The High Plains Drifters were sired after a night of too much booze and too little food at a Tex-Mex spot in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. Fast forward a few years and they boast one fan-favorite album — 2019’s High Plains Drifters — and the critical acclaim of press and radio. In addition to Studnicky [lead vocals, lyricist], the group includes John Macom [rhythm/electric guitars, lead/backup vocals], Mike DoCampo [rhythm/electric guitars, backup vocals], Kyle Cassel [drums, backup vocals], Charles Czarnecki [keys, accordion, backup vocals], and Dave Richards [bass, backup vocals].
The High Plains Drifters just surprise-released their new EP, Songs of Love & Loss. The 6-track collection features lead single “Since You’ve Been Gone”, which has been picking up heat at radio. The song was inspired by a particularly painful breakup when frontman Larry Studnicky was still young enough to believe in the theory of the “one and only”. His girl dumped him, broke his heart, and forever disabused him of that notion. His pain inspired “Since You’ve Been Gone”, which captures the feeling of utter disbelief after your significant other abandons you.
Their new release, produced by Greg Cohen (Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, Blondie, Nile Rodgers, John Legend), ups the ante with a bevy of undeniably catchy anthems about love and loss that fall somewhere betweenThe Eagles and New Order. Preceding thenew EP, HPD closed out 2020 with the hilarious and hyper-charged renegade Christmas carol “Santa! Bring My Girlfriend Back!” In addition to widespread support from Amazon and Spotify, Harper’s Bazaar touted it among “16 Funny Christmas Songs That Will Add Some Cheer to This Dreadful Year”, and Spotify’s Listrionics podcast heralded the tune as “one of the five best Xmas and holiday songs that were released” in 2020.
Tell us about the genesis of your project. How did you get to where you are now?
The current High Plains Drifters project is our second album (untitled). Everything on this project started in June 2020.
At that point, the world had just muddled through the panic and fear of those first few horrid months of the pandemic. Frankly, I was still freaked out. However, as May 2020 ended, I watched my daughter’s 7th grade class finish their online schooling and start the summer. The masks came off; she and a few of her girlfriends started going to the nearby Connecticut beaches; they met to ride their bikes together; they went boating and tubing and kayaking. Nobody got sick.
I took my lead from the kids and figured that it was time to re-engage with the world. So, I called our producer Greg Cohen. I told him that I didn’t think COVID would kill us, if we were safe, and we should get back to making music. The whole band was sick of quarantining.
It’s thirteen months later, and we’re now recording the final three songs for Album 2. That’s not too shabby a place to be, in the face of an annoyingly persistent global pandemic.
I’d guess that we’re like a lot of recording artists who found ways to be productive during this scary period. We felt compelled to get back to making music, if only to give the middle finger to the virus. We were lucky. Everybody remained healthy. Everybody brought great musical contributions to every song we recorded. I think the sheer joy of making music, in the face of the pandemic, probably made everyone produce better work than on our debut album.
How would you describe the highs and lows of being an artist?
Well, for me the “lows” have always been about conquering my own internal demons – primarily, self-doubt. I became a songwriter, in secret, about halfway into high school. I told nobody. Nobody in my family nor any of my closest friends. I didn’t even tell any few girls I was trying (in vain) to impress. Nobody would’ve believed me. I was a consummate nerd – the last guy you’d expect might someday front a rock band.
So, first I had to convince myself that my songs didn’t totally suck. That took a couple of decades. For real. Once I believed I was writing decent songs, I had to find the confidence to sing my own material. I didn’t find it in me to do that until after we had recorded the first four songs on our debut album. Since that point, I’ve taken lead vocals on everything – except our new EP’s song (“He Reminds Me Of You”) that I wrote to showcase our female backup singers: Christina Benedetto and Sabrina Ann Curry.
On the flip side, the highs of being a musical artist are almost without equal. I revel in every little step of the creative process of bringing a song to life. That process is just about the coolest thing I’ve experienced (other than fatherhood); and that process alone would probably keep me making records even if nobody was playing our songs. But the songs are being heard, and that sure doesn’t suck.
