Ken Stringfellow: An Interview in Seattle – 2000
By Carsten Wohlfeld, Luna Kafe, 2000
The day after the awesome Acoustic Posies “comeback” show at the Showbox in their hometown Seattle, WA, I had the pleasure to join singer/guitarist/songwriter Ken Stringfellow and his girlfriend for dinner at Shea’s Lounge. Just in case you don’t know, apart from being in The Posies, maybe the greatest “lost” band of the 90s, and being busy with his latest project Saltine, Ken worked with gazillions of cool bands like Big Star, LagWagon, R.E.M. or The Orange Humble Band, did a very nice low-key solo record in 1997 (This Sounds Like Goodbye) and also produced bands to many to list here. It also turns out that Ken is one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to and here’s what he had to say on the latest ventures in his long career.
Lu.Ka.: Ken, how’s life at the start of the year 2000?
Ken: Musical things aside, I think the most interesting thing about this time of the world is that a lot of things are becoming very different very fast and it’s quite exhilarating. It’s a great time to be a – person and have the opportunity to change the world in a good way. My life’s totally open and could go on in a lot of different directions and a lot of new things are happening.
Lu.Ka.: As far as the music is concerned, a lot of your old fans – especially in Europe – probably haven’t heard from you in quite a while. I guess it’s been two, maybe even four years since you last appeared “in the spotlight”…
Ken: I did a lot of shows in Germany in 1997 with LagWagon, but I agree: That was such a brief and specified thing. There probably isn’t anything that would connect me to a large number of people in Europe… People who know that I was in The Posies might not even know that I played with LagWagon etc.
Lu.Ka.: You really seem to enjoy that though, playing with a lot of different bands, yet keeping a rather low profile.
Ken: Yeah, that’s definitely something I really, really like. I like variety, doing different things. And I do it all the time, so it must be important. I think that’s one of the greatest things about life in general, there are so many things you can do and I have not been able to find it necessary to just stick with one thing. Well, except for you (Ken turns to his girlfriend, smiling). Your best bet is to do what you wanna be doing and that will give you the best chance to get you where you want to go. The commercial side isn’t that important to me. I can make a living out of it, I can do it full time and provide for myself, but there’s no motivation for me to say: I know if I’m gonna do this I’m gonna make a million dollars. Nothing like that exists.
Lu.Ka.: But if I compare the last Posies album for Geffen, Amazing Disgrace and your solo record, This Sounds Like Goodbye (on Munster in Europe and Hidden Agenda in the States) I come to a different conclusion. At least the Geffen album was there in the stores, ready for people to buy it, the solo record is 10″, coloured vinyl, limited edition – and as much as I adore that, it was very hard to get a-hold of, if you knew that it existed at all.
Ken: That’s kinda how I felt about it. I didn’t want to try to get it licensed anywhere. A friend of mine in Spain wanted to put it out, so he did and then I talked to a friend of mine on the phone, who works at a small label here in the States and he put it out too. That’s as much work as went into it as far as distribution is concerned. It was more of a fun thing. I’ll probably do things in the near future that I’ll try to get licensed in as many places as possible. But that’s the next step.
Lu.Ka.: Do you also enjoy being the sideman rather than being in the limelight? You’ve worked with R.E.M., played guitar for LagWagon, sang in the Orange Humble Band (without writing any of their material) and also produced a number of records, including the excellent last album by Damien Jurado…
Ken: I do like it, actually. Especially in the R.E.M. situation. I think that’s the best possible sideperson-situation I could be in…. I couldn’t do it for a band I didn’t really like. The way that I was incorporated into that was very friendly and very supportive and it was a great feeling. It was also great not to be the front-person in a band, because I could just concentrate on playing. Actually more technically, I could play really far out keyboard stuff, but I couldn’t sing and be a performer and do that at the same time. But all of the things I do are balanced and none of them are taking over or getting underdone. As far as the production thing goes, that’s a whole different level altogether and I really have to like the band to do it, because it is a very involved thing. It’s not so much about not being in the limelight, actually it’s having a whole bunch of responsibilities, which is again a good thing. To go ahead and to handle a bunch of responsibilities and make a good piece of art in the process. I know that pretty much every band I produced has been doomed to financial ruin, but that’s only because they really made a good record. (laughs)
Lu.Ka.: You also sang lead vocals in The Orange Humble Band, a project guitarist and songwriter Darryl Mathers put together in Australia in 1996. How did you get involved in that band?
