by Bill Holmes, Cosmik Debris, 2000
Not many people are as willingly versatile as Ken Stringfellow. Revered for his work in the under-appreciated Posies, Ken is also a member of the pop supergroup The Orange Humble Band, has his own solo and band (Saltine) projects flying high, tours with R.E.M., gets to be a Big Star, and is relentlessly chased down to participate on and/or produce records with dozens of artists whose names would make your jaw drop in envy. And if the gods of commercial output throw a wrench into his tight schedule, well, Ken tilts that wheel a little and heads over there…
I caught up with Ken just after SXSW; despite a hectic schedule he was gracious and accommodating, and seemed energized about the several projects that will see the light of day in the year 2000. And yes, Posies fans, he had some good news for you.
Cosmik: There’s a whole lot of stuff going on this year for the band – the Geffen “Best Of” set, the live album which has just been released here in the States, and I know there’s a boxed set upcoming…is this a little “too much too late” maybe?
Stringfellow: Oh I don’t know about that. I mean…um…well, I’m surprised that it’s all coming out at once, but there’s actually a whole other thing that will come out later, an acoustic live album as well.
Cosmik: Is that going to be on Popllama?
Stringfellow: No, that will probably be with the Concert Recording Company…so yeah, there’s a whole bunch of stuff coming out. I really don’t have an explanation (laughs) –
Cosmik: Hey, I’m not complaining!
Stringfellow: I’m not complaining either! There seems to be a sustaining interest in the band, and these things are kind of coming up of their own volition.
Cosmik: When you (Posies) first got signed to Popllama, and then signed to Geffen…I mean when I first heard of you, the buzz that I got from everyone was “you gotta hear these guys sing, the harmonies are incredible!” And the songs probably were…well, not softer, but certainly not as hard as the songs that were on the last couple of records, Failure excepted. When you guys rolled out something like “…Fucking Liar”, was anyone (laughs) yelling “Judas!” from the crowd, like at Dylan? It seemed to split the fans a bit; certain people seemed to feel betrayed because you were rocking out too much. I always just saw that as a band having…well, a little more bandwidth, if you will.
Stringfellow: Yeah, well….I guess there are certain kinds of people who do, and certain kinds who don’t, take in their audience’s reaction to what they do. I never felt – none of us ever felt – that how somebody else was going to feel about something really mattered, in terms of what gets written. I always felt that whatever was coming out was coming out, and whatever direction I was going into, if somebody didn’t like it, it was no big deal. So I never really paid any attention to that, or to the reaction of critics.
Cosmik: When you moved to a major label, did it put any constraints on your songwriting, your vehicle for expressing yourself? Did it ever feel, because of the situation, that you had to aim more towards getting something on the radio, even if it only meant changing an arrangement?
Stringfellow: Well, I felt like even if there was a hope from the label that something commercial was going to happen for the band, we can only do what we do, and trying to change something would probably have as much chance for failure as for success, so forget that! I mean we do our stuff, and if it doesn’t fly it doesn’t fly. But if we changed it and it doesn’t fly – well, that’s even worse!
Cosmik: When you first were approached to sign to the major, do you remember what it was that they keyed in on as the reason? Was it the success you were having; your good following? The songs, the live presentation?
Stringfellow: I think it was the songwriting, and I think that’s always been the case. Gary Gersh (ex-label President) heard Failure and liked what he was hearing. He said “you guys are good songwriters now, and you could become great songwriters”. I think he came out to see the band just as a formality. You know, wanting to make sure there was a band, that we could play live, and tour, but I think his main attraction was the songwriting.
Cosmik: I wanted to ask you about the songwriting process. A lot of times people will see songwriting teams, even a classic like Lennon/McCartney, and then later you realize that it was more of a financial arrangement, that people more often than not would write on their own. When you and Jon (Auer) wrote songs, was it a collaborative effort, or would it be a solo effort and the other person would just come in at the end and dust it a little bit?
Stringfellow: Well, it really was more like that, where someone would come in and add his input after something was basically completed, but Jon and I did have an agreement that we were a partnership from day one, so we’d split all rights and everything. We didn’t want to make it into some kind of battle, so we figured that together we’d both get the credit – and the blame – for everything.
Cosmik: You have a lot of outside interests, and even then you were besieged by other bands and collaborators. As the ideas started to form in your head, was there some inclination that “this is a Posies song” versus “this is a Ken tune” or something you’d foresee turning somebody else on to?
Stringfellow: To be honest, I always felt like anything I wrote could have been incorporated into the Posies; the Posies had the versatility to take a number of different things and make them happen. Like “Fall Apart With Me” from the album Success – I didn’t think that would be on the first record, I thought it would be on some future project like Saltine or something. But the band played it, and did it creatively. I think that even the songs I’m writing now could be Posies songs. I think the only problem we had then…the only limitation was that the number of songs that Jon and I were writing were too many for the number of records that were coming out.
