Music Features

Big Star (Interview)

[Author’s note: Soon after these interviews took place, news broke that longtime Memphis music producer and musician Jim Dickinson passed away. He was 67. Dickinson produced Big Star’s 1974 album, Third, and No Ripcord’s thoughts go out to all the people that his expansive work impacted.]

Big Star is living proof that songs are unbiased, untarnished entities. They simply are, and if they are particularly good, you’ll notice they stick around a long time. Big Star wrote many good songs, and despite years of commercial neglect, distribution failures, frustration and disappointment—well, guess what? The songs are still here, and they still sound as good as ever.

As it turns out, there are a lot more of these songs than anyone thought. Enough, in fact, for a 98-track, four-disc behemoth of a box set called Keep an Eye on the Sky. Featuring loads of demos, alternate mixes, songs by Big Star precursors Icewater and Rock City, and solo work by Big Star founders Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, this release may be the definitive face of the band. From the opening Bell solo track, Psychedelic Stuff, to the last disc, which consists of never-before-heard live recordings from Memphis’ Lafayette Music Room, this collection spans the entire life of Big Star and all the great songs that were written in that time.

The flagship band on Ardent Records in the early 1970s, Big Star’s image all but drowned in rock and roll’s torrent waters due to ill-fated distribution deals and a failure to get any of the band’s three albums successfully in stores. But those stubborn songs lived on – long enough to be heard by people like Michael Stipe, Paul Westerberg, and Jeff Tweedy, for starters. Before you could say “el goodo”, Big Star songs were popping up in film soundtracks, music videos, and TV shows (In the Street, of course, became the theme song to That 70’s Show).

Keep an Eye on the Sky tracks all of these great songs from their incubatory demos to the final studio versions. Of particular interest is Bell’s solo work, like the bleak “I Am the Cosmos”. Bell left Big Star after the first album, 1972’s #1 Record, to embark on a very promising solo career. Unfortunately, his plans were cut tragically short when he was killed in a car accident at the age of 27.

But Bell’s and the rest of the band’s songs have been given new life over the years, and what was once a white dwarf on the cusp of rock music oblivion is now shining with at least some of the brightness it was always entitled. Keep an Eye on the Sky is perhaps a fitting reminder that some stars should not, and will not, burn out.

Drummer Jody Stephens and original bassist Andy Hummel both made time to tell No Ripcord a bit about the band over the years and how things finally culminated in this massive release.

. . .

Did you have any creative input with Keep an Eye on the Sky?

Jody Stephens: I didn’t, no. Other than having a look at the liner notes and making a few suggestions to modify it, I didn’t. It was just a process that kind of unfolded in bits and pieces to me, basically, through [Engineer] Adam Hill and [Ardent founder] John Fry. You know, going through tapes and that sort of thing. Adam Hill was pretty instrumental in it.

Andy Hummel: Not at all. Quite frankly, I don’t know whose idea it was, to tell you the truth. I was getting all these calls for interviews, and I finally called a guy at Rhino up whose name I had, and he sent me a copy. I haven’t made it all the way through yet. The parts that I’ve actually listened to are the parts that I’ve not heard before. Some of the live stuff and stuff like that.

Did you dig up anything that surprised you? Anything that made you cringe?

JS: Nothing that made me cringe, several things that surprised me though. Things that I didn’t know even existed, or that I didn’t remember having done.

AH: To tell you the truth, I didn’t know that they had recorded any of that [live music]! [Laughs] At least not the performances that I was a part of. So I was sort of surprised at that. It was interesting stuff, a lot of things I had forgotten about – it was really kind of cool to hear some of that. I was surprised that we sounded as good as we did. We were not a band that played out a whole lot. In the whole time that I was in Big Star, I don’t think we played out more than about four or five times. We were really more of a studio band in those days.

I found it interesting how some musical ideas reappeared more than once. The main riff of “Watch the Sunrise” pops up at least two other times in completely different tracks on the box set. Was that a tune that you tested out a few different ways, or was “Watch the Sunrise” a culmination of several smaller ideas?

JS: Looking back at that, there’s a track where the riff or the music for “Watch the Sunrise” has a completely different melody line and different set of lyrics, and to tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure chronologically where that fits. I mean, Chris sang that different melody line and lyrics, and I’m not quite sure if that’s how it was presented and then Alex took it and worked on it and came up with his set of lyrics and the melody line, and consequently where he wound up singing the verse and that wound up on #1 Record. You know, that’s a mystery to me, and I guess it wouldn’t hurt to ask Alex.

