Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens

The Ineffable Why & Wherefore of a Cult Legend
An interview with Big Star drummer and ambassador Jody Stephens
By Jillian Steinberger

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. Chilton’s emotional Sturm und Drang and drug problems are nearly as legendary as Big Star’s 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 Francisco’s 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 homage—as normal spectators in the crowd.

Yet, all along, there’s been a sunnier personality who’s provided balance and grounding. He’s 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 song—one 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 he’s no show off; he’ll play sparsely, like Ringo, if that is what’s required.

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 Studios.

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 can’t really figure out why I never learned how to play and stuck with it and practiced. But I didn’t. So I always needed a partner to write a song, with the exception of "For You."

So that’s how you and Alex worked together.

Well, I wrote the chords to that song ["For You"].

Are you in Nashville?

No, I’m in Memphis, at Ardent Studios. Ardent’s 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 doesn’t get into the studio much. He’s 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 Ardent—engineering?

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 people’s doors and wave the flag for the studio.

Sounds like a pretty together musician-turned-reliable-person.

Gee, I’m 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 I’ve played, I’m glad I’m there to play it.

So, why did Big Star reform?

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 didn’t think Alex would agree to do it. As it turned out, they got Alex’s number, and Alex agreed to do it.

And you were in touch with Alex?

At that point, no, I wasn’t in touch with Alex. I don’t even know if I had Alex’s number.

How long had it been?

It had been a while since we’d been in touch, but it had really been a while since I’d played drums. Three or four years.

You’d 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 it’s been a while that Alex and I have known each other.

It [the '93 live show] was seemingly a one-off thing. We weren’t 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, we’d 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, there’s nothing like being in a band. It’s 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 you’re 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 had—and have—a pretty distinctive audience, a nucleus of intelligent listeners or people passionate about really good music—music with authenticity.

Our fans are really passionate. They sing along. They know all the lyrics. They aren’t great in numbers. But the fans we have are pretty devoted. It’s 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 whole set.

So you notice those things when you’re playing?

Oh, yeah. It really helps. I think everybody on stage feeds off of sights like that. There’s this circular motion of energy and giving. The more the audience responds to what we’re doing, the more I think we probably give of ourselves. It makes it easier, for sure.

It’s such a pleasure to have people interested in what we’re doing. It sounds corny, but it’s such a pleasure to play these songs. It’s 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. It’s amazingly rewarding. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t 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 like that?

Well, you just do it. You have 1,200 people out there, so you just play. It was just an awesome experience—walking 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.

What’s your drumming style like when you’re 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 I’d drive my parents crazy. And then Charlie Watts—what 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, who’s the drummer for Booker T. and the M.G.s. Keith Moon was wild and wacky and I think an influence. Jon Bonham—I like the heaviness of Bonham.

All these drummers are drummers you can—or at least I can—listen 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, they’re 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 don’t know! [laughs] I guess I’m a melodic rock drummer.

Are you surprised at the interest in Big Star 30 years after you began?

Who wouldn’t be? I don’t 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 didn’t have an audience then, for reasons that have been discussed.

Did you play small clubs?

We rarely played at all.

Wow. You didn’t 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.

That’s so frustrating, isn’t it, because I’ve been going into stores looking for musicians that I’m covering who are independent. They’re on good labels, good indie labels, and their stuff isn’t even in the good record stores.

Right. It’s really frustrating when, like, WBCN was playing maybe, "September Gurls." That’s a Boston station. And you know you’re 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 there’re no records in the stores, there are no sales and so they drop it. But I don’t know…that’s another story.

Commercial radio.

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 they’ll go looking to see what the band’s done. So, it’s music writers and fans of the band that are nice enough to mention us that have developed an audience for us. But I don’t think there’s a precedent for that so, definitely, I’m surprised.

It’s interesting what you’re saying about tapes getting passed around because that’s 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. It’s not just now, in 2002.

I had somebody walk up to me once and say, "Gee, I wasn’t born when you guys were playing. You guys were really big! But I really like your music now." I don’t know if we’ve ever been really "big"—I don’t know how you’d measure that. The fans we have are really devoted. We certainly didn’t 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. We’ve been lucky that it’s developed over the years.

It’s kind of frustrating.

Well, you know it’s not really. My biggest kick out of being in Big Star today is just the fact that it’s a bridge builder. I get to meet a lot of different people, people in bands that I’m 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, it’s a nice bridge builder and icebreaker in meeting people. That’s really the biggest benefit. And getting to play with people like Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow and Alex Chilton.

Ken 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, that’s 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 choice—a commercial choice.

Well, I don’t 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 wasn’t 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 wasn’t following any kind of format. I think, even these days when I listen to the radio, the drummers are pretty tremendous. But there aren’t a lot of folks who do fills and show a lot of character outside of keeping a beat.

I think there’s such pressure to sell records, and maybe the way to do that is to stay within formulas. I’m 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, there’s 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, it’s 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 that’s 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 down—we 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 didn’t 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.