When people think of
the 1970s band Big Star, they usually think
of Alex Chilton, a major talent who has led a career as
a solo artist and producer of bands such as The Cramps.
Chiltons emotional Sturm und Drang and drug problems
are nearly as legendary as Big Stars music (although
he appeared healthy and cheerful at a recent Big Star
performance at the famous Fillmore Auditorium). Big Star
was the crowning show of San Franciscos 10th
Annual Noise Pop Festival, in early March of this year.
Major musical luminaries such as Tom Waits (and minor
ones like Ryan Adams) came to pay homageas normal
spectators in the crowd.
Yet, all along, theres
been a sunnier personality whos provided balance
and grounding. Hes a beacon of the Big Star mythos:
Jody Stephens. In the 1970s, as Big Star fragmented in
the face of commercial failure, Jody remained with Chilton,
playing drums and adding his own songone of those
sweet and pretty Big Star numbers, "For You," to Third/Sister
Lovers. And with Alex reluctant to speak with journalists
ever since, Jody has played the role of ambassador for
the band over the years.
The affable drummer, a
tall, slim rocker even at 49, with sparkling eyes and
an open smile, today manages Ardent Studios in Memphis,
Tennessee, where Big Star recorded their three groundbreaking
albums. The '90s found him branching out into the
alternative music world, drumming for the likes of Matthew
Sweet, the Posies and as part of the alt-country supergroup
Golden Smog. He seems to play drums the way he lives life:
he has the skills of Keith Moon, but hes no show
off; hell play sparsely, like Ringo, if that is
In mid-February, before
a spate of early spring festivals, Jody described how
the beat goes on over the phone from his desk at Ardent
Gadfly: The song "For
You" on Sister Lovers is one of my favorite songs
on the album. You wrote that song. You play guitar, too,
not just drums?
No, not really. At the
time, I was dabbling with it. And, for the life of me,
I cant really figure out why I never learned how
to play and stuck with it and practiced. But I didnt.
So I always needed a partner to write a song, with the
exception of "For You."
So thats how you
and Alex worked together.
Well, I wrote the chords
to that song ["For You"].
Are you in Nashville?
No, Im in Memphis,
at Ardent Studios. Ardents founding father is a
guy named John Fry. And John actually engineered and mixed
all the Big Star records.
Is John Fry still around?
He is! He doesnt
get into the studio much. Hes the president of Ardent
Studios now. John took his engineering lead from George
Martin [the Beatles producer] and those guys [the
Beatles], and he was definitely interested in what the
Brits were using to record. John Fry was just a genius
at engineering and sonics.
Is that how you spend
your time now at Ardentengineering?
No, I manage the studios.
I schedule personnel and studio time and equipment and
do a bit of marketing and travel to New York and L.A.
and knock on peoples doors and wave the flag for
Sounds like a pretty
Gee, Im 49, ya know?
You should have something together by then! [chuckles]
Either that or you have to be really rich.
You sort of kept it
together for Big Star, right? What I mean by that is,
you were the supportive, solid element, in terms of personality.
Well, you know what? Whatever
role Ive played, Im glad Im there to
So, why did Big Star
Oh, you know, at the time
the question was why not reform. It was April of
93. We get a call from a guy named Mike Mulvehill
and his partner, and they asked if I wanted to get together
with Alex and some other folks and play some Big Star
songs. And I said, "Sure."
Live or in a studio?
Live. It was the spring
festival for the University of Missouri in Columbia. So
I said yes, thinking, well, one, he would probably never
be able to reach Alex, and two, I didnt think Alex
would agree to do it. As it turned out, they got Alexs
number, and Alex agreed to do it.
And you were in touch
At that point, no, I wasnt
in touch with Alex. I dont even know if I had Alexs
How long had it been?
It had been a while since
wed been in touch, but it had really been a while
since Id played drums. Three or four years.
Youd been playing
together since you were teenagers, right?
I was probably 17 or 18
when I was first introduced to Alex, when Big Star first
got together. I think I was 19 when the album #1
Record first came out [in 1972]. So its been
a while that Alex and I have known each other.
It [the '93 live show]
was seemingly a one-off thing. We werent offered
any money, except to cover expenses. And later on, that
was even tough to get. But after we agreed to do the gig,
Bud Scoppa at Zoo [Records] stepped in and said, "Gee,
you know, wed like to record this." It was a small
budget, but it allowed us to go to Seattle and rehearse
a couple of nights. At any rate, at my suggestion, the
guy at the University of Missouri called Jon [Auer] and
Ken [Stringfellow] of the Posies, and they agreed to do
it as well.
