By Dan Aloi, Momzine, 2001
Ken Stringfellow explores faith, humanity and the gamut of emotions on his new album, Touched (Manifesto). Producer Mitch Easter helps Stringfellow keep its 11 tracks — “11 hearts for you to consider or ignore” — real and on a human scale, favoring Hammond B-3 and pedal steel over synthesizers.
Stringfellow was recruited by R.E.M. in 1998 to tour and record; he’s also fronted the Orange Humble Band on two albums. But he’s best known for The Posies, the power-pop band he led with partner Jon Auer for over 10 years. Less heavy than most of their Seattle contemporaries, they were beloved anyway for such emotional and hard-hitting songs as “Solar Sister” and “Dream All Day.”
Stringfellow was 19 when The Posies debuted with Failurein 1988; a decade later the band came full circle with its swan song, Success,on the same Seattle indie label, PopLlama. In between were three albums for Geffen — Dear 23 defining them with acoustic strums and harmonies, and Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace adding more electric guitars.
One of the early signings from the major-label raid on Seattle (Geffen released Dear 23 a full year before Nirvana broke), The Posies enjoyed a devoted following and critical acclaim during their run, while commercial success eluded them.
In the three years since disbanding, The Posies have had a flood of archival releases — among them, a rarities-packed box set that quickly sold out its limited edition, an acoustic live album, and a best-of on Geffen. Auer has released two EPs, and Touched is Stringfellow’s second solo album.
He and Auer have continued to work and play together, in Big Star, the Minus 5 and even as The Posies. Big Star fans since their teens, the duo was first enlisted to play with Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens in 1993, for a one-off show later released as Columbia That lineup has done a few shows a year as Big Star ever since, and toured Europe in August.
We caught up with Ken at his Seattle home just after his promotional tour of club shows and in-store performances around the country.
MOMzine: Did The Posies really break up? You and Jon are still out there together on occasion.
Stringfellow: We definitely called it quits and had our going-away party, our wake, whatever. And lo and behold, Jon and I started playing together again. We did release a lot of the tension by calling it quits and not spending all the time together. Also, having a different rhythm section, it’s kind of a Steely Dan thing where Jon and I, it’s our band, and we fill the roles. And it’s been great. Jon joined my first band when he was 13 and I was 14. We just played yesterday, at a private party in California. We’ve talked about recording again next year. It’s purely speculative and I don’t know if it’s going to happen.
MOMzine: Was your major label experience good or bad? Was there any pressure on the band to sound a little heavier on Amazing Disgrace?
Stringfellow: That was who we were. All the stuff we did was honest. I don’t count any experience as bad; it was annoying. I could say I’d learned to handle it better. There was a lack of experience and the strength to be able to pull it all together and get what we want. We were pretty obstinate people, and we were intimidated, too. We did get to make the records, but we made some good records. They promoted them and did a good job up until a certain point. The Amazing Disgrace time I don’t think they did well. A lot of people we’d worked with were no longer at the label.
MOMzine: How do your roles differ in Big Star and in R.E.M.?
Stringfellow: Definitely, my role is a lot more varied in the R.E.M. situation. There’s potential in Big Star — we did record a song a few years ago, and we’ve talked about more, but there hasn’t been much opportunity for that. R.E.M. has been more active making records, and there’s a lot more to show for it. Certainly on stage, we are a live unit that it would be good to represent in the studio; that’s my theory, anyway.
R.E.M. did recruit me and Scott McCaughey and Joey Waronker, when they had just lost one of their founding members. Everyone was really happy they had found three guys they could really trust to be the right way. Everybody just instinctively knew their role. They keep including us in stuff, which is a great honor. Now we’ve been working for three years and we’re friends, and they do make people feel very familial. Even with the relationships with people in their office, there’s a sense that you’re not just a temp worker or something.
MOMzine: The Big Star song you recorded was “Hot Thing.” What ever happened to the tribute album that was meant for? (Big Star, Small World, first announced in 1997).
Stringfellow: God knows, it just never … there was a couple of labels, but kind of bad luck, bad timing, and kind of classic Big Star, now that you think of it. I would really love now to record a record with Alex, Jody and Jon, and I have no idea how it would sound but I would love to try it. The recording experience we did was in one day and it was fun. It was spontaneous.
