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 the neighborhood listening to it. There was so much more emphasis on novelty then that a lot of it, kids could totally relate to. There was no highbrow edge 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. Because you didn’t have the subtext. There was so much stuff that was just funny to anybody. I lived in the white suburbs and it was made for that audience, a lot of it. There was a variety of stuff, black stuff and country stuff. At night you could get WLS or the station in Shreveport...
DC: It was great. They had a little bit different stuff. Though at that age I don’t think I was that aware that WLAC and WLS were that different.
RB: Wasn’t WLAC very rhythm-and-blues oriented? When did you 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 and it 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, "Oh my God, it’s bad." I was thirteen, but I definitely liked and disliked things.
RB: You started playing music as soon as you moved here?
DC: I moved here to play music. I was living in California, and my friend Gary Shane, who I had known in high school in New York, called me and said, "Oh yeah, manager and this and that." We moved to Newburyport and had a house on Plum Island and froze our asses off. Living there in the wintertime. Just rehearsed and played all sorts of really bizarre gigs. We were booked by this guy, Don Mack, who booked strippers and all that kind of stuff. He would offer us crazy inappropriate things. Usually we 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 playing in 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 long time at the time.
RB: Four years is a long time. Clearly there wasn’t a Boston sound when MGM was trying to manufacture one, but when you began playing was 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. It was more rocking than what I had played in California. It was bands like the Nervous Eaters and the Real Kids and Cars. The Cars were a little different. But the Nervous Eaters, The Real Kids and DMZ they were kind of punky but they still had...it was like garage punk. When I first learned to play guitar a lot of it was garage music that I learned so it was familiar to me and it was much more basic than what I had been trying to do. So it was, "Shit, I can do this." Most of what we did, when I listen to it now, was so derivative that it’s really hard 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 here at that time. The guys from Aerosmith were a pitiful mess at that time. The guys in Boston were considered complete nerds. Nobody would have given them the time of day. Same with J Geils. They were has-beens as far as anybody 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 Sex Pistols and the Ramones kind of swept away all that came before. You had to hide your Eagles records and whatever else.
RB: Was it called punk at the time?
Yeah, it was called punk rock. 1977 was the watershed year. The Ramones went to England in 1976. I went to England in 1976, writing for a magazine called BAM (Bay Area Music) with no real agenda and I talked to an editor at Melody Maker and he was telling me bands to go see, "Well there’s this band that’s happening — well you’ll hate them. But you should go see them." It was the Sex Pistols. He told me what the scene was like and I’m like — there’s no fucking way I’m going to go see that.
RB: Has there ever been a consistent Boston sound? Is there anything distinctive? Is there a tradition?
DC: (laughs) You can still go see the Lyres and the Real Kids.
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 like they sounded twenty years ago.
DC: Yeah, do you want that? At the same time, I do stuff that I did in Pink Cadillac in 1982. I feel like I’m better at it. It’s the influences that I had early on and I combine them in slightly different ways. The influences are what they are. I still like to play with some of the same musicians I played with fifteen years ago. For me, there’s a 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 Partners that was like a New Orleans thing. Jeff Clemmons who was the drummer for G 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 for the last two years. Billy and Jimmy and I with a bass player and we a had a great time. We played a show in January — not as Treat Her Right — and another member of that extended family, Paul Coldry, a very successful producer (Radiohead, Hole), he saw the show and said, "This is great. You guys should play together and I’d love to be involved in any way that I can." So we have been playing together with a variety of people coming in and out. We don’t want to make it a Treat Her Right 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 orchestra that for years would play every Monday night at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan. Is that what is happening with Treat Her Right alumnus?
DC: That’s what we are aiming at now. That, combined with what 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 like they would send someone like Aretha Franklin — who didn’t have a 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 do whatever. Do everything. Paul [Codry] who was affiliated with Fort Apache for years. He now has a room with Q Division. He along with some other people like Dana Colley from Morphine and Jerome Dupre, Morphine’s original drummer, and a couple of other people are looking for a bigger space that could be a multimedia/multi-use kind of space. They are talking to the City of Somerville about some different venues. The odds of it all panning out that way are pretty small, but it’s great to see these 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 when an artist dies young and unexpectedly that they are lionized and regarded as legends beyond what they might have been?
DC: I’m sure that happens.
RB: Has that happened for Sandman?
DC: I don’t know. Most of the people that I associate with knew him well enough 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 from the late '80s to the early '90s. The bands they focused on were The Pixies, Treat Her Right — both Fort Apache bands — and Throwing Muses....and they have a different perspective being here ten days, filming and interviewing people. It was interesting to here what their perspective was. Anyway, it’s hard for me to say.