So Big Star was back.
That was in 1993. Was it fun?
It was unbelievable. It
was such a good time. It was a challenge, one, to get
back in shape to play, which I was really glad I did.
And two, theres nothing like being in a band. Its
like the Beatles or the Who or the Stones. I felt really
lucky to be in this band that was writing songs that I
loved so much. It just makes performing that much easier
because you really love the songs youre helping
to create, writing drum parts and that sort of thing.
So you felt pretty passionately
about the songs and the music.
Oh, yeah [he says
with an audible sense of unduplicable wonder].
And the audience? Because
you guys hadand havea pretty distinctive audience,
a nucleus of intelligent listeners or people passionate
about really good musicmusic with authenticity.
Our fans are really passionate.
They sing along. They know all the lyrics. They arent
great in numbers. But the fans we have are pretty devoted.
Its a pretty awesome site to see. I can remember
this one guy. He stood a head above the rest of the audience,
and he had this big smile on his face and sang along the
So you notice those
things when youre playing?
Oh, yeah. It really helps.
I think everybody on stage feeds off of sights like that.
Theres this circular motion of energy and giving.
The more the audience responds to what were doing,
the more I think we probably give of ourselves. It makes
it easier, for sure.
Its such a pleasure
to have people interested in what were doing. It
sounds corny, but its such a pleasure to play these
songs. Its pretty amazing to show up for a gig and
have all those people show up and sing along and provide
that spirit and energy for us. Its amazingly rewarding.
If it werent, I wouldnt be doing this.
Have you been playing
consistently since then?
Yeah, I think we did five
dates in Europe in 1993. We did five dates in Japan. We
came back and played the Fillmore [in San Francisco] in,
like, June of 1994.
How was that show?
Awesome. It was awesome.
I had a 103° fever, I had gotten sick, but it was
still the most amazing experience of my life.
You could play a show
Well, you just do it. You
have 1,200 people out there, so you just play. It was
just an awesome experiencewalking those halls, with
all the posters, Led Zeppelin. [whistles with wonder]
They did a really cool poster for us that they put up
on the walls for the show in 94. It was pretty awesome.
Whats your drumming
style like when youre writing drum parts?
A lot of it is just an
emotional response. And then I try to add a little bit
of structure to it in terms of how drumfills build during
the course of a song. I got into playing drums because
of Ringo Starr. I was a huge Beatles fan. I would bang
on the back seat of the car as it drove down the road,
and Id drive my parents crazy. And then Charlie
Wattswhat a great drummer, a lot of soul there.
And then I was actually in a soul band for a while doing
Stax covers. And Al Jackson, whos the drummer for
Booker T. and the M.G.s. Keith Moon was wild and wacky
and I think an influence. Jon BonhamI like the heaviness
All these drummers are
drummers you canor at least I canlisten to
a couple of measures of any of their playing and tell
you who it is. They have really distinctive styles. There
are some pretty amazing drummers out there.
I could never aspire to
being that technically great of a drummer. So I always
tried to develop some kind of character instead of being
a hotlicks kind of drummer. All those I listed, theyre
drummers I thought had just so much character.
If you were going to
describe your style or signature, what would you say,
what would the adjectives be?
I dont know! [laughs]
I guess Im a melodic rock drummer.
Are you surprised at
the interest in Big Star 30 years after you began?
Who wouldnt be? I
dont know a precedent for this. You release three
albums over the period of maybe three or four years, and
25 or 30 years later an audience develops. We didnt
have an audience then, for reasons that have been discussed.
Did you play small clubs?
We rarely played at all.
Wow. You didnt
play out that much?
No. And the airplay that
we got was short-lived because our distribution system
through Stax was so bad that we never really had records
in the stores.
Thats so frustrating,
isnt it, because Ive been going into stores
looking for musicians that Im covering who are independent.
Theyre on good labels, good indie labels, and their
stuff isnt even in the good record stores.
Right. Its really
frustrating when, like, WBCN was playing maybe, "September
Gurls." Thats a Boston station. And you know youre
getting this airplay, and there are no records in the
stores? Huh? Then the way it works is that the radio station
sees there are sales, and they keep playing it. Whereas
if therere no records in the stores, there are no
sales and so they drop it. But I dont know
Yeah. [chuckles] But we
have an audience 25 years later, thanks in part to people
passing around tapes and turning other people on to it.
