Perfect Sound Forever

BIG STAR

Big Star
Alex and Jody eye the future

Jody Stephens interview by Jason Gross (Dec 1996)


Probably the biggest thrill you get as a fan is doing something nice for a band/performer and see them appreciate it. I gave Big Star drummer/Ardent A&R guy Jody Stephens a Bobby Bland CD and his eyes lit up. "I was just looking at his picture the other day, thinking I ought to get some of this stuff!" For years, I immersed myself in the grooves of Radio City and was now coming face-to-face with one of its creators. After years of toiling away on beautiful records that only a handful of critics enjoyed and languishing in semi-obscurity, Big Star is back now to the delight to the many fans it's accumulated over the years. First starting off with Jody was the late Chris Bell (writer/singer/guitarist), Andy Hummel (bass) and the legendary Alex Chlton (writer/singer/guitarist), the band reformed in the last few years with Jody and Alex joined by John Auer (guitar) and Ken Stringfellow (bass).

Jody was a little miffed that no one really wants to talk to Ken and John as he sees them as an integral part of the band now (they started out with the Posies). Alex unfortunately doesn't do interviews. Fact is, Microsoft wanted to do a special on the band but decided it wasn't worth it since Alex didn't want to talk to anybody- what a bunch of stupid, pathetic saps. In any case, Jody lived through the whole history of the band and was ready to talk about the old days and the new days of a justly legendary band.


PSF: How did you first meet up with the rest of the band?

JODY: Around late 1970, Chris, Andy and I formed the nucleus of the band. I met Chris through Andy. I first met Andy in the seventh or eighth grade. We hung out a few times. A few years later, I happen to be playing drums in the Memphis State production of Hair and Andy came up on stage after the show. He said "we're putting a band together- would you like to come out and jam?" I said sure. It was a back-house at Chris' parents house that we got together at in Germantown (a suburb of Memphis).


PSF: What kind of person was Chris?

JODY: Chris was a nice guy. A bit moody and pensive at times. He wasn't a wide open person in terms of meeting people. As a matter of fact, the first time I met Chris, I was with Andy and he introduced us and Chris immediately pulled him off to the side to talk to him. It was kind of an uncomfortable first meeting but Chris and I got to be really good friends. He was a big British-Invasion nut. Big Yardbirds fan.


PSF: Did the band start out with original stuff or covers?

JODY: We started out doing a lot of covers. Some Led Zepplin and James Gang covers. Terry Reid's "Tinker Tailor." "Fresh As A Daisy." We may not have done Beatles songs. Beatles songs are hard to cover.


PSF: What was the band called then?

JODY: It wasn't called Big Star then- we went through several different names. Icewater, Rock City and Tommy Tutwiler and the Twisters. John Dando, our friend and equipment-repair, came up with that one for one date. He booked a gig for us and was asked the name- I think it came from Derek and the Dominos.


PSF: How long were you three playing together before Alex came into the picture?

JODY: It hadn't been that long- it might have been eight or nine months. Alex came to see us at a VFW hall in downtown Memphis. He was invited by Chris (to join). Alex and Chris were friends. Me, Andy, Chris and Steve Ray cut some demos cut some demos at Ardent Studios and we came up to New York in 1970 to see some A&R folks. Alex was living in New York. Chris stayed with Alex at the Chelsea Hotel. Dando, Steve and I shared a room.

I don't remember thinking anything special about Alex except that it was interesting that I was meeting Alex in New York instead of Memphis. I liked the Box Top songs too. Everybody knew who Alex was, with a number one song ("The Letter") from a few years back. I'd never seen him perform so I didn't know what to expect. We all thought he'd be a great addition to the band. He was doing the folk-scene thing which was pretty valuable for Big Star.


PSF: How do you think it helped the band?

JODY: Alex has an album out called 1970 and it was recorded prior to his moving to New York. It gives you an idea of Alex's interest in music. It's a combination of British-Invasion and R&B stuff and soul stuff. It's all reflected there. I think his going to New York and spending time there, I think he met Roger McGuinn, is reflected in a lot of early Big Star stuff. I think that was a really important time in his life. I could be wrong- it's speculation.


