"Kind of Serendipity, I Think": An Interview with Jody Stephens of Big Star
Big Star were not talked about much when they were releasing their music, but as their influence spread, so did their legend. With a new documentary in tow, sole surviving member Jody Stephens talks to PopMatters about the band's legacy, followers, and unsung mentors and teachers ...
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt MeDirector: Olivia Mori
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
US Release Date: 2013-07-03
"I never travel far / Without a little Big Star"
-- The Replacements, "Alex Chilton"
"Big Star served as a Rosetta Stone for a whole generation of musicians."
-- Peter Buck, R.E.M.
Hailing from Memphis in the early '70s, Big Star released three albums that stand as some of the most artistically impressive in rock history. There was one major hitch, though: nobody seemed to notice. While critics lavished praise on the band, listeners failed to notice them, in large part because the albums were plagued by dismal distribution and poor promotion. With frictions mounting, the group shed members with each album, their music taking unpredictable creative turns until it succumbed to what seemed like fate and simply went away.
Except it didn't. Attracted by the band's inimitable sound, artistic vision, and tortured history, subsequent generations of bands became obsessed and infatuated with Big Star: Cheap Trick. R.E.M. The Replacements. The Posies. The Flaming Lips. Wilco. Belle and Sebastian. Elliott Smith. Beck. Jeff Buckley. Even Hanson cites Big Star as an influence.
"It's a surprise, I'll tell you," admits Jody Stephens, the band's drummer and sole living member of the band's original quartet. "Nobody back in the '70s could have thought that we'd still be talking about Big Star."
No doubt, the band's story is part of what has transformed Big Star into an iconic band. Fronted by the mercurial Alex Chilton, who scored hits such as "The Letter" with the Box Tops in the '60s, Big Star put artistic vision before commercial success. Their trilogy of albums -- #1 Record, Radio City, and Third (or 3rd or Sister Lovers) -- displays a musical evolution attained by but a select few bands, capturing the band growing out of their influences and eventually laying the blueprint for the indie rock of subsequent decades.
And yet, nothing seemed to go their way. #1 Record could scarcely be found in record stores. Chilton and singer/guitarist Chris Bell quarreled over the band's artistic direction, and Bell departed the band after its debut (he later died in a car accident in 1978). Meanwhile, Chilton, Stephens, and bassist Andy Hummel soldiered on as a trio, but Radio City was met with the same problems and indifference as the band's debut. Soon after, Hummel left the band, leaving Chilton and Stephens to work on Third, a bleak -- though nonetheless brilliant -- album that shows Chilton coming emotionally unraveled, partially due to his frustration with the record industry.
In some ways, then, Big Star became the first indie band: unrelenting artistic vision does battle with incompetent industry, fails to attain its due recognition from fickle public, collapses from the inside out in a mad fit of inspiration. But their story didn't end there. Not by far. Big Star eventually attained a posthumous following, achieved through word of mouth, one awestruck fan at a time. Yes, if there's an indie archetype, it was, in part, carved into the collective musical unconscious by Big Star.
When asked if Big Star's artistic ethos is as much responsible as the music for the band's immense influence, Stephens agrees. "Yes. That's a great way to put it, yeah. Because I don't necessarily hear Big Star in some of [the bands we've influenced]. Although, I don't know, from time to time, I catch something in Wilco. I asked Jeff [Tweedy] about, I forget the song, it was the ending chord and I said, 'That sounds like something from a Big Star song' and he looked at me like, 'Well, yeah' or 'Of course.' But it could be just in the ethos, too."
Big Star's story also resonated with the generations of music listeners who grew up listening to the alternative rock of college radio. For one, the music is brilliant. But the fact that it was never appreciated and given its proper due seemed like a crime – a crime that exposed the problems of an inept record industry. Big Star were a band to rally around, a band to turn other music aficionados onto. To know of Big Star was to have had an experience, to belong to a club of sorts.
