When Chris Bell was in the stages of starting Big Star with bassist Andy Hummel, it was Hummel’s friend, drummer Jody Stephens who came in behind the kit. With the addition of former Box Top’s vocalist Alex Chilton on second guitar and vocals, Big Star was formed. Working out of John Fry’s Ardent Studios in Memphis, Big Star recorded its 1972 debut album, #1 Record, the band’s 1974 follow-up record, Radio City, and that same year’s troubled Third/Sister Lovers, an album laden with chaos and accusations of Chilton sabotaging his own work.
When Big Star reformed in 1993 under the helm of Chilton and Stephens, taking the place of Bell and Hummel were Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies. It would be this line up that would occasionally perform throughout the ’90s, and in 2005, the band released its fourth and final proper album, In Space. With the passing of Chilton and Hummel, Stephens, the only surviving original member of Big Star, has officially said the band is no more.
As Big Star’s final chapter comes to a close, filmmakers Drew DeNicola, Danielle McCarthy, and Olivia Mori have put together the documentary film, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, “which documents the commercial failure, critical acclaim and enduring legacy of [Big Star].” This Thursday, July 26th in Memphis, TN, the filmmakers will offer a special preview screening as a membership drive event for the Memphis Chapter of the Recording Academy, and Stephens and some of his musical friends will be on hand to perform Big Star’s music.
In light of the event, Consequence of Sound caught up with Stephens to talk about the new documentary, the history of Big Star, and the chaos behind Third. We also discussed John Fry’s importance to Big Star and Ardent Studios, the studio Stephens continues to work at today, as well as reuniting with Golden Smog.
Hey Jody! How are you today?
I’m fine thanks. How are you doin’?
I’m doing really well. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
Sure. I’m glad you’re interested.
When I heard I had the opportunity, I was, “Hell, yeah!” I had to fight two other guys for it. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Aw, that’s cool. It’s funny. We work with a band called Star & Micey, and sometimes it’s difficult to get people interested, you know, with a new band and stuff. It keeps bringing me back to the point where I feel I’m grateful for the people who are interested in Big Star.
It’s just a shame that it had to come 40 years later.
Well, not quite 40. I think when we got back together in ’93 things had been building for 17 years. More and more people are finding out about it.
You have this new documentary, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, that chronicles the band’s career. Did you know the filmmakers prior to the project?
I didn’t. They called out of the blue, like other people had in the past with similar interests. I think John Fry’s first contact was with Danielle [McCarthy]. She apparently made a good impression, and John figured out that her heart was in the right place, and her sense of purpose was in the right place. As far as I know, she made that call and got John on board, and, certainly, me on board, because I trust John’s judgment. The next thing I know, Danielle’s flying to Memphis, and John’s rented a van, and is playing chauffeur, booked appointments with people, and places to see, and things to do. So, John played the tour guide. A sort of tour manager, so to speak.
How long has the project been under development?
A long time. At least three years, four years.
Oh, I thought it was more than a decade or something.
Not a decade. When you find out, let me know. [Laughs.] I have a terrible sense of time. For me, the other day could be 10 years ago, or it could be two weeks ago.
I think it’s kind of ironic that a drummer says he has a terrible sense of time.
Right. Well, you know.
So, I take it then that, you, John Fry, Jim Dickinson…none of the other band members really had any direct influence over the production?
No, not really. I’ve always kind of figured that either you’re in at 100%, seeing everything, watching over everything, or you have people who you trust to have the right perspective, and the right feelings, and the creative talent to put it together, and you just let them do it. You make comments here and there.
The press lists it as “nearly complete,” so why preview a film that’s not ready to preview?
I think it’s a special event for membership drive for the Recording Academy. I just termed out as a trustee. I served two terms as trustee, representing the Memphis chapter on a national level. The Recording Academy is an amazing organization which operates Music Cares. That does wonderful things for musicians in time of need. And the Grammy Foundation. That gets involved in all kinds of things. One thing is supporting music programs in schools.
It says that you’re going to be playing that night with a few other musicians. Will Auer and Stringfellow be joining?
