From Big Star to End of Love: Jody Stephens discusses his myriad musical projects | Music
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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

From Big Star to End of Love: Jody Stephens discusses his myriad musical projects

Posted by on Wed, Jun 24, 2015 at 10:18 AM

  • Photo by Conni Freestone/Courtesy of Chris Stamey
If End of Love is not on your radar, that’s perfectly understandable. The power pop/Americana trio earned a small following for its club performances in the early ’00s but didn’t stay together long enough to make any records—until now. And while the band may not ring a bell, the personnel on its first record are names you might recognize, like Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Nels Cline and John Stirratt of Wilco, and drummer Jody Stephens of Big Star.

Speaking from Ardent Studios, the fabled recording venue for the Big Star records and End of Love’s forthcoming Ghosts on the Radio, Stephens filled us in on the chance meeting that got him involved with End of Love, as well as an exciting new project. End of Love plays Local 506 Friday.

I’m really enjoying life lately, getting to speak with people who previously only existed to me in my record collection. I just spoke with Chris Stamey, whose new LP is excellent. It opens with a super catchy song written by Ryan Adams.
JODY STEPHENS: Did he tell you the story about Ryan Adams? I was putting together this record of other artists covering Big Star songs. I happened to mention it to Mark Williams, at Outpost [Recordings]. At the time, they were a part of Geffen. Mark had signed Whiskeytown through Outpost. And he said you really should get Ryan Adams to do a track. He played a track for me of Ryan’s and, God, I thought it was perfect. So we worked it out, and Whiskeytown were coming. And the bass player and drummer quit, because they didn’t want to be signed to a major label, from what I understand. So Chris came and played bass and I played drums. It was “Give Me Another Chance.”

I asked him what made him pick up the bass, and he said you can always get work as a bass player.
That’s true. Good for him. But that was brilliant, watching and listening to that unfold. Ryan’s vocal was great—that’s what I was already sure of. But then Phillip [Wandscher] and Caitlin [Cary] got out and did background vocals, and it was just angelic. And they did it in 10 minutes. Jon and Ken [Auer and Stringfellow of the Posies] can do that, too. I’ve never seen anybody do background vocals like Caitlin and Philip and Jon and Ken.

You’ve got another great singer joining you next week with End of Love in Skylar Gudasz. Is she singing the parts originally sung by Jennifer Groves, the original End of Love vocalist?
As far as I know, and that’s what the record is going to be, with Skylar singing her parts.

Wait—you mean the record’s not done yet?
No. It was thought to be done once upon a time, and Jennifer apparently couldn’t do the dates and do what needed to be done. Elisa Peimer is going to be doing some lead vocals and some backing vocals.

How did you get involved?
I met Irwin [Menken, the band’s leader] in Barcelona. We were doing a Big Star Third Live there, and Irwin was playing bass for Lee Ranaldo. Sometime later, I went to New York for a Big Star documentary screening and wound up going out to eat with the film’s producer and director. And I walked into the Great Jones Diner, and “September Gurls” was playing. Bizarre. And then he walks up to me and says hello. He said I’m doing a record, and I’d like for you to play drums on a couple of tracks. Friends were on the record, too—Nels [Cline] and John Stirratt [of Wilco]—so it sounded like a good idea. Irwin and Jay [Deegan] came down, and we cut the two tracks here at Ardent. And then I’ve done a couple of gigs with them. This’ll be the third. We played in New York at the Bowery. Then we played another gig in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Irwin, in the meantime, had met Skylar [Gudasz] and Django Haskins in coming down to see Big Star’s Third in Washington, D.C. So he came up with the idea of having Skylar sing lead on most of the songs.

Everyone’s in different places. How do you get it together?
I’ve got a CD that I rehearse to. And we have a couple of rehearsals. The day before, we have a rehearsal. The day of, early afternoon we have a rehearsal. If everybody does their homework going into it, it’ll be a piece of cake.

What drew you to the music?
I liked it, and it was something I thought I might contribute something to. Sometimes I like stuff, and I don’t think I can add anything to that. I don’t think my playing drums on this would be a benefit to the music. And then sometimes I don’t like it, period, and I decline. It just seemed like a good time, good people, I love to play. I really like that whole community.

Obviously Big Star Third Live was instrumental in making this happen, but that’s been going for a good couple years now. Is there something a bit freeing about being able to go in and do something with no Big Star connection?
Yeah, there is. [Pause] To tell you the truth, it doesn’t matter whether there’s a Big Star connection there or not.

You’ve played those songs and seen them through so many incarnations, I would think a project like End of Love might be good fun for you just because it’s a 180 from what you’ve been doing. I know you played with Golden Smog, but it seems you’ve been immersed a bit in Big Star of late.
Yeah, Golden Smog was amazing. It was a side project for everyone. I don’t know that I would take a different approach. It wouldn’t have carried the same weight as doing a Big Star record. And I think that’s what the joy in doing that record was. It wasn’t a Jayhawks record, it wasn’t a Wilco record. Relax and have fun with it, but that’s to kind of imply that you don’t relax and have fun with your primary band…

Well, once you’ve established a legacy, isn’t there some obligation to honor it? It’s gotta be different with a new set of songs and new collaborators.
Yes, you’re right—there is a certain expectation attached to, I guess, everybody’s primary band. You have all these incredible songwriters and everybody contributes, so that’s gotta take a lot of weight off the folks who are the songwriters. End of Love is Irwin’s project, and Jay Deegan’s. It’s nice to be a part of it, but having said that, I have a new project called Those Pretty Wrongs that Luther Russell and I are doing together. We’ve done all the songwriting together. Pitchfork premiered “Lucky Guy” about a week or so ago, and then Stereogum premiered the flipside. There’s some people saying really nice things, and its all happened just by chance. Bizarre. 

Sounds like you’re in a really interesting period.
It’s amazing! So Luther was producing this artist, and he was delivering something to Sean Bohrman at Burger Records in Orange County. I had met Sean a year earlier, and he said, "Send me what you’re doing." Luther sent him a couple of tracks. And he said, "Hey, I want to release this on 7-inch. I’ll press 400 or 500, and that’ll be that." It was easy. We played a couple of dates at SXSW. Those were the first dates done under the band name. And then I sent Anne Litt a note at KCRW, and I’ll be damned if she didn’t contact Sean and get it, and play “Lucky Guy” on the air last Saturday. She did it again yesterday.

I think people are interested in whatever you do. Big Star has a bit of magic to it.
No pun intended, but I always felt like a pretty lucky guy being a part of that band. For me, I couldn’t have asked for a better situation to be in than with Alex and Chris and Andy.

What can you tell me anything about the set list for End of Love? Will you be doing all songs from the new LP or are there old End of Love songs from their early incarnation?
The new End of Love songs, and we’ll do a couple of Big Star songs, too.

Oh, cool. I’m not gonna ask which ones—I’ll let it be surprise.
I’m pretty sure I know which ones, but I looked at that email a long time ago. I play those songs all the time anyway, so it doesn’t matter.

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