(french below, click here)
Where to start this little introduction? I won’t hide that two of Big Star’s LPs are among my top 20 of the best in history, I published it here. I won’t hide either that I am truly honored that Jody Stephens answered conscientiously each of my questions, this is rare enough to be stressed. The last living member of Big Star has a look on the musical industry that few artists can claim to match. We then talked about the band’s history, the rivalry between Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, but also, about his future projects, the legendary Ardent (Big Star’s label), the power pop scene, Lester Bangs, William Eggleston…
Hi, how are you?
I’m fine, thanks!
First of all, I noticed that we have the same birthday.
I was born before! What year were you born?
89, so… 37 years later.
Yeah I’ll be 27 in october, the golden age.
Yeah that, 17 and 18 also! Actually right now is the golden age: I’m still here in Ardent, I still do Big Star-related music projects, and I have Those Pretty Wrongs with Luther Russell, and I’m still playing drums, get to sing, and continue to be part of this music community out there in the world.
I have many questions about that… First question about Big Star, to start with : would describe Big Star as a power pop band?
In the way some people have to label music, it’s good as any I’ve heard but I don’t think it quite encompasses what Big Star was or is. I think Big Star is Big Star, it defines a sort of emotional journey of a band through 4 records, 3 in the 70s and one in 2005. So I think it goes behind “power pop” to something a little deeper. Power pop is a great genre, it’s usually a little lighter description of music.
You just told me it was an emotional journey: for me there is a spleen, something really sad when I listen to Big Star, as well as very enjoyable at the same time. So I wanted to know if you have the same feeling, and how it was in the studio in between takes: was everyone happy or was it something very loud. What about the atmosphere?
I was ecstatic for #1 Record with Chris, Andy and Alex, but yeah, there’s a bit of melancholy there. Sometimes in the music and in the lyrics, and sometimes maybe both are more upbeat, but still it’s something about the way Alex and Chris delivered lyrics : there always seemed to have a bit of melancholy. But it was great fun recording #1 Record, because it was my first real time in a studio creating my own drum parts, and recording with Andy Chris and Alex. And I just got to be a part of that, it was a magical mystery tour for me sonically, and seeing how things in the studio developed and creativity bloomed. It’s a special thing, especially when it’s your first time at it.
Radio City was great too, because Alex and Andy -but primarily Alex for Radio City– wrote some pretty incredible songs. In that case the three of us really played well together and seemed to be on the same mind about what engages us in music. So, Alex came up with these songs and didn’t disengage so it was another opportunity to be creative, play drums, and play a part in painting this musical picture of a record. And then Third, usually when we were creating tracks, I had to stay focused because it was usually just me and Alex, and sometimes it was the first time I was playing the song, on the record. Some of them might have been first-takes, Take Care was probably one. There was a focus, Jim Dickinson and John Fry would be in the control room, and that was fun to me having Jim’s perspective on things, and then for all three records having John Fry’s sonic-engineering perspective on things.
The way we would hear it in the headsets, recording the songs, and then we’d get into the control room and John would do his play back… John Fry was a sonic genius in terms of how he engineered and mixed songs. The good times… With the third album, all the dark stuff happened after hours, Alex would go in after hours after having a bit to drink and maybe some extra drugs, and record. But for me it was pretty much daytime to the early evening. It’s always an amazing time for me to walk into a studio and record, and create. There’s nothing like it, it’s pretty rewarding.
I rewatched the documentary about the band, which I love, and I wanted to know if the band was involved in the making of the documentary, or if they just interviewed you?
The band weren’t really involved except that Andy and I were interviewed. Alex never came around to saying yes to an interview. Danielle McCarthy (producer) would make attempts at getting Alex to do one. Alex kept toying with her, almost saying yes and then saying “ooooh I don’t know I don’t think so”, and backing out. So he definitely wasn’t a part of it. Chris wasn’t around, he died in 78, and Andy, outside of being interviewed, didn’t really have much to do with it. Actually I think Andy may have provided some tapes he had, ½ inch rough mixes or whatever, some Big Star songs that Ardent didn’t have, maybe some photos too.
