When the real accounting of rock’s post-70s greats is finally settled, there’s little question Chris Stamey should make the cut. He’d rate if only for the beautifully jittery, intelligent pop-rock he crafted in The dB’s in the early 80s (not to mention Falling Off The Sky, the band’s really fab studio return last year), but there’s also a steady string of fine solo albums, a stint with The Golden Palominos, his cult beloved early days with power poppers Sneakers, a bangin’ collaboration with Yo La Tengo (2005’s A Question of Temperature), and more in his lengthy, always-excellent resume. While not always a headline grabber, Stamey’s work is a steady run of pure quality rock spread over a pleasing variety of styles and moods.
However, Stamey’s latest offering, Lovesick Blues (released February 5 on Yep Roc), may be the most concise presentation of his many charms under one roof. Weaving in and out of love’s corridors, good and bad, the song cycle is intimate, thoughtful and expertly sculpted – the work of a master musician at his most personal and far reaching. Stamey says, “This record is the closest I’ve ever gotten to the sound I hear in my head in the middle of the night.” It’s a set that creeps into one’s bones the longer they spend with these songs, understanding and compassion floating on inviting melodies, strings and vocals that tickle loose smiles and tears from anyone with a living, beating heart. Lovesick Blues is the first contender for DI’s Favorite Albums of 2013 we’ve jotted down to remember in December, so we reached out to Stamey with some questions about his new album, the reunited dB’s, the Big Star’s Third concerts, and more.
1. Lovesick Blues tackles a really universal, really gnarly, complicated topic head on, i.e. the path to love and what happens when one falls off of it, usually in a really painful way. There’s a real balance between what feels quite personal and more commonly shared elements. How did you approach balancing the autobiographical parts with something that works in a song everyone can relate to?
Hmm. With me, the way it works is that I prepare for songwriting by “clearing a space” for it, making time available in my life, especially in the mornings. (Of course, I’ve also laid the foundation for it by being able to play instruments and having a grasp of how notes work together, how to create chord progressions–all this has taken most of my life.) But the actual time of writing a song is usually only 15 minutes or maybe really 2 hours and it just seems like 15 minutes. It’s a kind of “in the zone” process. I am not aware of trying to balance truth-telling and universal-fiction elements. It happens too quickly for this kind of considered reflection. I usually don’t go back and edit, I just take it as it lays. On a song like [Lovesick Blues’] “London,” I was very accurate and descriptive, to the point of being banal perhaps. On the song “Lovesick Blues,” the language is more basic, but to me no less detailed – it’s not about a breakup/divorce but about a friend of mine whose wife died from cancer and who then died himself from grief; the words are simple but were hard to get right. The most specific song, “The Room Above the Bookstore,” was actually imagined, not remembered, but was still in broad strokes something that happened to me.
2. The strings on this album are pitch perfect, a real compliment to the lyrics and melodies that ties everything together. What was your thinking with the arrangements on Lovesick Blues, which are quite different from what folks know you for in The dB’s?
I’m so glad you dug them! I’m trying to relearn this vocabulary. After a few decades of achieving arrangement effects in mixes with echoes and guitar pedals, I’m lying awake at night listening to Debussy and George Crumb. I’ve been doing a lot of string and wind arrangements for records I am mixing for other people, and I actually did this on the dB’s record, too, on songs like “She Won’t Drive in the Rain Anymore,” “Albatross and Doggerel” and “Write Back,” actually on most of them now that I think about it. On this record, I wanted to achieve an intimacy, so it’s often small groupings and instruments come and go with just a few notes to play each time.
3. Did the songs for this album arrive en masse, wanting to be together, or was that something you discovered as you began accumulating material for a new solo album? This music feels – on a lot of levels both conscious and subliminal – like this music belongs together, and perhaps only makes full sense if taken as a whole rather than parsed into smaller pieces. What are some of the places of overlap that you hope people pick up on?
