Ken Stringfellow – 2002
By Wilko van Iperen, KindaMuzik, 18 April 2002
It turns out that Ken Stringfellow is as much a philsopher as he is a talented musician and songwriter. We dispatched staff writer Wilko van Iperen and photographer Hilde Cielen to share some extra-spicy food with the (former?) Posie. The topics? Travelling on your own, his solo album, religion, the WTO riots in Seattle, and his new favourite alcoholic drink.
Having learned while touring the world with The Posies, REM, and Big Star, Ken Stringfellow immediately decides he wants to have dinner at the Thai restaurant across the street from the Paradiso club in Amsterdam. “Thai food is of a constant quality everywhere.” On Good Friday, Stringfellow is having dinner with KindaMuzik between the soundcheck and the gig later that evening (where – aside from his solo material – songs by The Posies, The Beach Boys, Elvis Costello, and even Led Zep will be played].
Mr. Stringfellow had some time left between all of his pursuits, a week off to be precise. What better to do in seven days then to come over to Europe to do some shows at the places he wasn’t able to hit the last time around, while touring his magnificent album Touched. Released at the end of 2001, Touched confirms Stringfellow’s craftsmanship. It’s a well-balanced album, on which loud guitars are, for a large part – compared with his songs from the Posies era – replaced by piano. The songs breathe a Sixties feel and recall The Beatles every now and then. Stringfellow’s classic pop songs lay in line with that of contemporaries such as the Pernice Brothers and Elliot Smith. Although the songs of Touched will be performed with a full band in the US, Europe gets real solo performances by the ex-Posie. Shortly after the release of Touched, Stringfellow already did some shows in Europe, but he’s back again, still performing the songs on his lonely own. “Last time around… uhm… I wasn’t used to it. It’s getting less so, like also this tour is much faster-paced. Doing these shows is mellower than doing rock band shows. You don’t need a day off to rest or whatever.”
During the Nineties, the Seattle-based band The Posies released a number of critically-acclaimed albums, which nowadays still sound fresh. After ten years of “good time rock and roll”, as the inlay of their last studio album Success says, The Posies went on hiatus. Ever since then, Ken Stringfellow is involved in different kinds of projects. He tours with REM and plays on their last album, does Big Star gigs, produces music, and still he found some time to record Touched. Compared with his earlier work with The Posies or the short-lived follow-up project Saltine (of which some of the songs were re-recorded), Touched sounds different, mellower. “I guess the biggest difference would be just being older. This record is more recent. We did a Posies EP last year, but I don’t know… Maybe, if The Posies were more an onward thing, I’d be doing these songs in that band as well. Although I will say that some of these songs were kind of written, sort of in the studio. I had some pretty rough ideas and really had to work it out while I was recording. I don’t know if The Posies would have had that much ability to let me just take over and realise something for three days, because of the people involved.”
Although Touched is more organ-based than his earlier work, the songs on the album aren’t an exponent of a new musical stage. “I always wrote some songs on piano. Maybe they just didn’t fit with The Posies; maybe The Posies were more focussed on guitar or something. Sometimes these songs [from Touched] I wrote on guitar and just changed them to piano. I can’t really explain the difference and why the change. […] I think, because there’s less guitar stuff on this record, there’s more room for the vocals to be more intimate. So that’s probably where the difference comes in.” While in the past Stringfellow and his fellow Posie Jon Auer both wrote songs, Auer falling off as a co-songwriter didn’t make things harder for Stringfellow. “Jon and me both are creative people. Usually, we had to kind of hold back. We usually had way more songs than space, unless you want to make a 50-song record or whatever, but I have no problem coming up with material.”
On Touched, Stringfellow ponders on God, religion, or salvation in general more than once. In Lovers Hymn, he sings “it’s true / I pray for you / it doesn’t change / that I believe that God’s a He or a She or a What that It wants us to feel / feel what It feels,” and Sparrow mentions “once you have opened your heart to its church…” “I’m not a traditionalist. I don’t think about the bearded Dude; that’s not really my thing, but life seems very purposeful to me. It seems to me like things unfold no matter how complex a relationship is or how obscure. I’ve come to look at life as an unfolding big flower, like everything is… maybe not even a flower, maybe it’s something even more complicated, where things are unfolding, influencing each other… It’s sort of like a machine, but more graceful. An event that happens to someone on one part of the world: If that didn’t happen in that way, then things over here wouldn’t have turned out this way, and it seems to me that wasn’t just an accident, not like a bunch of atoms bouncing off each other randomly. As I have said, even in less spiritual times of my life, I don’t believe in coincidences. There seems to be something purposeful to the nature of the way things unfold in life. It’s so complicated. So that to me just speaks of some kind of intelligence, also that we are all made out of the same stuff. We and this and that [pointing at the dinner plates and a glass] are all made out of the same things. In my mind, it makes us, as we’re connected to everything, everything is connected to itself, and I can’t say why, but there seems to be a ‘why’. It seems purposeful. All the things seem related, and there’s some kind of intelligence behind it, whether that’s the gestalt of everything added together that makes intelligence or there’s yet another factor.”
