Ken Stringfellow – Jukebox Pop-Quiz! – 2001
By Carsten Wohlfeld, Luna Kafe, 2001
Ken Stringfellow, busy travelling the world playing live with The Posies, R.E.M., Big Star and The Minus 5, released one of the most underrated albums of the year 2001: His second solo album Touched, out on Poptones in Europe and Manifesto in the US. It’s probably the best post-indie rock album all year – it has the unreal soulfulness of Spiritualized, the magic and honesty of Mercury Rev and the earthy soul feel of The Afghan Whigs. It’s probably the most “real” album Ken has ever put out and the best part about it is that it sounds unlike anything he has ever done before! The day before the album launch concert at The Borderline in London, England, Ken spent a day in Cologne, Germany, answering all those important questions we journalists usually come up with.
So at 9.30am, Ken sat down with me to test his, well, musical background knowledge if you will. I played him a number of tracks without telling them what they were and he had to figure them out. First though, here’s the disclaimer: Ken told me straight away that he would be doing too well with this sort of thing. “I used to be very categorical. But I feel that being too categorical, I wouldn’t be able to do unpredictable things”, he explained. “Some people are very encyclopaedic, like Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, and it works for them and they are still not predictable. Peter has like 25,000 records, Scott probably has at least 10,000, but there isn’t a single record that they can’t tell you something about. You can pull out any record at random and hide it from them… ‘Okay, the name of this record is: blah, blah, blah.’ And Peter goes: ‘Oh yeah, that’s Otis Redding, produced by blah, blah, blah, here’s all the songs, here’s who played on it’…, they can do that and that’s really amazing. I, however, can not. I used to be more like that, but I erased a lot of that information, because it just makes things a little more free for me. This is just how it works for me personally and this is no reflection of anybody else and how they think. It’s whatever works for you. Jon [Auer] for example is more encyclopaedic about things than I am, although more about maybe movies than music I suppose. I kind of subscribe to another theory. When I listen to a record I just enjoy it in that time and when I put it away it’s kind of gone until I listen to it again. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t mean something at the time. I just don’t put that stuff on the hard drive [in my head], I try to keep all that space free, so things can grow in there. I guess I maybe need more room in there than other people (laughs).”
While other people would have used this to get out of this “blind date”, Ken insisted to give it a try and actually fared better than some of the other contestants before him.
Velvet Crush: “Why Not Your Baby” (Teenage Symphonies To God, Creation, 1994)
While usually Velvet Crush’s sound is not a million miles away from what The Posies did in their earlier days, this is kind of an exception, a Mitch Easter produced cover version of a song written by erstwhile Byrds member Gene Clark.
Ken (after a couple of lines): “Velvet Crush! Doing “Why Not Your Baby”… so I got that far! (laughs)”
Carsten: Yes, that’s right. It’s a Mitch Easter production, who obviously produced Touched as well, that’s why I picked it. And I believe he also plays the pedal steel guitar on this song…
Ken: “Yeah, Mitch is not playing pedal steel on my record though, but he owns one, made by this factory called Emmons. At first I was trying to hire Ben Keith [legendary Neil Young sideman and producer], but I found out that a) he was on tour and b) it was gonna cost A LOT of money. So I wanted to get somebody who’s a totally legit, southern country guy. So Mitch called the factory and said: ‘Do you have someone who’s kind of an endorsed player?’ And they said: ‘Sorta. We know this guy who’s looking to do stuff and at least from what you’re telling us, he’s the guy you want.’ So we hired this guy, Ron Preston I believe is his name and he was totally the real deal. I was hoping he’d be a real old guy, and he wasn’t but that’s okay. He was probably like 40 and he played amazing stuff. I wanted somebody who wouldn’t have any idea what kinda music I play, and he was kinda confused by the song [“Down Like Me”]. So he picked out the chord progression, he had that all down, but it wasn’t rock and it wasn’t country and he thought that was weird. He liked it, though. That’s exactly the kind of juxtaposition that I wanted.”
