Mazzone’s musical aggregation The Family Jewels as well as various reincarnations of Treat Her Right. David lives in Allston with his wife and two children and their pets. The Heygoods' CD and other information about them is available at Heygoods.com.

Robert Birnbaum: What's the first music you remember?

David Champagne: I remember somebody with a portable record player playing an Elvis Presley 45 on their front steps, probably 1959. I’m not sure if it was "Hound Dog" or not. It was such a strange name.

RB: The song?

DC: No, Elvis Presley was such a strange name. The person. For a kid, it was like, "Elvis? What’s that mean? Presley?"

RB: So you heard him before you saw him? Were you impressed by the music?

DC: I liked the music, yeah. I don’t know if it was at that time, maybe a little bit later, I always went to sleep with a transistor radio under my pillow with the local Top 40 station on, WHB.

RB: Where was that?

DC: Kansas City.

RB: Why did you do that? At what age did you do that?

DC: Pretty young, six or seven.

RB: Was that true of your contemporaries? All the kids?

DC: There was a big awareness of it. There were teenagers in theneighborhood listening to it. There was so much more emphasis on noveltythen that a lot of it, kids could totally relate to. There was no highbrowedge to any rock and roll at all. Except Leiber and Stoller.

RB: But Leiber and Stoller were very jokey...

DC: Yeah they were funny. A lot of it you didn’t get. Becauseyou didn’t have the subtext. There was so much stuff that was justfunny to anybody. I lived in the white suburbs and it was made for thataudience, a lot of it. There was a variety of stuff, black stuff and countrystuff. At night you could get WLS or the station in Shreveport...

RB: WLAC?

DC: It was great. They had a little bit different stuff. Thoughat that age I don’t think I was that aware that WLAC and WLS werethat different.

RB: Wasn’t WLAC very rhythm-and-blues oriented? When didyou come to Boston?

DC: In 1977.

RB: You missed the infamous Sound of Boston?

DC: I missed that, yeah. I remember when that stuff came out andit all sucked. To my ears, so I didn’t pay any attention to it.

RB: That was Beacon Street Union, Ultimate Spinach?

DC: I remember buying Ultimate Spinach album and going, "Ohmy God, it’s bad." I was thirteen, but I definitely liked anddisliked things.

RB: You started playing music as soon as you moved here?

David Champagne looking to his leftDC:I moved here to play music. I was living in California, and my friendGary Shane, who I had known in high school in New York, called me andsaid, "Oh yeah, manager and this and that." We moved to Newburyportand had a house on Plum Island and froze our asses off. Living there inthe wintertime. Just rehearsed and played all sorts of really bizarregigs. We were booked by this guy, Don Mack, who booked strippers and allthat kind of stuff. He would offer us crazy inappropriate things. Usuallywe would just take them. We were a power pop band.

RB: Mack was like an old-style agent who would handle strippers,comedians, magicians, bands...

DC: Oh yeah, we didn’t get booked in Boston — we were playingin Manchester, New Hampshire, Pease Air Force Base...

RB: How long a run did the Shane-Champagne band have?

DC: 1977 until about ’81, I guess. It seemed like a longtime at the time.

RB: Four years is a long time. Clearly there wasn’t a Bostonsound when MGM was trying to manufacture one, but when you began playingwas there a Boston sound?

DC: There was to me. It wasn’t what I came here to play,really. But it was obvious that that was the game. It was exciting. Itwas more rocking than what I had played in California. It was bands likethe Nervous Eaters and the Real Kids and Cars. The Cars were a littledifferent. But the Nervous Eaters, The Real Kids and DMZ they were kindof punky but they still had...it was like garage punk. When I firstlearned to play guitar a lot of it was garage music that I learned soit was familiar to me and it was much more basic than what I had beentrying to do. So it was, "Shit, I can do this." Most of whatwe did, when I listen to it now, was so derivative that it’s reallyhard for me to listen to.

RB: You actually go back to listen your early music?

DC: I listened to it because Gary [Shane] sent me a CD compilation.

RB: At least for the time being, when people think of Boston,the bands that are marked are Aerosmith, J Geils, Boston, The Cars.

DC: Yeah. But they certainly had no cachet among musicians hereat that time. The guys from Aerosmith were a pitiful mess at that time.The guys in Boston were considered complete nerds. Nobody would have giventhem the time of day. Same with J Geils. They were has-beens as far asanybody playing Cantone’s and the Rat were concerned.

RB: Was this a caste system?

