Jody Stephens sounds like a Hollywood version of a homespun Southern gentleman: He's polite, upbeat, and he doesn't have a bad thing to say about anybody. Fresh off a phone conversation with his mom, and with his dog barking lazily in the background, the Big Starco-founder-turnedGolden Smogdrummer fights off prodding questions with a shield of good faith. Not even mention of his famously influential yet financially infertile first band can rile this mild-mannered Memphian.
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"Big Star never sold a lot of records or made much money," Stephens says with a detectable Tennessee twang, "but it's not anything I'm bitter about. I'm still reaping the rewards of it."
Rewards? Alex Chilton wrote most of Big Star's material for its two early-'70s studio albums, so Stephens sees little in the way of royalties. The band's 1993 reunion record, Columbia—recorded live with Big Starobsessed Posies melodists Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow filling out the lineup—sold about as well as clam chowder in a heat wave. Unless he figures out some way to charge usage fees to critics and musicians who drop his band's name every time tuneful indie pop arises as a topic, Stephens must sit content with the decidedly non-lucrative role of being part of something with that weighty word "legacy" attached to it.
But, he counters in a surge of his omnipresent optimism, his affiliation with Big Star helped land him a job at Memphis' famed Ardent Studios, which he's managed since '87, and where everyone from Isaac Hayes to Led Zeppelin to Mudhoney (not to mention Big Star) has put songs to tape over the years.
There's another benefit. "I get calls from people like the guys in Golden Smog asking me to join their band," he chirps.
Stephens' invitation to become the permanent drummer for this part-time collective of Southern-rock-appreciatin', country-lovin' Midwesterners did come, literally, by phone. Though he'd had momentary encounters with Golden Smog members Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, and that Woody Guthrie/Billy Bragg concoction, Mermaid Avenue) and Dan Murphy (of the fading Soul Asylum), Stephens didn't know them any better than he did other Smog associates Gary Louris and Marc Perlman (both of the Jayhawks) or Kraig Johnson (of Run Westy Run). The five had manager Maggie Macpherson call an unwitting Stephens and ask if he'd play drums on Golden Smog's second full-length.
"I said, 'Wow! That sounds good. Send me a CD,'" Stephens says. "So she sent [the first full-length] Down by the Old Mainstream, and I really liked it." But really, Jody, wasn't it a ploy by a bunch of guys with modest name recognition to turn Golden Smog into an all-out supergroup?
"There's no pretense in this band," he says staunchly. "It's all about having a good time."
The sextet, with the added presence of exGeraldine Fibbers fiddler Jessy Greene, began recording what would become Weird Tales (Rykodisc) in early '97. After a year-long break, they regrouped at Ardent and finished the 15 songs, including one, "Fear of Falling," which marked Stephens' first writing credit since the days of Big Star.
His new bandmates had encouraged him to contribute during the first session, and when they returned to the studio with nothing from Stephens, they revolted. "Gary Louris started hounding me," he recalls. "So we finished tracking a song one night, and I came home for a little while, let the dog out, and turned on the Olympics on TV. I was watching the skaters, and I just sat down and wrote the lyrics to 'Fear of Falling.' I took them back to the studio that night, and Gary and Jeff wrote music to it."
The loping, harmonica-laced ballad is one of the few standout tracks on the even-tempered, rootsy, and sweetly melodic Weird Tales. It's an album that reflects the band's unspoken charter, to bring remarkable musicians together to play unremarkable—albeit likable, listenable, and hopefully cohesive—music. Murphy, Tweedy, Louris, and Johnson take turns singing lead, and each contributes songs, sometimes via collaboration. But whether it's Johnson's Byrdsy "Looking Forward to Seeing You," Tweedy's heartfelt rambler "I Can't Keep from Talking," or Louris' creeping, piano-accented bit of rock expressionism, "White Shell Road," each track sounds like the work of a band rather than the flaunting of individual songwriters' egos.
And although the writers' backgrounds are based in roots rock rather than melodic pop, Stephens has no trouble comparing his two bands' styles. "They're all pop songs," he says of Golden Smog's output. "They may be accessorized differently, but they're all melody-oriented, lyric-oriented songs. That's what Big Star was all about too."
With Golden Smog taking limited jaunts such as an upcoming two-week tour that starts in Seattle, a music-related day job that allows him to take time off for such endeavors, and the possibility of more Big Star shows down the pike, it's no wonder Stephens can't find anything negative to say.
"Wait," he says pleadingly, "I just thought of something. Some of the guys smoke in the dressing room. That's a pain in the ass." He takes a deep breath. "That's the only bad thing I can say."