Rhino Interview: Jody Stephens of Big Star
The tale of Big Star is one filled with critical acclaim and commercial indifference, but thanks to the three albums the band released during the '70s - 1972's #1 Record, 1974's Radio City, and 1978's Third / Sister Lovers - the band has gradually found a devoted fanbase over the years. Regrettably, the majority of its membership is no longer here to appreciate it: of the foursome who founded Big Star, guitarist Chris Bell died in a car crash in 1978, frontman Alex Chilton suffered a fatal heart attack in March 2010, and bassist Andy Hummel succumbed to cancer only a few months later, in July 2010. Thankfully, drummer Jody Stephens still walks the earth, happily flying the Big Star flag - and still playing a little music - while also serving as general manager at Ardent Studios, where the band recorded the aforementioned trio of albums.
Rhino: First of all, itâs good to talk to you again. You may not remember the first time we chatted â it was during the flurry of press you were doing when Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me was being released â but if nothing else, I was probably the only person to ask you about Van Duren that day.
Jody Stephens: You probably were! [Laughs.] And heâs come up several times recently, âcause weâre doing a tribute to John Fry and John Hampton. Itâs April 22. The Gin Blossoms are gonna play, and Jon (Auer) and Ken (Stringfellow) are coming in, and weâre gonna do Big Star songs. And one of our other bands is kind of aâ¦ I donât know, kind of a Black Crowes-y / metal band called Tora Tora thatâs pretty cool is gonna play, too. Itâs an interesting combination. Us and the Gin Blossoms make sense, but Tora Tora? [Laughs.] But when they were, like, 17 or 18 year old guys, they worked with the production company we developed with Ardent, so it actually does make sense, butâ¦well, anyway, not to digress or anything!
No, youâre fine: there are certainly worse ways to start out than with a mention of John Fry! But letâs get started with the Big Star story. You actually entered the picture because you were a member of the band Icewater, correct?
Well, Icewater existed prior to my being introduced to Chris in Ardent. It was a project that Steve Ray and Chris Bell were working on, andâ¦I guess I became a part of that because Steve had been playing drums and guitar and singing. Thereâs a song called âAll I See Is Youâ on the box set (Keep an Eye on the Sky), and thatâs what they were working on when I had my first introduction to them. And then we cut some demos subsequent to that â with Andy (Hummel) involved, of course â and then we all got on a plane and went to New York to shop the demos. That was probably around December of 1970, I think. December of â70 or January of â71.
You actually knew Andy before you met the rest of the guys in the band, right?
I did. In fact, Iâd met Andy when I was in, like, the seventh or eighth grade. Probably the seventh. Iâd been introduced to Andy via a friend of mine, Mike Fleming, who was a Midtown friend. Mike played guitar, and my brother Jimmy wound up playing in a band with Mike and Andy andâ¦a guy named Scotty (Bringhurst) on drums. So there was that connection to Andy pretty early on.
And then a few years went by, and I hadnât seen or talked to Andy, but he came to a performance of Hair â the musical â at Memphis State. It was the first college production of it, so it was probably in February of 1970. I was still in high school, but my brother and I had this band, and we all kind of auditioned to be in the band for Hair, and our lead singer â well, one of our lead singers â Don McNatt was auditioning for the part of Berger. So Andy came to see that performance and came up onstage afterwards and asked me if I wanted to come play some with friends. And I said, âSure!â
So what was your own musical background? Did you grow up in a musical family, or did you just kind of discover music on your own and start playing?
Well, my dad had played a little guitar and piano and sang in the choir, butâ¦not really. They had this little bridge club that they belonged to, and when they had people over, it would be the Readerâs Digest kind of compilation of background music that they would play. So I donât think I got any inspiration from that. [Laughs.] It was primarily the Beatles. When the Beatles hit, thatâs what kind of got me inspired and engaged.
As far as Big Starâs actual origin, what Iâve always read is that Chris invited Alex to see a performance by Icewater, and the rest is history, as they say.
