There’s something fantastically incongruous about meeting up with Big Star drummer Jody Stephens at the Village, a hallowed Los Angeles recording studio. This is, after all, the site where some of the greatest monuments to the cocaine era – including Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Steely Dan’s Aja – were crafted. These are the albums that signaled a sea change, marking a point at which studiocraft and songwriting became inextricably linked. Some titanic failures, some blockbusters and triumphs of excess and obsession, the products of the Village couldn’t be further removed from the world of Big Star – a Memphis quartet of Beatle-worshippers who arrived in the early-‘70s with a lean and simple aesthetic that was as hopelessly unfashionable as it was revelatory.
By the middle of the decade, as the artists who regularly passed through the Village were making their labels millions (and, at times, draining them of minor fortunes through the extravagance of marathon recording sessions), Big Star had dwindled to a two-piece. Their commercial profile basically nonexistent, Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens recorded Third/Sister Lovers, an album of raw, damaged beauty that must have seemed wholly alien to the few listeners who heard the record in 1975. Of course, the ensuing years have seen Big Star’s audience and the mythology surrounding their records grow exponentially.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, a new documentary about the band, explores this ever-expanding legacy. Stephens, an exceptionally mellow and affable figure, has come to the Village as a participant in a press day for the film. As he mentions some upcoming Big Star tribute shows he’s slated to play with members of R.E.M., Let’s Active and the dB’s, his enthusiasm is palpable, and a far cry from the blend of cynicism and obligation that tends to cloud reunion tours. When addressing Big Star’s history and the incandescent pop brilliance of Chilton and Chris Bell, his tone is never less than reverent. It’s in these moments that it’s especially easy to imagine Stephens as the adolescent drummer who, four decades prior, found his own American Lennon and McCartney.
Would you start by giving us some background about the documentary – how you got involved and what participating in that experience was like?
[Producer] Danielle McCarthy approached John Fry [founder of Ardent Records] about making a Big Star documentary, and it was six, seven years ago. Danielle came with a couple of really good referrals – one of which was Winston Eggleston, who is the overseer of his dad, William Eggleston’s, catalogue of photos. And of course we all hold Bill and Winston in high regard, and she also came with a referral from Robert Gordon, who’s a writer out of Memphis I hold in high regard as well. That’s how it got started, and Danielle seems to have her heart and spirit in the right place. So it gained John Fry’s approval, and that kind of unlocked the door to all of what followed. Certainly, if John was in, I was in.
Something the documentary touches on is Big Star’s growing stature through the years. How has it been witnessing that change over the decades?
It’s been remarkable. And I measure it more by our being able to play live. Because that’s what’s fun. It’s the interaction of the musicians on stage – in this case it was Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, Alex and myself. So being able to do that in the states, to play the Fillmore in San Francisco, the House of Blues here, or go to Spain and play the Primavera Festival, to do Big Star’s Third at the Barbican in London – that’s where it was really fun. Measuring how the audiences were growing. And it’s sharing the experience with not only the musicians, but the audience, too. Because without the audience, it would all just be rehearsal, wouldn’t it?
How aware are you of the number of artists who have claimed Big Star as an influence? Or is that even something you care about?
Well, it’s because other bands have talked about us. And music writers, such as yourself, turning those people on to it, that we even have an audience. So to that extent, yeah, Mike Mills and Peter Buck would talk about the band, and of course the Replacements with “Alex Chilton,” making people curious about who this Chilton guy was. Bobby Gillespie, Evan Dando – it’s because of them that we have an audience now.
Does it seem weird to you that Big Star is continually referred to as a sort of “ultimate cult band”?
To me, it’s a compliment. What would be worse would be for people not to talk about us at all. So no, I don’t mind how anybody perceives the band. Music is a personal experience, so I can’t tell anybody how they should define it.
The other thing that I regularly see written about Big Star is that the music was ahead of its time. When you were making the albums, did it seem out of step with the era, or ahead of it?
Well, it was obviously inspired by our influences. The Beatles were a huge influence on us all, I was even in a soul band, and I think we were all into Stax artists – Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. Booker T. and the M.G.’s – I was a fan of Al Jackson, the drummer of that band. We brought our influences in, so you could have said maybe it was late. But I think, when we went in, Chris [Bell] had a particular vision about how that first record would sound, and certainly his overall production vision. And Alex made a huge contribution through his writing. It was certainly more of Chris’s production vision. I don’t know that we were looking at where it was placed in its time, I think we were just looking to do a record that reflected where we were at the time.
Are you particularly fond or proud of one album specifically?
