Those Pretty Wrongs Remind Us “It’s About Love” (premiere + interview)

Big Star's Jody Stephens reflects on his music past as well as the future of his current project with Luther Russell, Those Pretty Wrongs. Hear their latest single, "It's About Love".

Those Pretty Wrongs brings together wunderkind musician/producer/composer Luther Russell with Jody Stephens of legendary power pop originators Big Star. Having created a potent 2016 self-titled release, the duo soon gathered their collective talents for a second effort, Zed for Zulu, which arrives 6 September via Burger Records.

Fans of Big Star’s sweeter side will find plenty to rejoice in: Jangling guitar figures recorded with crystalline fidelity, British-invasion-inspired vocal harmonies and lyrics that reflect on life, love and loss but with firm resolve for a better tomorrow.

That is perhaps most evident on the album’s closing statement, “It’s About Love”. Filled with references of life without walls that divide, life without fear and with deep acts of kindness, it would sound painfully idealistic if it weren’t being delivered by one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great survivors, a man deeply connected to the material’s recognition that survival comes from unity and not division. It, along with the rest of Zed for Zulu, forms the basis of a perfectly hopeful and deeply comforting statement that is part of the continued Big Star legacy but which stands on its own as a testament to the creative powers of Stephens and Russell.

Stephens recently spoke with PopMatters from Ardent Studios in Memphis about the making of Zed for Zulu and his musical past.

Did you know that you and Luther Russell would make a second record?

Luther and I got started after out of a request for me to play some Big Star songs at the Nuart Theatre in Santa Monica. We got together, did those songs, then Luther said, “Let’s write some.” I figured we’d get four or five songs. I’ve never really sat down and written an album’s worth of material with anyone. [Memphis musician] Van Duren and I wrote some songs together, and I’d gotten together with a couple of other people, but with Luther, the songs kept on coming. We wound up with 12 for that first record.

I had no idea we’d do another one. I wanted to, but it really all depends on songwriting. Then I got this phone call from a friend. Whenever he’d leave a message, he’d say, “Ain’t nobody but me, Robert.” That always broke my heart a little bit, and that became the first song, “Ain’t Nobody But Me”, that got us on the path to writing more.

Can you talk a little bit about the collaborative process between you and Luther?

In addition to his multiple talents as a singer-songwriter, guitar player, keyboard player, his production talents, he’s an incredible cheerleader. That talent alone keeps things moving along, not to mention that outside of drums and tambourine and maracas, if it needed to be done, Luther was there to do it. And he’s quick. I think it keeps the creative process going and keeps us on our toes. We also had that trust where you can suggest anything to each other. Whatever comes to mind. It’s a great relationship.

It seems that the lyrics focus on the idea that life is short and we need to keep the ones we love close to us and stay focused on the positive.

That’s where I was in my life. In a certain span of time we lost John Fry, Big Star’s mentor. [Engineer] John Hampton, who worked with Gin Blossoms. My mom, Luther’s mom. The album is about loss and how quickly that can happen. It’s about how things come back around. “The tide will pull us under, but it will was us ashore again.” We used the undertow and the tide and cyclical things in several songs.

Those are big losses. How do you get through times like that?

For a moment, you put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. Sooner or later, you come around to reconnecting. That’s what life is about for me, engaging and not withdrawing. I get a lot of strength and support from my friends and wife.

The singing is so great on this album. How did you get those fine vocal performances?

I’ve had to make an effort at doing vocal warm-ups. You try to put yourself in the frame of mind of whatever it is you want to relate to someone listening. The melodies are the result of having been a fan of the Beatles and having spent time around Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, and Andy Hummel. I’ve been around a little while, so I’ve picked up a little bit.

You recorded this on two-inch tape and used some of the Big Star gear.

We did. We had the same set of microphones available. The tape adds a certain vibe. I own Chris’ Yamaha, his acoustic six-string that he used on #1 Record. It sounds so good. We also used his Gibson 335. Luther used it on “You and Me” and some it others. I think he plugged it into a Hiwatt amp that was either Alex’s or Andy’s. And off he went. He said, “This thing plays itself.” I have that with drums too. They all seem to have their own sound and their own little musical story to tell. You pick up somebody else’s guitar and it kind of lights the way you play.

It’s great that those instruments and that gear is still around and being played rather than in a museum somewhere. I think that’s a wonderful testament to the legacy of Alex, Chris and Andy.

Chris’s nephew owns his Gibson and lets us borrow it for that reason. He thinks it should be used. It keeps Chris alive. Having that guitar as part of the sessions evokes a certain kind of atmosphere and magic of its own.

How did you come to work for Ardent?

I started 12 January 1987. John Fry wanted to start a production company. He wanted somebody to wave the flag for the studio. I had just graduated from college. I was on the 14-year university program. I studied marketing, and that’s what I did for John. We had talent at the studio and in the city. John Kilzer was around, Keith Sykes was around. It was my job to pitch the demos. I worked with Tora Tora, the Eric Gales Band. Probably the best-known act I worked with was Skillet.

I think Tora Tora was a better band than they were given credit for and they seemed to really love the camaraderie of the Memphis scene.

You’re right. They were all about Memphis and the community and supporting whatever they could. The continue to be that way. Eric Gales is still out there playing. He’s pretty amazing.

You started in 1987 which means you would have been around when the Replacements were in town for the Pleased to Meet Me sessions.

I think they started in November 1986 and were here on and off and on until early 1987. I can only remember meeting Tommy Stinson. I don’t think anybody ever said that they’d worked with Alex. Maybe somebody did. I think they maybe recorded in the evenings. I don’t remember seeing much of Jim Dickinson during that time. But I love to brag about that record being done here with Jim producing, John Hampton and Joe Hardy engineering. That record is brilliant.

What are some of the musical goals you have for the future?

We continue to do these Big Star’s Third shows. We’ve done them all over the world. They’re always something special. It’s a group of people who are all like-minded about the music of Big Star. These days it’s as much about getting together for that fellowship as it is what the audience gets. I’d love to do another record, but I’m really looking forward to playing live with Luther. But I’m an incrementalist. I like to work on right now and then look ahead a little but not too far.


August 18: Wild Honey Backyard Amphitheatre, Los Angeles, CA

September 13: Little Harpeth Brewing, Nashville, TN

September 21: The Greenroom at Crosstown Arts, Memphis, TN

September 22: White Water Tavern, Little Rock, AR

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