A Conversation With Chris Stamey

Chris Stamey, founder of wonderfully off-kilter pop mavens the dB’s, has had a wide-ranging and fruitful career with numerous solo recordings, stints backing rock legend Alex Chilton, and turns as producer for artists such as Whiskeytown, Alejandro Escovedo and Hazeldine. His latest release, A Brand-New Shade Of Blue (out Friday via Omnivore), made with his roving band of Fellow Travelers, is a follow-up to last year’s New Songs For The 20th Century (Vols. I & II) and like that offering mines a variety of early-20th-century musical genres to produce his version of the Great American Songbook. 

MAGNET spoke with Stamey about A Brand-New Shade Of Blue, Cole Porter and binging on Bosch.

Your new album sounds great. I’m out of my depth here, but I hear hints of A Love Supreme in some of the phrasing of the title tune. Talk a bit about the gestation of the album.
These songs are part of a larger group of compositions I wrote last November, at the piano, in the middle of the night or the wee small hours of the morning—which ended up in a songbook also called A Brand-New Shade Of Blue. The songbook publication has gotten delayed, because the printer has been closed down by the pandemic—just part of a continuum of struggle we are all in. But they were written in the abstract first, before I had any idea of recording them.

I’ve been writing songs on paper these days, mostly, just words/melodies/chords, and learning how to do this as I go. If you think of recorded music as having some similarities to movies, then I’d say I’ve been writing detailed scripts first, and then letting the musicians—actors—interpret them. Whereas on a lot of my songs in the past, in this metaphor, I’ve been more the director and lead actor. Does that make sense?

This was how it worked in the last century, simple sheet music, you know, up until multitrack tape recorders came on the scene and let people craft and revise as they go. It used to be that people would buy the song sheets as the final thing and then sing them themselves in the parlor at home after dinner. The whole family might join in. And it appeals to me, for some reason, right now, to make this simple artifact, to try to fit it all into just one or two sheets of paper. I inherited a lot of songbooks several years ago, people like the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer, and I grew fascinated with the form. Often the harmonic progressions might be somewhat atypical compared to today’s four-chord hits, but the number of bars is often exactly 32 or some multiple of 16.

I still love recording, of course. I am around a lot of musicians here who can read music—even though this is, sadly, not always the case—and it’s just so cool to give them the bare-bones song sheets and see where they take it. That’s what happened here. We had to work around the pandemic, so unfortunately my plan of cutting these songs live with everyone in a room fast became impossible. But I think the record still breathes and floats in the way I’d hoped, and certainly the players each added a lot of their personalities to it. I play guitar on the recordings, and I did direct the proceedings in a gentle fashion, but I was content to take a back seat for the most part and let it happen. 

As far as the Coltrane flavor in the first song, that’s a specific kind of modal playing over drones, but it’s Will Campbell, a highly skilled player and one of my musical heroes, on alto who brought that to it, along with tenor player Elijah Freeman, a teenager who is also a fantastic talent in the making. I have always loved players who phrase “conversationally” instead of rigidly and who play without excess vibrato and histrionics. The song itself is more like a standard Coltrane could have covered instead of being like a Coltrane song. It does have a few chordal similarities, however, with his “Naima,” but I didn’t realize that until later.

Originally this was a double album again, like the one last year, as there were enough songs for this, but the idea of having a record that was more unified made sense. It just so happens that a lot of the songs we picked for this release spoke to each other with a certain downbeat mood.  I do hope to release the other songs, which are more groove-oriented and rockin’, as an EP later in the year.

Did you have an audience in mind when you set out? 
No, not really. I will say that I had a kind of image, once March came and the record was already pretty far along. I started binging on the Bosch TV series, and there are a lot of scenes where he’s sitting in the dark, looking out over the lights of L.A., late at night, and listening to Art Pepper and Frank Morgan. And I started to want to mix the record so it’d sound good in that room, alone, after midnight. It’s been such a stressful year; I wanted to put out a record that might bring some solace to listeners if they were open to it. Anyway, I find comfort myself in listening to it. There’s a gentleness to this group of sounds that I welcome on days when the news seems like it just can’t get darker—and then does.

You’ve spoken of your love for Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, all New York musicians. What attracts you to that style of “cool jazz” as opposed to the West Coast jazz of guys like Gerry Mulligan and Shorty Rogers active at the same time?
I do like Frank Morgan a lot. I’m not a jazz authority, far from it. I guess having lived in NYC for some time, I soaked up the East Coast side of things more. And those guys toured in the South more when I was growing up.

