Memphis-based singer/songwriter releases new record, will play at Foothills Brewery
Stephen Chopek has sat on stages right behind some major singer/songwriters, playing a key supporting role. As a drummer, Chopek has worked with John Mayer and Jesse Malin, among others, over the years. And he’s provided the beats behind these performers with a workmanlike solidity. Chopek’s main work has been behind the drum kit, but he’s been putting out solo recordings of his own material since 2012. Chopek releases a new album, Begin the Glimmer, this week. And he’ll perform in Winston-Salem at Foothills Brewery & Tasting Room on Oct. 12, the day the record comes out. Chopek spoke with me last week by phone from his home in Memphis, Tennessee.
On his new record, he sings and plays all of the instruments. The music leans toward the energy of power-pop, but Chopek keeps things reined in, never letting the speed and muscle get the better of the songs. The lyrics — with songs about untangling a dream involving Johnny Cash and James Dean, celebrating the spirit of a legendary British pirate radio station, or about having a limited appetite for sad movies — are always clear and fairly easy to decipher. The guitar parts are strummed with a force and drive, letting the instrument serve as the rhythmic engine behind the music in much the way a drummer might. (There are drums on most of the songs, too.)
“The songs are all written on acoustic guitar, so that was their origin,” said Chopek, by way of saying that a solo tour playing the songs with just a guitar will not present any logistical challenges in terms of arranging the material.
“Being a drummer has really informed or influenced my way of constructing a song,” Chopek said. “My approach to the [guitar] is coming from a rhythmic place.”
And now, when he works as a drummer behind another singer/songwriter, his approach may have shifted as a result of his time at the front of the stage. “Being a songwriter has, I think, made me a more sympathetic drummer on other people’s music,” Chopek said.
Some drummers might gravitate toward writing songs built around complex rhythm puzzles, odd-time abacus exercises, or whiplash stop-start accent showboating, but Chopek lets his confidence in the solidity of a song determine what sort of frills or structural add-ons it might need.
Most drummers spend a lot of time in practice rooms with guitars lying around and other musicians talking about chord changes and song structure. It’s almost inevitable to pick up some rudimentary guitar chops and a sense of how songs get assembled. Chopek says he was inspired by his time playing with Malin, who writes in the punk-folk tradition, making powerful music out of a few basic elements. Three chords can go a long way. And the realization of how much could be achieved with very little — that seeped into Chopek’s way of thinking “by osmosis,” he said.
That straightforward approach may have something to do with what he picked up from Malin. Chopek said he saw the importance of commanding the stage and being able to entertain a room by watching John Mayer from the wings when he would do a solo tune during a set. Chopek has also busked on the streets in New York City, an experience that helps a performer appreciate the magic of getting listeners’ attention.
If you listen, you might hear a connection to Guided By Voices, Bill Fox or the Replacements in Chopek’s songs. Those three artists were from the midwest, and they all had an element of approachability to their songs. Chopek actually worked with Memphis recording legend Doug Easley, who’s recorded GBV, in addition to a whole slew of notables like Pavement, White Stripes, Wilco, Cat Power, Modest Mouse and many more. (Easley mixed the record, which was recorded by Harry Koniditsiotis.) You might also hear a hint of the mellow guitar pop of John Mayer and Jack Johnson in places. At their core, a few of Chopek’s songs could almost be folk songs — fast-strummed tunes with as much in common with Gordon Lightfoot and early Bob Dylan — but the production adds a scuffed-up element to the finished recording, with slightly scratchy guitar tones, and textures that are overdriven just to the point of a fine grittiness. It’s never gnarly, or so thick as to bury or obscure the vocals.
That vocal clarity, in itself, is interesting in the case of Chopek, because more than once on some of his earlier songs he’s sung about a looming suspicion about words and their ability to get to the heart of things.
“A well-kept secret is worth a thousand words. Most things are better left unsaid,” goes a lyric from the song “Left Unsaid,” off of his 2012 record See Through. In a similar vein, on the subject of using our heads to solve problems, Chopek sings “Thinking will get us nowhere,” on the song “Hurry.” On “Could Have Been,” off the new record, he sings about never having understood someone’s joke.
Chopek, 44, said that the ways that words take on meaning is something that’s always fascinated him about the creative process. He tries not to overburden the thrust of a song with too much explicit an intentional and overt gyst from the start.
“I usually derive meaning from songs once they are in motion or once they’re done,” he said. “The songs are just ambiguous enough.”
You might say that that very ambiguity and the spirit of cracking the code is a theme of the new record’s opening track, “Made of Puzzles.” “You are made of puzzles, and I’m looking for the pieces,” he sings.
Originally from New Jersey, Chopek moved to Memphis in 2014. He’s been enjoying the chance to get plugged into the city’s music scene. It might not be the music industry town that Nashville is, but Memphis is, of course, a serious music town, with the spirits of Elvis, Big Star, Sun Records, Charlie Rich, B.B. King and all kinds of other musical giants hovering around.
“Memphis is a great place,” Chopek said. “The history of Memphis music is deep. But also there’s a lot of great songwriters here now, and there’s a lot of great bands.”
Aside from its musical history, Memphis also occupies a peculiar geographic spot, just at the point where the Rust Belt tucks into the South, and where the Eastern feeling jams up against the beginning of that broad western vibe, just on the other side of the Mississippi River.
“There’s something about those Mississippi towns,” said Chopek, mentioning New Orleans and St. Louis, other cities along the river. “There’s just something in the air.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Stephen Chopek at Foothills Brewery & Tasting Room, 3800 Kimwell Dr., Winston-Salem, on Friday, Oct. 12, at 7 p.m. www.foothillsbrewing.com/tasting-room.