Interview: Larry Studnicky of The High Plains Drifters
Written by Linette Wainwright
Genre-bending band The High Plains Drifters brings forth a mix of rock and roll and eighties vibes to give you something fresh, fun and sure to have you listening on repeat. Mystic Music Magazine got the chance to talk with lead singer Larry Studnicky about everything from writing to balancing personal and family life with being a musician! Read on below to find out what Larry had to say!
Let’s start from the very beginning. Did you always know you wanted to be in a band or was it something that popped in your head one day and you decided to chase?
From the time I began listening to albums (the first ones were early Beatles and Stones), I certainly daydreamed about being in a band, but it was kid's stuff. I showed no musical talent and indeed was told that I couldn’t sing — at least, not well enough to make our church choir. Neither my parents, nor the Catholic schools I attended for 12 years, pushed me to learn an instrument or study music. I didn’t ask for music lessons. But then, somewhere around the middle of high school, melodies and lyrics started popping into my head. I didn’t think much of it, or at least I didn’t think enough of it to consider that I might actually be a songwriter. But the songs kept coming, and after about 15 years of piling them up, I figured that maybe I was really a songwriter and should figure out how to get some of my tunes recorded. But I still never saw myself as being “in a band” and certainly not as what I am now, the founder and frontman of a superb band.
Would you say that you stick more to one genre or are you a bit of a genre-bending band?
We are a band of older guys who, having survived the respective idiocies of our earlier years, have been fortunate to be exposed to several decades of amazing musical influences and inspirations. And the musicians in the band (I am just a vocalist; I still play no instruments) are seasoned pros who can play just about anything. That combination has produced music that has earned us, from some reviewers, the moniker “genre bending”. On our forthcoming second album, however, we are deliberately being a bit more focused in the production approach being taken towards most (but not all) of the songs on the record. Musically, most of us really came of age in the eighties, and so on this next album we’re indulging more of our bent for some of the great sounds of that era.
Being an older group, would you say that it’s more difficult trying to appeal to today’s younger generation?
I don’t think that one can write and record a song thinking, “Gee, I wonder if we can make this tune appeal to today’s teenagers or 20-somethings?” The younger generation has a boatload more avenues for music discovery than we ever did, and they’re pretty adept at ferreting out some stuff that you’d never expect them to find — or to like. At least, that’s true of my 14-year old daughter. She floored me the other day in the car, on the morning drive to drop her at school, when she put on the old Billy Joel song “Zanzibar”. I don’t much care for it, but she had heard it on Tik Tok and something about it grabbed her. I immediately told her to queue up “Only The Good Die Young” and then “Uptown Girl” and “Longest Time”. I couldn’t get “Zanzibar” out of my head fast enough.
What’s your writing process like? Do you start with a sound and then add lyrics or do you start with lyrics and then build a sound around them?
For me, a song can start either way — but when the magic is really happening, the melody and the lyrics just pour into my head simultaneously. Let me be more specific. On our self-titled debut album, THE HIGH PLAINS DRIFTERS, there’s a rock tune called “Rear View Mirror”. On that song, I first had just these words — which actually popped into my head as I drove West out the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, and I looked into my rear-view mirror and saw the Manhattan skyline: “I’ll remember New York in my rear view mirror here.” Soon after, I fleshed out the rest of the words to what became that song’s chorus, and the melody came along with the other lyrics. But, at inception, it was just the few words. Less frequently, I sometimes hear a musical phrase in my head and I hum or sing the notes into my iPhone. Then I try to figure out what the lyrics should be. For me, that process isn’t as productive. When all the planets are perfectly aligned and the songwriting gods are truly with me, the song pops out almost completely finished — melody and lyrics together — if not for the entire song, then usually for the first verse and the chorus. On our debut album, the “Jennifer Aniston” song happened that way. (Dear Reader, please go watch that song’s music video on YouTube — it’s a hoot.) More recently, our hit from this past Christmas season, “Santa! Bring My Girlfriend Back!”, also happened that way. The lyrics and melody materialized in my head as I was making the morning coffee on December 26th of 2018.
What was the inspiration behind “Since You’ve Been Gone?” Did you have any writers block at any point while creating it?
