Chris Stamey is the embodiment of the “thinking person’s musician”. His career is epic and storied: first as a member of The Sneakers with friend Mitch Easter, to playing bass in New York with Alex Chilton while releasing Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos” in the late ’70’s to forming the (now-legendary and well-loved) dB’s and onto launching a solo career – now spanning for over 25 years, as well as producing many artists and guesting on several well-known releases. This is a man who knows no musical bounds and he’s now released his 8th solo album – first since 2005 – just this February, Lovesick Blues on YepRoc. This is no lightweight pop album; it contains baroque arrangements; rich vocal textures and lyrics that make you think and (hopefully) feel. One of the most engaging and “complete” pieces I’ve heard in a long time, I had the privilege and pleasure to exchange questions for Chris’ thoughts on this new record and what’s on the horizon. Many thanks go to Cary Baker for his assistance with this; it was a joy to connect with Chris:
What was the genesis of this new album – were any of the songs in the mix for placement on Falling Off The Sky or for Here And Now? How long had you been working on this album along with your commitments to The dB’s?
I like to write songs in the fall, it’s a good time to be creative, as the seasons change and the pulse quickens with the cold. (I’m writing a new record now.) Songs usually come in batches. “Lovesick Blues” was the third one of its batch, I think, but it was the one that seemed to say “this can be a record.” And I shaped the record around it. I spent some time in the mountains, lying around in the dark listening and dreaming, and this made me want to make a record that would work in that “arena.” Jeff Crawford and I went through a lot of songs to come up with a list that we thought would sound good in the dark. At the end of the day, we broadened it somewhat, with the sunshine of “You n Me n XTC” and “Astronomy”–but I think this was okay, I remember feeling that The Ballad of Todd Rundgren was a record that spoke very personally to the listener (or at least to me), I remembered it as strictly moody, but it actually has some daytime rockin’ tunes on it as well, and is the better for it.
None of these songs were intended for the dB’s at any point. Peter Holsapple and I had talked about recording “London” but never did.
What made you decide to tour this album in the chamber-pop format using local musicians at each stop? It’s wonderfully ambitious and opens up possibilities for many players, I would imagine.
I’ve done this a few times now, in London and Austin and NYC, and it’s worked really well. Written music has become almost esoteric in clubs in modern times, but there are wonderful, highly skilled players out there who can breath life into parchment with a few hours’ lead time. The songs from our NC circle (I include Mitch Easter and Peter Holsapple in this) often have minute variations from section to section, and they are hard to memorize, but they are easy to read. I spent some time over the last few years looking at Carl Marsh’s scores for the Big Star pieces and have been thrilled to try my hand at writing on paper again, it’s challenging but great fun when it works! I also love being able to get away from the “well-tempered” frets and keys–to hear string and wind players voice chords that are purely in tune, with the harmonics ringing, instead of the compromised tuning we are used to, is something that moves my soul. There is a physics to music, our brains react differently to the purity of real thirds and fifths than they do to the sad, malnourished, almost-in-tune pitches we have grown up with in the tempered world of pop music.
The one recurring thing I’ve noticed in all of your solo releases is an attention to detail; there is a great deal of intricacy in the way you structure the songs – your lyrics have a cinematic sense to them, which is something I appreciate – how did you come into this writing style? This album is bright with color in the lyrics and a lush aural canvas – case and point: the use of a toy piano and the horns on “You n Me n XTC”; the string interplay with the acoustic guitars on “Astronomy” (beautiful harmonies) and so on–is it a fair assumption you set out to make such a nuanced album?
I studied early music in school and was very taken with the concept of text painting in Gregorian chant–a tight connection between music and lyric, even specific words. And also the vocal music of George Crumb and Charles Ives, which often has this quality as well. The point is to have the meaning come across; sometimes I don’t know exactly what that meaning is but I find it as I try out different colors on a line, maybe an alto flute won’t work but the same line on a bass clarinet will be just right. It’s not an intellectual process, it’s right-brained, although it can sound left-brained after the fact. But I have to give Jeff Crawford props in this regard, his productions are full of careful detail. As to the lyrics, I wish I was more of a craftsman in that regard, I usually write them quickly when I’m in the zone so to speak and I rarely edit, although sometimes I really should edit. I guess it’s that the lines I am most in doubt about have often been the ones that other people seem to like the most. Sometimes I edit and edit and then end up with what I had to begin with. I do, however, always try to finish the whole lyric at the same time, which can lead to missed barbershop appointments and spoiled souffles.
