Larry Studnicky, an entertainment 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.) has been pursuing his true passion in recent years: music. Influenced by the soul and rock of the 70s, and artists such as Don McLean, The Chi-Lites and The Eagles, the storyteller style of songwriting from that era stuck with him and informed his own songwriting style. For Larry, the mark of a successful artist is the ability to write a good, hit song. He spent his childhood and young adult life believing he couldn’t sing, but after a late night of too much booze and Tex Mex food with some friends in NY, The High Plains Drifters was born. While recording their self-titled debut album in 2019, Larry realized his vocals were not what they should be, but a chance encounter with vocal coach led to 8 months of classes, giving Larry the vocal chops to sing on all of the band’s songs from then on. The album earned the band critical acclaim from Harper’s Bazaar, Untitled Magazine, Glide Magazine, Anti Music, and more. The band will be releasing their second album later this year and recently released an EP, Songs of Love and Loss, ahead of the album’s release, containing half of the songs from the album. In February, the band released the first single from the EP, “Since You’ve Been Gone”, about the utter despair felt from a lost love, as well as a music video directed by Lars Skaland. Although the band’s debut album had more of an Americana, country, and rock and roll sound, much of the new EP and upcoming album reflect the band’s 80s new wave influences with a bit of 70s soft rock mixed in. The group is led by frontman Larry Studnicky [lead vocals, lyricist] and includes John Macom [rhythm/electric guitars, lead/backup vocals], Mike DoCampo [rhythm/electric guitars, backup vocals], Kyle Cassel [drums, backup vocals], Charles Czarnecki [keys, accordion, backup vocals], and Dave Richards [bass, backup vocals]. You can connect with The High Plains Drifters via the following links:
Facebook | Instagram | Website | Twitter | Spotify | SoundCloud | iTunes/Apple Music | YouTube | YouTube Music Channel | Deezer
You have talked about how you spent all of your childhood and young adult life believing that you couldn’t sing. What can you tell me about finding that confidence to do so and taking the songs that were writing themselves in your head and putting those to paper?
One of the guys that I founded The High Plains Drifters with…three of us sat down over some Tex Mex food back in the day. It was myself, John Macom, who’s an old friend of mine and an indie rock singer songwriter in his own right with a fair amount of records out and songs on television and in indie films and stuff, and a fellow named Charles Czarnecki, who I didn’t know as well. I knew him through one of my law partners. Charles, at the time, was the assistant musical director for Jersey Boys on Broadway and he became the producer of most of our debut album. About 5 songs into it, and I didn’t sing the first 4 songs at all, but as we started on the 5th song, which is called “Summer Girl”, he said “You’re going to sing this”. He just told me, “You’re singing this. John’s not going to sing it. I’m not going to sing it. You’re going to sing it” and I said “But I can’t sing. You heard my crappy back up vocals on one of the earlier tunes we did”. He goes “No, no, no. This is more of a storyteller song. It’s as much spoken as it is sung and you can do that!”. He said “No one else is going to it. We’re making you do it.” So I took a crack at it and it took forever. I mean, we did an ungodly number of lead vocal takes and Charles managed to cut and paste and composite an ok lead vocal. It didn’t sound too horrible to me. I wasn’t really thrilled with it, but I got through it and then by accident I was speaking one day to about 200 technology entrepreneurs at a seminar in NYC about various ways that start up companies can raise capital. I got a lot of emails afterwards…emails and text messages saying “Thank you for all of the information” and blah, blah, blah. One woman who wrote me went out of her way to thank me and I looked at her signature block and it suggested that she was a professional vocal coach. So I reached out to her and sent her a copy of “Summer Girl” and she wrote back and said “You have all the notes, but you don’t know how to sing”, to which I answered “I know I don’t know how to sing! That’s why I sent you that!” (laughs)! And she said “But I can teach you.” I spent 8 months in weekly lessons with her and then I sang the song that became the first single off our debut album, “Virginia”, and the difference was night and day. I’ve been singing everything ever since.
