Chatting with an American indie pop hero about his fab new LP The Great Escape
Chris Stamey is a specialist. If he loves something, he’s not content to do so passively – he needs to get his hands on it.
His ardor for guitar-pop acts like The Beatles, The Move and their cracked-up power-pop descendants Big Star compelled not just a pilgrimage to meet, and ultimately work with, Alex Chilton, but a revolutionary career as one of the first truly “indie” recording artists and record label owners. He then served a shockingly short stint in the seminal early-‘80s band the dB’s, working with friends from the North Carolina scene whom he’s kept in touch with all his life – Peter Holsapple, Mitch Easter, Will Rigby, Gene Holder, Don Dixon – but soon, his restless muse pulled him in other directions.
Since then, almost every record Stamey has released seems to speak to a specific fascination, which he tends to with unerring focus – V.O.T.E., an election-year entry on which he explored thematic covers with Yo La Tengo; the acoustic reimagining of dB’s songs with Holsapple, Our Back Pages; or his sashay back into the Great American Songbook era with New Songs for the 20th Century and A Brand New Shade of Blue. He’s also done brilliant production and arrangement work with Whiskeytown, Peter Blegvad, Le Tigre and Alejandro Escovedo, penned the invaluable memoir A Spy in the House of Loud, and written the songs and story for the NPR radio play Occasional Shivers, starring Branford Marsalis.
A sweet, serene set of songs with pedal steel gently woven in as a sonic hook, Stamey’s wonderful new album, The Great Escape, is one of his most assured and straightforward collections in years, a return to pop-rock basics after a few studious years in a more complex bygone era. Stamey graciously sat down with the Globe to discuss The Great Escape, his influences, approaches and philosophies, working with other musicians, and even The Beatles, whose canon he knows well – up to a point.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Your album is particularly keyed to the sound of the pedal steel – not a typical sound in pop and rock these days, nor for your albums, or groups most often cited as your influences, like Big Star. But there are The Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers could be considered a kind of country-rock Big Star. And you’ve also recorded the instrument before, working with acts like Whiskeytown and Syd Straw.
Well, John Cale playing with B.J. Cole was an influence; Cale did a number of performances where he’s playing piano and B.J. Cole is playing pedal steel. [He’d] played on a Peter Blegvad record, and I knew his recording of Debussy, all on pedal steel. So I knew that the instrument could do other things. There were a number of players who exposed me to the versatility of the instrument, and I’ve always loved it.
When I was in high school I went to see whoever was playing in the big coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina. I was very impressed by seeing The Byrds with Clarence White, because they weren’t biting the heads off chickens. They came out in these somber suits, and played [with] no artifice. I loved those Byrds records – which are also somewhat all over the place. So that might’ve been the biggest influence. But Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco… I never really rated Gram Parsons amazingly as a songwriter. And something about that band named after The Byrds [Eagles] didn’t really strike me. To a martian, all that music would sound precisely the same.
I don’t think I’ve used pedal steel in any kind of cutting-edge way on this record, actually. Part of it was I was doing this tour with Alejandro Escovedo. I was on one side of the stage, at a keyboard primarily, with a string trio, [doing] arrangements I’d written. I’m used to writing string arrangements, and it felt like [they] were highly complicated. And on the other side of the stage, Eric was just kind of like wiggling his fingers, and this incredible sound was coming out, and I thought, well, [laughs] that seems easier. So, I gave him and Allyn Love, the other main sliding player on the record, some guidance, but it wasn’t really arranging like I normally would; I was not writing things on paper.
The guitar being an instrument so contingent on how you sort of filter the sounds – amplification, and through the recording process – I wonder how you go about properly recording, say, a pedal steel.
You hope that – there’s a Jim Dickinson quote – “the tone is in the fingers”. I think that’s true. Most engineers and producers have been through all the different, complicated ways to record an electric guitar, but usually I put a mic right in front of the speaker and don’t put it on the cone, and that’s pretty much it. When I’m doing my own parts, to be honest, a lot of times, I’m recording direct. I’m impatient.
Talking about guitars, and producing – my records usually suffer from the lack of a strong rhythm guitar part. It’s usually not very defined. I think they’re either nonexistent, or kind of mushy.
I feel as if, from Travels in the South on, your songs have gotten a little softer and more direct – even prettier, dare I say, though you’ve been writing beautiful melodies your whole career. Some of those more avant-garde urges from the ‘80s have receded somewhat. Do you perceive this at all?
