By Jack Rabid, The Big Take-Over Issues #51 & 52, 2003
By any measure, Seattle’s Ken Stringfellow has lived a fairly charmed musical life. Let us count the ways.
Exhibit #1: Co-leader of The Posies since its inception 15 years ago, his well-respected group has made a string of credible-to-great power-pop-flavored rock LPs, hinging on the pairing of his songwriting and singing with that of co-founder, Jon Auer. I say “has”: True, at present the group appears dormant, and from the below, Stringfellow seems more consumed with starting work on writing and recording another (third) solo LP. Yet since their announced breakup a few years ago,The Posies have nevertheless released a string of retrospective releases, done acoustic gigs together at home and abroad, and even toured extensively as a full band in the summer of 2001 with their latest lineup. Would that all officially ongoing bands we favor were this prolific!
For the unfamiliar, The Posies recorded and released four main LPs before the post-breakup blitz of best-ofs, box sets, belated live LPs, and unplugged sessions began appearing. Those who like their pop pristine, cheery, and indelible might head to the early, very Hollies-inspired period (Graham Nash-era ’60s Hollies influence is truly “a good thing,” as Martha Stewart might say), on 1988’s Failure (“self-released” in the barest of terms, as Stringfellow laughs below, on their own comically fly-by night 23 label—until more properly issued later that year by venerable Seattle label, Popllama) and 1990’s major label DGC debut, the John LECKiE-produced Dear 23, Those who like this kind of pop, only with more roaring, much heavier, post-Nirvana neo-grunge production (yet with the same kind of eminently catchy songs and the duo’s sublime harmonies) might instead prefer 1993’s bracing Frosting on the Beater and 1996’s lesser but still occasionally brilliant Amazing Disgrace. In fact, Stringfellow and Auer really matured as songwriters in this period, stepping out of the pleasant retro-“summer of love” light psych-pop into their own more memorable compositions, whatever the sound. Just one helping of the pair’s classics of this period, “Solar Sister,” “Flavor of the Month,” and especially the harrowing “Please Return It,” is enough to strongly impress. But, as is true of the best writing, all three just seem to hook harder and deeper with greater exposure.
Exhibit 2: Were that all, it would be much more than 99% of musicians could hope to accomplish, and a fine legacy. Bravo and take a bow, we have a gold watch for you. But how much do we owe Stringfellow and Auer for their massive part in reviving Big Star, perhaps the greatest post-Beatles power-pop band ever, and a group none of us under the age of 45 ever thought we’d see in our lifetime?With first LP guitarist/co-writer Chris Bell long deceased, and bassist Andy Hummel not the least bit interested, it seemed impossible the group could ever return after two decades away, as it did starting in 1993—even if one could somehow convince talented mainman Alex Chilton and big-beat drummer Jody Stephens to restart such old, old cult-band business. But Chilton and Stephens obviously knew who to ask to replace their old bandmates, given their (and our) admiration for one of the Posies’ Popllama 7″ singles: one with Big Star’s “Feel” on the A-side, and Bell’s devastating “I am the Cosmos” on the flip.Thrown together instantly for an April 1993 Columbia,.Missouri festival, on the whim of invitation, this new Big Star had its inaugural concert at that festival released on Zoo Records as Columbia: Live at Missouri University that year. And it’s proof of what huge fans Auer and Stringfellow were/are, considering how good the foursome sound with such a scarcity of rehearsal. The reconstituted group has been playing sporadic big shows in different markets here and overseas ever since. And having seen their two New York shows, both atTramps, one is tempted to surmise that, given Bell’s death, this is not only the best Big Star anyone could ever hope for, but one able to play the old set every bit as well. How many musicians not only get to join such a legendary band, but make it sound so credible? It’s as if the two Posies werejare Bell and Hummel. And, moreover, given the visible enjoyment on the faces of Chilton and Stephens, and the endurance of this lineup (nearly a decade, even if they don’t work that much), it’s possible to surmise that this lineup gets along much better than the old, so-volatile one ever did! Anyone who has seen these memorable, wonderful concerts surely has Stringfellow and Auer to thank for this. While they were living a dream! (We’ll go into this in part two of this interview.)
