The Drifters' new "Better Day" CD
is more than just 12 songs. It's
about six inextricably intertwined
people interacting. In spite of day jobs!
by Alex Rawls Photography by Rick Olivier
lunch crowd that arrived at Liuzza's By the Track were turned
away by Susan Cowsill. In sunglasses and brown corduroy overalls,
she told the laborers and businessmen sneaking to Mid-City for
an hour, "It's closed." Sitting on the stoop, Vicki Peterson added,
"The kitchen's being remodeled. We're the disappointment committee."
When someone in a suit asked if the six of us waiting for guitarist
Robert Maché to arrive were all Continental Drifters, Cowsill
assured, "We're all Drifters," to which Peterson off-handedly
joked, "Singers and sisters," quoting a line from Vermillion's
"Drifters." In the half-hour or so it took for the band to assemble
on the corner outside the closed restaurant, the meals we would
be missing were mourned while they kindly suggested alternative
dining experiences like a roots rock Zagat's. All in all, twenty
to thirty people were sent to find lunch elsewhere by Continental
The occasion for the get-together was to discuss their new album,
Better Day, which may or may not be roots rock depending on your
definition. If "roots" is a sound, be it folky acoustic guitars
or countryish twang, then the Drifters have fallen out of that
genre if they ever were a part of it. But, if "roots"—like
the best country and folk songs—conjures up images of working
people sharing their stories, hard-learned lessons, and finding
strength in the community around them, then this is roots rock
at its finest. The small wins life offers are celebrated on this,
their third album; in "Long Journey Home," Vicki Peterson offers
perhaps the most concise summary of the record when she sings:
Forgiveness and favor earned
Traveling on lessons learned
We are all alone in this together
as far as I'm concerned.
On paper, the flinty optimism of verses like that may lead readers
to think the songs are as much fun as iodine on a skinned knee,
but the passion in the performances and the songcraft itself make
Better Day feel warm, defiant and, ironically, triumphant.
For the band, Better Day is a change because, for one thing, "This
is the first album we've ever done that we haven't inherited songs
from previous incarnations," Maché said. Cowsill continued,
"They're songs that we haven't been playing for 25 years. They
were written this year. They're fresh." They were sufficiently
new that, according to Peterson, "We had the big show on New Year's
Eve [at the Howlin' Wolf after the Big Star reunion] and we were
scheduled to go in the studio January 2. That night was the first
time we really played the songs all together on one night in one
space of time, and I remember when we walked offstage feeling
for the first time confident that we had a record." Bassist Mark
Walton explained, "A lot of the time we'd sit in the living room,
come up with the parts, play it live for a month or two, go back
to play in the living room again, figure out a different way to
do it until we land on something. This time we didn't have that
luxury—we maybe played four or five shows."
The brief preparation for the studio is partially due to the success
of the Continental Drifters and Friends shows at the Howlin' Wolf.
They have had over 150 musicians join them onstage for those shows,
and some have been so successful that the artists like Chuck Prophet,
Kim Richey and Steve Wynn expressed interest in recording with
the Drifters. While some combinations never got to that stage,
they were nonetheless magical. "Ian Matthews—that could
have been a band," Peterson remembered. Playing with others has
become a source of pride with the band—"I think we're one
of the only bands who does it on a regular basis," Cowsill said—and
"it makes us a better band," drummer Russ Broussard pointed out.
It also has a therapeutic value because "It's great being in a
band, but try to picture ten years of just us playing every time,"
The down side of the guests though, is that "A lot of times when
we'd play the Tuesday night Continental Drifters and Friends nights,
we would want to learn new songs but the guest was more important,"
Walton explained. "Even leading up to going in the studio," Cowsill
continued, "We thought, 'We've got to have a few gigs before going
in so we can tighten this stuff up.' 'Oh, but guess who's in town
and who's playing?' Instead of tightening up our stuff, we ended
up playing someone else's stuff." As a result, the recording at
Lafayette's Dockside Studios was a very immediate, intuitive process.
"Where Does the Time Go?" was recorded in one take, while songs
like "(Down By the) Great Mistake," "Long Journey Home" and "Snow"
went through multiple takes before they decided the first one
was the best. The result, Walton said, is "A Polaroid picture
rather than a sculpture;" in musical terms, it's a nearly-instant
record of who they are in 2001.
