Another Cup of Coffee with Jody Stephens of Big Star

There are a handful of bands that made me want to pick up an instrument; Big Star’s one of them. There are a handful of songs that made me want to write songs; “Thirteen” is one of them. I’ve written before about their music, what it’s meant to me, and what it’s meant to generations of artists and fans alike. In the interest of time and space, I won’t repeat myself.

My first “meeting” with Jody Stephens–Big Star’s drummer and last surviving member–came in February.  I was recording an Ardent Presents session and, mid-song, recognized him in the control booth.  It was all I could do not to stop the take and ask for his autograph.

So, it was a thrill to sit down recently with Mr. Stephens and talk about Big Star, Memphis music, and more.  Enjoy…

Another Cup of Coffee with Jody Stephens!

I guess we’ll start at the beginning: where did you grow up?

I was born here in Memphis, a stone’s throw from Overton High School.  Graduated from Overton High, and then went on to University of Memphis.  Or, Memphis State then.

When did you pick up the drums?

If you count beating on the back of the car-seats as you’re driving down the highway, I started probably the first time I heard The Beatles.  That was the inspiration, anyway, for my getting into music.  I couldn’t afford a kit at that point, so joined the junior high band in seventh grade.  I just played snare drum.  I wasn’t first chair or anything; I was slow to read music.  What I did a lot of the time was memorize drum patterns that other people were playing and act like I was reading fast.  Just play from memory.  Sight-reading music…I never had the talent for it.

When did you get a full kit?

I think the ninth grade, maybe tenth grade.

At that time, who were your influences as a drummer?

Definitely Ringo StarrKeith Moon.  A little earlier, Charlie Watts.  A little later, John Bonham.  He had a great feel for what he was doing.  And ’68 or so, Al Jackson of Booker T and the MG’s.  He had to have rubbed off on me a little bit, I hope.  Basically, it was drummers you could hear and identify within the first couple of measures.

That’s really interesting.  Ringo’s style was identifiable, but you could also recognize him by his parts, song-to-song.  He had a great feel for what each song needed.

Yeah, I didn’t think I’d ever be technically a great drummer.  I always thought I could be a good “character drummer.”

For Big Star novices, how did the band form? 

I met Andy Hummel through a friend of mine.  I grew up out east, but it seemed like my friends who shared in interest in music all lived in midtown.  I’d hitchhike into midtown.  My friend Mike Fleming introduced me to Andy Hummel, but we lost track of each other for a few years.

When I was a senior in high school, I was in Memphis State’s production of Hair.  At the end of the show, everyone comes on stage and sings and dances around.  And I looked up and saw Andy onstage!  He sidled up next to me playing drums.  After we finished the song, he mentioned that he and some friends were putting a band together, would I like to come jam with them?  I said sure.

I showed up at Chris Bell’s back-house.  Chris, Andy, I think Terry Manning was there, I know Steve Ray was there, maybe Tom Eubanks.  I could see that these guys were pretty talented.  They also had a bent toward wanting to play original material.  So, that was my introduction to Chris.  Then, Andy introduced me to John Fry at Ardent shortly after that.  We’d hang out in the studio and record a little bit after hours.  I was still seventeen, Chris and Andy were probably eighteen.  And we were hanging out in this most amazing of studios!  It was a wonderland.

It was all the proper paints and colors–we just had to guide the brush.

Later on that year, either December or January, Alex Chilton came to see the band.  He joined, and we became Big Star.

So the band was a fully-formed entity doing its own thing before Alex even joined?

Right.  When Alex came to see us, we were a three-piece.

I read that the first two songs Alex brought to the group were “Thirteen” and “Watch the Sunrise.”  Is that accurate?

Yeah, I know “Watch the Sunrise.”  Once upon a time there were different lyrics to it, if I’m remembering the box set correctly.

With those two songs as an introduction, the band’s first album might’ve become very acoustic.  But #1 Record is full of great rock n’ roll.  I’m curious about your songwriting process.  Were you writing as you were working in the studio?  Were the songs written before you got to Ardent?

I don’t remember them being written in the studio.  #1 Record was pretty well thought-out before we got into the studio.  It was a collaboration between Alex, Chris, and Andy.  And of course Andy contributed a song he wrote himself, “India Song,” which is one of my favorites on the record.  It seems the music for pieces comes a little easier than the lyrics.  Lyrics have a tendency to be done off-site, so to speak.  Driving down the road and think of a line.  In my case, I’ve been walking my dog and come up with lyrics.

