Chris Stamey Interview with Uncut
Uncut Magazine – 20 questions Interview with Chris Stamey by David Cavanagh
Thanks for doing this. Here are 20 questions.
1. In your website biography, it says you relocated to New York to play and record with Alex Chilton in the burgeoning CBGB’s rock scene. Did you specifically move to New York for that reason? Had Alex got in touch with you and asked you to work with him? Or were you already living in New York when you met up with him? In which case, how did you meet?
I’d been going up to NYC in the summers, and had seen Television play in ’75 and ’76 and had met Terry Ork around then. So when he asked me, at the bar at CBGB’s, if I’d put together a rhythm section for a promo gig Alex was doing, I jumped at the chance. Ork was releasing an EP, “Singer Not the Song,” that Jon Tiven had done with Alex, and they were flying Alex up to do one show, on Valentine’s Day, as I recall. So within a month of moving up there, I was playing with him. And he just stayed, at first with me and my girlfriend, then in an apartment that Ork Records got for him, at 34th and Lex, as in “Shakin’ the World, from 34th and Lex.”
I’d loved the three Big Star records, previously, and had corresponded with the label and with Terry Manning about them, but never dreamed I’d ever met or play with anyone from that crew. And it turned into a mentoring experience for me. Alex was very patient and generous and taught me so much, in fact in a way I’m still taking it in.
2. How well-known was he? At that point, only two Big Star albums had been released and it was a long time since The Box Tops. Did people remember him? What was his reputation in New York?
The rock critics, from Trouser Press, NY Rocker, the NY Times, Soho Weekly News, knew of him, but the CBGB scene was not overawed or particularly aware–it was a very insular group who where not so interested in what had gone before. The fact that Ork was involved was an entry, though. Alex soon found his way and was accepted, once his natural bohemian, rebellious instincts came to the fore in our shows.
3. How did he fit into the CBGB’s scene?
Alex liked part of what was going on–we would cover Ramones songs and of course he loved the Cramps, a bit later. I think he was always skeptical about Television, he was a bit “been there, done that” about them. He always said he admired anyone who would just jump in and go for it, which was a lot of what was going on. But we were also going to see Charles Mingus at the Village Gate, etc.–CB’s was not the only game in town.
4. Did the Cossacks play all new material, or would they perform songs from Alex’s past?
At first we played a lot of songs from the Third Big Star record, but also things like Watch the Sunrise, Way Out West, Sept. Gurls, the best-known songs from the first two. And some of the songs from the Ork/Tiven EP. There were a few new songs right away. And we’d do spontaneous covers live. A big number for a while was “I Don’t Believe in Miracles,” by Colin Blunstone. We had a big set list.
5. What was Alex’s attitude to his past? Did he seem hurt and disappointed by how Big Star had ended?
I think it was a good time for him to get out of Memphis. He didn’t seem emotionally dampened by the Big Star ending, but the end of his romance with Lesa Aldridge did cast a pall over him that year, he was pretty down at times about that.
6. What were the Cossacks’ gigs like? How often did you play?
At first it was just “Alex Chilton,” and really that’s what it always was. Sometimes it was billed, later on, as “Alex Chilton and the Cossacks,” on a whim. But we always felt like we were there for Alex, although we had pride in the way we had learned to play with him. It took a lot of careful attention.
7. Richard Lloyd was in Television at the time; did you have to work around his schedule?
Richard Lloyd was NOT in the band. (I’ve talked to Richard about it, he just doesn’t remember this stuff, but I do.) He sat in on some songs at the Village Gate for one show. Alex produced some recordings of his up at the studio in Connecticut that Ork had a connection with (Trod Nossel) and I knew him pretty well, being a Television fan–Richard was always around. But he played only at that one show, and probably didn’t rehearse with us for it even. I know Alex turned around to me during the set and we said “It’s like playing with Dickie Betts” because Richard had a way with major-key noodling where the licks just kept coming! (Richard, of course, is great, no disrespect intended.)
After Alex settled in to town, there wasn’t so much of a buzz. Right at first, there was some press. Charles Ball, who was part of Ork, managed Alex, but he was just an enthusiastic and avant-garde amateur, certainly not a pro manager with a secretary and a working telephone. More of a co-conspirator.
9. Whereabouts was Alex living?
Alex stayed with me at first, up above Carnegie Hall, then at the apartment on 34th and Lex for just a few months, until the money ran out. Then with Stephani Chernikowski, crashing on her couch, and at my later place on Bleecker Street near Broadway. There were a few stops inbetween. And a dreadful place around Ave. B that was like a war zone but was only $50 a month I think. He was very very poor all this time, I remember a short period when I don’t think he had shoes, although this might be my imagination. Sometimes Karin Berg from Elektra Records would take us all out to dinner. People would buy Alex drinks but not buy him food, which wasn’t a great situation.
10. At this point, was he working in bars to earn rent money?
He was not working anywhere, I never remember Alex working in bars. I’m not sure he knew how to have a job, he’d been a rock star since mid-teens, remember.
