If it doesn’t bend a few rules, can you really call it rock ‘n’ roll?
If it hadn’t been for Krista Holly Diem, singer and guitarist for the New York-based indie outfit LAPÊCHE, and her husband — Dave, the band’s bass player — ignoring the suggestion in most 12 Step recovery programs to avoid romantic relationships for the first year of sobriety, they may have never started dating.
And if they hadn’t started dating, there likely would be no LAPÊCHE. And without the chiming, enthralling guitar-rock that’s showcased so sublimely on the band’s most recent album, “Blood in the Water,” fans would be deprived. After all, there’s been a ton of good records to come out of 2021, but few manage to combine ’90s alt-rock, a singer-songwriter’s attention to detail and an exuberant punk spirit so melodically as that one.
Besides, the pair told The Ties That Bind Us recently, they may have flouted an unwritten rule about romantic liaisons, but they both held fast to the one that saved both of their lives: Don’t drink or use again, no matter what.
“I think we’re involved in creating something that hopefully makes our lives, and the people who are in contact with it, feel less shitty,” Dave said. “I can’t imagine my life without music. When I think about it, it’s an overwhelming (feeling) of insane gratitude that I’ve been able to do it in my life, and at the same time I’m kind of pissed at my past self, sometimes, that I took it for granted.
“But right now, I’m just fucking overwhelmed by the fact that I get to do it again as a middle-aged dude, with my sober partner and my favorite person and somebody who’s inspiring to me. I’m just overwhelmed by it.”
LAPÊCHE: Music was always there
The couple got sober in 2014, and while their stories brought them similar ends — slouching into a recovery meeting feeling absolutely crushed by alcohol and defeated by the vagaries that accompany a life chained to a bottle — their journeys to get their began separately. In fact, they never knew one another during their drinking days, Krista pointed out, but they did have one thing in common: a deep and abiding love for music.
“My parents always had music on, and even though they were very religious, they were new converts, so they had Beatles and Bob Dylan records, but that was it — the rest of their records were Christian music,” she said. “So I have this kind of weird balance of oldies and Christian music in my childhood, but my dad played guitar, so there was a lot of me playing a tambourine and my dad playing guitar and my brother making up songs on the fly. That was kind of like a family event numerous times a week, and I loved it. I really loved singing along to anything, so that was my first love of music.”
Some of Dave’s earliest childhood memories of music revolved around the classics as well: His mother was an artist, and she would hold her baby boy and dance around the Florida Room of the family home while records by Joni Mitchell or Simon and Garfunkel or The Carpenters played on the turntable/eight-track combo. In between, he added, there was plenty of classical albums that told stories, like “Peter and the Wolf,” which enchanted his young mind.
“My earliest memories of music were very joyful, and my first musical experience was a place where I felt safe, inspired and uplifted, and I remember feeling some complexity of emotion, too,” he said. “Some of the classical music had this ebb and flow and told a story without having words, which was really cool, and then we had the cool folk stuff she was into.”
He grew up taking piano lessons and played trumpet for a brief period while in middle school, transitioning to sports in high school before he discovered punk. He devoured every album he could find, from the West Bay/East Bay divergences to the D.C. hardcore to the D.I.Y. punks who rode the roads in bands held together by duct tape and attitude. He also did he best to shed the trappings of formality from his childhood lessons, he added with a laugh.
“I tried to unlearn the musical stuff I had learned, because it was more punk to play a bar chord or whatever,” he said. “I played in bands in college, and then we started touring, and I was doing that very seriously until I wasted so much tuition money dropping classes because the band was on tour.”
The band, Twelve Hour Turn (described as “emo hardcore”) released “Perfect Progress, Perfect Destruction” on No Idea Records out of Gainesville, Florida, back in 2002. The band’s break-up, however, was the incentive he needed to complete his final semester, and as a newly minted teacher, he suddenly found grading papers and preparing lesson plans were more pressing than playing guitar.
“For about 10 years, I put down the guitar because I got really immersed in my job,” he said.
LAPÊCHE: Dave's story
Work wasn’t the only thing that took demanded more and more of his time, however.
“I also got really immersed in drinking,” he said. “I was drinking to manage my job and to manage my life at the time, as well as the fact that I wasn’t playing music, and the fact that I’m an alcoholic. I found reasons, obviously, to drink, and things to drink at, so I just wasn’t prioritizing the important things in my life.”
He started drinking later in life compared to some of his peers, mostly out of reluctance, he added: A history of family alcoholism left him with resentments toward behaviors and individuals he associated with drinking, but around the time that rock ‘n’ roll became a full-time occupation in his early 20s, he made the transition fairly easily, he said.
