The Photo Ladies

INTERVIEW: The High Plains Drifters

The High Plains Drifters

The Photo Ladies Interview – by Emily May

Lawyer turned musician Larry Studnicky never pursued music growing up. A self-proclaimed nerd in high school, it was during that time that songs started writing themselves in his head. In the 1990s, he started working with recording artists, songwriters, record producers, labels, and music publishers, which gave him a deep appreciation for the hard work that goes into making it in the music industry, especially for older artists. A bit deterred to take the leap into music himself, in order to prove to himself that the songs he had been writing were good, he ultimately decided to go for it. As the lawyer who, at the turn of the millennium, structured and closed the landmark label and publisher deals that ushered in the world of digital interactive radio (enjoyed today by listeners of Pandora, Spotify, etc.), he made the decision to pursue his true passion: music, thus forming his band The High Plains Drifters. His band is comprised of veteran musicians Charles Czarnecki (producer/songwriter, keyboards, lead & backup vocals), John Macom (rhythm & electric guitars, lead & backup vocals), Mike DoCampo (rhythm & electric guitars, backup vocals), Kyle Cassel (drums, backup vocals), and Dave Richards (bass, backup vocals), most of whom are lifelong friends. Before coming together as The High Plains Drifters, the group’s members worked alongside an array of legendary acts and artists including Pete Townsend, Brian May & Roger Taylor of Queen, Suge Knight of Death Row Records, Fred Schneider of the B-52’s, and Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees. John Macom’s music has been showcased in indie movies and TV shows, including Dawson’s Creek, Party of Five, and Felicity. Last year saw the release of the band’s debut self-titled album, which takes the listener through various genres, such as pop-punk, mainstream rock, and ballads, conceptualizing a listening experience of a sonic road trip across the country. The band has most recently released their latest single, “Santa! Bring My Girlfriend Back!”, a precursor to their sophomore album to be released in 2021. Produced by Greg Cohen (Robin Thicke, Nile Rodgers), the track tells the story of a distraught man who seeks solace in drinking after having his girlfriend stolen by Santa Claus and blends traditional and contemporary sounds such as marimbas, acoustic guitar chords, and horns. The band also released an accompanying animated lyric video to go along with the song. With the song’s release, the band hopes to bring some much-needed Christmas cheer to a world that has been beaten down by crazy events. With a new album to be released next year, you can connect with the band via the following links to stay up-to-date with all upcoming news.

You are a lawyer who has built a career in the music and entertainment industry. What can you tell me about your decision to pursue your love of music and how has being a part of the music/entertainment industry for so many years helped you as a musician?

The decision to pursue music later in life grew out of the desire to prove to myself whether the songs that I’d been writing for years (mostly unbeknownst to my family, friends, and work colleagues) were any good. It took a large chunk of my life to believe that my songs were good enough to be on the radio. I didn’t grow up with music lessons and never learned to play an instrument, not even later on. I was very much a nerd in high school, which was when the music started writing itself in my head. I can state categorically that I’d have been voted the least likely guy in my graduating class to front a rock band. It was the 1990’s when I was working with recording artists, songwriters, record producers, labels, and music publishers. It helped me to appreciate just how hard it is for anyone, no matter how allegedly talented, to break through all the clutter and get their works noticed. If anything, that realization probably deterred me a bit from jumping into the artist world. Why would anybody pay attention to someone arguably over-the-hill? The music industry is about as kind to older artists as Hollywood is to older actresses. But it came back to wanting to prove something to myself. I knew that the odds sucked and success was improbable. But I felt compelled to do it and see what would happen. The first song that we recorded and released (the single “Get Me Home By Christmas Eve”) made it to radio and, about 9 months after the Christmas it was being played, I received my first tiny royalty check. It was barely enough to buy the band a few rounds of drinks. Yet that was enough…more than enough to motivate me and the rest of the group to keep going.

What can you tell me about your bandmates, who are all veteran musicians, and how you all came together to form The High Plains Drifters?

