I Wrote This Song for You: An Interview with Chris Stamey
The Sneakers, the dBs, working closely with Big Star, and with a unique solo career all is own, Chris Stamey has had his hand all over numerous touchstones in rock music. He speaks to PopMatters about his latest album, honoring Leonard Cohen, and how when you invite XTC's Andy Partridge to sing on your album, he just might do something else instead ...
As someone who has been making music either as a musician or producer for over 40 years, one might consider Chris Stamey a doyen in the music industry. Born and raised in what is now the Research Triangle in North Carolina, Stamey began his musical career in earnest in 1972. Three years later when he, along with future dB's drummer Will Rigby, formed power pop outfit the Sneakers, he made it to New York City, where he returned upon the group's break-up to set up his own label, Car Records. As some of the first titles for the label, Stamey compiled a posthumous Sneakers' collection, In the Red, as well as the only solo single by Big Star founder Chris Bell, the now-classic, "I Am the Cosmos".
In addition to working alongside Bell, Stamey had the opportunity to meet and play with another Big Star veteran, Alex Chilton. "[Alex] liked a lot of different kinds of music and shifted styles throughout his career," Stamey recalls, "but when he first came to NYC in the CBGB days, 1977, he and I both liked a number of records with these textures, for example, the first Colin Blunstone [Zombies] solo records." Such textures and experimentation with guitar layering would become staples in Stamey's songwriting arsenal and laying the foundation for him to form a new group, the dB's.
Originally called Chris Stamey & The dB's, the rhythm section was fleshed out by former Sneaker Rigby and fellow North Carolinian Gene Holder on bass. A short time later Stamey invited longtime friend and collaborator Peter Holsapple to join, building the group's sound with a second guitar. Despite having released a single to relative success on Car Records, the dB's had a hard time finding any love in the US. Unable to land a record deal in the States, the group found something of a champion in UK independent label Albion Records, who released the dB's debut album Stands for Decibels in 1981. After two albums with the dB's, Stamey left for a solo career.
Stamey's early solo career was rather prolific, with him releasing a series of solo efforts, eventually landing his first for major label, A&M, with 1987's It's Alright, as well as Fireworks, an album originally completed in 1988 but outright rejected by A&M as too far out and experimental for the label's taste. Fireworks would eventually find a release in 1991 through Rhino. It was in those years between where Stamey began spending time as a guest performer and producer, eventually building his own studio, Modern Recording, in Chapel Hill. Operating Modern for almost two decades, Stamey has produced such diverse acts like Whiskeytown, Alejandro Escovedo and Le Tigre. It's also where he crafted his latest solo effort, Lovesick Blues.
Already being described as Stamey's "most easy-going solo album", Lovesick Blues sees Stamey rather candidly pensive with the occasional introspective moments. However, Stamey's introspection is not nearly as harrowing as looking into Nietzsche's Abyss, but rather comforting and inviting, as if sitting around a campfire. "I wanted a late-night, quiet kind of record; I live in a country setting and the stars are lovely at night; I wanted a record that could be a soundtrack for that," Stamey said describing the songs on Lovesick Blues.
With the majority of the album written by Stamey in a two-week period, the songs on Lovesick Blues are, according to him, "the closest I've ever gotten to the sound I hear in my head in the middle of the night." Describing working with Old Ceremony's Jeff Crawford as both a producer and sounding board, Stamey said, "[Crawford] and I would sit around and play the songs as I wrote them and see which spoke to each other. It has been a good experience working with Jeff."
In addition to working with Crawford, Stamey reached out to a few local musicians to help add to the album. "There is a wonderful supporting cast here in NC right now," Stamey exalts. "I'm knocked out by how vibrant the local scene is, and how musical. I didn't feel I needed to look further than the folks in the Old Ceremony, Lost in the Trees, the NC Symphony Orchestra, to name just a few." Additional vocals were provided by Evan Way from Portland's the Parson Redheads and by Lydia Kavanagh, known for her work with the Golden Palominos.
