Ken Stringfellow: Ambigious Pop – 2004
by Jennifer Kelly, Splendid Zine, July 2004
Ken Stringfellow has one of the best resumes in pop music. As a founding member of the Posies, with Jon Auer, he resurrected the sweet-sour hooks and joyous energy of power pop. Then, in the early 1990s, he began a long-term partnership with the band that many people credit with inventing power pop, appearing on the live Big Star reunion album and touring with the band sporadically ever since. He’s also worked with REM on Reveal and their upcoming album, and has contributed to the work of a long list of lesser known artists, most recently Michael Cerveris, Jill Sobule and the Senegalese band WaFlash. And, perhaps best of all, he has written, performed and produced three excellent solo albums, each with the kind of eccentric, intelligent and many-sided songs whose impact deepens on repeat listens.
I talked to Ken recently as he was driving from one venue to another on his one-man tour in support of Soft Commands. Like his songs, our conversation was filled with sudden topical leaps, interesting sidelights and the occasional acerbic pause — but it was always interesting. Here’s what Ken had to say about AAA radio, self-pitying singer songwriters, Senegalese Mbalax music and his amazing new album.
Splendid: I love this album. It’s really beautiful — but what does Soft Commands mean?
Ken Stringfellow: It arose out of a kind of joke, really. I was trying to figure out what to name my record, and at some point, we were talking about … we were trying to put the artwork together for it. I was making an observation about my potential for being adult contemporary…which I’m really not, actually. I’ve discovered that I’m far too eccentric for that category.
But inevitably, a discussion of adult contemporary music turns to discussions about Norah Jones. It’s inevitable. And so I was kind of making a reference to her album title, the first one, Come Away With Me. There are a few records like that in the adult contemporary category that are titled with soft commands, and I was like, hey wait a second. Then further exploring the potential of that title… I make generally more gentle music, you know, because I’ve always been of the belief that when you back away on the volume and your message and your attack, you draw people in. For example, when you watch television, the commercials are always louder than the programs, and all that makes you want to do is turn it down and ignore it and tune it out. But something that’s quieter and speaks more softly, you lean in to hear. And music, too, I feel like something that’s kind of taking a gentle path has the potential to command your attention.
Splendid: Yeah, I thought it was an interesting phrase, because it’s two words that don’t go together very often.
Ken Stringfellow: But they do in the computer world. If you google “soft commands”, you’ll get all this computer stuff.
Splendid: Oh yeah? Do you know a lot about computers?
Ken Stringfellow: No.
Splendid: So…am I hearing you correctly that you would like to be adult contemporary?
Ken Stringfellow: Well, not necessarily. I want to be … I would love to be perceived as something enjoyable to all kinds of listeners and that I have things to offer to all kinds of listeners. There’s always something sort of emasculated about the adult contemporary format. It has that image… of being light and mellow. And I am kind of mellow, but I don’t think my music is light in concept. It may be pleasant and gentle…
Splendid: But it’s not as sappy as some of that stuff that’s on the triple A stations.
Ken Stringfellow: No, and not as traditional. I mean, okay, I’m on this tour. I’m a guy playing guitar and then I play piano by myself. My songs have a lot of traditional sounds or elements…they’re kind of vintage sounds, but I’m not a traditional guy. I don’t see myself as that, and I think it’s glaringly obvious. If I were to try to cash in… if that kind of conservatism has any payoff, I’m not getting any. I’m not fitting in, into a conservative or traditional genre.
Splendid: Yeah, but I think that’s what’s great about your album, that it doesn’t really fit into any category. I can’t think of a category that the whole thing would fit into.
Ken Stringfellow: Well, me neither, and I’m ever the optimist, but I recognize that that may make it difficult for people. People organize their lives around categories, like some people only read romance novels and some people only eat meat and potatoes. So I want to present it in a way that they can seem sort of comfortable and safe. That works for some people. And this goes beyond any stereotypes that you could apply to the kind of lifestyle of someone who liked the category.