Readymade: “D-Major Day” (Snapshot Poetry, Tam Tam/BMG, 1999)
An excellent band from Wiesbaden, Germany, who’s been known to say nice things about Ken and the Posies: They kinda have the American Alternative vibe and use some nice Beach Boys harmonies on this song. The question is, would Ken see the connection between The Posies and Readymade?
Ken: “To me, melodically and tempo-wise it sounded like Matthew Sweet, that’s the first thing I thought of when the singing started. It definitely had that vibe and when the riff started I thought it was a cover of “Inbetween Days” [by The Cure] or something like that. But obviously it wasn’t.”
Swervedriver: “Duel” (Mezcal Head, Creation, 1993)
Legendary British band, vital part of the early 90s shoegazing movement alongside bands like Ride or Slowdive. Jon Auer recently covered a song from their 1998 album 99th Dream for his cover mini-album 6 ½.
Ken: “I’m not gonna get any of these, I know!”
Carsten: Here’s a hint: Jon covered one of their songs.
Ken: “Oh, is it GBV [Guided By Voices]? Ah, it’s Swervedriver, it’s hard to tell with these little speakers. I like them, but Jon’s a lot deeper into them. There’s a lot of bands where I have listened to their music and I know that when I heard it I went like: ‘Oh yeah, I like that, that’s cool music’ or whatever, but there are other bands where I listened to their records over and over again and maybe more in detail. I’d say Jon would be more up on that front on Swervedriver. I like them, they played an amazing show in Seattle a few years ago. It was late in the game, maybe 1997?”
Built To Spill: “Girl” (The Normal Years, K Records, 1995)
Probably the best band to come out of the US Northwest in recent times. Now signed to a major label, this was one of their early singles, a Doug Martsch solo rendition with a great over-the-top guitar solo.
Ken: “I know this song! (pause) I’ll be really embarrassed when you tell me what this is…”
Carsten: Here’s a clue: It’s a single B-side that later turned up on a compilation. The band used to be on K and are now signed to Warner Bros.
Ken: “Ahhh, right! You’re talking about Built To Spill, right? I am really bad with this kind of stuff.”
Pernice Brothers: “Clear Spot” (Overcome By Happiness, Rykodisc, 1998)
Ex-Scud Mountain Boy Joe Pernice goes pop and delivers one of the best mixes of Burt Bacharach, Big Star and Elvis Costello ever. They also toured the US with The Posies this summer.
Ken: (after about 5 seconds): “Wow. Hi Joe! Luckily his voice I can tell anywhere.”
Carsten: You were mentioned on the sleeve of the Chappaquiddick Skyline album [a Joe Pernice side-project] for actually NOT appearing on the album…
Ken: “We try to do stuff together in the studio and it just never works out. He sent me a tape, but I was always working, always on tour and I just couldn’t come to the studio and do it at that time.”
The Bee Gees: “I Can’t See Nobody” (Bee Gees First, Polydor 1967)
A more or less obvious influence for Ken, who’s covered another track from this album a few years ago. Ken may have started out in the music biz pretty young, but at age 52, the two Gibb twins look back at 46 (!) years in the biz.
Ken (immediately): “Bee Gees… excellent!”
Carsten: You once told me that you listened to the Bee Gees a lot when you first started out listening to music. That was their later stuff though, I suppose.
Ken: “Yeah, when I started buying records it was like 1979. Spirits Having Flown was one of the first albums I bought. I didn’t know about their earlier stuff for a while, but I did get into it. I had this older step-brother and he moved or something and he gave me a ton of records, among them was Cucumber Castle…”
Carsten: …which I’m sure not many people would call their masterpiece…
Ken: “I don’t know, all their albums are really interesting. Even the ones that are kinda thought of as not being really good. Those guys have more talent than is credited to them. The early ones are amazing, like Horizontal and I really like Odessa… I just like them and I really like the later stuff, too. Actually… I don’t like the production of their modern stuff, but they still sing very well. I just saw them play in L.A. a couple of months ago. It was actually awesome. They went through all eras of Bee Gees and they did “Massachusetts” which totally gave me a boner! I was into it!”
Carsten: That’s a song you do with the Minus 5, right?
Ken: “Yeah, all the time!”