Later that evening, while on stage, Stringfellow proclaims that “if God is love, then let’s make more God.” That “loving feeling” seems to be another main inspiration, although some of the songs on the album are pretty pessimistic, for example when he sings “that you find yourself alone / no matter who lives in your home.” “That’s just a character, you know. Certainly, people have those feelings. Life is full of self-fulfilling prophecies. If I go out tonight and say, ‘you know, playing this place, the amp sounds a little weird, and there’s gonna be a band playing the same time as me, and I’m kinda playing early. You know this shows really sucks,’ or I could say, ‘I’m playing this really great place, people are coming to see me, I got a good PA…’ The conclusion to draw is it’s not the circumstances; it’s your belief system. You direct the outcomes. […] The album has sort of a… It’s a rough incline from… Actually, the first track [Down Like Me] is a parody of itself. That’s how people are; they really get very negative, and they end up just being… cartoon-ish. People are very pessimistic, it’s almost… You don’t wanna laugh at them, but you almost could, because they try so hard to make it hard on themselves. But by the end [of the album], things are very hopeful. I’d say Here’s To The Future is very hopeful. That love thing, that’s probably true. There’s a lot of positive energy or whatever, positive feelings about yourself; a positive outlet about life is always available. It’s like electricity in this building: Just plug in and you get it. That transformation or whatever is really self-induced, whether you want to connect with the people in your life or the potential people in your life. If you isolate yourself and get all negative, you’re obviously not gonna connect with the love that’s available to you. It’s kind of your choice. And everybody that I know – almost, with a very few exceptions – is on some kind of journey. It seems to be a common theme in people’s lives: starting out with confidence, going to doubt, and regaining confidence.”
After The Posies split up, both songwriters seemed to go different ways, but Jon and Ken got back together to do a worldwide acoustic tour, there were a dozen post-Posies releases, an EP with new material has been put out, and – to top it all – they even did a few full-band gigs in the States… “We had some in Europe too. We played a festival in Spain, we did a tour of Spain, we played London, did the Reading Festival.” Asked if he could stop refusing to answer the question if The Posies still were a unit, Ken says: “There’s no straight answer, right? […] I’ll take it as it comes. I don’t know if we’ll ever play together or not. Maybe we’ll play tomorrow. It really is that casual and based upon what anybody wants. I think, maybe before when we stopped playing in 1998, we kinda felt like we ran out of options. We felt like we didn’t have a choice. Now, I just feel we have a choice all the time; we can do whatever we want, anytime. It’s like smoking [in a high voice]: ‘I can quit any time!'”
The waitress walks in to serve us our food. On the plates, there are orchids. Ken asks if we’re supposed to eat them. “Some people do eat them,” she answers. Ken laughs and replies, “I’m not going to, though.” The extra-spicy vegetarian meal he ordered doesn’t seem to have any effect, at least upon first sight! “Uuuhhh, ooooh, hot! Uuuuhhh… That was a hot one! One moment. Finally some stimuli. […] When the waiters ask, ‘Are you sure?’ when you order extra-spicy food, then you know it’s OK. When they don’t say anything at all, that’s when you’ve gotta be careful.” During the recording sessions of The Posies’ Frosting On The Beater (1993), Ken recalls that producer Don Fleming and the band ordered Thai food from the restaurant opposite the studio. Although the personnel were silent at that particular restaurant, everybody took their food back to the studio. When Fleming had just one bite, without saying anything he picked up the phone, dialled some number, and ordered something else! Stringfellow’s food was still hot with spices, even after he’d put it in the fridge for an hour. When Ken visited Thailand a few years ago, he’d put some extra spices – spices the merchant wouldn’t touch with his bare hands – in his restaurant food, even after the waiters told him not to. He was paralysed for ten minutes. “It was like LSD. The world just dropped back.”