I like all kinds of music and there’s probably not any kind of style or genre that doesn’t have at least 100 things in it that I really like. But in terms of fashions, I’m always fascinated by the modern version of punk rock, because it’s so conservative in a way. And the kind of person that would be attracted to dressing and maintaining that lifestyle… it’s sort of like a hippie thing, and the hippie thing has gone way beyond its original implications. The punk thing has also gone way beyond its original political implications. If you want to participate in those lifestyles, and this is true for punk people, because I think there’s still a political aspect to punk, but the average suburban white kid who wants to dress punk is not really participating beyond lip service to the political elements of punk rock, most times. Some of the bands do. Some of the listeners do. But you see millions and millions of kids who are into the modern version of punk rock, you know, some of them go to Dartmouth and become corporate lawyers.
Splendid: Hey, take it easy on Dartmouth people, okay? I went there.
(What I meant was that we’re not all conservative jackasses, but it didn’t go over very well. There was a bit of an uncomfortable pause here, before we picked up the thread again.)
Splendid: This is a happy album, isn’t it? It seems like you must have been in a pretty happy place when you wrote these songs.
Ken Stringfellow: I was looking to get there. I saw the potential for a lot of things. And seeing the potential for a lot of things means you still have hope. I’m really not into self-pitying songwriting. I’ve done it, and I think a lot of people go through that stage. But now I just cringe. Like I got this demo from somebody on the tour, and I won’t say where. I don’t want to embarrass them. But, you know, all the songs were like (he sings) “You don’t love me / and you left me / and now you are evil” and it was really self-indulgent. And I thought, god, did I hear it right? It can’t be that bad, can it?
Splendid: But even that can be done well. Like Joy Division, that’s really great and they were pretty mopey.
Ken Stringfellow: Yeah but there’s mopey and then there’s…I’m not super familiar with Joy Division’s catalogue. This is six songs of that… and you know, unfortunately, there’s…I don’t know. I’ve probably been one of those self-pitying, whiny songwriters at one point and I really feel bad about that. I can’t really take back the songs. They’re out there, you know? But I’ve tried to move on.
It’s sort of like anything in your life. When you jump to a conclusion and take a really extreme stance. Like when you split up with someone. And, of course, like later, you can see that there are all these other aspects of it that probably benefited you in the long run, even if the situation didn’t happen by your choice. And thus, for any disaster, any thing…for me, maybe it’s a reflection of the combination OCD and ADD that I suffer from. But I don’t suffer from it in a way that most sufferers suffer. I suffer it in a way that’s not really suffering.
Splendid: I’m not sure what that means.
Ken Stringfellow: Some people really suffer. My afflictions are kind of mild. But, ah, for every thing that happens, I have this kind of chess brain that kicks in and sees every possible outcome of a situation, negative and positive. And it makes every choice kind of…for someone whose mind is really simple, the choices are really simple. You put something sweet on your tongue, and you want people to say nice things about you, and that’s about it. But if you’re more complex, then nothing’s really that clear. That’s what I’ve found. As I go on in life, I feel more certain about the choices I’ve made, but I’m less dogmatic about what I believe. Everything has not just duality but polyality to it. There’s no point to becoming a zealot for any kind of belief, really.
Splendid: So do you feel like you’re more at peace with the decisions you made now than when you were younger? Given this polyality and the fact that everything has implications, are you more comfortable with that idea now?
Ken Stringfellow: Well, yeah, I had no clue when I was younger. The fact that the world unfolds in so many different ways and so many different things happen. For me, I hate to say it, and even some of the most negative things, for me, they do have some usefulness. This is where the conversation gets very heavy and controversial. And it’s easy for me to say, but even something as horrific as September 11th, although it’s produced some negative reactions, it’s caused people to respond to the things that our government has done in a reactionary sense. I don’t believe in those choices, but because the situation is so extreme, it opens up the possibility for people to have a bigger world view and to think of their fellow persons as a little more valuable the day after that than the day before. That’s beyond the intention of the perpetrators, so I’m not going to credit them for doing good, but again, what if that hadn’t happened? Maybe the ugliness and selfishness of our culture would have spun into even more draconian and entrenched form. At least now there’s debate and sort of a polarization of people trying to guide our society to something better..against those people who are, unfortunately, holding the keys
. Splendid: Things like 9/11 are so big that you don’t really understand the impact until years and years later.