Ken: That’s a weird story, it’s classic actually. This guy Darryl who writes all the songs, he came into some money and he decided that he was gonna make the record he always wanted to make. And he wrote all these songs but he felt that he really wasn’t a good singer. So he thought it would be much better to get all these musicians he admired to play the music and sing. I had never met him, but he tried to get a hold of me in Seattle through David Meinert and Alex MacLeod, our Managers, and they classically didn’t give me the message (which is classic manager’s behaviour, all managers are kinda like that). Then we went on tour in Australia and I got a fax at my hotel, because apparently all the bands stay at the same hotel, so Darryl figured that if we’d be in town we’d have to be at that hotel. So he faxed me, saying: ‘I’ve been trying to get a-hold of you, I want you to sing on my record, I’ll take you out to breakfast!’ I called him and said: ‘Okay, let’s go to breakfast… and I’m thinking of course: Hey, free breakfast – alright! (laughs). So we went out to breakfast and he said: ‘I love Frosting On the Beater and I think you have a great voice and I’m pretty sure that I’m thinking of the right guy, cause I know there’s two singers, but I think you’re singing this song and this one and this one’. And I said: ‘Yep, these are mine’ and that’s the voice he wanted on the record. The weird thing was: I didn’t know what to make of it. I’m the person that probably would do everything for free, if I didn’t have a little voice telling me, that I gotta feed myself and that I should charge at least a little money for what I’m doing. And then it was a little like that Beatles story, where a promoter calls up Brian Epstein (the Beatles’ manager), offering the band $150,000 for one show, which is more than they ever been paid and Brian Epstein didn’t say anything and was kinda shocked and then the guy say: ‘Okay, $350,000, but that’s my final offer’. It was kinda like that and I thought, well, should I ask this guy for like 100 bucks for something (laughs) and he goes like: ‘Okay – $4,000!’ And I said: ‘Well, can you fly my girlfriend out there, too?’ and he agreed. That was the weirdest part about it, if only he had known that I would’ve done it for next to nothing, just because it was a fun thing to do… He probably shouldn’t read this interview… We did the record in North Carolina at Mitch Easter’s place (who also played guitar and co-produced the album), which I thought was great, because I really like Mitch’s work and his studio is so cool. It’s this big old 19th century farmhouse, with like every guitar and every amp you can imagine in it. It was a fun time! It was strange, because I had to sing another person’s lyrics as if they were mine and as if it was my or our band. But it was cool to concentrate on just the singing, once again one project where I just can be the singer is pretty great.
Lu.Ka.: Do you have the same feeling in R.E.M., playing somebody else’s songs?
Ken: The weird thing about that is, they are so open, nine times out of ten they are really not that attached for it to sound like the record. You go into rehearsal and they say: ‘Let’s play blablabla’ and you play something kinda like the record and you can just tell that they are kinda bored with it. And when you start doing really crazy stuff they think it’s cool. Only in about four of the 50 songs we learned they said: ‘Hey, in this part you really have to play this, cause it’s important to the song.
Lu.Ka.: Were you familiar with all the songs and have you been a big R.E.M. fan before?
Ken: I was a huge R.E.M. fan when I was growing up. They were the first band that wasn’t from the 60s that I really liked. I started playing in bands at age 13 and when I started buying lots of records and I was into the Beatles and stuff. But I lived in a small town, so I didn’t really know what was going on in the rest of the world. I liked the Beach Boys and The Beatles and the only contemporary music I really liked was the Bee Gees. Then I heard Radio Free Europe on that one Seattle radio station that I could barely get in my house in Bellingham [one and a half hours north of Seattle] and I just thought that it was a really great song, but I couldn’t really figure out was it was and I couldn’t get the record in Bellingham. A year later I found a cassette of it in the cut-out section and I fell in love with Murmur and loved Reckoning and Life’s Rich Pageant. The last record I liked was Document and then I moved on to other things. I’d heard Green, but at the time I never listened to Out Of Time or Automatic… or New Adventures In Hi-Fi, but now I think these records are really brilliant. So I hadn’t really heard the hits. I was familiar with Losing My Religion but I hadn’t heard Man On The Moon, only in the supermarket.
