By Carsten Wohlfeld, Luna Kafe, 1 December 2002
Carsten: You seem to have joined all your favourite bands over the years…
Ken: “White Flag wasn’t a favorite band of mine growing up, it wasn’t the same as say, R.E.M., it’s more like a modern addition to my life. My knowledge of and involement in White Flag are pretty closely linked. I met Pat in 1992, and it wasn’t that much longer that I was somehow involved, I started playing shows with White Flag in 1995. As for what it means, that’s an interesting idea. I’ve paired down a lot of my activities, once I started doing stuff with R.E.M., that made me have to make some decisions about what I was doing and I cut things down, just doing my stuff, The Posies, production, Minus 5 and R.E.M., with little things here and there. I just couldn’t do as much White Flag – and Chariot and that kind of stuff had to go… just for time reasons. [Note: I think Big Star is just accidentally missing from this list of bands – cw] But I’m gonna keep an open mind on things and you never know where an opportunity is gonna lead you. So when Pat talked about this tour, it just felt appropriate to say: ‘Sure!’ and I had no idea what was going to come of it, or where it was gonna lead.”
Carsten: There seems to be a difference between some of the bands you’re playing in, there’s some who go on tour as sort of a business venture and some who go on tour making no money, just because it’s fun. I guess there’s definitely a difference between staying in five star hotels with a band like R.E.M. and staying at the club, sleeping on a mattress on the floor like tonight?
Ken: “It’s strangely indistinguishable to me! I know that sounds completely ridiculous, but it’s like: ‘Oh, we’re going by private jet – great!…oh, we’re going by car – okay!’ If it was the same every day, I think I’d be very bored with my life, but one of the things that I’ve tried to create for myself is having a lof of different experiences and so this is one kind and R.E.M. are other kinds. I’ve travelled in a lot of circumstances, including just on my own and in a lot of different countries and through various methologies, like ‘to get from here to here, we have to take this ox-driven cart, then go in this canoe and sleep in this hut on the top of the mountain’, and that’s all part of the experience. It’s funny, when we arrived here [at the Sonic Ballroom in Cologne], I could sense a little bit of trepidation on some of our parts: ‘Oh, we’re staying in the club and the club’s kinda, I don’t know, it’s a punk rock place and maybe they have some bad experiences on previous tours, but I just was like: ‘Good, I can go right upstairs after the show, it’s all one-stop-shopping here, great!’ Also, for the Long Winters tour and the Posies acoustic tour in the States it was all about staying in someone’s house, and this is like staying in someone’s house pretty much.”
Carsten: So when and how did you get turned on to WF?
Ken: “When I met Pat for other musical ventures in 1992, he sent me some stuff from his label and some White Flag stuff, so I got my education all at once, as it were. Unfortunately a lot of those vinyl records we’re lost in my big break-up of ’96. So I don’t have my original copy of ‘Wild Kingdom’ for example, it’s kind of a bummer.”
Carsten: The new Minus 5 record is basically a collaboration between Scott and Wilco, but I guess you probably didn’t mind that you only had to do a few overdubs this time around?
Ken: “Oh yeah! It’s Scott’s thing and I’m happy to be involved, and I kinda know that in someway I probably will be involved indefinitely, but whatever Scott needs to do to make his records, I think he should do. On the second Minus 5 record I didn’t play that much… I guess I did in the end… hmm, I think I played bass on a lot of it… oh well…anyway, Scott and I played pretty much everything on the first record and it kinda branched out from there, but again, things for me are less about repeating, it’s not like ‘ah, this is a good thing and I want to do this over and over again’, for me it’s usually: ‘this is a really good thing and I wanna experience this while it’s happening’. And if it happens again, whatever, I’ll cross that bridge. I’ve had the experience of playing all sorts of things on a Minus 5 record, and just coming in and just sprinkling some bits on it and I’m sure there will be other kinds of experiences coming up.”
Carsten: What’s your favorite instrument at the moment?