The first thing I say about my bandmates is that each is an amazingly talented musician, and most are also great singers. I am incredibly lucky to work with them. Most of us have known one another, in varying combinations, for decades. I met guitarist John Macom at a business meeting in the ’90s at a record distribution company. John worked there. I learned that he was an indie recording artist (and he still is, under the group name BINGE and under his own name). I listened to and loved the material he had put out. I helped him place some of his tunes on popular TV shows of that era (Dawson’s Creek, Party Of Five, and others). We’ve remained friends since then. Kyle initially was our recording engineer on the debut album. We learned that he was also a drummer. I asked him to take over on drums when it became clear that our original rhythm section (including the bass player) wouldn’t be available to us often enough. At that time, they were in the band of the JERSEY BOYS musical. Kyle and our bassist, Dave Richards, were longtime buddies. Kyle invited Dave into the group. Guitarist Mike DoCampo (“Doc”) and I met in the ’90s on my first music project (where I was involved as a songwriter). Mike’s band was doing an album, and I contributed 5 songs. It was an insanely fun experience, worthy of a book or movie. For one thing, we were recording at a mob-owned studio (at the outset, we didn’t know, but it became clear very quickly). It was the same mob family that was the basis for The Sopranos. I can tell you this (and I’m half Italian): you have not eaten in an Italian restaurant until you’ve gone to one with a Capo in a Mafia family. Keyboardist Charles Czarnecki was introduced to me by my late law partner Alan Bomser, who called Charles the most brilliant musician he had met in a career in music spanning over 50 years. Charles produced the first half of our debut album before moving to Berlin after getting married. But he still works with us remotely.

You have said that your first foray into the recorded music industry ended in a financial disaster, but you gained the perspective that if you persevere and play your cards right and have some luck you can get a second chance. What can you tell me about your self-titled debut album being your “second bite of the apple”? What fueled your perseverance? In your experience in the industry, how often do second chances occur?

Yeah, that first foray was in the Mafia studio — very costly but extraordinarily fun. And maybe that’s a good summary of how one should weigh any new project in the arts: You’ll probably go broke, but it’ll be a hoot doing so. Ha. Anyway, as I mentioned, I was very hesitant to dip my toes into the artist world. Initially, I asked John and Charles to work with me on just that first single, “Get Me Home By Christmas Eve”. I told my wife that I’d not be stupid, saying, “It’ll just be one song.” Then I added the caveat, “Unless the song gets on the radio. If that happens, we’ll keep recording.” It was a lot of fun when I announced to her, “You are screwed now baby! Our first single is on radio, and now we’re going to do an album.” She just rolled her eyes, but she didn’t try to dissuade me. The thing that fueled my perseverance was really nothing more than this attitude: “Screw it, I have nothing to lose except maybe some people will think I’ve gone nuts. And they can all go pound sand.” My late dad raised me with the firm belief that you never succeed by worrying about what people will think of you if you fail. So, I’ve never worried about failing. As to second chances coming around, in the music industry, you have to make your own second chances. Heck, I had a client whose indie label released what ended up being the final album of Carl Perkins’ career. I met Carl several times during that process. He was warm and humble, yet also charismatic — and damn could he put on a great live show at age 65! But when I met Carl Perkins, he had been without a record deal for years. I was dumbfounded. You’d think the industry would take care of, at a minimum, the few people who gave birth to rock-n-roll. Nope. So, you can’t rest on your laurels (not that Carl did).

Being over 50 years of age, you have said that some of your peers think you are nuts to pursue music at this late stage of your life. What has the experience been like for you, to pursue music as a passion rather than a career?

I am having a blast. I love working with this band, and I’d probably keep doing so even if our songs weren’t getting noticed. I have a ton more songs that I want to get out of my head if only to see how much better they become once these amazing musicians put their magic on them. Plus, doing this lets me torture my almost-14-year old daughter when we’re playing music in the car. We’re always listening to tunes — sometimes it’s what she’s playing from the playlists on her iPhone; sometimes what I’ve chosen from SiriusXM or Pandora or Spotify or — more recently — my new favorite streaming radio station for rock: the NewHD app. Everyone should go download it. They’re playing great rock from all eras. Back to torturing my daughter. I love saying stuff like this to her: “Hey Anne, was that Ariana Grande we just heard on the radio? And isn’t Amazon Music’s Digster Christmas playlist featuring not just Ariana’s Christmas tune but also the new one from The High Plains Drifters?” She never responds. She just rolls her eyes. For decades now, women have been rolling their eyes at me. I’m immune to it.

You have said that in the studio, some songs take on a life of their own and dictate the musical genre, even if you originally heard it differently in your head. How often has this happened to you in the studio?

