Stephen Chopek // Interview
INTERVIEW BY: Emily May
Memphis singer-songwriter Stephen Chopek has been receiving critical praise for his songs since releasing his debut EP See Through in 2012, having released 3 EPs and a full-length album since then. Influenced by a wide range of artists from The Clash and Dinosaur Jr to The Pogues, Guided By Voices and The Velvet Underground, his music has been described a blend of folk, punk, pop and roots music. Chopek developed a love for the drums in grade school and after college had the opportunity to learn from Billy Martin (of Medeski Martin & Wood), as well as jazz percussionist Leon Parker. It was through Parker that Chopek met Charlie Hunter, thus beginning his career as a session drummer. He has since cut tracks and toured with Hunter, as well as John Mayer and Jessee Malin among others. His fascination with song craft inspired him to start writing and performing his own material, leading him to have a deeper understanding of the creative process. Chopek made the move from Jersey City, NJ to Memphis, TN in 2014 and quickly acclimated to the rich and diverse music scene there. In addition of his solo music career, he works as a drummer in and around Memphis, with the different projects and musical directions helping to keep things fresh. He released his latest album, Begin The Glimmer, on October 12th, with the album showcasing the inspiration that living in Memphis has given him. The album has been described as being reminiscent of Billy Bragg, Superchunk, heavier M. Ward and The Replacements. Chopek recently wrapped up an 18-date tour in support of the new album and has plans to begin work soon on a new project set for release next year. Emily May spoke recently by email with Chopek about the new album, his move to Memphis and what's next for hi. You can stay up-to-date with him, his music and all upcoming tour dates, as well as where to stream and purchase his music via the following links. Check out his DIY video for "Made Of Puzzles", which was recorded with a dashboard back-up camera, below.
Your new album Begin The Glimmer was just released today (October 12th)! What can you tell me about the process of making and recording the album, as well as the inspiration behind the songs? How do you feel that you have grown as a songwriter and musician since you first started out?
The inspiration for Begin the Glimmer came during my move from New Jersey to Tennessee. I had been living in Jersey City for 15 years before relocating to Memphis in 2014. Since I was in the middle of tours and recording sessions, the move took place over the course of a year. During that time is when the ideas for the album came together. The songs were completed after I settled in Memphis.
Since I began a solo career, I’ve grown to be more comfortable in my skin as a songwriter and singer. It’s a constant state of discovery, and I feel as though the journey has just begun.
You are currently touring in support of the album. How has the response been so far to the new songs?
The response to the new music has been great. The songs from Begin the Glimmer are well received at shows, and “Radio Caroline” is a favorite at local radio stations.
What can you tell me about the idea behind your new DIY music video for "Made Of Puzzles"? What prompted you to record the video with a dashboard back up camera?
My overall process is based on making the most out of the least, i.e. less is more. I thrive off the challenge of creating within limits. Regarding visual art, I find great value in repurposing found objects and turning them into something unexpected. The backup camera video concept had been brewing for a while, and found a good fit with the sounds and pace for “Made of Puzzles”.
You moved from your longtime home of Jersey City, NJ to Memphis in 2014. What led to your decision to move and do you feel like you acclimated pretty quickly to living in Memphis? How do you feel that the sense of spontaneity and musical camaraderie in the Memphis music scene influenced your latest album?
My decision to relocate was a matter of the heart. My girlfriend at the time (now wife) moved to Memphis from New York for a job opportunity. The work was going to be for a year, but then extended beyond that. We decided it would be best for us to be together in Tennessee, and it was an excellent decision. Thanks to my friends within the Memphis music community, I was able to establish myself fairly quickly as a new drummer on the scene. The sense of spontaneity and musical camaraderie has helped me to be more confident as a singer and songwriter. There are lots of solo artists in town who play in other peoples’ bands. That environment is conducive to experimentation and collaboration.
Your music is described as a blend of punk, pop, folk and roots music. Who would you count as your musical inspirations growing up, as well as current bands that you feel inspired by? Who are some bands that you are listening to currently and who are some Memphis artists that you feel people should know about?
Growing up, I listened to my older sister’s record collection and my parents radio programs. That lead to a love for both rock music, and standards known as the American Songbook. I gained an appreciation for the art of songwriting, regardless of genre. Eventually, I discovered bands like Dinosaur Jr., The Clash, Guided By Voices, The Replacements; and songwriters like Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, etc.
My current listening playlist on tour includes The Kinks, Beyonce, R.E.M., Kathleen Edwards, The Pogues, La Monte Young, Frank Sinatra, Chuck Berry, The Velvet Underground, Grandpaboy, and Sun Ra.