“It’s hazy, but it did get to a point where I thought it was necessary for creativity, for social interaction, for celebration, for loss,” he said. “It became something that was necessary for everything. It started on the weekends, and I remember it peeling back to Thursdays. It started by saying, ‘I’m not going to drink until after we play’ to, ‘I have to drink a couple before we play’ to, ‘I can only get this drunk before we play so I can hopefully remember this set.’ It wasn’t a light switch thing, but I do have this overarching feeling of the progression of things. And then, at the end, it had to be a daily thing.”
That, of course, was almost 20 years after he started. His guitar had been resting in its case for a decade at that point, and upon his desk sat the trinkets and baubles of a successful career as an educator: teacher of the year honors, tokens of remembrance from grateful students, coaching plans, department meeting minutes he had to approve as a faculty leader.
But over time, the lines started to blur: Professional development days were excruciating, because he was usually hungover; Friday happy hours turned into weekend-long benders; papers might smell faintly of booze when he handed them back out because most of his after-school work was conducted in the neighborhood bar, drink in hand. But there was a red line he refused to cross:
“I told myself that I would never teach drunk, because I could never do that to my students,” he said. “The job meant to much, and I viewed it as a sacred place. But there was a Monday where I was in the middle of a divorce, and at lunch, I was still so hungover. I never went to lunch, but that day, I thought, ‘I just need a beer or something to get me through the second half of the day.’
“So I went and got a drink, even though my students could have easily seen me do it. And I went out, and I opened this beer on the street corner, and I tried to chug it, but I couldn’t keep it down. I threw up in a trash can, and I looked around and remember thinking, ‘What the fuck?’ They say that alcohol is either magic, medicine or misery, and for me, it had clearly become misery. I remember thinking, ‘This is fucking pathetic. This is disgusting.’ I was so ashamed of myself.
“Thank God that drink did not go down,” he added. “Thank God it didn’t lead to more, because that was the last drink I tried to ever have.”
LAPÊCHE: Krista's story
He had no way of knowing, but at the same time, in the same city, his soulmate was fighting her own battles. Music had carried her like a lifeboat from her childhood home in Utah, where she learned to play guitar and sang in high school, to Seattle, where she began singing with a band. The muse, however, demanded to be unleashed, and it wasn’t long before Krista decided that she didn’t want to sing music written by others — she wanted to sing her own.
She moved to New York, found a community of supportive artists who played with her, and started a fledgling solo career before alcohol shredded that lifeboat.
“It was so gradual for me until that point, because I was so aware of it possibly being a problem for me because of my family,” she said. “I have brothers who are all alcoholics, and my dad is an alcoholic, although he got sober by the time I was born. So I knew there was a good chance this would be a problem for me, so I had to be really careful. I never really let myself indulge, and I was very calculating in the way I drank for a very long time.
“But at some point, I was like, ‘I’m not going to calculate anymore,’ and I just took the governor off and thought, ‘I’m going to go as fast as I want.”
She can’t remember an exact tipping point, except that by the end, not long after her future husband decided to get sober, she felt as if she was out of all other options.
“I really could not function. I was completely unemployable, and I was drinking all day, every day,” she said. “It was the first thing I did when I woke up, and if I didn’t, I would be trembling. I looked terrible at the time, because I just wasn’t able to take care of myself. I didn’t really have a choice, because there was just no way I could have sustained that. I would have had liver failure.
“I mean, I could have killed myself, which I did try, or I could try to get sober — even though I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to give up alcohol, even though I was so weak I couldn’t pick up my phone. And I came in and out of meetings for a long time. It took a while for it to stick for me, because for one, I really should have gone to a detox, but I didn’t. So it was hard for me to put some days together, but eventually it stuck.”
It may sound strange to those unfamiliar with the misery of life at the bottom of a bottle, but these days, Krista is grateful she fell so far — because if her drinking had been any more functional, her life even a bit more manageable, she wouldn’t have stopped. And even then, when she did, she put music on the shelf, terrified that to play it and make it again would be to court disaster.
“I didn’t think I had the magic juice to make it all happen again,” she said.
A chance encounter
Dave and Krista saw one another around the same 12 Step meeting in their neighborhood. By that point, Dave had started playing with guitarist Drew DeMaio, and the two guys were on their way to a rehearsal when they popped into the neighborhood coffee shop. Behind the counter, Krista was working.
“We enjoyed this easy banter and talked about music, and she gave me a download of her record (“Never the Less,” recorded under the moniker Afternoon), and as we were leaving, Drew said, ‘That’s gonna be your girlfriend, man,’” Dave recalled. “I downloaded the record, and I loved it. I thought it was so good, just awesome, so we started hanging out and talking, especially about why we didn’t play music, and alcohol was a big part of it.”
