Interview with Big Star’s Jody Stephens and Rock Journalist Rob Kemp, Plus Comments by The Posies’ Jon Auer & Ken Stringfellow – HuffPost 9.14.09
At the time of its release, Big Star’s album #1 Record was supposed to fulfill the prophecy of its title, it being cleverly dubbed so for marketing purposes while revealing a tad of the foursome’s humor. But Big Star’s debut — starring former Box Top member Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Jody Stephens, and Andy Hummel — never rose to such heights, and the group’s Bell-less follow up Radio City (as in the venue such a phenomenally successful band naturally would play) commercially glimmered even less. A third album, Third/Sister Lovers, barely made it out of the gate and was all but an Alex Chilton showcase. However, over the years, history has recast Big Star in a different light, as a seminal band that influenced everyone from R.E.M. to Matthew Sweet, practically inventing the power pop genre along the way. To celebrate the group’s very real contribution to popular music, on September 15, Rhino is releasing three discs of those three albums’ key tracks, alternate versions, demos, rare mixes, as well as a fourth disc that contains various live performances of the Stars at Memphis Lafayette Music Room. The following are some sentiments and reminiscences on the band:
Mike Ragogna: At the time, did you think that #1 Record was going to be an important one?
Jody Stephens: Right after we worked up the first song, I went, “Damn, that’s a great song!” Then there was our first adventure into the studio together and that process … getting things mixed, and the revelation while hearing those things that it was becoming an important record to me. Outside of that, you know, none of the records were hits. We would have ads at particular radio stations — I think WBCN in Boston — and we were getting some really great press. John King was the publicist and marketing guy at Ardent. He made sure the right music journals got the record.
MR: And there was consistent critical acclaim, right?
JS: The reviews were wonderful, that was all pretty exciting. But at some point, Stax took their distribution deal to Columbia and that just didn’t work out.
MR: All fingers seem to point at the distribution deal being the main problem.
JS: We’d do these records and be really proud and excited about them, and it was enough for me to hold them in my hands. Both Andy and I were going to school at the time, and Big Star was not really a full time venture for any of us. From my understanding, no one was really interested in managing us, and their were no booking agents who were stepping up and booking the band. So we had a lot of time to kill, Andy and I went to school, and we had part time jobs and stuff.
MR: Did you tour a little to support the record?
JS: Emphasis on the word “little.” After the release of the first album, Chris, Andy, Alex and I all piled into a minivan with another band and did some gigs around Mississippi and maybe Alabama. Andy dubbed it “The BC Tour” because they were cities like Corinth and Athens and all Greek names. And we played City Park in New Orleans. But that was about the extent of that touring.
MR: How about touring for the second album?
JS: Andy, Alex and I flew up to New York to play Max’s Kansas City, where we traded sets with Ed Begley Jr …
MR: These days, you and Alex are joined by The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer and still play out, right?
JS: The four of us get together, and the last time we played in the States was in October 20, 2008 at the Filmore in San Francisco. Last year we played Shepherd’s Bush in London, and then a date just north of London. This year, we played in Málaga, Spain, then we went back to London and played a date in Hyde Park with Junior Sticks, and now we’re booked to play the Masonic temple in Brooklyn on November 18, so that will be our third date for the year.
MR: Is touring still fun?
JS: I can’t imagine doing this if it wasn’t fun. It’s such a gas playing that it makes it all worthwhile.
MR: Who have you played with over the years since Big Star?
JS: I played in a band The Suspicions, they were kind of a power pop or power punk band. I played with a guy named Keith Sykes, some cover bands, and I sat in with Matthew Sweet on a record, and Elliott Smith. I just did some overdubs with the Afghan Whigs, Bill Loyd, and was a band member of Golden Smog on the Weird Tales record.
MR: What were the internal dynamics of Big Star after #1 Record? Was there any drama due to the great expectations?
JS: Being in a band is much like in a marriage, and you share things that are intimate. You’re about as vulnerable in sitting down to be creative with someone as you are being in a relationship with someone in terms of love. So, there were typical moments when there’d be a rub in personalities. But there was no real tension that was chronic between Chris and Andy, or Chris and Alex, or any of us really.
MR: Why did Chris Bell leave the group?
