Ken Stringfellow’s Life Looks Up – 1998

By J. Tayloe Emery, Rolling Stone, 23 November 1998

On the night of the Posies’ farewell show in San Francisco this past September, singer/guitarist Ken Stringfellow wondered aloud whether or not this would be the end of his touring days as a rock star. “I asked myself, after playing more than 700 shows with the Posies, is this it for touring?” a bespectacled Stringfellow recollected recently over cafe lattes in his hometown of Seattle. “I knew I could never give up playing onstage, even though I wanted to start doing more in the studio.”

Stringfellow didn’t have to wait long for his answer. Almost immediately upon his return to Seattle, he and fellow Minus Five stalwart Scott McCaughey were asked by guitarist Peter Buck to back up R.E.M. on their promotional tour for the band’s just released album, Up. “It was probably the best musical experience I’ve ever had,” says Stringfellow, still reeling after returning from Europe, where R.E.M.’s tour ushered him across London, Hamburg, Madrid, Vienna, Stockholm and Milan. “It was a promo tour of epic proportions. Five-star treatment the whole way,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m still just trying to take it all in. The clubs were pretty small and cozy, and we played mainly to fan club members. The percentage was something like eighty percent fans to twenty percent industry, which is rare for a promo tour.”

Though the exclusiveness of the small venues in Europe made for some incredible sets (“Radio Free Europe” was played for only the second time in ten years), Stringfellow says for him the highlight of the tour was playing at Neil Young’s Bridge Benefit in San Francisco on Oct. 17. “We came out and played ‘Ambulance Blues’ during Neil’s set. And when our set came on, Neil came out and jammed with us on ‘Country Feedback.’ All of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m jamming with Neil Young!” Stringfellow says that after trading licks with Mr. Young, “there’s nothing else left.”

By singing, composing and playing guitar in the Posies for more than twelve years, Stringfellow says he got a lot of his frontman “jollies” out of the way. Now, playing accompanist in one of the world’s biggest bands, he is quick to point out that he doesn’t feel like he’s missing out. “It’s actually a relief in some ways. I just play a part, and get really good at playing my part.” Like many guitarists before him, Ken admits that he “learned how to play guitar while playing along with R.E.M. on the radio.” As such, Stringfellow had little trouble keeping up. In fact, he rehearsed only a few days with the whole band before taking to the stage, learning a lot of the material on the fly. “Peter, Scott and I all got together a few times as well and just went over bare bones stuff really.”

Stringfellow says the possibility of further touring with R.E.M. is “wide open” but adds that at this time there are no plans. For the next month, he’ll be working with Portland, Ore., band Marigold (Outpost Records), producing a few demos and, “if it goes well, possibly helping them with a record.” A new band also might be in the works, a project called Saltine. And if that isn’t enough, Stringfellow’s madly at work in his home studio creating new, ambient music for Nike to use in their Niketown megastores. “It’s like hip Muzak,” laughed Stringfellow as he sipped down the last of his latte. “As if Muzak isn’t hip enough anyway.”