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Ken Stringfellow – Commanding Softly – 2004

By Robert Dunstan, Rip It Up Magazine, October 2004

Ken Stringfellow (of The Posies) has just released a new solo album, Soft Commands, and we spoke to him over the telephone. He was in the twin cities of St Paul, Minneapolis, touring, as he frequently does, as the unofficial fourth member of US rock supergroup R.E.M. after having toured with that band in the past and having also played guitar on their new album, Around The Sun, as well as on some of the band’s more recent offerings.

What’s the deal with St Paul being known as the twin cities?

“Well, it’s two cities – St Paul and Minneapolis which are adjacent,” Ken kindly explained.

I had first heard of the twin cities via Garrison Keelor’s syndicated US radio show, A Prairie Home Companion.

“Yes, that program is still going strong,” Ken declared. “It’s done here in Lindburgh Theatre, I believe, which is said to be haunted.”

Ken managed to squeeze in a quick US tour to promote Soft Commands before hitting the road with R.E.M..

“It came out in July and I did a three-week solo tour which went great,” he said. “But I must say that I’ve been a little disappointed with the sales. But, hey, what can you do?”

Soft Commands is quite a mellow affair.

“I’m not much of a planner, especially when it comes to making music because I just let things happen,” Ken said. “At least that’s the way it is with music I make by myself because my tastes are gentle in that way. I like things to be intense but I wanted to support my vocals by making an album that was somewhere between folk and soul.”

The album features a lot of piano.

“Yeah, I’ve been writing most of my songs on piano lately,” Ken revealed.

The song Don’t Die surfaced in Australia some months ago on Demolition Derby, a compilation album released by Yep Roc.

“That’s the label which released the album in the US,” Ken explained, “but it actually comes out in Australia through Ryko.”

The album also highlights some reggae with You Become The Dawn and its dub which was recorded with Europe’s Gaffa Man.

“Gaffa Man is kinda bubbling under right now but he’s quite an amazing guy,” Ken stated. “As you know, I recorded most of the album in Stockholm which has a bustling reggae scene believe it or not. Among other things Gaffa Man is a very talented reggae organ player – he’s a bit like Jackie Mitoo in that respect – but Gaffa Man also does a solo thing where he has a drum machine, a sampler, a synth and an organ and wears a kind of robot costume. He’s a one-man, electro dub reggae thing. It’s almost techno but it’s quite amazing. It’s very danceable and it’s much more interesting than reggae or techno.

“So he did the Gaffa Man treatment to one of my songs but the dub thing isn’t really a dub of You Become The Dawn because while it was mixed like a dub thing it was really just what he made with me playing bass on it. I played him a musical feel and asked Gaffa Man to add his own thing.”

I didn’t think reggae was all that popular in the US.

“There’s a scene for it, but reggae kinda peaked here [in the US] in the mid-80s,” Ken said. “There’s still a small scene for it, but it’s not that huge anymore.”

How’s it going with R.E.M.?

“Well right now we’re on this Vote For Change tour with Bruce Spingsteen, John Fogarty and Bright Eyes,” Ken said. “There are several swing states in the US that are not traditionally solidly Republican or Democrat but they are important states for the election. So it’s anyone’s game and they can be won, so those states – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Florida – are the ones we are playing.

“So Springsteen, R.E.M., Bright Eyes and John Fogarty play one city while Pearl Jam and Death Cab For Cutie play another city in the same state on the same night with Dixie Chicks and James Taylor in another city and Ben Harper, The Dave Matthews Band and Jurassaic 5 playing in another city all under the banner of Vote For Change.

“It’s quite incredible and it’s showing that many people from all walks of life want change within the executive branch here in the US. And we’re asking people to register to vote.”

Voting in not compulsory in the US.

“Compulsory voting is not the way of the US,” Ken responded. “Americans would bristle at being forced to do something and not voting is also a way of voting. Withholding your vote can seen as making a statement even though it’s quite a cynical way of having your say.”

Ken went on to say that he was quite enjoying Springsteen.

“Yes, he was a bit before my time,” he laughed, “so I’m really enjoying seeing him play. I really had no idea how good he was. It’s been a pleasure getting to know him.”

Ken, who said that The Posies had a new album in the can (“I’m really proud of it,” he enthused.) and the band would be back on the road late next year, was keen to let people know he would be touring Australia next year.

“R.E.M. will finish up their Australian tour in Perth so I’m putting the feelers out to then do an Australia tour.”

Will that be small clubs like last time when you performed at Adelaide’s Crown & Sceptre?

“Oh, I would assume so,” Ken laughed in conclusion.

Ken Stringfellow’s new album, Soft Commands, is out now and he will also tour with R.E.M. next March and April and then embark a solo tour of Australia.