I definitely believe in monogamy, but not musical monogamy," says Chris Stamey about the fertile Winston-Salem rock scene of the late sixties and early seventies that marked his entry into music, alongside budding impresarios like Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. But the subject of his new book, A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories, covers Stamey's time transitioning from that world to the late seventies New York City punk and new wave underground.
In addition to his long career as solo artist and producer, the book chronicles Stamey's work with The dB's and Big Star's Alex Chilton, not to mention the bands of his psychedelic youth. Stamey's spending the spring giving what he calls "musical readings" across North Carolina, as well as in New York and L.A. On May 12, he'll even reconvene a batch of the bands of his youth at Ramkat in Winston-Salem for a show that benefits American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. But A Spy in the House of Loud began as something else entirely. He first envisioned the project as a songbook that had New York as a central theme.
"I thought, 'Well I don't want to have a restricted audience for this, I'll write something to go with the songs,'" Stamey says. "Like anything I've done, it took a lot of left turns. The annotations really took over the notation pretty quickly. I also found out that the two don't really go together. So I did the tough love thing and separated them out."
Stamey's main goal in writing the memoir was not so much to document his career as to inspire creativity, to encourage others to stop reading and write their own songs. That kind of artistic enthusiasm was abundant in the Winston-Salem scene of the seventies that occupies the early part of the book. Stamey bounced from one group to another in a musical community he and his cohorts called "combo corner," playing with school pals like his future dB's bandmate Peter Holsapple and future Let's Active frontman and R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter.
"There was a constant 'change partners.' There was a new band about week," Stamey says.
Along with the garage-band fervor came a period of laboratory-like experimentation for him. He and Easterregularly teamed up to work on writing and recording, putting together their own four-track studio. Stamey says they spent a couple of years just figuring how to make records and writing songs; with those musical muscles built up, they continued to spawn new acts.
In the later seventies, Easter joined Stamey in the seminal Sneakers, a prescient power-pop band with a punky edge. By 1977, Stamey had followed his muse to the center of the punk revolution, New York City. Things moved quickly. Stamey befriended Ork Records founder Terry Ork, who wanted to make a record with him. Ork asked for Stamey's help in recruiting a band for Alex Chilton, who came up from Tennessee to spend about a year in the city.
After playing with Chilton for a spell, Stamey started his own label, Car Records, and Chilton suggested he release the first solo single by the other erstwhile Big Star singer-songwriter, Chris Bell. The track was the cult classic "I Am the Cosmos." Stamey remembers,
"[Chilton] didn't have a tape of it, so he actually came over to my apartment and played and sang it for me," Stamey remembers. The song duly made its appearance on Stamey's imprint.
In 1978, inspired by the electrifying New York scene, Stamey started the dB's, a New York-based band of fellow Winston-Salem expats: drummer Will Rigby, bassist Gene Holder, and eventually, Holsapple on vocals, guitars, and keys. The band's idiosyncratic blend of new wave and power pop made them a vital part of the NYC underground.
"It was on the cusp of change, and no one knew where it was going," Stamey says. "That is always a wonderful place to be, when your eyes are open and you're not sure what's gonna happen. A lot of art blooms in those moments.
After two critically lauded albums with The dB's, Stamey left the band in 1982, releasing his first solo album, It's a Wonderful Life, that same year. In addition to his own music, he began working as a producer and musician on recordings by others, including Pylon, Yo La Tengo, and The Golden Palominos. But in 1992, the Chapel Hill native moved back to the town of his birth, and eventually opened his own studio there, Modern Recording, which he operates to this day.
From his Chapel Hill perch, Stamey has produced, engineered and mixed countless albums over the last couple of decades. But the man who produced Whiskeytown's first album reckons his production approach was informed by one of his best-known clients
"I learned a lot of stuff from Ryan Adams, just his attitude and his clarity," Stamey says. "Every time I worked with Ryan it was, 'Let's do something real and great right now.' It wasn't like, 'Let's make a demo and then we're gonna think about it.' And it was inspiring."
Stamey also credits his early New York experiences with influencing his studio approach. With Alex Chilton, he saw a skilled producer at work up close.
"Maybe I would compare him to the way Wes Anderson is a film director. You've got the chops but you're really just gonna bend stuff to your vision. That was an education," Stamey says. Ultimately, he had to leave North Carolina and discover himself in New York in order to return more fully realized.
"When I arrived in New York, I was thrilled to be there. There was such energy in the air," he recalls. "When I got back to North Carolina, and was living about a mile from where I was born, this sense of home became very strong, and a sense of being at rest. This is where I still feel like I belong, and I'm glad I went away in order to find that out. It's an incredible gift to be here."