RB: I wonder about the phenomenon. Is there any other deceased Boston musician that is memorialized with an annual concert?
DC: No, most people that happens to, are already obscure or on their way down, I think (both laugh). Because usually it’s drug-related so they’ve been useless for a certain period of time. I can’t think 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 listen to them. All that stuff that they did, I didn’t pay that much attention to. I know that it was frustrating for all of them because they had a impact beyond — they didn’t really sell that many records. They went to Dreamworks and the records that they did there didn’t sell very well at all.
RB: They were on the Get Shorty soundtrack...
DC: They were on some soundtracks, they had that kind of profile and when they first got national recognition their sound was cannibalized — like anything like that is — because it has a unique edge to it. And the beast moves 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 people that 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’t feel right. Boston has so much in just such a small area without feeling like New York where it’s crammed into a small area.
RB: I understand that part, but you are a musician. What ever else you do as a day job...
DC: That’s beside the point...
RB: I’ve always admired your dedication to music, to your art. 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 of things. I don’t spend any time with college kids or people under 25, 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 of music and I painted myself in a corner and I wasn’t playing or writing very 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 — upright bass, Billy Conway — cocktail drum, Freddie Griffiths — vocals, Evan Harriman — piano.
RB: Is this a good time musically in Boston? Given that there is an ebb and flow of live music venues, and radio support for local music is this a good time or a bad time?
DC: It’s pretty good. It’s pretty strange because we never play in Boston. We only play in Somerville and Cambridge. Boston is totally different.
RB: Where would you play? Some Irish pubs?
DC: That’s what I mean. There isn’t. Jamaica Plain has the Milky Way. Jamaica Plain is like two towns away. It’s just not on my screen. But I’m playing there next week...
RB: With which aggregation?
DC: The Heygoods. It will be interesting to see what that’s like.
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 out just for music. There is on the younger live rock and roll scene. And on the folk scene to a certain extent. We’re largely preaching to the converted.
RB: Categorically, what is the music that Heygoods play? Americana?
DC: That’s as good a term as any. Somebody came up to me recently and said, "It’s really great. It’s kind of like rockabilly, and kind of like country and kind of like... I don’t know what to call it." It definitely has all those influences. I would say that everything I do is Americana. I’m about as Americana as 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 couple of different stand-up bass players, Andrew Mizzone or Johnny Shasha. But they 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 with Asa Brevener (Jonathan Richman and Robin Lane) and Kevin Shirtliff who plays 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 older than I am. And a great player, Steve Sadler, who plays dobro and mandolin and plays with Katie and I a lot and thinks shift around but that’s the basic lineup. Andrew’s an excellent vocal arranger, so a lot of it is four male vocal parts, which you just never hear any more. It’s so rich and it’s such a different thing to use that.
RB: Than there’s the Treat Her Right floating card game?
RB: What’s the age of your audience?
DC: It will be interesting to see for Treat Her Right. I would guess people over thirty and predominantly over thirty five. That band did have a lot of young fans — in their twenties — so if they’re still around...
RB: Is the musical audience as balkanized as the different radio formats and lists in Billboard?
DC: I don’t think people listen to the radio. The people I 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 about grow 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 the roll out...
RB: Why isn’t just called pop? Whatever gets the most attention and 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 grew up with the expectations of my parents and teachers that were very different than what happened. You internalize a lot of that so there is always that voice somewhere saying, "What the fuck are you doing?" But at the same time you look at what’s important — if I was dead looking back what would have wanted to have done? Well, I’m happily married, I have a couple of kids who are great. I have written some songs and recorded that I’ve been happy with and that have meant something to other people. 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 what you can." There are plenty of people out there who are not going to do what they could, who want to be part of the Machine and do that. I don’t have 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 are much more pure?
DC: I knew more about those seductions at one time. Bands definitely tend to get focused on "Oh, if we could just get signed to a major label." They don’t realize that that’s when your troubles begin. You’ve got to do it to find out that that’s not necessarily what’s going to make you. To me it’s only about writing a good song and playing and having other people play it. That’s all. That’s it for me.
RB: Is there anyway that playing music is work?
