Chris Stamey does not like leaving a lot to chance.
"The driveway is very tight and skinny. Be careful turning in," he says in a capitalized email that details instructions to his Chapel Hill music studio, Modern Recording. The text also includes the building materials of fences, the colors of doors and miles measured in increments of one-tenth.
"If you miss it and have to turn around," he warns, "the turn into the driveway will be even tighter."
When I arrive, having avoided the treacherous turnaround scenario, Stamey—an icon of North Carolina music for his decades of work with the dB's and the Sneakers, as a solo artist and an ace producer—awaits at the end of a long driveway, just past the house where he lives with his wife, Dana, and their daughter, Julia. He stands in front of the modestly apportioned Modern Recording, the room with the red door.
Stamey has just released his 11th solo record, Euphoria, a vibrant set that speaks to his lengthy résumé as a songwriter, musician, arranger, engineer and talent scout. Stamey's previous record, 2013's Lovesick Blues, delivered gentle chamber-pop, but Euphoria differs both in sound and sensibility. These songs sport the zing and ebullience of Stamey's preferred melodic jangle, with peppy bursts from the Uptown Horns adding vitality.
Though Stamey, 60, could easily keep busy with production work and side projects, his endless fascination with the craft of songwriting makes it seem inconceivable he will ever stop making music of his own. His approach combines the macro—envisioning songs in the mold of bygone sonic touchstones—and micro, with a meticulous focus on each tune's intricate architecture. On Euphoria, for instance, Stamey explored what he calls hinge moments, "places in songs—or in life—where you get a burst of energy to take it to a different plateau. Having those hinges correct is something I like to do. And this record has a lot to do with different ways of hinging the sections together."
Stamey's early successes came in the decidedly straightforward vein of power pop, but he has become increasingly sophisticated in his skills as both an arranger and orchestrator. In early 2011, he had an epiphany while in New York for Big Star Third Live, his labor-of-love series of concert salutes to the ill-fated Memphis band. Its late leader, Alex Chilton, once hired Stamey as a bass player and became his mentor.
In need of a suitable Chilton song for R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe to sing, Stamey selected "The Letter," a hit by Chilton's first group, The Box Tops. The understated brilliance of the original score stunned him.
"They were like haiku," he says of the song's separate parts. "They were so perfect. Just these little strings, one-note crescendos, a couple of toots. It really was a wake-up call, so on this record, I have tried to use the Uptown Horns and occasional strings or other colors in a much more minimal way. That's exciting to me."
Having spent roughly two-thirds of his six decades as a working musician, Stamey is now a consummate pop songsmith. He has also earned a reputation for being something of a stickler for detail. When mounting Big Star Third Live, Stamey acquired the original scores of the ramshackle LP, Third/Sister Lovers. Not quite satisfied, he wrote several more arrangements he describes as "even more esoteric."
And at a panel on the future of pop music at the Hopscotch Music Festival in 2011, he clashed with The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne about the nature of pop. He argued it was a matter of good material, studio skill, preparation and other workman-like essentials, while Coyne advocated for balloons and bananas. It was a telling standoff between spectacle and studiousness.
True to philosophy, Stamey's new record is the result of that same painstaking ideology and approach. It sounds like a rock record, but not because it happened spontaneously.
"It was all roughed out in notation," he explains. "Wes Lachot played a lot of the keyboards live, and he's reading music. The bass was notated. People were free to depart from it, but it was the same kind of notation that [famed producer] Jack Nitzsche might have done for a Phil Spector '60s session. It was not just, 'Look at my hands.'"
In Stamey's hands, songwriting seems both an expression of the creative urge and an advanced exercise in puzzle solving. As he goes through the album song-by-song, he repeatedly returns to the tiny, complex conundrums each one presented.
"It wasn't that hard to figure out how to get to C, it was hard to figure out how to get back to E," he offers of one number, stepping into a chain of key changes. "Once it's walked down chromatically to the C, it goes to a major 7, which lets it kind of get to the F major 7. But then you've gotten pretty far from the key of E minor, so to get back there, it goes to the F sharp minor 7, up to a B. But then when you go to the solo, the solo has landed in a different key ..."
You get the picture.
While composing entails a lot of mental exertion, Stamey says performing these songs in a stripped-down setup of two guitars, bass and drums remains a visceral pleasure.
"It's been really great in rehearsal to find that you don't have to have 15 violins onstage with you," he says. "It's great when you do, but you can actually lean in one direction in a rock band and conjure up something similar."
Stamey's last straight-up set of rocking originals, 2004's Travels in the South, deployed a motif of motion. But if Euphoria has a theme, he's not saying. Discussing the American Songbook-influenced ballad "You're Beautiful," Stamey fumbles for words and asks that we speak off the record. Later, he sends a link to a web post where he had described the song as a salute to his friends in the LGBTQ community.
"Without knowing the inspiration behind the song," he says, "the words seem a little more Hallmark than they actually are."
But sometimes things are better left unsaid, leaving listeners to tease out clues themselves. For Stamey, it's a way to incorporate chance into a very conscious process. In the late '80s, he was stuck in Paris, where he'd go see one painting, the pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, over and over. He thought about the landscape while writing "The Seduction," from 1987's It's Alright, though the song never references it.
"And I had a guy I know stop me on the street after the record came out, and he said, 'You know, that song reminds me of this painting.' Somehow there is an obscure level that images come through," he says. "Like, every line in 'Invisible' has to do with something specific that happened. I don't really know how you'd get there, but I'd like to think that you can pick up on it. I know that's kind of hippie thinking, but sometimes it works."
David Klein sat down with Chris Stamey in his Chapel Hill studio to talk about making Euphoria. The conversation roves from writing music with Ryan Adams to the influence of Gary Glitter, from the impact of local musicians on his songs to how forgoing wheat has helped his voice. Check out Stamey's track-by-track commentary while listening to the album in full.