"In part, it's certainly the music," says Stephens. "But it's in part because a lot of people came by it as a discovery instead of through a kind of mainstream way. So maybe given that, it's a little more personal. You know, somebody hears the Replacements' 'Alex Chilton' and then they go in search of it and it's a discovery. There might be a difference between a discovery and something coming at you through a mainstream vehicle."
A new documentary that chronicles the history of the band, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, was finally released this year after much anticipation. The film has been in the works for several years and was named an Official Selection at 2012's SXSW Film Festival. A 21-song soundtrack -- available on CD, vinyl, and digital format -- was released in conjunction with the film. While an extensive, 98-track box set of the band, Keep an Eye on the Sky, was released in 2009, Stephens notes that the soundtrack to the documentary presents the band's music in a different context.
"Some of the soundtrack, the alternate mixes were done by [engineer and producer] John Fry and Adam Hill the last two years. So, yeah, we still have a lot of vintage gear here [at Ardent Studios in Memphis]. John Fry is the guy who mixed them originally and Adam Hill has a wealth of audio knowledge about Big Star. I think it was just, in some cases, to give a little bit different perspective on that song."
Though subtle, the differences in the new mixes give interesting glimpses into the band's music and creative processes. Some of the tracks are alternate mixes, such as "The Ballad of El Goodo", in which Alex Chilton's vocal hovers over the rest of the song, underscoring the ragged beauty of his performance. Other tracks are demos, such as "O My Soul", which begins with someone in the studio dismissively saying, "It's only a demo, folks" before the band tears into a raucous rendition of the funky gem. And the rough mix of "Holocaust" somehow sounds even more spare and haunting than the original.
"For me it works really well because it all sounds fresh and somehow insightful," observes Stephens, "like you're a part of that session and you hear this particular take on one of the songs. So it's a little different, kind of like you hear it as if you're a fly on the wall."
The soundtrack to Nothing Can Hurt Me also serves as an excellent primer for the uninitiated, capturing the band's various phases and influences, from the jangly folk- rock of "The Ballad of El Goodo" to the power pop perfection of "September Gurls" to the experimental noise rock of "Kanga Roo". In doing so, it shows the band methodically building the bridge between rock's past to its then future, from the folk jangle of the Byrds to the power chord prowess of Cheap Trick to the avant-garde deconstruction of Wilco circa Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And that's one of the many enigmas of Big Star; while their music sounds like so many other bands, it also sounds like none of them.
Describing the band's music, Stephens, like many fans, finds it difficult to explain a sound that is instantly familiar yet completely unlike anything else. "We all had those influences -- the Beatles, Byrds, Badfinger, I mean even Led Zeppelin," he says, before pausing to collect his thoughts. "You know, you sit down to write songs and whatever comes out, comes out. I don't know that there was a mission to do anything other than write some good songs and give some good performances ... it was what it was because of who we were."
Another crucial component to Big Star's sound was Fry, who started Memphis' Ardent Studios in 1959 at the age of 15. Fry's relationship with the band has been compared to that of George Martin's with the Beatles -- which isn't altogether hyperbolic. Stephens is quick to explain just how indebted Big Star were to their mentor.
"He played a major role. For one, the way he would record an instrument and get it to take and the sonics of that, he was really good at that. And then when it came time to putting it all together, he just had this great sense of balance with audio. There could be basic tracks and lots of overdubs and John would hone it down to what really mattered. That's what he did."
One of the challenges Fry faced when recording and mixing the albums was the ever-shifting personnel and artistic direction of the band. Bell and Hummel's departures fundamentally changed the dynamics of Big Star, which allowed Chilton and Stephens to experiment with the band's sound. But whether the songs were lush or spare, rollicking or subdued, experimental or conventional, Fry knew just how they should sound on record.