You have talked about how you approach music as a passion, not as a career, and that to keep making records, you have to keep your day job as a lawyer. What kind of perspective has being a part of the entertainment industry for many years prior to starting the band given you towards your approach to making music? Do you feel like it has given you the freedom to make the music you want to make without the pressures that many other artists face in their careers?
The pressures become, when you are unsigned and don’t have a label or publishing deal, self-imposed. It’s you and your producer and band mates tying to figure everything out, in terms of song selection and in which musical direction you will go. One of the things that working as a lawyer in the music industry really showed me was that there are, every year, thousands or tens of thousands of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young kids with perfect faces and bodies and voices make their way to New York and LA and Nashville and the other music industry centers and they think they’re going to be stars. But I think the real stars are the few people who can consistently write hit songs. I come at it from the perspective that if the song isn’t strong, if it’s not really strong, it doesn’t matter who the face is on it, or who the voice is on it. Or sometimes you hear musicians talking like “We recorded in such and such studio and it’s the same board that Springsteen used when he recorded “Born To Run”, or whatever. I’d always look at them and go “What are you talking about?”. It’s irrelevant. The gear is the gear. The gear is always the same from any A-level studio to the next. It’s not about the gear. It’s about the song. Is the song great? Or is it just mediocre? Or does it totaly suck? So I think of it more in that way.
In being an unsigned band on a tight budget, and with having so much experience in the industry, what are your thoughts on record labels, whether major or indie? Do you see the band signing to a label if the opportunity arises, or do you prefer to stay an unsigned, independent band?
I’ve represented major and indie labels, and I’ve represented major and indie artists. I have no beef with the major labels and I don’t denegrate them the way some indie artists do, who think they’re cooler because they are unsigned or are on some really cool indie label. I don’t think that way. I mean, a good label is hard to find, whether a major or an indie. And by a good label, I mean one that’s really going to get behind a band and promote them. And we would see that as attorneys for artists who weren’t getting a lot of support from their labels. Where any label makes a difference, whether major or indie, is in terms of the support that they give the artist and the record, once the record is ready to go out and find its way in the world. I would always seriously consider any label that was silly enough to want to want to sign an older band like ours. The odds that some major label is going to come knocking on our door, given the age of the band, is pretty close to zero, but I’d entertain it because the promotion power that they could put behind you if they wanted to makes all the difference in the world. I’m not anticipating that. I think we are lucky that Universal Music Distribution fell in love with the Christmas single we put out last year. They give us a little bit more greased skids to get our music out to the places that matter. But that’s just distribution. There are no promotion dollars behind what they do for us, but they give us a little more legitimacy. That’s been great and I’m really grateful to them.
What led you to start writing songs in a storyteller style and who would you name as some of your favorite songwriters who write in that style? What do you think makes a good story?
When I was first obsessed with music, it was the 70s and there were artists like Don McLean singing “American Pie” or The Chi-Lites singing “Have You Seen Her”. I grew up in D.C., so radio was all pretty much rock and soul. A lot of other soul acts who…back then, you could come out with a 4 or 5 or even 7 minute song, and they’d sometimes just talk for 2 or 3 minutes, setting up the story. They’d talk over a low rhythm track. There was a lot of that. The Eagles were storytellers, for the most part. A lot of the so-called southern rock bands were telling stories. Jim Croce and people like that, those guys were all over radio. And then we went from that to the punk and new wave movements and things got back to being a little more elemental. I mean, it’s hard to call The Ramones storytellers when they would basically repeat the exact same lyrics in the verses and melodies all the time. But they were phenomenal songwriters and I was so happy when they started pushing some of these other guys off of the radio. I guess all of that stuff in the 70s really influenced me.
You guys recently released a surprise 6-song EP called Songs of Love and Loss, which is comprised of half of the songs that will be on your second full-length album coming out later this year. What inspired you guys to release an EP ahead of the album and why did you decide to just include the uptempo songs on the EP and leave the ballads for the album?
