By Matt Dornan, Comes With A Smile, 2002
Written, to use his own description, ‘as a suicide note’ in 1997, Ken Stringfellow’s first solo record, ‘This Sounds Like Goodbye’ remains a criminally overlooked and misunderstood chapter from one of rock music’s most unique voices. Superficially a lo-fi, experimental mess, closer inspection reveals a harrowing collection of songs, respite found in a clutch of loop-driven instrumentals and Stringfellow’s enviable gift for melody. It’s a formula that has served him well across a dozen years with The Posies, a band that transcends the power-pop genre with which they are associated by virtue of a catalogue of unparalleled, unwavering excellence and diversity since finding their voice with 1990’s Dear 23. Stripped of studio trappings and without his foil, Jon Auer, Stringfellow stepped out with little regard for commercial success with ‘This Sounds Like Goodbye’ instead choosing to present himself unadorned and vulnerable. Three of its songs have since resurfaced, Your Love Won’t Be Denied and Any Sign At All revitalised and book-laden under the short-lived Saltine guise, andHere’s To The Future, the scene-setting opener which reappears as a hopeful coda to the new aIbum, ‘Touched’. In recent solo performances, shunning the Posies oeuvre to concentrate on his new material Stringfellow has revisited his darkest days. A punishing, discordant Your Love Won’t Be Denied delivered during the recent back and thigh-slapping tres-cool celeb fest at London’s Dingwalls (avec Hitchcock, McGaughey, Mills et al) and an uncomfortably enthralling rendition of Too True Upstairs at The Garage among the most affecting performances witnessed by this seasoned gig-goer.
At its best ‘Touched’ reaches heights few attain. Down Like Me, Find Yourself Alone and Reveal Love are among the finest songs Ken Stringfellow has written (and we are talking about the man behind Any Other Way, Please Return It and Solar Sister among countless other Posies classics), while much of what remains sees him venturing into uncharted territory. Uniforms, Fireflies and The Lover’s Hymn, a trio he considers “totally new ground”, all represent a departure from the classic pop/rock idiom of his past, displaying a sense of both lyrical and melodic adventure (“There’s a degree of vulnerability about things I really think about that I’d maybe chickened-out of putting on a record before” he says).
I met with Ken in Notting Hill during a 3-night Posies/solo stint and later at the offices of new UK label home Poptones soon after the release of the new album..
MD: To clarify, is ‘Touched’ the album that was to be released under the Saltine name?
KS: In a way … at the beginning of 2000 I was working on an album with Saltine, I started to record and then I scrapped it all. I didn’t like how it was turning out. I just felt like ‘these aren’t the guys’ y’know? They’re fine but it just wasn’t for me. So I ended up making the record ‘for real’ starting from scratch a little later. I printed up some advance copies with the name Saltine on there, it didn’t occur to me to call it a Ken Stringfellow record. I’d been working with that name [Saltine] for a while with a few different people… which is kinda stupid, in a way, ’cause the name’s not attached to anything.
MD: Did you have reservations about using your own name?
KS: Yeah-of course. It’s not… ‘David Bowie’, it’s not a very catchy name but it’s the name I was born with and I didn’t think of any good pseudonyms y’know? If that sort of thing just happened quite naturally -like I was being called something – that would be fine. But Ken Stringfellow… the weird thing about that name is that people think I made it up anyway! Maybe that’s appropriate… it’s a pseudo-pseudonym.
MD: When you were involved in the Saltine set-up there were still a fair amount of straight-ahead ‘rock’ songs, songs like ‘I owe you’. Nothing of that side of you is represented on ‘Touched’, so had you decided beforehand that this record was going to sit within stylistic guidelines, or did it shape itself?
