Though countless musicians credit Big Star as an influence, the Memphis-based group didn’t become widely known until years after it disbanded. Some might say Big Star’s albums still haven’t received their due respect.
This week Stax Records reissues remastered versions of Big Star’s stellar first two releases, 1972’s #1 Record and 1974’s Radio City. The albums come with new liner notes from R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, a big fan who performs the band’s material in the ongoing Big Star’s Third concert series.
During a break in his busy tour schedule, I had the pleasure to talking to Mike about his relationship with Big Star:
You’ve had a busy summer. You’re kind of touring with three bands, right?
In the liner notes for the Big Star reissues, you say you first heard the band through (R.E.M. guitarist) Peter Buck’s record collection. Around what year was that?
Oh, I imagine it would’ve been ’79 or ’80. It would’ve been the first two (records); I didn’t listen to the third for a little while — or I did, actually, I just didn’t like it as much off the bat.
There are certain bands where I can pinpoint the first moment I heard them, and Big Star is one. What is it about their music that you think makes such an impression?
Well, it’s just … it’s just done right. The recording and the producing is great, the songs are all fantastic — there’s not a dog on any of their three records — and they just knew how to do it. They had the feeling, they had the chemistry, they had the connection to music and to rock ‘n’ roll that shows up when you listen to it.
When did you become acquainted with the band? Was it when Alex (Chilton) was still alive?
I saw Alex a lot over the years. (R.E.M.) first met him at a place called Tupelo’s Tavern in New Orleans. He came backstage and drank all our beer; we got backstage and the beer was gone, and so was Alex. (Laughs) Of course, I knew Jody (Stephens, the drummer) from Ardent Studios, where we recorded Document. And I would just encounter them in various places. Alex used to tour a fair amount, so I would see him here and there. Then when Alex died, Jody asked if I’d play a memorial tribute down at South by Southwest, so that started this whole thing we’re doing now.
Now that you’re playing the songs, what have you learned about Big Star’s music that perhaps didn’t occur to you when you were just a fan?
Well, I realize what a great bass player Andy Hummel was. He doesn’t play traditional bass and I don’t either, so I can totally relate to and enjoy his style of playing. That was a big revelation once I started learning all these songs.
What has the fan reaction been like to the Third shows? I imagine you meet a few who saw Big Star play back in the day.
You know, there aren’t a whole lot of people we’ve talked to that actually saw all four of them…