Power pop legends Big Star are set to release In Space, their first studio album in three decades, on September 27th. The album features original members singer/guitarist Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens joined by guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow of the Posies.
"Alex announced to the audience that we were going to do another record, unbeknownst to me, Jon and Ken," says Stephens, referring to a 2001 show in London. Stringfellow, who along with Auer have performed in Big Star since the band's 1993 reunion, explains, "We'd been playing the same [set list] for ten years, so we said, 'Look, let's learn some of the older songs.' And Alex said, 'I'm not really into learning any old songs. Let's make a new record.'"
Formed in 1971 in Memphis, Big Star -- Chilton; fellow guitarist/vocalist and songwriting partner Chris Bell, who was killed in a car accident in 1978; Stephens; and bassist Andy Hummel -- recorded three notoriously overlooked albums: the jangle pop touchstones #1 Record (1972) and Radio City (1974), and the somber masterpiece Third/Sister Lovers (recorded in 1974 and released in 1978). Although Big Star were well received by critics, their lack of commercial success led to the band's breakup in 1975. Over the years, Big Star have attained a cult-like following, which includes such musical disciples as R.E.M., Counting Crows, the Replacements (whose 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me features the song "Alex Chilton"), and, of course, the Posies.
"If Big Star had become very famous, I think they would be less interesting," says Stringfellow. "You could still feel like you can have a private discovery with them. It's kind of special."
Work on In Space started last year at Memphis' Ardent Studios, home of the band's Seventies recordings. Tracks such as "February's Quiet," "Best Chance We've Ever Had" and "Lady Sweet" recall the classic Big Star sound of Beatles-influenced melodies, Byrds-like harmonies and loose garage rock. A few surprises on the album include the upbeat disco-funk of "Love Revolution" and the stirring soul number "Mine Exclusively." "There are fascinating things on the record," says Stephens. "I don't think there's ever a dull moment. This record has a great sense of humor about it."
Chilton was the guiding force during the recording sessions, at times favoring a rougher take of a song over a more polished version, as with "Do You Wanna Make It." "He would hear stuff on an earlier take that made me cringe at first," Stringfellow remembers, "and then he'd say, 'No, you should listen to this. It doesn't matter -- it's got great energy.' He's got a really good ear for hearing the most natural and interesting stuff that's happening in the studio."
The mystique of the first three Big Star albums was not on the minds of the band members during the making of In Space. "No one was ever going to recreate the mood and vibe of those early records," Stringfellow says. "The conditions that generated the first Big Star records were so special, there's no way they could be repeated."
With the upcoming release and a possible supporting tour, Stephens is certain about one thing that never happened for Big Star the first time around. "A lot of people will be interested in listening to this record," he says. "It would be great if it connects."