DC: Totally. The demarcation was 1977 when the Clash and the SexPistols and the Ramones kind of swept away all that came before. You hadto hide your Eagles records and whatever else.

RB: Was it called punk at the time?

David Champagne wide angleDC:Yeah, it was called punk rock. 1977 was the watershed year. The Ramoneswent to England in 1976. I went to England in 1976, writing for a magazinecalled BAM (Bay Area Music) with no real agenda and I talked to an editorat Melody Maker and he was telling me bands to go see, "Well there’sthis band that’s happening — well you’ll hate them. But you shouldgo see them." It was the Sex Pistols. He told me what the scene waslike and I’m like — there’s no fucking way I’m going togo see that.

RB: Has there ever been a consistent Boston sound? Is there anythingdistinctive? Is there a tradition?

DC: (laughs) You can still go see the Lyres and the Real Kids.

RB: Where?

DC: They play once a month a Lilly’s or places like that.

RB: You can still see Rick Berlin.

DC: Bands just like the Real Kids and The Lyres sound just likethey sounded twenty years ago.

RB: Okay.

DC: Yeah, do you want that? At the same time, I do stuff thatI did in Pink Cadillac in 1982. I feel like I’m better at it. It’sthe influences that I had early on and I combine them in slightly differentways. The influences are what they are. I still like to play with someof the same musicians I played with fifteen years ago. For me, there’sa consistency in that...

RB: Let’s do your bandography? Shane-Champagne. Pink Cadillac.Treat Her Right?

DC: Jazz Popes and Super 8. Then a band called the Junko Partnersthat was like a New Orleans thing. Jeff Clemmons who was the drummer forG Love got me in that band. It was lot a fun but it was like being a sideman,but I did write some material that I liked.

RB: Is there a Treat Her Right revival?

DC: Sort of. We played for the Mark Sandman Memorial concert forthe last two years. Billy and Jimmy and I with a bass player and we ahad a great time. We played a show in January — not as Treat Her Right — andanother member of that extended family, Paul Coldry, a very successfulproducer (Radiohead, Hole), he saw the show and said, "This is great.You guys should play together and I’d love to be involved in anyway that I can." So we have been playing together with a varietyof people coming in and out. We don’t want to make it a Treat HerRight revival. Though we are playing a show under that name this month.Mostly, because that’s how the club wanted to bill it.

RB: Thad Jones and Mel Lewis had a really great jazz orchestrathat for years would play every Monday night at the Village Vanguard inManhattan. Is that what is happening with Treat Her Right alumnus?

DC: That’s what we are aiming at now. That, combined withwhat went on at Stax Records. You have a studio, people who can write,people who can play. So record companies or whatever can someone in likethey would send someone like Aretha Franklin — who didn’t havea band — and we’d say, "Okay, what’s this artist about?"And you play with them and you’d write songs and you would just dowhatever. Do everything. Paul [Codry] who was affiliated with Fort Apachefor years. He now has a room with Q Division. He along with some otherpeople like Dana Colley from Morphine and Jerome Dupre, Morphine’soriginal drummer, and a couple of other people are looking for a biggerspace that could be a multimedia/multi-use kind of space. They are talkingto the City of Somerville about some different venues. The odds of itall panning out that way are pretty small, but it’s great to seethese people who are not twenty years old have these idealistic ideas.And also having enough of a track record where it might actually work.

RB: In thinking about Mark Sandman, is there a way in which whenan artist dies young and unexpectedly that they are lionized and regardedas legends beyond what they might have been?

DC: I’m sure that happens.

RB: Has that happened for Sandman?

David Champagne closeupDC:I don’t know. Most of the people that I associate with knew him wellenough that he was just taken as a given. It’s hard for me to know.I mean, Morphine was bigger in Europe than they were in the United States.We were just filmed by BBC. They were doing a special on Boston Rock fromthe late '80s to the early '90s. The bands they focused on wereThe Pixies, Treat Her Right — both Fort Apache bands — and ThrowingMuses....and they have a different perspective being here ten days, filmingand interviewing people. It was interesting to here what their perspectivewas. Anyway, it’s hard for me to say.

RB: I wonder about the phenomenon. Is there any other deceasedBoston musician that is memorialized with an annual concert?

DC: No, most people that happens to, are already obscure or ontheir way down, I think (both laugh). Because usually it’s drug-relatedso they’ve been useless for a certain period of time. I can’tthink of anybody like that.

RB: Is it reasonable to speculate on what he might have been?Was he great?

