Mr Epic Soundtracks
As described, the second part of the exhaustive Alex Chilton interview by Epic Soundtracks as included in issue six of What A Nice Way To Turn Seventeen. Let's get straight into it.
The next record to come out would've been “The Singer Not The Song” EP. There was an album that came out after that from all those sessions, “Bach's Bottom”. Did you have anything to do with the release of that?
No, Jon Tiven had the rights to those tracks.
How about the Chris Stamey single (“Summer Sun”)? Was there anything cut at the same time as that?
Well we did four tracks of mine, but Ork Records could never pay for the tapes.
Did the whole punk thing going on in the UK in '76/'77 mean much to you?
Well, I think it's difficult to understand the English mentality that bred the Sex Pistols, because the social conditions must not exist in America. I always thought that Americans who dressed up as British punk rockers were really posin' at somethin' that they really didn't have any understandin' of. That sort of frustration, I guess a kinda sexual frustration, does exist in America, where you go to extreme measures 'n have holes in your hair and stuff like that...but the social sorts of things you were experiencing in Britain, we certainly weren't experiencing in America. I never really understood it that much, especially from Americans....that sort of pained frustration and rage. And resentment of authority...authority is bad in America, but it's different than here.
Would you say that Memphis was, or is, a particularly dangerous place to live?
Well, in the '50s 'n early '60s, it sorta was. But in the middle 60s, all across America under the Johnson administration, the inner city slums were all cleared out for new buildings. I mean, Memphis has about as much of its pre-war past left, as maybe Hamburg or Rotterdam...there's nothin' left. There were all the poor blacks on the south side 'n all the poor whites on the north side. If they hadn't have pulled all the inner city stuff down, there'd have been a terrible situation in the late '60s in Memphis, what with all the riotin' goin' on all the time.
That must be real red-neck territory down there.
It is...but when I was young, I guess it was probably not much different to South Africa now. But it's a movin' thing, and it's amazin' how far it's come in the last twenty years.
Your music went through a big change when you did “Bangkok”. These must have been influences you'd had all along, like a rock'n'roll sort of thing?
Yeah, well “Bangkok”, I guess, was cut after I'd seen the Cramps you know, an' they made a big impression on me...an' everybody, y'know...I saw them play in New York, an' became a devoted fan of theirs, an' after a month or two, ran into them at a friend's apartment, an' I said, “say, you guys are the greatest band I've ever seen! We oughta work together in the studio”....an' we did.
What do you consider your favourites from working with them?
Well, “The Way I Walk”, and “Domino” are the two really good ones. “Human Fly”? Well that was only a rough mix really. All the things from the first session we did are good. “Surfin' Bird” we mixed in London in '77 along with “The Way I Walk” and “Domino”, but it was the third thing we mixed that day, an' it wasn't really the right mix, y'know...
So The Camps influenced you to play a much trashier style of music compared with Big Star?
Yeah, and Jim Dickinson too. I mean he'd shown me how to get really trashy...
How old is he now?
I guess he's 9 years older than me...he must be 43 or 44. He's done a lotta producin' and session playin'. He's played with Ry Cooder, The Flamin' Groovies, “Wild Horses” by the Stones....a whole lotta things.
When you recorded “Like Flies On Sherbert” you started doing a lot of covers.
Yeah, I'd started writin' a lot less an' I've always enjoyed doin' a lotta different material.
I really love the way “LFOS” is so ramshackled and shambolic. I feel like it's done on purpose to bring something out in the music....am I right?
Actually, when I conceived of doing the record, I thought maybe Jim and I and maybe one or two other people would record, and when I turned up for the session, Jim had his whole band there! Like Lee Baker and Mike Ladd on guitars and me on guitar too, and Ross Johnson on drums, and a bass player too a few other people. I thought....”hmmm, well this isn't what I had in mind really!”...but I didn't say anything. I just thought we should try it an' see how it goes. We started recordin' an' I thought “Man, these guys don't know the songs...” an' I was trying to teach them to them, an' they'd go “Yeah, we know the songs” and then just go and play the first thing they thought of. So we were rollin' the tape an' we were doin' all this outrageous soundin' stuff. I didn't know it 'cause I was out there playin' it. I wasn't in the control room listenin' to it. An' I thought “Man that must sound terrible”. But when I went in and heard what we'd been doin' man, it was just this incredible soundin' stuff. I like that album a lot still.
How long did “LFOS” take to record?
Well, most of it was recorded in three nights. “Hey! Little Child” was written and recorded right before the final album mix-down. I re-recorded “”Girl After Girl” then too, because I didn't feel I had a sufficient take of it from before. Most of it though is from those three nights.
Apparently the US version of the LP is different to the UK release....