The band has also benefited from a period of extended professional
stability. According to Maché, "One of the things about
Better Day is that the band is finally reaping the benefit of
being a solid unit for a number of years." Drummer Broussard,
the most recent addition, joined before Vermillion was recorded
in 1998. "For the first album, we never had a band. Ray [Ganucheau]
got sick and couldn't play and quit the band, and our other guitar
player [Gary Eaton] wanted to stay in Los Angeles with his son,"
explained Walton. To finish Continental Drifters, they "made this
record and flew the tapes to Robert in Tuscon and begged him to
play on it and begged him to join the band, which is a weird way
to make a record," Walton continued.
Not only has the band stabilized, but they finally have a label,
Razor & Tie Records, ready to release Better Day domestically.
The first album was released in 1994 by local independent label
Monkey Hill, then 1998's Vermillion was first released in Europe
by a German label before Razor & Tie signed the band and released
the album in America over a year later. Since then the label has
also re-released Continental Drifters. "This is the first time
we've had a real record company go, 'Hey, let's make a record,'"
Walton explained. For the longest time, "Nobody could figure out
how to market to our willing audience," Peterson said. "Razor
and Tie came along," she continued, "and that wasn't even part
of the conversation. They never didn't get it." Having a label
has allowed the band to dispel one myth: "People perceive us as
taking a lot of time because we can. We've taken a lot of time
because we haven't had a [record] deal. Now we've got this deal
and we're going to try to do something pretty regularly," Holsapple
said. Walton elaborated, "People are so surprised that we somehow
pulled it together because over the years people thought, 'Oh,
you just do it when you want to do it.' No, if we could do it
every year, we would."
At an essential level, making music is what the Continental Drifters
do. When Susan Cowsill said Better Day shows "where we've evolved
to with this group of people, finally settling into it, keeping
and pulling from the roots and the Louisiana thing we started
with Ray and Carlo [Nuccio]," she is talking as much about the
people as she is about the songs. Their music is obviously an
extension of who they are, and more than once different members
have gushed over the arrival of the new disc in terms and tenderness
usually reserved for newborns. Just as parents can't wait to break
out photos and discuss their wee'uns, the Drifters warmed to reminiscences
about the songs from the new album. Walton recalled bringing "Tomorrow's
Gonna Be," his lead vocal debut, to the band: "I was scared shitless."
He "was hoping to keep it real stripped-down acoustic. It ended
up being more electric but . . ." "More like a Beatles song,"
Cowsill interjected, like a mom with a photo of her own to show.
"Susan immediately heard it and thought, 'Wow, we can do a Beatles
thing,'" Walton resumed, "that's what she was hearing and I was
hearing this very demented thing, and the rest of the band brought
it to what it is." "If you listen to the arrangement of the vocals
it's very pop, very Beatles. It's the instrumentation that makes
it so damned scary; that and Mark's fabulous delivery," Vicki
Peterson finished, completing the others' thoughts. Better Day
is more than just 12 songs. As Mark Walton said, "It's about six
In the hour I spent learning all this, we were spit-rained on
a few times, and a steady rain interrupted us twice. While we
sat around a picnic table outside of Whole Foods, Walton and Cowsill
laughed and held a napkin canopy over my tape recorder to protect
it from the rain. When a car alarm went off, Peter Holsapple started
speaking stroboscopically, timing each word so that it would be
inaudible on tape under the alarm. When Mark Walton referred to
"Tomorrow's Gonna Be" as a ditty, Holsapple asked after a theatrical
pause, "Did you just describe your song as a 'ditty'?" When the
table erupted in laughter, wisecracks were rattled off at a string-of-firecrackers
tempo. Cowsill added, "Mark Walton, ditty writer," followed by
Peterson's, "It's a witty ditty," which Cowsill finished, "It's
a wittle witty ditty! It's a doo wah ditty!" before Peterson finally
cried, "STOP!" In short, it was obvious in that hour that the
musicians audiences think they know onstage are the people they
run into offstage, and the onstage camaraderie reflects how they
feel about each other offstage.