John Fry was pretty heavily involved in the making of it, and was a financial contributor to it. I pretty much stayed out of it. John Fry and I had a lot of trust in Danielle and Drew, the folks involved in making the film, because we thought they were coming from a pretty good place to do it, and for them it was more passion for the music of the band that drove it, it certainly wasn’t making any money. And they just kept at it, pretty tenacious, it was a 6-year period of time to get the documentary done, and I think it turned out incredibly well, because they had the heart for it.
In the documentary, you said that you were first uncomfortable with the name Big Star, as well #1 Record, how do you feel about that today?
I feel fine about it today, it’s had its time to settle in and be what it is. Big Star doesn’t really conjure up any kind of connotations about the people we are, now it’s just an established band name. #1 Record is an album title more than it is an expectation for a chart position. Now I’m perfectly comfortable with it, and I’m glad that’s what we ended up with.
About being number one in the charts and everything, obviously the documentary talked a lot about the band being not so famous at the time. Do you have any frustration because of that? And why didn’t you choose to move to New York or another city? I guess that’s because you have a love story with Memphis, and it was more important than being famous at the end of the day, but maybe I’m wrong.
When the Big Star record was released, a guy named John King was the album promotions guy here, and he made sure that all the key music writers got a copy. They did, and they wrote about it and said great things about the music we were doing. That was our audience, and outside of that, nobody knew who Big Star was. But almost from the beginning, in over 17 years people discovered Big Star just from word of mouth. Literally word of mouth because there was no internet. I don’t know who said this, it could have been Robyn Hitchcock, but Big Star was kind of a secret handshake amongst music fans. We didn’t have a profile outside of music writers.
Why didn’t we move to New York ? I didn’t really see any opportunity there. Memphis is a pretty amazing place to live, it’s comfortable, people are friendly… Ardent was such a part of my life early on that once Big Star split up in late 74, maybe early 75, I went back to school, on and off, and played in different bands. The longest I ever lived away from Memphis was when I went to Europe in 78, spent 2,5 months in London, 2-3 weeks in Paris, and couple of weeks just outside of Aix
That’s where I’m from!
Oh you’re from Aix?
Yeah, not far at least!
® Carole Manning
I went there because a girl I dated, her mom and her two little brothers moved to France. They lived just outside of Aix, in a small, modest 2-3 bedroom home in the middle of the country, so I got to stay there for 2 or 3 weeks. She had an ex sister in law who was Parisian, she lived next to the Bastille, so I got to stay there for 2 or 3 weeks also.
It was an amazing time, I certainly loved France, and I love London. London has always been very supportive of Big Star, we played there a bunch of times. In a way, it feels like returning to a music community there that feels like home. I think I’ve gone out of attention and I forgot what the question was.
If you were too much in love with Memphis to move outside of it.
Yes, to answer your question there’s a lot to love here, and part of it is certainly the music history, and the music present. I was a huge Stax fan ,and Hi Records and Al Green stuff. It’s a pretty magical place to be from, and to live.
About being famous, I noticed that you are on Twitter. In your opinion, could have Big Star become more famous today, with social networks and everything to spread the word, or it would have made no difference?
Well, I don’t know… But I do know that the level of the bands awareness is higher than it’s ever been, right now. And seemingly continues to grow which is pretty cool. You know, when we played Big Star Third shows, kids were 14, 15 16 17 18, they would come to the show. Still today, if you’re a fan of music you will know about Big Star : whether you like it or not, you at least know who the band is, and you probably have heard the music.
But outside of big music fans, people don’t really know who Big Star is. I have relatives that aren’t really music fans and the only way they could possibly have known about Big Star is just from the fact that I was in the band, so…
In my opinion, from the European perspective, it’s the same. If you go to a music show, everyone in the room knows about Big Star. But probably if you go to a restaurant, few people will know about it. Maybe it’s social network that made you so famous right now, more than at that time apparently.
Yeah we had a great time making those records with Alex Chris and Andy, but it started off my professional life. I came back here to work in Ardent tudios in 1987, and came back on the business side of things. I always refer to John Fry as the father of my professional career in music, because he offered me a job here and it’ll be 30 years in January. Alex had a great life, Andy had a really great life, Chris’s was cut short but I think we all enjoyed our lives. I’m not bitter about it, it’s not about being famous, and not being able to make a career out of it.
