Ken Stringfellow: R.E.M.
Ken began recording and touring with R.E.M. in 1998. Here are some quotes from R.E.M. books and articles from him.
Adventures In Hi-Fi: The Complete R.E.M.
by Rob Jovanovic and Tim Abbott
The Orion Publishing Group Ltd
The twelth annual Bridge School Concert was fronted as usual by Neil Young, and R.E.M. had agreed to play one set each night of this weekend event. For these shows, and the rest of the tour, the band were joined by musicians Joey Waronker (drums), Scott McCaughey (guitar and keyboards), and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies (vibes, keyboards, and bass). “Peter kept calling me and saying, ‘Hey, do you want to play some music’?” said Ken, explaining how he got involved with the band. “Then he told me, ‘Actually, we’re doing an R.E.M. tour for about a year and we need somebody to play guitar and keyboards, so we think you should audition’. Then a week later he calls and says, ‘Well, actually we cancelled the tour, but we still want you to audition.’ Finally it was, ‘If you want to come down to San Francisco in about a month, you have the gig. You don’t have to audition.'” So that’s exactly what Ken did. For two days in San Francisco, he rehearsed with the band using Neil Young’s pump organ.
Buck blamed their recently added musicians for the inclusion of older songs in the set. “Joey and Ken are directly responsible for songs like ‘Pretty Persuasion’ getting into the show,” he confessed. “Funny thing is, me and Mike have no idea how to play an old song like that. But Ken and Joey learned to play their instruments to songs like that and they’re right on top of them. They’re teaching us the old songs.” Ken was the first to admit this. “Anything up through Green I knew better than they did,” he boasted. “My high school band covered ‘Second Guessing’ and in the Posies’ first show ever we played ‘Sitting Still’.” The inclusion of Waronker and Stringfellow no doubt brought a breath of fresh air and a new lease of life into the R.E.M. camp. “They’ll come to soundcheck,” said Peter. “and say, ‘Hey man, I’d love to play ‘Radio Free Europe.’ I’ll go, ‘Why?’ and then I remember it was probably the second song they ever learned how to play.”
R.E.M. | Fiction: An Alternative Biography
by David Buckley
Virgin Books Ltd
Lifes Rich Pagaent was Gehman’s only R.E.M. production credit, but it was a signifigant one. For many, the album defined the sound of new American alternative music, despite the fact that Gehman himself was not immediately attracted to the college radio sound. Musician Ken Stringfellow: “Lifes Rich Pagaent was definitely a landmark record for many of the people I was playing music with at the time. It was strangely triumphant and anthemic in a way that wasn’t a turn-off and wasn’t cheesy. It was inspiring and focused and had a passion behind it that you wouldn’t be embarrassed about.”
Ken Stringfellow, then in his teens, but fifteen years later a musician and member of R.E.M.’S recording and touring setup, neatly summarises why the song struck a chord. “‘Cuyahoga’ is an anthem but it’s not self-congratulatory. It’s about what’s gone wrong with our country. It was an anti-anthem in a way, I guess. It took on an issue, but it was still unifying and powerful. That’s a hard thing to do well.”
“People in America especially, they’re so stupid. They can’t get anything that has two layers,” syas American musician Ken Stringfellow, later part of R.E.M.’s touring and recording set-up. “They see everything as it is presented to them, and they can’t even read subtext. They couldn’t get anything other than just looking at Michael Stipe on stage on the Monster tour and saying, ‘What is he doing?’ They couldn’t get whether it was a reference to anything. Although the songs on Monster were popular as rock songs, the imagery around them was lost on 99.9 per cent of America. In Britian there’s a bit more of a novelistic approach. There’s a lot of intriacy that’s much more pronounced in British culture than American culture. It’s just a little more literary. And word play and being clever with your speech is respectable, expected even.”
The album seems now to have something of a cult following, particularly amongst musicians and producers who ‘get’ the more odd sonic references and can relate to them in terms of the studio craft. Ken Stringfellow, who was brought in to augment the band’s live sound for the Up tour, is unequivocal in his praise: “I think it’s a total masterpiece. Monster is more interested in artifice and exploring the whole issue of personae. It’s a little bit cold in a way as these things tend to be. It’s a little bit more of an intellectual exercise, whereas Up is so human and so emotional.”
(on ‘The Lifting’) “In the intro, Scott and I are playing these undersea noises,” adds Ken Stringfellow, “Which surprisingly plays well into the lyrics, where he talks about sunken cities and that kind of thing.”
‘I’ve Been High’ is solemn, stately, and emotional and, like ‘The Lifting’, contains some subtle dance textures and beats beneath the vocal. “In a way, it’s the masterwork of the record,” says Stringfellow. “It’s the biggest stretch for them. It’s like pushing the boundary of what defines them musically. There’s something going on there; it’s emotionally compelling and you can interpret it in a variety of different ways. I get a lot of things from Reveal that appear to be about personal transformation, and rising, not just from adversity, but from your own boundaries and limitations, the little pitfalls and weak spots that hold you back.”