KS: Some stuff just sounds better with a band. Except in the case of the first Foo Fighters record or something. For me at least it would be silly to be ‘rocking out’ on my own. That’s for a band and also these things have a tendency to… whatever you conceptualise before you go into the making of any record, I think, the record decides how it will be on its own to a great degree, given the circumstances of the players and location and whatnot. In many ways, as it is always, this record sounded how it would sound of its own volition. One of my experiences of making that Saltine record was that the people I was with were a little bit limited …my basic stylistic beef with that situation was that I thought Blake [Wescotts]’s view was too limited. He was into indie-rock and thought that he had it all figured out. He was also into other music as well – he was also into sixties music and he’s significantly younger than I am – but for some reason he decided the parameters that he was limiting himself to were, in my eyes, guitar indie-rock. In his mind there are certain rules to be adhered to, things have to be done a certain way. I just can’t live my life that way. I need to be totally free to do whatever, whenever. Certainly in music. Music is this great opportunity, to be free, to be in an environment without any rules. I realised a lot of the loud, guitar things were not ringing totally true for me. If I was going to make something that reflects the way I wanted to be at that point it would definitely be something on the gentler side. That’s more penetrating at this point, more compelling. I want to draw people in. People use loud music now, I think, all the nu-metal and stuff, to drown out their sorrows as it were. It used to be a loud, anthemic rock song was this great cathartic thing because the culture hadn’t invented that yet and so it was a new thing to apply yourself to and it CAN be uplifting. But THIS is uplifting going in a different direction. At least my intention is for it to be uplifting by drawing you in and taking you through some of the sadder regions of life, and then you emerge on the other side of the car-wash all sparkling.
MD: After one listen and the debut UK live performance of ‘Touched’ the tone of the material appeared to be quite ‘down’ in terms of mood, with some dark lyrical themes. You’re known as a ‘pop guy’ so is this a record to confound expectations?
KS: No, not at all. The weird thing is, I’ve NEVER written very upbeat lyrics. My lyrics have always been kind of on the melancholy side and… I think it’s a weird psycho-acoustic thing. [The Posies] started out a certain way and then we’re stuck with that forever. I think there are things on our first album, ‘Failure’, that are quite cheery, in a way, at least the music is quite ‘sprightly’. And then once that happens people think ‘oh, that’s how it is’ and that we can’t change. There are certain artists who go through a number of different personae; somehow they’re good at letting you know and – given the audience is always a bit slower than the artist, right? – they give them a big enough cue to go ‘hey we’re really different now’ so people can follow it. I haven’t been very good at giving those cues because people think of me in terms that I don’t relate to at all.
MD: I think people are swayed by the music. Maybe they are aware of the words but the meaning is blurred by hooks and the upbeat nature of the music. On this record the melancholy extends to the arrangements…
KS: And yet, a couple of the songs are really quite nakedly… hopeful. Just not nihilistic, like the opposite of nihilism. These songs were written over a long period of time and I think I turned around my whole view of life in that time. It took a couple of years for these songs to be written.
MD: Any major events that inspired this epiphany? The break up of the band I guess.
KS: That and there’s the usual girl stuff. I didn’t live through a case of e-bola or anything but I turned 30, which might have something to do with it. I just started thinking differently. I’m sure I was one of the biggest assholes that ever lived whilst in my twenties. And now, I’m like down into the Top 20 biggest assholes of all time. I’ve definitely calmed down a little bit… but still maintained my edge!
MD: What did you change about yourself to drop down that dubious chart?
KS: I think I’m a bit of a hot-head, just naturally you know? Like, maybe that’s a Scorpio tendency or whatever, but I definitely can be confrontational I guess. I’m not always the most diplomatic person and that can sometimes manifest [itself by my] being very abrupt about something with my opinion or a situation that could be eased out of diplomatically. Sometimes, with maturity or whatever, I just try to think half a second before I speak. I still am happy to give forth my opinion. I also have less to prove. Sometimes, being an insecure younger person you put a little more bravado into your act… but I’m not really that way so much anymore.
MD: You have a knack, as exemplified by Orange Humble Band and songs you’ve covered throughout your career, of making something you didn’t write sound like it’s yours… you convey the meaning as though you wrote the song yourself..
