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Master And Commander – 2004

by Eric Holder, Flagpole Magazine, 2004

Ken Stringfellow, co-founder, singer/songwriter and guitarist for seminal power-pop group the Posies, released his third solo album Soft Commands, on July 13 after an incredibly productive year that included touring and recording with R.E.M., Big Star and the Posies, among others. It’s been three years since he released his pop triumph Touched and in order to get you all caught up with where he’s going, we have a quick recap of the 35-year-old legend and then a chat with the man.

The Posies’ last studio effort, the 2001 EP Nice Cheekbones and a Ph.D., came out following a string of reissues and live performances including 2000’s At Least… At Last, a four-CD box set of the usual rarities, remixes and rough takes, The Best of the Posies – Dream All Day, a best-of studio cuts and In Case You Don’t Feel Like Plugging In.

Posies co-founders Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer were anomalies who, from their first home-recorded duet release Failure (1988) and excellent follow-up Dear 23 (1990), which featured a full band, departed from the grunge sound of fellow Seattleites.

In 1993, a year after Nirvana and Pearl Jam broke worldwide; the Posies released Frosting on the Beater. With their amps turned up and a darker feel, they managed to remain true to form, crafting superb and intricate pop arrangements. The familiar tinge of ’60s jangle was still there with just enough alternative ethos, and of course their harmonies were nothing short of jaw dropping. Past comparisons to McCartney-Lennon, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Hollies (Clarke and Nash) were sturdily vindicated.

Stringfellow and Auer’s reputation caught up to Alex Chilton, who recruited them to play a Big Star reunion show in 1993 at Columbia (Mo.) University. Chilton was clearly moved after hearing the Posies’ covers of Big Star’s “Feel” and “I Am the Cosmos.” They have played together as members ever since, albeit sporadically. After heavy worldwide touring, Amazing Disgrace (1996) was released to more critical acclaim for its beautiful prose, harmony and edge.

The next year Stringfellow released his first solo album This Sounds Like Goodbye to some critical acclaim and set out for Spain where he played drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, sang, produced, engineered and mixed the 1998 Cecilia Ann album Un Segundo.

He got back to Seattle with his new collaborative Saltine and released music for the next three years during stints with R.E.M., the Posies and too many other projects to list in one issue of Flagpole.

It was, however, on September 11, 2001 that Stringfellow released Touched and despite the obvious gloomy date, many considered Touched to be a pop gem from one of the most underrated all-around musicians of the last decade. Flagpole spoke with him while he was on vacation somewhere off the western coast of France and tried to get an idea of what’s been going on since then and what to expect when he opens his U.S. tour in his hometown Bellingham, WA before making it back to Athens, were he actually penned a couple of songs for Soft Commands.

Flagpole: The last time I recall you played in Athens was with the Possibilities and afterwards with R.E.M. have you been around much since?
Ken Stringfellow: Yes, that show was at the Georgia Theatre in the fall of 2001. The Possibilities set was a lot of fun and we (R.E.M.) played a blistering set of favorites. The last time I was in Athens was in January to rehearse some new material with R.E.M.; during that time, I managed to finish the lyrics to “Cyclone Graves,” which I had started in Paris, and “Je Vous En Prie,” which I had started in the van traveling from Senegal to Mauritania.

FP: How long have you played with R.E.M.?
KS: I’ve played with the live band since ’98 and did the regular tour in ’99, played on Reveal, the Man On the Moon soundtrack and the current record they’re working on.

FP: In between “Soft Commands” and working with R.E.M., what else were you up to last year?
KS: I recorded in Memphis with Big Star and Seattle with the Posies both of which will be released on Rykodisc. The Posies material is 90 percent done and the Big Star material is doneÉ it will be their first release in 27 years, the Posies’ first release in 6 years.

FP: What were those recording experiences like?
KS: Jon and I have been playing with Alex and Stephen since 1993 and we’re like regular members. Alex has moved on to another place musically and he basically set us in a room together and let it ripÉ I think it’s a cool record that only occasionally brushes up against a Big Star of the past. The Posies’ new material is just different enough and just related enough to be fresh and not trying too hard to disown their past – there are many twist and turns.

FP: Soft Commands doesn’t feel like a departure from what you wrote with the Poises, but it is very different. There are a couple of numbers where you sound like a soul singer and the music is right there with you then there are others which are quite a bit spacier. 
KS: The sound is hopefully user-friendly… it might be a little outside commercial radio, but you never know. I hope it’s appealing in an old-school way because I am definitely interested in using older techniques, like we did the drum tracks using only one or two microphones which is a technique about 30 years old – some songs have a hundred tracks of stuff and it really becomes its own thing.

FP: The album was written all over the world and recorded in a few different spots as well, do you feel like that was an advantage in hindsight?
KS: Because of the amount of playing I have been doing, I’ve learned to just write when I can. In the end I thought it was interesting to look at all of the locations this record was born from, so I included the places different songs were written in the credits, for something a little different. The record itself was basically made during two large sessions. One in Sweden at Studio 44, where we got the basic parts done in about a month, and then Seattle where the songs were finished and mixed at Soundhouse.

FP: The album has some very complex moments at times, while at others I could easily see the entire album played live by you. Will you be playing with the Ex-Lovers here in Athens?
KS: At this time I plan on playing alone in Athens. The last time I played the Caledonia I played with the Long Winters who are now playing as their own band – The Ex-Lovers will do some shows we me but for now it’ll just be me and a piano or guitar in Athens.

FP: Any special guests?
KS: [laughs slightly] You never know.