Talking about Chris and Alex, in the documentary you said, and it’s quite well-known, that Chris was being jealous of Alex, and I wanted to know: what about you?
Chris wasn’t really jealous of Alex. They got along really well, it’s just that on the first record, if you had to name one person as the producer of the album, it was Chris Bell. The band and Alex were part of the production, but it was pretty much Chris’ vision. And when it got released, the press would always spotlight Alex, because he had been in the Box Tops. It was a perfectly natural thing to do: you haven’t heard of Big Star, but you have heard of The Box Tops because they had all these hits. Chris didn’t want to live in Alex’s shadow, but there was nothing personal against Alex. Chris wanted to be seen for his artistry and his talent and not live in the shadow of Alex, so he quit after the first record.
The press seemed to be very important at the time and notably with the Rock writers convention. In my opinion it’s much less important today, what are your views on that?
Press and writers have always been important to me. If you were a music fan in the 70s, there were only a few offerings in terms of music magazines, so I think they had a bigger impact on their audiences back then. Now there are so many ways of getting information, that maybe they have less of an impact, but it’s still really important. People do look to some writers as taste makers, and whatever they’re listening to in the millions of songs out there in the way: I respect the guy’s opinion about music, so I listen to what this guy said good things about.
It’s a way of narrowing down all the choices of all the songs you could listen to, to just a few, and music writers do that. I think their role as taste makers is still important: you don’t have to agree with them, but if you find writers that have the same taste as you, then they do a lot of work for you in terms of trimming down the list of music that you might be into.
So in the end, it’s more that the purpose of the press changed, rather than being more or less important?
In some respects it’s the same sense of purpose. Magazines back then were also places you would go for information, because there weren’t really that many sources out there. Now they’re a place to go to for information and for song recommendations. Now you can get your information anywhere, but you have magazines like Rolling Stone, where you can read about what David Fricke likes.
It’s really interesting to have the musician’s opinion because it’s from the inside. Talking about music critics, I wanted to know if Lester Bangs –because the documentary mentioned him- ever wrote about Big Star, of did you talk to him when he was at the music convention?
I’m pretty sure I met everybody that went to the writers convention, but I don’t know if Lester Bangs ever wrote anything about Big Star, it’s something I need to google, I’ll do some research. That’s an interesting question!
But you didn’t know him personally, he wasn’t a friend of the band?
No, I didn’t. The only writers I walked away with any sort of long-term relationship was a guy named Andrew Tyler, he was a writer for the NME. Andrew stayed in touch and he came back to Memphis and stayed at my parents house. He stayed there a couple of weeks, while he was doing a piece on Memphis music, and he was the reason I got to spend two and a half months in London in 1978 because I stayed with him. So, that was a great relationship. Bud Scoppa was the other really great relationship that came out of that.
Talking about relationships, apparently William Eggleston was a fan of the band, and even played the piano on Nature Boy?
What kind of relationship did you have with him, was he here just for the art or was he involved in a way, maybe more than just playing the piano on one track?
I don’t think he was involved outside of that one track. I was certainly a big fan of William Eggleston, and we talked while doing the photography sessions, but I would never really hang out with him.
Now about your other projects, I saw that after Big Star you played in a band called Suspicions, and they only released one LP, can you give me the reason why the band broke up so quickly?
I gotta admit, drugs probably were part of why the band broke up. I wasn’t on doing anything, and the other two band members were, and it became a distraction and we kinda stop focusing on. It made the process of getting together and getting that album done actually even more difficult. It was a good time, we practiced 4 or 5 nights a week and we didn’t play that often because… It’s tough as it’s anywhere for bands that are doing original material, or at least even the covers which we did in an original way, but it just ran its course over years. It was good, it just didn’t work out.