Well, the performanceâ¦was actually the trio of me, Chris, and Andy, but I think we were being called Tommy Tutweiler and the Twisters for that one gig. [Laughs.] Itâs a name that John Dando came up with, inspired by Derek and the Dominoes. You know, that alliterative kind of name. But, yeah, Chris had wanted Alex to join, and he invited Alex to that gig. Interestingly enough, I donât really remember meeting Alex at that gig. But Iâm sure we all sat and talked.
One thing Iâve always been curious about is whether or not you or any of the other guys ever had a moment with Alex where you were, like, âOh, my God, itâs the guy from the Box Topsâ?
Not really. Because, you know, I thought the Box Topsâ hits were incredible songs, and I thought Alex had a pretty incredible voice, butâ¦I wasnât a follower of the band. I mean, I knew theyâd had hits, of course. âThe Letterâ was huge! And then there was âNeon Rainbowâ and âCry Like a Babyâ and all of those. But I never made the connection with the individual members, you know? Not like with the Beatles, where I pored over everything, learning who they were and looking at whatever pictures I could see and reading whatever interviews I could find. So, yeah, I had a lot of respect for the Box Tops, but I wasnât a follower, so I never had that kind of moment with Alex.
Do you recall the process of putting together the songs for the first Big Star album? Was it an easy chemistry between everyone?
Yes! Well, from my perspective, it was. You know, Alex and Chris were the primary writers. Andy would certainly join in and make some great contributions, like âThe India Song,â from the first record. Iâm not quite sure what he chimed in on with the other songs. Theyâd bring the songs in kind of complete. I wasnât really a part of the process of the songs being written. But it was just a very easy chemistry for me in working those songs up, with the four of us kind of coming together. It was kind of Chrisâs production vision, how the guitars played against each other. Thatâs what kind of knocked me out. There was a little building next to Ardent when it was over on National, and thatâs where we would practice. I can remember working on âBallad of El Goodo,â and it just completely floored me. You know, the songs were so great that it was pretty easy to be inspired to create whatever part was needed for them.
I know that both Chris and Alex were both big Beatles fans. When Big Star were recording that first album, were there ever any points where anyone said, âHang on, this might be a little too much Beatles and not enough Big Starâ?
I donât remember that being the case. [Laughs.] I mean, I can always hear the Beatles in Big Starâs music, for sure. The melodies were certainly the primary point. But I donât know that we couldâve ever gotten too Beatle-y, just because of who we were.
When you went into Ardent for the #1 Record sessions, had you ever recorded there before?
Not really. Not other than the demos and things that Alex, Chris, Andy, Steve Ray, and I were doing. [Hesitates.] Well, there was the Rock City record. I played on that. Itâs apparently something that apparently Chris got involved in as an engineering project. It was kind of billed as preparing for the Big Star record. Tom Eubanks was a big part of that record and part of the writing. So I guess Iâd done that prior to Big Star. I just wish I had a better memory! [Laughs.]
Youâre fine. I guess my big question, really, was just how well you took to working in a studio setting, since it sounds like you were predominantly used to working in a live setting at that point.
Yeah, I mean, Iâd done a little studio work. Jimmy and I had recorded at Sonic, which is where Roland Janes was engineering, and at some point I had heard that he had the board from Sun. Well, it wasnât really Sun Studios, it was Memphis Recording Service. But Roland back in the day was engineering stuff, and I think it was, like, $10.00 an hour, so we went in a couple of times. But nothing like Ardent. Nothing with the kind of gear that was available to us at Ardent or the technical things we could do there. That, and the clock wasnât running. We could go in after hours, after the Staple Singers were done mixing or whatever, and do some work.
Well, that answers the question about who else was there at the same time as Big Star. Were there any other artists who were around that you can recall?
Well, Iâm not sure about Led Zeppelin mixing (Led Zeppelin III). They mixed somewhere around that time, but I think Terry was pretty secretive about them coming in. But I think it was just Jimmy Page coming in, anyway. Otherwise, though, Iâm not really sure. But there was a lot going on.