PSF: What happened when the band came back to Memphis?

JODY: Chris, Dando and I were just in New York for a few days. No one was interested in us. We went back and Alex came to Memphis to see band and joined on. With Alex joining the band, we stopped playing cover material and started playing original material. Chris and Alex were writing songs. We did rehearsals at Ardent.


PSF: How did you get involved with Ardent?

JODY: Ardent was a recording studio, has been for thirty years. It started out in John Fry's garage. He and Fred Smith, the guy who founded Federal Express, and John King would cut local artists and release singles. His parents sold the house and he made the decision to do it professionally so he rented a space. He did a lot of work for Stax, he was a real whiz kid with electronics and sound. Ardent Records was started specifically for Big Star. We were going to shop our demo around and John told us to hold off and he would do something with Stax.


PSF: How did the recording for the first album (#1 Record) go?

JODY: You know, it went pretty smoothly. I don't remember any specific events where things fell apart. The material was great and we were all into it. Things just worked themselves out. For me, the material was so good, I was overly inspired and I had to trim down what I was doing. When I get inspired musically, I tend to overplay a little bit. In the rehearsal process, I had to trim it back a bit. The first album was written and produced by Chris and Alex but a lot of it was Chris. You can tell if you just contrast the first two records. The first album's Chris and the second album was definitely an Alex production. #1 Record is a kind of a production and Radio City is starkly produced.


PSF: Was Chris obsessive about the studio?

JODY: It was a year from the time we started the first record to the time it was released. Chris, with his original material, he belabored that. I Am the Cosmos (Chris' solo record, released years after his death) developed for years. He would recut different songs four or five times. He did this after he quit the band. He probably developed the material for that album for four years at studios around the world- Memphis, London, France. His brother made some money in condos in Italy and was funding Chris' work.


PSF: Why did it take so long to get out the first album?

JODY: It could have been Stax's release schedule. We started in April of '71. We may have worked around paying clients of theirs. It takes three or four months to set up a record. By the time we finished in June, it got released in the Christmas season- it's not a good idea to release a new act in the Christmas season.


PSF: What did you think of the record when it came out?

JODY: I was really proud of it. I still am. I didn't write the material so I think I can rave about it. I think the songs are amazing. It was a great joy to be in that band because of the songs. Alex and Chris were, are, really talented. It was something I felt really emotionally attached to. Personalities clashed time to time but musically it was always a joy.


PSF: What happened with the band then? Why did Chris leave?

JODY: Chris was a major part of the first record in terms of its production and direction. The album was released and the critics really focused on Alex, giving him a lot of attention. Anyone would have- Alex was in the Box Tops with the number one song in the nation. It's only natural that they focus on a band member that the readers would be familar with. I think Chris felt slighted and thought that he might have to live in Alex's shadow so he quit the band in late '72 or early '73.


PSF: Did the band do any shows before that?

JODY: We did do a few shows but not many. Big Star never did a lot of shows. In our whole career, we probably did 20, 25 shows. We played New Orleans, Georgia, only three or four dates.


PSF: What happened when Chris left?

JODY: When Chris left the band, the band broke up. We got back together at the request of John Keene who was putting together this rock writers convention in Memphis. It was just going to be a one-off. A lot of rock writers asked that Big Star play. It was a low pressure sort of thing because we were all doing it for the fun of it. We weren't promoting anything. So we got to get back together and play for the critics who were basically our only audience. We had a great time so the band got back together and immediately started working on Radio City.


PSF: Chris wasn't part of the reunion. Did he do anything for Radio City?

JODY: I hear stories about Chris being invovled and having written part of "Back of A Car" and maybe some other song. There may have been a trade off. Alex may have taken a few songs that Chris participated in and Chris may have taken a few songs that Alex participated in (for his solo record). But Chris wasn't around for the real sessions for the album- we did it as a trio.


PSF: How was Radio City different from the first album?

JODY: It was under Alex's direction for sure. I never thought bands work as a democracy. It needs to be one person's vision and it doesn't need to be diluted by three or four peoples' vision because you wind up with something pale in comparison. There was no direction for me for the first album. There were no suggestions for drums. On first album, there are maracas, horns, a flugelhorn, a trumpet on "Gimme Another Chance." There are lots of background vocals. A lot of time was spent on production for that album where Radio City was really more spontaneous. Performances were pretty close to live performances. There were a few suggestions from Alex about playing drums. "Daisy Glaze" where you get to the part where it speeds up, Alex said "why don't you just do this" where I hit the floor tom slow.


PSF: How would you compare the first and second albums?

JODY: You know, it's interesting. I think all three of our records show the progression of the band. Those records really reflect what was going on in Alex's and Chris' lives at the moment. It's an evolution. The first album, there's this kind of innocence there and the second album gets a little more sophisticated and a little jadded and the third album is completely cynical, a kind of emotional upheaval in Alex's life. They're all important. We didn't do one record then copy that formula for the second and third. There's a nice progression there or devolution or something.


PSF: What did you think about Radio City?

JODY: I thought it was one of the best records I ever heard. I was excited about it. The third album took a while for me to understand. Some of the things I could really related to and some of the things, I really couldn't. I wasn't going through what Alex was going through. Alex was wrestling with a lot of demons- emotionally, socially. Whatever led him to that didn't lead me to that. It was harder for me to relate to the material then. I didn't understand "Kangeroo." I thought "Downs" was cool in its approach and it was neat to have a basketball for a bass drum. I really didn't like the idea of promoting drugs. Good or bad, in the long run, drugs aren't good for anybody. The danger is that people just don't stop when they should.


PSF: What happened between Radio City and Third?

JODY: Andy quit (in early '74) and Alex and I continued. Andy just got fed up with it all. I don't know that Andy ever wanted to become a musician. He graduated from Southwestern with an English degree. I think he was really looking for a career so he quit the band and went to State Tech and got a mechanical engineering degree. He went to work for General Dynamics in Fort Worth.

I really wanted the experience of being a part of the recording process and watching what went on. I didn't do much of that for Radio City or #1 Record. Enough of the material on the third album was stuff I could relate to. But most of stuff that I couldn't relate to, I didn't play on. I didn't play on "Kangeroo" or "Downs" and the funkier stuff were things I didn't play on. I made suggestions here and there about background vocals and wrote a song called "For You." What I did introduce, which I'm proud of, is the string section. I brought in Carl Marsh to write out the parts and translate what I wanted. What I wanted was an "Elenor Rigby" string quartet. We put those strings down and Alex really liked them. He started going for these string arrangements for songs like "Night Time." Alex was just brilliant at expressing himself musically. Whatever mood or feeling he wanted for a particular song, he could achieve. "Night Time" has some really icy sounded string songs and it was just really brilliant on Alex's part. There are all kinds of really neat, unusual string arrangements on that record and that's all a product of Alex's imagination.

He was really brilliant at expressing himself musically on that third record. Radio City too but there was just such an emotional upheaval for that third record that it was really harded to get to the heart of what was going on personally and express it musically. He did a brilliant job of that. I listen to the third album and I think Alex is falling apart. He probably was. It's not a positive record.


PSF: Third has a lot of people working on it. Did it still feel like a Big Star record?

JODY: I think it was an Alex Chilton solo record myself. There are moments that it's a Big Star record but I think it's really his album. I brought my brother Jimmy in to play bass for the song I wrote. Jim Dickerson played drums for "Kangeroo." I layed a drum track down for "Whole Lotta Shaking Goin' On" and Jerry Lee Lewis' drummer overdubbed a drum kit there.


PSF: The record didn't come out for four years. What happened with Third?

JODY: Stax went under before or during that record. John continued to record and at the end, he pressed final versions. It was all nineteen tracks and it was meant to be a demo. They were sent out. The first ones to put it out where Aura Records in England, three years later. Then after that, it came out in PVC in the States. About that time, EMI in England issued the first two albums in England.


