One of Jody Stephens' most treasured possessions is a guitar once owned by Chris Bell, dating back to their years playing alongside Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel in Big Star. If you find yourself at Ardent Studios, the unassuming acoustic is easy to spot: it's the only guitar repaired with electrical tape.
Chris Bell's acoustic guitar
As Stephens explains, “Andy and Chris had a fight while we were practicing at Alex's house, and Chris picked up Andy's Thunderbird bass and broke it into three pieces. So Andy stalked Chris. When Chris parked his car in a friend's driveway, Andy went up, opened the case and poked holes in it. So Andy wound up with the guitar, and then gave it to me. It's on the song 'Thirteen,' and it's an awesome sounding guitar. We used it with Those Pretty Wrongs in the studio. Back in the 70s, my brother covered the holes with electrical tape. Now I won't take it off.”
It's entirely appropriate that the guitar's rich sound lives on in the new record by Those Pretty Wrongs, the folk/pop/rock duo comprised of Stephens and Luther Russell, onetime member of the Freewheelers and a solo artist in his own right. While the band's latest, Zed for Zulu (Burger Records), is its own beast, the echoes of Big Star's quieter moments are undeniable. Foregrounding acoustic guitar textures with the crisply recorded approach that has become a hallmark of Ardent Studios, Stephen's vocals, surrounded by Russell's lush background harmonies, carry that unmistakable blend of innocence and bookish enunciaciation that has marked his singing ever since the Big Star days.
With the new album released, the duo is now launching a series of tours, beginning with last week's appearance at Americanafest, and headed soon to England and Scotland. Before they leave, they'll have a special show with guest performers at the Green Room at Crosstown Arts on Saturday, September 21st. I spoke with Stephens recently about this, the duo's second album, and the ways it echoes his past work at Ardent.
Memphis Flyer: Was your appearance at AmericanaFest the debut of material from the new record?
Jody Stephens: We actually debuted the new album live in Los Angeles for a autism benefit, for the Wild Honey Foundation. It was a smaller backyard thing for a great cause.
Do you guys assemble a band for your tours?
No, that's unaffordable. We're just a duo. Our load in is an acoustic 12 string guitar. Luther is an amazing guitar player. An acoustic 12 string and Luther is all it takes. He's really good, and fun and playful. The record was, to an extent, recorded as a duo on stage. Even if I played drums on a song, I wouldn't try to play like I was in a band, but just play to support the song.
When you do play them, you have a signature power to your drumming.
Thanks. I try to play in a real definite way. Sometimes kinda loose, but if I make a mistake, it's gonna be with such authority that nobody's gonna notice. And we're lucky to have Mike Wilson as our engineer, and all the great gear we have here at Ardent. Great mics, and the studio rooms sound incredible. And then Luther and Jason Hiller mixed this stuff. And I think they did a brilliant job of it. Listening to those mixes, there's a brightness to them. I'm excited about the new record.
I'm assuming that the arrangements came together when Luther did overdubs in LA. Is that how it evolved?
Pretty much, except for when we used Chris Bell's 335. On 'You and Me.' That was here at Ardent: Chris' guitar run through a Hi Watt amp that belonged to Big Star. It was either Andy's or Alex's. And there are some organ parts that he did here. Most of the arrangements are his, but I would say things like, 'Do you have a synthesizer for "Hurricane of Love?"' He said 'No, but I could use the bass pedals on an organ.' Then I came up with using clarinet and brought Jim Spake in. And what he did was so far beyond what I'd hoped for. Just so incredible. You can picture a butterfly tossed around by the wind. But all those guitar lines ad solos, the guitar tones, most of the arrangements, are all by Luther.
I'm primarily the lyricist and write a lot of melody lines, though Luther does contribute some pretty brilliant lines as well. Like on 'Hurricane of Love,' Luther came up with those chords and that was so haunting. He's great at cool changes.
I was imagining you strumming Chris Bell's acoustic guitar.
Luther is strumming it! It's on pretty much everything except maybe 'Time To Fly.'
Chris Stamey, who worked with Alex Chilton, and has participated in the Big Star Third concerts, arranged the strings on the first track. That's a beautiful touch, with echoes of 'For You' from Sister Lovers.
Chris offered to do strings for us and we selected that song. It was so easy, 'cos I knew he would put a lot of heart and care into it. And we both love those string arrangements. And he sent the arrangements to Jonathan Kirkscey, so we'll have a string quartet at the Green Room this Saturday. And we'll do 'For You' and 'Blue Moon' as well. Jonathan's going to write string arrangements for songs that don't have them already, possibly adding strings to more songs with drums. I'm thrilled about that. And Jenny Davis is a pretty remarkable flautist, and she's gonna join us on 'A Day at the Park.'
Just for the record, it is you singing lead on all the tracks?
It is, 'cos I wouldn't have anything else to do. Luther sings all the harmonies. Luther's got his solo career. It started out with Luther saying, 'Why don't we get together and do some writing, and you could do a solo record.' And the more we got into it, the more I realized how far from being a solo record it was. It's such a collaborative effort.
Has your sound changed much since the debut?
They're pretty sympathetic records. With this second one, we have a bit more of a sense of who we are and what we wanna do. Though that is pretty much defined by our musical influences. I think Luther's talented enough to do anything, and adapt. But I'm not that clever, so whatever I do is what it is.
Luther and I are certainly like-minded in that we both like melodies. He would send me a message saying, This is what I did today, and it would be like a Christmas present, because I couldn't imagine anything better, 'cos he's just that creative with sounds. On 'The Carousel,' that guitar break is like, Wow! The sound is kind of biting and digs in a little bit, without being rock.
I believe we are building an audience, and the more we play live the more we'll be able to do that. At the end of the day, that's what we're in it for, the connection to people. Other than that, you're just sitting around in your living room.