Yeah, “No More The Moon Shines On Lorena” (B-side to “Hey! Little Child” single in the UK) is on it, and also a thing that Ross Johnson, Panther Burns' drummer does, called “Baron Of Love” which is a kind of introduction to the album. It's just guitar, drums 'n vocals. Ross just kinda raps off the top of his head about all kinda things....it's a drunken thing, kinda like the Legendary Stardust Cowboy without the rebel yells. “Boogie Shoes” wasn't on the American release because KC & The Sunshine Band all of a sudden had a big hit with it through being in the Saturday Night Fever film. I mean, when we recorded it, it'd been a really obscure B-side, but by the time the LP was finished....well I decided it wouldn't be such a cool thing to use it.
These differences between “LFOS” and the third Big Star LP...did you have any choice over which tracks were picked?
No, the tapes were sold out from under me, and people used whatever they wanted. I would've put them together in a different way, but the American version of “LFOS”, of which there are only 500 copies, is pretty much the way I would've wanted.
Would the “LFOS” approach be one you'd consider using again?
Yes. You see musicians play a whole different way...the first time you throw a song at them that they've never heard, the way they play it that time will be completely different to the way they play it the second time, 'cause they've gotten smug about where it's gonna go. It's definitely a good way to record and you get some good things.
Would you say the Panther Burns records operate along the same lines?
Yeah, I mean, Tav....it's always difficult to know where he's gonna go next. You try to follow him, an' it gets pretty screwy!
Quite a lot of your songs, like “What's Goin' Ahn” and “You Get What You Deserve” seem to be about relationships and confusion and things like that. Would that be a true impression?
Yeah, exactly...that was sorta like 1973, pre-drugs...when I was getting' really intense, wonderin' just why I was so unhappy, y'know, an' I'd learned to write all these confused nonsensical lyrics from Chris 'n Andy.
I think the feeling of being confused with love or whatever really comes across in those songs.
Yeah, it does...for whatever good confusion is worth. But I think it's more important to tell people that they don't have to be confused rather than to console them in their confusion...it is possible.
Was the song “Jesus Christ” meant as a serious religious song, or was it totally tongue in cheek?
Well, it was fairly diabolically planned out. I just thought that at some point in my life I'd like to do a Christmas song and really I just copied the lyrics out of several different hymns. I went through a hymn book and picked out several phrases I liked an' threw all those into the verses an' then I couldn't think of anythin' cleverer to say for the hook line than what it says...
Did you have any kind of religious upbringing?
I just thought that coming from that area...
I guess there is a lotta religion around, but in my family it wasn't stressed at all.
Coming back to the lyrics, those to “Rock Hard” are pretty humorous, all sexual innuendo...
There's an interestin' story behind that one. Like some of my other best songs, it was originally another song an' it was recorded as that other song, which was really bland.
What was the other song?
Oh, I don't wanna get into that, it was so bad...I mean, I wouldn't have changed if I'd wanted anyone to hear it that way. But almost until the final mix-down of “LFOS”, the song was pretty much left the way it was. But I knew I wanted to re-write it, so, under pressure as I often do, I wrote a really good lyric for it, an' overdubbed it, an' I still like the song a whole lot. “In The Street” by Big Star is another example of one of the best songs I've ever written, an' it was done the same way.
Was that song a collaboration with Chris Bell?
Well Chris supplied just one line of melody, that's all, but he sang it on the record.
How soon after that album (#1 Record) did he die?
Chris died either in 1976 or 1978...I'm not sure which.
And why did he leave the band?
Well, he was havin' difficulties with the label, an' there were some personal bad feelings between him an' some people there, an' because he was takin' some drugs...downers...around then, which make some people a little paranoid, it seems. Anyway, somehow he got it into his head that we an' all these other people were sorta against him, which wasn't really true at all. But it didn't take the form of getting' upset at us, he really got upset with the people at the label, an' only marginally with us because we were still there. We didn't storm out the way he did.
So when he left the band, did you feel that maybe Big Star had ended?
Apparently you played a gig as a three piece, and got such a great reaction that you decided to carry on.
Yeah, Ardent were sayin' “Look, we're getting' a lotta good response from this album...we just didn't sell any, but you gotta do another one. Just look at all those critics, they love you.” So we had a bunch of material, a lot of it actually written with Chris, but he was kinda excluded from havin' any credit for it, because for some reason we got together an' divided up his material. Chris took what he wanted that we'd collaborated on as his own.
Was his solo single “I Am The Cosmos” one of those songs? It's a great record.
No, I had nothin' to do with that one...but yeah, it is a great song. On “Radio City” though, he wrote parts of “O My Soul”; most of the lyrics after the first bit are his, but I don't care for those words. I mean, “You're really a nice girl...”, fuck! I would never say that! (Laughs)...I'd be more inclined to say “You're really a rotten person....but I like you anyway!” If there were some words in there that were good, I'd be doin' that song now, but I cannot stomach it the way it is. I'd have to re-write the song before I'd play it live. I guess I was just too lazy to write some new lyrics for it when we recorded it. “Back Of A Car” is another song Chris had a hand in writing. I think the words were mostly Andy's, and my chord changes. Chris kinda came up with the opening bit of melody, but the rest of it is mine.
In “My Rival” you wrote “My rival, I'm gonna stab him on arrival, shoot him dead with my rifle...”. Does that kind of extreme situation actually exist in the South, where somebody would shoot someone else for messing with their girl?