After Ken gets back from his short European tour, he’s immediately going into the studio to mix an album by a band whose name he won’t divulge, and after that he’ll proceed to tour in the States with The Long Winters. “That’s why I need to go back to Seattle, because I’m rehearsing with this band. They’re gonna be playing this material [from Touched]. Actually, I’m gonna play with them as well.” Not a day off… Is Ken Stringfellow a workaholic? “I certainly have been, but it’s getting less and less all the time. I have a lot of energy for what I do and a lot of enthusiasm for what I do. […] Lately, I have been thinking about what life might be like if I didn’t fill every day with something and have some space for things to happen. But it’s always like this: ‘Ooh, I have some time coming up. I’m sure I’ll be free’ and the ‘Oops, it’s already filled.’ Something always comes up. It’s hard for me to say no to opportunities. I get really exited about it. I mean, new challenges are fun.” So, no new material any time soon? “I don’t think I’ll be able to release a record this year. I haven’t recorded anything. I would like to do some recording in the summer. First, I’m gonna see how things go with The Long Winters. I have a few other ideas of people I’d like to play with, but I’ll see who’s available. But, to keep things interesting, I won’t say who.”
Stringfellow isn’t around much in his hometown with this overload of work. “I’ve been more outside of Seattle with a lot of touring and stuff. I don’t see myself as a Seattle guy. Of course I know lots of musicians there. There is lots of good music happening there; I just think of it as a part of a greater world of music as a whole.” Although Stringfellow is almost more on the road than at home, in Seattle he’s not completely ignorant of the things happening there, especially the WTO riots, about which he has a strong opinion. “I don’t think that McDonalds being in Amsterdam is a big conspiracy, but I think it’s ugly. It wouldn’t be here if people didn’t want it to be here. But what I think is more sinister about WTO is that they claim not to be a decision-making body, but they are a decision-making body. When you put all those companies together they can make decisions that are practically governmental. There are a lot of things decided without anyone representing the people. In my mind, that’s the main thing for protest. People were saying, that when the windows of Starbucks and Gap got smashed, that they were just a bunch of hooligans, like opportunists thinking, ‘With all the chaos we can get away with it,’ but that’s the only thing, to kinda scare… It’s come to the point that just sitting there with a sign doesn’t mean a shit. That was the point, that they really felt they had to fight the people organizing that conference, so they couldn’t just ignore it.” At the chance of “the bigger audience” not getting the message, Stringfellow feels smashing windows is an extreme form of protest. “Sometimes you just can’t win with ‘the normal people’. Most people, if they can ignore something that’s rubbing the wrong way, they will at all costs. So the people who took a little more extreme action are taking the risk that they will be misunderstood. I’m a pretty law-abiding person; I believe at least in the social contract of how we all act as individuals. It would be hard to motivate me to smash a window. But, in that case, I understood it. It didn’t frighten me. Anyway, it was just a window. It was more symbolic. They didn’t burn down an entire city block or whatever. Sometimes you gotta take the chance on expressing yourself. In music, the same law applies. People will always misunderstand. There are always people who don’t get it. So what do you do? You gotta just do the way you do it and know that some won’t get it.”
It’s time for a cup of coffee, but we decide to drink some more alcoholic beverages. “Pernod is my new miracle drink, it’s good for singing.” While doing the acoustic tour, Jon and Ken were totally drunk at the end of the show in Utrecht, ending up doing medleys of Madonna, Wham!, and Lenny Kravitz songs. “For one month, every day, we drank two to three bottles of wine, two to three bottles of vodka, a bottle of tequila, and the free stuff we got from the audience.” Surviving the huge quantities of liquor wasn’t a big deal for both Jon and Ken while rocking their acoustic guitars during that tour. “That’s the weird thing. It wasn’t really a problem. There was one day I felt really bad. And I don’t even know what it was. I didn’t have a hangover. One day towards the end of the tour, my body just stopped functioning for twelve hours, I couldn’t move or do anything, but after that I was just fine. […] Once you go on a roll like that, you go into it incrementally. It’s truly astounding what the human body can tolerate, especially if you introduce it gradually. […] That tour was just so much fun! We really liked the idea that, as an acoustic show, it would be very wild. We were just celebrating being alive.”