I Wrote This Song for You: An Interview with Chris Stamey

Len Comaratta

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 ...

Chris Stamey

Lovesick Blues

Label: Yep Roc
US Release Date: 2013-02-05

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."

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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