(on ‘Saturn Return’) “Some of it was pieced together from the demo we recorded in Athens in February, including all that kind of Sonic Youth sounding guitar, which is actually me,” agrees Stringfellow. “Pat kind of made a collage of stuff I had played on the demo, but the funny thing is what when we were playing the demo I was trying to do my best primitivist Peter Buck kind of thing! It was definitely homaging him to some degree.”
Ken Stringfellow, who had been part of the recording team for Reveal, recalls a conversation with Mike Mills around this time when he was told that he would not be needed at the outset: “The main reason that, as yet, I haven’t been asked to play on the new R.E.M. tracks is that Mike really wanted the time to fiddle with keyboard parts. If there’s already someone in the studio who is an able keyboard player coming up with parts, the songs start getting filled in before he has the chance to dig into it.”
Remarks Remade: The Story of R.E.M.
by Tony Fletcher
As rehearsals for the Monster tour started in earnest, the group looked at their increasingly complex arrangements, considered the size of venues they would be playing and the need to fill the halls musically, and decided yet another guitarist was needed. Buck and McCaughey immediately thought of Ken Stringfellow, another Seattle band-leader who was part of The Minus 5’s rotating line-up, but Stringfellow’s group The Posies were themselves promoting a new record.
Joey Waronker and Scott McCaughey were both retained, and now that The Posies were inactive, Peter Buck recommended Ken Stringfellow as the additional all-around musician. If eyebrows were raised back in Athens at the preponderance of Seattle musicians being invited into R.E.M., there was also acceptance that as the most constantly gigging and recording member of the band, Buck had the best connections. Such was Buck’s confidence in Stringfellow that an audition was deemed unnecessary; he could meet Mills and Stipe for the first time in San Francisco, where they would rehearse before their two appearances at Neil Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit.
Like Joey Waronker, Ken Stringfellow had been part of R.E.M.’s original fan base, buying the early albums almost on the day of release; The Posies had even covered ‘Sitting Still’ at their very first show. “If they’d broken up after Reckoning,” he says of R.E.M. “I would still have had interest in hooking up with Peter when he moved to town,” which is what happened with their mutual involvement in Minus 5. Just like Joey Waronker, Ken had lost touch with R.E.M.’s music during their early Nineties peak, largely as a result of his own band’s activites. In fact, despite having been Peter’s friend in Seattle these last few years, when it came time to learn the songs, he had the office send him copies of both Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, the group’s biggest sellers. He found Out of Time “basic” Up he considered “astounding.” And the opportunity to play with his former favourtine band was, like Waronker, complimented by the fact that as a now-expierenced musician, he was far beyond being star-struck.
“I would say that my aesthetic and their aesthetic are fairly compatiable,” says Stringfellow, citing the same garage/folk background. This made it easier to play songs from Up even without adavance rehearsals. “Uphas a lot of overdub components,” he says, and “You’re not going to be able to re-create that, but you can figure out the general vibe and tone of a song, what you can pull out of it to get something that works live.”
For the three hired hands, cosummate R.E.M. fans each, the shows were the antithesis of session work. “Scott, Joey and I would learn songs,” says Ken Stringfellow. “We’d go down and soundcheck first as some of these TV shows. The band would walk in and we’d be playing something, like ‘Cuyhahoga.'”
As the band wound its way north along the east coast, Ken Stringfellow recieved an end-of-tour gift. For almost a year, as a Reckoning fanatic, he’d been pushing to include ‘Camera’ in the set. “We were told to forget it,” he recalls, understanding there were bad memories attached to the song’s lyrics. Undeterred, he and the other two hired musicians “just kept doing it and one day at soundcheck they said, ‘Okay, let’s do Camera.'” It was at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland.
Ken Stringfellow discovered what Mike Mills was describing when he started making his own contributions, “a nice piano part or organ part,” as he recalls, and got word back through Pat McCarthy that what the band actually wanted as “more Ken.” As he explains, “The more off into my own personal vision of the deep end, the more they liked it. All sorts of messed up crazy distorted things run through pedals, they were loving that.”
So while Michael Stipe’s agenda was “to be really melodic,” Stringfellow was asked to provide a counterpoint. “Maybe I would try to do something rhythmically or tonally that pushes it left in a big way. The premise of R.E.M. as I understood it was that their songs, even on Murmur, are not exceedingly weird in chords or rythym, but layer this stuff on top.”
‘Chorus And The Ring’ grew out of an impromptu jam, recorded in one take, with Peter on electric guitar and Ken Stringfellow “on super distorted keyboard,” as the newest musician recalls, “doing a big echoey blurry bagpipe explosion in the chorus and then Michael singing some weird impromptu thing.” After Stringfellow found himself stumbling rythmically they went for a second take. It didn’t have the same feel, so they kept the ‘stumbling’ one.
(on ‘Imitation of Life’) “We were overdubbing something on the final version,” says Stringfellow. “And I walked over to this cheap synthesizer, and played this little solo on the bridge. I couldn’t even really hear what I was playing and kind of guessed what notes would fit. It turned out to be the keyboard solo in the bridge.”