I remember rehearsing “Ballad of El Goodo” for the first time.  Going through how the song might build, and how the drum licks might build throughout the song.  God.  The first time we launched into that song, it was pretty much there.  I just had to tweak those rolls as I went through the song.

That’s amazing.  It’s such a special song. 

Wow, yeah.  I was just so excited and so happy with it.  It’s a big step of going from cover material…

[Laughing] No kidding!

…where you have all the parts laid out for you.  But creating a song, writing the drum parts…it was just inspired by the song.  You start playing and see what comes out.  But there was some thought to building the licks, that sort of thing.

So some songs we think of as Chris Bell songs or Alex Chilton songs were much more collaborative, more of a co-writing thing?

Oh, I don’t know if I can say that.  We worked up the songs together.  But for me, every aspect of a song is an integral aspect of the song.  Alex and Chris could both write a song that could stand up on its own, just an acoustic guitar.

That really dawned on me recently.  I heard an artist who had turned in some demos on acoustic guitar and I thought, “well, I just can’t tell much.”  Later that same day, I heard a version of one of Alex’s songs–could’ve been “Watch the Sunrise”–and he was performing on an acoustic twelve-string.  And it was like, “Wow!”  I could hear the whole song in there.  It doesn’t take much for that song and Alex’s voice to connect in a big way.

I’m curious about Memphis music at that time.  Obviously, there was a lot of great music coming out of Memphis in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but a lot of it was soul-based.  I’ve heard the term “power-pop” applied to Big Star.  Did y’all feel like you fit in with Memphis music at the time?  Did you feel like outliers?

Well, if I remember correctly, it was a lot of roots-rock stuff.  Cover bands, roots-rock, and then there was some art rock.  Right when we were first starting, I didn’t feel like we were fitting in much.

The Stax stuff was happening at dances.  I remember the Bar-Kays playing a high school dance.  Because it was just incredibly great dance music.  Flash and the Casuals.  Lots of soul-based acts out there.  I think I saw the Mad Lads, too, at a dance.

With all the roots-rock and soul bands around town, how was Big Star received at first?  Were you embraced?  Was there blowback?

It’s hard to figure out at seventeen if anybody’s embracing anything.  I think it’s true for anybody–you just focus on what you’re doing.  For me, Big Star began doing original material that I thought could hold up against the British invasion artists that I’d been covering.  So, I go from this cover band and this really high quality of songs to this original band with really high quality of songs.  It was pretty damn exciting.

I ask because there’s a gap between what people think of as Memphis music and the diversity of what really goes on here.  Big Star’s a been huge inspiration to me.  There’s a perception that Memphis music is bluesier, rootsier, dirtier, closer to the ground.  When I moved back home from New York City, I didn’t know how my songs–which are pop songs–would be heard in Memphis.   Every time I wondered how I’d fit in, I’d remember, “Well, Big Star did it.” 

Oh sure, there are lots of examples.

What makes Memphis’s music community unique?

There’s a spirit of the individual here. People looking more to walking their own path, rather than following what somebody else has done.  I think that makes any community unique.

When #1 Record came out and it was getting such amazing press, what was the feeling in the band at that time?  And what was the expectation?

I loved seeing those great reviews!  But I was eighteen and I wasn’t expecting things to translate outside of my own backyard.  I was just having fun doing what I was doing.

Radio stations would play a song, but they would only play it as long as it would take to get a proper read on sales in the stores.  Our distribution had kind of failed–there was nothing in the stores.  So a DJ would play it for three, four, five days, and if it wasn’t selling in the stores, they’d drop it.

It didn’t happen. But I thought anything happening would be far-fetched anyway. The band sort of drifted apart after #1 Record.

Then we came back together for a Rock Writers’ Convention in ’73.  Cameron Crowe, Bud Scoppa–all those folks were there.  We had a good energy about us, I don’t know that we were that tight at that show, but who knows.  We had some pretty good songs.  At any rate, that was kind of a rallying point for us.  It instilled a new motivation to get back into the studio.  Alex, Andy, and I made Radio City.  Chris quit after the first album.  He had more of an eye towards doing a solo thing.

