Jody Stephens to revisit ‘Big Star 3rd’ live and introduce his new band, Those Pretty Wrongs

Memphis musician Jody Stephens surveys some of the gold and platinum awards for records made at Ardent Studios in Memphis. As a member of the early indie rock band Big Star, he recorded there in the early 1970s, and also recorded the debut album by his latest band, Those Pretty Wrongs, at Ardent.

Memphis musician Jody Stephens surveys some of the gold and platinum awards for records made at Ardent Studios in Memphis. As a member of the early indie rock band Big Star, he recorded there in the early 1970s, and also recorded the debut album by his latest band, Those Pretty Wrongs, at Ardent.

(Randy Lewis / Los Angeles Times)

Memphis musician Jody Stephens has every reason to be skeptical of the pop music world, even cynical at this point in his life.

The drummer was recruited by Box Tops singer and songwriter Alex Chilton in 1971 to join his new band, Big Star, which recorded three albums, none of which ever scratched the Billboard 200 Albums list of the nation’s bestsellers.

He also joined the loose collective of indie-rock musicians Golden Smog, another band that never dented the pop charts.

Even after Big Star became a touchstone for a subsequent wave of rock acts, including the likes of R.E.M. and the Replacements — R.E.M.’s Peter Buck famously referring to the group as “a Rosetta Stone for a whole generation of musicians” — misfortune dogged the group: Chilton and singer-bassist Andy Hummel died within three months of each other, just as Big Star was being feted at the 2010 South By Southwest Music Conference. Guitarist-songwriter Chris Bell had died years earlier, in a 1978 automobile accident.

Yet cynicism is nowhere to be found in “Those Pretty Wrongs,” the new album Stephens is releasing with his latest collaborator, songwriter-guitarist Luther Russell, and from which they’ll be drawing on Friday, April 22, when their duo, also named Those Pretty Wrongs, headlines the Echo in Echo Park.


“That’s not the way I was raised,” Stephens said softly in his office at Memphis’ celebrated Ardent Studios, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year. It’s where all three Big Star albums were recorded, and where much of “Those Pretty Wrongs” was made. Ardent also has been the sight of countless recording sessions for acts big and small, superstars and never-weres, from Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top to the White Stripes, B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

“My dad and mom, but my dad, especially, was just a positive guy,” Stephens said. “He was always a grateful human being, and I know that translated to me. I’ve done a bit of traveling in my time, and when you look around the world, you realize, wow, if you have a roof over your head and clothes to wear and food to eat, and those are constants in your life, you’re pretty damned lucky.”

That attitude manifests most directly on “Those Pretty Wrongs” in the song “Lucky Guy,” in which Stephens sings about simple things for which he feels grateful.

Elsewhere, there’s an innocence — even sweetness — in the accessible pop-rock songs he and Russell have written together, including “The Cube,” woven from images and phrases lifted off a cube he found touting various circus acts from long ago.

“It’s a little wooden block I bought in an independent bookstore, around the corner from the Nuart Theatre [in West Los Angeles],” he said. “It was burnished to look older, but it was probably made in the ’70s. It had pictures of carnival characters on it: a lady with her head in her hand, words like Fifi, which was her name, and Great American Ghouls, the Gallery of Weirdos, phrases like that.

“I was writing them all down, and Luther put music and melodies to it,” he said. “I had done some research and came across an interview with people commonly referred to as ‘carnival freaks,’ and how society rose up and stopped it — carnivals featuring those people, as a social good.

“But this person was saying that ‘What they wound up doing was taking away our communities and our livelihood. These were places we felt comfortable and where we could make a living,’ ” Stephens said. “That was an interesting perspective I hadn’t thought of.”

It’s easy to see why a fringe rock musician might identify with people who have worked in carnivals, in terms of finding a community of like-minded outsiders.

Stephens is tapping just such a community a few days after his Echo performance with Russell for a top-to-bottom performance of the “Big Star 3rd/Sister Lovers” album on April 27 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale.

Stephens will be joined by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Robyn Hitchcock, Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Jessica Pratt, Brett Harris, Django Haskins and Skylar Gudasz. The performance will be recorded for future release on CD and DVD.

It won’t be the first time the influential album has been performed live with its original string and wind arrangements — that took place in 2010 in North Carolina. But this will be the first time that those parts will be conducted during a performance by the man who composed them: Carl Marsh.

“ ‘Big Star 3rd’ is a funny album,” Tench said in a separate interview. “I’m looking at a couple of songs to do. I’m really looking forward to this.”

He and Stephens have crossed paths at other events, including some Recording Academy person of the year concert tributes, where both played in the house band. Stephens has logged time as a trustee for the academy.

Big Star quickly became a critical favorite upon the release of its 1972 debut album “#1 Record,” which was full of catchy melodies, big guitar hooks and Chilton’s soulful vocals, but by the time “Big Star 3rd” was recorded in 1974, guitarist Bell had left the band, and it was largely a studio effort made by Chilton and Stephens.

Some weren’t even sure whether it should be called a Big Star album, or whether the alternate group name Chilton and Stephens toyed with — Sister Lovers, because they were dating two sisters at the time — would be more appropriate.

Over time, however, Stephens said returning to the music that was fleshed out with Marsh’s inventive string parts “gets sweeter to do, for me.”

“It’s colored by viewing it live, hearing it performed live, hearing the string section live. That’s kind of the star of the show for me — it just blows my mind,” he said. “I literally just stopped playing drums when the strings came in at one performance. They completely knocked me out. They do it brilliantly.”

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