“For me, I think there was some bravery in eventually doing it, because I really never performed or played music without alcohol,” Krista added. “I remember being terrified to do it and doing it anyway, and that in itself was an amazing feeling — just doing it and being like, ‘Oh yeah — I fucking love doing this!’”
Krista was getting back into performing, and Dave was getting another band off the ground — but was enthusiastic about offering her his instrumental talents. Together, they experienced a lot of “firsts” on that potentially perilous voyage out of the drydock of new sobriety.
“Everywhere you play a show almost, the main source of income is alcohol consumption, and you’re there doing something where you feel very vulnerable and naked because you don’t have liquid courage anymore, and you’re surrounded by the thing you can’t have anymore and choose not to have anymore, which was also very intimidating,” Krista said. “But that’s where the bravery comes from. It feels like you’re being very brave, and that feels really good.”
Eventually, playing with Krista took up more and more of Dave’s time, until his other band eventually disintegrated. While Krista’s songs and darkly melodic lyrics were the showcase, it quickly became obvious that the project was more than just a singer with a cast of players to support her. LAPÊCHE was born in 2016, and almost immediately, the band got to work.
“There was no other goal besides, ‘Let’s start playing music again,’ and I think Dave felt the same way,” Krista said. “We had a lot of questions: How do we do this now? How do we get to where we want to go? We don’t know, but let’s just try it together. It was almost like a little experiment in self-care by just trying to play music again.”
Rock 'n' roll as an act of sober defiance
With DeMaio on guitar and drummer Jeff Gensterblum on board, they hit the ground running, releasing the EP “Bright and Bending” in 2016. The online publication Uproxx was complimentary, declaring that the Brooklyn-based group “managed to strike the perfect balance” as “frontwoman Krista Holly Diem’s vocal rings out clear above the ruckus of 90s-indebted spiraling guitar courtesy of Drew DeMaio.” The following year, the band put out “The Second Arrow,” the band’s full-length debut, of which Punk Rock Theory opined that the songs “owe a lot to 90’s alternative music while the band also isn’t afraid to smuggle in some old school indie flair and shoegaze textures over vocalist Krista Holly Diem’s melodies, which are soothing and somewhat dark at the same time.”
After another EP (“Spirit Bunnies”) in 2019, however, they settled into a city locked down by a pandemic to make “Blood in the Water.” Released in April, it’s a swirling kaleidoscope of sonic textures built around the melodic drone of Krista’s voice — it’s the sound of a captain keeping the ship steady during a maelstrom, rising to meet the crescendos of her bandmates and guiding that vessel of sound over turbulent waves that seem to tower darkly over the rail.
For the Diems, it’s the music they were made to make. It took a lot of challenge and hard work to get here, but that makes what they’re accomplishing as LAPÊCHE all the sweeter.
“I think there was a point when we were playing music where I think individually, everyone kind of looked at each other and thought, ‘This is the best band I’ve ever been in,’” Krista said. “At some point, one of us said it, and the rest of us were like, ‘Oh my God, me too!’ For me, this is the best music I’ve ever made, with the best collaboration, and it really works.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever been a part of, and to know that other people are feeling it too, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s do this!’ We’ve all been in bands where we say, ‘OK, let’s practice once a week or so, and when shows come up we’ll play them,’ but now we’re seeking them out. We’re finding them, we’re practicing more, we getting on a writing schedule, and we’re trying to figure out how we can elevate ourselves as a band.”
And none of it would be possible, her husband added, without sobriety. To be able to play music and divorce it from the ritual of drinking has given him a new appreciation for what he’s capable of — as an individual, as a partner and as a member of a band, guitar in hand, unencumbered by the shackles of a substance that came damn close to ruining his life.
“It’s funny, because I thought it was making me embrace the moment and be present, but it was completely taking me out of the moment,” he said. “For me, to start to pick up the guitar again was this little act of defiance, almost, against all of these things I thought. Alcohol, I thought, was helping me write and do music, or that it was helping me because it inspired creativity or community through this romantic working-class idea of what it means to get together after a hard day of work to drink and commiserate.
“I thought it was inspiring those things, so for me to pick up the guitar again after I put down drinking was like, ‘Fuck you.’ While I was afraid, I was also like, ‘Why have I not been doing this?’ And in a way, it’s an act of service to give this music to people. I’ve really started to believe that, not because I want to elevate myself or our band, but because I’ve started to enjoy being on stage. The fear dissipates, and you learn new skills to be present, whether it's at rehearsal or while recording or while writing. And if it gives some people some inspiration or comfort or helps them to identify, I think that’s kind of amazing.”