Exhibit 3: Speaking of living a dream, how many of us get to tour the globe in our favorite band from when we were in junior high school? Yet that’s exactly what Stringfellow has now done, joining R.E.M. as one of their touring musicians since their 1998 Up comeback tour. As he recounts for us below, he, like so many in the underground, flipped over the group after their landmark debut LP Murmur in 1983, having no idea he’d become their friend and road-mate on guitars and keyboards some day. One can only imagine what goes through his head now when he is playing “Radio Free Europe” or “So. Central Rain.” He also played live with at least two R.E.M. offshoots, The Minus Five (with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and early Posies’ champion and pal, Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey), and, from the photo we have of them in London, the more one-off “Four Croakers”(R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, McCaughey, and even Robyn Hitchcock).
Exhibits 4 & 5: Two more of his teenage favorites were Husker DO and Cheap Trick. The famous singer and guitarist of the latter, singer Robin Zander and guitarist Rick Nielsen, joinedThe Posies in the studio on Amazing Disgrace to guest on “Hate Song.” And as Stringfellow reveals below, another song on that 1996 LP, “Grant Hart”—a fine tribute to Husker Du’s drummer and co-singer/songwriter (with Bob Mould), in the “mold” of our cover star Paul Westerberg’s tribute to Big Star’s in 1986 on his Replacements song “Alex Chilton”!—led to Stringfellow and Auer serving as a live backing group for Grant on a bunch of their old Husker favorites. Wouldn’t you like to hear this lineup pounding out “Green Eyes?” Yowsa. Maybe Westerberg should join the new lineup of Big Star!
Exhibit 6: Just when you’re about to say, “What next, did he sit in with the bloody Beatles or something?” comes the absolutely astonishing answer (as to be covered in part two), YES! Stringfellow actually joined Ringo Starr on stage to sing with him in concert. Are you kidding me? Are you out of your mind? Most of us would pretty much faint just to shake the man’s hand. (I know I’d beoutforafew minutes.) If Stringfellow tells us nextyearthat he’s writing songs with Paul McCartney, or getting Graham Nash or Colin Blunstone to come into the studio the next time he and Auer do one of their fabulous Hollies or Zombies covers, we’ll certainly know not to doubt his word. Pretty soon, he’ll be singing duets with PeteTownshend instead of Paul Weller!
Exhibit 7: If all that isn’t enough for you, how about this: with only his second solo LP (and his first, 1997’s This Sounds Like Goodbye, was strictly lo-fi), Stringfellow recorded and released the finest LP of his long career to date by far, and easily one of the five best LPs of all 2001, in the extraordinary Touched (Manifesto Records). A highly unusual pop LP in that | it seems so soulful and spiritual, yet it’s neither a strictly soul ! or an ethereal work, it’s clear that the veteran singer/songwriter is only nowtruly coming into his own as a remarkable recording artist, composer, singer, and wandering troubadour. And as a performer too: As we noted in our reviews in recent issues, and again in our live review this issue, Stringfellow’s show at Mercury Lounge just after Sept. 11 2001 was an extraordinary one, wherein he became a musical lay healer to a suffering, in-shock assemblage of psychologically wounded New Yorkers. I won’t belabor that point again here, since it’s also the main topic of discussion to begin this long, two-part, revealing interview. But suffice to say that some know how to deal with an emotionally charged situation when they walk into one, and some don’t.
In any case, if Stringfellow is playing the lotto, craps, roulette, or betting the ponies any time soon, you might find me peering over his shoulder and betting the same combinations. Not to say that he hasn’t had his shares of life’s downs to go with these musical ups (for instance, he mentions, if only in passing, his former marriage to another Big Takeover favorite, The Fastbacks’ Kim Warnick), but even when noting that in his childhood his father’s career had him moving a lot, he can’t find much even there to complain about. In general, he seems like he’s living a bit of a lark these days, a fan with talent of his own in spades, getting to apply it in so many thrilling different and truly unusual creative outlets. And it was a fine time interviewing him here in New York where he was visiting, at a tiny little Thai Restaurant called Kai Kai I frequent for the delicious Kao Ka Praw. I have no idea why I’ve never sat down with a tape recorder with him long before this, but in any case, it gave us an excuse to 30 back through his history some—both with all the above-nentioned, and even through his pre-Posies days in Bellingham, Washington, where he went to middle school with my wife’s first :ousin, oddly enough, and apparently started his first band, Shout, with one of that cousin’s close friends. Small world.
