Stamey offers sharp, concise accounts of what makes a particular sound captivating or what gives a particular player his personality.
One of the most underrated music figures of the past several decades, Chris Stamey has had a subtle though indisputable influence on many alternative and indie acts, especially through the first two groundbreaking albums he recorded with his band the dBs. A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories offers us Stamey’s autobiographical reflections on making the transition from growing up in North Carolina to navigating the scuzzy heart of New York City at legendary venues like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. The book details the launch of a long musical career marked by his own work as well as collaborations with Peter Holsapple, opening a studio with R.E.M. producer Scott Litt, playing with Yo La Tengo and finally reuniting with the original lineup of the dBs to put out their first album in decades.
Not all songwriters can write strong prose (even ghostwritten rock memoirs can be miserable), but Stamey is an exception—he has an unassuming style and a steady pace, and he knows how much detail to include to keep the narrative interesting without getting bogged down in minutiae. Throughout the book, Stamey shows himself to be as sensitive and acute a listener of music as he is a songwriter. Whether describing discovering R.E.M., seeing Television play in the early days, working with Chris Bell on the “I Am the Cosmos” single, penning a mini-essay on the band Pylon or recounting his observations of how music was changing around him as he moves the reader through his life, Stamey offers sharp, concise accounts of what makes a particular sound captivating or what gives a particular player his personality.
A great deal of the book’s charm and sweetness derives from how well Stamey remembers not just the famous people he knew and played with, but also the lesser-known or, to many readers, unknown figures who, despite their “minor” status, clearly played as big a role as any in shaping Stamey’s thoughts and feelings about what it means to make and perform music—and not only fellow performers, but mixers, engineers, club owners, promoters and everyone in between.
Unlike most rock memoirs, this is not a book for people interested in debauchery; this is the real deal, a rock memoir for rock nerds. There is a line in the book that sticks with the reader as a kind of artistic credo for Stamey, who writes that a song, for him, was “a script for making a record.” This attention to the album as an organic whole to be crafted and labored over is perhaps the most important gift Stamey imparts through A Spy in the House of Loud. Even music fans who consider themselves more or less luddites about how recording and engineering actually works will find something to enjoy in Stamey’s descriptions of analog tape and multitrack recording.
As for the music he himself has made, Stamey seems both utterly fascinated with it and totally egoless about it. The amazing “Appendix” to the book is an unexpected treat; a listener’s guide to Stamey’s songs, written with the intent to give an insightful peek into how a song is made, not so that you can admire the songwriter more (although there’s that, too), but so you can figure out how to write one of your own. This is only one example of the book’s generosity, and of the warm, broadminded nature of its author.