Behind the Scenes of the Big Star Box Set

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During his seven-year career at Ardent Studios, 34-year old engineer Adam Hill has worked with the White Stripes, Cat Power, George Thorogood, Montgomery Gentry and the Raconteurs. One of the biggest highlights of Hill's career, however, came when, under the watchful eye of studio founder John Fry, he began excavating tapes that are, in some cases, older than him.

Hill's mission: dig through the detritus that comprised the demos and outtakes from Big Star's 1970s oeuvre (#1 Record, Radio City and Third), which was languishing in the studio vaults, and transfer his findings to a digital format. The gems — mainly comprised of rare moments into the musical psyches of songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell — wound up on Keep An Eye on the Sky, the 97-track, four CD Big Star box set that was released on Rhino Records today, and the deluxe reissue of I Am the Cosmos, due on Rhino later this month.

Last week, I sat down with Fry and Big Star drummer/Ardent Studios manager Jody Stephens to discuss the cult popularity of the band, which, in 1970s-era Memphis, came and went with little fanfare. (Go here to read that article.) Today, I catch up with Hill to ask him some questions about the behind-the-scenes work on the project.

Flyer: Were you already a Big Star fan when you came to work at Ardent?

Hill: Oh, yeah... I grew up in Nashville, and the first time I moved to Memphis, I actually lived across the street from Jody Stephens for a while. I remember sitting on the porch with my friends one day. We were blasting Big Star and drinking beers, and when Jody came out of his house, I wondered, did he hear us? After I moved back to Nashville in ’98, I saw Big Star play a show there. And after engineering school, I was calling Jody intermittently to see if there were any openings at Ardent. I was also dating my now-wife long distance, and the day after I moved back to Memphis, Jody called and asked if I could come in for an interview. There was a period then where I’d think, ‘I’m working with Jody — that’s cool!’

How did you get involved with these reissue projects?

It started about three years ago when they were going to reissue Third on vinyl. By then, I’d made it clear I was a fan, and I’d assisted on the In Space album so I’d gotten some face time with Alex. I’d ask a lot of questions, so Fry knew I was probably the young guy in the building who knew what to look for. I’m the analog guy up there too, so I know how to align the tape machine. I just started saying, ‘Hey I’m gonna transfer this stuff,’ and waited for them to say no, but they never did. The project gradually expanded over the course of a few years.

Describe the material you were sifting through.

Since the documentation was so bad, there were so many unanswered questions. All the guys in the band had keys [to the studio], and they were all engineers. Chris Bell would engineer himself and take tapes to different studios, so you’d have stuff frontwards and backwards on the same tape. Alex would do that too. I started making good hi-res digital copies of everything, including tapes we got from Andy [Hummel, Big Star's bassist] and [Chris’ brother] David Bell, who brought in a huge box of tapes that had been sitting at his house.

Fry would have done the basic tracking, they’d do the overdubs, and then he went back in for mixing, so every time you answered a question you created three more. Titles might be out of order. There could be a whole other list of songs written on the box and then crossed out. In the case of the Icewater material, there was a whole lot of putting reels on the machine.

The format for the multi-track tapes was 16-track 2-inch tape. All the masters were on quarter-inch tape. Fry was brilliant with the demos — he’d get the full band on one mono mix, then put vocals with the reverb on the other side. He had no fear. At the beginning of ‘Back of a Car,’ you can hear someone fussing about the amp, and then you actually hear Fry say, ‘It’s just a demo, folks.’

What were you most excited to find?

I had a fair amount of these moments where I’d try not to be a weird fan, so I’d just say, ‘This is cool, you should check it out.’ I’ve always loved ‘Life is White,’ and Chilton’s acoustic demo of that and ‘What’s Going Ahn’ were pretty amazing to hear. I’m a guitar player and a musician as well, so finding out that ‘Back of a Car’ is just two guitars was cool. It sounds so layered, but it’s just Alex on a Strat and on a Mando guitar — picture perfect simplicity. Getting Chris’ solo voice and guitar on the single version of ‘In the Street.’ He erased the reel that had the majority of tracks for #1 Record, but there was another reel with ‘India Song,’ the single version of ‘In the Street,’ and it also had ‘ST100/6’ on it. This isn’t on the box set, but I did an a cappella mix of it because Chris cut four vocal tracks and doubled it. Andrew [Sandoval, director of A&R at Rhino Records] said they may find a use for it somewhere down the line…

For the Ardent Records Story compilation [a two-CD collection released by U.K. label Ace Records in 2008], finding Alex doing a version of ‘Don’t Worry Baby,’ where he had stacked three or four vocal tracks. His voice was just amazing. Of course, halfway through it he recorded some homeless guy singing ‘T For Texas’ over the mix. There were cool things all over Chris’ tapes too. I found one thing they weren’t initially gonna put on the Cosmos reissue, this acoustic guitar demo that theoretically could’ve been cut anytime, althoguh I think it dates to the mid- or late ‘70s. No vocals, just pure Chris. They ended up putting that as the last track on the Cosmos bonus disc. Just hearing Chris talk, getting to hear his voice was interesting, because his singing voice is different than his speaking voice. He sounds like such an anglophile when he sings — the southern drawl just doesn’t translate.

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