AH: Well, I may be incorrect about this, but I think that most of that stuff that you’re talking about was done after Chris Bell left the band and was out trying to have a solo career. There were several instances where he would take things that we had done earlier as part of Big Star and use them as bits and pieces of things as kind of source data for projects that he would get going. So yeah, “Watch the Sunrise” was one of the very, very first songs we ever recorded as Big Star. In fact, if memory serves me, we originally recorded Alex playing that solo where it was just him and his 12-string. Before we even started Big Star, he was in town, he had done that solo album that he had recorded with Terry Manning, and then some time along in there we’re just hanging out at the studio late one night and “Watch the Sunrise” was a song that he sort of brought in, I guess he wrote it in New York back during his folksy days.

Do you think any of the demos or outtakes found here trump the studio version?

JS: You know, that’s a really good question, and the answer to that is no, not so far. They were versions of the songs, but not quite in focus. And you hear the versions that wound up on the release, and the songs are fully realized and in focus. That’s the cool thing about this particular project and probably other box sets like this, is that you get to experience, or in a sense be a fly on the wall, in terms of how a band works a song. There’re several different changes in the course of things and how it finally comes into focus.

AH: There was one session that we did sometime in between the first LP and the second LP, where they have some of these things on there which were recorded during a monaural session that we did, which I’ve always thought was extremely interesting stuff. What’s really cool about it is the way John Fry recorded it. We had just been really interested in mono recording at the time for some reason, we just thought that kind of retro thing was interesting, and so we set up the session where there was just the band set up in one of the studios, and they just put one big microphone out in the middle of the room, and that was it. One microphone. And they recorded these four tracks, I think it’s 24 and 25 on disc one [of the box set] and then on disc two I think it’s [track] 1 and 2, and I just thought that those were really great tracks. The idea was to go in there with this real simple thing where we go in and we record in monaural and we see if we can’t get it in like one, maybe two or three tracks. And that’s all we went in there and did, and the vocals on those tracks I think are just reference vocals, and they really sounded great.

Chris Bell was always really meticulous in the studio. That’s surprising to hear that things were so loose like that.

AH: I don’t know that you’d call it loose. I mean, you have to see John Fry in action to really appreciate how he approaches something like that, because he spent quite a bit of time getting everybody positioned in the studio so that when it came through on that one monaural track, it would sound right. Obviously we couldn’t remix it [laughs]. He grew up back in the days when mono recording was all there was, and so the guy really knows what he’s doing. I think a lot of why those particular tracks sound so good is kind of a testament to his skills.

The box set will come with a collection of old photographs. What memories did Keep an Eye on the Sky unearth for you?

JS: You know, just how much fun it was for me to be in that band. It was a period of being creative, and this great sort of sonic exploration, of being a part of guys who could write what I thought to be great songs. I was how old – 1971 – when Chris and Andy and I got together, and I was 18. For me to walk into a situation like that – Ardent, which was kind of the Disney World of studios – there was a lot of creative talent there, and to see it all sort of blossom and be realized on tape was pretty amazing. That’s what these pictures kind of conjure up for me, was that we were indeed a band.

AH: Oh, gosh. Pictures of us driving along, and some of the few gigs we did play, all crammed into a Volkswagen minibus. Especially seeing the way we dressed, what our hair looked like and all that stuff was really kind of funny. By the time we put out the third LP is when that sort of glam look [came out]. Seeing some of these pictures of me and Jody in our kind of glam outfits with the long hair and satin shirts and four-and-a-half inch high heels on our boots and all that stuff, it’s a hoot.

This box set includes a few Bell solo songs like “I Am the Cosmos”. Do you feel a bit sad when you listen to these songs now?

JS: There’s a whole range of emotions when listening to that stuff. One is, “I Am the Cosmos” is sonically very dark. But at the same time, it’s empowering. It takes you and puts you in this place where you feel invincible or something. But yea, there’s definitely an element of sadness there. Again, on one hand it’s a pretty melancholy sort of song, and on the other hand there’s a certain determination there that comes with listening.

