Jody Stephens has outlived every other member of Big Star, the commercially unsuccessful group of friends who produced three albums in the 1970s, crystallizing the genre of “power pop” and eventually becoming near legendary for having done so. The group had unreasonable expectations of pop infamy, fell short and ultimately splintered, leaving behind at least one tragic death, a heap of unanswered potential and an increasingly unimpeachable legacy encouraged by the quality of the music itself, which is ghostly and compulsively catchy and seemed dated-on-arrival in the most productive possible way. Stephens, the band’s drummer and affable “anchor” (as he puts it) and director of A&R at Ardent Records, will be in town Friday, May 2, to introduce a screening of the recently released documentary “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me,” and to participate in a post-screening Q&A. We spent an hour on the phone last week discussing awesome jackets, T.G.I. Fridays and Three Six Mafia. Here’s our conversation:
Tell me about meeting Andy Hummel and Chris Bell.
I was still in high school and I was playing drums in the University of Memphis’ production of “Hair.” I’d somehow lucked into playing drums for that and my brother played bass. Andy saw the play and came up afterwards and said, “We’re putting a band together, want to come over and play some?” And I said sure.
Turned out to be at Chris Bell’s parents’ house. They had this house that they’d moved to the back of their property. Like a small 1920s home. That’s where we jammed, back there. It didn’t have heat except for whatever electric heaters we would bring in. So in the wintertime it wasn’t great.
Then, of course, I wind up over at Ardent, meeting [engineer, studio founder] John Fry. The first time I went there, Chris and Steve Ray were working. They had a project called Icewater, Steve and Chris. John taught them both how to engineer. They would hit record and then run out into the studio and record the basic tracks. The whole reason I was invited over to play drums was that Steve Ray was leaving for college and they needed a new drummer. Thank God for higher education.
We were pretty responsible kids, at least we were while Ardent was over on National [Street], because National was in the middle of nowhere, so there wasn’t much trouble to get into. Nobody got into trouble until Ardent moved over a couple of blocks from Overton Square. That became the center of the music-slash-liquor-by-the-drink universe for Memphis. They lowered the drinking age to 18 in the midst of all the Baby Boomers — I mean, there were thousands of people down there. There was T.G.I. Fridays and three or four bars had music, and it was an opportunity to let your inhibitions go.
I talked to a friend of yours recently, Rick Clark, and he told me to ask you how you always managed to have the coolest rock ‘n’ roll jackets in the band in those old promo photos.
Because I worked at Chelsea Ltd.! It was a store just down on the square, a couple of blocks from Ardent. And I could borrow. That coat on the back of “Radio City” was borrowed. When Chelsea opened its doors we had access to all these cool clothes, but they were expensive, they were all imports. The owner of the store had been a model in London, so she had all these contacts with Granny Takes a Trip and all these cool clothing manufacturers. So we all started wearing these clothes, right around “Radio City.” I worked there for maybe six or seven months so I got a discount.
There’s a promo shot of me wearing some platform boots, and that’s where they’d come from. It’s funny, because they’d trace your foot and send it off to England and send them back. They came back about a quarter of an inch too short, so I could wear them, but not comfortably. So I just wore them in a few pictures. I haven’t seen anything like Chelsea since, or really any kinds of cool clothes, since that era of the ’70s. I wish I still had some of those shirts.
Ardent had a longtime relationship with Stax. Did you meet any of their artists?
We always came in after they’d finished but I remember coming in and seeing Staple Singers tapes. They’d cut the tracks down in Muscle Shoals, then [producer, engineer] Terry Manning might do an overdub or two. Like on “Respect Yourself,” there’s this little ARP synth part that weaves its way through it, and that’s Terry. John Fry worked with Luther Ingram and they both worked with Booker T. and Isaac Hayes. They did “Hot Buttered Soul” at Ardent, which was a challenge because all those songs were like 15 minutes long. I think every major Stax artist worked at Ardent except Otis Redding.
How important was John Fry to the Big Star sound?
Chris Bell was really in the producer seat for the first Big Star record and Alex [Chilton] was certainly in the producer seat for Radio City. Doesn’t mean there weren’t contributions from other folks, but they were the primary pilots for those. John Fry was the engineer, but the way he recorded and mixed those records — that was musical input, creative input. John’s records sparkle, and a lot of other records back then sounded pretty dull in comparison.
He was a smart guy. He had his parents convert their garage into a proper studio and was putting short-wave radios together and pirate broadcasting. He’d incorporated Ardent and had his first 45 in hand when he was just a month into being 15 years old. John had a sense of purpose. He says the reason he got out of it was because the knobs got too small. But you know, there are long hours that go into it, and I think he wanted out of that. He taught and mentored other engineers — Jim Dickinson, Terry Manning, even some of the Stax engineers.
Where do you feel most in your element, in the studio or live?
I love both, personally. From the beginning, though, I mean “#1 Record” was definitely a studio record. We had the ability to just go out and try parts until they worked, and you don’t get that except in a studio. Chris would sit in the studio for hours working on guitar parts and vocals. All those melodies and performances just kind of came out of thin air. Doesn’t mean we didn’t put time into stuff, listening to The Kinks and Procol Harum and Lou Reed. It all finds its way in when you’re working. There’s nothing quite like the studio, though.
