Chris Stamey has had a far-reaching and multi-faceted career from playing in the late ‘70s with Big Star's Alex Chilton and recording with Chris Bell, also of Big Star fame, to forming The dB’s, purveyors of sparkling power pop, followed by a diverse solo career with forays into production and a stint as orchestrator and musical director for the international series of concert performances of Big Star’s classic album ‘Third’.
Stamey is coming to Whelan’s on November 9th as part of his solo tour before heading to Spain with The Music of Big Star. We caught him for a chat about records old and new, days gone by and music to come…
Where do you currently call home? Back in New York and Greensboro Days [from the current album] suggest North Carolina isn’t the only place you hold dear these days…
I am in Chapel Hill, NC. I was born here and returned here in 1993. I spend 95% of my time here, on a plot of land outside of town where my wife and I live in a hundred-year-old house with a fifty-year-old piano, and the much newer studio sits behind us back in the woods.
I do love New York but am surprised by how much time I’m spending in LA these days when I do leave the house, perhaps because that’s now where our daughter hangs out.
How are you feeling about the run of solo shows?
Invigorated and challenged. I’m reviewing old songs and brand new ones every day. I’ve been playing piano so much the last several years, it’s great fun to get my fingers wrapped around a guitar again.
How do you feel about touring in general?
I hear Jeff Tweedy when he says (in his first book’s title), ‘Let’s Go So We Can Get Back’. But when it’s touring playing music I enjoy, as it is in this case, then the time onstage is a kind of magic that can only be harvested in that way.
How long has this new album been in the making?
If you mean the current record, ‘The Great Escape’, I pulled it together last year but some of the tracks were from several years before. Of course, in the pandemic, time almost stopped.
If you mean “the new record” I’m making now, which I think is called ‘Anything Is Possible’, I started writing it last year and started recording it two months ago. And it got a big shot of adrenalin when The Lemon Twigs added the most mind-blowing Beach Boys in-vocal harmonies to it a few weeks ago. I hope to finish it as soon as I get back, and put it out early in 2024.
Given the wealth of musicians involved in ‘The Great Escape’, is the finished product much different than how you initially envisioned these songs?
I think the songs do sound pretty much the way I envisioned them on ‘The Great Escape’. In some cases, for example the ones that Eric Heywood played on like I Will Try, I wrote in mind with that sound, not just with chords and words.
As far as Back in New York, however, I originally thought of it more like the bonus track, as a kind of cross between folk-rock and big-band jazz, but in the end the more folky version that’s in the body of the album seemed more true to a song that namechecks Dave Van Ronk.
‘The Great Escape’ is quite a different listening experience to the jazz of ‘A Brand-New Shade of Blue’ in 2020. What might we expect from ‘Anything is Possible’?
I’m hunkered down on [the] next record, I’ve cut all the tracks and am trying to get the final orchestrations written. This new one is a study in melody. So, even though the songs’ styles are all over the place, they are all held together by a certain melodic sense.
The last song I wrote was the (probable) title track, Anything Is Possible, and Mitch Easter played the most wonderful, most Bev Bevan-ish drum track on it; he is a great drummer in that style. We both memorized every nuance of Bev’s signature drumming style when we were in high school and he seemed to retain that. It’s so much fun to hear what Mitch did on this song!
The Music of Big Star concerts in November will only take in a handful of Spanish dates. What are the logistics of taking that project on tour?
There is no manager or game plan, we are all friends and if someone asks and we are all available, it’s a joy to meet up and work really really hard to get the notes and the passion to line up on those songs. The best kind of busman’s holiday. It’s simpler now that we - Jody Stephens, Mike Mills, Jon Auer, Pat Sansone, and myself - are doing the “small combo” thing instead of “...with orchestra and guests.”
Big Star is in some ways (and with no disrespect meant) the best “high school combo” ever, and we all grew up playing in combos. What a wonder those interlocking guitar parts are, too!
Has anyone been approached who declined the offer to partake, or is there anyone you would like to have take part in future?
I am retired from the concerts where the entirety of Big Star’s ‘Third’/‘Sister Lovers’ was performed. Been there, done that. We made a good movie of that called ‘Thank You, Friends…’, and I don’t feel the need to go further with it.