Then I played with other folks, Keith Sykes being one of them, and now I’m lucky to do Big Star Third live. That’s a pretty amazing production because of the number of people involved : with guest artists and stuff, we’re from 35 to 40 people. And then I have this band called Those Pretty Wrongs. A guy named Luther Russell and I got together, actually to sing some Big Star songs at screenings of the documentary in Los Angeles. We went to play in the Grammy Museum and KCRW, a really cool kind of-NPR station out there, we did other things and then we started to write together and we got this album done. It was released on the Ardent music label this past may 13th. Since, we’ve played 5 dates in Australia at the end of march, 8 dates in Spain, Lincoln Center in NY, Rough Trade in Brooklyn, Monty Hall in Jersey City, Memphis, Nashville, and then Portland and Seattle. We’ve done a bunch of performances and support.
Do you already have any plan to release a second album with Those Pretty Wrongs?
Actually, we just are starting on the first song, in terms of writing. But the focus for me is still very much on this record and performances. It’s on the Ardent music label and I can spread the word about Ardent studios too. It’s Ardent studios 50th anniversary, we have this anniversary offer at 50 dollars an hour for any of our studios, so it helps spread the word.
More than anything, I’m lucky to still have this job in Ardent studios, because it provides a paycheck, and all my music endeavours pay for themselves in an amazingly good time, but it’d be tough to make a living of it.
Also, I don’t know if the information is correct, but I read on the internet that you actually co-released the LP with Burger Records, or maybe they just helped you with the commercial stuff?
When Luther and I first got together, we’d record songs and sporadically he’d come to Memphis and in 4-5 days, we’d get 3 or 4 songs done. Burger released the first couple of songs we actually finished on a 7-inch vinyl single. So that was cool, and we signed with the Ardent music label. Ardent is a primary label for the album, and Burger did a limited issue of vinyls. It’s a great relationship there, the Burger guys are amazing, amazing folks.
Talking about Ardent, you told me that you started to work there in 87, and I read that you helped restart the label. What is the main goal behind the label, and your objective in terms of developing it?
In 87, I came on board for marketing the studios -my title is now business development- but also to start a production company, sign and develop bands and then pitch them to major labels, which we got pretty good at, and that would provide work for producers and engineers and for the studios. The first artist that pitched is a guy named John Kilzer. We placed him with Geffen records, and the second was a group called Tora Tora that we placed with A&M, and also Eric Gales Band, and Jolene.
The last group actually pitched to a major is a group called Skillet. We did co-releases because Ardent had a mainstream label, with mainstream artists on, it was a secular label, and then we had this Christian label that Pas Scholes was chairman at. He and Dana Key were signed artists of that label, and Skillet was a christian band that I thought could work in the mainstream and secular world too. It was my job to go out and find a major label, so we partnered with Atlantic Records on that. Skillet was selling like 130 000 records, which was pretty incredible for us, being a really small label. And once we partnered with Atlantic Records, the first record went up to 350 000 and the next over 500 000, and the next over a million.
Wow! Recently I interviewed Paul Collins, who was the lead singer of the Nerves, and the Beat, and we talked about the importance of music labels today. We noticed that today labels tend to create a true family feeling, and for me, through the documentary apparently, Ardent did that way before other labels : what’s your opinion about that, do you think it might be one of the first?
Yeah, there certainly was a family atmosphere, with John Fry being the head of the family. It was such a real community of people. That community could change with who was on the studio, but yeah, there was certainly a family feeling amongst artists on the Ardent record label. Actually on the early releases it was Big Star and a group called Cargoe, cool guys, and Brian Alexander Robertson, who was an English man. None of us really knew Brian but that was in the 70s, and when I came back in 87 there was just such great sense of community around the Ardent building, and in the way people would collaborate and interact in their sessions.
Do I think we were one of the first? I don’t know, I would think there were little pockets of that in all different kinds of labels like Chess records, and studios like Stax. There was a real family environment there, early on. Even Atlantic Records in its early days when it was small, probably had that. In Atlantic there were Ahmet Ertegün and Wexler, Tom Dowd, and those guys were all kind of taste makers, a lot of people would buy at Atlantic records just because it’s on that label. They trusted the taste of the guys signing those bands. Now it’s so diverse in what it’s releasing that you buy because of the artist and not because of the label. But Ardent still maintains that : if it’s on the Ardent label it will reflect a certain kind of music.
In the documentary, we can see at some point a small sign saying “When you listen to Ardent, you’re listening to Memphis”, I was wondering if it’s still the case, in the way that the label is focusing on the Memphis scene exclusively, or maybe mostly, or is it just now international musicians?