The production approach on the first two albums is so different from that on “Third.” Did you have a preference?
It’s hard to say. Maybe the best comparison is with a person: It’s hard to say what one trait of a person is appealing, because it’s more about a series of their expressions and actions. It’s the same with Big Star. The first is a thoughtfully produced record and has very innocent topics, songs like “Thirteen” and “In The Street.” And then Chris leaves the band and Alex takes over producing, and with “Radio City,” there’s the introduction of this worldly sophistication to some extent. Everything’s a bit edgier. Alex was changing his guitar sound, my drums were different. Those are my favorite drum sounds on “Radio City.” Then the third album is pretty dark, or darkly sweet. It’s pretty bitter. Songs like “Thank You Friends,” which to this day nobody can figure out if it’s sarcasm or not.
I’ve always wondered that, listening to the record. Especially “Jesus Christ.”
Yeah, and you know at that moment, I didn’t know, either. I know Alex said he opened up a Presbyterian hymnal and apparently was inspired by some of the lyrics. But to tell you the truth, I don’t know what he was thinking. The sad thing is, there are so many people we can no longer go to and ask about these things. Steve Ray, Andy, Chris, Jim Dickinson.
What was your experience of making “Third”? How did you feel about it at the time?
I was alternately perplexed and inspired. I remember, say, the bass player playing something really pretty and Alex asking him to playing something else that was off and weird. Jim Dickinson played drums some of the time, which helped with that deconstruction vibe of it — that feeling that things seem to be falling apart emotionally — because he wasn’t a drummer. And then we’d practice something and say “OK, I think I got it, let’s do it,” and Jim or Alex would say, “No, that’s it, that’s fine, we got it.” They’d recorded it. People would still be finding their way through the songs, and there’s something Alex always achieved by getting those types of [accidental] performances from people. It’s pretty brilliant really. If the songs had been played too well, where you didn’t have that spontaneity, it would have just sounded typical.
That “Third” album was a mystery for me. It took a while to appreciate what it was, and how brilliantly John and Jim and Alex achieved what Alex was going through emotionally at the time. I also heard that Alex wasn’t involved in the mix because Jim thought he would ruin it, I don’t know. But it’s a brilliant mix. There sure was a lot to mix. I remember Alex stepping out and just making all these weird noises, I didn’t know where it was going. But John would put it in the mix, and it was just brilliant.
John has said he was uncomfortable with those sessions. Could you sympathize?
Oh yeah, there were times when it was uncomfortable for me. It wasn’t necessarily a lifestyle I was leading. The drugs and alcohol — I guess the good thing is that Alex stopped, he survived all that — but it got a bit uncomfortable because of that at times. But then, you know, he’d step into the studio and sing “Blue Moon.” Damn.
It’s not like there was a lot of infighting. There was with Chris and Andy — but then that was really just one punch. There’d be some bickering and stuff, but it was kind of normal family stuff until that “Third” album. Then it got dark at times. My role was being the constant. I don’t know, that’s kind of my role in a lot of things, just being a constant. I guess maybe that’s what drummers do, they’re anchors. I think I was an anchor not only as a drummer, but as a member of the band.
Why have you stayed on at Ardent over the years?
There’s nothing quite like being in a place that’s creative, and a catalyst for things. John Fry said the great thing about Ardent was that magic things can happen here. And you just look at the folks who have recorded here, and lots of magic things have happened and still can.
Alex made a solo record there in the ’90s there, right? What was that like?
With Alex, you just provide the studio and the tools, and he does the rest. There certainly wasn’t any A&R input. Why would you want to do that with Alex? Not that he would let anybody. But he’d show up, be in the studio recording and then go home. It was great having him here but there wasn’t much interaction between us.
You’ve recorded a lot of Memphis rap in recent years as well.
Yeah, we have, Yo Gotti and a lot of folks. Al Kapone. Even Three Six Mafia. We mixed that song that won the Oscar here, “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp.” Al Kapone, I’ve had a lot of interaction with, Al’s a great guy. Yo Gotti, I’ll see when he comes in. Cee Lo Green came in for a couple of days, everybody really liked him, nice guy. Sometimes artists come in and they don’t want you to talk to them or look at them.
I didn’t meet Bob Dylan when he came. His manager warned us off. He said they didn’t want anyone hanging out, didn’t want fans to show up. So I was afraid to go in and say anything. Jack White, I’ve spent a little time with. He was fascinating to watch in the studio. While they were mixing, Jack would sing along. He had the most remarkable enthusiasm, it just floored me.
What was it like to watch the documentary for the first time?
A little worrisome. I kept wondering what was around the bend. But actually I loved it, especially the way it ends, with John Fry bringing “September Gurls” to a mix, and pushing back from the console and smiling. It kind of put a punctuation mark on it. You could see in his eyes that real feeling and heart he had for it, and that we all had for it. All our spirits are summed up in the look on John’s face.
You’ve been singing lead at live shows lately – what happened to inspire that?
It’s a challenge. I’ve been sitting behind a drum set and having that security. I just thought, it’s time to talk to the audience. And I can’t talk to the audience from behind a drum kit, there’s too much distance. So I thought I’d step out front.