DC: Morphine wasn’t really my thing, so I didn’t listento them. All that stuff that they did, I didn’t pay that much attentionto. I know that it was frustrating for all of them because they had aimpact beyond — they didn’t really sell that many records. Theywent to Dreamworks and the records that they did there didn’t sellvery well at all.

RB: They were on the Get Shorty soundtrack...

DC: They were on some soundtracks, they had that kind of profileand when they first got national recognition their sound was cannibalized — likeanything like that is — because it has a unique edge to it. And the beastmoves on to the next thing, the next year. Who knows what plans they had?

RB: Why did you stay in Boston?

DC: I like Boston, the size is manageable. I met a lot of peoplethat I liked. I almost moved once. I got a job offer in North Carolina,which I have always liked as well. But I went down there and it just didn’tfeel right. Boston has so much in just such a small area without feelinglike New York where it’s crammed into a small area.

RB: I understand that part, but you are a musician. What everelse you do as a day job...

DC: That’s beside the point...

RB: I’ve always admired your dedication to music, to yourart. So besides the manageable scale of the city what is there creatively,artistically or musically that is satisfying?

DC: Just the people. The guys from BBC also said, "Why Boston?"A town the size of Columbus, Ohio...There is a unique confluence ofthings. I don’t spend any time with college kids or people undertwenty five, really. A lot of people moved here initially because of college.I had sort of a hiatus where I was disgusted with the business part ofmusic and I painted myself in a corner and I wasn’t playing or writingvery much. I have a couple of young kids and I was concerned with that.

RB: Who is in your imaginary Boston all-star band?

DC: Dana Colley — baritone sax, Russ Gershon — tenor sax, Tom Halter — trumpet,Jim Fitting — chromatic harmonica, Steve Sadler — guitars, Andrew Mazzone — uprightbass, Billy Conway — cocktail drum, Freddie Griffiths — vocals, Evan Harriman — piano.

RB: Is this a good time musically in Boston? Given that thereis an ebb and flow of live music venues, and radio support for local musicis this a good time or a bad time?

DC: It’s pretty good. It’s pretty strange because wenever play in Boston. We only play in Somerville and Cambridge. Bostonis totally different.

RB: Where would you play? Some Irish pubs?

DC: That’s what I mean. There isn’t. Jamaica Plain hasthe Milky Way. Jamaica Plain is like two towns away. It’s just noton my screen. But I’m playing there next week...

RB: With which aggregation?

DC: The Heygoods. It will be interesting to see what that’slike.

RB: Because it’s not your home turf?

DC: It’s just different. I’m not sure who goes there.Or what the crowd will be like.

RB: Are your audiences recognizably regular?

DC: I don’t think there’s as much of people going outjust for music. There is on the younger live rock and roll scene. Andon the folk scene to a certain extent. We’re largely preaching tothe converted.

RB: Categorically, what is the music that Heygoods play? Americana?

DC: That’s as good a term as any. Somebody came up to merecently and said, "It’s really great. It’s kind of likerockabilly, and kind of like country and kind of like... I don’tknow what to call it." It definitely has all those influences. Iwould say that everything I do is Americana. I’m about as Americanaas it gets. Born in Oklahoma but also lived in New York and California.I’ve been exposed to a lot of what there is. Which is plenty.

RB: The Heygoods are you and Katie and anyone else?

DC: It’s always at least one other person. We have a coupleof different stand-up bass players, Andrew Mizzone or Johnny Shasha. Butthey are both very busy... because they are both very good.

RB: And what is the other band you play in?

DC: The Family Jewels. That’s Andrew’s project withAsa Brevener (Jonathan Richman and Robin Lane) and Kevin Shirtliff whoplays drums in one of the most popular young hard bands called Scissorfight.Obviously, a different style of music. Freddy Griffith is the lead singer,this great black guy who grew up in Brooklyn. He’s actually olderthan I am. And a great player, Steve Sadler, who plays dobro and mandolinand plays with Katie and I a lot and thinks shift around but that’sthe basic lineup. Andrew’s an excellent vocal arranger, so a lotof it is four male vocal parts, which you just never hear any more. It’sso rich and it’s such a different thing to use that.

RB: Than there’s the Treat Her Right floating card game?

DC: Yeah.

RB: What’s the age of your audience?

DC: It will be interesting to see for Treat Her Right. I wouldguess people over thirty and predominantly over thirty five. That banddid have a lot of young fans — in their twenties — so if they’re stillaround...

RB: Is the musical audience as balkanized as the different radioformats and lists in Billboard?

