I dialed the number he left me, only to be stopped short by a voicemail message. Was it perhaps too good to be true that Jody Stephens, the legendary drummer and last surviving member of perennial power pop gods Big Star, was down for an interview with our most obscure of music sites? It was John Brodeur of Bird Streets who had been acting as the go between with the semi-reclusive Ardent Studios wizard himself, and finally, after much back-and-forth, the interview was set for 11:00 AM CST. Was that Bird Streets bastard lying to me?
And then the phone rang. Indeed it was my favorite drummer from my favorite band ringing me back. Within the first ten minutes of our talk Jody was interrupted by a neighbor about some neighborhood trash pickup drama (“Wow, he was getting a little close to me,” Stephens let me know) and discovered that he and my father share a birthday.
First, how and why did Jody first start drumming? Why was this unwieldy apparatus the instrument he chose? Unlike a lot of drummers his age who cite big band drummers, it was the bricklayer simplicity of early-Beatles Ringo that caught his spirit, and he still follows his hero closely, exclaiming, “He looks really good! He has a trainer now.”
Like 99.6% of his generation, Mr. Stephens was hypnotized by the mod bangs and speed-fueled delinquent energy of the original post-Beatles British beat cavalcade, particularly latching on to some Kinks deep cuts (check out the Sister Lovers outtake “Til The End Of The Day” cover), he and his brother Jim managed to infiltrate the surprisingly rich local Memphis teenage garage band scene, spinning Who and Stones covers at dances and youth centers. His parents were kind enough to purchase him a kit, which happens to be the same set of drums later used on Big Star’s power pop bible #1 Record. A similarly handsome bassist named Andy Hummel happened upon a gig of theirs, with the feather-haired pair becoming fast friends and eventually morphing into a Memphis-fried Paul/Ringo rhythm section that acted as a magnet to bring in two Godly-talented and supremely troubled souls: rising studio prodigy Chris Bell and bonafide teenage pinup Alex Chilton of Box Tops semi-fame. The new foursome took inspiration from two key sources: A chain of southern grocery spots named Big Star Markets, from whom they stole their name, and the Fab Four, from whom they stole their songwriting system with Chilton/Bell functioning in the John/Paul role and Hummel tossing in the occasional song about India ala George.
Jody never minded being Ringo since, much like Mr. Starr’s situation, the songs he ended up drumming on were acts of sublime transcendence from the very start. Taking a cue from Al Jackson Jr., the almost supernaturally-steady Booker T and the MG’S kit man, Stephens has never gotten in the way of a track, contributing only what is needed rhythmically in an un-fussy, almost gentlemanly manner. With a smirk and wink and a toss of his now-legendary feathered ’70s hairdo, Stephen’s expression in the existing prime-era Big Star footage says one thing only: “I got this.” Although Big Star is known far and wide as bright and bittersweet power pop pioneers, don’t overlook a track like “Don’t Lie To Me” off the first album, a nearly-violent rocker where Stephens betrays a John Bonham malevolence that his Beatles-obsessed band mates just never shared. He admitted in our call that he always admired the bearded Zep brawler even though Chilton hated that band’s entire aesthetic. If you really want a masterclass in drumming through a chaos of time changes, skip right to Radio City‘s “Daisy Glaze” where Stephens doesn’t even come into play until the two-minute-mark, having to hit the ground running as the track changes on a dime from a hazy dream sequence to a full-tilt rocker. It’s almost as if Chilton is simply fucking with his drummer as the songwriter, doing everything he can to throw him off, and by hanging in there Stephens and Chilton masterminded a sound that 96% of white guitar bands groups still attempt, and mostly fail, to emulate.
In our conversation, Stephens spoke of Chilton’s 2010 death at the age of 59 as being something that he absolutely never expected. He felt horrible for Laura, Alex’s wife, who lost her husband of many years simply because he didn’t have health insurance. Big Star was set to play a gig at SXSW within days of his passing, and Stephens played a huge part in organizing the legendary Alex Chilton tribute show that took its place, featuring countless indie luminaries and even Andy Hummel in the final stages of his life as well. “Bands who dissipate don’t always move like that to hold a tribute but we made it happen,” Stephens tells me like a man fully satisfied with his group’s legacy.
“Did you know I am the CEO of Ardent Records?” Stephens asked me near the beginning of our talk. “Um, yea dude.” Along with the sublimely tortured first Big Star singer/drummer Chris Bell, Stephens as a teenager was informally brought under the wing of Ardent guru John Fry who, wielding sorcerer-like powers behind the boards, was fully-instrumental in crafting Big Star’s sound and vision. He tells us he took a very un-rock route into the arms of Ardent which included a stint in accounting school, then a switch to marketing and eventually a role in “Business Development” for the fledgling studio. In the pantheon of classic rock, this has to be the single most geeky pathway to stardom we have ever heard, and we salute him for it. He told me he continues to practice and often goes to Ardent to bang the drums for at least a half-hour-per-day.Such are the perks of having a key to one of the most legendary studios of all time.
The level of respect Jody holds for his former band mates is palpable. “I Like to say their names’.” It was Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, and Andy Hummel, after all, who coaxed this one-time Business Development specialist behind the drums and transformed him into one of the most legendary figures of the modern rock pantheon.
We spoke of the early Big Star years. I inquired about the songwriting and production process, and he relayed that Alex and Chris would pen the songs together (Lennon/McCartney until the end, huh boys?) then bring them to rehearsal. He would figure out the beats and fills and Andy would get that bass light straight. The songs for #1 Record, considered to be some of the most pristine and meticulously-crafted tracks of the ’70s, came together so easily that the usual baby step artistic hardship tales don’t exist.
