by John Simandiras
a Big Star on our blog
Things change. That’s for sure. That’s well-known. But some things need, erm, a little extra time to change than others. Big Star, the more-than-cult Memphis band that has been influencing the ‘crème de la crème’ of guitar underground rock, from Replacements to R.E.M., needed “that little extra time” to come back. In their case, “that little extra time” has proven to be no less than 30 years. Three decades after their legendary effort –that suffered poor distribution-, ‘Third/Sister Lovers’, original members, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, reformed Big Star. 2005’s Big Star have just released ‘In Space’, an album of new, original studio material on our beloved RYKO. Not at all surprisingly, Alex Chilton refuses to promote ‘In Space’ talking to journalists. On the other hand, Jody Stephens had no problem answering our questions.
Ladies and gentlemen, all the way from Memphis, Mr. Jody Stephens!
Jody, where are you and what have you been doing, before answering my questions?
I’m in Memphis, at Ardent Music, a small record label and recording studio that’s been around since 1966. Primarily, I manage the studio, but I also do some work with the label.
When did you first meet Alex Chilton? What was your first impression about him?
In 1970, Andy, Chris (Bell, the long dead Big Star) & I were playing at a VFW Hall (Veterans of Foreign Wars hall, you can rent it out) in Memphis. He’d come to the gig to check us out. My impression was that he was a pretty significant music figure, he had a lot of success and a great voice —I didn’t know him so much as a musician at that point, more as a great singing voice and someone with experience. He decided to join us, and I thought it was definitely a turn for the best.
All of those years that Big Star were practically not active, and their records were going in and (mostly) out of print -despite the huge critical acclaim-, did you want to put Big Star back together with Alex? Had you asked Alex to re-vive Big Star?
In 1978, when I was in England, the 3rd album was released there for the first time, and EMI then released the first two albums as a double album. Prior to that, information about the band was appearing in ‘Sounds’, ‘Melody Maker’, ‘NME’ —there always seemed to be something, so I communicated with Chris, and we started talking about getting the band back together. By the time I returned to the US in August 1978, it had all fallen apart for some reason, I can’t remember why. But, apart from that time in England, it never came up.
Then Mike Mulvihill called about us playing in Missouri out of the clear blue, saying “we’ll cover your expenses”. Alex agreed, so did I, and I’d met Jon & Ken (see: www.bigstarband.com) through Gary Gersh, so next thing I knew Bud Scoppa called about recording it for Zoo, and we do this gig, and it launches this whole new journey for me.
And, now, thirty years after the legendary ‘Third/Sister Lovers’, Big Star have just released a studio album of brand new material! The unexpected has happened! Was it worth the 30year-wait?
YES! I had a great time doing it; it was a challenge with peaks and valleys. Anything you do that’s a creative challenge, you run into road blocks, and songs seemingly come out of nowhere —and sometimes they don’t come at all. When you find yourself in the studio with a plan to write and record a song each day, and it all comes together, it’s a great euphoria. But on the day or so that it doesn’t, those days are the valleys. It only happened once in this session, on that day the assistant engineer on the project came up with ‘Mine Exclusively’. I’m really proud of the challenge we all took with this, and the way it turned out.
How long (and where) have you been rehearsing ‘In Space’’s songs, before you entered the famous Ardent Studios in Memphis?
We hadn’t, we wrote and recorded a song each day for 15 days. We picked 12 of those songs, and spent 5 days overdubbing. Then we mixed, we mastered, that was it.
What’s so special about Memphis and, particularly, Ardent Studios, that makes them the natural home to host Big Star’s sessions?
John Fry is one of the figures that makes Memphis special, he started a studio in the garage of his parent’s home before opening Ardent in 1966. The studio has hosted Sam & Dave, The Staple Singers, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Isaac Hayes, The Replacements, REM, Zucchero, The White Stripes. Add that with Sam Phillips and Sun Records, and the history and events that go along with that —it’s mind boggling to think that Elvis, Johnny Cash, and others walked through the door of that place looking for someone to pay attention to them and their talent. And Stax -Otis Redding, Booker T & the MGs- all that history coupled with all that’s going on musically in Memphis today —do I need to say anything else?