The pandemic interrupted the recording process, and some of the players had to record their parts from home. Was that particularly hard? Jazz would seem to rely more than some other forms of music on that in-person connection between musicians.  
I don’t think this is a jazz record. I think that it’s a crafted pop record, actually. It’s not as arranged as something like Joni Mitchell’s Court And Spark, but I think it’s closer to that kind of thing. My idea of a jazz performance does include, in most cases, having the musicians in the same room at the same time, and I wasn’t able to get there with this because of the pandemic. I do think what we have here is great, though. It’s my favorite of my own records to date, for what that’s worth. I play it a lot, myself. Maybe I shouldn’t admit that? But it’s true.

And I’m not a jazz musician. I am writing some songs using a little bit of the technical language—harmonic and lyrical—of the great folks who wrote the standards from the last century that jazz players have often used as guidelines. That is, denser chords—beyond the triads and sevenths—and some of the rhythms, and also words with more syllables! I am curious about how that works and am trying to learn more about it. Although hip-hop records have a rich lyrical vocabulary, most of the pop songs of the last few decades used a very basic vocabulary. Granted, this was probably just the right vocabulary for what they were trying to say. “Love, love me do/You know I love you/I’ll always be true” and so on. I’m not knocking it! And the Beatles branched out lyrically as they went along, for sure. It’s just invigorating to sometimes have access to a broader palette, if it fits what you are trying to say in the first place.

The lyrics of many of the songs are charming meditations on the comings and goings of lovers. You use deliberately old-fashioned references on a tune like “Come Home To Me” with mentions of telegrams and Morse Code. Obviously, you’re working in a style rooted in the past, but what prompted you to lyrically reach backward in this way?
There were a few songs I wrote that were really trying on the clothes of what I think of as Tin Pan Alley songs. To me this means somewhat silly songs that served to lighten the darkness of the Great Depression and the sadness of couples and families who were separated during the World Wars. “Come Home To Me,” “It Must Be Raining Somewhere” and “Dangling Cheek To Cheek” are all examples. I think there is some deep feeling hidden in them. They are not joke songs to me—but there is also a lyrical jauntiness, for sure. Morse Code is something I grew up with, as an electronics buff, and a few decades back I started a composition where the rhythms of the percussion and strings were in effect tapping out words in Morse Code. Never finished it, though. Probably just as well.

At the same time, you aren’t slavish in your recreation of an early-1960s small jazz combo, as you bring in players on banjo, harmonica and violin. How did you go about choosing the instruments for each song? Also, the obituary for jazz has been written many times. How does a project like yours balance a reverence for the past with finding new ways of expression?
Well, actually the banjo doesn’t seem out of place in the world of Tin Pan Alley, so “Dangling” fits that. Banjos are louder than guitars, and so were a crucial part of performances in the early part of the 1900s, before guitars went electric. The last two songs on the record are really, to me, outliers, kind of bonus tracks. The heart of the record goes through “Cerulean Is Lovely,” and if the vinyl factories ever get going again, the vinyl edition will probably end without those two. But when I was playing it as a whole, it just felt really good to me to have the “encore” of “Speechless” and then “Dangling.” “Speechless,” which has the harmonica, is lyrically in a “list song” tradition made famous by Cole Porter, but that version reminded me of Stevie Wonder, who often had the coolest chord progressions but sang so effortlessly over them that you don’t think twice about it. I like the harmonica on that track, but originally it was going to be much more of a Wonder pass, on chromatic harmonica, instead of the Dylan-ish huffing and puffing that ended up there. But I love the way it turned out, especially the piano solo Charles Cleaver played that follows. 

As far as the violins go: On my last record, I went pretty far down the strings path, so on this one I was going to try to do it all with either winds or nothing—and leave it up to the imagination. But in a few places, there was just the perfect spot for that flavor, and also I love Karen Galvin’s elegant playing. A musicologist—heaven forbid—might suggest that “I Don’t Think Of You” is more in the ’60s style, harmonically, of Burt Bacharach or Henry Mancini, and their records would use high strings in the right places. In general, though, I did try to leave more up to the imagination of the listener. When I hear something very sparse, such as a Bill Evans trio performance, I sometimes think, “Oh, if they just had a high cluster of woodwinds come in there, it would have been a beautiful thing.” But then I have realized that it’s more of a gift to leave that space blank sometimes, so the listener can dream the part and in that way participate as an active listener. I’m probably saying something trite here, but that was what I was thinking. I have done a lot of pragmatic arranging over the last few years, especially on records I’ve been mixing for other people. But writing on piano more has made me aware of how outrageously beautiful it can be just to let the overtones of the strings ring and generate all the gorgeous frequencies as the pitches decay. Same goes for the sound of a floor tom rumbling or a tenor sax’s final sputtering exhalation. Part of John Cage’s gift to us all was to remind us to let our ears fill up with silence. It’s easy to forget this, of course.

