We Talk to R.E.M.'s Mike Mills About Big Star's Enduring Legacy

We Talk to R.E.M.'s Mike Mills About Big Star's Enduring Legacy

Big Star have long been cult favorites—romanticized, pillaged, beloved—and this new 69-track boxset is another chance to gorge.
October 14, 2016, 5:20pm

​It has been said that the genre of power pop—white man-boys with cherry gui­tars re­in­vig­or­at­ing the har­mon­ic con­ver­gence of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Byrds with the hormonal rush of youth—is the re­venge of the nerds. Big Star pretty much in­ven­ted the form, which ex­plains the wor­ship­ful al­tars erec­ted to the band in the bed­rooms of lonely, dis­en­fran­chised melody-makers from Los Angeles to Lon­don, and all points in between. Though they nev­er came close to fame or for­tune in their time, the band con­tin­ue to hold a sac­red place in the cos­mo­logy of pure pop, a glit­ter­ing con­stel­la­tion that re­mains in­vis­ible to the na­ked main­stream eye.

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Big Star was the sound of four Mem­ph­is boys caught in the vor­tex of a time warp, re­in­ter­pret­ing the jangling, three-minute Britpop odes to love, youth, and the loss of both that framed their form­at­ive years, the mid-60s. Just one prob­lem: It was the early 70s. They were out of fash­ion and out of time. With­in the band, this dis­con­nect with the pop mar­ket­place would lead to bit­ter dis­il­lu­sion­ment, self-de­struc­tion, and death. But that same damning ob­scur­ity would nur­ture their myth­o­logy and be­come Big Star's greatest ally, a form­al­de­hyde that would pre­serve the band's three full-length al­bums—No. 1 Re­cordRa­dio City, and Sis­ter Lov­ers/Third—as per­fect spe­ci­mens of clas­sic gui­tar pop. That Big Star's re­cor­ded leg­acy would go on to in­spire count­less indie sensations is one of pop his­tory's cruelest iron­ies—every­one from R.E.M. to The Re­placements to Elli­ott Smith would come to see Big Star as the great miss­ing link between the 60s and the 70s and bey­ond.

There is a dreamy, pre-Raphael­ite aura that sur­rounds the le­gend of Big Star. Like the doomed, tender-aged beau­ties in Jef­frey Eu­gen­ides' nov­el The Vir­gin Sui­cides, the band's tra­gic ca­reer would un­ravel in the au­tum­nal Sunday af­ter­noon sun­light of the early 1970s. The band's sound and vis­ion hinged on the con­trast­ing sens­ib­il­it­ies of song­writers Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. In the gos­pel of Big Star, Bell was the sac­ri­fi­cial lamb—fra­gile, doe-eyed, and marked for an early death. After the first two Big Star albums were DOA, Bell quit the band he started. After a failed attempt at a solo career, he succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse, further exacerbated by Bell's lifelong struggle with depression and his inability to reconcile his homosexuality with his Christian faith, culminating in a fatal car accident in 1978.

Chilton was the prod­ig­al son, re­turn­ing to Mem­ph­is after trav­el­ing the world, hav­ing tasted the bac­chanali­an pleas­ures of teen star­dom with the Box Tops in the 1960s. Where Bell was pre­cious and na­ive, Chilton was nervy and sar­don­ic, but the band's steady down­ward spir­al would set him on the dark path of per­son­al dis­in­teg­ra­tion—booze, pills, vi­ol­ence, and at­temp­ted sui­cide—documented with harrowing lucidity on Big Star's final album, which, depending on who you ask, was either called Sister Lovers or Third. The album's shattered sonics and desolate beauty were deemed—by the best ears of major label A&R at the time—as too weird and depressing to release. The album collected dust in the vaults for four years. In 1978, a semi-legit version of the album culled from select tracks briefly surfaced, but it would not be until 1992, some 19 years after its completion, that Third/Sister Lovers was given a proper, high-profile release.

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In the wake of Third/Sister Lovers stillborn birth, Chilton would re­in­vent him­self as an iras­cible icon­o­clast, seminal new wave/punk progenitor, and semi-iron­ic in­ter­pret­er of ob­scure soul, R&B, and Itali­an rock 'n' roll. He died in 2010, but history will remember him as one of the unwitting founding fathers of the Alternative Nation—his alt-rock sainthood immortalized by The Replacements' "Alex Chilton"—that rose up in the 80s and 90s, and a direct inspiration for the waves of celebrated indie weirdness that rippled through the dawn of the 21st Century.