No, there’s not one. I think it takes all three – and to some extent, even In Space – to form an opinion about Big Star. If you’re forming an opinion about the band pre-Jon and Ken, it takes all three of those first Big Star records. Because you know the first is pretty innocent, with “Thirteen” and “In the Street” and those kinds of songs, and the production is sweeter, kind of more harmonies and that sort of thing. And then with Radio City, we’re a three piece, and it’s a bit more paired-down, kind of edgier sonically. Then there’s the third album, and it’s where Alex was at the time. His emotional state. It was a brilliant relating of that. So it really takes all three. It’s hard to pick a favorite. My favorite drum sound was probably Radio City.
You got to do different things as drummer with the band being a three piece…
Yeah, you come at it differently; John Fry could do something different with the drum sounds. And I had a different kit starting with Radio City. I got a new Ludwig kit in ’72, and it was a bigger kit – 24-inch bass drum, bigger toms, that sort of thing.
The drum sound is definitely more prominent on that record. But to get back to the third album, it’s not really comparable to anything else from the era. And I’m wondering what your impressions of Alex’s songs were as you were recording them?
He’d come up with a song like “Blue Moon” and demo it, an incredibly sweet song. There’s “Nighttime,” there’s…
“Stroke It Noel”
“Stroke It Noel.” But then, in spots, it was also a bit wacky. But still, it was reflecting where Alex was. I think Alex demoed “Kangaroo” and gave it to Jim Dickinson “Produce this, Mr. Producer.” Jim actually played drums on that, which is why they’re so wacky. But they worked so perfectly in that song that when it’s done live, I don’t usually play. Somebody else plays drums, because I can’t play like somebody who doesn’t play drums. But it had that great spirit. Yeah, I mean, there were some dark moments while we were recording that record. And it took a minute to get beyond that. But once I did, I realized that Jim and Alex had recorded this brilliant piece of where Alex was emotionally at the time.
I’ve heard a lot of rumors about Alex trying to sabotage that record in some way. Did you ever get that impression yourself?
No, I didn’t at the time. I just thought that was his creative approach to what that record was going to be. I didn’t see it as sabotaging. He might’ve favored a part that was a little out of tune, or not perfect, over something that may have been technically perfect. But in doing that, he better related what he wanted to. He achieved something more expressive.
So with something like the “Kangaroo” story you just told me – was that more about having the reigns lifted off of him? He ended up with a lot more freedom, production-wise, on that album, right?
I think having Jim Dickinson there freed up both of us. It certainly freed me up from having to critique my own drum parts. It’s not like I never got any input from Alex, or Chris, or even Andy [Hummel], but, wow, I had such a tremendous amount of respect for Jim Dickinson. That I could play something and go back and look at Jim and say, “What do you think?” And be confident that I had gotten what was needed. It was great just having that reassurance from Jim. Obviously, his creative input was great.
Were you surprised that the records didn’t really sell at the time?
I didn’t really think about it at the time. We had some great press. John King, our publicist, if you will, at Ardent, got it into the hands of the right music writers. But the fact that they didn’t sell…you know, I was eighteen and I thought it was all a long shot, anyway. Even given the success of the people at Stax, and the success Alex had with the Box Tops. I still thought it was all kind of a long shot.
What about the other members of the band?
I think Chris was really disappointed. He put so much stock, so much of himself into that first record, that I think he was really disappointed. In a couple of different ways. Certainly that it didn’t sell, but also that writers were focusing in on Alex. And understandably so, because Alex had been in the Box Tops, and he had sung “The Letter,” which was a #1 song in the country. So you may not have known who Big Star was, but you knew who Alex Chilton was. It wasn’t even personal between the two, it was just the take that the press was giving. So I think Chris stepped out from under that by leaving the band.
You’re the only original member of the band who stuck with Alex through all four Big Star albums. Is there a specific reason why you never left?
I loved playing with Alex. Alex was such an incredibly creative guy. How can I not stick with that?
What are your feelings on the solo stuff Chris and Alex put out?
Having played on some of Chris’s record – I played on “Get Away,” and some others, but Richard Rosebrough played on most of it – I thought Chris was recording a pretty amazing record. His guitar sounds, God, they’re just mindblowing, on “Cosmos.” Or the vocal deliveries, the way he would change his voice. Damn. It was incredible. For Alex, there was Like Flies on Sherbert. I mean, I didn’t really make that transition. He was off into something that I really wasn’t into at that point. But Alex wasn’t following anything. He was doing what he wanted to do. And I have a lot of respect for that.
Did you and the other members of Big Star ever discuss the band’s shifting place in history?
I didn’t. I don’t think of it in those terms. And I don’t think Alex did. It is what it is. I just kind of live with what is here and now, and the experiences I get to have, even down to being able to talk to you about it, being able to do that show last night. I don’t think too much about the broader scope of things. I’ll leave that to people like you.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (Magnolia Pictures) opens in New York at IFC on July 3 with special Los Angeles openings on July 5 and 6 at the Nuart.