Jody Stephens:
The TVD Interview

The story of Big Star is the very definition of “cult band.” Born slightly out of time, delivering sparkling British Invasion-inspired pop several years after it fell out of vogue, their music went largely unheard during their existence.

However, like their contemporaries The Velvet Underground, their recordings have had a remarkable afterlife and gathered many acolytes who gleefully spread the word about Memphis’ best kept secret. With0ut Big Star, the careers of R.E.M., The Replacements, The Posies, The dBs, Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub and scores of others would have been significantly altered if they existed at all.

On the occasion of the re-release of the Big Star boxed set, Keep An Eye On The Sky, I spoke with drummer and sole surviving original band member Jody Stephens about the group’s enduring legacy.

In the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Memphis was a hotbed for British Invasion-inspired bands. What do you think caused this convergence of power pop?

I don’t know. I would think that the British Invasion swept through the whole U.S. population as did soul music just after that. I think everyone was pretty taken with both. I can’t speak for Cargoe or bands like The Scruffs. I just know I was a huge Beatles and Rolling Stones fan along with The Kinks, Badfinger, Procol Harum, and many others. People with like interests tend to connect and I think that’s why Chris and Andy and I got together initially. I think Alex was a fan of that music, too, and he came on board to due to our similar music interests.

Was there a particular record that caught your ear and made you think, “I want to create something like that”?

Any Beatles album! It doesn’t matter which one, they were all pretty inspirational.

At the same time you’re listening to this inspirational music, you have Ardent, one of the top studios in the country, at your disposal. How much did Ardent and, particularly, its owner and chief engineer/producer John Fry shape the sound of Big Star?

John Fry was everything about the sound. First he made sure the instruments—drums, guitars, bass—sounded good on their own. You can’t make a good recording if you don’t start with a good base sound. Outside of that, the way John captured those songs in the engineering process just added that extra bit of sparkle. I think that Big Star’s music is still relevant because of the way John Fry captured it on tape.

Speaking of sparkle, I’ve always been struck by how wonderful the acoustic guitars sound on the first two albums. Was there anything special you can recall about micing techniques for the guitars?

I’m not an engineer, kind of by choice (laughs), but I do know, again, it’s partly the way John captured it but it was also the performances themselves. I think Alex and Chris just had their own personalities in the way they strummed or plucked the strings.

Did you record with everyone in the room, playing together?

Yes, we always recorded with everyone together. There might have been a fix or two that was done later, but all the basic recording was done with everyone playing together.

Do you think that’s important, as opposed to building it track by track?

In my opinion, you cannot get the same kind of recording building track by track. It becomes something really stilted. When you’re in there as a band, you’re playing off one another. Every little nuance affects the way you perform. Not to say recording track by track is bad, necessarily, but I prefer playing with real-time performances. There’s certainly a much more human element to it.

It’s been a very active couple of years for Big Star, with the documentary and many tribute performances. What are your thoughts on all this activity for a band that was largely overlooked in its lifetime?

You know, it’s a sad thing that Chris hasn’t been around to see the results of something he started and was a major part of. Andy and Alex both passed away in 2010 and they certainly had an appreciation of the audience Big Star had gathered over the years. But, it’s really sad to not have them here. Regarding the band’s music, we’re all really lucky that this is happening and certainly grateful for all the music writers who, since the ‘70s, continued to mention Big Star. All the musicians who mentioned us as well (are appreciated), because that’s how it really happened. The Replacements and Paul Westerberg, for example, writing the song “Alex Chilton”…I’ve talked to so many people who came to Big Star via the question, “Who is Alex Chilton?”

I am very grateful for everything. But you know, in the ‘70s when I was walking out of the studio after hearing John Fry’s mixes, I was a really happy guy. I couldn’t have been more pleased. The mission had been accomplished. Everything else is awesome because I love playing this music and I get to continue doing that thanks to Chris Stamey’s idea of putting the Big Star’s 3rd performances together.

It’s a paradox that many of the most influential bands of the rock era—Big Star, The Ramones, The Velvet Underground, The Replacements—achieved widespread recognition only after they were long gone. At least The Replacements are back on the road now…

Yes, I saw them at Bumbershoot and they were awesome! Paul, Tommy, Dave, and Josh were fantastic. They gave absolutely killer performances of those songs. I think it’s great that they’re able to do what they’re doing now.

Of course, one of the main reasons why Big Star didn’t sell more records is the distribution troubles of Stax/Ardent Records. I recently read Robert Gordon’s book on Stax, Respect Yourself, which went into those problems in some detail. Were you and the band aware of that at the time?

Yes, we were and it was unfortunate. It really boiled down to a (distribution) deal Al Bell had done with Clive Davis at Columbia. Clive left the company shortly after (the deal was completed) and, as is usually the case, once the guy who made the deal is gone, no one else is interested in carrying it on.

Though that was unfortunate, so many amazing things have happened since then. We’ve all had pretty great lives. Andy Hummel left and started a family. Alex continued to do those things that Alex wanted to do and he got to do that, in part, through income from Big Star music. I’ve had an amazing job at Ardent Studios since 1987 and since 1993, I’ve gotten to play with Alex again along with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer. Andy joined us at the tribute to Alex at SXSW shortly before Andy passed, so I was grateful I got to spend that time with him. So many good things have happened as a result of being in Big Star.

I wound up sitting next to (former Stax Records president) Al Bell at a dinner a couple of years ago and I was struck by the fondness with which he recalled Big Star.

Al’s a powerhouse! He was trying to grow Stax into another Atlantic. Atlantic Records owned the Otis Redding masters and most of the classic Stax catalog, so Al got busy building a new catalog and he was succeeding. (NOTE: Due to a controversial and deeply buried clause in a 1965 distribution contract, Atlantic gained ownership of all Stax releases from 1960-1967.)

Do you still listen to vinyl?

No, I don’t really. I was never much good with a turntable. A friend of mine has a killer turntable and system and I’ve gone over to his house specifically for LP listening sessions. Back in the ‘70s, there were a lot more gatherings for listening, I think. We’d have a few drinks and then music would become the focus of the party. These days, the best place for me to listen to music is in my car, usually on CD. I don’t like MP3s. There’s an abrasive quality to them, that’s for sure.

As you listened to the material compiled for the Big Star boxed set, was there anything that surprised you or struck you as being especially good?

I really like the demos that Alex, Andy, and I did. We did them live in Studio B at Ardent and I thought that tape had been lost. Andy wound up providing a stereo mix of it. He had a reel tape copy. So many cool things on that.

Also, I loved the Chris Bell deluxe set (I Am the Cosmos, Rhino Handmade). “Though I Know She Lied” from it is pretty amazing. It was so nice to hear Chris experimenting with his voice and guitar sounds.

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