My thanks to Barbara Mitchell for facilitating our getting in touch with him, and the dashing Mr. Stringfellow himself for granting us a full 90 minutes of his time—and for playing his Touched gems at my wedding too, a few months after this interview. Maybe that’s my charmed life, exhibit 1!
JR: We were talking about how your last solo album [Touched] was recorded in the summer of 2000, but you didn’t have much time to work on getting it released, because you were always on tour—either the Posies acoustic tour, or some other touring—and by the time it became clear that Poptones [U.K.] and Manifesto were going to release it, it was scheduled for spring 2001; but it didn’t end up coming out until [exactly] September 11th, 2001.
KEN: We worked out the arrangements in the spring, and by the time they could get it on a release schedule, it was September. It came out September 11th in the States, and then the following week throughout the rest of the world.
J R: And at first you thought it was unfortunate timing, that of all days in the entire calendar year, it came out on that one. But then you came to see that it wasn’t a bad record at all for that time, that people were interested in turning to music to help their… I don’t know… their endurance.
KEN; Yeah, you know… Some people say that music is a thing that expresses the inexpressible, but I’ve always thought that music is open to emotions, and it is a framework onto which we can put our own emotions. That’s why a record would mean something to us. You’re not really feeling what John Lennon felt when he wrote the song “In My Life” [from The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, 1966]. He’s giving you an opportunity to feel your own feelings. And I really think that’s the thing: I don’t think we can ever feel what’s inside someone else’s head, but [music] gives us a common language, or individual language, that draws out our own. Some artists and musicians immediately felt self-conscious. They felt like, “God, here this heavy-duty event is happening, and it’s affecting a lot of people’s lives, and I’m in a joke-rock band, and it just feels wrong.” I [knew] people who had those kinds of feelings. And certainly, crummy Hollywood movies that were really “un-P.C.” came out right then, kind of went by unnoticed because they just looked really awkward and ugly, because they were so oblivious to what real feelings could occur in people. But as I was saying, I’d already done a West Coast tour before the record came out, and started to find a groove, and then came home and was looking forward to the rest of the tour. And on the day the record was released, I was awakened by a phone call saying, “I think you should turn on the television,” so I could see what was going on.
JR: And I was sitting here in New York, a mile from where it happened, as opposed to say, Bellingham, Washington [about 90 miles north of Seattle, where Stringfellow once lived and where the Posies were formed].
KEN: Yeah. And, I didn’t know what to think. As a matter of fact, that whole day I was already scheduled to do press… foreign press, actually. But we really didn’t talk about the music so much that day, obviously. Anyway, I decided to go ahead and do my tour the next week, I really wanted to, to see what happens. Then as I started playing those shows, I arrived in New York on Sept. 15th, picked up some gear at S.I.R. on the West side, kind of got a glimpse of things, and it was very emotional. On the 16th I played in Philly, and kind of started from there. And immediately, everything had a dimension that it didn’t have before. I realized, “Wow, I don’t feel self-conscious about playing my music right now at all.” It really seemed like an opportunity to provide people with a venue for feeling real feelings. That’s kind of always been my thing, and it seemed to be appropriate. And then, as I started playing those songs, I thought, “I don’t want to unconsciously say something that could be considered insensitive in this situation”.. . You know, it’d be weird to be playing The Replacements “Johnny’s Gonna Die” [1981, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, the young Paul Westerberg’s memorable song about Johnny Thunders] or something with a really flippant attitude towards death. I’d want to tailor it. Not that I thought I had that on my album, although “Down Like Me” is about suicide. Anyway, I started analyzing the lyrics and, interestingly enough, the song “Sparrow” really started to stick out at that point as a song that was very… [thinks] We don’t always know where songs come from, they just kind of spill out… I’ve talked to a lot of songwriters who have the same kind of feeling…
J R: “Sparrow” and “The Lover’s Hymn” were particular highlights of the show you did in New York a few days later [at Mercury Lounge, Sept. 20]. You made very extended introductions to them about how they sort of had come to mean something different to you then, how they were spiritual songs that happened to really fit that moment.