The single that we put out in late February, “Since You’ve Been Gone”, has been doing pretty well at triple-A radio stations, college, and some other non-commercial stations. We were just getting feedback from the people who were helping us try to get noticed at radio that people would love to hear more music, like a nice single, and asked us “What else do you have?”. And it’s not like we were going to send them back to the debut album, which was more than a year and a half ago, and a lot of the stuff on there is stylistically different. We had just enough stuff in the can, ready to go, that we figured…well, let me back up. I’m a huge believer that if you have an audiences’ attention, that is an asset that you should cherish and play to. When I was a full-time music lawyer back in the 90s, it always blew my mind that Garth Brooks was putting out a record, like, every 6 months and they were all going multi-platinum…gold or multi-platinum. His fans couldn’t get enough, whereas the typical major label approach was to sit 18 to 24 months in between releases, which made no sense to me. The Beatles would put out albums every 6 months. So would the Rolling Stones. And the audiences ate it up. I always thought those guys were right and that the majors were wrong, to sit there 18 months to 2 years in between releases. When we heard that the people wanted to hear more music, we were like “Ok. We have to finish mixing a few songs” and could take all the uptempo stuff, or most of the uptempo stuff, and throw it on an EP and get it out there and see what happens. So that’s what we did.
With regards to your recent single “Since You’ve Been Gone”, what can you tell me about the single and the music video? You worked with your marketing advisor Jonathan Chang and the producer/director Lars Skaland on the video. What was it like working with them?
I’ve been working with Jonathan on marketing and with Nick on PR since the first album and they’ve been phenomenal and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. I’m not a visual artist. I’m a lyricist and a singer, so the visuals and graphics and things like that, they rarely come from me. Jonathan and I, about a year ago now, he came to me with overarching graphics and visual themes for the second album that would be somewhat centered on space and the isolation and the lonliness of being an astronaut. It fit, for me, with what I already knew were going to be most of the songs on the record, because we had most of them picked out last summer. It was like, well we’ve got to do something but this is not my forte, so I was just going to trust the guys who do this for a living. I don’t know how he found Lars Skaland, but someday I’m going to buy Lars Skaland a lot of drinks! He has been phenomenal. What Jonathan and he have come up with, the basic ideas and treatements for the videos…I just love what they’ve done. I couldn’t be happier. Everytime I’ve seen a rough cut from Lars, I just sat back and went “Wow!”. I have to pay for the damn thing and I’m not a record company. I’m just a guy. But I’m getting videos that look like 5 major labels together put them together and they’re affordable. I don’t know what else to say! These guys have done top notch work for me and haven’t bankrupted me, which is great because I have more albums to do after this one!
The band’s debut self-titles album, released in 2019, had more of an americana, country and rock and roll sound. What can you tell me about exploring the sounds of 80s new wave for this EP and upcoming album?
The americana label got slapped on us, not unjustifiably, when we released “Virginia” as the first single. You have to call it that, because it’s not really country. In fact, when we tried to find somebody in the Nashville radio promo community to push it, they were like “This isn’t a country song. You all are Yankees. Go away!”. And that’s true. We’re all New Yorkers. I mean, I grew up just barely south of the Mason Dixon line and listened to a lot of southern rock growing up. The influence is there, but we’re not a country band. But we got slapped with that americana label, eventhough it’s probably only about a third of the songs on that record. On that first record, towards the end, as we were doing the last 2 or 3 songs, we recorded one of the songs that you hear (on the new EP), the last song on the EP called “He Reminds Me Of You.” As we went at it, I said to Greg Cohen, who had then stepped into the producer’s chair, “This one, in my head, is nothing like these other songs we’ve been doing. This has to be done in some way that’s more modern”, and not pop, as in Top 40 pop. But it can’t lean remotely country/americana. No acoustic guitars. Nothing twangy. When we finished it, we realized we couldn’t put it on the debut album. It was just too different. So we held it back, and as then we got started in the summer a year ago, Greg and I spent probably 1 night a week, from June through August, at his studio working through various songs to see which one’s fit and which ones don’t. I’d say the bulk of them lent themselves to being produced more like “He Reminds Me Of You” and in more of an 80s style. We just made a decision, like let’s try that. Everyone in the band probably musically came of age in the 80s. In the 80s, Greg wasn’t producing. He was actually a keyboardist in a band in Manhattan. It’s almost like it was in everyone’s blood. Everyone knew what was being asked of them. And not every song goes that way. “Ruby Run Away With Me” couldn’t really be done that way, but I’d say probably two thirds of the songs on the second album are very deliberately 80s influenced tunes. It was a conscious decision.