What were those conversations like?  Did you think it was for the best on both sides?  Were you disappointed?

I was disappointed that Chris was leaving the band.  I was sorry to see him go, but understood.  And it wasn’t like I’d never see him again.  I just wanted to keep being in a band.  When the opportunity came for Big Star to reconvene, I was excited about that.

How do you feel your drumming developed between #1 Record and Radio City?  For one, it sounds a little more aggressive on the second album—”O My Soul,” “Back of a Car,” etc. 

Being in a three-piece leaves more room for a drummer to express himself.  It might require that you do something and step up.  I’ve always played to the song.  When you’re playing with a four-piece, the inspiration’s going to be different than playing with a three-piece.

That, and you evolve as a musician.  I’d taken a percussion class at Memphis State.  I picked up on flam-a-diddles, which I’d had in the seventh grade, but re-learned.  I incorporated some of that into “O My Soul.”  My style changed a little bit.  I was using different sticks, so there was a different sound.  It was a new kit, too–I’d gotten a new kit after #1 Record.

I’ve seen that John Fry doesn’t credit himself as the producer for Big Star’s albums; he felt like the band produced them as much as anyone.  How much engineering expertise did you bring to those sessions?

Zero.  None.  I started taking classes and stuff, but there were other things going on.  I was in school, I had a girlfriend, and the time I spent on music I wanted to spend practicing with the band.  I wasn’t drawn to it.  Chris and Andy took to it.  Alex maybe, to some extent.  But Big Star wouldn’t have sounded the way we did without John Fry.

John was sort of like [famous Beatles producer] George Martin.  George would leave and the Beatles would continue to record.  That’s what John would do; he’d leave and Chris or Andy would take over.  But it was still John’s set-up, his mic set-up, his choice of mics.  All they basically did was hit “record,” “stop,” and “rewind.”

I think where John Fry’s production contribution really came in was mixing.  Because he was responsible for how all these parts fell into place and what colors–what processing they’d go through, or not go through.  And so, he would put it all together and assemble it for this audio picture.

In some ways, those first two records were blueprints for so many future power-pop productions.  I’ve been in studios and heard, “I want a Big Star sound on these guitars…”  They’re amazing productions, prototypes really [one example: here & here].  It’s funny to me that Mr. Fry tries to pass off the credit. 

When John first started recording, he was at his parents’ house.  He’d converted their garage to a studio.  The control room was in granny’s sewing room.  He couldn’t see anybody in there.  He got everything mic-ed, went back into the control room, they started, and he thought, “wow–that guitar sounds awful.”  He went back and repositioned the mic and said, “Play again.”  The guy played again.  And he thought, “no wonder it sounds awful–it sounds awful.”  There’s a bit of that, but I gotta tell you: John could make things shimmer and sparkle like nobody else.

When I see how popular Big Star’s become, and how critically acclaimed those records are, and how influential the music’s been on so many famous bands…I wonder how you hear those records now.  Do you listen to them often?  Do you hear them self-consciously?  Is there anything you wish you could change about them?  Are you a fan, too?

Yeah!  Would I change anything?  No.  It could screw things up!

I’ll give you an example: John Hampton produced the Gin Blossoms here at Ardent.  Their song “Hey Jealousy” was a massive, massive hit.  And John says, “If I had to mix that song over again, I wouldn’t make that tambourine so loud.”  I say, “But John, that could be the attraction.  That could be the little sparkle or high end that the song needed.”  How can you argue with whatever connects with people?

I’m really proud of those albums.  And it can be as simple as: does it sound good?  Does it make you feel good?  It’s not, “Oh there’s a guitar part that’s a tiny bit off.”  As a performance, what does it do for me?  If it’s doing something great, that’s it.  Don’t do anything else.

It’s funny you mentioned the Gin Blossoms.  When I mentioned bands that have used the “Big Star sound” as a blueprint, they’re one I was thinking of.  And of course they recorded that sound at Ardent. 

Here’s what happened with the Gin Blossoms: I went to SXSW.  Someone told me, “You need to see the Gin Blossoms, and you need to see the Nixons.”  I saw them and thought, “I really like this band.”  I walked up after the show and gave them my Ardent card, and I think they were impressed by that.  I don’t know if they knew anything about Big Star.  Maybe.

