We caught up with genre-bending Americana band The High Plains Drifters to chat about their hilariously upbeat holiday track “Santa! Bring My Girlfriend Back!” which has been hitting top Xmas playlists on Spotify and Amazon. Produced by Greg Cohen (Robin Thicke, Nile Rodgers), the cheerful track tells the story of a distraught man who seeks solace in drink after having his girlfriend stolen by Santa Claus. Inspired by a boozy and drama-filled Christmas dinner, the tune features an array of instrumentation marrying traditional and contemporary sounds including marimbas, acoustic guitar chords, and horns reminiscent of popular holiday classics. After waking up the next morning and trying to remember the prior night’s holiday debacle, Larry Studnicky (HPD’s frontman) was inspired to put pen to paper and craft the holiday verse after the melodies kept ringing in his head like a hangover.
“Santa! Bring My Girlfriend Back!” is a precursor to The High Plains Drifters forthcoming sophomore album, to be released in 2021. Before coming together as The High Plains Drifters (which consists of Larry Studnicky, Charles Czarnecki, John Macom, and Mike DoCampo) 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.
Read the full interview below about their latest track and plans for their new album, and make sure to check out the animated lyric video.
Was “Santa! Bring My Girlfriend Back!” inspired by personal experiences by one of the band members?
“Inspired” is the wrong word. “Provoked” is more accurate. 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 won’t want to go into details, except to make clear that my sainted mother Joan was not involved. I was the first one awake on December 26th, and I was a bit hungover. I was making the coffee and about how such a fabulous holiday had gone so terribly awry. This song came to me in a flash — at least, the first few lines did (the lyrics with the melody together, as if sent by a Spirit of Christmas): “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. 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.
What drew you to create a holiday track? Is this your 1st one?
Booze and family brawling drove me to create this Christmas tune. But it’s not our first one. The High Plains Drifters actually were founded on my desire to record just one Xmas tune that had been rattling around inside my head for some years. I talked about it, over a dinner in Manhattan (back when restaurants were allowed to be open — as they should be allowed now), with my buddies John Macom and Charles Czarnecki. None of us had ever worked together on any music. In fact, before that dinner, I had never confessed to either of them that I fancied myself a songwriter. Shockingly, they were game to give the song a shot. The result was the song on our self-titled debut album which is called GET ME HOME BY CHRISTMAS EVE. It’s one of the tunes on the record that led to our band being branded as “genre bending” and Americana. It’s a really catchy tune that leans Country — so much so that, for Xmas 2019, it appeared on a Nashville-released Christmas compilation album alongside holiday tunes by such luminaries as Keith Urban and Kasey Musgraves.
The track is produced by Greg Cohen who is known for his work with Robin Thicke and Nile Rodgers – have you worked with him previously? How did the relationship come about?
I started working with Greg halfway through the recording of HPD’s debut album. Charles Czarnecki produced the first half of those tracks. But then he got married and moved to Germany, where his wife was in grad school. How did Greg and I meet? It was ages ago, when Greg was just beginning his career as a producer and recording engineer, and I had just removed my corporate lawyer togs to be a music industry lawyer (which I was for most of the 90’s). Someone in the industry introduced us, and I started representing Greg. We became friends immediately. Greg and I have remained buddies for roughly 30 years. It’s like we’ve grown up together. It just took us forever to become musical collaborators. Which was probably a good thing — the younger Greg Cohen and the younger me wouldn’t have had the experience to produce the kind of material that the band’s now putting out.
How would you self-describe the band’s sound in 3-5 words?
Modern rock singer-songwriter.
How has the pandemic affected the band this year? Has it influenced your music or affected your production?
The pandemic was, on balance, a plus for us in that, once people got the hang of avoiding COVID, everyone was super-excited to get back to work in the studio. And my ability to spend lots more time at home gave me the opportunity to finish a pile of lyrics we needed for the song’s we are recording. The only direct influence on the music itself can be heard in the SANTA! song. In June, as we started to demo the song, I changed the lines in the 2nd chorus from “She’s my mistletoe and holly when she’s smiling back at me” (which appears in Choruses 1 and 3) to become “She doesn’t have a virus, her hands are always clean.” It’s nice that Santa had the good sense to steal a girl who’s conscientious about her personal hygiene.
Tell us about your new album releasing in 2021? Do you have title or more info to share yet?
