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The Popdose Interview: Jody Stephens (Big Star)

When it comes to bands whose critical acclaim far outweighs their record sales, few can compete with Big Star. The band, which initially featured guitarists Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens, recorded three albums—#1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers—before breaking up in 1974, but while none of the records were what you’d call commercially successful (and, boy, is that an understatement), the cult following surrounding Big Star’s back catalog continued to grow over the years, resulting in Chilton and Stephens reviving the band in the mid-1990s with the help of Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies.

Sadly, with Bell having been killed in a car crash in 1978 and Chilton and Hummel dying in 2010 (of a heart attack and cancer, respectively), Stephens is the only original member of Big Star still among us, but the history of the band as well as the influence they had—and continue to have—on other musicians has been told in a new film entitled Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. Although time was tight, Popdose was able to secure a few minutes with Stephens to discuss the documentary and delve into the history and discography of the band that brought so much jangly goodness to the masses.

Popdose: Even after all of the acclaim Big Star’s gotten over the years, it’s still got to be at least a little surreal to find the band the subject of a documentary.

Jody Stephens: It is! I mean, y’know, we all thought it was done with when Alex and I parted ways in late ’74, early ’75. [Laughs.] We thought it was done with, but then all of a sudden, I pick up a Rolling Stone, and Mike Mills is talking about the band and Peter Buck was saying some nice things. Apparently, music writers kind of kept it alive from time to time…because, initially, they were really Big Star’s audience. So we owe them a lot…and by them, I mean people like yourself…because you’re all kind of helping to keep this whole thing alive, which is cool. But to be the subject of a documentary? It’s awesome! Somebody spent six years of their life…Danielle (McCarthy), the producer, and Drew DeNicola, the director, and their crew spending all these years putting this thing together, this video scrapbook…it’s pretty amazing.

It’s remarkably successful as far as capturing the whole Big Star, both the highs and the lows.

It is. All in all, I think it’s a pretty wonderful story. And, y’know, at the end of the day, we as four people together at first…and then three, and then two…all made records that I was proud of, so that was enough reward there, but then… [Starts to chuckle.] Y’know, I joke about how we did these three records, we broke up, and then we were on the 18-year marketing plan. The word-of-mouth marketing plan.

My understanding is that the Big Star story begins, for all practical purposes, when Alex came to see a performance by Icewater, the band that you, Chris Bell, and Andy Hummel were in. Is that more or less accurate?

It is, but…I’m not sure what we were calling ourselves. Either Icewater or Tommy Tutweiler and the Twisters. [Laughs.] We used that for one gig, and it may have been that one. But what I do know is that it was at, like, a FVW hall in downtown Memphis. And Alex came and joined in, and then all of a sudden things began to gel, because Alex and Chris worked so well together as writers. And then Stax was looking to put together or to have a label to serve as a rock brand for their organization, and John Fry, who was Big Star’s mentor and engineer, he had a great relationship with Al Bell, so…that’s how it all came together. Sorry, I lost my train of thought there!

No worries. So how did you, Chris, and Andy first come together?

I met Andy when I was 13. He was in a band with my brother. I’d actually met him through a mutual friend of ours, a guy named Mike Fleming, but then Andy and my brother Jimmy were in a band together. And then I went several years without seeing Andy, but I played drums in the first college production of Hair – I was actually still in high school, so being able to play drums in that production was pretty amazing – and Andy went to see it and then came up after the show and kind of reintroduced himself and said, “Hey, some friends of mine and I are getting together, you wanna come over and play?” And I said, “Sure!” And it turned out to be at Chris Bell’s parents’ house. Chris was there, and Steve Ray, and maybe Terry Manning, and, of course, Andy. So that was kind of the beginnings of that. That’s how the three of us came together.

Chris and Alex obviously had that immediate chemistry, but how readily did you and Andy take to working with Alex?