In terms of Ardent studios, we’re certainly an international studio. People from all over locally, down the street, and across the country and across the world people come here to record. But we’re not particularly focusing on the Memphis scene. We have a group called Greyhounds that you can check out on greyhoundsmusic.com. They are two guys out of Austin, Anthony Farrell and Andrew Trube, and it’s a kind of dark soul music. If Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top ran a soul band, it would be Greyhounds. There is this incredibly cool vibe about them, and a cool way of making music, you should really check them out.
I will, definitely!
We distributed a group called Low Cut Connie, who were from philadelphia, so the two label signings right now are Greyhounds and Those Pretty Wrongs. We’re just going to figure out how to procede from here, we’ve got two releases I think everybody’s proud of, and we’ll see what happens. It’s tough trying to make a go of it as a record label these days. People aren’t buying physical products anymore, and streaming doesn’t pay that much. We all love doing it but it’s gotta pay for itself.
I only have three more questions, quick one: What other contemporary bands are you listening to, besides Greyhounds and Ardent’s music?
Ken Stringfellow continues to release pretty amazing records, as does John Howard. A guy named Brett Harris who is part of the Big Star’s Third thing, he’s an incredibly engaging artist, as is Skylar Gudasz. (hesitating) I’m just drawing a blank, I need to write that down so that when people ask me that question I can just look at it, I always draw a blank when they’re asking.
I like The Shins… There are a lot of cool bands around. There’s a group called Jack Oblivian here in Memphis… Lucero out of Memphis are becoming an international band. They’re a great band. I don’t know, there are a bunch.
I was wondering about the current power pop scene, do you know bands like Warm Soda, Bare Wires, Wyatt Blair, or are you not especially following that kind of music?
I don’t really follow every kind of music.. Thereare some rap songs I think are pretty amazing, or more traditional artists like Steve Earle. He’s always been an amazing and engaging artist. Actually, I just get turned on different artists by people I run into, they’ll say “have you heard… ?” and I’ll go listening. I don’t really go and search music, because I get a lot of good recommendations. I have a tendency to fall in love with a band, and then I’ll just listen to that band for a while. I don’t like to spread things too thin, cause they don’t have time to soak in, and find a place inside you.
OK, the last two are quite philosophical, the first is about your views on the music industry right now : do you think it’s going to a good direction? You just told me that running a label is really tough, so what do you think about it in general?
I think it’s great that people have access to recording and distribution through the internet, and that sort of things, but because that entry is so easy, you tend to have thousands more offerings out there. So people lessen their attention because of it, and it’s harder for bands and artists to make an impact without a big marketing team behind them, to help them rise among the thousand releases out there.
But having said that, if it’s really something special that’s engaging to people in big numbers, it’s cool that it can rise to the top… I don’t know what that means in terms of being able to make a living off of it. I think the percentage of those folks making a living off of it has probably reduced drastically over the years. It certainly is tough, trying to make a living off of writing songs and the sales of physical product. But if you’re talking about touring too, then that’s something different. You develop a certain audience, and if you’re on the road touring, then you can make a living from that, and selling merchandise.
It is what it is, I like the sort of instant access to music If somebody tells me about something, I can call it up and have a listen on the internet, easily. And I like the sharing of information, and how easy that is. So I don’t know, it’s kind of mixed. Certain aspects are great, but I wish people were still buying vinyl in large numbers. That’s increasing, but vinyl is still a fraction of sales.
Yeah, it’s 2%.
Yeah… Or CDs, it always was the source that labels woud use, and with really succesful record they could sign 4-5 more bands and put money into them. It was certainly better for studios like ours because they’d never be budget for them to record. A lot more people were employed in positions that were career positions, I think.
Last question: I recently interviewed the writer Bret Easton Ellis about rock music, and he told me that in is opinion, rock music is dead. Do you have an answer to that?
I disagree totally. I think there are all kinds of music out there that are alive and well. Rock music may not have the same profile it did 30 years ago, but it’s still alive and well. Everything is splintered into different genres and subgenres, and different factions and all that, so I think it’s still very much alive.
