Still burning bright; Chilton talks about being a Big Star today
by Louise Thach,
Jul 07, 2000 | 1811 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Graphic Design by Jennifer Merrick.
You might not know the name Alex Chilton, but you've definitely heard his music. Chilton joined the Box Tops in the late '60s at the tender age of 16 and almost immediately climbed the charts to number one with the hit song "The Letter." And every time you sing along to the theme song of "That 70's Show," you're singing a tune from his old '70s band Big Star, of which he was lead singer and guitarist. R.E.M. has named Chilton as one of their great inspirations, and The Replacements even wrote a song about him entitled, "Alex Chilton." And remember that Bangles song "September Gurls?" That was actually a cover of a Big Star song. Since the break up of Big Star right before the '80s, Chilton has maintained a solo career, and he's even been signed to Hoboken-based record label Bar None. Bar None has recently released his latest album "Set," and Chilton's all set to play Maxwell's on Saturday, June 8 at 9:30 p.m. After more than three decades of being probed and poked by reporters, this music legend was a little unmotivated to be interviewed, but the Current was able to twist his arm to ask a few questions about the Box Tops, Big Star and even a few of his rock 'n' roll drug experiences.You might not know the name Alex Chilton, but you've definitely heard his music. Chilton joined the Box Tops in the late '60s at the tender age of 16 and almost immediately climbed the charts to number one with the hit song "The Letter." And every time you sing along to the theme song of "That 70's Show," you're singing a tune from his old '70s band Big Star, of which he was lead singer and guitarist. R.E.M. has named Chilton as one of their great inspirations, and The Replacements even wrote a song about him entitled, "Alex Chilton." And remember that Bangles song "September Gurls?" That was actually a cover of a Big Star song. Since the break up of Big Star right before the '80s, Chilton has maintained a solo career, and he's even been signed to Hoboken-based record label Bar None. Bar None has recently released his latest album "Set," and Chilton's all set to play Maxwell's on Saturday, June 8 at 9:30 p.m. After more than three decades of being probed and poked by reporters, this music legend was a little unmotivated to be interviewed, but the Current was able to twist his arm to ask a few questions about the Box Tops, Big Star and even a few of his rock 'n' roll drug experiences. Louise Thach: So I was warned that you don't like interviews. Is that true? Alex Chilton: I'm not a big fan of doing press at all. The press is so sensational-oriented these days. I mean, it's just worse than it's ever been. In the late '60s and early '70s, there were noble types working in the profession of journalism and some cool things happened. But now it's all about selling papers and celebrity gossip. LT: Well, most bands today seem to complain more about the music industry than the press. I know that you weren't ever really happy with it, right? AC: Well, the music business is a business, and it's not necessarily about music. It's more about selling units of something, so it has its pretty limited charm. LT: Because you've been exposed to it for over 30 years, would you say it's changed at all? AC: I've been an outsider for almost the entire time, so I can't say I know a lot about it. I mean, I know that the music's changed, and I don't think it's changed for the better, and I have an idea that that's sort of tied up with big corporate control over the marketplace. In the '60s, a record label coming from almost nowhere could actually have a number one chart hit, and you could thrive and give the established industry a true run for their money. And now, it's really not possible for the true independent to have a hit. And I think that's partly to blame for the lack of innovation and the lack of competition in music. LT: So I read that you never thought of yourself as a good songwriter. Do you believe that? AC: A song is a multi-media event. It is a literary event as well as a musical event, and if both things aren't really good, then it's not a success. And I'm not all that literary a guy, you know. I don't have such a great way with words that I can do something really clever all the time. So a lot of the tunes I would write when I was younger might have a good first verse, but then the second verse would start going to hell. I couldn't sustain the good thing I'd started, just 'cause I'm not all that clever as a literary cat and I'm not a great musician, but I'm a little strong in both. So once in a while, I write a good tune. LT: And you didn't write any of the songs on your new album. Are you okay with that? AC: I'd be okay with never writing a song ever. Writing a song is like putting together a table; it's like making a structure. I just never got to where I got a great sense of accomplishment out of writing a great tune. I get a greater sense of accomplishment out of playing a song on stage and really making it happen. LT: So I read that you said 'The first thing I ever did [The Box Tops record] was the biggest record that I'll ever have.' Does that bother you? AC: I don't know. I mean, being famous has nothing to do with me feeling good about myself. In fact, if anything, it