(Look over there, it's Those Pretty Wrongs: Luther Russell and Jody Stephens)
THERE ARE, ADMITTEDLY, worse things in the world than having been in a cult band.
Sure, you are loved more than you sold; you are referred to more as an influence than you are played, especially when compared with people you supposedly influenced; your fan base tends to be dominated by sweaty boys with few social skills, many of whom grow up to be sweaty critics with few social skills; and whenever you put out new music, half the questions are about your old, old music.
But hey, at least some people remember your name, buy your reissues, invite you to conventions, clamour to play with you, and get excited when they get you on screen for a Zoom call from your home in Memphis, Tennessee.
Which is where today we find Jody Stephens, drummer, writer, employee and public face of Ardent Studios, singer and co-frontman of Those Pretty Wrongs with next-generation guitarist/writer Luther Russell. The pair will tour Australia next month carrying copies of their new album, Holiday Camp, a record of joyous, sometimes buoyant/sometimes prettily sad guitar pop songs that could have existed any time in the past 60 years.
Something else? Oh yes, lest we forget, he is also the last remaining original member of the most loved band almost no one you know has heard of, the ‘70s kings of brilliant Beatlesque pop and dark arts angst, Big Star. That would be the Memphis quartet which released two stunningly wonderful guitar pop albums in their brief existence, to sales of about 17 (half of whom were sweaty lonely boys; half were people who would form their own bands, like R.E.M., and one was remaindered), and had one messily compelling album released posthumously which sold even less (but is cited regularly by sweaty music critics and much better dressed musicians who love that dark arts angst).
A band – begun by singer/guitarist Chris Bell (gone after the debut, #1 Record), bassist Andy Hummell (gone after the second album, Radio City), Stephens and singer/guitarist Alex Chilton – whose music was most recently heard in Australia in 2013 when a troupe of in-crowd musicians joined Stephens playing that messy third album, called variously Big Star Third or Sister Lovers. (Why the different names? Since it was never an official release, it never settled on a name.)
A decade ago Stephens described the three Big Star records to me thus: “The spirit of the first album was pretty innocent, then the second got a bit more edgy and worldly I guess. Then the third album was even more raw emotionally and out there.”
Today I wonder, what’s it like to be a musician for whom it’s not just fans or fanboy journalists but other musicians, people you might regularly play with, who gush about having anything to do with you? Does Stephens have to calm them down, insisting “I’m just an ordinary man”, or does he surreptitiously amp it up, “more, more”?
He throws his head back and laughs. “To start with I'm just an ordinary guy. I get up and go to work at Ardent every morning; I go to the grocery store; I clean house; as soon as we finish this call I’ll probably have dinner and do the dishes.
“But other than that, it’s a great catalyst for things to happen and the community to develop.
That’s how Luther and I got together, via Big Star, and how we had Pat Sansone [keyboardist in Wilco] join us on mellotron on [new songs] Scream and then Moog on Always The Rainbow. And we had Chris Stamey [a power pop legend himself] doing strings for us for Brother My Brother, and [early REM producer, singer/songwriter] Mitch Easter laying down some glockenspiel tracks.”
So it’s ok then?
“It’s a great community with Big Star as a common denominator,” he says, adding with a deft reminder of the reason we’re talking, “I’m a lucky guy, as it says in one of the songs on our first [Those Pretty Wrongs] record.”
When I discovered Big Star in the 1980s it felt as if they began as Chris Bell’s band, became Alex Chilton’s band, morphed into a shared legacy when Stephens and Chilton reformulated for occasional tours in the ‘90s and early 2000s with uber fans Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, and now, with the deaths of Bell, Chilton and Hummell, it is both practically and spiritually Stephens’ band.
Is there an extra responsibility with that, or is it just part of the world he exists in?
“You know, I’ve always shared this. It was Chris Stamey’s brilliant idea to do Big Star Third live, which we did in Sydney, and Mike Mills [fellow southerner, R.E.M. bassplayer] was part of that, and we did this quintet thing with Pat [Sansone] and Jon and Mike and Chris. It’s a shared responsibility. I get to just play drums and step out and sing a song every now and then; it’s not like there’s this big weight. It’s a joy to do, and I don’t see it as a responsibility.”
It’s easy to forget, when we are so often mired in the post-life of artists where the estates or labels indulge in gratuitous issuing of material that had never been intended for release, tacky remixes and faux “collaborations”, or just outright exploitations, that someone treating a legacy with respect is possible.
“All four of us, Alex, Andy, Chris and myself, shared the same view of the band and who we were. So it’s not something I really have to think about.”
Nor does he have to think too hard about Those Pretty Wrongs, a “truly collaborative effort” where the songwriting bounces back and forth between Stephens and the younger Russell, making the senior partner “super excited about it”.
All that would be nice enough if the songs were merely okay, if the project was something he’d do on the side for pin money from his day job and old fans could keep their hand in with some old school connections. But the sheer pleasure of These Pretty Wrong’s melodic guitar pop songs – which owe more than a passing debt to Big Star, of course – elevates the whole experience on both sides of the stage. Why does it work?
“We have the time. And we aren’t sitting across from each other trying to come up with ideas for songs, trying to finish a song,” says Stephens. “We have the luxury of these portals of creativity that open up from time to time. You pay attention to what you read, to what’s life around you, and you read a little poetry now and then, then music is a great portal.”
It’s more than the songs of course. For anyone familiar with the work of Big Star, these albums have a striking affection for the actual sounds. Which may have something to do with the fact that at least one of those instruments being played is a genuine Big Star artefact – Stephens has Chris Bell’s Yamaha acoustic that he used on #1 Record and has been allowed by Bell’s family to record with Bell’s electric Gibson 335.
“And you know, Luther knows how to play guitar,” he says with a smile. “He says there’s something magic that happens, [like Bell’s guitar] plays itself. I think we all think instruments have their built-in spirits and you plug that thing into a Hi-Watt [amplifier] that was actually a Big Star Hi-Watt and good things happen.”
Time’s nearly up and as he’s made clear, Stephens is busy with work, he is busy with writing and recording, he is busy with the dishes to do. But like most of us, he isn’t some raging 20-year-old with inexhaustible energy for shows that will play Holiday Camp in full along with a selection of These Pretty Wrongs and Big Star favourites. Does touring still have any real appeal?
“That’s why I do it. It’s fun being a part of the world, sharing this music and watching people’s faces,” he beams. “When it connects, that’s addictive, that’s a drug indeed.”
Since we started with the fans, let’s end there too. Of all the Big Star fans among his fellow musicians, those who have taken up the jangle, the harmonies, the tunes and/or the pain, who has done it the best, or who has brought him the most pleasure as a listener?
“Oh boy, there would have to be several,” says Stephens, drawing out the time for an answer. “R.E.M. were the first guys to talk about us, that I read about, and they are all such sweethearts anyway – Mike Mills is pretty amazing in addition to his talents. Teenage Fanclub, those guys … I don’t think I’ve ever met a Scotsman that hasn’t been just amazingly nice and friendly.”
If those bands are the first examples, there are worse legacies.
Those Pretty Wrongs play:
Meeniyan Town Hall – August 5
The Great Club, Sydney – August 6
Eltham Hotel – August 9
Stranded, Brisbane – August 10
Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne, August 12 (matinee show)
Memo Music Hall, Melbourne, August 13
Holiday Camp is out now