What can you tell me about the song “He Reminds Me Of You”, the one song which you have said is from the girls’s perspective and is sung by one of your back up singers, Christina Benedetto?
I had originally written it…I mean, I’m a male songwriter and originally wrote a song called “She Reminds Me Of You.” I was telling the story from the guy’s point of view of a guy who’s missing an ex girlfriend who he, as you get through the lyrics from verse to verse and chorus to chorus, it becomes pretty clear that he and this girl had a pretty twisted and sado-masochistic kind of relationship and he’s missing that, because whomever the girl is that he’s with now doesn’t cut it on that level in the bedroom. And this is in no way autobiographical. I was single for a long time in New York. No woman ever even asked to tie me up, much less whip me or beat me. I had friends who this was happening to…not regularly, but often enough. After I finished it and demoed the lyrics, I thought to myself that this might be a more interesting story coming from a girl’s perspective. I only had the change the lyrics a little bit. So I flipped it around and asked Christina Benedetto, who is one of our back up singers, if she would take it and she said “Sure.” After she had sung it, then John Macom, one of our guitarists, came in, unexpectedly, and said “I have some answering parts that would be like the ex boyfriend singing back to her.” And when he sang them, we all just sat back and went “Wow. That’s perfect.” Where we’ve ended up is that you hear Christina in the lead, and John and I singing the ex boyfriend’s answering parts on the lines where John wrote those lyrics and melodies and I wrote all the rest of it.
You’ve talked about being inspired by more slassic artists like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but also Top 40 artists like Taylor Swift and Charlie Puth, thanks to your teenage daughter who has introduced you to a lot of the current music and artists. How do you feel that those diverse influences inform the music you make? Do any of the Top 40 sounds creep in?
No. I just don’t think I’m wired to write a current, Top 40 hit. Although I think about it. I could maybe…I flatter myself, so forgive me (laughs)…could write something along the lines of Taylor Swift. I think she’s in a long line of really traditional songwriters. But some of the newer stuff, and I love listening to Charlie Puth and artists like him, but I’ll tell you what I don’t get. My daughter and I were listening yesterday to the new Billie Eilish album and I just didn’t get it. I just didn’t get it. I didn’t think there was really a hook in there that you’d hear and remember and sing along to. I know that she speaks to a huge audience of young, especially teenage, girls who are feeling the things she’s feeling, so I get it on an emotional level. But on a musical level, it wasn’t hitting me, whereas she played some old and new Ariana Grande and I just found it infinitely more musical. I don’t know that I could write like any of them, but I listen to them. Unlike a lot of my friends and collegues, I didn’t stop listening to popular music when I got out of college and grad school. A lot of them did and just keep going back to oldies stations and listen to whatever they listened to in high school and college. I like hearing all of the new stuff, because you never know what might inspire you. She plugs in her phone everytime we’re in the car and she takes over the stereo and I listen to whatever she wants to play.
What’s next for you? Do you have any shows coming up?
There are no shows coming up. I hope there will be, but that’s a longer conversation for another day with the band. We’re blessed by having really seasoned and experienced guys who are all pros at what they do, who have been playing for 30, 40, 50 years in some cases, since they were in late grade school. But, we’re all at stages in our lives that would prevent us, collectively as a group, from renting a van, hopping in it, and going out on the road. We have lives and kids in private schools and mortgages and car payments. I’d like to think that we’d start by playing in and around NYC and the tri-state area. With the second album almost done, that would give us just enough material to do a decent live set. And if we threw in some covers of some of our favorite tunes, I think it would be a blast. I’m the only guy, out of everyone in the band, who hasn’t had the experience of being up on…well, I’ve been up on stage talking to a technology audiences…but I’ve never been on stage performing one of my songs. It’s on my bucket list and I’ll get it done!