MOMzine: Is Alex Chilton the difficult guy he’s sometimes made out to be?
Stringfellow: There is a kind of people’s mistrust of Alex and his relationship with his roots. People have a real love of that music, and his kind of ambivalence about it is more of a show. It means more to him than he ever will admit. People kind of want him to be different, but he just is the way he is. He is a fantastic musician. But the lore that Alex Chilton is a drinker and an angry guy — I’ve never seen him drink, and he can be cranky, but who isn’t sometimes? He’s very direct; sometimes it can be harsh. That’s the funny thing; he’s always been quite courteous to Jon and I — not to our faces — he’s mentioned how much he enjoys us and working with us. And that’s come around to us.
MOMzine: How did you hook up with Mitch Easter?
Stringfellow: I’ve definitely been a fan of his work over the years. I had been asked to be the lead singer in this dream band, the Orange Humble Band. We did a couple of records and Mitch did them. He had a real conventional, classic, old school … a nice trained vibe. I could relate to him. He totally got what I was trying to do.
What I was getting into with Mitch, I knew what technology wasn’t available. I knew there wouldn’t be a lot of modern digital sounds or equipment. That was fine with me. I record on ProTools and use synthesizers. I love those things but didn’t need them. A lot of music is science fiction these days, and I like things that are more human.
If making this album has an overarching point, it’s supposed to be nonsurreal and really human. And I guess kind of combating a lot of the surrealness of what’s around, like a TLC video
MOMzine: Is there a single out now?
Stringfellow: In England, they’ve put “Down Like Me” out there. It’s kind of a basic introduction, but it’s a really weird thing.
MOMzine: That song is about a suicide. Is it from personal experience?
Stringfellow: It’s something I just imagined. It’s from a guy who feels bad, he’s been dumped, he is saying “I’m gonna kill myself.” Then the girlfriend who dumps him kills herself and he says he never thought she might have problems, too. It sounds kind of heavy, but it’s more macabre, black humor. That’s why it sounds like a country song.
That’s an extreme example (from the album). But it kind of goes in order — transcendence, catharsis, all these emotions. It definitely wasn’t mapped out. It just kind of came out that way. It starts on a macabre note and ends on its most joyous note.
There’s things for people to get, kind of the hopefulness of it. Like the choice between being paralyzed by fear, bitterness, sorrow … hey, you can turn around right now and do something really inspired.
MOMzine: What other themes are on this record?
Stringfellow: There are definite spiritual references. My cosmology has more to do with how the Beach Boys view God, more than a traditional religion thing. Something made us and we’re all a part of it.
“The Lover’s Hymn” — there’s a song about prayer that’s not gospelly lip service. That may be the boldest thing on the record, going out where I’d never found myself. I’ve been a nihilist at points in my life, and I still have this kind of shyness about appearing hokey but then said, ‘well, fuck it,’ you know?
MOMzine: I missed talking to you last week in New York, when you had an in-store and a club show. How did that go?
Stringfellow: It was a good day. I really couldn’t pick a more emotional time to do music. This music is really emotional, but the people got into it. It was pretty intense, but it was more of a joyous occasion than a sad one.
It’s kind of easy to get quasi-mystical in these times we live in, and I’ve been playing the past week in post-attack New York, all these songs I’d written. There’s all these weird allusions that sounds like I’m singing about what happened. “The arrow winds in two wounds deep.” There’s some images of being burned. And I’m not saying this to be crass. The thing is, to make it all spooky, is that the record was released on September 11th. There’s no greater evidence in my mind that the record takes on a life of its own, apart from the creator, once it reaches the public.
These are human events that could be interpreted as part of the pain and suffering of earthly things, but all of these events strike me as very cosmic. It was definitely meant to be seen by the entire world and to have an impact. Something has to happen to shake people out of the self-centeredness of daily life. I’ve been thinking of this as kind of like a blessing in disguise. I think people have been treating people a lot letter. It’s made me a nicer person so far. It’s made me not flip people off when I’m driving.