DC: I don’t think people listen to the radio. The peopleI know don’t. I listen to some college stations.

RB: Is there a chance for your music on the radio?

RB: You’ve referred to your age. What are your thoughts aboutgrow older in what people see as a young person’s medium?

DC: I think that rock and roll is a young person’s art form.I don’t feel like I play that. It’s called rock. They took theroll out...

RB: Why isn’t just called pop? Whatever gets the most attentionand sells records.

DC: ‘Rock’ means the guitar is the main instrument.Pop means that it’s not. That’s the way I think of it. I grewup with the expectations of my parents and teachers that were very differentthan what happened. You internalize a lot of that so there is always thatvoice somewhere saying, "What the fuck are you doing?" But at the sametime you look at what’s important — if I was dead looking backwhat would have wanted to have done? Well, I’m happily married, Ihave a couple of kids who are great. I have written some songs and recordedthat I’ve been happy with and that have meant something to otherpeople. Maybe my goals have gotten more modest as I’ve gotten older.But, that’s it. And to be able to try to do what you want to do.I was definitely infected by that aspect of the 60’s bug of "Do whatyou can." There are plenty of people out there who are not going to dowhat they could, who want to be part of the Machine and do that. I don’thave to do that. It’s not going to stop if I don’t do that (laughs).By any means...

RB: Do you ever aspire to pop stardom and fame?

DC: No, no... not that...

RB: Would it be correct to say that your musical intentions aremuch more pure?

DC: I knew more about those seductions at one time. Bands definitelytend to get focused on "Oh, if we could just get signed to a majorlabel." They don’t realize that that’s when your troublesbegin. You’ve got to do it to find out that that’s not necessarilywhat’s going to make you. To me it’s only about writing a goodsong and playing and having other people play it. That’s all. That’sit for me.

RB: Is there anyway that playing music is work?

DC: I try for it not to be. It rarely is. Occasionally we’llplay a show where it seems like we are in the wrong place. And then it’swork. "What are we doing here? Who are these people?"

RB: Meaning you haven’t connected with your audience?

DC: Yeah. But then there are these other bizarre things. We playedat the Middle East, an early show, 7 O’clock. They serve dinner andstuff. Anybody can come. There were probably thirty kids there under theage of twelve. And people with babies. For a lot of these kids it willbe the first time they hear live music...

RB: Going on the road, touring other than Jamaica Plain?

DC: The Heygoods would be tough because it’s my wife andI, would be pack the kids into a Combi and go cross country. I don’treally picture that. With the Family Jewels, Andrew aspires to take itto Europe, probably not the United States. The live music thing in theStates is not really worth while.

RB: Why?

DC: The distances are too great. You have to go so many places.It’s just treated differently. There’s still a respect in Europefor people who are musicians.

RB: As opposed to stars?

DC: Yeah. There is still a mystique about people playing Americanmusic. Nobody else can do it the same way. It’s like going to a Frenchrestaurant in Paris. They cook it differently, I don’t care who youare.

RB: The diminution of venues for live music is sad. Growing up,when I had a more active nightlife, it seemed like every place had livemusic...In Boston, especially for jazz, there seem not be any clubswhere people just play...

DC: It’s astonishing. Especially because there are so manygreat jazz players in Boston and there’s no place for them to play.People don’t give a shit. That makes the live thing difficult. InEurope you can make enough money so that it’s worth your while todo it. Here, until you get to a certain level — I’m not going to sleepin the van.

RB: What’s your sense of the local live music scene?

DC: Unbelievably active. Thousands of bands. Thousands. There’sa decent number of venues. But, it becomes like the jazz thing. You arein danger of only other musicians coming to see you. After the age oftwenty five, people have to get up in the morning, for whatever reason.And they are not going to stay out no matter how much they like you. Maybe,once every six months...

RB: Will there ever be another Rat?

DC: No, I don’t think there will ever be another scene likethat. The pendulum has swung away from that. People don’t use recreationaldrugs in the same way then they did. The Rat wasn’t that big of aplace and there are places that are a scene like that but I don’tknow where they are, if there are. Some people might think wherever theygo is that kind of a scene...It’s hard for me to know. Also, forthe most part clubs aren’t committed to one style of music. On amuch smaller level than you were talking about they deal in stars andnames...people go to see names — they don’t go to a club because ofthe club.

RB: Who would you go out to see?