Every great collection of short stories [involves] selecting those for compatibility. I’m just trying to make a record that works together, and not really thinking of it as a grand statement; I’m not Roger Waters. [And] I’m never thinking about trying to be avant-garde, but I am thinking about the difference between the vocabulary of diatonic, of three-note chords, and the vocabulary of four- and five-note chords. Often those two don’t combine well, and this is a record of primarily three-note chords.
And also, the thing about what’s now known as power pop – lyrically, it devolved somewhat into words of one and two syllables. When you look at Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and there are more notes in the chords, there are also more syllables in the words. It’s funny how a loud guitar seems to dictate a more limited word choice. Those are the kinds of things I think about when I’m putting together a group of songs; what is the expressive vocabulary? And I’m only thinking about this after I’ve written them.
How do you designate between choosing to write a more straightforward song such as “I Will Try” versus, say, something a little more structurally and harmonically experimental, like “Ask for Jill”?
“I Will Try” is a little bit oddball in that it’s chorus-verse-chorus-instrumental – the last chorus is only an abbreviated chorus; I guess a lot of songs are more a-b-a-b-c-a-b-b or something. And this one is more b-a-b-solo-a-b. That thing of starting with the chorus is something I think I liked early on.
What songs are you most pleased with on this new record?
I think I tend to like the ones that surprised me. “Realize”, I was kind of working on it, and not really paying it much mind, and now I enjoy it. I do really like “I Will Try”, I was gonna start the record with that, and then I switched gears. I like that it’s simple. I wasn’t gonna put “A Prisoner of this Hopeless Love” on there, because it didn’t quite fit, and when I’d played it some last year, people would come up and say, “I wanna buy that right away! Where can I get it?”
And “Dear Friend”, there are so many little elements I like – like the verse starts, as so many do, on the tonic chord, and it goes to the three chord after that, but a sus-III, which is kind of a Carole King thing to do, and when it comes around again, it’s another, what’s called a slash chord – a V chord with a six in the bass that then goes to the vi. And the way it uses that same sus-III chord to modulate on the chorus, a moment like that is what I call a hinge, and that has a lot to do with my songwriting –where you’re going somewhere and then you can kind of shift, and it has a particular psychological effect. [Those] hinge moments in songs – I pat myself on the back when I find one I like, or haven’t used before. And often it has to do with a modulation that shares a common tone, but isn’t the expectation.
It makes me think of those writers that have a special gift for that, your Paul McCartneys and such.
Well, he was growing up in a household with a dad who knew the Great American Songbook. So some of those things early on in the Beatles – you’ll hear the use of augmented chords, and modal shifts where the five chord becomes a minor. And you can kind of track through the records, if you look at it from a harmonic point of view, every time they learn a new chord, they’ll each write a song with that new chord. There was a point with McCartney – on “Fool on the Hill”, all of a sudden you’ll have 13ths in the chords. Wings, unfortunately, kind of overused the major 7. So if you parse it harmonically, it becomes easier to understand why some of the Beatles songs stood out. Their toolbox was a little broader.
VIDEO: Chris Stamey “She Might Look My Way”
What compelled you to resurrect [Alex Chilton’s] “She Might Look My Way” for this album?
That is the oldest track. And I kept thinking, well, I really like this one, and I was kind of shaping the record and the song choices around that song. So finally I thought, I’ll just put it in there. And I’ve done covers before, and I think that it’s nice to have, you know. Something borrowed, something blue…
That Van Dyke Parks song is so much fun.
I worry that it comes off as too cute or something like that. What I like about it particularly is, it uses some of Van Dyke’s musical language, particularly the way it shifts time [in the narrative]. It also uses some of the American flavors that he used early on, on Song Cycle.
Full disclosure, there were other lines at the end of the first verse, and when I played it for him – I’ve actually got to know him after this, we’ve done a fair amount of stuff together – he said, “well Chris, I like the song, but I don’t like these lines,” so I changed them to, “I never thought I’d be recognized by Van Dyke Parks.” And that now strikes me as being too pompous. But I’m stuck with it [laughs].
It actually made me think of – did you read that article Jonathan Lethem wrote about the dB’s?
Oh yeah. I mean, he’s a good writer, but that seemed a little oddball to me. It’s interesting what people who aren’t there understand. I mean, the thing about the dB’s [is], from my point of view, that wasn’t a great songwriting time for me, because I had been around Alex Chilton a little bit, and Alex was writing songs at the bar on cocktail napkins. And I think, for me, I got sloppy lyrically in the dB’s. And then, also, you do want to make an album which has a broad presentation. So when Peter [Holsapple] was writing a particular kind of song that he’s really great at, I would bring songs in to offset that more. Because I also can write in that kind of pop-melodic style, but I was afraid the records would get overwhelmed with that. But when I go back to the dB’s, it’s like, I’m glad everybody loves those records, [but] it’s not my favorite thing. Those guys are great, but my writing was better before and after the band, actually.