JS: Chris left the band, I think, because he was disappointed with the results of #1 Recordand also with the fact that the press focused on Alex given that he’d had success with The Box Tops. It was only natural for music writers to focus on Alex because of that success. I think Chris saw himself, maybe, as living in that shadow, and didn’t really care to do that. So Chris left the band, it wasn’t about band chemistry at all or personalities, it was more about that.
MR: And you and Alex played on Chris’ album?
JS: Yeah, we all remained good friends. Alex wound up singing on a few things of Chris’ like “You And Your Sister,” and there are some other interactions included on the (I Am The Cosmos) reissue that’s coming out. I played drums on some tracks, and even Andy participated.
MR: Over the many years that have passed since the early Big Star days, you’ve stayed pretty active playing music. That’s pretty impressive these days.
JS: I’m lucky enough that I can be in music and I get a paycheck every couple of weeks. But even as Big Star, I don’t know that we all could make careers out of being in it.
MR: Do you have any advice for new bands as they try to have a life in music?
JS: I’d say play the music that strikes your fancy. Play stuff that comes out of you without a whole lot of thought about it…that just comes naturally. And have a good time with it, because making a career out of it is even more difficult these days. Learn all the social networking on the internet. So, have fun with it, if you’re able to make a living at it, that’s great. If not, well, you have something entertaining to do.
Jon Auer of Big Star and The Posies:
“The Posies started while I was still in my teens. I moved around a lot when I was a kid but basically grew up in a small college town called Bellingham, about 80 miles north of Seattle, Washington. When I finished high school, I moved to Seattle to get a shot at better Posies gigs and landed a job at a record store. A manager at the shop heard me play some of my Posies music on the in-house stereo system one day and forcibly walked me over to the vinyl section and handed me a copy of Big Star’s reissued Radio City, said it was ‘on him.’ He told me to go straight home after work and drop the needle on ‘September Gurls,’ which I did.
“Ever hear that cliché about meeting someone for the first time and you feel like you’ve met them before, maybe even known them your whole life? It might sound corny, but that was definitely my experience. ‘September Gurls’ was undeniable. It was such a perfect pop song, a superlative performance and recording. Still is.
“Beyond that, I’ve been very touched by the darker, moody elements of Big Star, especially things like ‘Daisy Glaze’ and ‘Nightime.’ In my book, it’s essential to include ‘I Am the Cosmos’ by Chris Bell which has been a profound influence as well. It’s just an out-of-the-emotional-park number, a spiritual as far as I am concerned. It may be the most heartbreaking song of all time. My last solo CD Songs from the Year of Our Demisearguably reflects these kinds of songs: the melodic married with the melancholy. It’s a perfect marriage if you ask me.”
Ken Stringfellow of Big Star and The Posies:
“Big Star opened a huge door for me, where something truly avant garde and alternative could be made with structure, pop appeal, and top class recording quality. Not an underachievement to be appreciated to be glimpsed through the patina of shoddy recordings or half-assed playing, these records let their light shine unabashed…and still managed to miss connecting with an audience in their initial run. This added to my equation of what to aspire to, and what not to take personally should my shiny attempts at similar perfection (attemps, I said) see a similar fate.”
Big Thoughts on Big Star from New York rock critic Rob Kemp:
Mike Ragogna: Rob, what do you love most about this group?
Rob Kemp: As much as most folks lionize Alex Chilton, I love Big Star best when Chilton collaborated with Chris Bell on #1 Record. Bell was pretty much the Robert Johnson of power-pop: the second side of #1 and I Am the Cosmos are every bit as haunted and soulful as King of the Delta Blues Singers. Although the band were dyed in the wool British invasion fans, it couldn’t help but sound a good deal more soulful than, say, Badfinger or the Raspberries: growing up in Memphis in the 1960s is gonna have that effect.
MR: What do you think was Big Star’s contribution to music?
RK: It seems like power-pop nerds and younger musicians have identified with Big Star for twenty years, and as such, have been invested with the perception that “they coulda been contenders.” That’s powerful mythology, but not as powerful as the band’s music often is.
MR: Which bands do you think were the most influenced by Big Star?
RK: Obviously, there’s the Replacements, Cheap Trick (they recorded “Out in the Street” as the theme for That ’70s Show) the DBs, and every power-pop band ever post 1973. But I swear to God that Motley Crue’s Mick Mars quoted “Try Again” in a guitar solo once, so I reckon he liked ’em!