One of the first artists to explore the nexus where folk and psychedelia meet, Peter Stampfel is best known as the founder of the freewheeling acid-folk collective the Holy Modal Rounders, one of the first salvos in a recording career that's spanned six decades.
Stampfel was born in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin on October 29, 1938, and developed a fascination with music at an early age, listening to pop standards and country music on the radio. After enrolling at the University of Wisconsin, Stampfel fell in with a group of bohemian students who turned him on to bluegrass and old-time folk music; the Anthology of American Folk Music, Vols. 1-3, edited by Harry Smith, became a favorite and major influence, and when the collection was reissued in 1997, Stampfel wrote new liner notes for the set that won him a Grammy award. Stampfel took up the fiddle and banjo, and dropped out of school after two years to travel and explore the Beatnik culture. By 1963, he was living in New York City, and met fellow eccentric folk fan and poet Steve Weber, who played guitar. Stampfel and Weber formed a duo and named their group the Holy Modal Rounders, playing folk rarities and offbeat originals with a purposefully primitive bent. The group attracted an audience on the New York folk scene, and they landed a deal with Prestige Records, who released their first album in 1964. That same year, Stampfel was recruited to play with the Fugs, and not only served as an accompanist but wrote and sang a few songs with the group, including the crazed "New Amphetamine Shriek." Eventually the Rounders would grow into a full band and dive into proper lysergic madness, winning major-label recording contracts and scoring an underground hit with "Bird Song," which would appear on the soundtrack to the hit film Easy Rider (the Rounders also featured Sam Shepard on drums years before the playwright became a successful actor), but the group was never especially stable, and one of their greatest successes came after Weber left the group: Have Moicy!, a 1976 album Stampfel recorded as the "Unholy Modal Rounders" in collaboration with Michael Hurley and Jeffrey Frederick. While Stampfel and Weber would periodically collaborate, by the end of the '70s he spent more time working with other artists (most often Michael Hurley), and was one of the few artists from the folk scene who remained a presence when punk and new wave came to dominate New York clubs in the '80s. In 1986, Stampfel introduced his folk-rock band Peter Stampfel & the Bottle Caps, with whom he would release three albums, and he would appear as a guest on albums by Yo La Tengo, They Might Be Giants, Bongwater, and Mark Bingham; he also performed and recorded with the Du-Tels, a project with celebrated guitarist Gary Lucas. Stampfel made his belated solo debut with 1995's You Must Remember This, in which he reinterpreted classic songs of the '30s and '40s, and continued to perform and record with a variety of ad hoc ensembles, including the Ether Frolic Mob (2013's The Sound of America), the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Banjo Squadron (2014's Better Than Expected), and the Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Fiddle/Mandolin Swarm (2016's Holiday for Strings). When not busy with music, Stampfel has enjoyed a long career as an editor with science fiction publishing house DAW Books. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi