Big Star: Space Is The Place
An exclusive chat with Jody Stephens about the Memphis rock band’s newly expanded 2005 comeback LP
For a band whose initial run lasted only four years, Big Star — Memphis’s answer to The Beatles —made one hell of a splash, consistently landing on the “Best Of” lists while inspiring countless other bands and leaving fans frantically searching for bootlegs, previously unreleased tracks, or Chris Bell’s nearly impossible to find LP, I Am The Cosmos.
Featuring the mad-scientist creativity of Alex Chilton, the tortured genius of Chris Bell, and the iconic rhythm duo made up of Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, Big Star launched with a bang, staking their claim in music history with #1 Record in 1972, followed closely by Radio City and the cult-classic Third.
Almost four decades since the release of Third, I got the chance to catch up with Big Star’s original drummer and the only surviving member of the classic quartet, Jody Stephens, to share the story of In Space, Big Star’s fourth studio album, released in 2005 after more than a decade of sporadic performance and tours. Featuring Chilton and Stephens, In Space also showcased Big Star’s more recent additions, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, was recorded in a span of fifteen days, and includes a song (“Aria, Largo” that was initially written as an orchestral piece. All in a day’s work for Big Star.
In Big Star’s original incarnation, you guys only played together for four years, but you’re consistently ranked among the best of all time. What has it been like for you to be part of something that made such a huge impact?
It’s kind of the gift that keeps on giving. It’s tragic that Chris and Andy didn’t see a lot of this, but Alex did, and Alex had a great life. It’s also tragic that he’s gone.
You know, it provides a bridge to meeting a lot of people and staying connected. My job here in Ardent Studios is ongoing now on the business side of things for almost thirty-five years in January. People come by for tours, and a guy showed me a message yesterday from a friend of his that just got turned onto Big Star last week. R.E.M., Afghan Whigs, Primal Scream — a lot of folks came here because of Big Star. It’s a common denominator with people and it immediately makes me comfortable with them and hopefully them with me. So it’s a great experience and just a gift I feel lucky about.
It also allows Luther and I to have more of a platform for our group Those Pretty Wrongs. It’s not that people will just like the record just because I’d been in Big Star, but they’ll listen and then they’ll make their own minds up. You know, just getting people to listen is a big step when you’re a new group. It’s a lot of friends. It’s a lot of long-term relationships, long-time relationships.
When you and Alex Chilton reunited almost twenty years after Big Star disbanded in the 70s, did you have have any idea it would lead to the tour dates and albums that followed?
No! It was all very short-sighted and ‘this’ll be a one-off’ and ‘it’ll be fun.’ Mike and Jeff Reece were the two guys that got on the phone from the University of Missouri and asked if we could get together and play some Big Star songs and I said, ‘Sure, if Alex will.’ I was surprised that Alex would do it! I think he said, ‘Well I’m not doing anything better that day.’
They kind of exhausted people they were looking at, no one was available, so I told them to call Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from The Posies because I had heard their covers of “I Am the Cosmos” and “In the Street.” They even did a mock single with a mock cover of Radio City with the light bulb. I had met them and they were super nice guys.John and Ken joined up and then Bud Scoppa and Jim Rondinelli.
Jim’s a producer and Bud’s this iconic journalist, but he was A&R guy at Zoo Records, and Bud wanted to record and release the live performance. It wouldn’t have been something I would have ever asked anyone to do because of the uncertainty of it all. We just kinda took this leap of faith.
We all showed up in Colombia, Missouri and there was a thunderstorm that afternoon. We were playing in a tent, so the weather made a difference. Things cleared up, we got the thing recorded, and before you know it, we had four dates in England and a date at a festival in Holland booked a months later, and we were off and running.
We had a good time until 2010 when Alex passed away and we stopped playing under the name of Big Star. Occasionally Jon and Ken and I will do the songs of Big Star or we’ll do Big Star’s Third live, a performance that Chris kinda got together and masterminded. We don’t really make any money, but it’s an amazingly good time and we all have our hearts in the right place for it.
Once you guys got back together and were touring, what led to the album announcement almost a decade later?
Well, we had talked about it and nothing ever came of it. Then my recollection of it was that we were playing this show in London and Alex stepped up to the mic and said, ‘The guys don’t know it yet, but we’re going to make a record.’ So we were all happily surprised and the audience seemed happy about it. Nothing really was said about it for another year, but Alex then approached me with a plan of writing and recording a song a day. There would be nothing pre-written extensively, so we figured out maybe fifteen days to track fifteen songs, and then we pick the ten best, the ten that we wanted to pursue, and do overdubs on those and get those mixed.
I called up a friend of mine, Jeff Rugby up at Rykodisc, and presented this idea and budget for it and Jeff was agreeable to it. It was mind-blowing because he had no idea what we were going to sound like; [he] hadn’t heard the songs, [he] just took a leap of faith and we had the album.
You just keep trying these things. One thing I’ve learned through the years is that the only thing you have to be afraid of is being afraid to fail. It’s okay to fail. You get a lot of stuff accomplished when you fail, because you figure out maybe how to do it and not fail, or you figure out maybe you can’t do that and move onto other things, but you don’t think, ‘Well, gee, I wish I’d tried.’ That’s kind of what it’s all about.
What was it like for you to do another Big Star record without Andy in the studio?
It had been a while since Andy and I had played together, and I had played with a lot of other people, so I just appreciated the folks that were there. Andy had this remarkable wife and a wonderful family and a job that was pretty demanding of him. It wasn’t something I think he was able to participate in.
But you know, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow are two amazingly talented people. Musically, it was a really good time in the studio, just wondering what people were going to up with. Sometimes suspenseful, mind you, but it just all worked out again. Remarkably.
Do you think the time you guys spent touring together made it a very natural progression for you to work in the studio with the guys from The Posies?
Yes! I gotta tell you, it would’ve been a natural progression for me without those ten years. I am such a fan of theirs.
AUDIO: The Posies Frosting On The Beater (full album)
Are there any in-studio stories no one has ever heard?
Alex brought at least four classical pieces that he transposed from an orchestral arrangement to guitars, bass, and drums. John, Ken and I were there reading music — I don’t really read music, sight-read, but I can figure simple things out, and Jon and Ken were okay with it — so we sat there with music in front of us and we did four of those. I’m thinking, ‘Well, you know, for me, four’s a bit much’ but at the end of the day, only “Aria, Largo” made it. It worked out really well though, it’s this nice break from what you’d really think you’d hear, so you get this nice transition from the rest of the record.
We’d been in the studio for a week and we were headed to SXSW to play, and William Hine and Jeff Rugby and all those folks [from Rykodisc] were coming down to say hello to us. And it’s funny, I went and told Alex — he was sitting at the piano — and I said ‘Hey, Alex, the folks at Rykodisc would like to say hello after the gig in Austin, at SXSW,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Well, why would I want to do that?’ But then he met with them and he was charming and friendly, and I think he was just giving me a hard time.
What was the songwriting process like with Alex Chilton?
Alex is just a free spirit, I mean, listen to “Love Revolution”! If that’s not a free spirit, I don’t know what is. He just lets it fly. Whatever it is, it’s down inside of him, and however he feels that song, he just lets it fly.
How different was the writing process when you were touring in the 90s then working on Big Star’s Third in the 70s?
Alex would pretty much write alone and bring the song in. He’d do a vocal or acoustic guitar, or an acoustic twelve-string. In some cases like in “Kangaroo,” he handed over a recording of a vocal and guitar and he gave it to Jim Dickinson and said, ‘Produce this, Mr. Producer.’ So Jim added everything else to that song except for drums. He built the song around a vocal and guitar track, and it’s brilliant because it’s really loose but holds together, because of course Alex’s vocal and guitar aren’t affected by anything going on around them since they were done first.
I was there really just to learn more about the process and be a part of what Alex was doing, because I knew Alex was brilliant. I knew Chris was brilliant. Andy was brilliant. Anything I could’ve done to keep working with them, I’d be glad to do.
Jumping forward to In Space, do you have a favorite track on the record?
“Love Revolution” is funny as hell. If you listen to Alex’s vocal and what he’s doing there, it is so funny and it’s just such a treat! And if you have on headphones, you can kinda hear Jon Auer’s little noodling, those 70s kind of wah-wah peddles on guitar. It’s just — ‘We need a platform! We need some platforms! We’ve got the right to do it all night.’ All these kind of silly things like, ‘We have demands!’ It’s just sort of a take off of 70s protesting. It’s not poking fun at, it’s just having fun with it.
Brothers and sisters
We need a love revolution
Here’s our list of demands
One — we need to get it together
Two — we demand the right to do it all night
Three — we need a platform
Four — we need some platforms
Do the rock disco fox
Boogie down, boogie down
AUDIO: Big Star “Love Revolution”
You’ve been working at Ardent Studios as the booking manager for over thirty years now. What’s it like to be part of the studio where you created your first records?
It’s my home. The studio’s my home. I spent easily eight hours a day here, five days, sometimes six days a week, for thirty-three years now on the business side of things. John Fry, I’ve always considered him to be the father of my professional life. You know, it’s home.
Do you stay mostly on the business side of things or do you ever get involved on the creative side?
Mostly business, but every now and then I’ll jump in the studio. I produced this group called The Reputations out of Austin. That was a really good time, and I got some help from Adam Hill on engineering and a little bit of production too. So a little bit. I’ll play a drum track here and there, stuff outside of Those Pretty Wrongs.” My brother Jimmy recorded a record and I played on his.
Speaking of Those Pretty Wrongs, can you tell us about the making of your latest record, Zed for Zulu?
You know, Luther and I did that first record [Those Pretty Wrongs] in 2016. We did some dates in Australia, England, Spain, and across the United States, then we did a little break break and Luther played with Robin Hitchcock and released a solo record of his own called Medium Cool, which is awesome. Then we started maybe thinking a little bit about another record.
My wife and I have this friend, Robert, who would call and say, ‘Hey, it ain’t nobody but me, Robert,’ and it would break my heart a little bit because it’s such a self-deprecating comment. It’s kind of the things that reads you emotionally that hit a spark of creativity and lyrics and stuff. So I sat down and wrote melody lines and lyrics to “ain’t nobody but me” and gave Luther a ring. He didn’t answer so I left this message, ‘Hey Luth, ain’t nobody but me, Jody.’
And then we got started on the second record, some of which, like “A Day in the Park” and “Hurricane of Love” we started at Braziers House where Ian Fleming grew up, in Oxfordshire, England, where we were playing this wood festival. It’s now a little college-university, this business-like commune — not what you think of in the 60s and 70s, but the house is a little castle-like. It’s a little worn but it’s set up for people to gather instead of any kind of formal thing. That was pretty exciting stuff to be able to do that where Ian Fleming grew up. [When we got back], I’d record ideas on my phone, attach them to an email, and send them to Luther, because he lives in Pasadena and I live here in Memphis. We’d just go back and forth.
How did you guys get together to form Those Pretty Wrongs?
I met Luther about the same time I met Jon and Ken in 1991; they shared an A&R guy. The Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles had asked if I could sing a few songs during a screening of Nothing Can Hurt Me, the Big Star documentary (produced by Daniel McCarthy). They called me and asked, and I said, ‘Well, sure.’
I’d never really done that; I’d never sung really more than a couple songs in a set but I thought, “This sounds exciting and a way to carry all this forward.” They didn’t have a budget, so I called Luther, who lives out there. He’s an extraordinary musician and singer, and I knew he would be a great cheerleader. We got together to do that and said, ‘Well why don’t we write some songs together.’ I already had a couple underway, melodies and lyrics pretty much finished, but it’s a true collaboration. Luther did arrangements and came up with harmonies and these great guitar parts, and he’d come up with lyrics for songs. If you’re out there doing what you love to do, one thing leads to another!
AUDIO: Those Pretty Wrongs Zed For Zulu (full album)
What’s next for Those Pretty Wrongs?
Scotland next Friday! We start in Edinburgh with a date of our own, then we go down to Nottingham to play The Flying Circle. Then we join up to open on five dates with The Delines, a group out of Portland, OR. They do really well in the UK and I’m really excited about opening for them. We’re playing Union Chapel in London, and it’s sold out at 950 seats. Luther and I also have a date of our own in London that’s sold out, too.
I’ve got one more for you, and I’m super curious! What was it like to watch the Big Star documentary, Nothing Can Hurt Me?
I love the fact a lot of people were interviewed who passed away shortly after, so they were captured. I love that they got Andy. I’ve known Andy since he was 13, in a band with my brother Jimmy. Andy asked me if I wanted to jam with some friends and that eventually became Big Star.
Andy was in it, and Carol Manning, who did the photographs and graphics for our records. Jim Dickinson, who passed away. Steve Ray, Richard Roseboro…a lot of folks! It’s sad in one respect but I’m grateful they were around and part of the film. For me, it’s as much a story about John Fry, which is exciting for me because without John, we would never have been Big Star.
VIDEO: Big Star In Space trailer from Omnivore Recordings
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