"There's a lot of stuff going on on #1 Record," notes Stephens. "Radio City is a lot more sparse, but John makes it work as a three-piece sonically. And the Third album, there's a lot going on there, too -- strings and kind of weird noises and sounds and John fits all those pieces of that puzzle together and makes it all work and kind of hang together. I started to say it's kind of like you have a painting and the frame can really set that painting off, but it's a lot more than just framing someone's work."
Throughout the years, much has been made about Bell's departure from the band after #1 Record, the suggestion being that his frictions with Chilton were more than artistic.
Stephens denies that, though, offering a much more simple explanation.
"You know, Alex and Chris' relationship was fine. It was more that writers would focus on Alex -- and I think understandably so because it was like, 'Well, you haven't heard of this band Big Star, but you've heard of Alex Chilton through the Box Tops and 'The Letter' and all these hit songs. So, you know, Chris thought that he might have to live up to that shadow and I think that's why he left the band."
Though Big Star slowly dwindled from a quarter to what was essentially a duo rounded out by session players, the focus remained the same. "It was a drag [losing members]," says Stephens, "but always it seemed that the big concern was songs.
"What are you going to do for songs? And Alex and Andy came up with some wonderful songs for Radio City and so they were kind of off and running again. And Alex had some great things for Third. You can tell what impact Chris' departure had because #1 Record does sound markedly different from Radio City, the second one. And even Andy's departure and somewhat Alex's, you know, sort of emotional state of being, there's a big difference between Radio City and the Third album."
To commemorate the 35th anniversary of that third album -- Third -- Stephens will play the album live with a band that features some rather capable players. This isn't the first time Stephens' friends have lined up behind him to celebrate the music of Big Star by playing Third, but the performances take on added meaning in light of all the milestones.
"The core band from the beginning has been Chris Stamey, Mitch Easter, Mike Mills [of R.E.M.], myself and Charles Cleaver has been on piano," Stephens notes. "But then different people have joined in. Ken Stringfellow has joined in. John Auer joined in London and Barcelona. We have different guest singers, I guess, so that's how Gary Louris is involved. Gary and I are good friends. I played with Gary in Golden Smog on a couple of records and so I definitely wanted [him] involved. Actually, Gary's been with us a couple of times now. It's just been a really interesting passing parade of people."
In addition to performing Third with his friends, Stephens is keeping busy promoting Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. In doing so, he has been able to continue to play the music that has at long last garnered the attention it deserves.
"A couple a weeks ago I was in Los Angeles and they screened the documentary at the Grammy Museum and I got together with a couple of friends of mine that live out in L.A. -- Luther Russell and Jason Hiller. Luther would sing and play acoustic guitar and Jason would play an upright bass and I would sing lead. And so that was a really good time. We did that at the Grammy Museum for that screening and then KCRW, Morning Becomes Eclectic, and then we played a set at Amoeba Music. It's a little independent music store -- not little, it's big -- down in L.A. and we're going to do it again for the theatrical opening at the Nuart of L.A. You know, it's a short set, like six songs, but maybe that will evolve into something, too. I love to play."
As for other projects, Stephens is open to ideas. For him, the pleasure of getting to play music with other inspired musicians is reason enough to do so. One question on the minds of many music fans is whether or not Golden Smog, the musical collective comprised of a rotating cast of stellar players -- including Stephens and members of the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, the Replacements, and Wilco -- will convene again to record another album.
"Not that I know of," says Stephens, disappointingly. He does, however, offer a glimpse of hope. "I'd love to be a part of that if there is one because it's such a great time. A lot of really creative people in it. Everybody kind of makes a contribution. Kraig Johnson, Gary Louris, Danny Murphy, Jeff Tweedy -- they all bring great songs to the table. So it's a fun project."
Perhaps it's best, though, that Stephens not think out his plans too far in advance or in too much detail. If being a part of Big Star has taught him anything, it's that things have a way of just happening and somehow, despite all the odds, working out.
"In a way, it's kind of bewildering that this all happened not in concert, mind you, but kind of serendipity, I think ... there was never a game plan."