Ken Stringfellow: Yeah, definitely, as much as there are 100 different events you can imagine, events that change everything in the past, in history. The thing is that when you think of something like that, there are probably similar events in history that had the same impact, certain battles or invasions or things like that, but what you realize is that they’re really part of a chapter. There might have been some kind of triggering event, but it gets woven into all the things that led up to and came from it. Maybe it’s just one watershed event, but yeah, we’re in the era of our country being the way it is, doing the things it does, under the banner of protecting itself, and, you know, it’s huge. And then you’re saying, okay, well, where’s the good in all that? That would be hard for me to really explain, but I will say that the people that care have more to work with now. These events are so horrific that a very wily and feel-good administration is being exposed for the kind of cold feelings that they really have for their fellow humans.
Splendid: I hope so.
Ken Stringfellow: Yeah. Otherwise they might have gotten away with just sort of leading us around.
Splendid: Right. But you’re not really writing about politics, are you?
Ken Stringfellow: No. Not really. You know, I never thought that I was that good at it. I can talk about humans, but names, dates and places, that kind of debate club stuff, it’s not really my thing.
Splendid: I wanted to ask you about this whole idea of maturity and writing music, because a lot of the songs on this album are written from the perspective of someone who’s married and maybe has a family and is at a certain stage in life, and it’s real different from the rock cliché. Do you feel like there’s a place for music about being in your thirties, or whatever age you are, or is hard to get that kind of music heard?
Ken Stringfellow: Well, I don’t know. People like all kinds of fantasies but they also like things that are real. When I read a book, I’m happy to read about all the minutia about…I’m reading a book now called The Unredeemed Captive. It’s a historical exploration of events that take place in Colonial New England in the 1700s. And, you know, it’s really just this guy who dug up all the letters and documents that exist in the various archives and museums. The event that happened, at the time, was quite horrific. It involved a combined French and Indian raid on a town in Massachusetts that was undertaken under the larger umbrella of a war between France and England. But what it came down to was these people in this tiny town were massacred and a lot of them were taken prisoner and held up in Montreal for years and some of them ended up being kept by the Indians that had taken the prisoner. And at the same time, you…what makes it compelling is all the little details of their lives, all their letters to each other, how they put their lives back together and what they did for their lives, scrabbling out in the woods in Massachusetts. And that’s not projecting some image of some ideal life.
I guess I don’t care if anybody likes it. Maybe that’s what it comes down to. I am embarrassed. I understand some of the reasons behind it. I don’t judge as ludicrous or whatever for having a lifestyle that’s so, kind of, untenable. Like, should a guy spent all his money in ten years and end up no better than before? Because I’ve already seen …everything that happens in the hip hop world with the massive conspicuous consumption, I’ve seen it, because I lived it in the 1980s through, like heavy metal, which has the same vibe. Living in LA and having a huge house and a Ferrari, you know, is like for fucking 12-year-olds. It’s just embarrassing.
Some of these poor guys…the Posies, we did a record next door to Warrant. I became fascinated with them and followed their lifestyle afterwards, and you know, they had to sell their fancy cars and their fancy homes because they were sitting there with $40,000 a month mortgages. It’s just fucking stupid. Living in these houses, like the kind of house Saddam Hussein would build himself, gaudy and massive.
Splendid: Well, easy come, easy go.
Ken Stringfellow: Yeah, well, sure. But it doesn’t really give you very good information. I’m not going to perpetuate that at all. But also I’m not going to write a song about changing my baby’s diaper. There’s nothing new I could say about the subject.