And then, in part, we had music writers as fans. They
keep bringing the band up. And people like Peter Buck
and Mike Mills in REM and Bobby Gillespie in Primal Scream
and people like that, who mention the band when they get
interviewed. People that are really interested in music
will see the name, and theyll go looking to see
what the bands done. So, its music writers
and fans of the band that are nice enough to mention us
that have developed an audience for us. But I dont
think theres a precedent for that so, definitely,
what youre saying about tapes getting passed around
because thats exactly what happened for me. My boyfriend
in 87 made me a mix-tape of his favorite songs,
and he put "September Gurls" on it. That was in the late
80s, and we were in college. There was a youth audience
then, too. Its not just now, in 2002.
I had somebody walk up
to me once and say, "Gee, I wasnt born when you
guys were playing. You guys were really big! But I really
like your music now." I dont know if weve
ever been really "big"I dont know how youd
measure that. The fans we have are really devoted. We
certainly didnt have any kind of following in the
70s that could be measured, other than in maybe
tens. Or if we were lucky, in some markets, maybe a couple
hundred. Weve been lucky that its developed
over the years.
Its kind of frustrating.
Well, you know its
not really. My biggest kick out of being in Big Star today
is just the fact that its a bridge builder. I get
to meet a lot of different people, people in bands that
Im a fan of.
Like what bands?
Oh, I went to see Greg
Dulli and the Afghan Whigs, and I was just floored. I
went to say hello to Greg at the end of the performance,
and it turned out that he was into Big Star. It was just
a nice icebreaker. And meeting Peter Buck for the first
time. I did a business trip to Nashville for Ardent and
saw that REM were in the studio there. It was the album
they did prior to Green. So I called and left a
message for Peter, and he called me back. So, its
a nice bridge builder and icebreaker in meeting people.
Thats really the biggest benefit. And getting to
play with people like Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow and
Stringfellow and Jody Stephens
Do you see the influence
of Big Star in new bands?
I see bands that share
the same spirit, like Teenage Fanclub, and folks that
play a little bit outside of a polished edge or a little
bit outside of a pop/rock format. Maybe something that
is a little more emotionally bare.
Is that what you guys
were going for then, thats what you were thinking
at the time consciously?
As a band? No, I think
we were going after whatever felt good. I never really
asked Alex and Chris. There were certainly influences.
I think having come from Memphis and being exposed to
Stax and different blues and that sort of thing just allowed
us to be a little more free with how we expressed ourselves.
We got comfortable working outside of a pop/rock format.
And you knew that it
was a choicea commercial choice.
Well, I dont know
if we knew that, if you want to know the truth.
You were young guys
just doing your band thing.
Yeah, nobody ever told
me different. You know, I was 18. I wasnt playing
because this lick is a commercial lick or whatever. It
was just, for me, music that naturally felt good, and
I played whatever I was inspired to play. I wasnt
following any kind of format. I think, even these days
when I listen to the radio, the drummers are pretty tremendous.
But there arent a lot of folks who do fills and
show a lot of character outside of keeping a beat.
I think theres such
pressure to sell records, and maybe the way to do that
is to stay within formulas. Im talking about a lot
of the stuff you hear on the radio. Not everything, but
a lot of stuff. I think people are pressured to do particular
things because it sold records in the past.
When you get a major label
deal and you have all this money flowing in to make the
record, theres pressure to do something that would
be commercially successful. Actually, I thought Big Star
would be commercially successful, at the end of doing
it. At the time, its not like we meant to make a
commercial record. I was making a record that I thought
I could be proud of in the long run.
What do you remember
about the recording of the first couple Big Star albums?
I just remember going into
the studio and, like, "Ballad of El Goodo"that song
was such an inspiration. It probably took me all of 15
minutes to come up with that drum part. I started playing,
and thats what came out. I went back and reviewed
some of the rolls I was doing and tried to make things
build a little bit more. But other than that, my entry
into the song came pretty easily. #1 Record was
a fairly produced record with lots of background harmonies
and maracas and tambourines, and Radio City was
pretty pared downwe were basically a three-piece
band. The role I played was a lot more prominent. There
were only three instruments going on instead of four,
with lots of overdubs. There was a difference certainly
between playing in a four-piece versus playing in a three-piece
band. On Radio City, I was a lot freer. Oh, I guess
I was pretty free with #1 Record, but there were
other things going on so it didnt allow the space
for me to do particular rolls and that sort of thing.
Radio City just being a three-piece opened up space
for me to express myself, however I wanted to do it.