A Conversation With Jody Stephens (Big Star, Those Pretty Wrongs)

Jody Stephens has always thrived on collaboration, whether it was with his bandmates in Big Star (one of rock’s great underdog tales) or as the do-everything CEO of Memphis’ Ardent Studios. Lately, Stephens has been feeding off the creative energy of Those Pretty Wrongs, his on-and-off collaboration with longtime friend Luther Russell—one that began when the two came together for 2012 Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me. The duo’s latest release, Zed For Zulu (Burger), enhances the vaguely nostalgic folk/power-pop leanings of their self-titled 2016 debut with more expansive arrangements and some well-placed Big Star accessories, including a few of Chris Bell’s guitars.

Meanwhile, Omnivore has just reissued 2005 Big Star “reunion” album In Space. An inconsistent affair that definitely has its moments, the LP features Stephens, the late Alex Chilton and the Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow.

Checking in from Memphis, Stephens weighed in on Those Pretty Wrongs, In Space and the untimely 2010 death of Chilton.

Are you and Luther doing any touring behind Zed For Zulu?
We debuted the new LP in Los Angeles at a Wild Honey Foundation benefit for autism. We shared the stage with Dan Wilson, so that was fun. We played Nashville for the Americana Music Fest, then here in Memphis and in Little Rock. We’re going to England and playing nine dates there.

The best description I’ve heard so far about Zed For Zulu is that it’s sort of like #1 Record without the Alex Chilton influence.
I’ll take that. It’s quite a compliment. For those familiar with I Am The Cosmos and Chris (Bell), he was an amazingly talented guy.

You used some of his equipment on at least one song, correct?
I own his acoustic Yamaha. (Big Star bassist) Andy Hummel wound up with it first, and then he gave it to me because I was looking to learn how to play guitar. I got Alex to teach me a few chords, and I wrote “For You” on it, which is on Big Star’s third album. That guitar is pretty much on every song on Zed For Zulu. Then we have Chris’ Gibson ES-335, which we use on “You And Me,” “Below Zero” and one or or two others. His spirit is very much present on this album.

You and Luther seem to gel so well creatively that it’s tough to figure out who’s doing what. How did you meet?
(Former Capitol Records CEO) Gary Gersh introduced me to Luther in the early ’90s, and we just kept in touch. Danielle McCarthy, who spearheaded the Big Star documentary, wanted me to sing some songs out in L.A., so I called Luther. We wound up playing other dates as well, and he suggested we write some song together. I knew we were likeminded spirits when it comes to melodies and influences, and Luther is a great cheerleader. So it was easy to say yes.

What are your thoughts now on the Big Star documentary?
I love the fact that the film focuses on (Ardent Studios founder) John Fry, because he certainly was a valuable part of what we were doing. Danielle contacted Fry very early on, and I think the common denominator was Winston Eggleston, the son of Bill Eggleston, who took the Radio City cover photograph. She flew to Memphis, and John rented a van and took her to all these Big Star spaces. I think it’s a wonderful film.

Now that we’re on the subject of Big Star, how does In Space sit with you almost 15 years later.
I think it’s fun—I practice to it all the time. “Love Revolution” is a trip on headphones. You can hear Alex’s wacky picking on it, and you can hear Jon Auer’s ’70s-style noodling.

What was it like putting the album together?
Rykodisc had no idea what they were getting into—they had no clue. But they agreed to do this thing. The idea was to record a song a day. But 10 days into it, we had no idea what we had. We had some instrumental tracks, but I don’t even think lyrics or melody lines were starting to appear. Rykodisc kept asking. “How’s it going?” We really didn’t know. Then we got together for the second round, and things started coming together. We finally got it done and delivered, and then it got really fun.

What were some of Alex’s key contributions?
He’d taken these classical pieces and transcribed them for two guitars, bass and drums. That’s what “Aria, Largo” is. He passed around these charts, and Jon and Ken were all sitting around reading them. I think he may have had drums, but it’s not like I can sight read, so I wasn’t really paying attention. I started thinking, “Man, this is going south.” But as it turns out, “Aria, Largo” is a really nice transitional break.

How difficult was it for you to absorb Alex’s passing?
He died on a Wednesday, and we were to play South By Southwest on Saturday, and I’d just arrived in Austin. I was in the Convention Center, in the middle of the registration area, when Alex’s wife called me and told me. All of sudden, it was like everything got quiet and these curtains came down around me. I just went to my hotel room and shut down. I felt so sorry for his wife—and Alex. He’d just got married, and he was having such a good time of it. Big Star songs were getting played on TV shows and commercials. That ’70s Show had gone into syndication, and it could play as many as six or seven times a night, and he was getting royalties for that. I don’t think he had a lot of money, but he was comfortable—and 59 years old is young. I got along with Alex best onstage and in the studio when we were playing. He could pick up a guitar and deliver a vocal, and it was pretty inspirational. It was so sad. I still think about it.

—Hobart Rowland