A new three-disc, 69-track box set calledThird Complete collects and curates all the extant recordings—rough sketch demos, alternate takes, unreleased tracks and multiple mixes—from Big Star's last gasp. It is an embarrassment of riches for the long-suffering faithful and a yellowing road map through the madness and majesty of Third/Sister Lovers for adventurous newbies. Here's hoping some kid finds it and changes music again.

At the time of his death, Chilton was in the process of mounting a live revival of Third/Sister Lovers set to debut at SXSW. In tribute to Chilton, founding Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, The dBs' Chris Stamey, Let's Active's Mitch Easter, and R.E.M.'s Mike Mills performed Third/Sister Lovers beginning to end in a series of concerts in New York, London, Sydney, Seattle, and Los Angeles. On the eve of the release of Third Complete, we got the R.E.M. bassist/songwriter on the horn to talk about the legend and the legacy of Big Star's lost masterpiece.

Noisey: How did you first come to Third/Sister Lovers?
Mike Mills: I was familiar with the first two [Big Star albums] before I really paid attention to the third one, and when I did I'm not even sure what iteration of it it was. When I first heard it there was no official release, it was whatever people had cobbled together; it had some of the songs, but not all of the songs. Some of them I loved and some of them I didn't. I think about this record, some of the songs take a few repeated listenings to truly see what's going on, and to get the full impact of it, or at least it did for me. I came to it really gradually as I managed to hear all the different versions that came out over those years in the early 80s.

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Did R.E.M. feel a certain kinship with Big Star given that both bands were comprised of white, southern bohemian types with artistic ambitions that weren't always met with commercial acceptance?
I don't think the home towns had anything to do with it really. I don't remember thinking about that. It was just that clearly, they came from the same musical place as we did, especially Peter [Buck, R.E.M. guitarist] and I, because the songwriting is just so strong, and the guitar playing so amazing, all the instrumentation was really amazing. So the fact that you could be that good at your instruments, and write songs that good, and sing that well, was just sort of exactly what we wanted to do.

What are the key tracks on the record for you?  
"Jesus Christ" has always stuck with me. I recorded a version of that for an R.E.M. Christmas single. "O, Dana" has always stuck with me. They're so oddly fragmented, some of these songs, it's just the most amazing thing. Those are the ones that got me first.

What about the big, bleak set pieces like "Big Black Car" or "Kangaroo"?           
Those took me a couple of times. "Holocaust," you know, those ones, they're so harrowing, my natural, sunny disposition was kind of shocked by those and it took me a little while to let my guard down and actually explore those, but they're among the most moving.​

Reportedly, Chris Stamey of the dB's was working with Alex on some new iteration of Big Star at the time of Alex's death. What can you tell me about that?
Chris had contacted arranger Carl Marsh and gotten the original string charts, which is one of the most amazing things about that record. I think it would be a brilliant record anyway, but when you add Carl Marsh's strings it becomes a record like no other. So Chris had gotten Carl to find the original charts and I believe that he was planning to put together a live performance of Third with Alex, which is interesting because I don't think Alex really enjoyed playing that record. I think it hit a little too close to home for him.

Most bands that get compared to Big Star sound like the first two albums. Are there are bands or recordings that you could draw a direct lineage to Third/Sister Lovers?
You know the thing about Third is it's kind of a full stop record. To get to the place where they could make Third, Alex and Jody had to go through hell. You have to have suffered such major heartache, and disappointment. It was the end of the line for Big Star. Musically, I get the feeling that he didn't care if he ever made another note of music after that. So it's really hard to find a lineage from that record to any other band, simply because you can't be in that place and survive for very long. Jeff Buckley kind of tapped into that a little bit.

And Jeff Buckley's not around anymore either.
I'm sure that's a coincidence but nonetheless Jeff Buckley sort of felt that depth of despair that you hear on that record.

It's ironic that you should mention him given that he drowned in Memphis swimming in the Mississippi.
Oddly enough.

Lastly, do you have a favorite Alex Chilton story you can take us out with?
The first time we met him was 1982, he came to an R.E.M. show at Tupelo's Tavernin New Orleans. We were thrilled to meet him, and he came backstage and hung out for a little bit. Our rider at that time was one case of Budweiser, so when we went on we said "Listen Alex, have a beer, come join us on stage if you want to, whatever you like." We finished our show and went backstage, and Alex was gone and so was all the beer.

Jonathan Valania is the Editor-in-Chief of Phawker.com