Easily. [Laughs.] I mean, wow, when you’ve got great songs to inspire you, it’s pretty easy. Although, y’know, I was coming from just having been in a cover band, so I had these drum parts all written out for me for these songs we were covering, but then all of a sudden I’m playing with Chris and Andy in the studio, and I’m having to create drum parts with Alex. So I was always a bit worried like, “God, hopefully I come up with something worthy of this song!” Because the songs, I thought, were wonderful. But actually working with Alex was easy.

Big Star’s debut album had a bold title: #1 Record. Was that optimism, sarcasm, or ego?

Oh, y’know, we were called Big Star, the album was called #1 Record…I mean, it really is kind of pretentious. [Laughs.] I was uncomfortable with the name Big Star for awhile. But I think it was Chris, because he was so enthusiastic and…he had this great vision. Chris worked his butt off. I mean, he and Alex would just spend hours in the studio on guitar sounds and guitar parts and how their guitars interplayed with each other. Chris, I guess, thought we would be big stars. But also I think he kind of liked the pretentiousness of it. The story is that they were sitting outside Ardent Studios, they’re getting high, and they look across the street, and there’s a Big Star grocery store there – y’know, it had a big neon star across it – and that was the inspiration. So… [Hesitates.] Sorry, man, I lost my train of thought again!

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You’re fine. I’m sure you haven’t had to do this kind of promo in awhile.

[Laughs.] I’ve got to tell you, this level is completely new to me!

#1 Record obviously didn’t end up being prophetically titled, but Big Star kept at it, producing a second album (Radio City) which, for my money, is your best. What are your thoughts on it, though?

I love Radio City. It’s a great rock record for me. But, y’know, I also love #1 Record. It’s hard for me to single out something because my perspective is…well, I think the general population, or at least people into Big Star and are familiar with the music, may say the same, but my feelings about the band are drawn from all three records. There’s a certain innocence to the first record, some really sweet songs, like “Thirteen.” And “Try Again,” which maybe isn’t so sweet, but it’s very emotional. “Feel,” I always thought that was a great song. I don’t know, each album had its own personality, and I tend to put the three of them put together.

Y’know, even now, I don’t know how much people incorporate In Space into that. For the longest time, it was just whatever anybody thought about Big Star was derived from those three records. Emotionally, they all took you someplace different. There was innocence, then a bit of sophistication with Radio City, and then kind of sense of things falling apart or of melancholy with (Third/Sister Lovers), but there’s still some very sweet stuff on the third album. So it’s hard singling just one out. But I’ve got to tell you that my favorite drum sound is probably Radio City.

You mentioned In Space. How do you rate that as a Big Star album? Or do you view it more as just you and Alex and a couple of Posies?

Well, I think it’s a Big Star record in the sense that… [Hesitates.] Well, y’know Jon and Ken are pretty well versed in Big Star’s music, so they took that into the studio, but Alex had this thing about wanting to keep it positive, but then he also had this spontaneous thing of saying, “Let’s write and record a song a day!” So we’d each kind of bring in ideas on a daily basis and knock ‘em out. I think there’s some really great melodies and great harmonies and stuff via Jon and Ken, but…I dunno, I do think it’s a Big Star record, but I know it’s kind of hard to get to that place, given the impression that the first three albums give. But, hell, I’ve played with Jon and Ken for 20 years now! [Laughs.]

Do you feel that the Keep an Eye on the Sky box set is a good representation of the band’s career for someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t just want to get the regular albums?

Yeah, I think Cheryl Pawelski and the folks at Rhino at that time did a brilliant job of putting it all together. It was two years in the making, and, of course, they did it with John Fry’s guidance and help. And Adam Hill played a large part in getting those recordings together. In some cases, if something wasn’t mixed, John Fry and Adam Hill would do some mix work. We were fortunate that they have all that gear still, so they could still kind of capture that sound of the period. [Hesitates.] I think I’ve got to go. They’re telling me I have to give up the phone.

Okay, well, I can’t get off the line with you without saying that I’m a Van Duren fan.

Oh, cool!

I know he ties into the Big Star a little bit, but I bring it up just because I really love one of your co-writes with him: “The Love That I Love,” the last song on his debut, Are You Serious?

Yeah! It was such a good time working with him and writing those songs with him. Van’s awesome.