Lu.Ka.: I guess you did something similar when you joined Big Star – getting together with a band that you obviously admire(d) a lot.
Ken: Yeah, I conjured all these things, concentrating really hard. All I really want is to transport myself back in time to see a Big Star show, but I didn’t know that it would turn out the way it did… joining the band, which I think is quite a coup. Now I think: How many other bands can I join? I wanna be Malcom Young for a day, that would be my thing!
Lu.Ka.: Having said that, I remember John Lennon once said he’d rather been in Monty Python than in the Beatles. Thinking of your tribute to Grant Hart (in the song of the same name on Amazing Disgrace), would you rather have been in Hüsker Dü than in Big Star?
Ken: Well, both of these bands it would’ve been terrible to be in at the time, because I guess they all had traumatic experiences being involved in these bands, but having said that Jon and I actually got to play with Grant Hart! He came to see us play when we came to Minneapolis and then he was playing this festival there, maybe three or four years ago and he was really a great guy, even though everybody told us that he’s usually a complete asshole to anyone that he thinks is a fan of his, because he’s really bitter. But he was really nice to us and when he played that festival, we were like: ‘What songs are you gonna play?’ and he was like: ‘I’m gonna play a couple of new things and blabla” So we asked him if he could play Green Eyes and stuff. Typical fan requests… Anything that normally I think the guy would’ve just said: ‘Fuck you’, but for some reason he replied: ‘Yeah, but it sounds better with bass and drums.’ And Jon and I just looked at each other… And so he asked us to name five songs that we could play and he said he’d play guitar and sing them!
Lu.Ka.: So what can we expect from you in the not-too-distant future?
Ken: I’ve been working on this record with my new band Saltine (who released a very fine 7″ single, Reveal Love, on Casa Recordings late last year), but I’m kinda debating what to do with it right now, trying to decide if it’s really where I want it to be . I stopped working on it while I decide what to do next. I’ve been working on it at my studio and my studio has its limitations and I don’t know exactly where it’s at right now, so I’m kinda taking a break for some more perspective. Meanwhile I’m gonna go on tour in Australia, play some songs with the guy from The Orange Humble Band (who release another Australia-only album, Humblin’ Across America this month on Nic Dalton’s Half A Cow label) and that’ll be a very good time to do something different and be really far away. We also have a few shows with Saltine in Texas and in Seattle, I’ll do some production work in April and then after that some time in the spring, R.E.M. are recording and I’m supposed to participate… hopefully I’m not blowing some kinda secret here right now…
Lu.Ka.: How does last night’s Posies acoustic “comeback” show fit into all this?
Ken: I don’t know. Jon is the first I played music with and longer than anyone. We’ve known each other for like 16 years I think and there’s just so much going on between us, that even if we take a year off or two, it’s still a very deep connection that has manifested itself in the music. That is the easiest way to communicate for us. It truly is effortless for us to sing together and blend our voices. That’s one of my favorite ways to play music, to play acoustic with him. Playing in the Posies as a rock band was fun and we did a lot of good shows together but the best part of our musical endeavours were always when we got to play a couple of acoustic songs together. That always felt the most direct.
Lu.Ka.: Do you find it difficult sometimes to work on your own now, especially when it comes to the singing and the harmonies?
Ken: Yeah, it does. You have to do something very different. There’s nobody I’ve ever met that could sing with me the same way and I can’t imagine there would be.
Lu.Ka.: Until no it seemed that the Posies were definitely history, but now you mentioned the possibility of an acoustic tour this summer, possibly even in Europe and there has been the recent live album Alive Before The Iceberg and there’s a Posies Best Of album, Dream All Day, coming out next month, too.
Ken: If I ever finish it, there’s also a Box Set of outtakes, rarities and live things, four CDs, coming out on a little label here in the States. We haven’t put it together yet. We’ve picked all the songs, but we haven’t mastered it yet. That’ll happen next month so I imagine it couldn’t be out till May at the earliest. We did record the show last night, too. If it sounds good, we’ll put that out as well!
Lu.Ka.: Thanks so much for the interview, Ken!