DC: I try for it not to be. It rarely is. Occasionally we’ll play a show where it seems like we are in the wrong place. And then it’s work. "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 played at the Middle East, an early show, 7 O’clock. They serve dinner and stuff. Anybody can come. There were probably thirty kids there under the age of twelve. And people with babies. For a lot of these kids it will be 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 and I, would be pack the kids into a Combi and go cross country. I don’t really picture that. With the Family Jewels, Andrew aspires to take it to Europe, probably not the United States. The live music thing in the States is not really worth while.
DC: The distances are too great. You have to go so many places. It’s just treated differently. There’s still a respect in Europe for people who are musicians.
RB: As opposed to stars?
DC: Yeah. There is still a mystique about people playing American music. Nobody else can do it the same way. It’s like going to a French restaurant in Paris. They cook it differently, I don’t care who you are.
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 live music...In Boston, especially for jazz, there seem not be any clubs where people just play...
DC: It’s astonishing. Especially because there are so many great 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. In Europe you can make enough money so that it’s worth your while to do it. Here, until you get to a certain level — I’m not going to sleep in the van.
RB: What’s your sense of the local live music scene?
DC: Unbelievably active. Thousands of bands. Thousands. There’s a decent number of venues. But, it becomes like the jazz thing. You are in danger of only other musicians coming to see you. After the age of twenty 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 like that. The pendulum has swung away from that. People don’t use recreational drugs in the same way then they did. The Rat wasn’t that big of a place and there are places that are a scene like that but I don’t know where they are, if there are. Some people might think wherever they go is that kind of a scene...It’s hard for me to know. Also, for the most part clubs aren’t committed to one style of music. On a much smaller level than you were talking about they deal in stars and names...people go to see names — they don’t go to a club because of the club.
RB: Who would you go out to see?
DC: When I go see anybody, all I want to do is play. So it’s difficult 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 only need to see two songs. And that’s enough. Then I have it. I don’t like to stay for an hour and a half. Even if they’re good because they just don’t have an hour and half’s worth of stuff to say to 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’s because of me not because there aren’t people like that out there. I’d more enjoy seeing some Arabian singer, something exotic, where I didn’t know much about it. I can listen to almost any kind of music in a foreign language. English, well there are too many things about that they can do wrong.
RB: Forgive this banality, who is the musician you admire the most?
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. There are a lot of good players in this town, it’s a different thing. I’m sure once I leave I’ll think of several.
RB: What’s in your future?
DC: I’d like to record. You learn something different when you record. It changes what happens. I like the fact that the Heygoods made a record. We didn’t intend to...we would receive these fancy Christmas card that people would do on their computers. Then we decided we go in and record for a few hours and we’ll send people a CD for Christmas and it’ll be, "This is something we did and here’s a 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. After thinking we would going in for a few days it dragged on a for a year and a half. Finally, I said let’s put out what we have. I’ve heard from 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 swim in 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 I admired in the business that were more successful I realized that in so far as they were caught up in that they were miserable. They just had bigger problems, problems on a much bigger scale. And even less control of their destinies and their lives than I had. You know, Bonnie Raitt or Bob Dylan or whoever, if it’s like that for them? How am I ever going to get there. You can only get there by disassociating yourself from 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 people to like them at some level.
RB: Sure, everybody wants to be noticed. Who doesn’t want to be noticed?
DC: No I didn’t send it to any national press. The access to those kind of things is much tighter. Now you need connections and in some cases I probably have them but I’m not willing to do the hustle. That’s the part that I hated. If I found myself doing that again, I would be caught up in the same thing of not doing it because I liked doing it. Not all the ancillary bullshit... But you always have to 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 find it very easy...I just happened to look down and see the Duane Michels book. He’s a friend of my parents. You talk to Duane, "I never paid any dues. I just did what I wanted to do and people liked it. I’ve always been able to do what I wanted to do and people liked it." There are probably five people like that. There were times in the past where I tried to mold myself or sell myself to what I thought people wanted or gonna buy. And maybe they did for a while. Ultimately, that wasn’t what I wanted to be selling so I had to go back. If you find the twenty people 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 in those terms. Most people try to make it more complicated.
RB: When my son was born, I thought a lot about how many people I had encountered who would use their families as the explanation or justification for doing the must unscrupulous and predatory things...
DC: Aren’t you going to ask me about the next big thing?
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 digital appliances...
DC: Whatever it is, people can bypass the traditional distribution systems. I don’t listen to the radio. If I hear about something I type it in and hit return and nine times out of ten...if it's just some dinky band out of Akron, they have something available for me to listen to...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 in Sweden.
RB: Is this the downfall of the music conglomerates?
DC: It will take a little time. People are lazy and they do things they 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.