From the beginning, the musical and the social have been inextricably
intertwined. When they started playing in Los Angeles in the early
1990s, they used to get together in "this house in North Hollywood
Susan and I referred to as 'the batch pad,'" Peterson recalled,
"because all the guys lived up there. It was Carlo, Gary Eaton
and Mark living in this house together. There were beer, cigarettes,
and coffee everywhere; it was disgusting. It had a hideous bathroom."
Since that time, they have been meeting regularly in someone's
living room to play, but "one of our quote/unquote rehearsals,"
according to Peterson, "is usually just a social gathering in
the living room." As Robert Maché pointed out, "Generally
we mean to do a lot more than we get accomplished. In a given
amount of time, there's about sixty percent socializing that goes
on before we can even sit down. It's socializing and getting done
with business before finally sitting down with instruments to
go, 'Okay, what are we going to do with this song?'"
Rehearsal is social time, so playing live becomes a kind of rehearsing,
which means a lot of musical decisions are often made on the fly.
While that kind of pressure can be daunting, they work that way
"for the same reason people jump out of planes and skydive," Walton
said. "We didn't know what would happen. We'd watch songs develop
and think, 'Wow, that's pretty cool.'" Recording Better Day, Russ
Broussard said, "It felt like we were hosting ourselves. When
we host a guest artist, we have one living room rehearsal then
we play it that night, and it comes out totally different that
night, but it comes out somehow sounding like us," to which Cowsill
jokingly added, "We were our own friends." Obviously, to work
like that takes a lot of experience, but beyond that, "There's
an amazing sense of trust that goes on on and off stage, and it's
just beautiful," Maché said. "99.9 percent just happens
That trust comes from a lot of places, one of which is the challenges
they have faced together. In This Britney Moment, one obstacle
they have faced is record companies who were unable to figure
out how to sell a band with members over 30 and some over 40,
but the Drifters' ages also add a whole new layer of issues to
be dealt with outside of the business. While I was talking on
the phone to Walton, his daughter called daddy to see two termites
in her bedroom, which means that like many of us in New Orleans
he has a termite problem to deal with, and like many in the band
he has a family that needs to eat regularly, stay clothed and
live somewhere safe. In short, they have the responsibilities
that come with adulthood, and those provide challenges younger
musicians don't necessarily face. Families mean jobs are needed
because as of yet, being a Drifter isn't anyone's sole source
of financial support. "The money is not what it could be, and
it's not what it probably should be," Holsapple observed, "but
it's probably going to get better. There will be a better day
for paychecks." Until that day comes, they have to deal with the
demands jobs create. "If we didn't have to work day jobs, we'd
be able to be out on the road a little bit more," Peterson explained.
"We're caught in this horrible cycle now where you get a day job
to pay the rent but it's not where your heart is. Your heart's
playing music with the Drifters, but if you tip the scales more
toward playing with the Drifters, you're going to lose your day
job because no one's going to put up with that for that long.
One of our dilemmas right now is getting out this summer and how
we're going to make it work," she continued. Some labels shied
away from signing the Drifters not because of their ages but because
of their families and the fear that they would be greater priorities
than the act the companies were investing in, but as Walton explained,
"Families aren't more important; they're necessary."
The Continental Drifters family itself was tested last year when
Susan Cowsill and Peter Holsapple split up after years together.
The band is understandably circumspect talking about it, but as
Holsapple explained, "It has its moments that are easier than
others. I always feel extremely blessed to be able to be in a
band with such a world-class singer as Susan Cowsill. I am a huge
fan of hers and I would be even if I hadn't been married to her."
Their split, Vicki Peterson suggested, was not the first romantic
storm the Drifters have had to weather: "The Drifters are a long,
involved soap opera. Way before Susan and Peter were even married
there was always something going on, so for me, I view it with
an overview and with trust that as long as people are happy in
this situation making music together, things will be fine. It's
not a deciding moment in the band per se. It's another in a long,
very interesting chain of interpersonal relationships. It's just
Maché is similarly philosophical about the matter: "Things
change. You learn to roll with them. It's just one of many changes
this band's gone through. We've weathered them all. We're mature
people. Everything changes all the time—life, death you
move, you move to another house, you move to another city, you
marry someone, you divorce someone. Everything just changes. People
are born; people die. We have learned to roll with change. We
rolled with Carlo, we rolled with Ray, we rolled with Gary, and
we're rolling with Peter and Susan." The constant throughout all
this change has been the band, so "What the two of us have been
going through splitting up," Holsapple pointed out, "we tried
to make it so it didn't completely capsize the Drifters because
this band is our family too. It's a very comfortable place for
us. I'm still thrilled we're in a band together." Cowsill, who
is frustrated that their separation has been the primary focus
of the press she has done so far, said simply, "We are still here
and it's obvious there is still love among all of us. We're grown-ups."