Splendid: I think you’ve written a bunch of songs about long-term relationships, and there aren’t really that many songs about that out there, and it’s always kind of a relief if you’re in that kind of situation, to hear one and say, wow, that’s sort of like my situation, as opposed to, I just met my girlfriend or I just broke up. That kind of song.
Ken Stringfellow: Yeah, but the break-up songs, they have their place, because you need that when you’re there. And when you’re with somebody…a love song is great. I’m absolutely into them. But as far as what to write about when you’re older, you can always write about being older, can’t you? Some of my favorite songs are about that, like “It Was a Very Good Year” and “My Way”, and “My Way”, oddly enough, became a punk anthem for about ten minutes. You know, it’s a song about a guy looking back on the sort of triumphs of his life, in a way that sounds like he’s convincing himself. But, what I alluded to before, what I tend to write about is the ambiguity, the complexity and ambiguity of true freedom. That you have to look at a break-up in its broadest possible terms. You’re going to get there anyway, but you have to be the bigger person and accept someone for what they are and let them teach you something. That tends to be a recurring theme in what I write about.
I think acceptance is a huge thing, learning to accept and be gracious about the behavior of other people, even when their behavior is controversial or maybe not even gracious. I suppose the song “Any Love”, that person is trying to do the impossible, really. She’s in love with the moon. Though that isn’t really literal. She mystifies everyone because she doesn’t judge the situation. She gets judged without being judgmental. If you watch around you, when somebody, a very accepting person — I’m not talking about a victim, that’s a different situation — I’m just saying someone who is granting a greater amount of freedom than most people would. They get vilified. You see it all the time. A lot of people who are really free are vilified, and a lot of people who promote freedom are vilified. It’s a terrifying concept to some people.
Splendid: Yeah, I think you’re right about that, that it threatens a certain kind of person. You know, my favorite song on the album is “For Your Sake”. With all the “if you”s, it seems like its about unconditional love and accepting a person who is all different kinds of things, both positive and negative.
Ken Stringfellow: Yeah, it’s a declaration, that’s for sure — it’s a declaration of unconditional love, and yeah, that’s really…it’s that simple. It’s almost like a very bleak set of vows, or something.
Splendid: It’s a beautiful song. You wrote most of these songs on piano?
Ken Stringfellow: Yeah, for the most part. On many of them, in the studio, on my keyboard. As I would run out of stuff to record, I would be like, oh shit, I’d better write some more. I’d better write something today, while we’re in the studio and recording. That’s how many of the songs were written.
Splendid: Is that how you usually do it, or do you usually prepare more?
Ken Stringfellow: I’m doing it that way more and more, because I like the results. Writing something spontaneous in the studio, it’s so much more alive than this arranged, rehearsed piece of baroque bullshit that I can come up with and labor over for a month. I tend to keep it really free and easy.
The studio to me is a fun place to make music. It’s more fun than making it by myself in my house. I like going to studios. I’m not one of these people that have to prove how good an engineer I can be in my house. I like studios because… it’s an orderly space, and in that orderly space, I can feel comfortable letting go and being disorderly myself. My house is not an orderly space. I don’t feel like I can totally let loose there. It’s frustrating. I have a handler, basically, in the studio. Because if I’m on my own working, I’ll just create such a mess that it’s counterproductive.
Splendid: What do you mean by a mess, too many ideas?
Ken Stringfellow: No, just technically, all my cables get tangled. I just make this huge mess. Even the files on the computer. I’m not thinking right brain at all. I’m thinking left brain. Someone else can come in and provide the right brain stuff. Make sure everything is plugged in right and organized and labeled. So that I can just go completely off the deep end and know that it’s there for me. For this record it was two people — well, three in a way. But I recorded with Jorgen Wall and Kip Beelman.