I wrote the title track, “Lovesick Blues,” after having written a few other others during that period, and then wrote other songs that fit the first group. Jeff Crawford (, who produced, would come over and we’d play through the tunes and see what would make the coherent “desert island,” “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” kind of record that I was hoping to make. It turned out that we also found some amongst my older catalog, tunes like “London” and “Wintertime.” But plans – and records – always change. At a certain point, we opened it up to daylight with the addition of “You n Me n XTC” and “Astronomy.” I wasn’t thinking of broad lyrical strokes – what I was doing was playing the tracks late at night and seeing what worked then. I didn’t want to make a pop record that tried to be “all things to all people” – I wanted to make a record that I, myself, would put on in a certain mood. Of course, I hoped (and still hope) that there might be other people who would be like me in that regard, that if I liked it, maybe it’ll strike a chord with other folk.
4. Are you a fan of classic American Songbook composers like Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern? There’s a hint of that in spots on Lovesick Blues, notably “Occasional Shivers,” which seems like a new romantic standard waiting to happen.
I do think that “Occasional Shivers” harkens back to the whiskey-soaked world of regret that had Jazz Age denizens in its thrall; it’s a torch song in the classic mold, or such was my intent in any case. And I so love Gershwin, Kern, Porter, Rogers, and the like. I want to write more like this, and plan to. It’s also a kind of harmonic language that is less constricted than the modern “loop four chords and make the chorus get louder” world of today. Those songwriters opened up the possibilities of musical and lyrical symbiosis in a way that seems to have been forgotten now that we have computer screens to make music on so quickly.
5. Please tell me a bit about your role as musical director and orchestrator for the Big Star’s Third concerts. That’s such a beautiful album full of neat tunes and super human emotions. Sure it gave you and the other musicians a lot to explore.
Everyone involved in our various concerts – -in NC, NYC, Austin, London, Barcelona, and a related show in Nashville – have felt the glow of often transcendent moments. There has been a great esprit de corps about it all. I don’t know why those dark, troubled songs bring that out in us, but it’s been true. There’s been a real “ask not what your [country] can do for you” selfishness about it, too. For me, personally, it was the pre-concert work, months of organizing the scores for the large ensemble based on the master tapes, and also writing new arrangements (for songs such as “Kanga Roo” and “Holocaust”) that was the biggest thrill. It’s an honor to have been a principal in the shows, but it’s also very draining at times, a big undertaking with guest singers changing from show to show. But standing on stage with Jody Stephens and Mitch Easter playing on one side and a great chamber orchestra on the other – and hearing all this without any speakers and wires, just the real sound – is fantastic!
6. How do you feel about The dB’s reunion? The album you made together is as strong as any creative work you guys have ever done together. Plans for more with this original lineup?
Right now, as Will is going back on tour playing drums for Steve Earle, I’d say it’s hard to predict the future but the dB’s are always up for interesting ideas, care of our agency, Ground Control Touring.
7. What elements in a song really float your boat? What are the things that catch your attention?
I like the sound that “these are not lies,” although that’s hard to explain. Right now I’m tired of the same old chord progressions, just a soapbox I’m on currently I guess; I like inventive harmonic structure. We all share that feeling of “time stops” and “the hair on the back of our necks stands up,” but it’s hard to say why, isn’t it? A great song is like pornography, I “know it when I hear it” as the judge (almost) said. Richard Thompson does this for me regularly. Right now I’m rediscovering the Charles Ives songs, chock full of neck-hair-standing moments. And I think Passion Pit has done several good things.
8. Lovesick Blues lends itself to being performed as a whole album in concert, perhaps with a rock chamber ensemble. Any plans to bring this work to stages?
Yes, I’m writing out a chamber-music version this week, hope to do it here in town [Chapel Hill, North Carolina] in the first week of February and then at SXSW with the Tosca Quartet in March. I have notation for the parts on the record, but that’s quite different from a score that works live, so we’ll see how far I get.