#1 Record got a ton of positive press, but it failed to take off commercially. Did you go in with certain expectations, or was it all in good fun?
Well, in my case, it was, âLetâs have fun, Iâm really grateful to be here.â [Laughs.] And Iâm still incredibly grateful for the results. You know, weâd go in the studio, andâ¦all that stuff just comes out of nowhere! People write songs, and I guess through experience or whatever it is â definitely some sort of creative talent â the songs just come out of thin air, and whatever youâve done in terms of practicing on your instrument and preparing yourself with whatever music youâve listened to, it just kind of comes out when youâre recording. But whatever it is, it would just all work. I remember laying down a track and going back into the control room, and John would play it back andâ¦it just sparkled! I donât know, he always made me sound better than I thought I played!
When the album wasnât a commercial success, Chris was not happy â to say the least â and Alex apparently wasnât exactly thrilled, either, but there arenât really any reports of you expressing any frustration over the situation.
Well, for my part, it wouldâve been nice to make a career out of playing music, but was I put out by it? No. I had kind of achieved the goal that I wanted: I was really proud of the music that we created together and really happy with it. So it wasnât that big of a deal. Being in a commercially successful band was really sort of a pie-in-the-sky thing, anyway. Your chances of doing that are pretty slim.
And I guess a lot of Chrisâs frustration happened away from me, because Andy and I were both going to school, and we all had girlfriends, so we were spending time with them. And then Chris left the band, and I kind of understood that it was that Chris just wanted to get out from under the shadow of Alex, because Alex was the focal point of all of the reviews. Which made sense: Alex had had tremendous success with the Box Tops. Itâs one of those things that was kind of natural for a writer to do: âIf you donât know who Big Star is, youâll know who Alex Chilton is.â It was that kind of thing. So I think Chris left because of not wanting to live under Alexâs shadow in that regard. I never quite caught any frustration with lack of sales and that whole distribution thing.
And Iâm not sure what was going through Alexâs mind, because Alexâ¦ We never talked about it. After #1 Record, we just kind of drifted apart. And then John King started putting this rock writers convention together and asked us to play, and we came back together for that, because rock writers were our only audience. That was the first Big Star audience that we ever played to.
Rock writers and record store clerks.
[Laughs.] Yeah! It was amazing, because everybody know the lyrics, the songs, and the melodies. So it was an incredibly good time, and because of that, Alex and Andy and I came back together and did Radio City.
Did you feel like there was any chance of Chris coming back at that point, or did you feel like he was gone for good because of his issues with Alex?
Oh, I figured Chris was gone for good. And while I certainly missed Chris, because Chris was a good friend and an amazingly talented, gifted guy, I also knew that Alex was pretty brilliant and that we could move forward and be okay. Weâd have a little different direction, but weâd be okay. And it proved to be true, you know? Andy also made contributions there with songwriting. So as it turned out, we were indeed okay. Radio City turned out to beâ¦ Well, I think itâs a great record.
Youâve actually got a songwriting credit on Radio City, as a co-writer of âDaisy Glaze.â
Yeah, Iâve gotta tell ya, Iâm not sure what that was about. [Laughs.] But to some extent, if you sit in on the original recording of a song, you help shape that song, Iâve always thought. You know, R.E.M. and U2, I think itâs a brilliant idea to include the band on writing and publishing and that sort of thing. It certainly helps keep a band together!
Prior to reforming for that rock writers convention, were you pretty well convinced that Big Star was done?
Iâm not sure I had any kind of definitive thoughts about it. But if I had, it probably wouldâve been that I figured that the band was done. Alex had another band with Danny Green and Richard Rosebrough, who actually played on three of the tracks on Radio City: âWhatâs Going Ahn,â âSheâs a Mover,â and âMod Lang.â So, yeah, I kind of figured it was done. And then after the rock writers thing, John King had a conversation with Alex, and talked to me about the idea of kind of moving forward with it. But then Andy, I think even before Radio City was released, quit. He was just anxious to get on with his life and figure out how to make a living.