There are lots of fantastic artists and bands in Memphis right now. I’m reluctant to name a few because I’d be leaving out so many. Off the top of my head are James and The Ultrasounds, John Paul Keith, Motel Mirrors, Marcella & Her Lovers, Lucero, Red Squad, Mark Edgar Stuart, Amy LaVere, NOTS, Alex Greene & the Rolling Head Orchestra, City Champs, Dave Cousar, Tony Manard.
You have been a session drummer for Charlie Hunter, John Mayer, Jesse Malin and several others. What inspired you to step out from behind the drum kit to write and perform your own material and what are some of the lessons you have learned from doing so? I read that you still stay busy playing drums for several Memphis artists. How do you balance your time between family, drumming for other artists and your solo career?
Playing drums with those artists was an amazing education in many ways. When you play with people at that level, inevitably your skills improve as a player, listener, and all around musician.
I was inspired to write songs to develop a form of expression that was not possible for me as a drummer. I’ve always been fascinated with song craft, and exploring that has led to a deeper understanding of the creative process.
I work as a drummer in and around Memphis with some of the artists mentioned above (John Paul Keith, Mike Doughty, Amy LaVere, Tony Manard, Red Squad). I balance my solo pursuits and sideman work by planning in advance, and always keeping my calendar close by. The different directions help me to stay on my toes, and keeps everything fresh. I’m not doing one thing long enough for it to stagnate. An added bonus is that being a drummer helps my songwriting, and being a songwriter helps my drumming.
After you graduated from University, you studied privately with Billy Martin (of Medeski Martin & Wood), as well as with jazz percussionist Leon Parker. You have mentioned that the drums chose you. What was it about the drums that appealed to you growing up and what was it like to learn from Martin and Parker?
I tried various instruments in grade school, and eventually discovered my innate understanding of rhythm and how it applies to the drumset. I felt a natural connection to the instrument from the start, and that feeling has continued to grow through the years.
I was studying with Leon Parker and Billy Martin around the same time, and they both had so much to offer. It was great to study with (and personally get to know) drummers that I was a fan of. The concepts that Billy taught are still finding their way into my playing. Leon was more of a mentor, and it was through him that I met Charlie Hunter. In addition to lessons learned on the drums, I was able to see what life is like for a working musician.
You took a year-long break from drumming in 2008 to take a volunteer position with Americorps in NYC. What led to that that decision and what was that experience like for you? Why did you decide during that time to switch from playing drums to learning the guitar and practicing your vocals?
I was starting to feel burnt out as a musician during the time leading up to my year of service with Americorps in NYC. I felt that it was time for a change, and I needed to step away from the music world (at least for a little while). There were a number of contributing factors, but I realize now that one of the main reasons was lack of a personal creative outlet. I had been dabbling in guitar and vocals prior to then, and decided to commit to learning a new craft. I don’t think I picked up a pair of drum stick for the entire year, and it turned out to have a positive outcome.
I read that your sister is an in-demand violinist based in NYC and that she has worked with Hurray For The Riff Raff, Moby and Father John Misty. Have you ever played or recorded music together or have plans to in the future?
My sister Claudia Chopek is an amazing violinist based in NYC. In addition to those artists you mentioned, she’s also done sessions and tours with Bruce Springsteen, Reigning Sound, Moby, The Great Comet (Broadway Musical), and many others. We’re both on a Norah Jones record called Featuring Norah Jones. The album is a compilation of Norah’s various collaborations. Claudia is on the Ryan Adams track, and I’m on the Charlie Hunter track.
You practice Vipassana meditation daily and have done so since you took a meditation retreat in 2009. What sparked your interest in meditation and how do you feel it benefits you in your daily life?
I first became interested in meditation when I was in grammar school. I tried different techniques throughout high school and college, then learned about Vipassana in 2009. It sounded like something I was ready for, and after some research I scheduled my first 10-day silent retreat in Massachusetts. It was a profound experience, and I’ve been practicing since then. I meditate every day, and go on retreat once a year. Some of the benefits of Vipassana meditation include mindfulness, equanimity, and a heightened sense of focus.
I read that you are vegan! When did you become vegan and what led you to make that choice for yourself? Do you ever find it challenging to eat well and stay healthy on the road?
I went vegan after being vegetarian for five years. I gradually stopped consuming animal products, and found that it worked for me. The decision was based on overall health as well as ethical concerns. Since I made the switch to veganism, I found that my body functions better with a clean, whole foods, plant based diet.
What's next for you? What are your goals going forward?
My main goal is to continue moving forward. I recently set up a home studio, so I’ll be starting a project in November for 2019 release. There are also plenty of ideas for new songs, so stay tuned at stephenchopek.com for all the latest happenings.