From all the records that you participated in, Jody, do you have a favourite one?
I don’t —it’s hard to have a favourite, because each plays a significant in my creative life. I played on 4 Big Star albums, Golden Smog, a remarkable experience, Bill Lloyd, Elliott Smith, Matthew Sweet… all of it was incredibly fun, because I get to sit down with people who are incredibly creative, and do things that resonate with me —and that’s what it’s all about. I don’t have to over-intellectualize it.
You know, people usually tend to mention Big Star’s ‘Third’ as “a record that can make them cry”. Also, many musicians (among them VIPs, like R.E.M. for example) are systematically spreading this kind of belief about ‘Sister Lovers’. It’s a record that proved to be a life-changing experience, not only for listeners, but for the group itself as well, isn’t it?
I’ve run into people who’ve said listening to it was comforting to them, when they were going through tough periods in their life. I never thought of that record as having that effect, because of my experiences at that time, and my initial thoughts about the record. But as time passed, I began to understand that it was a brilliant expression of where Alex was at that time in his life; it captures his feelings and thoughts on life. “Blue Moon” is a very sweet song, other moments are really dark —a bunch of different emotions are expressed on the record.
So, can you name a record that can make you cry, Jody?
I’m sure there are others, but this is the first that came to mind, there’s a band called Skillet on the Ardent label, their first album has a song called ‘Saturn’. I heard that song about the time that I found out my dad had inoperable cancer, and it was a very comfortable song.
How often do today’s Big Star have group meetings? Besides group meetings and playing together in the studio or on stage, do you hang around together? Could you say you’re friends? And which member of today’s Big Star is more close to you, Jody?
We never have meetings unless we’re on stage or in the studio, we all just kind of know what to do. We discuss things over the phone or the Internet. Jon lives in Seattle, Ken lives in Paris, I live here in Memphis, and Alex lives in New Orleans, so we don’t really hang out together. There’s an incredible connection between the four of us on stage, but we come off stage and go our separate ways. I’m closest to Alex, because we have a relationship that spans 35 years.
After your shows, do you sit around and talk to guys from the audience?
Yes, I appreciate that people come to the shows, and making contact with the audience is what makes it fun. The band is a bridge to meeting people.
Linda Pitmon, Steve Wynn’s precious drummer and girlfriend, was talking to me with great enthusiasm about you and Golden Smog’s upcoming record, when she visited Thessaloniki, Greece, to play with Steve and his Miracle 3, last May. She sounded and looked really excited about Golden Smog! How are things for Golden Smog?
I got to play on four tracks on the new record, and spend some time with Danny, Gary, Jeff, Craig and Mark, and it’s funny, again, in the studio you spend time together but you’re focused on the tasks at hand. The days are long, but you don’t get to visit that much. The Smog connects and resonates with me, and it’s a joy to play in the band, because it’s a great creative experience. Anytime I put myself in a situation where I can surprise myself, I walk away feeling great.
Speaking about girl drummers, are you into Maureen Tucker’s drumming?
She adds a lot of character to the band, and she was the right drummer for the type of the music they made.
And speaking about The Velvet Underground, is Lou Reed aware of your version of ‘Femme Fatale’?
I don’t know.
Ever met with Lou Reed?
What’s the importance of the Velvet’s first album to your life/each Big Star’s life?
I can’t speak for the others, but I can say that in the midst of music getting way over-intellectualized and sophisticated, it brought back the soul, and a certain innocence, to alternative rock.
So, will we be waiting another 30 years for the next Big Star brand new studio project?
We really haven’t thought about anything beyond this record and getting back out on stage to perform live to support it.