Ken: “Well, I always consider myself a singer first and foremost, and that is my main instrument, but I love playing bass and I love playing keyboards. But I always come back to the basics usually. The regular acoustic piano… I could play it all day long and write a million songs on that. But I love playing bass, especially on other people’s records, that’s really fun to do. Somehow bass is a simple instrument in appearance but is capable of great complexity. And it’s very crucial to filling out how we have come accustomed to listening to music. It occupies a great space in the tonal range of western music that doesn’t really have a lot else going on. But is it a behind the scenes mover. I remember listening to music when I was a kid, not really knowing what bass was, because music was just music, it was one thing coming out of the speaker, but as time went on and I learned what instruments were, then I could start to seperate things out of a mix when I heard it. Bass has the ability to be very influencial on the physical body, without really announcing itself. It’s subtle that way and I’m definitely a fan of subtlety [pause] …in music, if not in my life.”
Carsten: How did the collaboration with Jill Sobule start?
Ken: “I met Jill at The Bridge School show last year and I didn’t see her play, because of he circumstances of us arriving and playing, but I talked to her for a while and she seemed to be a really cool person, really friendly and she had a really bright energy about her and I gave her a copy of my record and that’s about it. I didn’t get her adress or anything, so I didn’t have any contact with her after that. This summer, somebody – for no reason – gave me her email address… ‘Oh, you should have this address…’. So I thought: ‘Hmmm, that’s a sign!’ Maybe I should write her! So I just wrote: ‘Hey, who’s it going?’ and she wrote right back and said: ‘I’m really glad that you wrote, why don’t you come to New York and do some music with me?’ So we got to talking over the next few weeks and we came up with a plan that was very ambigious in a good way: Come to New York and see what happens! I’ve never done anything like that, usually it’s quite structured: We’re gonna book the studio time, do this and that, blablabla. So we each took a big leap of faith to do stuff together, not knowing if we would even get along or have any common ground or what we would do or what form it would take. So I come to her house and within two minutes we’re playing guitar and writing stuff and it couldn’t have been more natural. Neither she nor I, well, maybe she more than I… we’re songwriters and we write our own stuff and we usually don’t do this kind of collaboration. This thing is pretty rare for me, really rare in fact. I wrote a couple of things with Pat, but I usually don’t do that kind of thing. Not for any particular reason, it just doesn’t come up. And it can be kind of awkward, I attempted to do some stuff with Mary Lou Lord, but there was no way for it to mesh together and I know she has written with other people, but for our thing it just didn’t work in that case. With Jill it was just so natural. It was like: ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve been getting along for several days, writing songs…how funny!’, and then we went and recorded some stuff and we’re gonna work on it some more in December in Seattle.”
Carsten: Judging fromthe recording of the NYC show you two played together it seems that you both have a similiar kind of humor as well….
Ken: “Yeah, our sense of humor [is pretty similiar]. As it turns out, we have a lot of common ground, without having a common background, which I thought was great. And most interestingly, other than with Jon… I’d say that Jill is the second best person I’ve ever sang with in terms of compatibility. There are a lot of great singers that I’ve been associated with, but they are not people I naturally harmonize well with. Jon of course is that way and Jill as well. She was right up there and I thought that is very significant, that’s something that I’d like to utilize – how or what or when or where I don’t know.”
Carsten: Any release planned yet?
Ken: “She did a bunch of recordings with the same people that she made her last albums with, but she expressed that she interested in trying something different and that I just came up at the right time and that she recognized that as a sign somehow. The recordings and writing we did was really just her trying to branch out and do something new and nothing’s finished/mixed yet, but we will finish what we started in Seattle, maybe try to record one more song, but we only have a few days. The hope is that she can come to Seattle again maybe early next year. We have four things that we’ve done, started at least, some of them are almost finished. I think we did two of the new things at the show. There’s also one song that is totally experimental, I have no idea what she’s gonna sing or do with it. Between what she’s doing in Nashville and this stuff – they are all up for grabs on the same record, so I don’t know what will come of it. There’s a chance that none of that stuff will see the light of day, but I don’t think so, it’s pretty strong.”
Ken also added that Jill might feature on some new songs he’s recording around xmas for a release under his own name.