I’m blessed to have a band comprised not just of guys and girls all of whom are amazing talents, but they’ve all also helped me find my footing as a songwriter and vocalist. They cheer me on when (usually at the urging of Greg Cohen) I start singing a bit outside my comfort zone. And they pan me when I do something horrible. They’re like a second family to me.
What’s a musical guilty pleasure of yours?
I am not guilty about any music I listen to, but I guess here I’d say it’s Broadway show tunes.
My parents lived just outside New York City when I was born, in Tarrytown NY. They became very close friends with another married couple who lived nearby – Eddie and Inga Roll. The Rolls were on Broadway, including in the first production of “West Side Story”. I still have my parents’ 33-1/3 LP from that show, with Eddie on the front-cover credits. Anyway, the earliest music I recall hearing at home were the Broadway musicals of my youth. I loved that stuff and I still do. I’m a huge Cole Porter fan.
I remember once asking my folks, “Hey, you were in your early twenties in the mid-50’s as all the earliest black and white acts gave birth to rock-n-roll. You were fans of music, but somehow you were oblivious to Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and Little Richard and Elvis Presley. How in God’s name did that happen?”
Mom said simply that they were “aware” of it all, but it’s not the music that they “grew up with”. They grew up with the Big Bands and all the great pop vocalists of the Forties and Fifties. Ha. That reminds me. My mom’s a New York Italian, and my dad was not. And he hated Frank Sinatra. “That skinny little Italian guy got all the girls,” he moaned.
Since I moved to Manhattan after college, I’ve made it a habit almost every Saturday or Sunday morning to have my coffee and start greeting the world with Sinatra blasting on my stereo. And I don’t apologize for that either.
Okay, when I lived in a Manhattan apartment, I was often apologizing to various neighbors. Only for the volume, not for my musical taste.
What are some sources of inspiration for you?
I guess that, largely because I’m older and I’m fronting a band where only the gals are “young”, I take my inspiration from artists who had careers spanning several decades. That takes in a wide range of artists – Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Burt Bacharach, Johnny Cash, Barry White, Cher, McCartney, Bowie, The Bee Gees, Elvis Costello, The Rolling Stones, Paul Weller, Springsteen, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer, and Green Day.
That doesn’t mean that I try to, or even think that I could, write or sing like any of them. But they inspire me to keep going and to not worry about how stacked against you the odds are.
Who is an artist that you look up to more than others today?
He’s dead, but it’s David Bowie, for the way he was always recreating himself and trying out new sounds and directions. He set trends rather than sought to follow them.
Among the living, I guess I’d go with Rivers Cuomo of Weezer. I love his songwriting and the way that he and all his band are totally unaffected. Every album cover is so damn plain – just the guys and a background color. Like they’re saying, “Fuck everyone, this is us and here’s our next record. It speaks for itself. Give it a spin.”
Favorite activity to blow off some steam?
It depends on whether I’m blowing off steam because I’m pissed-off or frustrated or harboring some other less-than-joyous emotion. When that’s the case, I’ll retreat to my den with a single malt scotch in a heavy crystal tumbler and I’ll crank up bands like The Ramones and The Clash.
When I’m feeling more mellow and am looking to relax, I’ll dig back into whatever novel or history I’m reading. I’m most often found reading something in the espionage or cop/private detective genres.
Whichever is the case, the one constant is the scotch. It worries my wife a bit but she’s a teetotaler.
Tell us about your latest release and how it came about.
We just released half the songs that’ll appear on Album 2. In late June, they were bundled into a 6-song EP called “Songs Of Love And Loss”.
The EP wasn’t planned. It was a reaction to the success we’ve been experiencing, particularly at AAA radio stations, with the first single from this album: “Since You’ve Been Gone”. As more and more deejays started playing it, we were getting more and more requests (as were they) for us to release new music.
That’s what we did, and it seems to be working. Since releasing the EP, our online audience (e.g., on Spotify) is growing almost exponentially. Even so, we’re still a very obscure, unsigned indie band. So, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank your magazine for giving us some ink. Everyone in The High Plains Drifters is very grateful to you guys.