No, they won’t. Ken lives in Paris these days and travels around. And John’s schedule, he was headed to France shortly before. They’re both pretty continental guys these days.
Let’s jump back in time a little bit. When Chris Bell left the second time during the Radio City sessions, the band temporarily disbanded, only to reform a few months later. Was there actually a point where you thought that was it, you weren’t going to get back together?
You know, it’s interesting. I don’t remember any definite feelings about it, because, you know, it all started off with Chris and Andy. And I joined in, and we had the band for a while. Alex joined in, and we recorded the first record, and then Chris quit. I was going to school, too. I just started at Memphis State, what’s now the University of Memphis, so I was busy with that. I had a girlfriend. I was busy with that. I probably did think that this could be the end of this, hopefully not, but could be. It’s not like it was my sole focus. It was maybe my sole passion. But I was starting to focus on school too, and of course, girlfriends can be demanding.
If you had school and your girlfriend…Andy Hummel left the band thinking it wouldn’t last much longer after all the frustrations with the label…why did you stick around? Was it because of the passion?
Well…yeah. I actually think Andy had a passion for it too, but he looked around, and thought, “it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to make a living and have a career out of this.” I was kind of going to school as a back up to, “it’s not working out, so I could go to school and remain in Big Star.” That would have been for Radio City, and for the third album as well. I know Andy left, but I think Andy wanted to get on with things and get school out of the way. Which he did. I think he was an English major in Southwestern University, it’s now Rhodes. He went on to get his Associate degree in mechanical engineering. So, he was ready to get on with it, and get on with life and a career.
When talking about Radio City, author Robert Gordon described your playing as “playing less to create more.” You’ve said that, for you, “Radio City was just an amazing record,” and that playing drums in a three-piece “really opened things up for [you].” How did the lack of the second guitar alter your playing and approach?
Well, it just added more space. Given that, there’s a certain feel. We pretty much recorded live. We were all in the studio and playing together, people were singing. So, you just process this input. There’s one guitar instead of two, there’s bass and vocals, so I tried to step up and do something melodic, if you will, on drums. Wherever there was some sort of space, not that it really…it could be something pretty simple, or it could be a more complicated kind of fill. I don’t know. I was just always conscious of contributing something other than just a beat.
Speaking of contributions, you’ve contributed to and co-written many songs, but “For You” is the only song I’ve seen in the catalog credited solely to you, and it features you on lead vocals. Can you tell me about that song? Was it written for anyone in particular, because it sounds pretty personal?
[Laughs.] That was probably written for my girlfriend. Interestingly enough, Alex had shown me a few songs on guitar. I think by that time I had a guitar, and that’s another story, how I wound up…It had been Chris’s guitar, and Andy had it for a while, and then I had it. So, I thought, well, Alex had taught me a few chords, and I put the chords together, and wrote “For You”. It was a nice little project. I hadn’t really written anything, but I was always kind of singing melodies and that sort of thing. At the end of the day, writing doesn’t come easy for me. But, interestingly enough, it’s…you’re walking down the street, or I’m walking my dog or something, and all of a sudden, this melody comes into your head, and maybe ideas for lyrics. I’ve just gotten to where I jot those things down.
Yeah, that was pretty much my first writing effort. And I was lucky to be able to walk into the studio with John Fry, and Alex, and Carl Marsh, who was the string arranger, and record that song. I couldn’t think of any finer people to do that with.
Speaking of Marsh, were his string arrangements originally included when the song was written, or was that an afterthought?
That was an afterthought. I had gotten the song written, and I had met Carl several times and knew that he was an arranger amongst other many talents, keyboard player, bassoon player, guitar player. He has a wonderful voice. I had seen him perform at this club several times. Anyway, I had caught wind that he was a string arranger too, and I was always quite taken with the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and the whole string quartet idea, so I brought Carl in to do string arrangements for it. Alex liked the idea, and liked Carl enough to continue on with Carl, and have Carl do arrangements for other songs.
I guess this may have been a hindsight comment: Jim Dickinson said that he was “nailed for indulging Chilton on Third,” but defended himself by saying he felt it was important that the artist is enabled to perform with integrity. That said, I understand you guys were feeling a lot of frustration with the label and the industry. But it’s often referenced that during those sessions Chilton was sabotaging his own material. The difference between integrity and self-destruction is rather vast. What was he doing to warrant that charge?