The song was inspired by an actual, heart-wrenching breakup that hit me when I was still young and naive enough to believe that someone could be “the one and only”. There was no writer’s block at all — just lots of tears making the ink run as I scribbled the lyrics. Not that I’ve never experienced writer’s block. I absolutely have. Among the songs we’ve recorded to date, the one where I was blocked the longest was one I spoke about above: “Rear View Mirror”. I wrote the lyrics and melody for the chorus over 20 years ago. After that, nothing. Squat. No ideas came to me at all. Not a single note. Then, one day out of the blue, when we were in the studio working on another track for the debut album, the lyrics and melody for the verses were triggered by a thought I had: just how bad could life in New York City really be?? (Note that I asked myself this question long before DiBlasio became the mayor and answered that question for the entire world.) My thought continued, “What if things were so bad here that my mom had become a junkie, my girlfriend was a loser, and a bottle of beer cost ten bucks?” The song almost wrote itself from that point on.
Is it hard balancing family life with being a musician? Do you have any tips for anybody who may be trying to do the same?
Well, it is certainly hard when almost every member of the band is a husband and father with a lot of other people and stuff competing for his free time and his hard-earned dollars. It’s not easy justifying spending time and money in a studio, and it can be incredibly frustrating trying to schedule demo and recording sessions around everyone’s schedules. But it’s worth it. While our band members don’t have the freedom to run off to some remote studio and lock ourselves inside for weeks until we’ve produced an album, once we are all in the studio together, magic inevitably happens. All the hassles pale in comparison to how cool it is to bring a song to life working with a group of unbelievably talented musicians.
What has been the high point of your music career thus far? What are your upcoming goals for the rest of 2021 and beyond?
The high point would have to be the attention and praise we got this past Christmas season for our song “Santa! Bring My Girlfriend Back!” I know that I probably shouldn’t focus on a tune that some would be tempted to dismiss as a “novelty tune” — but it’s not that, not if you go listen to it. It’s a really great song that just happens to have Xmas as its focus. Amazon Music added it to one of its Holiday playlists alongside all the classic Xmas songs we’ve all grown up with. A Spotify podcast called Listrionics touted the tune as one of the five best new holiday songs of the year.
What’s the craziest thing that has ever happened to you during your music career?
I had sex in a recording studio with Cher when she was in her 40’s. KIDDING!!!! No, but I did get to meet her and watch her record a duet with a guy who was the lead singer of a band doing an album for which I had contributed 5 songs. Cher wasn’t singing one of my songs, but it was CHER. And watching her work was incredible and, in retrospect, more educational than I ever understood before I started singing my own material. She wasn’t even like a “co-lead” vocalist with the band’s lead singer (who happened to be one of her roadies — she did the duet as a favor to her roadie!!!). As I watched at the time, I was thinking, shoot, it’s Cher, she can just sorta phone-in this vocal — be out of this studio in an hour or so. Nope. She had arrived around midnight (she had come to the studio after doing a full show at some casino in Atlantic City, about 90 minutes from the studio). Cher stayed the whole friggin’ night and did her parts over and over again, with her personal vocal coach working with her (Patti Darci? I think that was her name). Cher was going to deliver a PERFECT duet for her buddy. Watching her professionalism left a big mark on me. After she was done. . . then we had sex. Great sex. Hahahahaha. I wish.
What advice would you give to any up and coming artist who doesn’t exactly fit “the mold?” How would you keep them inspired to keep going?
If you fit “the mold”, then you’re probably doing K-Pop. So, forget about the mold, and forget about what you THINK the world wants to hear, because nobody really knows, right? I mean, heck, early rock-n-roll was dismissed by the music establishment (record labels, publishers, radio, etc.) as “race music”. Unbelievable. Early rap was dismissed. You need more than a healthy dose of self-confidence to be in the music business as an artist. I know that I lacked self-confidence for a long time. It took me ages to believe that the songs rattling around in my head were “worthy” of being recorded. Which, I sometimes think, probably helped prolong my life. I am not sure that I’d have made it out of 80’s NYC alive if I had been working in the music business of that era. But I digress . . . The key thing that I have learned is that, to “keep going”, you must come to appreciate that the creative process is its own reward. (The journey enjoy you must . . . ).
Anything else you’d like to add to the interview?
No, I just want to thank you guys at Mystic Music Magazine for giving some digital ink to obscure bands like ours. You have the undying gratitude of all of The High Plains Drifters.