Cosmik: I know that you’ve had a lot of success overseas in places like Japan and Spain, and a lot of bands do, frankly. Cotton Mather, a great band that can’t get arrested in their own country, is over there (U.K.) right now playing sellout shows and getting ready to open up for Oasis on tour. Why is it that people outside the United States seem to “get it” more than we do here?
Stringfellow: You know, (laughs) that’s something I’ve often wondered myself! I guess people in Europe, especially, are just a lot more broadminded, that just seems to be the case. There is so much culture that is so readily available, so many kinds of art forms. The average person is brought up in an atmosphere where things are different. I mean, Europe is like a lot of little cultures smashed together in a really small amount of terrain, so if you’re in Germany, you can go to Paris in about an hour, and from Paris to Madrid, where there are all sorts of things there, people coming in from Africa. I mean, you’re very aware that there are all sorts of cultures around you, where in America, there’s a lot of cultural isolation. The societies that comprise the American society are more into being assimilated, where if there is some diversity, it can almost be invisible. Like, if you’re the average white dude like me, living in Seattle, there’s a huge Asian culture here, a huge Latino culture, but if you want to involve yourself in that diversity you have to go find it, it’s not out there wide open. Americans in general, I feel, do not do well at assimilating things that are…they want to find the common denominator, something we can all agree on. Hence we get the bland.
Cosmik: It certainly seems to be the approach of radio.
Stringfellow: Oh, radio and everything; the film world…there are great independent films being made in America, and even innovative mainstream films, but in general the average person is going to try to find the comfort mood every time, y’know?
Cosmik: True. You definitely have to turn over some rocks to get over the fourteen or fifteen “hot things of the moment”. Like your work in the Big Star tours – there’s irony for you. Here’s a band that, much like The Posies, I imagine, had an audience – a loyal audience – but were seemingly largely ignored just because most people never got a chance to hear them. Then years down the road, they’re everybody’s cult band. You know the running joke – if everyone who claims to have been a Big Star fan bought a copy of #1 Record, they would have been a lot bigger than a cult band
Cosmik: When you went out with that unit, how did that affect the Posies? Did it help your band at all? Did it hurt the band a little bit?
Stringfellow: I don’t know about that. I was going to say that as an indie band goes, Big Star was pretty successful, they managed to sell something like fifty thousand records, and I think when they were together they sold about two thousand copies, so things have changed for them.
Cosmik: Oh, I know, I meant comparatively between when they first were out and where they are now. And those numbers back that up.
Stringfellow: Yeah…the thing about Big Star is that they existed at a time when there was no indie culture. The way things are now to the way they were then, I mean…wow. There was no infrastructure, no way for a band to exist outside the major label system. And now that structure is in place, and it’s starting to eclipse the label system, or at least join it in stature. So I don’t think you can really compare that era with the world of today. I mean, with the Internet and websites…if I’m into something really obscure, and I want to find out everything I can, find out about it, and find other people who are into it, I can just go find it on the web nine times out of ten. And I can join a community that links itself through its own means, rather than waiting for one entity like a record label to try and create something or put advertising behind it.
Cosmik: Absolutely. But then you’re talking to someone who had to sell a band’s records out of his car when you were limited to your own Zip code. Now a band can succeed at their own level, and succeed globally, from a computer.
Stringfellow: Yeah, I know. I’ve been managing…I haven’t really done too much in that regard, but what little I have done…I mostly just piggy-back onto the R.E.M. websites and say “hey, this is here, blah-blah-blah; if you like R.E.M. I play with R.E.M. and blah-blah-blah…”, and even that little effort has gotten great response.
Cosmik: A good example might be The Orange Humble Band, which twenty years ago a lot of people would not have had the opportunity to hear or see, and here through these links I’m digging on this band half a world away in Australia.
Stringfellow: True story.
Cosmik: Speaking of which, when the first Orange Humble Band record finally came out, it was already a couple of years old. What’s happening with that project?
Stringfellow: Well, there’s a new record with the band, with me singing, and Daryl Mather writing the songs and playing guitar, and Mitch Easter playing guitar, Jimmy on bass and Jody Stephens on drums. We recorded it at Ardent this time, and it’s very hi-fi; it was supposed to come out this month but they’re picking a single and are mastering the record accordingly, so probably the next month (April).
Cosmik: So who will be putting this one out?
Stringfellow: It’s looking right now like it will be on Half A Cow Records (note: same label as the previous release) and then domestically through Not Lame and other avenues.
Cosmik: That’s great! Now what about your other writing – your liner notes on Alive Before The Iceberg are great, and I still have an article you wrote years ago about the etiquette of crowd surfing in a mosh pit, which was hysterical. Do you remember that one?
