by Stevie Chick, Loose Lips Sink Ships #5, early 2005
The location is a shaded, mysterious Turkish restaurant, tucked away in some nook of Soho. Nestled among crimson velvet cushions, Ken Stringfellow cradles an ornate silver teapot and informs the waitress, with a wink, that he’ll be stuffing this in his satchel before he leaves. His mood, beatific. Newly relocated to the Bastille region of Paris, and recently become a parent again, he gazes toward to a hectic 2005, spent touring and promoting a new solo album, a new Big Star album, and a new Posies album, along with his ongoing commitments with REM. It’s a fine thing, you guess, being Ken Stringfellow.
“I moved to Paris for a woman,” he smiles, “Which is, I think, the best reason. How do you think they conned two successive generations of American soldiers to go there? I had this vague feeling, for a while, that the woman I would be with would speak English as a second language. It’s a romantic idea, in one way, but it’s also like planning to have a mail-order bride! But I had this feeling that the scrubbed-clean All American Girl wasn’t my destiny. The lifestyle I lead incorporates ideas and lifestyle/cultural aspects that aren’t typically ‘USA, you know?”
He jokes at one point that he wishes he could say that he moved to Paris in protest at Dubya’s re-election; Ken spent the Autumn touring alongside REM on the Vote For Change tour. He shoots a wry grin. “My 18 year old son didn’t vote. I was like, dude! This could be your life! You’d think the dire consequences might motivate people, but I didn’t even manage to motivate my own son to care about his generation as much as I would hope he would. We did have an influence,” he avers, “But it wasn’t going to be the thing that swung this election. We did all we could.”
Ken’s fine third solo album, Soft Commands, also counts two protest songs amongst its dulcet suite of candied, heart-stirring chamber-pop. ‘Don’t Die’ is, he says, “A two-pronged commentary on my son’s generation, on the one hand urging them to not ‘Xbox out’, to pay attention and care, and on the other hand expressing concern for their welfare, those things they can’t control, like being sent to do Dubya’s dirty work.”
The second is the majestic ‘When U Find Someone’, a deceptively lush Bacharach/Beach Boys hybrid that’s detail-perfect in its heavenly, orchestrated splendour, belying its sardonic content. “It’s a fantastical tale of a love affair between George Bush and Saddam Hussein, inevitable given their many easily-spotted similarities. I think they’d make a wonderful couple. In the song, they end up together, torturing and executing prisoners. They’re both fond of that.”
The arrival of a plate of heavily-spiced sausage prompts scatological tales of food-poisoning among the ranks of REM at a recent stadium gig in Mexico City, which inturn leads to anecdotes from the sessions for the new Big Star album, which Ken and fellow Posie Jon Auer co-wrote along with founder members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens. “I don’t even know how to describe it,” he grins, impishly. “There’s some stuff that sounds very much in the spirit of Big Star, and there’s some stuff that’s truly demented. Alex is twisted, in a wonderful way. Big Star’s most pop moments are never as earnest as they seem; there’s something bizarre and sinister about Alex, but loveable just the same.”
While record sales and column-inches would suggest REM (for whom he’s played various instruments since 1998) and Big Star as Stringfellow’s primary claims for fame, that’s not why he’s featuring in Loose Lips. Chilton’s ‘September Gurls’ might be the apotheosis of that most rarefied and lovely of genres, Power Pop, but I’d swap Big Star’s whole catalogue for any one of Stringfellow’s finest moments: the wracked and desolate ‘Too True’, from his home-made solo debut, This Sounds A Bit Like Goodbye; ‘Reveal Love’, his only single under the aegis Saltine, and as perfect a musing on the angst-laden flux that is love as pop has ever managed; ‘When Mute Tongues Can Speak’, the preciously-slight sigh of catharsis that’s an unlikely highlight of The Posies’ unimpeachably-pop Frosting On The Beater album… There’s no finer a songwriter, a lyricist whose words sing the insights of the vulnerable, weaving such brittle poignancy within melodies of purest sunshine, hooks that pierce the soul. I first stumbled upon him via Frosting On The Beater, which sounded to my tender ears like a nostalgic echo of the end-of-the-seventies radio-pop that anonymously sound tracked my childhood, when choruses and chord-changes seemed to contain so much drama: Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’, Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’, The Motors’ ‘Airport’, Eric Carmen’s ‘All By Myself. The Posies reformed last year, after parting (bar occasional reunion tours) with 1998s Success, owing to what Ken describes as “Just the same old room-mate problems. Jon and I started as kids making music together, and were always together, which denied us a certain perspective, to appreciate what we had.”
They met when Jon was 14 and Ken 13; Jon had just moved back to Ken’s hometown of Bellingham, WA., following a period spent bouncing between his parents since their divorce (Jon’s tempestuous home life would later inform his sublime ‘Suddenly Mary’). Now he was living with Dad, who had built an 8-Track Recording Studio in their basement, years before home-recording became the norm. Hearing about the new kid in town who could “play guitar real well”, Ken invited Jon to join his band. Soon, they’d zip into the basement immediately after High School, to practice and record.
By the time they hit their late teens, they’d honed their songs enough to record a demo with a view tohiring a rhythm section; along the way they dropped the cassette off at their local radio station and, in a twist befitting a bad TV movie on Channel 5, they began playlisting it in heavy rotation.
“We literally had people from EMI calling us,” he laughs, incredulously. “We started selling the tape in record stores, dubbing copies in our basement on a hi-fi, taking the tapes to the store ourselves.” Then local imprint Pop Llama stepped in, to press the album, Failure, on vinyl (they would later release The Posies’ premature swansong Success), and the album became a phenomenon along the Northwest. “Eventually, we found a bassist and drummer, and we signed to a major label, and things kept happening; but they didn’t ever grow at that rate again.”
What followed deserves a feature of its own, and when The Posies return this Summer, that’s exactly what we’ll run. Before then, acquaint yourself with the remainder of The Posies’ catalogue, the John Leckie-produced Dear 23 (which re-imagines the lissom loveliness of The Hollies to a Seattle backdrop), the ubiquitous Frosting (a simply perfect album), the grittier but no less delectable Amazing Disgrace, and Success, a downcast farewell that harbours some of their best songs.
Of the band’s reunion, Ken is sanguine. “We’re reforming because it’s enjoyable! Jon and I should make music together, because it’s a unique relationship in my life, and it’s fun to revisit it. If other people are made happy by that, then it’s a bonus, but I tend to think much more selfishly than that.”
Certainly, there have been dark moments, personal and professional, in the days that passed since Failure’s home-hatched debut, but the future right now seems too bright to dwell on such things. Hindsight’s a gift, and the passage of time can change your perception of a person, an event, even a song, as Ken well knows. His ill-fated second solo album Touched (its release on September 11th 2001 understandably overshadowed by other events) closed with the near-hymnal Here’s To The Future, a song that debuted on his first album, albeit in a much darker form.
“The feeing behind the original version was really cynical,” he remembers. “I wrote it as if I was lying. I didn’t realise how pure that song could be, that it would work as a kind of Hallmark card, light-bound’ statement. I put it the second version on Touched, as evidence of a turnaround in my thinking.”
Even the vaguest scan of the Stringfellow songbook will reveal Ken’s intimate acquaintance with the bitter/sweet dichotomy, dark clouds and silver linings: the keenest emotional wounds dressed with sugary sky-scraping tunes. But right now, it seems a fine thing, being Ken Stringfellow. And who would begrudge him that?