Oh, and by the way, a book had just been released about Big Star with William Eggleston’s pictures,
it’s called Isolated In The Light, check it out over there: link
(english above, click here)
Par où commencer cet édito ? Je ne saurai vous cacher que deux albums de Big Star font partie de mon top 20 de l’histoire, je l’ai publié ici. Je ne saurai non plus cacher l’honneur que Jody Stephens m’a accordé en répondant consciencieusement à chacune de mes questions, c’est suffisamment rare pour être souligné. Le dernier membre en vie de Big Star a un regard sur la scène que peu d’artistes peuvent prétendre égaler. J’en ai donc profité de lui parler de l’histoire du groupe, de la rivalité entre Alex Chilton et Chris Bell, mais aussi de ses projets ultérieurs, du mythique Ardent (le label de Big Star), de power pop, de Lester Bangs, de William Eggleston…
Hello, comment vas-tu ?
Je me demandais si tu connaissais la scène power pop actuelle avec des groupes tels que Warm Soda, Bare Wires, Wyatt Blair ou est-ce que tu ne t’intéresses pas spécialement à ce genre musical ?
Je ne suis pas vraiment la musique de manière générale. Certaines chansons de rap sont plutôt géniales, sinon je prête attention à certains artistes plus classiques comme Steve Earle qui a toujours été particulièremen stimulant. En réalité je me laisse influencer par les gens que je rencontre, il suffit que l’on me dise “as-tu entendu ce groupe ?” et je vais écouter. En revanche, je ne pars pas réellement à la recherche de nouvelles musiques, en partie parce que je reçois beaucoup de bonnes recommandations.
Et puis, lorsque je tombe amoureux d’un groupe, j’ai tendance à n’écouter plus que ça pendant un moment. Je n’aime pas écouter de manière superficielle, je préfère m’imprégner des musiques afin qu’elles trouvent une place en moi.
OK, les deux dernières sont plutôt philosophiques, la première concerne le regard que tu portes sur l’industrie musicale à l’heure actuelle: penses-tu qu’elle prenne une bonne direction ? Tu viens de me dire que diriger un label est très difficile, donc qu’en penses-tu de manière générale ?
Je trouve génial que les gens aient accès à l’enregistrement et la distribution par internet et tout ce qui va avec, en revanche tout cela est tellement accessible qu’il y a désormais des milliers d’offres en ligne. Du coup, les gens sont moins attentifs et cela devient plus difficile pour les groupes d’avoir un réel impact sans promoteur derrière eux.
Ceci étant dit si le groupe a vraiment quelque chose de spécial, les gens s’y intéresseront et c’est bien qu’ils aient cette opportunité de se faire connaitre. En revanche, je ne sais pas trop ce que ça peut donner, au niveau financier, pour en vivre. Je pense que la part des groupes qui parviennent à vivre de leur musique a largement diminué au fil des années. Mais pour ce qui est de faire une tournée, les choses sont différentes. Cela permet de développer un certain public et si tu pars sur la route, tu peux essayer d’en vivre, en vendant des produits dérivés.
C’est comme cela aujourd’hui. J’aime avoir cet accès instantané à la musique lorsque quelqu’un me parle d’un groupe. J’aime aussi le fait que l’on puisse partager l’information avec beaucoup de facilité. Finalement, mon sentiment à propos de tout cela est assez partagé. Par certains côtés, cela est génial, mais j’aurais souhaité que les gens continuent d’acheter des vinyles.
Oui, seulement 2% le font.
Seulement… Ou les CDs aussi, c’est toujours une opportunité pour les labels et avec un album a succès, il est possible de produire 4 ou 5 groupes supplémentaires.
Dernière question : j’ai récemment interviewé l’écrivain Bret Easton Ellis sur le rock et il me disait que selon lui, le rock était mort. Que souhaites-tu lui répondre ?
Je ne suis absolument pas d’accord avec ça. Je pense que tout un tas de musiques se porte bien. Le rock n’a peut-être plus le même profil que 30 ans auparavant, mais il est toujours vivant et se porte bien. Tout se décline en différents genres et sous genres aujourd’hui, cela montre bien que le rock est bien en vie.
Merci Morgan pour l’helllppp