It happened more on our debut album than it’s happening on the current 2nd one. For instance, let’s go back to our first song, “Get Me Home By Christmas Eve”. It ended up with a very Country-leaning sound. Only later did I learn that the American radio industry calls the genre “Americana”. It didn’t have to end up with that sound. It could’ve leaned more rock. But, at some point during the early recording process, I turned to Charles Czarnecki and said, “I think I hear a pedal steel guitar on this song.” Charles miraculously found, in Connecticut of all places, a pedal steel guy who had recorded and toured with Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Jr., and other huge country acts. That one instrument almost alone cemented the direction of the song. On the 2nd album, we’re taking more time doing fleshed out demos of the songs. To some extent, that’s going to result in a more sonically unified album. Even so, surprises happen. We’ve just recorded the basic tracks for my song “Ruby, Run Away With Me”. This tune was written last summer and was inspired, in part, by the passing of Kenny Rogers. When he was with the First Edition, Kenny recorded and sang the great Mel Tillis song “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. In my head, the original version of my song sounded like something Johnny Cash might’ve done. Mike DoCampo, upon first hearing the raw vocals, said the same. But then, Mike and I and producer Greg Cohen, working together in Greg’s studio, threw out the arrangement and guitars that were pulling the song in the Cash direction. It’s very different now.

You have said that the lyrics to your songs take a lot of hard work with a lot of re-writing. Do you ever get writer’s block and if so, how do you work through a tough songwriting session?

When I get writer’s block, I drink like a fish for days on end, until I forget that I had writer’s block. Seriously, I am lucky not to suffer from much writer’s block where my lyrics are concerned. Sometimes, when working on a song, you just need to take a break from it. I try to get it out of the forefront of my brain, in the hopes that my subconscious will keep working on it. That sometimes works: I hop in the car with the intention of seeing what lyrics come to me as I’m driving around doing errands or whatever. Where I can get stuck, however, is in the writing of a chorus. Some of my songs form themselves in my brain with just the lyrics and melody for one or more verses but no chorus. “Ruby, Run Away With Me” was one of these. I probably wrote and presented three or four crappy choruses to Greg during the writing process. He was clear in telling me that none was good enough. Then inspiration struck, like lightning, during a mid-November conference call with the team at Universal Music Distribution who gave us a distribution deal for “Santa! Bring My Girlfriend Back!” Valentine’s Day was mentioned as the first post-Christmas holiday that we should be targeting for a single release. A light went off in my head, “Valentine’s Day. Huh. I can use that somehow in the Ruby song.” The very next day, as I drove to Greg’s Manhattan studio (to work on a different song), the chorus came to me — almost word-for-word and note-for-note what you’ll hear on the album. It came mystically, starting with this first line: “Tomorrow babe is Valentine’s Day, don’t leave your love behind.” It’s a miracle that I don’t crash my car when this stuff happens. It’s just so cool that it’s tough to say focused on driving.

You have called living in New York City a maddening experience but that there’s no place like it. What do you find to be the most maddening and challenging aspect of living in NYC and what do you find the most inspiring?

Two things above all have consistently been maddening: The traffic and the super-high cost of living. You have to be thick-skinned to deal with those hassles. The most inspiring thing about NYC is the high energy and high spirits of its people. There are people who really do come to NYC for exactly the reason that Sinatra sings in “New York, New York”: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” That attitude attracts, overwhelmingly, people who yearn to be winners and who WORK HARD to be winners (they don’t just dream about it). People like that bring a palpable energy to the streets of New York City. You really do feel it. And it’s really cool.

With regards to your single “Virginia”, you have stated that the verse and chorus date back to your single years in pre-social media Manhattan of the early and mid-80s. What can you tell me about that era of living in NYC and why you feel it was such a magical time? How has the city changed since then?

It was magical indeed. Everyone we knew, male and female, was working hard and playing hard. You could go out one night and get put down by several super-models in succession, and then find yourself at brunch the next day (nursing a hangover) sitting next to Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley (That really happened). It was a riot. I feel sorry for today’s youth — from teenagers through their 30’s. Too many have helicopter parents who can and do, with today’s technology, check in on them every damn day. And their every little mistake (whether of action or speech) is put under some online microscope and subjected to ridiculous parsing of meaning and intent. It’s an insane way to live. My generation moved to the City and hardly ever called home. Shoot, back then, calling home (unless it was from Manhattan to the Bronx) meant paying stupid amounts of money to the telephone monopolies for long-distance calling. And when we screwed up, it wasn’t caught on tape or film and broadcast to the world. I think that we grew up faster and better — more self-sufficient. More forgiving of the mistakes of others. Younger people need more privacy to screw up than they have in today’s world. Half the fun of being young is screwing up — and getting away with it! My favorite positive changes that I’ve experienced in the City have been the long overdue, fabulous development of all the riverfront spaces and — at least until the current Mayor came along — the long-term reduction in crime. New York City, under several competent mayoral administrations preceding the current one, became the safest big city in America. That was a huge transformation from the City that I encountered on a trip here at the end of my junior year of college when two hookers accosted me and some buddies in Times Square. One tried to distract my buddies and me, while the other failed in applying her pickpocket skills. Even so, I kind of miss some of the seediness of the old Times Square.