Billy Bragg: “Walk Away Renee” (Reaching To The Converted, Cooking Vinyl, 1999)
Arguably one of the best and funniest cover versions ever recorded. Johnny Marr of The Smiths plays the famous melody of the Four Tops song in the background and Billy tells this hilarious, but sad story about his ex-girlfriend on top of this, without even having one line from the original song in it.
Ken (listening very closely, without having a clue what this is): “It sounded like Billy Bragg, but…”
Carsten: You actually demoed this song a few years ago, I believe! It’s “Walk Away Renee” – at least the guitar part. It’s the original b-side to “Levi Stubb’s Tears” and is now also on a compilation of rare stuff.
Ken: “Aww, I didn’t even think about that! How funny! The guitar was just kind of there, but I wasn’t paying attention to it, I just listened to the voice. That’s so funny… we definitely did some Billy Bragg tunes for the first Posies acoustic shows, “Greetings To The New Brunette” and “St. Swithin’s Day”. Both excellent songs.”
The Flamin’ Groovies: “Shake Some Action” (Shake Some Action, Phillips, 1976)
Amazing – nowadays somewhat underrated – Rock’N’Roll band from San Francisco. This – together with “You Toe Me Down” from the same album – is probably their most famous song.
Ken (after a split-second): “This one I know, that’s a bit iconic! A lot of bands have covered this song.”
Carsten:: Did the Posies ever play any of their songs?
Ken: “No. We used to play with this band from Portland, called The Dharma Bums, a lot and they did a cover of this song, so it would have been a bit redundant if we would’ve tried it as well.”
Peter Schilling: “Major Tom” (Fehler Im System, Atlantic, 1983)
The German original of what was to become his only world-wide hit. A prime example for what used to be called “German New Wave” [Neue Deutsche Welle]. Included here because Ken attempted to cover it in one of those infamous Posies cover medleys.
Ken (during the synth intro): “Is this the Fixx?”
Carsten: Here’s a hint: You did this song in Brussels last year.
Ken (proving once again that he’s got photographic memory): “Oh, Peter Schilling! I haven’t heard the beginning of this song in almost 20 years! But that’s one of those songs that are just in my brain, probably because I saw it on MTV a million times. Any of those things we play in those [Posies] medleys has to be stuff that’s already in your brain, usually that’s been absorbed all in a similar period of time… Oh, there are more words in the [German] chorus, that’s harder to sing!”
The Supremes: “Someday We’ll Be Together” (Greatest Hits Volume 3, Motown, 1969)
Probably still the best all-female soul trio of all time, despite the fact that TLC now have sold more albums. This is one of their last songs with Diana Ross as their lead singer, and probably one of their best, too!
Carsten: When you think about soul music, is it the Motown stuff or more the Memphis stuff that comes to mind?
Ken (after singing along immediately): “A bit of both… The Motown stuff is more produced, but it’s SO genius that way. Something like “Tears Of A Clown” [by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles], that’s a highpoint in western contemporary art. It’s so elaborate and so perfect. Motown, after having their first few hits, had a ton of money and they had the most high-tech recording environment imaginable at the time, like the first studio with a 16-track, blah blah blah. The Memphis stuff always impresses me, because that was recorded on way more primitive stuff and it sounds so real. Especially Al Green, Willie Mitchell, that kind of thing. It’s not suffering because of the recording circumstances. The way Mitch [Easter] recorded the song “Lover’s Hymn” [one of the many highlights on Touched] was supposed to be straight out of that Al Green thing. That was a real good show on Mitch’s part. And you know of course that the Stax Studio recording board is in Seattle and I certainly have recorded through that a number of times.”
Air: “Sexy Boy” (Moon Safari, Source, 1997)
French Electro-Pop sensation that unlike many other like-minded bands actually is pretty damn hot live as well. Interestingly, Indierock luminary Jason Falkner (ex-Jellyfish, ex-The Grays) has now joined the Air touring line-up, just as Ken joined the “R.E.M. Sextet”.
Ken (after about 20 seconds): “Oh yeah, it took me a second! I saw these guys in Seattle recently. They played at Aerospace, which I thought was kinda funny.”