Splendid: And you recorded these songs all over the world, I see from the liner notes…
Ken Stringfellow: They were written all over the world. I thought that was a little more interesting. Recording is like, whatever; it’s not interesting where that happens. Where someone writes, well, it could be anywhere, but to me it’s more interesting, so I included where I was when I wrote that song.
Splendid: It sounds like you go to a lot of cool places… Paris and Senegal…
Ken Stringfellow: Those are the most exotic ones. I live part time in Paris, and Senegal is a place I’ve gone to make music. It’s full of amazing musicians.
Splendid: What kind of music do they have there?
Ken Stringfellow: Oh, well, all kinds, but the most prevalent music movement of the last 20 years is something called Mbalax, and it’s high energy, polyrhythmic music. It’s like…I don’t know…it’s really revved up, played with bass guitar, keyboards and drums, and then they add percussion on the top. It’s very African, but it’s … people always ask, is it traditional? But it’s no more traditional than Neil Young is. Yeah, Neil Young traces his roots to Appalachia and beyond, musically, but at one point, he made Trans. But all music is traditional, right, so let’s get that out of the way, but Mbalax is fairly modern. Youssou N’Dour is sort of the father of that movement.
The band I worked with, WaFlash, some of their songs have almost a reggae feel. Some of them have a total Mbalax feel. I don’t know. It sounds really African, and that’s all I can really describe. The beat is really fluid. It’s really complex. If you isolate any instrument, what they’re doing is so complex and involved.
Splendid: If you were going to look some of this up, where would you start?
Ken Stringfellow: Well, I did a record that’s only out in Africa, actually, with this band WaFlash. It’s not available outside of Africa yet, but it soon will be, I’d imagine. It’s stuff we did together. A lot of African music is quite folky, you know. A lot of people do some kind of acoustic guitar and singing type thing, but the melodies are really complicated, so even when they strum chords like anybody strums chords, the sound that comes out is really different, not what you’d expect, like where the melody goes and what kinds of rhythm it has. It’s much more complicated. A lot of American type folky music, the notes are kind of long and hypnotic. And in Sengalese music, it’s complicated, you know?
Splendid: Hmmm, it sounds interesting. So, I know there was a little bit of reggae on Soft Commands, but I didn’t hear anything that sounded African to me. Did you incorporate any of that in any of the songs?
Ken Stringfellow: Not really. I don’t have those kinds of skills. The stuff I recorded in Senegal is totally different, and I haven’t figured out what to do with it. There’s quite a lot of stuff recorded…we did five or six songs together. I was hoping I could package it with some of WaFlash’s music and make a little something, I don’t know what…
Splendid: I wanted to go back to this idea of you writing songs on your keyboard while you’re in the studio, and some of them, like “Let Me Do” and “When U Find Someone”, are very lushly orchestrated. How did you go from the demo version of the song to the fully fleshed-out one? And some of the songs you kind of just left as piano as voice.
Ken Stringfellow: Yeah, well, they all pretty much started out the same way. But how far I took it after that just kind of depended. I wanted to make “Known Diamond” just piano and vocal after we had experimented with making it a rock song. We recorded a version that’s really upbeat and sounds almost like, I don’t know how to describe it, like Edison Lighthouse meets Elvis Costello, like that. But it just wasn’t happening, so I said let’s try something completely different, this piano and vocal version, which ended up being a lot heavier and a lot more authentic.
But “When U Find Someone” started out with me playing the piano. And I found something I liked; there’s two verses, a chorus, another verse and a chorus, and it’s time to record. So we had this little drum machine and I played the piano along with that. And then we just started adding shit. There’s a lot of stuff that I felt like adding.
Splendid: Were you thinking about the Beach Boys when you wrote that song?
Ken Stringfellow: Oh, I always think about the Beach Boys. It actually started out more as Phil Spector. And of course, that’s where the Beach Boys, that’s where Brian Wilson got all his production ideas, from Phil Spector. He dissected those records and then he went back and tried to record in the same studio with the same personnel…
Splendid: Wow, that’s kind of obsessive, isn’t it? Umm, and what about “Let Me Do”? It’s got that great soul feel to it… were you thinking Spector there, too?