I don’t know. Integrity is following your passion, and whatever your heart is, and whatever your mind is for something. In some regards, from one perspective, people would say Alex is sabotaging his own efforts. But another perspective is that he just heard things differently. And so he would do things, to him, that had artistic integrity and to somebody else he was sabotaging his own efforts. But the cool thing is what Alex wanted, and what he achieved with Jim and John Fry, it had been borne out. Because we’re playing the Third album in its entirety from time to time, as kind of a presentation. Chris Stamey, me, Mike Mills, Mitch Easter, and some guest artists.
Do you play it in a particular order?
You know, I forget the order.
That’s why I asked, because there often seems to be discrepancy as to what the actual order was.
I don’t ever think that there was ever an official order. It was put on vinyl in a particular way, so I would think that there was some thought that went into that. I don’t know whose input that was, but at least there was some thought that went in to that song order that was on the white label vinyl.
On the ’92 Ryko reissue, the liner notes even indicate that “Thank You Friends” was supposed to be the first track, yet it wasn’t put on there that way. The bonus tracks of The Kinks and Jerry Lee Lewis covers just seem out of place after you listen to the first fourteen songs of the album. When I saw that, I just kind of assumed that you guys had no say as to the presentation of the ’92 version of Third.
I don’t know that there was any intention to exclude anybody, although I don’t think that Alex participated in that. I didn’t either. I wasn’t particularly interested, only because I figured if anybody was going to really weigh in as to what the song order should be, it would have been Alex. I mean, I have opinions and stuff, and I’m glad to express them, but at the end of the day, I thought it would have been Alex, if he were interested. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what transpired there.
During those sessions, Jim Dickinson was quoted as saying “’Kangaroo’ is where the record started to work”. What do you think he meant by that?
I think Jim Dickinson’s a brilliant man, or was a brilliant man. I could see that, because it was this kind of chaos. I heard this along the way, and I hope I heard it correctly, and it’s not just my imagination, but I think Alex did a version of “Kangaroo” on acoustic guitar, and Jim just took the vocal, and then built a track around it. Maybe that was “Downs”, I don’t know. But that would kind of make sense, though because it would be hard to deliver a vocal in the midst of that kind of chaos. so you would think there was something steady going on when the vocal was delivered.
And that steadiness was Dickinson?
Well, it could have just been an acoustic guitar. Wasn’t it “Kangaroo” where Alex turned it in and said, “Produce this”?
I can’t remember if it was “Kangaroo” where he had his girlfriend sing the vocal line on top of the guitar, and he says, “If you’re a producer, do something with this.” I can’t remember if that was “Kangaroo” or if it was another track. [It was “Kangaroo”].
that could have been “Downs”. Jim Dickinson played drums on “Kangaroo”. It’s a trippy song. I mean, it really transcended the norm. I could see why Jim would say that. “Downs” was another one of those. You start with a pretty steady lead vocal, and then you take things musically and sort of deconstruct them
With that said, out of curiosity, what did you think when you first heard This Mortal Coil’s interpretations of songs like “Kangaroo” and “Holocaust”?
Well, the first thing I thought, as I’ve thought several times, is of all the Big Star songs that I thought would never have been covered, “Kangaroo” was probably the one that I figured would never be covered. That and probably “Downs”, but interestingly enough, This Mortal Coil did that along with “Holocaust”. I actually heard Jeff Buckley do a 14-minute version of “Kangaroo” that was pretty brilliant. It’s out on a CD. It could be Live at Sin-E. I actually met Jeff, and then went to see him at a club called the Southend. It was one of the most brilliant sets I had ever seen, and “Kangaroo” was part of that. Beck played a version of “Kangaroo” live, from what I’ve heard. Bat For Lashes. So, several people have done it, and here I was, thinking that song was un-coverable.
I think that Third has gotten a far better secondary response than it did initially. I think people looking at it now don’t see as much of the chaos as it was when you recorded it. I think the songs may be more prone to being picked up by contemporary artists, rather than if it were 1983. I could see [musicians in the '80s] wanting to go to Radio City or #1 Record rather than going to Third.
