A Q&A with Jody Stephens/Rolling Stone.com
Even if Jody Stephens had never picked up a pair of drumsticks after 1974, he’d still have secured an immortal place in pop history as the drummer for Big Star — one of the most talked about and belatedly beloved American rock & roll bands ever. And although they didn’t sell squat in their day, just about every self-respecting rocker with good taste — from Michael Stipe to Paul Westerberg to Matthew Sweet to Greg Dulli to, hell, *everybody* — has genuflected in front of Big Star’s three studio albums, rightfully regarding them as the awe-inspiring Holy Grails of power-pop that they are. Led by the enigmatic songwriter Alex Chilton (once the teenage lead singer of the Box Tops and the preternaturally gravelly voice behind “The Letter”) and co-founding songwriter Chris Bell, Big Star remain best known for odes to adolescent growing pains like “September Gurls” and “Thirteen”, the latter of which has been covered by everyone from Wilco to Garbage.
Well, here it is a quarter-century and five presidents later, and Stephens — now 46 years old — finds himself behind the very same drum kit he used when Big Star were touring as the opening act for Badfinger (Badfinger!), and Carl Douglas’ novelty number “Kung Fu Fighting” was cranking from AM radios everywhere. Only Stephens’ new band ain’t no opening act. It’s Golden Smog, the roots-rock, alt-country supergroup side project comprised of Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Marc Perlman and Gary Louris (Jayhawks), Dan Murphy (Soul Asylum), and Kraig Johnson (Run Westy Run).
As Golden Smog were about to hit the road in support of their third album, *Weird Tales* (Rykodisc), we caught up with Stephens in his natural habitat: co-managing Ardent Studios in Memphis, which, not coincidentally, was also the recording locale for each of Big Star’s studio efforts. Besides recording and performing with Golden Smog, Stephens is keeping himself busy in other ways these days: He’s producing as well as playing on a forthcoming Big Star tribute album, titled *Big Star Small World,* that’s slated for release in February or March. And then, of course, there’s always his day job.
Rolling Stone.com: So you’re at Ardent Studios right now?
Stephens: Yeah. I co-manage it with John Fry, the man who mixed the Big Star records. There’s a lot of history here. It’s the same building we recorded in, and it can be spooky to walk down the same halls I was walking down 28 years ago. But it can be comforting too.
RS: From this vantage point, what do you make of the kind of belated celebration of Big Star as one of those bedrock influences like the Velvet Underground or the Stooges? Especially given the fact that the band wasn’t commercially successful at the time.
Stephens: It’s funny, because when I started here in ‘87 the Replacements were here doing the *Pleased To Meet Me* album with Jim Dickinson, who played on our last record. And it was really interesting because I didn’t know about all the bands that had known about us. It wasn’t until years and years later that I talked with Paul Westerberg.
RS: Back in 1972, when *#1 Record* came out, did you have any inkling about how you would — or wouldn’t — be received? I’m thinking about the dominant bands of the day — Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Stones. Not a lot of bands were doing what you guys were doing at the time. Did you know instinctively that you were onto something?
Stephens: We didn’t have much of an audience when those records were first released. I think our first record sold 4,000 copies. And it *was* different than what a lot of other people were doing, with the exception of bands like the Raspberries. With the exception of the first song (“Feel”), it wasn’t a very commercially slick record. It wasn’t maybe what commercial radio wanted to hear. And our second record (*Radio City*) was very edgy for its time. They were fairly dark records wrapped in a pop package — maybe that’s what’s made them enduring.
RS: Has it been frustrating on some level, knowing that when they first came out, your albums didn’t get a lot of attention?
Stephens: No, because being in Big Star has opened the door for a lot of opportunities, and part of that is getting to be a part of Golden Smog — and it makes my job here at Ardent easier because a lot of people who otherwise might not have heard of us want to come here and record because of those records and the way they sound. If I were selling insurance — not that that’s a bad thing — but if I were doing something I hated, I might be bitter. But given that I’ve got a great job and I’m still in the business doing what I love, I’m not bitter about it at all.
RS: How does it feel to be playing with musicians who all, in one way or another, have referenced your work with Big Star and used that band as a kind of model? Do you get the sense that these guys see you as an elder statesman and an icon, that they’re looking up to you?
Stephens: Well, it’s more of a case of me looking up to them. These guys are really amazing songwriters and to me, that’s really the focus of the music — the song. If I had been the primary songwriter in Big Star it might have been a different situation. I’m just enjoying the fun of being in this band and the fellowship that comes with being a part of this band. As soon as I walked in the room, I immediately felt a sense of togetherness between those guys — and I felt like I belonged.
RS: What was it about Golden Smog that drew you in, that made you want to play in a band again?
Stephens: I had a great desire to feel like belonging again. I love playing drums and to be part of a band is to be a part of something special. And it’s an awesome feeling. To me, music should be fun. I have a gig at Ardent and get a regular paycheck, so I don’t need to go out and make a living playing music. So for me, it’s not a struggle to play music. *Physically* it can be a struggle (laughs). But you know, I’ve been trying to get in shape to prepare for this tour. I’m going to the gym as much as possible.