DC: When I go see anybody, all I want to do is play. So it’sdifficult for me in that way. I don’t even listen to music recreationally.I only listen for inspiration. So if I go to see some one live I onlyneed to see two songs. And that’s enough. Then I have it. I don’tlike to stay for an hour and a half. Even if they’re good becausethey just don’t have an hour and half’s worth of stuff to sayto me.

RB: Well, there’s the music, and then there’s the performance...

DC: I haven’t seen anybody like that in along time. It’sbecause of me not because there aren’t people like that out there.I’d more enjoy seeing some Arabian singer, something exotic, whereI didn’t know much about it. I can listen to almost any kind of musicin a foreign language. English, well there are too many things about thatthey can do wrong.

RB: Forgive this banality, who is the musician you admire themost?

DC: David Hidalgo from Los Lobos. A great musician, great singer,a great vibe — a really nice guy. I know a lot of great musicians. Thereare a lot of good players in this town, it’s a different thing. I’msure once I leave I’ll think of several.

RB: What’s in your future?

DC: I’d like to record. You learn something different whenyou record. It changes what happens. I like the fact that the Heygoodsmade a record. We didn’t intend to...we would receive these fancyChristmas card that people would do on their computers. Then we decidedwe go in and record for a few hours and we’ll send people a CD forChristmas and it’ll be, "This is something we did and here’sa picture of our dog and our kids." But Andrew, who recorded it,said we couldn’t stop, we had to make a real record out of it. Afterthinking we would going in for a few days it dragged on a for a year anda half. Finally, I said let’s put out what we have. I’ve heardfrom people around the country.

RB: Reviewed in Rolling Stone?

RB: There is the opinion that the art is the art of the deal.

DC: So David Geffen is an artist...I don’t want to swimin that pool.

RB: Has life in music been divided into stages of enlightenment?Did you used to read Billboard and Radio and Records...

DC: I definitely got caught up in that. As I met people that Iadmired in the business that were more successful I realized that in sofar as they were caught up in that they were miserable. They just hadbigger problems, problems on a much bigger scale. And even less controlof their destinies and their lives than I had. You know, Bonnie Raittor Bob Dylan or whoever, if it’s like that for them? How am I evergoing to get there. You can only get there by disassociating yourselffrom that. It’s always a temptation. Because most people who do art,do it partly because they want people to respond to it and want peopleto like them at some level.

RB: Sure, everybody wants to be noticed. Who doesn’t wantto be noticed?

DC: No I didn’t send it to any national press. The accessto those kind of things is much tighter. Now you need connections andin some cases I probably have them but I’m not willing to do thehustle. That’s the part that I hated. If I found myself doing thatagain, I would be caught up in the same thing of not doing it becauseI liked doing it. Not all the ancillary bullshit... But you always haveto fight that. It’s like, to what lengths will I go to debase myself?You have to figure out a way to do that works for you. Some people findit very easy...I just happened to look down and see the Duane Michelsbook. He’s a friend of my parents. You talk to Duane, "I never paidany dues. I just did what I wanted to do and people liked it. I’vealways been able to do what I wanted to do and people liked it." Thereare probably five people like that. There were times in the past whereI tried to mold myself or sell myself to what I thought people wantedor gonna buy. And maybe they did for a while. Ultimately, that wasn’twhat I wanted to be selling so I had to go back. If you find the twentypeople that are going to accept what you are going to do on its own terms,maybe that’s better than having a giant audience.

RB: I once saw Walter Mosley on a C-Span panel quote his father."Two important things in life: Pay the rent and do what you love."

DC: It’s not easy but it’s good to have it framed inthose terms. Most people try to make it more complicated.

RB: When my son was born, I thought a lot about how many peopleI had encountered who would use their families as the explanation or justificationfor doing the must unscrupulous and predatory things...

DC: Aren’t you going to ask me about the next big thing?

RB: Okay...

DC: The next big thing is — beyond porn and e-mail — on the Internet,I think judged in a different way music could be in the same kind of line.It’s so easy to get your stuff to all kinds of people, everywhere...

RB: Skip past radio? This presumes the availability of digitalappliances...

DC: Whatever it is, people can bypass the traditional distributionsystems. I don’t listen to the radio. If I hear about something Itype it in and hit return and nine times out of ten...if it's just somedinky band out of Akron, they have something available for me to listento...Having a Heygoods.com, people in Europe are always writing to me,we love your kind of music...Send me a CD to review in my magazine inSweden.

RB: Is this the downfall of the music conglomerates?

DC: It will take a little time. People are lazy and they do thingsthey way that they have always done them, but it does allow for that possibility.

RB: So that’s the next big thing?

All fotos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing.

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