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You guys recently released your holiday track “Santa Bring My Girlfriend Back”.  What can you tell me about the track and the inspiration behind it?  What inspired you to write an original holiday track, as opposed to doing a cover, and what can you tell me about the different instrumentation used on the track? Do you have any special holiday traditions?

It never occurred to me to do a cover. I couldn’t touch anything that guys like Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin did or that women like Ella Fitzgerald or Mariah Carey did. I don’t fear failure, but neither do I go out of my way to embarrass myself. As to the “inspiration” behind the Santa song, that’s the wrong word. The tune was more “provoked” than inspired. Here’s the story. Two Christmases ago (2018), I was hosting part of my family (the Studnicky family) at my home. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, after much alcohol had been imbibed, there was a bit of family drama — it was like a hurricane hit. I don’t want to go into details. I was the first one awake on December 26th. I was a bit hungover. I was making the coffee and thinking about how such a magical holiday had gone so terribly wrong. This song came to me in a flash — at least, the first few lines did (the lyrics with the melody together): “I’ve been drinking way too much this Christmas. My friends all wanna know the reason why. I’ve been drinking like a fish all Christmas. Well at Thanksgiving my love told me goodbye.” I liked what was in my head. I instantly sang it into my iPhone (Apple should be paying me for saying this!). But I wasn’t immediately sure WHY the narrator’s girlfriend had dumped him and driven him to the bottle. Then inspiration actually did hit: Santa stole the singer’s girlfriend. Once I had that organizing concept, the rest of the song’s lyrics and melody flowed almost as easily as had the booze on Xmas day. The instrumentation on the song is phenomenal, right? John Macom came up with the marimba parts and also plays acoustic guitar (a Gibson J-100). Mike DoCampo played a Gretsch White Falcon. Kyle Cassel handled the drums and the jingle bells. Dave Richards anchored everything with his electric bass guitar. After those basic tracks were done, Charles Czarnecki added some incredible keyboards ear-candy from his Berlin studio. I had written (and Greg Cohen had programmed) some horn parts for Verse 1. We sent the rough-mixed song to two guys in Los Angeles (Michael Cordone and Jessy McGinty, who call themselves The 305 Horns). We told them to play live the programmed horns on Verse 1, and then do whatever made sense to them. This part was a true Christmas miracle: They killed it! Their horn parts put this song over the top. I can’t tell you how many people say how they love love LOVE the horns.

What can you tell me about the animated lyric video that was just released?

Hmm . . . . I don’t look like the guy who’s drinking himself to death in that video? He’s a blond. My hair is a very graying brown. It’s a cute video. I enjoy it. That said, in a perfect world (and this only makes sense if you’ve listened to our entire debut album), with an unlimited video budget, I’d have starred in the video (as the drunk) alongside Ms. Jennifer Aniston (as my ex-girlfriend) with Brad Pitt playing the Santa role. At least Jennifer would be smiling in that video . . .

You will be releasing your sophomore album in 2021! Your first album was a blend of many different genres. What can listeners expect from the next album?

Listeners to our 2nd album can expect that there won’t be quite so many genres. As a band, on that album, we indulged ourselves in terms of allowing a lot of our respective musical influences to shine through. On the plus side, for an unknown, unsigned band of mostly older dudes, we got a lot of very favorable press, praising such things as the quality of the musicianship and the band’s versatility. Shockingly, we were compared to everyone from Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Carl Perkins to Simon & Garfunkel (in “their glory days” no less!). On the negative side, the many genres made it harder for that record to find its proper slot at radio stations. One reviewer labeled as “genre-bending”, and the label has stuck. We don’t want to disappoint entirely our fans who enjoy the variety on an album. I mean, after all, we are not like the very young Green Day or The Ramones — too unskilled, or too unsure of themselves, or too enslaved to some label A&R executive, to play more than one type of music. This 2nd album will be more “of a kind” sonically. But there will be few outliers on it. We just finished recording the basic tracks for one song that (per Greg Cohen’s suggestion) was produced as a bossa nova tune. It’s called “How Did I Write This Song”. I could have never in a million years envisioned it as a bossa nova tune. But it’s a gorgeous one. And, once Greg made that call, I managed somehow, in one try, to write a bossa nova chorus. And Greg didn’t tell me to throw it out. It was a keeper.

Aside from a new album, what’s next for you?

Ha! I’m going to Disney World! Seriously. As soon as this COVID lunacy is over and we can travel safely again, I am heading south with my family for a well-needed vacation in the sun and so that my daughter can see the new Harry Potter additions to Universal Studios Orlando. And Disney World! Because, on our first trip there, I developed a wee crush on Cinderella.

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