KEN; Ah! Well, “Sparrow” for sure. You know, I had this band called Saltine for a brief period, and there were a couple guys in it who were in that Christian alternative music scene in Seattle, like Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado. And, not that their religion rubbed me the wrong way, but there were times when it was obvious that the fact that we had different beliefs—at certain times, and not with everybody—made for a source of… Where you could look down at somebody and think your belief system is better than theirs, or they could think that theirs is better than yours. And I thought, at the time, that that struck me as very strange. I don’t believe in the idea of chosen people, or people being created more superior to others. I do believe that all people are created equal. So I’d already written [“Sparrow”] from the perspective of religious differences, and that seemed to get all the more poignant, as these events did have something to do with—or at least on the surface— are purported to be with religious views in mind.
JR: Well, that certainly has a lot to do with it. I don’t think anybody disputes that.
KEN: Well, you could take the cynical view, and say that Osama Bin Laden uses religious speech to stir up people to follow, and you would think that a religious person really wouldn’t do the kinds of things that had been done…
J R: It still plays a role, even if you go that way.
KEN: Yeah, and so in retrospect of those events, the song started to take on extra poignancy. And then there are these images in [“Sparrow”], like, “The arrow winds in two wounds deep,” which really struck me as odd. Other things like that also came up. I had to wonder, as if this record had been written to come out on that day. If you didn’t know when I wrote the record, you could have easily thought I wrote it about those times.
JR; Yeah, it was basically an odd synchronicity. Also, there’s that lyric in “The Lover’s Hymn,” the other song I mentioned which seems to me to be a very spiritual song, which is something people were looking for in a very fragile time—where you say, “If they can free me from the darkness, that’s all they gotta do/It’s not a service like paying taxi fare.” That’s a really interesting line. You don’t hear that in pop music very often.
KEN: Again, I guess I am a little biased in my view of the way people use religion in their lives, but it’s not always very imaginative. You say 100 “Hail Mary’s” and then it’s OK that you shot your neighbor. [Jack laughs] It’s just not that simple to me.
JR: Unless you’re the jealous husband that shot [architect] Stanford White on the top of the original Madison Square Garden 100 years ago.
KEN: Of course that’s completely justifiable!
JR: [both laugh] Note to our readers that we were talking about that before! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make a joke.
KEN: But, a lot of times it seems people use religion as an excuse to justify their behavior and their existence, and to say that they’re a little more OK than you because they’re on the inside, and it’s not that easy. I don’t think there’s ever an easy way to look at life. You have to continually re-examine life and approach it on a moment-to-moment basis.
JR: Well, let’s talk a little about that show. I was already into the album, since I had an advance copy, so I was already looking forward to it before 9/11. And then all that happened, and of course all perspectives changed. Then, of course, I went to the show anyway, because I had planned to and I wanted to see it. But that too took on a completely different meaning. I know you read the review that I wrote of that show. [Yes] And just taking you through some of it again because it was last year, I remember you playing your first song, and people who had been there before to see the opening band were standing in the back chatting freely, not paying attention, as people are wont to do when they haven’t really come to see the act that’s performing at the moment. Meanwhile, you’re trying to cut over that without a band behind you. At that point I thought you really seized the moment, where you said to yourself, “OK, screw the microphone, screw the keyboard, screw my electric guitar, I’m gonna come up to the front of the stage with just an acoustic guitar, and if you want to hear me, come closer and I’ll just sing for you.” And then you stood at the very front edge of the stage, shut your eyes, and sang “One Morning.” Then suddenly, all the people who had been there not paying attention and yakking shut up and listened. And then they all moved forward, and stopped talking to each other, instead of thinking they had to leave. And from then on, you had everybody really paying attention, seriously, like they were seeing something remarkable instead of just another guy up there with his guitar and keyboard playing songs. Is that the way you recall it too?