Yeah that could be. It could be a sense of time and a different perspective.
Is the secondary title Sister/Lovers really a reference to you and Alex dating twins?
No. We dated sisters, but they weren’t twins. They were a year or two apart. And Sister/Lovers was actually something Alex came up with as something we might call ourselves other than Big Star.
Why would you want to change the name?
It was something that was talked about for maybe five minutes.
Talk to me about the relationship between John Fry and the band. I know he ran the studio, he founded the label. I know he was instrumental. He was pretty much the fifth member of your band wasn’t he?
He was indeed. John’s presence had a profound effect, even when he wasn’t in the room, so to speak. When I first hooked back up with Andy, it was probably March 1970. He introduced me to Chris Bell. Then my first introduction to Ardent [Studios], I went over after-hours with Andy, and Chris was there with Steve Rhea, and the two of them were working alone in the studio on their, I guess it was called Icewater, and this song called “All I See Is You”. So, John had taught them both a little bit about engineering, and then they were off and running, doing their own engineering. They would have a drum kit…Steve Rhea played drums, and of course, Chris played guitar. They’d have a drum kit and a guitar set up, and they’d hit record, run out into the studio floor, play the guitar and drums, and then they’d run back in the studio in the control room, and stop the tape machine. Then, one or the other would engineer as the other was out in the studio overdubbing. So, I guess I’m making a short story long.What I mean by that is John was being very generous with the studio and his time in teaching them to engineer and then just letting them loose.
We had a hall, and we had an amazing creative environment to work in, and pretty incredible tools to work with. I met John probably a week or two later and didn’t really have much interaction with John until Alex joined the band. John had said Stax was interested in Ardent becoming its rock brand, or rock label. Then we started, in a more focused manner, going after a record, and writing it, and demoing songs, and getting in the studio with John Fry. His engineering and the sonics of those records was such a major part of the way people perceived Big Star’s music.
Speaking of Stax, around the time you hooked up with them, shortly thereafter Columbia took over Stax. In hindsight, critics and writers all seem to gravitate to the Raspberries and Badfinger when talking about early Big Star and the sound that would go on to become what we call power pop. Considering those bands were popular and the rise of the genre a few years later, why do you think a powerhouse like Columbia failed to see the opportunity with Big Star?
From what I’ve heard, and what I believe, is that Al Bell, who was running Stax at the time, sat down with Clive Davis, and the two of them had a vision for Stax and Columbia working together. Shortly after that deal was signed, Clive Davis was fired from Columbia, and Stax lost its champion. Frequently, you get into trouble when you lose your champion. Whether it’s a band signing with a particular A&R guy, and that A&R guy gets fired or leaves, or whether it’s Al Bell inking a deal with the head of Columbia Records Clive Davis, and then Clive leaves. That’s what I think happened, and what went wrong. Whoever followed Clive didn’t have the same vision and interest that Clive did.
After the performance at Chilton’s tribute in 2010, you said that was the final performance of Big Star as a band. As Golden Smog has not had a permanent drummer for a while now, any thoughts of reuniting with those guys?
Yeah, I just talked to Gary [Louris]. He said there was at least talk of doing a record this fall, which I’d be pretty excited about doing. I love that band, and they’re pretty amazing people to work with. You have all these great songwriters. You have Danny Murphy, who sings as well, and of course, Gary Louris, and Jeff Tweedy, who are amazing songwriters with great voices, and Kraig Johnson, who is also a great songwriter. I love Kraig’s voice. You have all these voices, and these great writers. There’s some really fine material to work with. We all get on very well.
This is more of a fun question. What is your quintessential Big Star song?
I gotta tell you…I mean, it’s really tough, because anybody’s perception of Big Star, that’s heard all three albums, that perception is formed by all three albums, because they’re all so distinctively different. So, you have an image that has a lot more depth to it. But I would say if I have to pick one that kind of sums it up, it would be “Ballad of El Goodo”, because there are great melodies and really nice guitar work, he interplay between Chris and Alex, great melody line, and certainly great lyrics.