By Matt Schild, Aversion.com, 1999
Mention the word “Saltine” to most rock fans and chances are they’ll think of soup bowls and salad bars long before they think of indie rock, which doesn’t really surprise members of Saltine the band.
“Because we haven’t played that many shows, people are only now becoming aware that this is a real band,” said Ken Stringfellow, front man for the Seattle-based four-piece.
The band’s lack of notoriety doesn’t worry Stringfellow, who made up half of the songwriting team for the now-defunct indie rock staples the Posies. With only three shows under the band’s belt, the act hasn’t exactly worked the circuit, though it is slowly starting to establish itself.
Since the dissolution of the Posies this summer, Stringfellow’s focus has shifted toward getting Saltine started up, though the roots of the band stretch back to predate the Posies’ final days.
“I’ve been setting the songs aside for a while,” Stringfellow said, laid back and soft-spoken over the telephone from his hotel room in Los Angeles. “The Posies breakup was kind of planned and I knew about it long enough that I knew what I was devoting my songs to.”
Unlike the Posies, where Stringfellow collaborated with Jon Auer, Stringfellow sits as the principal mind behind Saltine’s sound, writing songs and making the final songwriting decisions, which opens his songwriting style up from the Posies, he said.
“I can take things in whatever direction I feel like going in,” Stringfellow said, “I don’t really have to make thinks compatible with another songwriter.”
With the burdens of collaboration lifted from Stringfellow’s hand in songwriting, Saltine’s sound ventures into slightly different waters than the Posies covered.
“I wouldn’t say it’s radically different,” Stringfellow said, contemplating a way to describe his new band’s sound. “It’s different in a way I probably wouldn’t be able to describe. It doesn’t exactly sound like the Posies.”
To date, the only track available to the public from Saltine is “I Owe You,” off Happy Meals Vol. 2 (My Records), an upbeat rocker showing the pop hooks of the Posies but with more ragged rock’n’roll edges. With the interactive melodies of Stringfellow’s vocals, guitar, the keyboards, guitars and vocals of Blake Wescott and the bass of Scooter weaving a complex braid of harmonies, Saltine cranks out songs with both the melodies and energy to please both punk and indie fans. With ex-Posies and Fountains of Wayne drummer Brian Young rounding out the band’s sound, Saltine’s sound should prove to be as promising as Stringfellow’s previous work.
In addition to “I Owe You,” Saltine’s demo features six additional songs, most of which sport a more mellow feel than the Happy Meals track, Stringfellow said.
“They’re a little less four-on-the-floor, punky style,” he said. “There’s more of a somber vibe to them.”
The bluer sounds of the standard Saltine track shouldn’t come as a surprise to Posies fans, who have been graced with album after album of somber material. While making music with a much more gloomy outlook than many other bands, Stringfellow said he doesn’t concentrate specifically upon downbeat subjects, though his work often moves in that direction.
“I’m good at doing stuff that kind of has a downer vibe in it,” he said.
With the restraints of song co-authorship removed with the band’s new lineup, Stringfellow said he is enjoying both the new freedom of being the sole writer as well as the band politics inevitably following close behind a dual-songwriter situation.
“I certainly don’t want to worry about hurting someone’s feelings,” he said, describing the liberties of being the band’s sole songwriter, avoiding the conflicts when choosing what songs are up to muster to make live sets and onto the album. “Anything like that—I’d rather not have to go through something like that,” he said.
Though the principal creative unit in the band, Stringfellow said he isn’t the final word on the band’s music, with all members playing a role in developing songs, especially Wescott.
“Blake is kind of my foil. He has the ability to challenge my ideas and really make me think about what I’m doing,” he said.
Though now touring as a guitarist with REM, Stringfellow said he hopes to have enough songs fleshed out to begin working on an album in the fall, though details with labels haven’t been finalized yet. In fact, Stringfellow hasn’t even narrowed it down between a major or indie label yet, though by the end of the summer and his stint with REM, he said he hopes to have the label situation ironed out.
“I don’t really have any preference,” he said. ” There’s pluses and minuses to both situations. I’ll just look to see who is the most in the music and who is fairest.”
Saltine’s efforts at indie rock have been well received, Stringfellow said, though the band has had little exposure outside of the few shows it’s played on the West Coast and the demo it cut, though Stringfellow is optimistic about the band’s future.
“We worked really hard on the demo and I think it’s really representative of what we do,” he said. “People seem to like it, especially people who I’ve known over the years that like the other stuff I’ve done.”