AH: It’s really interesting. There’ve been a lot of people that have gotten real interested in Chris. Chris and I were best friends going back to the early days of high school, and it really is sad that the guy passed away kind of in the prime of life before he was really kind of starting to hit his stride as a solo artist. It really does get kind of poignant; you start hearing all this stuff that you hadn’t heard in a long time – some that I had never heard at all. I remember the very first thing that he had ever brought back to us and played for us after he left the band were “I Am the Cosmos” and “You and Your Sister”, which even back then I thought was really great stuff.

Do you think that it was the right time for this box set?

JS: Oh, it is for me. There seem to be certain milestones that keep the band sort of in the public eye. The reunion gig in ‘93 was one. And then over a period of time, the CD release of the first two albums, and then it just seemed like the right time to come with a box set. It could be the vantage point of years, and looking back it could be that now’s the time because of the number of years that have passed. But you know, I’d rather have it come out now when I’m 57 than when I’m 72. If this sparks any additional band performances and that sort of thing, we can do those and do them with the appropriate spirit because we aren’t frail and old.

Andy, Do you still play any music anymore?

AS: I’ve got a little garage band here in Texas, and we get together and try to play every weekend and have the occasional gig. We have a lot of fun doing it. Jody kind of suggested that maybe to help promote this box set, we ought to go out and play or do a podcast or something, so we’re kind of thinking about that. Maybe write a song or something.

Big Star never achieved the popularity it deserved, but it did inspire a lot of bands. How do you account for the band’s longevity after all this time?

JS: The songs. And performances, obviously, contribute to how people respond to a song, but it’s the songs, pure and simple. There’s nothing quite as immortal as a great song. People tend to share those with their friends and other people – part of the excitement of music is discovery and surprise when you hear something that really connects with you emotionally. And when that happens, you can’t help but want to share that with someone immediately.

Did you ever see evidence of what Big Star was destined for? Was there any optimism?

AH: No, not at all [laughs]. When I kind of dropped out of it, I didn’t really see anything ever coming out of it, except maybe in terms of what Alex might do on it, because he was a pretty famous guy even back then – you know, he’d been in the Box Tops and everything. [I thought] after he’d go on and have a career and stuff and do great things, maybe Big Star would be sort of a footnote to the career of Alex Chilton. What ended up happening of course was so many artists claiming Big Star as such a big influence…nothing could have surprised me more. I still can’t quite figure it out!

I’ve always wanted to get the band’s take on Third/Sister Lovers. I think that your first two records are some of the most fun music of the decade, but Third has a certain darkness the other two don’t possess. It seems a lot of that had to do with Alex’s state of mind at the time. In a way, that bleakness makes Third Big Star’s most interesting and emotional album. But I’m wondering if you can shed some light on how that all happened.

JS: Well, it was certainly a reflection of what Alex was going through at the time. In retrospect, it was a pretty brilliant effort, I think, at expressing that. At the time it was a bit bizarre to me, and a bit tough to get through. But I was just listening to that record yesterday again, fresh for the first time in a while, and I think it’s become a pretty fascinating record to me given the people that contributed to it. It was a real collaborative effort with Jim Dickinson and Alex and Carl Marsh, who did the string arrangements, and John Fry with how it’s engineered and how it’s mixed, and his creative input there. Somehow musically it has more depth than the other two records. Certainly it could be the introduction of the string section and Carl Marsh’s input. I was listening to “Kizza Me” and I’m assuming that’s Jim Dickinson on piano, but there’s a break in the song, and Jim’s playing that piano break, and the piano just kind of builds and there’s this waterfall of piano notes that you can feel sort of cascading at the end of it. It’s just damn cool. There’s some really inspired moments on that record, I think.

What are your favorite covers of Big Star songs?

JS: You know, I thought the Bangles’ version of “September Gurls” was really good. God, Jeff Buckley’s version of “Kanga Roo” was amazing. Wilco’s cover of “Thirteen” was really touching. Those are the ones that stick out to me.

AH: That’s an interesting question. I guess the one that I like the most is The Bangles’ cover of “September Gurls”. In fact, we were just listening to that yesterday when we had our band practice down the street, and we ended up deciding, ‘let’s not learn the Big Star version, let’s learn the Bangles version.’ Really, some of the lyrics make more sense, they kind of tweaked them a little bit. What’s really funny listening to the Bangles version is there’s actually a mistake right in the middle of that song that I made on bass, which they actually repeated. It’s funny when people who are covering your material pick up not just the song the way it was intended to be but the song along with the mistakes you made [laughs].