Continental Drifters Are Overlooked

By | August 1, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Rock-band theme songs went out with the Monkees, but you wouldn’t know that when Susan Cowsill of the Continental Drifters steps to the microphone for “Someday.” It sounds like she’s singing about the very reasons for her band and its work.

“I’m gonna pay my bills and stand where I stand,” she sings, “and maybe even start a little rock ‘n’ roll band. And maybe my friends will give me a hand. And if that doesn’t take away my sorrow, I’m gonna get up again and do it tomorrow.”

Eyes closed, she holds the last note – bathed in the supportive harmonies of Peter Holsapple and Vicki Peterson.

The New Orleans-based Drifters are a hidden treasure, a rock band for adults, with three gifted singers and songwriters who have persevered despite music-business indifference and personal trauma.

The group pushes on, it seems, because its six members need music more than music needs them.

“You often call this band your reward,” Holsapple said during a recent visit to New York, looking over at colleague Mark Walton, “and I see it in the same way. We’ve got nothing to retire to, frankly, and this is the kind of job you do until you die, because it does all the right things for your internal organs.”

“The downside,” drawled guitarist Robert Mache, “is we’re not going to draw Social Security from this.”

Holsapple played with the dBs, a critical favorite in the 1980s, and toured as a side player for R.E.M. Peterson was – and is – a Bangle. Cowsill grew up in an eponymous family act (remember “The Rain, the Park and Other Things”?). Walton was in the Dream Syndicate and Mache played in the Steve Wynn Band. Drummer Russ Broussard completes the lineup.

Because of that past (and future: Peterson is recording a new album with the Bangles) the Continental Drifters are still nagged by the perception that the band is a place to bide time while waiting for something else.

“We do other things and that somehow is used to imply that we’re not serious about this,” Cowsill said, “and it’s ridiculous.”

Their music fits into the loosely defined Americana genre, but they’re essentially the sort of mainstream rock band that was commonplace a couple of decades ago but rarer today.

Having three distinct voices and viewpoints sets them apart. So does the sound when those voices blend.

“You would think that any fundamentally tasteful person would understand the concept of the Continental Drifters,” Holsapple said. “We see this as an embarrassment of riches in a lot of different ways.”

Then his cynicism about the music business seeps in.

“Were we playing the game, the marketers and tastemakers would say, ‘It’s too confused, there’s too much going on. You people have no focus. You’re fat, you’re balding, you take too much time between songs. You play too long.’ We fly in the face of tradition with whatever the star-making machinery would have us do to be big stars, and we are just fine with that.”

They all had those dreams of stardom, and lived them to some extent. The band drifted together a decade ago in Los Angeles informally, as a group of friends who gathered once a week to play each other’s songs.

Walton was the band’s heart in those early days, the one constant in several different lineups. He believed it could be more than a friendly sidelight.

“It’s the best band I’ve ever played with,” he said, “and I don’t want to give that up.”

Even after moving to New Orleans, band members kept an informal, family atmosphere. Singer Kim Richey found it so inviting that after playing with the band recently, she phoned her manager and joked, “I’m quitting myself and joining the Drifters.”

In an industry that prizes youth and total dedication, the Drifters have lives. The band members’ careers have undoubtedly been hurt by an unwillingness to spend most of the year on the road. They want more balance.

Similarly, a younger band may not have survived the divorce of two of its members – Holsapple, 45, and Cowsill, 41, who have an 8-year-old daughter.

“It’s tough,” Holsapple admitted. “It’s not the easiest row to hoe. But it’s a good thing for us. We love this band, we love everybody in this band, we love the music that we do and we are hopefully proceeding in the world as mature people able to separate the personal stuff from the band.”

Could they have peacefully coexisted in the same band after a breakup if he and Cowsill were in their 20s?

Holsapple guffawed. “She would have shot me.”

If Walton is the band’s heart, Cowsill is its soul. Her melancholy singing voice and songwriting more than hold their own with colleagues who have longtime rock credibility. Don’t underestimate her because she was a child star.

Cowsill’s song on the new “Better Day” album, “Peaceful Waking,” is perhaps the nicest song you’ll hear about divorce, and typifies the disc’s redemptive feel. The songs retain their optimism despite tough times.

Wrapping up a radio performance in a midtown Manhattan building recently, the Drifters prepared to carry out their own instruments and search for cabs. No limos were waiting. A disc jockey, doing a favor, asked if they’d consider performing at a friend’s new club next time they’re in town.

Then one more reminder that no one will confuse the down-home Drifters with rock royalty: Walton consults the file in his head and smiles.

“How about Wednesday?” he replied.

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