Like grown-ups who lived enough life to write their songs, they
have come to believe in the core values, and they can be disconcerting
in how genuinely and passionately they speak of those values.
When Maché spoke of Steve and "Wish" Nails, the owners
of Dockside Studios, he said, "The people who look after the grounds,
even they make you feel at home. They never make you feel like
you're trespassing on their property. You're just at home there,"
and the look on his face and his tone of voice said he was awestruck
by such uncomplicated generosity. Similarly, when Susan Cowsill
spoke of her anxiety about songwriting, she pointed out that "everybody's
been very supportive and encouraging. We try and do that in this
band," and she said it was as if no other band is like that, and
after a while, you start to wonder if any other band really is
supportive in as pure a way. After all, when Peterson said the
situation at Dockside Studios "invites simplicity and the kind
of records we are making—quick and true," she said it with
the sort of bedrock belief in the capital-T "truth" our grandparents
and their parents and their parents believed in. Similarly, Holsapple
said, "We try to keep it as honest as we can because it wouldn't
be right if we didn't" with an almost Protestant sense of morality.
One of those core values is the belief in family, and no matter
what tensions have existed within their family, in the end it's
always that family they return to. For the Continental Drifters,
the sense of community finds expression both in their music and
their collective sense of play together. When we discussed playing
the new songs and Holsapple said they were still finding the "land
legs" with the songs, another riff began amid laughter:
And that is why when we are onstage we sound excited
Maché: because we still don't know the songs.
Holsapple: So what you're actually hearing is terror . . . apoplexy
. . .
Cowsill: . . . a lack of confidence, insecurity . . .
Maché: . . . a lack of money . . .
Peterson: . . . a lack of being jaded, an "unjadedness."
importantly, they find musical strength in each other as well.
"There are some shows that are transcendental for all of us. We're
aware there's an audience there, but at the same time we're very
inward-looking to the six of us when we're playing," Holsapple
explained. "There are a lot of bands that feed off the audience
when they're playing, and we do that too, but it has to start
within the six of us and in the cozy place or the hot, smoking
place or some place where we're all together from the git-go."
The musical translation of those shows is not necessarily as pastoral
as that description might sound. Live, the first surprise is always
that the guitars roar the way they do, and while they can be beautiful
and touching on stage, it's sometimes easy to forget that they
rock with the loose-limbed feel of The Band.
Better Day is not going to make the Continental Drifters big rock
stars, but there's no sense that that's what any of them want
anymore, if they ever did. You get the feeling they are doing
what they want to do, spending time with their actual and musical
families, and inviting their friends to come over when they can.
Sure, their friends are Amy Rigby, Syd Straw and Adam Duritz,
and they play music on Tuesday nights instead of lawn darts on
Saturdays, but their personal and professional lives are inseparable.
When they talk about going to work at Dockside, the descriptions
sound like vacations, complete with crawfish boils, barbecues,
and boat rides with "Captain Rusty"—as Peterson called Broussard—"down
to The Wa Wee, the local bar," Maché remembered. It's obvious
when they tell these stories how successful they feel, and that
they have learned to define "success" as something more real than
gold, platinum and plutonium records. Peter Holsapple said, "When
the idea of being the rock star with the trappings of all that
becomes pointless or out of date or impossible, or you've aged
out of it or whatever, then you have to do it for the love it.
If you aren't getting paid royally for it, you have to love what
you're doing. I think the Drifters as a collective love what we're
doing. The band's a great balm. When the music plays, if it's
sounding good, then everything gets shoved aside for that, and
that's the greatest healer of them all."