Four years ago, the music scene lit up with news of a fresh face in town, hungry to play gigs. Stephen Chopek was clearly a drummer's drummer, having cut tracks and toured with Charlie Hunter, John Mayer, and Jesse Malin, among others. Any fears that this Jersey City native wouldn't get the Memphis groove were quickly laid to rest, and he has become a fixture with some of the great performers around town.
Says Chopek, "New York City was going through a lot of changes. So I was ready for the move, and it worked out great. I've worked with some great musicians: John Paul Keith, Amy LaVere, David Cousar. It's been fantastic as a drummer, and also in having the time and space to do my own thing, too."
That last comment is something you don't often hear from drummers. But even before his move south, Chopek was exploring his own thing — as a songwriter. Ultimately, it was part of his larger attitude toward personal growth.
- Jamie Harmon
- Stephen Chopek
"As a gigging drummer, sometimes you're creating things with people, and other times you're just learning somebody else's parts and playing gigs. Which is great fun, but there was something that was missing. Songwriting has helped me not just as a musician, but as an overall creative person, to have that balance of building something from the ground up, something I could direct on my own. As I go on in my career, and I grow as a human being, I'm seeing the importance of those situations that make you uncomfortable at first."
Now, with his third full-length album dropping Friday, it would seem Chopek has hit his stride. Begin the Glimmer is not a typical do-it-yourself clutch of demos. It sports one perfectly crafted tune after another. They're all built on a solid foundation of Chopek's acoustic guitar strumming, which nestles in with his drum parts so perfectly that each song churns forward with aplomb. The songs were painstakingly constructed, as Chopek layered bass, keyboards, and lead guitar over his basic rhythm tracks. With Chopek's plainspoken lyrics floating over it all, and everything kept in the kind of perfect sync only a drummer can create, the end result is a shimmering folk-pop gem that leaps from the speakers.
Some listeners may be familiar with two of the album's tracks, released earlier this year as a seven-inch single. While many of Begin the Glimmer's tracks are of a personal nature, the single's two tracks have a more historical bent. "The Ballad of Cash and Dean" is a kind of fantasia about two icons of the 1950s, Johnny and James. But the real period study is the A-side, "Radio Caroline," an exuberant celebration of American rock-and-roll hitting the United Kingdom.
"Radio Caroline was a pirate station in the early '60s in the U.K.," says Chopek. "It was a time when the BBC saw rock-and-roll as this crass fad. So Radio Caroline was this pirate radio station on a boat off the coast that played all the blues and soul that young people of the time were interested in. I first heard about it in interviews and things, and then I did some additional reading. There was something about it that resonated with me. Something romantic about their DIY ethos, championing this new music."
As a whole, the album's sparkle is a refreshing break from "the Memphis Sound," whatever that may be these days. But Chopek considers it part and parcel of his adopted home. "This is my first real Memphis record," he notes. "I recorded it with Harry at 5 and Dime; I mixed it with Doug Easley; I mastered the vinyl with Jeff Powell at Sam Phillips. And working with Doug, with his contribution to Memphis music, was really something. I'm glad I didn't know too much about him when I first started working with him, because I think there would have been an intimidation factor. I just got to know him as a person, and then slowly realized all the things that he had his hand in with Easley-McCain Studios: Sonic Youth, Pavement, Cat Power, the White Stripes, Wilco. All these things that were formidable in my development as a musician. So just getting to know Doug and working with Doug was a great Memphis experience."
Begin the Glimmer's record release show is Saturday, November 10th at Otherlands.