Itâs hard to really pick a definitive Big Star album, because so many people have a tendency to say, âWell, theyâre all good!â
Yeah, for me, the way people perceive Big Star is shaped by all three records. At least, thatâs the way I see it. They all add a different emotional element and, consequently, a bit more depth to how people perceive the band. So for me itâs hard to figure out a definitive moment, because they were all soâ¦ Well, they were pretty distinctive records.
Itâs kind of one big story, basically.
Yeah. Thereâs a beginning, a middle, and an endâ¦at least until In Space. [Laughs.] Thatâs another story. But that was a fun one.
What was it like working with Jim Dickinson on Third / Sister Lovers?
Jim was great. I had a lot of respect for Jim and respect for his opinion about things, so it was cool to go back in the control room and look at him and say, âWhatâd you think about that?â And as long as Jim was cool with it, I was cool with it. I figured heâd know better than I. So it was great to have Jim to look to for that, and certainly for Jim to carry on with the record with John Fry and mix it, because Iâm sure Jim guided how that record was mixed to an extent. Johnâs a brilliant mix engineer, but we kind of figured out over the yearsâ¦ More stuff was recorded than wound up in the mixes, you know, and John was good at kind of culling unnecessary things out.
Thatâs not to say that Chris Bell wouldnât have been sitting next to him, helping guide and shape how the mixes were done for #1 Record, or Alex for Radio City. But if you listen to Thirdâ¦ [Hesitates.] Oh, man, whatâs the song? I remember Alex walking out in the studio on this song, and he sang, âMeet! / Meet! / Meet!âAnd I just thought, âWow, whereâs that going?â [Laughs.] âIâve never heard anybody sing that sort of background vocal!â But the way John placed it in the mix, it became a musical element of the song. âDream Lover,â I think it is. [Mr. Stephens is correct: it is indeed âDream Lover,â and you can hear the bit in question at around the 2:58 mark in the song. â Ed.] But there were other kinds of things that would happen, like distorted guitars and stuff. Like Jim Dickinson said in the documentary, John treated all bits as musical elements of a song, kind of with equal importance.
I read at some point that Alex said that you guys didnât see Third / Sister Lovers as you were making it, and Iâve also read in interviews where youâve said that you kind of see it as an Alex Chilton solo record. Do you still feel that way now?
I donât know, to tell you the truth. Iâm still out on it! [Laughs.] If you look at the evolution of Big Star, Chris leaves, Andy leaves, and we were still Big Star after Chris left, but you could make an argument that we werenât Big Star for Radio City, and you can make an argument that we werenât Big Star for the Third record, butâ¦I donât know. There was still that spirit, and the foundation was built and set, and how people perceive the Third record is certainly through a lens that is colored by #1 Record and Radio City. So itâs interesting. I just donât know. Itâs certainlyâ¦ I mean, Iâve always thought this about solo records: if itâs a guy and a guitar, itâs a solo record, and if itâs a guy and other musicians, I donât know how you call that a solo record, because everybody colors that music. So I donât know. You can make of that what you will.
Well, for what itâs worth, you did have a solo composition on the album: âFor You.â
Yeah, Andy had given me a guitar and Alex had taught me some chords, soâ¦thatâs how I wrote âFor Youâ! [Laughs.] Alex was always inviting about, you know, âHey, write some songs!â But Andy and Alex and Chris were all such great writers, it was a bit intimidating. I wasnât sure about writing a song that would stand next to theirs!
Once the band finally did dissolve, did you ever contemplate trying to put together a solo album?