As far as anyone declining to participate, hmm, I did want to hear Ringo sing The India Song, but the timing wasn’t right (and Jody sings it so great, anyway). Paul Westerberg was asked a few times but never felt the call.
We asked Ray Davies several times, almost got him on a plane, and then lo and behold finally he did join in, at the Barbican. That was huge, as he and Alex were friends in later years.
Do you regret not taking the offer to play bass with Alex [Chilton] for the Big Star reunion gig in ‘93, which led to it going to Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies. It was reported that you felt the pay wasn’t very good, was that the case or were other factors involved?
There was no pay offered, as I recall. But that had nothing to do with it at all. It was more that I didn’t believe that it was for real, that Alex was really going to do it. But as far as regrets I have, that’s way way down the line. I mean, that line-up was great and sounded great, win-win.
Did you and Alex have much contact in the nineties and noughties?
I’d see him when he’d come through Hoboken sometimes, not so much once I was in Chapel Hill. I did ask him to sing a Christmas song for my Christmas collection, and he did great with that (of course).
Why are people drawn so much, do you think, to ‘Third’ over Big Star’s other records?
I actually think more people like the first two than like ‘Third’! But there’s something about ‘Third’, it’s almost like it’s a mirror you can see yourself in if you listen/look closely enough. Also, it doesn’t come to you, you have to lean in and come to it, so maybe you dig deeper and feel a deeper connection because of this. Or maybe it’s because some of the songs are so good. My favourite back when they were released was probably ‘Radio City’, actually.
I did those concerts of ‘Third’ a) because of a dare and b) because we have great musicians here in NC and it was a case of rising to a challenge, frankly. But then once we got on stage with the material, it did wrap around our heads and swirl us into some very compelling zones on a lot of the nights. You have to give Carl Marsh’s arrangements some credit, a lot of credit, too. Wizardly stuff.
The long-held conception (or lazy music journalist shorthand) is that Peter Holsapple wrote the more straightforward pop tunes in The dB’s and you wrote the more out-there or experimental numbers. Do you consider that a fair assessment of The dB’s output?
I think I tried to balance the equation, make the records well-rounded. But I also think I wasn’t in a great songwriting “space” in those years, lyrically I’d gotten sloppy in the kaleidoscope of New York life at first.
I think the writing was better in the Sneakers [Chris’ pre-dB’s band] record in some ways, and I finally clicked more as a songwriter by the time of my first record for A&M. That’s my take. Peter had started writing songs some years before I did, too, so he was further along that path, although I was already writing music; just not songs.
Does the improvisational way of making music appeal to you more so than structuring a song or album in a more formal way, such as the experience of making ‘The Robust Beauty of Improper Linear Models in Decision Making’ with Kirk Ross?
No, I like the architecture of notes on paper better. But what was interesting to me was Kirk Ross’s extrapolation of Derek Bailey’s prepared guitar techniques. I’d done sessions with Fred Frith in NY but had not been around a guitarist who used pieces of railroad and Japanese battery-powered kitchen devices to create orchestral effects that would have taken 20 musicians to duplicate.
Why did you leave The dB’s?
There were too many songs being written to fit on albums, remember how constricted LPs are, only around 18-20 good-sounding minutes per side.
Was that a shock to the rest of the band at the time?
I don’t think ‘shock’ is quite the right word. I did write about this in my “songwriting memoir”, ‘A Spy in the House of Loud’. You are welcome to grab the Kindle from Amazon (I imagine it’s pretty cheap) and quote from the book as I probably said it better there than I can at this moment.
Read our Golden Vault on The dB's classic 'Stands for Decibels' record here.
What do you think about those early dB’s records when you listen to them these days?
I don’t listen to them and neither can most people, as Universal has removed them from sale and from streaming due to the lawsuits that are under way in the US.
What's going on there?
The dB's are not suing Universal. Because the dB's filed a copyright termination notice, Universal Music Group took down the albums because the courts are still trying to decide. It has happened to a lot of people. Warners, on the other hand, has been letting artists have their records back as per the termination law. Just not Universal.
What advice would the Chris Stamey of today give the Chris Stamey of 1977?
If one thinks that time is a flawed misperception of reality and actually everything happens at once, then he would not benefit from such advice. I might have said, ‘Don’t drink so much coffee after midnight.’
Chris Stamey plays Little Whelan’s on Thursday, 9th November 2023. Tickets available here.