PSF: Do you feel bad that after all that work, it only came out after a while and then in different forms?

JODY: There was some disappointment. There was also a lot of understanding that the people who were approached to release that record didn't want to. It's not a mass appeal record. Knowing what I know now, it's not a record for major labels. I don't know that it was really shopped to independents. That's why it stayed on the shelves.


PSF: So you and Alex ended the band then?

JODY: I kind of decided it was enough for me. Personally, the relationship between Alex and I was degenerating around the third album. That was late '74.


PSF: So what were you doing after that?

JODY: I hung around. I went back to school at Memphis State, got a marketing degree. Played in different bands. Played with a local singer/songwriter Keith Sykes and later with the Suspicions, a high-energy punk-pop band. Waited tables. I went to work at Ardent in '87 as project director. We started a local production company then and promoted local bands and shopped them for major deals. Made the rounds in New York and L.A., looking for business for the label.

PSF: How did the reunion take place?

JODY: I got a call from Mike Mulvihil (at Missouri University's radio station KCOU) and asked if I'd be a part of a Big Star show. I said yes if Alex would agree to it. I didn't expect Alex to agree to it. Alex said "if I'm not doing anything else, sure." We agreed to do to perform for travel expenses only. Bud Scoppa, a good friend, who had been working at Zoo at the time, and Jim Rondinelli, a producer, suggested that Zoo step in and record this performance. I get a call from Bud and I said sure. We got enough money to rehearsal with Jon and Ken in Seattle a couple of times.

Jon and Ken, I met them through Gary Gersch who signed them to Geffen, and heard their version of "Feel" and "I Am the Cosmos" and it was so close to the original that it was scary. I thought that those guys sang like angels and played great and did a great job with Big Star songs so I thought they would be a perfect addition to the band. They ARE band members. People ask if we're still doing the dates with Jon and Ken. For me, it's like asking "are you still doing dates with Alex?" I don't know that the band would exist without Jon and Ken, they're such an integral part. They know the material- we don't rehearse. Nobody else would know the material like these guys do. Nobody else has the experience.


PSF: That date didn't turn out to be a one-off though.

JODY: Well, it goes by someone calling and asking if we want to do more dates. This thing was never an active pursuit of mine or Alex. There was such a precarious thing about Big Star and its performances that I would feel uncomfortable about instigating things but if somebody asked, I felt a lot more comfortable. Somebody asked if we wanted to do some European dates and it sounded like a lot of fun. We played a festival in Holland and at the Reading Festival (England) and we played at the Grande in London, Glascow and Leeds. Then he did five dates in Japan and then the Filmore in San Francisco and the Metro in Chicago. Later that year, we played in Memphis in '94 then the House of Blues. We did the Tonight Show on Halloween Night in '94. It was a lot of fun. It was a blast.


PSF: What's the future of the band?

JODY: We'll do dates as requested. We're playing here in New York then we play in Seattle. We played last year at Tramps and they asked us back this year. I like to do more than one date and not more than three because I can't spend that much time away from Ardent. I spent so much time preparing and rehearsing for this thing by myself so I added Seattle. Jon and Ken would be going home anyway. We have some good friends in Seattle, like the people at SubPop so it sounded like a good idea.


PSF: When the band started, you didn't have a big audience but now there are a lot of bands who love Big Star and a larger audience. Do you think the time of the band has finally come?

JODY: I think there's much more of an audience for what we do than there was in the early '70s certainly. An audience developed over the last twenty years, primarily because of R.E.M. and Peter Buck mentioning the band and Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs and Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream. All these really nice people would mention Big Star in the press. Over the years, people pass tapes around. It was really a word-of-mouth, grass-roots movement.

I don't know that the time of the band has come. We have one new song called "Hot Thing" and there's no new material written for a new album so we're still playing songs from the early '70s. In a sense, we're still getting there. In a way, I hope the time of the band never comes. I hope we're always getting there. If the time of the band comes, that means it's soon to go. So I just rather we stay on the road that's getting there.


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