Stringfellow: Yeah, yeah, I remember that, I wrote that for The Stranger.
Cosmik: It was very, very good. You’re a very talented writer – are you going to be pursuing other writing opportunities outside the music area?
Stringfellow: Um…it’s been a thought, but it’s never really been something I’ve really called on. I mean music is my first and foremost interest right now. Every once in a while, I’ll write something like the occasional record review. I love doing it, and if the opportunity ever presented itself…I mean, I do everything like here comes the opportunity…I’ll take it. Right now the opportunities that are coming my way are musical, and that’s where my focus is right now. But I wouldn’t rule it out, that’s for sure.
Cosmik: What are you doing right now? What can we expect from you this year between the Saltine project and everything else that’s coming out?
Stringfellow: Well, it’s broken down into a few sections. There’s the R.E.M. thing, I’ll be working on their new record, which should finish up in the spring. Then there’s my own band record, the Saltine thing, and I’ve been doing some recording the last couple of months, but it hasn’t turned out like I wanted, so I have to decide what I want to do there; that’s probably late spring or early summer. There will be a couple of shows associated with that, and then there’s my solo life – at this point I’ll probably just be playing some acoustic dates. Then there are all these records coming out, plus Jon and I played an acoustic show last month (February) and recorded it, so that will be coming out as well. With that, and the Posies live record, I guess we’ll be hitting the road later this year.
Cosmik: As The Posies?
Stringfellow: Just Jon and I, probably we’ll do that the end of summer into fall, and head over to Europe, and then probably down to Australia by December.
Cosmik: Will you be playing at IPO (note: International Pop Overthrow, the Los-Angeles based pop festival) this August?
Stringfellow: No one has called us about that directly. I did get a call about this festival in San Francisco –
Stringfellow: I guess that’s what it is. August? That’s kind of the perfect time for us. I guess it just depends on the type of show we have. Obviously it makes more sense for us to play our own show. I mean, if we have to play twenty minutes and share the stage with twenty other bands I don’t know that we’ll do that. But if we could get to do our own show, or the organizers gave us some sort of a showcase where we could play as part of that week, then we’d probably do it.
Cosmik: You mentioned the live album that’s coming out, and we have a nice Best Of collection out. But now there’s also a boxed set coming?
Stringfellow: True story. Um…that is coming out on Not Lame Records. We’re still mastering it right now, we’re fiddling around with it for a couple of weeks. We should be done with it in April, which means it should be able to come out in June or July. But it’s completely different, it’s massive – it’s four CDs, and it’s all unreleased.
Cosmik: Everything is unreleased?
Stringfellow: There’s maybe two things that were released as B-sides. There’s tons of demos, original versions of songs from our records, and demos of songs that never got done by the band for one reason or another. There’s stuff recorded for the records that never got released, and there’s some very, very interesting live stuff, pulled from everything from our first show through our last show. And a couple of interesting oddball things, too (laughs).
Cosmik: It seems like you have a pretty comfortable relationship bouncing back and forth between the things that you do. You mentioned earlier that you and Jon have a partnership, and obviously you’re working together acoustically. Do you see The Posies now as less of a structured guitar/bass/drums arrangement and more of an open forum for you and Jon to get together under different guises in the future?
Stringfellow: If Jon and I were to do something, that would be the only way it could work, I think. I was thinking about it especially when listening to some of these demos where it’s just guitar and vocals, even if it’s electric guitar and vocals and overdubs. I like a lot of those recordings as much or better than some of our band recordings. It would be cool to do a record like that someday, with Jon. My thought was – and this is down the road, a total conjecture, I haven’t even talked to Jon about this – I have this crazy idea where maybe he would do ten songs and I would do ten songs, and we would play together or we wouldn’t, but we’d record them under the same heading and put it out as a double CD kinda thing…we’d have the freedom to do whatever we wanted to do, and you’d be getting two solo albums, in a way, in one package.
Cosmik: The Posies’ White Album!
Stringfellow: Sort of, yeah! And there would be some cross-over, I’m sure we’d play on some of each others’ stuff, but it would be interesting to do it that way. I’m all for breaking formats…as soon as I get into a situation where I feel I’m limited to be a certain way, where I have to write a certain way, or record a certain way, or perform a certain way, I’m not at all interested in it. I’ve got to be able to express myself, and my expression has to be as fenceless as my musical and personal life is, and that’s got to be incorporated into whatever I do.
Cosmik: It seems like there’s a lot of opportunities presenting themselves to you, and you’re taking advantage of all of them, so that works out great for us as fans. I wish you the best, and appreciate you taking the time to bring us up to date.
Stringfellow: Excellent! Thank you, I appreciate it.