We didn’t really get into the specifics of the band’s initial dissolve, but if you want the details just cue up Sister Lovers which will give you some idea of the drug-induced downward spiral that nonetheless produced some of the finest songs ever conceived (“Dear Friends” and “Oh, Dana” among them). You really can’t blame him, since this slow-motion fade out caused one of the greatest bands of all time to wallow in relative obscurity until their influence finally exploded in the ’90s with tribute-albums galore and one of the most recognizable television theme songs that ever rang from the screen.
This is the depressing part, the era where our hero finds himself waiting tables while Chilton eventually is reduced to mere dishwasher in a series of New Orleans dives. Andy went to college and Alex well Alex went on to be a dishwasher. But one has to do one one has to do, in the end. “Can you blame him?” Stephens asks, and we truly can’t. This sparked a chat about both of our experiences as table servers, with the ensuing war stories taking up a large, but highly enjoyable, portion of the interview. He mentioned he met his wife when she was toiling as the head waitress at a high end Memphis Steakhouse he worked at. He tells me there is nothing like a being server to help you practice humility, patience and gain terrific insight into the human psyche.
I inquired about his drumming style, and where he may have acquired it. He offered that he was in a school band where he was the 4th drummer so he had to learn to pick up the beat by the time it got to him. He also spoke about how he used the same kit his parents bought him in high school on #1 Record. To think that his high school hobby kit ended up on tracks such as “Feel”, “The Ballad of El Goodo” and deconstructionist masterpiece “Kanagaroo” is an interesting thing to think about. And those three legendary taps on the cowbell in the later song? He hit them to get his band mates attention when he felt them drifting off in the studio.
I was curious about the album covers. He told me Alex was family-friends with ultra-legendary dixie dope-culture photog William Eggleston, who supplied the sublime red-tinged snap that perfectly suited the Radio City cover. Apparently this photo depicted the tangle of wires on the ceiling of a thoroughly opiated, degenerate Memphis dentist. When asked about the much-loved band photos on the inner sleeve of the first record, he says he can still recall the specific days the photos were taken by “what we were wearing”. The photos in question, snaps of the perfectly-’70s-fashioned band grinning on the Chilton Family’s wraparound porch, apparently could have gone in an entirely different direction. Apparently outtakes exist which feature Stephen’s rocking a set of sporty white tennis shorts.
In recent years, Stephens has teamed up with a lyrical master and great guitar player, Luther Russell. They formed Those Pretty Wrongs a few years ago on a whim. He spoke highly of Luther as a Chilton-worthy partner-in-crime. The two have known each other since 1991 when Stephens was out in LA for the Big Star doc Nothing Can Hurt Me premier. He was asked to perform some Big Star songs for the event and called on Luther, who was living in Santa Monica, to help him out since he had lost his voice that morning. The off-the-cuff show went so well that they thought they would collaboration on “maybe four-or-five” sings. Two albums later and there is no sign of stopping, with record number three fully in the works. Their collab is called Those Pretty Wrongs and mines the deep vein of southern-fried soul that always lurked just beneath the surface of Big Star’s shiny, wide-screen power pop. And yes, it all comes from The Master Bard:
Those pretty wrongs that liberty commits
When I am sometime absent from thy heart
Thy beauty, and thy years full well befits
For still temptation follows where thou art
“Luther played Chris’ guitar on a few of the songs. We borrowed it from a family member.” Decades after his death, Chris Bell is still in action as an unofficial third member of Those Pretty Wrongs. What a grand thought.
The Memphis-by-way-of-Cali duo composes by Jody crooning lyrics straight to Russell’s voicemail. Russell then works up some arrangements, and a song is born. That this method can lead to tracks of excellent caliber like “Lucky Guy”, a song that depicts the details of that surprisingly successful day that Stephens lost his voice for the premier, is a testament to mastery of The Other Wrong’s deadly duo.
Stephens is also a revolving door member of capital-S super group Golden Smog along with such sclubby millionaires as Dan Murphy and Jeff Tweedy. In a break with usual supergroup protocol, The Smog plays as if they have absolutely nothing to prove and are all the better for it. But much to this purposely lackadaisical group’s chagrin, these songs are just too damn good to not one day be discovered, Big Star style.
Ever the diverse gent, Jody played drums on one of my favorite contemporary underrated bands from Strong Island, The Lemon Twigs. This is certainly a band that seems destined for Big Star cult status long after their days in existence. Stephens brings in some of that #1 Record feel on the sublime “When The Student Becomes the Teacher”, a track that comes the closest to those Chilton/Bell harmonies since, well, #1 Record. Stephens tells me how he journeyed to Long Island to record in the D’Addario Brother’s parents’ modest home complete with an elaborate basement studio. He even helped Mama D’Addario serve dinner and set the table. imagine for a moment your musical idol from your favorite band showing up to your parent’s house, drumming on one of your tracks, and then staying for dinner? Such is the joy Jody Stephens brings to this world.
Another interesting fact I learned about Jody Stephens in our nearly hour-long conversation:
Stephens is not very fond of ’70s syrupy balladeers Bread, especially their huge hit “Guitar Man”. “I mean, who names a band Bread?” he scoffs.
Let me close with the most brilliant final chorus on the most brilliant final Big Star album, penned by Stephens and his long lost brother in warped melody, Alex Chilton:
Thank you friends
Wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you
All the ladies and gentlemen
Who made this all so probable
I’d like to thank some people here myself:
My #1 Editor Dan who feels that the notoriously bleak Sister Lovers is actually the most joyous record ever put to tape.
My #1 Guitar player John Brodeur of Bird Streets. John graciously granted me an interview when their debut dropped. He also brokered this interview with Jody.
My #1 drummer, the subject of this piece, for shrugging “Sure!” when our little music blog asked for a talk.