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?
Im fine thanks. How are you doin?
Im doing really well. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
Sure. Im glad youre interested.
When I heard I had the opportunity, I was, Hell, yeah! I had to fight two other guys for it. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Aw, thats cool. Its funny. We work with a band called Star & Micey, and sometimes its difficult to get people interested, you know, with a new band and stuff. It keeps bringing me back to the point where I feel Im grateful for the people who are interested in Big Star.
Its 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 bands career. Did you know the filmmakers prior to the project?
I didnt. They called out of the blue, like other people had in the past with similar interests. I think John Frys 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 Johns judgment. The next thing I know, Danielles flying to Memphis, and Johns 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 its 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. Ive always kind of figured that either youre 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 thats not ready to preview?
I think its 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 youre going to be playing that night with a few other musicians. Will Auer and Stringfellow be joining?
No, they wont. Ken lives in Paris these days and travels around. And Johns schedule, he was headed to France shortly before. Theyre both pretty continental guys these days.
Lets 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 werent going to get back together?
You know, its interesting. I dont 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, whats 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. Its 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 wouldnt 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 doesnt look like Im 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, “its 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, its 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.