KS: Everything is kind of a weird metaphor or analogy. What you hear when you hear a piece of music is so rarely a direct interpretation of what that person’s thinking. I think way more often that anybody realises it’s like this strange way of saying what’s really going on in a way that’s obfuscated. I really feel that a lot of confessional artists aren’t really THAT confessional. They’re emoting but they’re emoting like it’s coming from somewhere else. In the same way that if you’re dealing with a friend and you say something that didn’t seem like a big deal and they get really pissed off at you? You’re like ‘why did that make them so mad?’ It had nothing to do with what you said, it was just like a catalyst for them to vent a whole bunch of feelings. But it sounds like they’re really pissed off about what you said. I think that’s true of a lot of songwriters. And so, flipping the same coin, I think that you can use a piece of music/lyrics, like in the Orange Humble Band. I didn’t write those songs, I didn’t write those words, but I can go in there and use that tension in myself and find a way to make those words sing, as it were. The emotions had nothing to do with the writer’s intentions, I just dredged up my own stuff. So it’s totally like acting in a way, yet acting has this ring of insincerity about it. The emotions are real, I’m not LYING when I sing those things, but it’s two levels operating at once.
MD: But there’s a difference between the Orange Humble Band’s throwaway pop and an interpretation like ‘Take Care’ on your first solo record. That and ‘Too True’, the emotional high points of that record, yet one you wrote, another you didn’t
KS: High points AND low points!
MD: Were you directing ‘Take Care’ at Jon in light of the break up of the band?
KS: It’s possible. I also think, especially for me and a lot of people who are writing songs, you’re writing and THINK you’re writing about one thing, but again this weird channelling thing — you’re writing about something that’s buried a little deeper and just venting through this other subject. It’s rarely the obvious thing, but that doesn’t matter. You can be writing about this one subject but this bitterness, or whatever, from another part of your life is giving it this little bit more edge, or more venom. [‘This Sounds Like Goodbye’ ] is like a total, like, girlfriend break up thing and it’s actually written as a suicide note in a way… well, in more than a way, it IS suicide note. But I wouldn’t be surprised if things that were going on in my musical life were in there somewhere.
MD: A note from you or a fictionalisation?
KS: That was a fairly dark period of my life [laughs] and I was a little hopeless at that point. When I wrote the song, ‘Here’s To The Future’, that was supposed to be, like, ‘here’s to everyone else’s future’… I didn’t realise that somewhere in my actual soul I was writing a hopeful song but my hopeless mind interpreted it as sarcastic or ironic. Now I think it’s actually quite hopeful and that’s why it appears on the new record — which is much more about transformation and transcendence and those kind of things. So, I kind of envisioned that record as something to play at my own funeral. That’s maudlin almost to the point of being comedic, but… it seemed right at the time
MD: So was it a record that came out soon after you recorded it? You clearly didn’t follow up on its premise and see it through to its logical conclusion. But you still feel it represented a period of your life?
KS: And, you know, the music – regardless of the theme – the musical experience and the format that I was working with, this improvised album or whatever, stands on its own. No one need know the background really.
MD: And ‘Here’s To The Future’ opened ‘This Sounds Like Goodbye’ and closes ‘Touched’. Presumably that was deliberate sequencing?
KS: Yeah. It’s weird, it’s a piece of optimism on the new record but it ends things and it’s rather wistful sounding, you know that lonely sounding keyboard. But it leaves the door open for a sequel, as it were, like in a movie or something. On the first record it’s hopeless and leads into… the rest of the record’s an explanation for how he got there and ends with ‘Take Care’, which is ‘goodbye’… the door’s definitely shut on that one. And yet I made a sequel anyway. It’s like those Alien movies where Sigourney Weaver dies and keeps coming back to do more movies.
MD: ‘Down Like Me’. which opens the new album, continues the theme of suicide. Yet, when you introduce the song live, you outline the story in a very casual, darkly humorous way…is it based on a true story?
KS: No, its not. That song actually is even a little more… there’s humour behind it, though the song isn’t silly or comedic sounding or whatever, but there is a bit of me poking fun at myself. It is a classic country and western story, y’know. People die, which I thought was a good part of the tradition. The story is somebody who loses a girl and is feeling really sorry for himself, wants to kill himself and then the girl actually DOES it. So, not only does he feel like an idiot because she’s beaten him at his own game, like TWICE! But also he feels like an idiot because he realises ‘god, I was feeling so sorry for myself in my role as the victim of a relationship that I didn’t realise the other person…’ I don’t know if you’ve had this experience in a break-up but if someone breaks up with you, you dehumanise them, they’re one shade — that’s all they are, ‘the villain’. It’s all ‘they’re evil and you’re innocent’ and of course that’s all crap – it’s a relationship, it’s built around two people. Most of the time you’ve got to look at your own role as well. And this person realises they weren’t living in reality, that the other person had problems too. Obviously as they took that ultimate step, they are a victim as well. To me that song is also funny, it’s such an extreme situation. And country music is so maudlin it’s funny sometimes.