I think that kinda thing happens every day with teenagers in America. There's always all kinda outrageous, usually drug related suicides an' murders. I just managed to stay a teenager long past the numbers. But I mean, in my case, I was certainly getting to the point of bein' obsessed with things like guns and phallic symbols like that, y'know...any kinda power I could feel, I was really tryin' to feel it as strongly as I could. But “My Rival” is really more of an emotional outburst than a serious statement of anything. I've never used a gun...I felt like it for years though.
Do you think that a lot of your best songs have been written when you've been depressed or on the edge somewhere?
Well, I don't know...to me, my best songs are more positive sorts of things. The really maudlin things I don't think are my best songs, just 'cause I don't see any reason to play music that makes people feel bad, y'know.
How do you feel about a song like “Holocaust”?
Oh well, yeah, I mean I think that is a really great song. The lyrics, I don't hardly lay an egg anywhere in the whole bunch of words and I think it's well done, but it's not what I'm tryin' to do. I don't remember writin' it. I guess I musta just sat down at the piano, and these words came to me...it is a good song.
So how has your writing changed?
Well, ever since '76 or '75 or sometime, I think I realised how to go about writin' some lyrics and writin' a tune, and actually bein' able to put down succinctly what I wanted to say, in the most economical terms. I began to realize how to do that, and as soon as I did, then I said to myself “Well, okay, what kind of a song do I wanna write?” I realised that I didn't wanna write about things like I had been writin' about, sufferin' and what have you. I wanted to write about positive things to send out into the world, not things that really just coddled people's maudlin sensibilities. Even now though, I guess I still write in a kinda negative way. There's two new songs I'm doin' now, “No Sex” and “I Will Have No Mercy Upon You”. They're both positive in certain ways, but there's still that negative thing in there too.
Alex's hand-written gig crib sheet with lyrics for "No Sex"
There are a number of your songs that I find particularly interesting, “Stroke It Noel” from “Sister Lovers”...
Oh yeah, that's another of my gropin' nowhere pieces...
You don't like it at all?
No...well...maybe it is kinda good. It's another re-write. I don't know...I was takin' a lot of drugs an' I just kinda scribbled somethin' down and said to Jim Dickinson “Is this good?” and he said “Yeah, go and do it...” (laughs)
The words are particularly strange. There's one line and then the next line seems to have nothing to do with the one before. I actually like the way that some of your songs from that period are like that. Would you sit down and write all the words in one go?
Oh, I'll bet I did...I was getting' very disassociated. I don't know if that's the right word to use, but anyway, I could say one thing an' then say somethin' else that didn't seem to follow on from it...but it followed for me I guess.
You play The Beach Boys “Honkin' Down The Highway” in your set at the moment, and you used to do “Wouldn't It Be Nice”. Did you ever know Brian Wilson?
Oh yeah. In The Boxtops we did a lotta tourin' with the Beach Boys. We must have played about 100 nights with them over a couple of years. This was after Brian had quit goin' on the road with them of course. Anyway, they'd all been big fans of “The Letter”, and they recorded it too. Once, I went out to California and stayed with Dennis Wilson, and it was there that I met Brian. This was 1968.
And how was he then?
Well he seemed alright to me, but...well...come to think of it, actually, I guess he was acting a little weird. The two of us went out to The Whisky, and everyone was tellin' me it was the first time Brian had been out in years. He was doin' funny things I guess...like he started doin' push-ups right there when we were sittin' in the club. Some time later, he was doin' some recordings, under what circumstances I don't know, but I gotta whole lotta telephone calls from him in the middle of the night and stuff. He wanted to record me singin' on this thing: I was all for it, but it never came about.
Did he want you to sign to The Beach Boys' label, Brother?
Yeah, there was talk of that but it never happened. Really, I spent a coupla days hangin' around with him in the sixties and then there was this telephone business in the early seventies...plus a couple of other times. I last saw him around 1982 at a concert in Memphis. He still had his keepers with him...it was pretty strange. But I like Brian a lot...he looks great now, really young.
How do you feel about the business these days?
Well...it's difficult to get paid! It's difficult getting' money for records. I mean, I talked to the guy from Aura Records today, for the first time since 1981, and he told me, gee, I only owed him about £1500!! (laughs)
Did you have anything to do with “Live In London” coming out?
No. Before I left town, I knew he had this tape an' I said “You're not gonna use that are you?” and he said “No”. So it was a big surprise when it did come out. But the surprises are getting' smaller all the time I guess!
What do you think of that record? To me, most of it just plods along...the band seems to hold you back.
Well, we only rehearsed a few times y'know. I've only listened to the album a few times, but the times I did, I thought half of it was really good, and half of it was almost good.
Seeing you play...you seem to really love to be on stage, singing for people.
Well, it beats workin' you know! That's what we're doin'...travellin' around and playin' and makin' records. I just hope one catches on, an' sells pretty well, an' we make some money, an' then retire! (laughs)
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