What are some things you do to deal with anxiety and creative blocks?
Did I mention the scotch? I’m joking. I am very conscious of the destructive powers of alcohol and other drugs. I’ve always been very careful about my drinking.
I am no longer plagued by much anxiety as a singer-songwriter. For that, I credit our producer (Greg Cohen) and my bandmates. They’ve been so supportive during this odyssey that took me from a guy who was afraid to sing ANYTHING to a guy who can’t wait to see what new things his voice can do on the next song we record.
Creative blocks are another matter. I often start a song and end up stuck (sometimes for long periods of time, like, YEARS) staring at only a single verse or just a chorus.
On our debut album, one of my favorite up-tempo rock tracks is REAR VIEW MIRROR. That song’s chorus was written in the early Nineties. Its verses were written over 25 years later, as we were recording the first album.
I’ve found that, when I’m stuck on a song, I should just shelve it. I don’t agonize over it or torture myself over my inability to find the “best” next few notes or words to continue whatever story I’ve started telling. I often say that, when I’m lucky, my songs “write themselves”. That has proven true for many decades now.
I believe that the subconscious mind keeps tackling the problems that you failed to solve when they were at the forefront of your brain. When the time is right, those words and notes will manifest themselves.
For me, Tom Petty said it best, when he told an interviewer, “Songs are kind of mystical and magical. There’s not a formula that brings them around. I don’t have a concrete method of doing it. Sometimes I sit down and wonder if I’ve ever done it before. It’s just something I was born with, mostly.” Amen and RIP.
What’s the future looking like for you?
We remain a do-it-yourself indie band. There is no record company or music publisher backing us or greasing the skids to ease our way into the public’s conscious. So, we face a long, slow, painful, deliberate and unrelenting slog as we try to cut through the clutter of Big Music. (Is it as pernicious as Big Tech has become? Hmm.)
Even so, we’re excited about the future of The High Plains Drifters. Our music, and our music videos, are getting increasingly noticed and praised, which has been rewarding. We make the music for ourselves, but we do hope others will dig it.
As we get closer to the Fall, I expect we’ll be transitioning on three fronts. For one, we’ll be releasing a new music video in support of our second single from Album 2, “The One That Got Away”.
Second, as the holidays approach, we’ll be promoting our smash Christmas hit from last year, “Santa! Bring My Girlfriend Back!” Spotify’s Listrionics podcast ranked it as “one of the five best Xmas and holiday songs that were released” in 2020. Third, we’ll be planning the release of the entirety of our second album, which will force me finally to figure out that to title the dang thing.
And then, someday, we’ll play Radio City.
What inspires your visuals, videos, looks etc?
My strength is not the “visual” aspects of what’s needed to put out a record or give a band an “identity”. If it were my choice, we’d mimic the Weezer album covers. Fortunately, I’ve delegated those choices to a great team of people who know what they’re doing, starting with Jonathan Chang (our marketing guru) and Sean Mosher-Smith, our graphics designer.
What is the most embarrassing memory and most proud moment of your career so far ?
Most embarrassing: Not having the balls to talk to Cher when I found myself (among others) in a studio with her and her backup singers over a long night of recording back in the Nineties.
Most proud: Learning to sing, thanks to the tireless 8-months’-long efforts of my wonderful voice coach, a former professional opera singer named Maria Fattore.
What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
Surround yourself with musicians who are more talented than you are. And never fear failure. Most songs and most records and most films and most books FAIL, on some level.
You don’t engage in creative pursuits because you expect or (worse) think you deserve success. You do it for the creative process itself. The journey really is the reward.
Where do you think the music and entertainment industry is headed after this past year?
I’m expecting to hear a lot of artists put out the best work they’ve ever done. God knows we all spent enough time hiding from the world, and worrying about our mortality, so that there’s no excuse but to gallop into the end of 2021 with guns in both hands blasting away all obstacles.
At least, that’s what The High Plains Drifters are aiming to do.