Lovesick Blues is Stamey's first solo release in eight years. His last solo album, A Question of Temperature, featuring Yo La Tengo as his backup band and billed as The Chris Stamey Experience, dropped in 2005, followed by Here and Now, his second album as a duo with former fellow dB, Peter Holsapple, 18 years after their first, in 2009. "[Peter] was in other bands and living far away," Stamey said explaining the extreme gap in between albums.
However, 18 years was dwarfed when, in 2012, Stamey reunited with the original dB's lineup 30 years after their last time on record together, 1982's Repercussion. "It was a lark, really, an escapade, not a bird," Stamey quipped. "I thought they did a pretty good job with the later Indiana Jones movie, and I started thinking about what it meant to make 'a sequel.' So I was glad to be asked to give it a go." Falling Off the Sky, sequel or not, with its expressive beauty and melodically ambitious songs, is the result of wiser, more mature artists, a far cry from the wiry popsters who created Stands for Decibels and Repercussion, and aural proof the band's members are not tethered to the legacy of its first two albums.
Despite the recent dB's reunion and subsequent album, there is very little on Lovesick Blues that would immediately call to mind Stamey's former outfit. In fact, when listening to Lovesick the most prominent 'influence' to come to mind would probably be Big Star, specifically its album Third. No doubt a result of Stamey orchestrating a series of concert performances of the album in 2010. Working alongside Carl Marsh, who wrote many of the string arrangements for Third, Stamey revealed, "Carl went back and retranscribed his original parts, which was where we started. Of course, once all the players are sitting there, it's tempting to integrate them more with the textures." It's only natural that the quieter, more reflective moments on Lovesick Blues might come off as slightly influenced but not necessarily indebted to that experience.
This isn't to say that Stamey's latest is all quiet and brooding, far from it. Some songs such as the Van Dyke Parks-themed "If Memory Serves" that closes the album, align nicely with Parks' kaleidoscopic sunshine pop of yesteryear. "I have to love Parks's Song Cycle record," Stamey praises. "He's a very cool arranger as well, and comes from a long line of such." And "You n Me n XTC", a song described as a "playful road-trip memoir" certainly rings with its namesake. Stamey even offered XTC frontman Andy Partridge a chance to sing on the track, which he declined. "He didn't like the repetitive chords of 'You n Me n XTC,'" Stamey admits. "It was only after I played him the other songs that he started getting really into it." And get into it Partridge certainly did. When Stamey lists off all that Partridge assisted in, it's breathtaking. "[He] helped us arrange and edit several of the others: the answer melodies on 'Anyway', the vibes part on 'Occasional Shivers', the general attitude on 'If Memory Serves', the trippy parts of 'Skin', [and] technical aspects of the mix of 'Astronomy'." And those were just the few that sprang to mind.
However, of any name drops on Lovesick Blues, it might just be one heard in "The Room Above the Bookstore", where Stamey intones one of the most important songwriters of the last 50 years in his opening lyric. "The character in that song is watching -- it's a song about attention, watching thoughts running away with themselves," Stamey says about the song. Opening with one of the more unique diurnal descriptors in recent memory, "It's a Leonard Cohen morning", begs the question. "There is a static, measured quality to his early songs," Stamey answered. "I think I was thinking of "Suzanne". Also, it's not the cheeriest stuff, you know. But the most telling aspect is that he often seems an observer, a watcher."
Much like Cohen, Stamey is observant by nature, and his musical output certainly demonstrates such. Reflecting myriad elements perfectly collected and refined over his career, Stamey's style has often been described as experimental. A rather broad swath, considering much of what was dubbed 'experimental' in 1978 might not conjure up the same exotic sense of extreme avant as it may today. Thanks in part to artists like Stamey,many 'experimental' techniques thirty years ago have become incorporated into the modern musical topography heard today. So it's rather arresting when Stamey compares his delicately woven, but definitely structured, latest with his most experimental, the free-improvisational The Robust Beauty of Improper Linear Models in Decision Making, he recorded with Kirk Ross nearly twenty years ago, "With Lovesick Blues, I've finally made another record I like as much as Robust Beauty. Not being clever or disingenuous here, I love that record, personally."