No, never a solo album. Van Duren and I got together and did some writing. We wrote âAndy, Please.â He wrote most of it. I think I wrote the bridge or something. And we did a few other songs. Maybe five or six songs in there. Actually, Andrew Oldham came into town and produced, like, four of them. It was a neat experience, doing those. That was a trip. I still see Andrew from time to time. Lifeâs a bit different now for both of us. Especially Andrew. [Laughs.] And then I did some writing with a guy named Gary McGill, and then I went to England in â78 and spent two and a half months in London. Iâd been communicating with Chris about putting something together, and that kind of fell apart. But Chris and I had a band together for awhile, with Van Duren. It was Chris, Van Duren, a guy named Mike Brignardello, and me. We were called the Baker Street Irregulars. And then at some point we became Walk n Wall.
Did you guys ever record anything as that unit?
Iâ¦donât think so. And to revisit what you asked a minute ago, I never really thought about doing a solo thing, but Iâve been doing some writing with Luther Russell, who lives out in L.A. He was in a band called the Freewheelers when I first met him in â91 or 92. Gary Gersh introduced us. The Freewheelers were signed to Geffen at the time. But at any rate, when they did the Big Star documentary, they wanted me to sing some songs, so I got Luther involved in that, and then Luther encouraged me to start writing songs. So weâve wound up writing 11 or 12 songs together, and weâve got a single coming out on Burger Records, actually, for Record Store Day. Itâs just a 7â, but weâve also got a couple of gigs for SXSW. Weâre called Those Pretty Wrongs. [Laughs.] You know, because Luther kept calling it a solo thing, and I kept saying, âLuther, youâre 50% of this. How can I call it a solo thing?â So I borrowed a line from some Shakespeare sonnet (#41) for a song â Those Pretty Wrongs â and made the most of it.
One more quick question about Chris Bell that I meant to ask a moment ago: youâre on I Am the Cosmos, correct?
No, Iâm not. Thatâs Richard Rosebrough. [Hesitates.] Oh, wait, you mean the album? Yes, Iâm on the album. Sorry about that. But Iâm not on the song âI Am the Cosmos.â I apparently play on three or four songs, according to Richard, whoâs the primary player on there. But I know I played on âGet Away.â The one with the slap back snare on it. Thereâs two versions, but mineâs the one with the slap back on the snare. Itâs really busy. But apparently I played on two or three other songs, too. [Laughs.]
Do you remember anything else about those sessions that stands out? Was Chris pretty confident about the material? Because I donât mind saying that I think itâs a pretty great album.
Yeah, I do, too. I think itâs pretty amazing. But, hey, it was always a good time in the studio with Chris. I just always felt this bond with Chris, with his songs and performances. So it was easy. I always felt lucky to be there, because the songs were so good.
Iâve seen this credit, but it didnât occur to me to ask Greg Dulli about it when I talked to him, so Iâll ask you: are you really singing backup on the Afghan Whigsâ Gentlemen album?
I am. Somewhere. [Laughs.] Which is pretty damned cool, because Iâm a big Afghan Whigs fan. Greg floors me. I saw them at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, and there was a guy from Memphis playing drums with them, Paul Buchignani. But they all came out, and Greg wasâ¦not only the singer, but also the emcee. And they would play a song, and then theyâd break down to just a beat, and Greg would talk, and then another song would rise up from that, and then go back down to just the beat. Poor Paul. I think Paul played the whole two hours! But the first time I saw Greg was at Club with No Name, out in L.A., with the Afghan Whigs. Steve Earle was on drums, and they just completely ripped my head off. They were amazing! A friend of mine introduced me to them, and thatâs kind of how they wound up coming to Ardent to record. Greg and I just hit it off. Itâs easy when youâre such a fan of the band.
