After making two records with the critically acclaimed, record-company-hexed the dB’s, Chris Stamey issued It’s a Wonderful Life, his first solo work, in 1983. Two more records followed in quick succession, but his solo pace began to slow as he concentrated more on production.
By the time he issued Travels in the South in 2004, more than a decade had passed between Stamey’s pop albums. The newly released Euphoria, a rocker, is his second album in two years—a newly prolific clip for him.
What better place to take in the new tracks than in the control room of the studio where it was recorded? With cups of coffee, two high-strung but endearing pooches and a Wurlitzer A200 electric piano, we navigated the passageways of Euphoria’s songs.
CHRIS STAMEY: I wrote [Ryan Adams], saying, “Do you want to collaborate on something?” I really never do that, but I thought I’d give it a try, and he sent two songs, one of which was [“Universe-sized Arms”]. He said I could mess with it if I wanted, and I didn’t change much of anything. It really is like his demo. He’s the drummer on the demo, and he keeps that kick drum going the whole time. Ryan’s got a lot of life force, and it comes across in the music he writes. What I did to it was put a little James Bond on it.
One thing about the session: I worked with a drummer I’d never worked with before, Tony Stiglitz. He blew my mind with his natural feel. For “Universe-sized Arms,” I already cut drums with Logan Matheny from Roman Candle. I liked his drum track. We pressed the vinyl, which you have to do now way in advance, but I really wanted Tony on it. So the vinyl version has Logan; the CD, reel-to-reel and digital versions have Tony.
“WHERE DOES THE TIME GO”
CS: This one was not to a click track. Obviously this song has verses and choruses and a solo, but all the sections happen a little differently. The horns are still going blodda-blodda-bah, but they’re all actually harmonically different. It’s something that Peter Holsapple has always been better at than I am. This kind of thinking is pretty common on this record.
INDY: It seems as if your way is the traditional way. I don’t see you sowing chaos in the studio.
CS: Well, we haven’t gotten to the title track yet. I have been pretty big on chaos, you know. I like the combination. Like that track we just heard, “Where Does the Time Go,” it is not this precision machine. There are little tempo fluctuations all over the place. It’s far from quantized. The modern way would be to go back in with tweezers and make sure that every bass note and every kick drum is right on a grid. I have done that for other people.
CS: I’d been going with my daughter to see [bands play]. We saw Passion Pit and fun. and these bands that had a really cool relationship with their audience, including having parts in the songs where it would stop for a second and let everybody scream. And I thought, “Well, that’s cool.”
INDY: It didn’t feel a little contrived?
CS: Not any more than [Gary Glitter’s] “Rock and Roll Part 2,” which is a big part of growing up. It was just something that was interesting to me, so we have a part like that where the brass do a little Duane Eddy “doh-deh-det,” and then it stops and there’s a drum fill. If you’re using excessive compression, like on an Elvis record, and everything stops, it’s like silence sweeps in all of a sudden. The compressors release, and you hear that the universe was there all along. I like having those stops.
“MAKE UP YOUR MIND”
CS: It’s all local folks on this record: F.J. Ventre, Wes Lachot, Tony. There were more in the core group, but those four cut the track. It was pretty straight-up.
It took me awhile to figure this one out. I wanted to learn more about how brass works. I have to learn by doing, so I get players in and record some. I ran into the Uptown Horns at a gig, and those guys really have an ensemble sound. They know how to voice things in a way I don’t. So I would write up sketches for them. “Got to Get You into My Life” was a song we all thought about as brass. It’s a tune that I did hear growing up, because there was a band my friend had that would play that with brass.
That was just a color I had in mind for the whole record. Tuning in with the Uptown Horns was just a blessing. I could send them ideas. They were in New York, sending MP3s back and forth on the phone. I’d send them my scores, then they’d flip the voicings and add octaves and really make it happen in a way I would like to be able to someday.
INDY: Pretty psychedelic.
CS: Uh. I don’t know…
INDY: When I hear that phase-shifting effect on the vocals, I think of “Itchycoo Park.”
CS: Right, that was probably the first big flange song. Again, I like to make it sound like the words, and I was trying to figure out a way to make them all fit together. Whereas I personally am really, really tired of three-chord songs, I think of that expression, “All you need is one chord and the truth.” I like a bigger harmonic vocabulary myself. And then I like almost none. So this song stays on this F 11th chord for almost the entire time. The only hinge, or turnaround, it goes a half step up.
INDY: How do you make that work?
CS: One chord?
INDY: How do you sustain that, keep it interesting?
CS: It’s a live take by a band. It’s Matt McMichaels on guitar, and Tony Stiglitz is doing all this stuff. F.J. didn’t have much to do on the bass; somebody had to drive the train. I play guitar in a way that isn’t particularly tutored, but it’s different to other people sometimes, and probably the only example of it on the record. I understand why Frank Zappa enjoyed playing guitar in his bands, but it always put me to sleep. So I feel a little bit self-indulgent playing as myself very often. The really short solo on “Make Up Your Mind,” I enjoy that more, but this one has … what is it—unlimited power, itty-bitty living space? This song has almost no harmonic motion and a lot of interesting stuff.