MD: There are three songs on the album, ‘Uniforms’, ‘Fireflies’ and ‘The Lover’s Hymn’ that are unlike anything you’ve ever recorded before…
KS: Definitely. Those are totally new ground for me. Those three in particular were like the sketchiest, I didn’t really have any lyrics or any idea how the music was going to sound – how to turn these chord progression ideas that didn’t really have verses and choruses into songs. ‘Fireflies’ is just a cycle, there’s no chorus or anything. One of the things that was good about being ‘unprepared’ was that I couldn’t bully it into the same old territory that I’m comfortable with. I had to leave things. Leaving all that space leaves a lot of room, it seems to be surrounded by pregnant pauses and its starkness makes the elements that remain, in my mind, more dramatic. ‘Find Yourself Alone’ could have been a Posies song, it’s more in that direction, y’know a strummed verse, chorus and bridge.
MD: The l.over’s Hymn has the quality of a song that has written itself, like you are following while it leads the way…
KS: There was definitely a point where I was totally groping. I had that music and I started working on some lyrics and melody that was a lot more of a sad, non-love song or something. Two things happened. I, myself, was just tired of writing songs about that subject, just rehashing. It wasn’t going anywhere, totally different melody, y’know? And then, at the same time, Lucy Suzuki, who appears credited on the album with a production inspiration credit… someone I was seeing at the time but also a good friend, she was out there and she was like ‘you gotta reach farther for something at this point. There’s potential there and there’s potential in you to get out of this rut that in your in’ — it wasn’t really a rut but, y’know… ‘reach for something you could never imagine yourself doing.’ So she gets a lot of credit for bullying me into taking this step. I’m really glad she did and what came out… I felt really weird about it. I mean it’s definitely me, I wrote it, but it was such a stretch that I never would have… it has total sincerity but there’s a degree of vulnerability about things I really think about that I’d maybe chickened-out of putting on a record before, and this is so bold for me though I knew that when something like that happens I usually run with it. It was kind of a struggle to write these lyrics, the music was already recorded. To make it all fit… it’s wordy enough – almost like hip-hop lyrics or something – there’s a lot of words in that song and it covers a lot of ground. It is a really weird thing and I don’t know where those things come from but they’re in me somewhere.
MD: It’s well-known that you and Jon write separately but you haven’t included any Posies songs in your solo set. Is that something you’ve made a conscious decision to do, to avoid any pre-solo material?
KS: As of late, yeah, only because in the last year I’ve played so many Posies shows, like all those acoustic shows. In that acoustic tour we must have done 60 or 70 shows, plus the 20 or so full band shows, so I’m just kinda sick of ’em right now. But, if I hadn’t played a Posies show for some time I’m sure there’s a song or two I might pull out now and then. I’m toying with the idea of NOT writing any songs right now, continuing to do some of the things that lead to some of the best things on this record. Meaning I have some pieces of music right now that are undeveloped. I’m thinking of not finishing them and just doing some recording next year and seeing how all the snippets that I’ve assembled… what they can turn into. I’d love to have some new songs to play in some live sets but I may not for a while.
MD: Assuming you have free rein now, with a solo career, do you think that you’ll still succumb to the pressure of fans to perform the ‘key’ Ken Posies songs?
KS: Actually I have no fear of dissatisfying the audience doing what I am now and I’m also not very sentimental about satisfying the audience by playing a certain song. I’d rather challenge them or present them with things that I think [might be] alternatives that they may like. Even in these acoustic Posies shows Jon might encourage me — ‘we really should play ‘Solar Sister’, blah, blah, blah’ — and I’ll be like ‘no, not today, they’re gonna have to hear some other songs today’ — because I can’t play that song every day. I’ll go mad.