Ardent Studios in Memphis
, where the band found its sound and recorded its three timeless LPs. He’s been there ever since, as A&R director and wearer of many hats.
Stephens has never stopped keeping the Big Star flame alive, from the 1990s reunion shows through his current work with Big Star Third
Live. When we spoke with the man who was one half of the titular Sister Lovers
by phone last week, he was at the studio and had been re-familiarizing himself with songs from his band’s debut, #1 Record
, which will be played in full along with the project’s established repertoire
next Friday at Cat’s Cradle.
INDY: This project has been going for three years now in different permutations. What is it about this record that makes it endure this way?
It’s very emotionally engaging. There are very sweet, pretty melodies that Alex created and vulnerably delivered. It’s that thing where music touches people in different ways. And at the end of the day, whatever it is it’s some sort of emotional connection. It certainly has a lot to do with Alex’s voice and the material and the honesty of the material. I don’t know—honesty endures, I guess.
You’ve said each Big Star record captures where Chilton and the band were at a certain moment. This project captures quite a fraught moment, the moment of disillusion. Isn’t there something kind of ironic about that? In a sense isn’t curious that you’re not revisiting Radio City?
In part, and I can only guess because it was Chris Stamey
’s idea. He’s said what differentiates the third from the other two is the string section. There’s a lot of magic in those strings, and it’s a unique experience because of that. It’s the song and the material but it’s unique of the three because of Carl Marsh’s string arrangements. That’s probably the reason why we’re doing this.
Does your love of strings in pop derive from contemporary pop like the Beatles or is there a classical element?
For me, it’s derived from “Eleanor Rigby” in particular. Definitely Beatles. I guess maybe Procol Harum were in there, too. Primarily from contemporary music. Not necessarily strings, but I know Andy was into classical music and that influenced some of his writing, like “Way Out West,” and that melody line.
Now that you’ve really grown into playing and performing these songs, do they feel like old friends or is there still something elusive or unknowable about this music?
Well, for drums, it’s interesting. I just started going over “My Life Is Right” from our first album, and we’ll be doing the first album and the third album. And I really hadn’t paid very close attention to that song in a long time, and for me it was like, wow, that’s kind of interesting that whole bass drum pattern and what I played. I was 17, I think, when I played those drums, so it was a nice look back at myself at that age, and Chris and Andy and Alex. I just focused on my drum parts, but it’s always fascinating, because Chris [Bell, co-founder of Big Star] and Alex had this sense of arrangement so that there was always something new to discover on the first Big Star record. And even on the second record, the melodies were unique melody lines. Alex’s approach to playing guitar and Andy’s approach to playing bass, we all had influences, but they had so much personal character in the way that they delivered those. It’s always an interesting discovery to say, "Oh, that’s exactly what Andy did."
Are there moments that you look forward to during these performances?
I love hearing Skylar Gudasz on “Thirteen,” and Brett Harris, whatever he sings. You know, I don’t get to hear these songs that often. So when I do, and I hear these people deliver it and hear the strings accompany them, there’s a real sense of magic.
The cool thing about the strings is Chris Stamey got Carl Marsh to re-chart those strings cause he’d lost the original, and John Fry [the owner/engineer of Ardent Studios] got the multi-tracks and took the strings off, and Carl re-charted. Unlike me, who plays from memory, you have a string player who looks at the chart and plays it verbatim. I mean note-for-note, so it’s almost like a photograph of the music that’s being carried out live. It’s an exact duplication of what it was, without any variance except for feel, and I know that can be major, but it’s the exact performance every time, which is pretty amazing.
Though initially Big Star was to a large degree a critic’s band, the endurance of Big Star, and the place the band holds, and this project in particular, derives from the people, not the critics. Is that especially gratifying?
It is, but while it’s not coming from critics, rock writers are the reason we have an audience. I’m always grateful to people like yourself, people who write about music, because without you and without those folks in the ’70s, we wouldn’t have an audience. And without [music promoter] John King getting the music to those writers, we wouldn’t have an audience. I’ve said this in other interviews: The only big Big Star audience that Big Star played to in the ’70s was the rock writers convention. That’s the only audience where people knew the lyrics and sang along.
That must have been pretty gratifying at that point.
It was awesome. And we got together back in ’93, and now we have lots of Big Star audiences. It’s still incredibly gratifying.
Your involvement in the first series of these shows was critical to getting it off the ground. Did you think it had legs?
When Chris approached John Fry and me about doing this show, we both thought it was an impractical undertaking—given the number of folks involved, and the expense would be prohibitive, and whoever’s organizational skills would have to be pretty damn good. And I guess we just underestimated Chris Stamey on both of those. Musically he’s brilliant, but his skills at getting this all together and being tenacious about it are pretty amazing. We’re also lucky to have Ken Stringfellow to help out from time to time. He brings some pretty massive skills, not only his talents but he’s an amazing tour manager.
How bittersweet is it for you to carry on the legacy of Big Star?
I’m amazingly lucky 1. To still be here. 2. In general to still be at Ardent, working here at Ardent Studios and be able to continue playing this music is pretty amazing. It’s nothing you plan.
The reason we’re able to do this is people like you are interested. You write about it and the folks at Cat’s Cradle were interested in doing this, and the folks at the university were interested in doing it. We couldn’t be doing this without a tremendous amount of interest and help from people outside even this group that we call Big Star Third
Live. The folks at the Barbican in London had to step up and say, "Hey we want you to do this, here’s this money to do this." Sometimes we don’t make any money, but it’s never a lot. The show is so expensive to do, but people find the money to help us put this show on.
Was that the case with the show in Sydney in January?
I can’t imagine the expense of that show. My flight alone was like $2,300. That was coach, mind you.
A bunch of singers from some first-wave Aussie indie bands came aboard in Sydney. Seems as if using local musicians as vocalists has become one of the show’s key elements.
That’s the key. It has to have meant something to them for them to get involved. The delivery of the song—it’s so much about the spirit of the delivery. It’s far more than just hitting the right notes.
In the wake of Big Star’s dissolution in 1974, drummer Jody Stephens stayed on at