Carsten: What about Jason joining them?
Ken: “I think it’s a little more even with those guys. In my mind, R.E.M. doesn’t need me to make a record, they can make one without me, Air is kinda relying on these [extra] people. Not that the guys in Air aren’t talented, but it’s more symbiotic. Well, with R.E.M. it’s very symbiotic, too, but the special guest billing is a little bigger with Air.”
Carsten: I for one was a little disappointed with Air’s second proper album. But R.E.M. had some trouble with their sophomore record as well, for example.
Ken: “Well, one could argue, that Reckoning is a more simplified version of Murmur, but it has very good songs AND they put it out like the next year. They went right through it. With Air it’s like this: Here’s this iconic record and three years later here’s another one, that kind of makes everything a bit overblown in a way.”
Maria McKee: “I Can’t Make It Alone” (You Gotta Sin To Get Saved, Geffen, 1993)
Probably the best track from the last Maria McKee album that didn’t sink like a stone. Somewhat surprisingly Ken & Jon sing back-up vocals on another song of the album.
Ken (looking lost): “?!?”
Carsten: Here’s a clue: You actually appear on one of the other track on this album…
Ken (still looking lost): “I’m on the verge of finding out who that is but you just gotta tell me.”
Carsten: Maria McKee!
Ken: “Oh! That’s who it is! Yeah, Jon and I… uh, it’s just a ridiculous thing… originally we sang on two of the songs of that record and did really great parts. And I don’t know why, but she freaked out later and… well, she’s a freak, man, she’s a real freak… I wouldn’t say she’s the most pleasant person I’ve ever come across. She wasn’t mean to us, because Jon moved his honeymoon by a day (laughs) to come and sing on her record, but the very fact that we did these great parts and she used only one of them…I don’t know, that’s pretty suspicious. But she was so mean to her main guy, Bruce Brody, who’s basically the band leader. She was just a fucking jerk to that guy while we were there. Maybe she was trying to impress us or whatever, I don’t know. Again, she wasn’t bad to us, but we did this great stuff and she didn’t use it, so that was kind of a waste of our time. Granted, we got paid, but that’s not really it. It’s about the work.”
Vashti Bunyan: “Diamond Day” (Just Another Diamond Day, Phillips, 1970)
One of the most obscure, but lovely british folk records ever. Released 30 years ago to an indifferent public, despite the fact that it featured several members of Fairport Convention and contributions by Nick Drake collaborators Joe Boyd and Robert Kirby. An original mint copy apparently now fetches US$ 500,00 (!!!). Re-released last year on the tiny label Spinney.
Ken (after the instrumental intro with recorders and acoustic guitars): “Is this the musicians from El Condor Pasa taking a break? (After the first verse) Or is this an Bridget St. John outtake?”
Carsten: Well, I included it here because of your cover of Bridget’s “Ask Me No Questions”…. it’s Vashti Bunyan, she only made this one record and then disappeared.
Ken: “Interesting! Was it on the same label, Dandelion? No? Hmmm… Do you know anything else about it?” [FYI: Ken now owns a copy of the album]
The Cure: “Just Like Heaven” (Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, Fiction Records, 1987)
One of the best songs by one of the most distinctive bands ever. And judging by the picture on the back of The Posies’ album Failure not only an influence on Ken musically…
Ken (after the first few notes): “Yeah! We mentioned The Cure earlier, did we not?”
Carsten: Is this stuff you still listen to or is that more “memories of the past”?
Ken: “I still listen to the stuff I used to listen to. Again, I try to keep things very much without boundaries. This song is totally – and this is a word I have over-used today – iconic. It’s very simple, but for some reason if somebody else would play these chords, it would sound totally boring, but the way this is put together is so amazing. And of course you can’t confuse his voice with anything else, very original. I love it. It’s by far my favorite album of theirs. It has this over-emotional thing that appeals to over-emotional people. As a teenager this music is so easy to ‘get’, because that’s how it feels – over the top. I’m still that way to some degree, but not as much I was then. It kinda goes in below your brain, right to your heart.”