INDY: It’s a great side-ender.
CS: Well, you heard half of it. Unfortunately, I cut Mitch Easter’s solo. He takes the second solo.
“AWAKE IN THE WORLD”
CS: It’s like you’re crossing the street and you look one way and you realize you’re almost walking right in front of a bus, and you jump back. And it’s like, “I know this is only adrenaline, but these colors sure are vivid.” You’re awake all of a sudden. You got a little bit of a jolt and you’re like, “Wow, I’m actually here.”
I tried to have a lot of shifts in the song. I put in a non sequitur section, but it’s minus one beat—like a little jolt each time. All of a sudden it goes to a blues guitar. We have a young filmmaker in the family, and I’ve been thinking about quick cuts.
But it all goes back to trying to set a lyric. I’ve always really valued a song that has a tight connection between the lyric and the music. I don’t mind it when they are really fighting each other, but I like it best when they work hand in hand. So usually I try to find a way to make the music help make words have the right sense. I hear it a certain way. How can others hear it that way?
INDY: Your voice sounds like it has barely changed at all.
CS: Well, I stopped eating wheat, and that helped a lot. But the last record, I think it does sound rough.
CS: The song has the electric guitar and brass sound that I like, although the brass swells are not as punctuated in most of it. This is an older song. In fact, I’d cut a version with the dB’s. I used the drum track from that, sped it up a bit.
INDY: So Will Rigby’s on that?
CS: Will plays drums on it, which is great. Mitch and I played the guitars, and I play bass on it. I’ve always liked those songs where you can’t tell if they’re singing to a lover or their god. Sometimes on the Chris Bell songs [with Big Star], maybe he couldn’t even make up his mind.
INDY: What led you to the bass as a kid?
CS: I kept getting thrown down the stairs. I started on violin, ended up on bass. There are never quite enough people who can play bass, so you can always work. It’s also like the best instrument. All those little things stand on whatever the bass note is. It’s the big wave. The bass is the only thing we have left of the dinosaurs.
“WHEN THE FEVER BREAKS”
CS: There is a summer that I spent in a cabin in the mountains at my grandparents’, where I only had the first Led Zeppelin record and Nashville Skyline. So I think I kind of conflated those two. We cut the track without the guitar licks. At the time we did it, I was starting to think, “Well, it would be nice to play electric guitar again.” And then I started to think, “Hmm, I’m gonna have to practice.” I really hadn’t done it in a long time.
I came in one night in the studio and thought, “Well, I’ll practice on this song,” and I started doing takes as a way to remember what it’s like to bend strings. And I didn’t think anything more about it, and then a month later I thought, “God, I’ve got to go play guitar on that song.” A month had gone by, and I hadn’t played guitar at all. I went in and listened to my tracks from rehearsal, and they seemed OK. So I just edited a couple of them together, and that’s the guitar.
“YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL”
CS: This song is more fully scored than the rest. Brett Harris made me think about Harry Nilsson, and I hadn’t thought about him in a long time. The way those records sounded, the orchestrations, a lot of 13th chords: I wanted to get a little of that flavor. This is a track that we cut live in the studio with a band. The tempos fluctuate, and Tony did the Ringo thing of playing blast sticks. You play loud with these things that are like spaghetti noodles. You get kind of a suppressed violence.
There are a lot of instruments on this one: clarinet, French horn, trombone, tuba, trumpet, sax, full strings, but they often only do a few bars in the whole song. I used to feel like, “Well, if they’re going to be sitting there, give ’em something to do.” But now I’m more sparing with instruments.
I asked Pat Sansone from Wilco and The Autumn Defense to sing a harmony on it. I sent it to him, and lo and behold, he did these 12-part, stacked, beautiful harmonies. So I have to give him credit for the arrangement, too. That was a gift. Same as Norman Blake [of Teenage Fanclub]. Norman did his surgical-strike spots on the record. I generally don’t put guests way, way up in the mix to take advantage of them, but I cherish what they did.
CS: In 1971, the MC5 came to town, and they blew everybody’s minds. They were so good. It was like watching a great thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby, like a phenomenon. They played in a big stadium in Winston, dressed in spaceman suits. There were about 150–200 people, and they gave it their all. I began thinking, “What if the MC5 had, in their astronaut incarnation, done a new record, based on trips into outer space?”
Correction: MC5 did wear spacesuits, but not at that show. INDY: But you weren’t thinking about “Rocket Reducer No. 62 (Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa)” from Kick Out the Jams?
CS: No, I had forgotten about that one. It was that second record [Back in the U.S.A.] that really got us going, the one where [producer] Jon Landau made them jog and also stop taking heroin. It doesn’t really sound like MC5.
INDY: I think it kind of does.
CS: Well, this part maybe.