gets in the way. I don't want my life publicized, but it is. That's the price of being famous, and it's no fun. Out of rich and famous, I'd just take rich. How about rich and unfamous? That sounds ideal. LT: So you must get a lot of people that request Big Star and Box Tops songs at your shows. Does that bother you? AC: I don't care. If people pay their money to come in, they could pretty much do whatever they'd like. There are [a few] Big Star songs that I play, but that's about all. I mean, a lot of times if people are really hollering out for Big Star tunes, then I'll tell them that they hired the wrong band, and what they wanted to see was Big Star and not me. LT: Is it weird to have all these die-hard Big Star fans after the fact? AC: I don't know. It all makes perfect sense to me. We never really managed to grab the public's attention and our record company couldn't quite do the right thing with us to make us a success. So it's all sort of practical. The fact that the records are good and have some good stuff on it, it sort of stands to reason that, after a while, we would have some fans. But I'm not sure I understand the cult of Big Star. LT:I read that you said that your Big Star songs were mediocre and that Box Tops was a farce. AC: Well, I mean, there were good things about both groups. I listen to a Big Star record and I think it's pretty good, but I listen to, you know, 150 other bands and think that they're just as good or better. And I just don't see it as something super, super special, at least not especially good in my view. LT: Do you think that's normal? Because most people in bands are pretty proud of their old work. AC: Well, I'm pretty proud of it, but it seems to me that what's good about a Big Star record, is that it was kind of meticulously done, very well recorded and well produced. I really think that in a way, the guy who engineered and mixed our records is what's really great about it. I mean, some of the music is good, but we were also kind of lucky that we had a really good engineer. If we'd been recorded in another way, people wouldn't hear us the same at all. LT: Why did you choose The Posies for the Big Star reunion? AC: Actually, the drummer of the band heard them do a couple of Big Star songs and thought we should use them. So we got together with them and started playing and I knew in five or 10 minutes that they would work just fine, and, in fact, that they'd be better than the original guys we ever had. LT: What was your first drug experience, and when did you notice that things were getting bad? AC: My first drug experience was when I was a young teenager smoking pot and taking speed, and I think I fooled around with peyote, so it was probably when I was 12 or 13. I really didn't start having a problem with drinking and drugs until I was about 22. But everybody was doing it. It was cool and no one was talking about what was wrong with it. All my friends did it, so I just started doing it too, thinking, 'Okay I won't be cool unless I do this.' LT: So it was all peer pressure? AC: I guess, you know. But I mean, being drunk has a little bit of charm to it and getting f***ed up on drugs is not all together unenjoyable. LT: So when did you decide that it was time to quit? AC: I quit taking drugs in 1976, for the most part. I mean, I guess I still smoked pot and, once in a while, I might've fooled with some cocaine or something, but that was like once a month or once every two months. But when I quit taking the drugs, I hadn't even thought of the drinking. It was only then that it dawned on me that I had a drinking problem and that was not so easy to leave behind. I knew, at the time, that drinking and smoking and drugging where just completely in the way of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be, and it still took me five years to actually leave the drinking behind. LT: Did you stop on your own, or did you go through a program? AC: No, I just stopped. It coincided with when I had a cold, around New Year's of 1980 or 1981. I really piled it on for the holidays that year, and I drank completely out of control. So when New Year's came, I caught a cold and my resistance was so far down that it lingered for a couple of weeks. During that couple of weeks, I was too sick to go out and drink or anything. By the time I got well, I thought to myself, 'Wow, it's been eight or nine years since I've gone two weeks without a drink, so I think I'll go and make it a month.' And I did. At the end of that month, I met a girl I liked a lot and she was going out to drink at a bar, so I started doing it with her. I woke up the next day and felt like pure hell, and I thought to myself, 'Ah, this is why I stopped doing this.' I never really had much of a problem again. But I still have not left smoking behind, and I really wish I could, because it's in the way of being all there, you know. You smoke a cigarette and you get a little bit f***ed up from it. LT: You get buzzed from a cigarette? AC: Yeah. You're getting a buzz from a cigarette whether you know it or not. I'd much rather be all there and completely acute perceptually rather than doped on any kind of drug. Unfortunately, I'm still doing about a pack a day, but they're Ultra Lights. LT: Marlboro? AC: No, American Spirits. LT: Oh, the chemical-free stuff? AC: Yeah, I'm on a health kick, you know.
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