By Allie Roxburgh, Comes With A Smile #17, Winter 2004
When I met Ken Stringfellow in early December, he had just flown in from Paris, the first of sixtreen dates on a solo tour in support of his latest release, the seemingly uncharacteristic ‘Soft Commands’. His is a gruelling schedule; these shows sandwiched between legs of a mammoth tour with REM, with whom he has been playing tor the past few years, in addition, he is due to release new material in 2005 both with his on again/off again band The Posies and the reformed Big Star. This is likely to involve yet more touring, although not before the REM machine grinds to a temporary halt in the Summer.
Ken Stringfellow is a very busy man. This interview was conducted in spite of many distractions: a delayed sound-check midway through; some frantic text messaging and other interruptions which often derailed our dialogue. In his web diary, he would refer to “‘an intense promotion schedule” while here in London (indeed he was whisked off to the BBC for a recording session directly alter that evening’s set), but he shows no sign of slowing down, despite (perhaps inspired by) the recent arrival of a daughter, Aden. The foHowinq night he would play Glasgow, then Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Oslo, and on and on… This was just one interview, one gig, before he moved on to the next interview, the next town. There appears to be no end in sight, perhaps he prefers it that way.
To what do you attribute the stylistic shift of ‘Soft Commands’?
Just left to my own thing I will naturally make stuff different, I don’t really have to try. If I’m with a group of people then obviously they are going to influence me. And if it’s something like The Posies, where we all have a say in it, then some stuff will be inspiring to the group and some stuff won’t, so right there, that will start to shape it. Left to my own devices I will just make something like I made. The record is certainly a genuine expression of the kinds of things I am interested in, or was interested in that month or whatever. I think if you’re an interesting person then change just happens. I don’t think you have to try. Maybe some people get stuck in a rut, and maybe that happens to me sometimes. Right now I feel like my interest jumps around a lot, so I don’t feel like I am in a rut. I think my curiosity and my interest in what I’m doing keeps me doing different things… I mean, I have a child now, and I have things that I like. And I’m sure that crosses over a little bit into what I do. So maybe I am in a rut, shit. It feels good to me.
Did you write any of the ‘Soft Commands’ songs with the Posies record in mind, or did they they start out as Ken Stringfellow songs?
It hasn’t failed me, ever, really to just be spontaneous. We started the Posies record, and we didn’t really have anything written, and we got together and every day we would just come up with stuff and, to me, that is more fun…We wrote everything together, the four of us. We basically just showed up, and for two weeks and a couple of days we wrote a song a day in the studio. John and I obviously write the lyrics and stuff like that. So that was really fun to do. For lots of people, if you have time to look at something you might have time to talk yourself out of it, in a way, like, ‘Oh, that’s not good enough’ – but making a record on the fly, and writing stuff together like that, sort of prevents those arguments from coming up. And if you feel good about it, meaning you, the writer, I think that is all the criteria it really needs.
When might the Posies record, and, for that matter, the Big Star record, be coming out?
Whenever it makes sense. It wouldn’t make sense to put [the Posies record] out if we couldn’t tour soon. So sometime around the end of the REM tour I guess. The middle of  at the earliest.
Do you expect to work with REM for the foreseeable future?
Nothing’s permanent, is it? It’s their option to use me whenever they want. So far it’s a great relationship. I don’t know what their future holds, or mine, so it’s impossible to say beyond this moment. I just take it as one thing at a time, and I appreciate that each time could be the last time.
How does playing a supporting role with REM compare with playing your own material?
I suppose, with REM, I feel an obligation to be professional, and I try to give them a consistency… I’ve had to learn what my purpose there is: to give them a base for what they are doing. At the same time, on certain songs I can take the initiative to maybe put some kind of ‘edge’ in there that they might also enjoy. Basically, it’s whatever the thing needs. There are certain bits that need to happen and need to happen right. I guess one can call that ‘pressure’, but basically it’s just a challenge. There’s the piano breakdown on World Leader Pretend, and I’d like to play that right every night and so I learned it and practiced it. And maybe there is a slight feeling of butterflies when that happens, because it is just me, in a way. And that’s sometimes a little nerve-wracking. Obviously playing my own stuff I can push things a bit further, and if I fall on my face I kind of laugh it off. Whereas should it ever happen [in an REM song], or if I do something that is really clunky and ugly, then I would definitely feel pissed off at myself. You participated in the Vote for Change tour with REM. What was that like and what are your lasting impressions of the event? It was pretty remarkable, really. I mean, it was a great idea, and despite the fact that it didn’t yield the results that were hoped for, I think it did help the cause as much as it could be helped. These shows were much bigger than what REM might [normally] play in the States. Every seat was sold and everybody was really into it. Bruce Springsteen is held in such high esteem by his fans. He is a very inspiring figure. I mean, he sort of said the same speech every night, but it was what needed to be said to the audience. It wasn’t really a speech, it was just a presentation – “This is why we are here, this is what I am doing.” And it was succinct but very effective. And everybody who was part of it really felt like it was pushing things to happen in a positive way. Especially because of this kind of co-ordinated bombardment – several different shows of the same size in each state, each night- al! these bands playing simultaneously, at different big cities and it even appeared that George Bush tailored some of his campaign stops around the tour. I mean, they were all swing states, so they were going to campaign there anyway, but he was there the next day every time, and I thought that might be because these shows were having an impact and he wanted to provide a counterpoint, which meant that they were working.
My perspective is weird, y’know, in that I would have been depressed more out of guilt if I hadn’t tried. I mean, I voted and I participated in this event, which helped influence people and, after that, what can you realiy do? One should be philosophical, and from that perspective there is the macro-scale of things and the micro-scale of things, and I was participating in macro-events. But life goes on at the micro-level.
Would you ever consider writing anything that might be described as a protest song?
My response to things isn’t quite as direct. There are a few songs on the Posies record that are perhaps social commentary, on American life, that one can see as critical, but we tend to present ourselves somewhat obliquely. Also, more broadly. There is one song that is kind of amusing on the Posies record, that is definitely… it’s a blues song, really, and you’ll have to check it out… It’s not as atrocious as it sounds!
How do you see your career progressing?
Getting older changes a lot of things. There are really no limits. Strange things have happened. Suddenly, first ten years ago and then five years ago, Tom Jones became very fashionable to young people for about five minutes. Weird stuff happens. I have never been, apart from a few rare instances, a chart musician; somebody competing in that world. That’s never been necessary. There is a whole lot of music going on outside the Top 40, obviously, because that’s forty and there’s, what, a hundred thousand things released a year. So there is a place for everything and you have to pick your battles. I am not rolling over [and giving up]. I just let it happen the way it’s going to happen, and I don’t fight the results. I would never want to think that I should be somewhere other than I am. Because I wouldn’t want to be bitter. That would be terrible. And I’ve done amazing things. I’ve had an amazing set of circumstances that continues to this day. Things will change as I get older. And they change for all of us – not just things in music but obviously, [personal] changes, and I think it’s sort of good to forget about that so that you never have to categorize yourself as being any particular age. You can always look at things from a fresh perspective. But, at the same time, you balance this contradiction of accepting that you’re not the same age as you were twenty years ago or whatever. And not letting that be a big deal, because I don’t think that is a big deal. It’s just life.