Okay, this will be our 2nd album and the first one where we have a stable band lineup across all 12 songs. Our drummer Kyle Cassell, and our bass player Dave Richards, became part of HPD as we recorded the 2nd half of the debut album. I have several titles in mind for the album, all of which speak to the overarching theme of most of this record’s songs, which is “lost love”. But I don’t want to reveal any album titles yet. We are now halfway through recording this record. I don’t want to sound boastful, but the band is hitting on all 8 cylinders now, and we’re cranking out some really catchy upbeat songs, along with some beautiful ballads. Compared to Album 1, the new album won’t be quite as “genre bending” as our debut. The musical direction and production are all a bit more focused. Even so, we are not entirely giving up our genre bending ways. This album will feature a gorgeous song called HOW DID I WRITE THIS SONG, which — per Greg Cohen’s inspired idea — is a bossa nova tune.
Your debut album conceptualized a listening experience of a sonic road trip across the country – do you have special plans with regards to a conceptual direction for the new album?
I had one concept for this record which, to date, informs two of songs. I had the idea that HPD should visit with some of the famous girls that other bands were singing about when we were growing up. So, there’s a song called MICHELLE, which is a nod (in title only) to The Beatles tune penned by Paul McCartney. And there’s one called RUBY, RUN AWAY WITH ME, which was triggered in part by the passing this summer of Kenny Rogers; who, when he was with the First Edition, recorded and sang the great Mel Tillis song RUBY, DON’T TAKE YOUR LOVE TO TOWN.
You have worked collectively with a number of legendary acts and artists prior to coming together as The High Plains Drifters – 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 – how have those experiences informed your music?
The unifying lesson that we collectively learned from our separate experiences with those industry giants is simple: raw talent isn’t enough. Success in any industry requires hard work. All of those guys are consummate professionals who, even now, don’t rest on their laurels. They work their asses off to improve. When they’re performing live, they don’t “phone it in” — they give you something to remember. Okay, so Suge Knight wasn’t a performer; but he too worked hard to make each new Death Row record something memorable.
How did you all come together as a band – I understand you are all life-long friends?
I’ve known Greg for 30 years, and I’ve known Mike DoCampo and John Macom (our guitarists) almost as long. I met John at a business meeting in the 90’s at an indie 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. DoCampo (“Doc”) and I met in the 90’s on the first music project where I got involved as a songwriter. Mike’s band was doing an album, and I contributed 5 songs to it. It was an insanely fun experience, worthy of a book or movie. For one thing, we were recording at an actual mob-owned studio (not that any of us knew it at the outset, but it became clear very quickly). It was the same mob family (DeCavalcante) 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 mob family. Doc’s buddy, who was that band’s lead singer, also was one of Cher’s roadies. The guy kept telling us, “If the great lady can get away, she will come. She has promised to do a duet with me.” And the guy producing that album was very close buddies with the legendary rock keyboardist Nicky Hopkins (who played a lot for The Stones in the 70’s but also appeared on some Beatles tracks and on John Lennon’s “Imagine’). Nicky got ex-Stone Mick Taylor to play on a bunch of tunes. So, Cher did show up and did sing the promised duet! Her backup singers came along. As they were all NYC-based, they agreed to stick around and finish the album with us. The mob, Taylor, Cher, and Hopkins — my first recording studio experience included all of them. Crazy, right? But 100% true. I sometimes say that my career has been all downhill since. That’s a lie. The band I’m fronting are amazing musicians — as good or better than any of those famous folk.
What has been your biggest highlight since launching The High Plains Drifters?
It has to be the success we’re experiencing with SANTA! BRING MY GIRLFRIEND BACK! As we hoped would happen, people (including lots of DJ’s) are loving the song. Everyone we hear from says that it makes them smile and laugh. After the crappy last year our whole world just suffered, you can’t ask for much more than that from a song. And I’m a lover of Christmas songs in all shapes and sizes. To see our song picked by a SPOTIFY podcast as one this year’s five best new Xmas and Holiday songs was a trip. Even better was seeing our song show up on Amazon Music’s Digster Christmas playlist, where you can hear it alongside Xmas tunes from Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Burl Ives, Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, Taylor Swift, U2, Katy Perry, The Temptations, Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, Band Aid, Neil Diamond, The Jonas Brothers, The Supremes and more. It’s a true Christmas Miracle for an unsigned indie band of older guys to achieve this.
What inspired the name for your band? Is it influenced at all by the 1973 Clint Eastwood movie?
Of course it was influenced by that great film. But honestly, it was not really “inspired” by that or anything else. It was the product of weeks and weeks of trying to come up with a name that arguably “fit” us and our style of music. Have you ever tried to name something? Whether a company, a product, a film, a book, a website or whatever — it seems like all the great names are taken. At least we decided on a name before COVID hit, or I might have gone with something really dumb, like THE ASYMPTOMATIC CARRIERS. Hey, if The Dead Kennedy’s got a record deal, anything is possible in this crazy business.
What can we look forward to from you next?
Next comes the 2021 of our second album, and maybe an online listening party for our fans once it’s fully mixed and mastered. Stay tuned!
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