You know, itâs funny how things tie in. Having recorded Afghan Whigs at Ardent is how Jack White came to mix the Raconteursâ Broken Boy Soldiers and the White Stripesâ Get Behind Me Satan. I think it was Patrick Keeler who was at John Curleyâs studio in Cleveland â John was the bass player for the Afghan Whigs â and Patrick was saying, âHey, I think weâre gonna have to go to New York, because we canât find what we need anywhere else,â and John said, âCheck out Ardent!â And Jack had done some work in Memphis before with the White Stripes at Doug Easleyâs studio, but then he looked at the credits here â because we have certain engineers here and we have their credits online â and one of them was John Hampton, who engineered the Vaughan Brothers record that Nile Rodgers produced (Family Style). But what really caught Jackâs eye, I think, was the Crampsâ record that Alex Chilton produced. And John engineered that! Well, I guess the Cramps didnât have a bass player, either, so I guess Jack just thought it was a cool thing. He didnât ask for an engineerâs reel, he just had his management call and book the time, and then Jack came in, and Hampton mixed the Raconteursâ record, which was on eight-track, one-inch tape. And then Jack said, âHey, if youâre not doing anything in a month, Iâll bring back the White Stripesâ record!â That was a good time, I have to say.
You also spent some time as the drummer for Golden Smog.
I know youâre on the Weird Tales album, because you actually had the opportunity to co-write a song with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, which is not bad as musical company goes.
Yes, I know! I was pretty lucky. I mean, again, theyâre a pretty generous band. That band was like a Boy Scout troop getting together. You know, there were certain serious elements about it, in terms of the quality of the music and the performance, but it was everybodyâs side project, so there was certainly a lighter sort of feel to our being a band.
I got a call from Maggie McPherson, the bandâs manager â that was probably November of â96 â who asked me if Iâd like to join. She said, âItâs Gary Louris and Jeff Tweedy and Marc Pearlman and Danny Murphy and Kraig Johnson.â And I said, âSure!â I mean, it took about one second. [Laughs.] Just long enough for her to finish the names of the band members. I said, âSounds like a good idea!â So I wound up flying up to Chicago, and I sat in on a couple of songs with them. Noah (Levy) was leaving to join some other band, or something like that, so I joined in.
They all came down to Ardent, and we tracked probably that January or February of â97. They all kept saying, âWrite a song! Write a song! Write a song!â And I didnât. But then everybody came back down again maybe a year later, in January â98, and when we were watching the Olympics, and I wrote âFear of Fallingâ â just the lyrics â and gave it to Gary, and then Gary and Jeff finished the music. And I think Gary wrote some additional lyrics, too. So, yeah, I got lucky. I got my name in there with Gary Louris and Jeff Tweedy.
You could do a lot worse for co-writers...
Oh, yeah. And it turned out to be a really cool song, too!
Weâre in the home stretch, I know, but I just wanted to say that a lot of people â including myself â appreciate that you continue to fly the Big Star flag.
Yeah, you know, I canât imagine a better flag to fly. That, and the one for Ardent, and carrying on John Fryâs legacy. Itâs just a joyful kind of thing to do.
Is there anything left to the Big Star story thatâs not yet told? I presume that anything that can be released has been released at this point.
Yeah, thatâd be a question for Adam Hill. Heâs kind of the official Big Star archivist. He knows whatâs there and whatâs not. I have a feeling that if there is anything else, it probably wasnât intended to be released. But I donât know that for sure.
I know you agreed that itâs hard to really separate out a definitive Big Star album from the three classic albums, but is there a definitive Big Star song to your mind, or at least one that you think of as a gateway drug into the bandâs catalog?
If I had to pick one song, it would be âBallad of El Goodo.â Itâs got the guitar performances, the vocals, the background vocals, the lyricsâ¦ Yeah, if I had to pick one, thatâd be it.
â¢ CLIP: http://youtu.be/cnf-DpngF2c
Excellent. Well, I appreciate you taking the time to chat. I came late to Big Star â Iâm one of those guys who only discovered the band when Jon and Ken from the Posies teamed up with you and Alex in 1993 â and learned the back story of the band, but itâs a story Iâm glad to have learned.
Yeah, thatâs an amazing kind of chapter for it all, too, with Jon and Ken. I was lucky to be introduced to themâ¦and, again, by Gary Gersh! [Laughs.] Without them, we wouldnât have continued on. I donât know who else couldâve joined in with those kind of vocals and their performances, plus the fact that they were sort of in charge of their own schedule, so we could book Big Star dates around Posies dates.