11. What was his attitude to recording like? Did it surprise you?
He was supremely creative and extremely detailed and competent. A whiz, really, amazing what he could do. He was like a film director–he had the chops and he also had the vision, and he let the vision dictate. He’d been through John Fry’s recording school, of course. He loved bending and breaking the rules, but it was always to a point. He should me lots of details about using compressors and eq, also about using chance techniques to achieve effects that you couldn’t plan. He also would carefully plan and arrange as well. It was like a masters class in how to make a record. The compression was perhaps extreme–I later read that, with compression, he said he “was like a kid in a candy shop,” he couldn’t get enough of it! Only two of the things we recorded came out, “The Summer Sun” and “Where the Fun Is.” The former got some attention, but the later was the one–the feedback and synth noises were recorded without listening to the basic track, then added in and magically fit!–blew my mind at the time. I brought it to him as almost a Left Banke song and he took the sense of the lyric and made it into 3D audio. The two of us were the only musicians on most of the stuff we did up there.
12. How much material did the Cossacks record?
Alex and I traveled up to Trod Nossel, in Wallingford, Conn, where Terry Ork had a deal for cheap studio time, I think it was literally $5 an hour. We recorded several things for a solo record of mine, he produced Peter Holsapple and Mitch Easter one long weekend, he produced Richard Lloyd up there for a Rolling Stones tribute record–as I recall, Alex covered Dylan’s “Please Crawl Out Your Window” for the Rolling Stones tribute record, which seemed to make sense at the time somehow, shows you how nutty “the time” was. Alex and keys player Fran Kowalski and myself, and maybe Lloyd Fonoroff (the drummer for the band) recorded a great version of “I’m Your Handyman” up there, which has been stolen/lost. Don’t remember the rest. We did Bangkok in NYC, at a studio that Kurt Munkasi (Phillip Glass engineer) had, perhaps on Greene Street in Soho but I’m not sure. We recorded some songs at Secret Sound, as well, for Elektra Records, “She Might Look My Way,” “She’s a Little Fishy,” “Window’s Hotel,” and “My Rival.”
13. Did anyone point out to Alex that Bangkok isn’t in Indonesia?
Yes, and he went back and redid the last verse to read “Here’s a revision that’s kind of minor, just a little town down in Indochina”–I think we/he were worried about the blooper but felt that “footnote” patched the dam.
14. What sort of people did he hang around with? Did he know Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, The Ramones, Debbie Harry, John Cale etc?
I don’t remember him hanging out with any of the above, actually. He saw Brian Wilson once when he came to town I think. And there was a late-night call with Lou Reed I remember, but no hanging out. He was friends with the Cramps, but he didn’t gravitate toward the stars, more regular folks. Stephanie Chernikowski was a great friend of his.
15. When I interviewed him years later, he told me that he had a “pretty big drink and drugs lifestyle” in the late ’70s. Does that tally with your recollection?
I thought he was lovesick in NYC, and he did drink too much at times, but also sometimes exaggerated this perhaps. At the end, though, I think he was glad to stop drinking. I know he told me, after some time in New Orleans, that he “didn’t drink gasoline any more.”
16. He was still a very young man: 25, 26. Did he sometimes seem older than his years, though?
He seemed quiet and wise right off the bat, but he could be quite rambunctious and very enthusiastic about new musical discoveries. It seems like he was always both old and young.
17. Were The Cramps on the scene? Did he appear very enamoured of them?
He loved the Cramps. He was thrilled when he discovered he, too, could do the trick of having the mic appear to fall and then flipping it back upright.
18. Did he have specific ideas about where rock’n'roll should be going? And what sort of things it should be emphasising and avoiding?
I think he was still enamored of the Velvet Underground and the later Lou Reed solo albums and productions. And he liked Jonathon Richmond as well. Things with a strong rhythm guitar and talkative lyrics were appealing. He was changing how he, himself, wrote songs: more lyrical detail and less open-endedly romantic.
19. Why did the Cossacks break up?
It was a band, but it was just a band that backed Alex up. I got distracted by the dB’s and Alex had no money, no income, and this was wearing him down, his poverty was a grind. It was time for him to go back to Memphis and take stock I think. We’d all thought there was a record deal with Elektra via a&r woman Karin Berg, but that didn’t ever quite come through.
20. Did you see much of him after that? Were you a fan of LIKE FLIES ON SHERBERT and the records he made after that?
I would see him when I went through New Orleans sometimes (which was very infrequent) and would see him in NYC or Hoboken when he’d come by to play. He was friends both with me and with my girlfriend at the time, Carol Whaley, who ended up taking a lot of cool pictures of him over the years.
(extra!) How did the Big Star “Sister Lovers” concert come about?
We came up with the idea early in 2008, spoke to Carl Marsh about retranscribing the scores, but didn’t follow through. In Jan. 2010 we started talking about it again, here in NC. I called Jody, who said I should come to SXSW, where the band was rehearsing, and bring it up in person with Alex and everyone. I was on the way down when I heard that he had died.
I do not think it likely that he would have sung the concert. But I admit I had hoped he might have surprised me, he was pretty hard to predict. When I played with him, he loved those songs and we played many of them all the time. I think later his taste changed, more toward gutsy, witty, rhythmic songs that were influenced by American rhythms, and he thought all the Big Star recordings were written before he found his stride on his solo recordings–but I don’t know this for sure. Of course he is the guy who made Cliche, as well.
I imagine there are early Bob Dylan songs we all treasure that are not as dear to Bob himself, don’t you think?