I had the crazy idea that I could interview Chris Stamey about four different subjects—his recording studio, his new album, his work on a new album with his old band the dB's, and his ongoing series of Big Star tribute shows—in sequential quarters of an hour-long interview. But by the time Stamey had responded to the first question, he'd already touched on each of the subjects, at length, and without my intended organization.
This obsession with putting things into such neatly outlined categories is a journalist's hang-up; artists don't tend to view their work that way. "I don't look at myself as a songwriter, or as a musician, or as a photographer; those are just part of what I do," the multitalented Texan Butch Hancock once put it. "And if I'm a tractor driver one year, then I'm a tractor driver, but that's just part of what I do."
Being a producer, musician, songwriter, recording artist and project ringleader are all just parts of what Stamey, now 57, does. They occupy his mind and his daily schedule simultaneously. Collectively, they are what make him who he is.
Getting here took times and tales. In the mid-1970s, Stamey helped launch North Carolina's indie-pop legacy with Mitch Easter in the band Sneakers, and later with Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby and Gene Holder in the dB's. They planted the roots of a regional scene that flourished over the decades, on down from the Connells through Superchunk to Archers of Loaf, Ben Folds Five, The Mayflies USA, The Rosebuds and to and beyond Megafaun.
Stamey subsequently spent the 1980s in New York, where he teamed up with Big Star's Alex Chilton, collaborated with the Golden Palominos and began making solo records. His return to Chapel Hill in the '90s dovetailed with the region's alt-country heyday. Younger artists who respected his hard-earned experience and valued his artistic empathy sought him out, meaning he played a key role in the studio with area acts that soon became very familiar—Whiskeytown, Tift Merritt and Chatham County Line, to name a few.
He continued to write songs, too, if less frequently. A 2009 duo album with his old dB's pal Peter Holsapple, Here and Now, helped pave the way for a new dB's record, Falling Off the Sky, which is due June 12 via the label Bar/None. Stamey last released an album under his own name in 2004, but he's currently finishing a new disc titled Lovesick Blues, tentatively scheduled for release on Yep Roc Records early next year.
"I think a lot of people around here don't think of me as a songwriter at all," he says, referring specifically to artists who visit his studio. "In fact, I think I encourage that, because I want to be able to help them without them thinking I have an agenda."
Still, to paraphrase Whitman, Stamey's creative footprint is large, and contains multitudes. "I spent my time when atonal, fairly avant-garde music was what I did every day in university [at UNC in the early '70s], and I've done jazz things," he says. "So to be seen as the Whiskeytown producer or an alt-country guy or a power-pop guy and stuff like that—I don't mind those hats, but they're not my only hats."
If Stamey's pursuits are broad, what unites and drives them is the emotional pull that music itself seems to have on his soul. "When I was very young, like 5 years old, I learned that music had a really strong effect on me," he remembers. "And I really tried to get in situations where I was moved by it. It ended up where I am able to do that—whether I'm making it, or other people are making it."
For the past two decades, his desire to be moved by music has mostly manifested itself at Modern Recording, the modest studio Stamey runs in a small building behind his house on the south side of Chapel Hill. The studio actually used to be in the house, until he hired the renowned local studio architect Wes Lachot to build a new place out back.
"When I moved down here in '93, recording in a cool old house was still the thing. And we bought a cool old house, and recorded in it for years," Stamey says. "You get a kind of sound from untuned spaces. I did that for quite a while, and what I really wanted was a small place where I could hear accurately, because that's what was going away. Everybody was recording in a house."
Stamey is quick to note the value of many other house-based studios in the Triangle, including those run by Mark Simonsen of The Old Ceremony (Studio D) and the trio of Jeff Crawford, Nick Jaeger and James Wallace (Arbor Ridge Studios). Oftentimes, those producers will bring their almost-finished records to Modern Recording for the final step.
"They'll come over here and do mixing at night or whatever, and they can actually tell what it really sounds like in a more linear way," Stamey explains. "I feel like my place is a good cog in the studio wheel around here. It also helps other studios get a little more confident in what they're doing, after coming here and listening."
That cooperation and its itinerant sense of community have influenced nearly all of Stamey's musical endeavors over the past couple of years. Crawford, for instance, became such a trusted ally that Stamey enlisted him to produce Lovesick Blues. He's also part of the core contingent in Stamey's Big Star tribute band, which made a big splash at South by Southwest in Austin last month and heads overseas in a few weeks for shows in London and Barcelona.
