By Judith Beeman, 1996
Discoveries: How did you get involved with the Big Star reunion?
Ken Stringfellow: Prolonged begging. It all goes back to when we were making Dear 23, we actually looked at Ardent as a place to record, because we thought oh yeah, Big Star, Replacements, ZZ Top! So we got some literature and the studio was, of course, way too expensive for us to use. But the signature on the letter saying thank you for being interested in our studio was Jody Stephens. So we looked him up and talked to him and found out he was going to be at CMJ when we were there. So we hooked up and hung out with him. He’s a super nice guy. Then when we were on the Replacements tour we didn’t play in Memphis, but we stopped there. We had a day off and went to Ardent and hung out with Jody some more. It was all very cool and amazing. So we stayed in touch with him. When this Big Star show came up I think he kind of put our name in the hat box to draw from. We hassled the people and it just kind of worked out. But you know they really wanted Mike Mills and Paul Westerberg or Mike Mills and Matthew Sweet, or Matthew Sweet and Chris Stamey. That’s who they really wanted – not so much Jody or Alex, but certainly the people putting on the show. They wanted some big names.
Discoveries: As a result of that show, you subsequently did some European dates.
Stringfellow: Originally it was just going to be the one show and everyone was surprised that Alex was even agreeing to do that. Then Zoo Records got involved and wanted to record the show, maybe put it out as a live album. They helped finance Jody and Alex coming out to Seattle to rehearse with us, and getting us all out to Missouri. It was going to be a one shot deal – a once in a lifetime kind of thing. But then, people in Europe, especially in the U.K., really wanted them to go. We were already going to be over there playing. We kind of used each other to get good slots at Reading and other festivals. We played a festival in Holland and we played the Reading festival – Big Star headlined the small stage. We played in London, Leeds and Glasgow. And then we thought that was it, and then suddenly we were playing again. We went to Japan last year and to San Francisco and Chicago. There was some talk of doing some more stuff this spring, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. So maybe it really is the end now. Also last year, we went to Memphis and L.A. and we did the “Tonight Show.”
Discoveries: How was the “Tonight Show?”
Stringfellow: Well, Alex had been on the “Tonight Show” with the Box Tops in 1968 – which happens to be the year I was born – so I’m sure he was feeling kind of old. George McGovern was on when he was on the first time. And this time, Ed Koch was on, so there’s always been a political bent to Alex’s appearances on the show.
Discoveries: Does Alex get involved in any roundtable discussions on these occasions?
Stringfellow: They wouldn’t let him talk, for some reason. I think they were afraid he’d have a foul mouth. I think Alex is definitely a celebrity – he’s just not that famous. But there’s some kind of thing that makes you feel intimidated somehow. Sometimes you’ll ask him about things and he’ll just not even answer. But then sometimes he’ll just start talking to you about personal stuff. So you never know. I think he likes to talk about other things, other than his music. Just like he likes to play other people’s songs, he likes to talk about other people’s music.
Discoveries: I wonder why that is.
Stringfellow: A lot of the time, I guess, he sees himself as an interpreter. Because I think a lot of the artists he admires were interpreters – you know, people like Chet Baker.
Discoveries: To an extent, you and Jon Auer are filling in for Chris Bell in the reunited Big Star. Do you think Chris’ contribution to the band has been overlooked?
Stringfellow: Yeah, even in their time. Jody told me that when Big Star was starting out, it was really Chris’ group that Alex had kind of joined. But, from day one, people really were interested in Alex because he was a celebrity. So that’s probably why Chris quit – he just got fed up with it. Even at the time, he wasn’t getting recognized for his contributions.
And I think, because Alex continued on, people assumed it was Alex doing all that stuff. But I’ve heard that Chris essentially wrote some of the songs on Radio City. I’ve heard that he had something to do with “O My Soul” – at least, parts of it and “Back of a Car” and stuff like that. I mean, who really knows? You know that “You’re really a nice girl….” (from “O My Soul”), that realIy high kind of screamy stuff sounds to me more like Chris than it does Alex. That’s the kind of line he would come up with. Here’s something interesting, the bridge of “Give Me Another Chance” – (sings) “It’s so hard / just to stay alive each day / I really can’t go on this way.” There’s chords in that bridge that are the exact same chords as “I Am the Cosmos,” which is interesting to me. I pointed that out to Alex just for fun and I think he implied that that was lifted by Chris from Alex. But one wonders if maybe it wasn’t the other way around, that Chris’ song just happened to come out later. There are probably a lot of things that they just jammed on or something, that maybe nobody remembers who came up with what.
Discoveries: Jody told me that playing a big show in Memphis last year was a pretty moving experience.
Stringfellow: It was amazing, really. I mean, to think about what I thought of Big Star six years ago, when I first heard them, to actually being there, on their turf – seeing Jody’s family – it’s far out. I don’t even know what to say about it. It’s one of those things, like you’d see on some science fiction program or something – I’m gonna go, travel back in time and I’m gonna hang out with Marie Antoinette or something. You can’t believe you’re, seeing these things up close.
Discoveries: And you’re actually a part of what’s happening.
Stringfellow: And then you end up, like, running France and getting your head chopped off.