“Astronomy” is a special case: I was about to start a rehearsal for the first show by The Fellow Travelers and wrote the song in just a few minutes before this, so we’d have something to add to the set. And then only changed one word. It’s pretty much our ad hoc live arrangement from the band (I wrote out the string parts the next day, for our show, and asked Skylar to vamp on the flute as a nod to Chris Wood on the first Traffic record.) Everyone seemed to like the song, and I recorded it quickly with everyone doing pretty much their live parts and added it to the album at the point when everything else was already done. So although the string parts were notated, they were off the top of my head, and the rest was just what fell naturally under the fingers for the players–a piece of cake. I always think a record should have a song that shows up at the last minute, as well as a song that is really old (e.g. “Occasional Shivers” on this record).
Following my thought from the last question: as with your previous albums, your songs emit a great deal of warmth. Lovesick Blues seems to capture a essence of not only warmth, but perspective, joy, some melancholy and more importantly, hope. The positive vibe overrides any “darkness” and it links the songs together beautifully. Was it a key component to this record that the song flow reads like a novel?
The record originally started with the song “Lovesick Blues,” but Jeff and I decided that this didn’t quite work over the course of the whole record. I spent lots and lots of time on the sequence without breaking the code of it, was really stuck, then I was watching the band Megafaun and somehow their fantastical essence made me realize that “Skin” could start it, and it all fell into place. It’s not a novel, but it’s the kind of thinking that goes into putting together a short-story collection, I guess. Like I said before, I wanted it to work if you were lying in bed in the dark, listening to it; that was the goal. And that it be a record that would be comforting in some way, in the way that the blues is, although that might sound cloying or pretentious to admit to. A lot of this has to do with the key changes, where the key centers go to, song to song–this is usually the most important thing to me. Again, it originally didn’t have “Astronomy” or “You n Me n XTC” on it, and without them, it was too lopsided. Funny how that works.
Do you ever go back and listen to some of your previous works for reference to see where you’ve been and where you’d like to go? Is there any particular moment that you look back at and are especially fond of or are you of the mindset that it’s all about moving forward?
Sadly, I work on music so many hours each day in the studio that I usually need to rest my ears when I’m not in there. I listen to classical music in the early morning, on stations that broadcast on the internet. I know there is wonderful new music being made everywhere and I don’t like that I mostly only hear what I’m working on, but that’s the way it’s been for decades now. I rely on people I’m producing to tell me I “have to hear” x or y; if a few folks mention it, I’ll go search it out. As far as listening to my own records, I learned from George Massenberg to always wait ten years before hearing them after they are mastered – it takes me that long to have a clue what they are really about. Even then, I usually avoid them; I hear the trees and not the forest. For example, I know that the recording of the song “Oh Yeah” could have been great, I remember how I felt then and what I conceived it to be, and it’s very, very far from great, hardly even listenable really. But I can play it in my head and hear it the right way, yet if I play the record all I get is down. I can do good things with others as a producer, but when I’ve produced myself (usually because of budget restrictions), it generally goes awry, in my opinion. It was great to have Jeff Crawford with me for this record.
You’ve had a wonderfully long and interesting career. It’s well-documented from The Sneakers to Alex Chilton to The Golden Palominos and so on, plus producing and mixing. Do you enjoy the performing and writing side versus studio work; do you see them as equally pleasurable or exclusive of one another?
I like being around good music, wherever it comes from. I think of it like being a swimmer; if the air is vibrating around me, I’m happy to move my hands and feet as needed for navigation, it’s pleasurable just to be in the water so to speak. But if I could, I would write music each day and do nothing else except walk the dogs and hang out with my family and the ferrets. Having said that, I learn all the time from the projects I work on, and I’m grateful for the chance to do that.
Had tragedy not occurred when it did, was there a possibility for CAR Records to release more material with Chris Bell or was that just a one-off? Speaking of CAR, how come the studio version of “I Thought You Wanted To Know” isn’t available on CD or mp.3 yet?
I would have certainly talked to Chris Bell about putting out more of what he had to offer, but I could not have afforded to finance new recording by him–I could barely afford to manufacture the one single! But it was an honor to have done so, what a record!
“(I Thought) You Wanted to Know” was supposed to be on a Rhino collection, but they used the wrong tape by accident, for which I share the blame. It’d be nice if it came out somehow, wouldn’t it? I think the release of “If and When” was also the wrong tape.
When you’re not making music – or working on a musical project – what do you listen to these days?
I’m going to go back and hear the second Elliot Carter string quartet this weekend, as usual it’s death–in this case, his, earlier this week–that reminds us of music from our past. When I have time, I love to put a ride cymbal on a stand and get it vibrating with mallets, it’s really completely extraordinary how rich and varied the sounds are that come out of a good cymbal, I can listen to this cornucopia of harmonics for hours. My daughter plays Jukebox the Ghost and Ben Folds in the house these days, vinyl only, and it’s hard to argue with her taste!