In some respects, it was the Big Star project that fostered these community connections. In late 2010, Stamey and a large ensemble launched a series of ambitious concerts that re-created the band's legendary album Third. Members of adventurous area acts The Old Ceremony and Lost in the Trees joined with musicians from the North Carolina Symphony such as Karen Strittmatter Galvin, rising artists from Crawford's orbit, and historically key figures such as Big Star drummer Jody Stephens. Together, they created a sort of pop/ classical hybrid approach to Big Star's work.
Though Stamey's relationship with Big Star frontman Alex Chilton was pivotal—"He changed my life with his gracious insight into recording," Stamey says—the shows were not intended as a tribute to Chilton, who passed away in 2010.
"It wasn't to honor him; it was to honor the piece of music," he says. "Composers do this with other composers' work to get inside it, and as a challenge. And the other thing is to make it live in the air, instead of in jail on a CD somewhere."
There's also a longer-term vision: "The idea is, we're polishing up the scores—the written portion of it—so that it's something people could play in a hundred years. And maybe the music will live a little longer that way," Stamey says. "When Alex died, there was such a spotlight on the music for a minute that it seemed like it would never go away. But I know that things can be forgotten very quickly."
Whatever may come of Big Star's music in future centuries, the impact of the project on Stamey and his cohorts has been profound. "When I asked Jeff Crawford to produce me on this new solo record, one of the ideas we had was to bring this new community into it," Stamey says. "And it's been fantastic to have some of the camaraderie that was associated with the Big Star concerts carry over into new recordings and other projects."
Many of these musicians not only became the band for Stamey's new record, but he says they also serve the same roles on a load of local records. They back one another up, expand each others' ideas and constantly return the favors. If Stamey's place in that scene is as a sort of elder statesman, he seems content with that—partly because of what the younger players bring to the table.
"I do feel like I'm part of this community where, because I've been doing this longer than a lot of the other people, I can give them some of the things I've picked up, and perspective," he says. "And in return, I learn all this new stuff, from, you know, Jeff, or the Old Ceremony guys, or really everybody who comes in."
Stamey seems particularly grateful that the level of musicianship among these players has raised the bar above what he tends to hear in pop music these days. "It's a harmonic wasteland we're in; it's reduced down to two or three chords, and it's just cooking without spices," he observes. "But Max Indian opened it up a little bit, and all these people—I thought Brett Harris did really interesting things on his last record, harmonically. It wasn't just the same basic Crayola options."
Such musical innovation doesn't come easy, but that interest in forward momentum is important to Stamey, he says, something that makes him admire other musicians. In an era when guitar pedals and computer plug-ins can make a simple chord sound like most anything else, he likes watching musicians push their abilities past the distractions. Last year, in fact, he returned to UNC to take music classes to help shape the direction of Lovesick Blues.
"I went back to remember what it was like to write on paper," he explains. "It was interesting to me to try to write the record, rather than record it and then mix it. ... Instead of actually walking into a mix and carving something out, I would arrange the record. I wouldn't turn up an echo at one spot—I would add a flugelhorn. I'd made a lot of records happen by mixing, and it has kind of gotten old to me."
The painstaking care and effort Stamey applies to his musical endeavors is reflected during our interview. Even as he speaks, he's constantly editing himself, tinkering with words, reconsidering how his thoughts might come across: "Let's see how to put this." ... "Let me answer that better." ... "No, that's not the right thing." ... "I'm really rambling here." ... "Does that sound OK?"
If all of this makes Stamey sound like a rather serious and sophisticated artist, well, that's probably a fair characterization. Brett Harris' work with Stamey has extended beyond the Big Star project and into the dB's crew as a supporting player; he somewhat ruefully recalls a panel at last year's Hopscotch Music Festival where Stamey played the role of the overly formal authority, someone who might stifle free-flowing musical expression.
But Stamey's considerable knowledge and experience ultimately serve to expand his creative horizons, not limit them. Across the disciplines, great artists generally master their craft before they become visionaries. It's true what they say about needing to learn the rules before you can break them. For Stamey, mastering the basics lets him try new ideas with his own music and with that of others—so that, in the end, it could have the most impact possible.
"The fact that [music] affects me deeply helps me help other people. Because when I'm not being moved by it, I think, 'What's wrong?' And often it's things like the key is wrong, or the structure is wrong," he explains. "I think that is my essential gift: Music has a great affective quality on me, and everything else kind of stems from that."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tiny universe."