Ken Stringfellow: That’s got a little more Memphis in it. But it’s kind of… it’s actually more complicated than a Memphis feel. It’s got, like, a weird vibe, like English people trying to record something like Motown music. You know, it’s a hybrid.
Splendid: So I know you’re touring now and the piano is a big part of your album. Are you able to get a piano everywhere? Is that hard?
Ken Stringfellow: No. I play keyboard where a piano is not available. I prefer a piano. It sounds so much better. Many of the clubs have them. Some do not. So if they don’t, I just play a keyboard that sounds like a piano. If that’s the case — it depends on the model, but I can also play some electric piano sounds, stuff like that.
Splendid: Do ever get to a club that supposedly has a piano and it’s so bad as to be unplayable?
Ken Stringfellow: Well, I will say that the piano at Largo in LA is kind of funky, and it’s not really like a fun one. But most places, they take care of their stuff and if you call them ahead, they’ll get it tuned and all that stuff. So I think everything is cool.
Splendid: So is it just you when you tour, you and your guitar?
Ken Stringfellow: Yeah, just me.
Splendid: How is that going? Do you like that?
Ken Stringfellow: It has its benefits and it has its detractions. In general, if I have the audience with me, it’s an intense little show. It’s its own tiny modest thing. It’s not as impressive as having an orchestra or something. And I know there’s something really special about musicians playing together. But at the same time, as I’ve determined, when I’m playing by myself, the audience sort of becomes my band. I need them to make it happen. I need them to be with me, to make it happen.
Splendid: Is it hard to do the more rocking songs like “Don’t Die” when it’s just you?
Ken Stringfellow: Well, they certainly don’t sound the same. I just do them in my own way…you know, it’s a way to hear it in different ways and different contexts. That can be kind of cool. If you like the record or like what I do, I think it could be really cool. At the introduction, it might be hard, but then again, people seem to respond well to it.
Splendid: What are you going to do when you’re finished? Are you going to be working on other projects?
Ken Stringfellow: When the tour’s over, I’m going to go hang out in New York with my family for a couple of weeks and play a Big Star show.
Splendid: How’s that going? You’ve been playing with Big Star for a really long time now.
Ken Stringfellow: Yes, that’s great.
Splendid: How did that happen originally?
Ken Stringfellow: Well, I’m a fan, and also a musician making music out there in the world. And ended up meeting Jody Stephens and he’s a really nice guy and he appreciated what the Posies were trying to do, and he was really into that. It just sort of happened.
Splendid: I have that record you guys did in Memphis…maybe ten years ago.
Ken Stringfellow: Yeah, more than ten years ago. That was the first show we played was recorded and released and it came out as an album. I’m not so much into live albums, so I can’t really say, oh, it’s amazing. But people seem to think it’s cool that we documented that show. I do think we play better now than we did at our first show 11 years ago.
Splendid: I don’t know. There’s just something about it. Really loose and fun, and I really liked that album. What about the Posies, are you doing anything there?
Ken Stringfellow: We made a record. We are making a record. It’s coming along.
Splendid: Oh, and I really liked that Michael Cerveris album you played on.
Ken Stringfellow: Yeah?
Splendid: How’d you get involved in that?
Ken Stringfellow: Well, I’ve known Michael for years, and he just called me up. It was as simple as that. Anybody could have done it, really.
Splendid: It’s a fun album. Anything else you want to talk about, any other projects, before we wrap this up?
Ken Stringfellow: I think that the main things are…the REM record’s coming out this year. I played on that. The Posies record is coming out next year. And that’s really it, as far as records. Everything else I’ve worked on lately is pretty much out and about. Just little tiny things I’ve played on here and there.
Splendid: Well, thanks for talking to me and good luck with everything.
Ken Stringfellow: Absolutely. My pleasure.