Several months later, we got a call from a guy at A&M records.  He said, “I’ve got this band called the Gin Blossoms.  They’ve started recording.  They’ve spent a bit of their budget.  But we don’t have anything we can use.  Are you interested in helping me out?  Here’s our budget–could John Hampton produce this?”  We said, “Yeah, of course.”  But who knows if the band said they wanted to go to Ardent, or their record executive did.

They had to have known about Big Star at some point.  The opening guitar part for “Til I Hear It From You” is taken straight from “Way Out West” [0:59ish].  The part, the sound of it–I think it’s even in the same key. 

Oh wow, yeah.

I’m curious about the Big Star Live EP.  How did that come together?

The live EP is three songs from a tribute.  Big Star was scheduled to play at the Levitt Shell, and Alex passed away.  We kept the date and turned it into a tribute performance.  We invited some friends.  Mike Mills [of R.E.M. fame] was a friend, he’d pop up at gigs from time to time.  He had always said nice things about the band in the press, back in the 80’s.  He joined us.  Amy Speace, Susan Marshall, Rick Steff…lots more.

John Davis of Superdrag was the first to join me, John, and Ken [of the Posies] onstage.  And he’d done his homework.  There were a lot of special performances that night, but his happened to be the first.  And he just killed it.  There was so much energy, you could feel it.  It wasn’t quite contained.  I thought, “Instead of trying to release this thing in its entirety–which could be a real hassle legally–why not just call John Davis and ask for his permission?”  Then John Fry and Larry Nix mastered it.  And they mastered the original Big Star records.

Especially at tribute shows–where you usually have a lot of different pieces trying to fit together–it’s rare to hear performances that tight, that full, and that inspired.  They’re amazing.  And the recording itself–the quality, and the energy of it–is stunning.  It does “Big Star’s sound” justice.

That’s cool.  Jeff Powell, Chris Jackson, and Curry Weber.  Jeff mixed it.

That’s great!  I spoke with Jeff in June.  I need to ask him about that experience. 

Yeah, you should.  Jeff’s amazing.

Who are you listening to? 

Amy LaVere’s new record (Stranger Me) is really, really good [Note: I wrote about it here.].  I was knocked out by that.  Of course, Star & Micey are pretty wonderful.  They work their asses off.  I always draw a blank when people ask that question!  Wilco and the Jayhawks are kind of constants.

You have one meal left in Memphis: what is it?

Wow.  You think of all the “cool answers.”  To tell you the truth, my wife works at Folk’s Folly.  I think I might go to Folk’s Folly.

Memphis is…?

A great place to live.  It’s got such a great music history, and such a great history of its own.  Memphis is full of friendly people.  Memphis is home.  Memphis is where I love coming back to.

Someone’s making a Memphis music mix.  You get to add one song to the playlist.  Go!

It’d be a Star & Micey song.  “On Your Own”?  Can’t remember the exact title.  I’ve always been bad with titles.

I’d better stop the interview now, or else I’d ask you geeky Big Star questions all day.  Thanks so much, I really appreciate it.

Thank you.  It’s always good to know people are interested.

[Note: To read all the past Another Cups of Coffee, click here.  To visit my blog, click here.  And to listen to our Another Cup Memphis playlist, click the links below:

The Another Cup playlist so far:

1) “Loose Diamond,” Jack-O & the Tennesssee Tearjerkers (Jeremy Stanfill’s pick)

2) “Happy” by Snowglobe (Cindy Cogbill’s pick)

3) “My Shadow,” by Jay Reatard (Cameron Mann’s pick)

4)   “As Long,” by Reigning Sound (Will Odom’s pick)

5)   To Be Determined Song off Andy Grooms’ solo record (Cory Branan’s pick)

6)  “Even If It Takes a Lifetime,” Susan Marshall (Jeff Powell’s pick)

7)  “You Mean Everything To Me,” Sweet Pearl (Cities Aviv’s pick)

8)  On Your Own,“ Star & Micey (Jody Stephens’ pick)]

See Also:

  1. The Rachelandthecity Podcast with Special Guest: Jody Stephens of Big Star
  2. In the News: Jody Stephens talks about the Live Tribute to Alex Chilton Release
  3. TVD’s Record Store Day 2010 Label Showcase | Ardent Records, Music, and Studios | On the Record with Jody Stephens
  4. Another Cup of Coffee with Will Odom
  5. Another Cup of Coffee with Jeff Powell
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