To those who aren’t regular listeners, the term “jazz” conjures up a black-and-white photograph of a sunglasses-wearing musician playing saxophone in a smoky downstairs club. There’s an element of historical truth to that cliché, but a recent Washington Post article also noted that jazz has an image problem. Many potential listeners are intimidated and believe that it’s just too hard to like or requires advanced knowledge to appreciate it. I can’t imagine that you’d want to restrict who listens to your work. What would you say to someone just getting into the music? 
I was a big fan of the band Television—and also the records that Tom Verlaine made on his own—and I hear, in some of that, a sense of what I call American Transcendentalism. And I hear that in some of the John Coltrane records, in John McLaughlin’s My Goal’s Beyond. So, although I was a big Mingus fan growing up—I played bass then, too)—it was more that searching quality that I liked, which seems to evaporate when described in words. So I won’t go on about this. As a listener, I like music that seems expansive, that is unpredictable and, at times, perhaps uncomfortable, music that reminds you that you are alive and awake in this moment. As a writer, I just write what I write in a kind of fugue and then try to figure it out later. But usually my explanations of it are probably only partly true, since I’m no longer in the same state of mind as when I was writing the music. I’m not trying to be evasive here. But worrying about the image of jazz is not something I do.

As far as any music requiring advanced knowledge: Well, that’s kind of a tricky one. A composer feels that his music is successful when it “makes the brain/mind light up,” when it seeps in the ears and lifts the soul just as intended, with no prerequisites. No composer I know of wants to write music that requires an education beforehand. You want to think that you can go from an Ab7b9 chord to an A major at just the right moment and bring the room to tears no matter what! Ha! But there’s no getting around the fact that I myself enjoy music in a different way now that I’ve studied it, somewhat haphazardly, in some detail over many decades. It’s much more Technicolor now, for me, that I know what the instruments sound like in isolation and what the chords most likely are as they are played. 

As far as my own recordings, well I don’t think this is difficult stuff. Take the song “Un Autre Temps,” which is full of a kind of major seventh chord that has a raised—sharped—11th interval and, in fact, was inspired by that tonality. Does knowing this matter to its enjoyment? Gosh, I hope not. I grant you that there is some music that takes getting used to. Give a listen to some of my old favorites, the Ives orchestral pieces. The Unanswered Question—is that trumpet in the “wrong” key? Yikes! Kind of, but then you realize what is being expressed there could perhaps not be expressed any other way. It just takes a few spins to get there, but it’s worth it. Art makes demands, and as long as you aren’t let down by the artist once you answer these demands, as long as there’s a payoff there, it’s worth taking the time to peel back the layers. Sometimes the biggest payoff comes from the most demanding stuff, too. In my opinion.

Your 2018 memoir, A Spy In The House Of Loud, does a great job giving the reader a taste of the New York City music scene in the late 1970s/early 1980s and how sonically disparate it was with the dB’s bumping up against Kid Creole’s Caribbean-influenced disco, the various no-wave bands like DNA and even the surf rock of a group like the Raybeats. There was no real unifying sound as you might find in a smaller scene. I’ve often wondered if that’s a reflection of the diversity present in so many facets of New York life. Thoughts?
The thing is, most musicians have catholic tastes. They find something that they can do well, that connects with an audience for whatever reason, and then sometimes they walk a narrow path from then on. But, as listeners, there is usually a shared joy in all kinds of sounds. What I found as a unifying aspect of the music I was around in NYC during the late ’70s and early ’80s was that a lot of it was a reaction against the mostly dishonest, “plastic” music that was on the radio and in the arenas. The radio music was lying to us, presenting these dumbed-down dreams that had no connection any longer to our lives. So, some of us turned our backs on the whole kit and caboodle. So, honest expression, of any kind, was valued. It was a kind of folk music, made with our own hands, even something like what Arto Lindsay did on guitar with DNA. But I will say, it was actually a very small scene! It’s just that the national press was in New York, so those few people had bright lights shining on them even in the early stages of development.

You’ve explored many styles of music over the course of your career. What’s up next? I vote for a synth-pop album!
I pretty much just follow my nose. When I’ve tried a few times to make other people happy, well, those songs usually don’t go well. There are all kinds of ways to write music, but for me it’s more of a wild-card process, feral—it doesn’t like the harness of preconception too much. I do remember being around Martin Rushent when he was first making the Human League records, on a big wall-to-wall modular Moog, and hearing him talking about how unbelievably tedious it was! So I dunno if I can do the synth-pop thing. It didn’t sound like much fun really, to hear him tell it. I would do it if Kathleen Hanna would be involved, though.

—Bruce Fagerstrom