The Gates of Paris: An Interview with The High Plains Drifters

Photo courtesy of Sam Lahoz
Sometimes, a story needs to be told through a third party. There is always someone out there who can take the littlest detail of someone's life and turn it into a work of art. Other times, the one meant to create the work of art is too inspired by the story. In the case of Larry Studnicky, his storytelling is so dazzling to read that leaving out a single sentence could misinterpret the story completely. This is his story, in his own words:

Sometime during the Obama administration, the President started talking about bringing home our troops serving in the never-ending Middle East conflicts. I had been carrying around in my head most of a song, which happened to have Christmas-themed lyrics, sung from the perspective of a male narrator who’s stuck overseas. He’s away from his family as Christmas draws near. He’s trying desperately to get home to his family by Christmas Eve. I thought it was perfectly-timed given what the President said he’d do (but didn’t).

The song’s title is “Get Me Home By Christmas Eve” - it’s pretty catchy, and it’s the first of our tunes that got on the radio.

Anyway, I am a lyricist, not a musician or a record producer. So, I got together for a long, boozy Tex-Mex dinner at a place in Chelsea (in Manhattan) with two of my music industry buddies who didn’t know each other. I introduced them, and I told them about my desire to produce this one song. I had never even told them that I had written songs - they knew me only by my day-job as a sometimes music industry lawyer.

They said, basically, “Why not, let’s give it a shot”. So, we did, and our first effort instantly got on the radio. Not on lots of stations, but on enough to make us want to keep on recording.

I thought the name The High Plains Drifters “worked” because none of us are spring chickens. Every guy in the band is older and married with kids. The name, to me, evokes a grizzled, determined old guy who has seen a bit of life and knows what’s what, and who knows how to shake things up. I think that’s fitting for our band.

For me, it’s my first real musical endeavor where I’m part of the band. Many years ago, I contributed some songs to an album being done by another NYC-based band, but I was just a songwriter. Even so, that was an amazing experience given who ended up appearing on that record - Mick Taylor, formerly of The Rolling Stones, made a guest appearance to play guitar on a few songs; and Cher came one night and sang a duet with the band’s lead singer, who made his living as one of her roadies. That was an amazing night. She had just performed at a casino in Atlantic City and brought her entire cast and crew to the studio to record with her buddy.

But the best part of that project was getting to hang out with the guy who played keyboards - the legendary Nicky Hopkins. I got to hang with him, and share a house with him and the band for about a month. Nicky had played keyboards for just about every English rock group that mattered in the 60s and 70s, including The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. He was a supersweet guy and amazingly talented. And he had amazing stories about his decades in the music biz.

Anyway, I sometimes joke that my musical career has been all downhill since that, my first and very head-turning experience.

But that’s not true. Working with the guys in The High Plains Drifters has been remarkable for me. Every guy in the band came to our joint project with a long career behind him and amazing musical chops. Most of the guys are super-talented songwriters in their own rights. The band is me, John Macom, Charles Czarnecki (those first three of us were the guys who formed up in the Tex-Mex joint years ago), Mike DoCampo (he was in the band where Taylor and Cher performed), Kyle Cassel and Dave Richards.

Every time those guys start working on some tune - which I often bring to them as nothing more than lyrics and the melody line and some basic ideas for the instrumentation I hear in my head - they create astonishing cool parts, which sometimes take the song in a direction that neither I nor our producer, Greg Cohen, had envisioned when we did the song’s earliest demo versions. That’s my favorite part of being in a band - seeing how each guy, in his own unique way, puts meat on the bare bones of my lyrics and melodies.

My songwriting process hasn’t really changed much since high school, which is when songs first started popping into my head and I’d try to memorize the melodies I heard, and I’d scribble the lyrics on little scraps of paper that I’d tuck into my wallet.

I never sit down to “write a song”. Something usually happens that triggers the song - it can be anything, from a random thought in my head, to a pretty girl on the street, to a road sign, to seeing the Manhattan skyline in my car’s rear view mirror or to seeing Jennifer Aniston constantly on the covers of the tabloids. That’s not exactly “a process”.

Nowadays, when something triggers a song, the big difference is that I can just sing it into my iPhone. Which works really great unless I’m on an Interstate, which is too often the case.

In terms of how I’ve evolved, I guess the big change has been that I’ve learned to listen more to, and heed the advice of, my collaborators - my bandmates and our producer, Greg Cohen. I have learned that my first conception of a song’s structure, or its overall direction (or genre), is not always the best idea in the room. You have to be pretty self-confident to be a singer-songwriter in the first place, so learning to “let go” of your first idea for new work - well, to be frank, that doesn’t come easy to a guy like me who likes to think he’s “always right” (it drives my poor wife batty, too).

Our latest song, “Since You’ve Been Gone”, was triggered long-ago by a very painful breakup that caught me somewhat unawares and just pounded me into the dust. The lyrics and melody came to me at the same time, not first one and then the other.

The real creative process came once I introduced the tune to Greg and the band. We decided to do two versions: the single version and an album version. When Greg first heard me sing the song, he suggested that we slow it down and do a ballad version - I had never heard it as a ballad. But, like I said, I’ve learned to trust the instincts of the many musical geniuses with whom I work.

Well, the band hit it out of the park on the ballad version; it’s worthy of The Eagles (really). But I always wanted this tune to be the first single off our forthcoming second album. And, for the single, we’d need something much more uptempo. Greg knocked out the remix for the single version over a rainy fall weekend. The band had to replay some parts, but I didn’t need to re-sing my vocals.

One other really cool thing came out of doing “Since You’ve Been Gone”. This goes back to the issue of learning to trust your collaborators. Until I sang this tune, I was singing everything in my natural bass baritone. Greg pushed me to sing in a higher register on this song. I wasn’t immediately comfortable doing so, but I kept practicing until I had it down. And, now, my vocal on this is probably the best one I’ve done, and one of the web publications that reviewed the song praised my “smooth pop tenor”.

Heck, I am a Catholic school kid who was told I couldn’t sing well enough to be in the Church choir. God was not on my side as a young singer, but now as an older guy I’m on the radio with my smooth pop tenor. It’s funny. And not a bad way to grow older.

Clearly this song is the opening blitzkrieg in a campaign for world domination by The High Plains Drifters!

It is part of a bigger project, as it's the first single from our second album, which is now about half-way done. It’s a good representation of a turn we’ve taken in our approach to this album’s songs. We are working hard to produce an album with a “sound” that, on most of the songs, is more consistently focused (as compared to our eponymous debut album).

Where we can, we’re trying to mesh my fundamental approach to songwriting - which is heavily influenced by the soft rock and southern rock “storyteller” traditions of the 70s - with the great music that obsessed all of us in the band as we stumbled from bar to club to after-hours club in the wondrous pre-AIDS, pre-social-media Manhattan of the early to mid 80s. I call it “The Eagles Meet New Order”. For all I know, I probably hung out with all those guys, back in the day, somewhere at some unnamed joint as the sun was rising over the East River, but I would’ve been oblivious to who they were.

The big goal for us as a band this year is to break out from being almost completely unknown, to radio and the music streaming services, and to build just enough industry and fan recognition so that, when we return with our third album, we won’t need a blitzkrieg. We’d prefer to find the gates of Paris peacefully opened to us.