It just reminded me of the last part of the Lethem piece, when he talks about being too nervous to meet you – how with your heroes, even at a certain level of success, that starstruck-ness endures.
I mean, everytime I’ve met my heroes, it’s always been great. “Don’t meet your heroes” has never really proved true to me. The thing about the Van Dyke Parks song, if you want to talk about ego with it, is that I thought, really big thumbs up to Paul Westerberg for writing a commercial for Alex Chilton. It was brilliant. So I thought, I’ve written this song, it’s not gonna hurt, because [Van Dyke] deserves any attention you want to bring to him.
VIDEO: Chris Stamey “(A Prisoner Of) This Hopeless Love”
You brought up Peter, who you just recently made a record with. I am fascinated, as a rule, with lifelong songwriting duos – that Lennon-McCartney, Becker-Fagen thing where a creative intimacy compounds a friendship. You’re always coming back to working with Peter, as on this album.
Well, on this record, we weren’t in the room together enough, because of the pandemic. I’d say, “Peter, can you sing on this?”, [or] I would ask him about particular lines that I was stuck on. But we were apart most of it. Anybody who’s been around Peter is quickly made aware of his musicality and his smarts, but he’s also lyrically, verbally, a very good writer, and careful with language. Whereas I’m a little more carefree with language. I guess my main thing I think about working with Peter is, it’s easy. There’s a lot we don’t have to talk about, and there’s a mutual trust. He’s a good guy, and a good friend.
And what would you say are the main musical distinctions between the two of you?
Um… he’s a good rhythm guitarist. [laughs]
“Back in New York” is a wonderful song, and it captures the unique feeling of being in the city so well. You’ve been in NC for so long now, but the song makes it sound like you left your heart in NYC.
I landed in LaGuardia a couple of days after Christmas in 2019, and I hadn’t been into LaGuardia very often, and it reminded me so much of the first time I ever landed in New York. I got quite sick after that; I actually think I might’ve been an early COVID adopter, so I’d wondered if I was feverish while I started to write this song. My New York is gone in some ways, but I usually spend a day just walking by myself, down in Greenwich Village or in SoHo. I also wanted to make [the song] in kind of a folky language, a sort of coffeehouse language. I actually recorded the electric version first, and I thought, I like it, but I wanted to make it a little more Dave Van Ronk, a little more lyric-driven.
Thinking of “Sweetheart of the Video”, I wondered if you had thoughts, as a longtime professional musician, about the way the internet has sort of permeated the broader creative culture, and the ways that it’s shifted the industry work.
I mean, this morning I was reading about a record that a wind player named Joe Lovano made, and I could go on Spotify and listen to it immediately. And it’s just like, wow. Is it good to cut out the curator, the middleman? I don’t know that that’s always true. I think it used to be, you had to get past an A&R guy, or a DJ, and sometimes those A&R guys or those DJs were quite savvy, but sometimes, they would stop something great from coming out. So, I don’t know exactly where I fall about streaming, but for me, the fact that I could instantly listen to that record this morning was great.
This is what I think about, as a history-drunk young person. I can open up any of those old record guides and hear almost everything right away. You don’t have to do the same leg work or waiting.
But you cannot find the first two dB’s records, and you can’t find my first solo record. Because UMG is at war with everybody.
Since I did stream The Great Escape – is that vocalized credits track on the physical release as well?
No – because you can read it on the physical! For DSPs, digital service providers, when you enter through a distributor into the portal, you’re required to put in very detailed information for each song. Who played on it, featured players, background players – so for each song on my record, if there’s 25 names, I’ve put them in. It doesn’t come up yet on Spotify. Compared to storing the audio, this kind of metadata is very small. But it’s still going away. So when I did this stupid album credits thing, it means it’s there. You can actually find out that Don Dixon played bass on “Hopeless Love.” And otherwise, if you buy the record digitally, until they get it together to just toggle on all that data they already have, this at least will work around that. Did you hear it?
I did, I thought it was brilliant. And of course, it reminded me of the Ringo solo album.
Ringo did it too?
Yeah! On the end of that 1973 album. “I’d just like to say thank you to everyone involved in this piece of plastic we’re making…”
Oh, I didn’t know that! I never played that record.