It strikes me as ironic that, in looking at the credits, In Space is the one Big Star album that appears to have been written by the bandâ¦by which I mean, that, barring the pair of covers, it appears to have been a group effort.
It is! We were kind of charged with writing and tracking a song a day, even if it was just basic tracks. So if Jon brought in a riff, we would kind of sit down and play through that and develop it into a song. Or Ken would. I actually brought in a couple of songsâ¦and one, interestingly, came while I was walking my dog! [Laughs.] I went out one night, I was walking my dog, and I got an idea, so I came back to the house and got lyrics and melody lines forâ¦three-quarters of the song, anyway. I brought in the next morning, and Jon and I finished it. We cut it that day.
What song was that?
That wasâ¦ Iâm not sure, but it was either âBest Chanceâ or âFebruaryâs Quiet.â But that night I came home, I was walking my dog again, and I had another idea â melody lines and lyrics and stuff â and Jon Auer and I finished that one the next day, too. I mean, Alex and Ken made contributions, too, but I was the one that approached everybody and said, âYou know, I think we all should at least share 10% of the song.â So, you know, if Jon and I were the primary writers, weâd get 40% each, and then Ken would get 10% and Alex would get 10%. And the same with the other songs, like Kenâs âTurn My Back on the Sun.â That one was pretty much Ken, but we all got our 10%. That was brilliant, too. That was a 12th-hour sort of song.
There were moments where weâd get in the control room and not have anything to do that morning, and things would somehow materialize. I mean, one morning, Adam Hill said, âWhy donât you re-cut âMine Exclusivelyâ?â Well, I have the single pinned to my wall, the one that we did with the Teenage Fanclub guys, so we played it, and then we re-cut it that day. And I was thinking, âOh, man, itâs not gonna hit that rough charm,â but it turned out incredibly well, I think. And then âLove Revolution,â man, if you listen with headphones, thereâs Jon Auerâs little noodly guitar things, and Alexâs guitar lines are completely trashy. [Laughs.] But his vocal deliveryâ¦ Heâs such a free spirit when he delivers a vocal that itâs just fun. It works.
I wasnât there, but I heard this story from either Nokie (Taylor) or Jim Spake, who were there. Jim was on sax, and Nokie was on trumpet, and they ran through the song, apparently, and then they ran through it again. And at the end of that take, I think Jim said, âYou know, I think we probably have this. Letâs go ahead and cut it.â And Alex said, âNope. That one was great.â And thatâs whyâ¦ I mean, there are brilliant moments that donât have to be a technically perfect performance, and he caught them when they were just kind of in mid-creation, finding their way. Thereâs a lot of fascinating elements to that. Alex was good at capturing people as they were finding their way.
Just to wrap up, last year I talked to Stephen Fredette, whose band opened for Alex some years ago. I donât know if you remember Scruffy the Cat or not.
Yeah! They recorded here at Ardent!
Actually, Iâd forgotten that! Well, in talking about touring with Alexâ¦ These are my words, not his, but it sounded very much like Alex was eccentric but pleasant enough, if on his own terms. Is that at least a semi-fair description?
Alex was kind of predictably unpredictable, Iâll say that. There were surprise moments, and there were completely generous, compassionate moments. I donât know. He certainly had a dynamic personality. [Laughs.] But I always had a great admiration for him, because he could pretty much do anything he wanted to do if he put his mind to it. One of the things that stands out to me when it comes to Alex as a performer is when we did the reunion gig in Columbia. We did âDuke of Earl,â because he was just, like, âHey, letâs do âDuke of Earlâ!â It wasnât like it was anything weâd rehearsedâ¦but Alex just seemed to nail every note! And it was, like, âDamn!â His repertoire and his ability to sing and to interpret songsâ¦. It was pretty amazing.