KEN: Yeah, you know, I like being in touch with the audience. Especially the solo shows, 50% of how the show goes is dependent upon the audience. And so, I’d rather play like that. I have played shows where I didn’t use the P.A. for quite a bit of it, especially in a really beautiful acoustic environment. I played a show in Brussels, in a really nice little mini-theatre, and for about half the show, I just brought everybody in and played songs that I could sing loud enough to be heard, without the P.A. I came out onto the floor.
J R: And you’re not shy; you really belt when you don’t have the P.A.
KEN: It physically feels good. It’s easy for musicians to exist in a bubble. We’ve all seen the types, and this isn’t negative, it’s just a different way: [Some musicians] get out of the tour bus, stay in the dressing room, and play the show kind of with their eyes closed.
JR: No connection.
KEN: Some of them are good; they’re just in their own world. But for me, for this kind of music, it feels good for me to get a lot closer. [At the Maxwell’s show in Hoboken, NJ, the night before the Mercury Lounge show Jack saw, the 30-40 audience members stood back from the stage, leaving a vacant space in front of Stringfellow. Before Ken began playing, he invited everyone to move up and sit down directly in front of the stage while he performed. It really did make the experience that much more intimate and moving.—MS]
JR: That was one of the things I really loved about punk rock when I was a kid. How much those people in those bands were reaching past the artificial barrier. Even if you weren’t necessarily invited up on-stage, which I think is usually a bullshit idea, the idea is that you were still part of the show anyway—because the audience was considered part of it, and they reacted, and the performers would certainly try and include them in a way.
KEN: And as you know, not all confrontation is violent. I still feel that anything that makes you have to regard it, and think about it— it doesn’t have to be purposefully aggressive or offensive—as long as it’s something you have to make a choice about, that kind of confrontation is an exciting dimension of art. And what I would be doing by making the audience make a choice, without being violent, it’s still a confrontation to me. Which raises the stakes a little bit.
JR: Well, I’ve told you that one of my main memories of that show was at the onset. What do you remember about it, being that it was an unusual thing to be playing nine days after such a huge world event like that? Your Dad was feeding you wild turkeys, you can start there! “Thanks, Dad!” [laughs]
KEN: You know, a lot of shows I don’t really remember that much, because I really just get into it, and I’m not thinking about it. So once the show’s over, it’s like a ghost image in my head. Whether I’m drinking or not, but drinking obviously will make it worse!
JR: I thought it was kind of appropriate at the time!
KEN: It was celebratory. That night was very jubilant, and joyous.
JR: To me the clincher was—and it seemed like a totally off-the-cuff decision, though I have no idea—was when you played “New York, New York.”
KEN: Totally off-the-cuff! I didn’t remember doing that for awhile, and I can’t believe I did it. It seems really ballsy.
JR: You just launched into it—completely spontaneously. Then the audience started singing a little bit, and by the second half the entire crowd was singing.
KEN: Wow. I wish somebody had a tape of that show.
JR: Yeah, me too. It was such an unusual event. I see a lot of shows, but that one really hit me—given the extraordinary circumstances, I’ve almost never been so moved by a concert. Well, anyway, for those who weren’t here, and don’t want to dwell on that particular moment in time… Since you wrote the whole of Touched by the summer of 2000, have you been stockpiling songs for two years? Are you ready to work on another album?
KEN: Well, I’ve been setting aside bits of music. One of the things I discovered upon making this record [Touched] that was largely the result of work on the R.E.M. record [2001’s Reveal]—which I worked on in May of 2000 and had an insight into their working methods—and then by June or July of 2000 I was in North Carolina with Mitch [Easter] making [Touched]…
J R: Who of course had worked with R.E.M. 20 years ago [producing 1982’s Chronic Town EP, and first two LPs, 1983’s Murmur and 1984’s Reckoning, at his Drive-In Studios down there], and is a damn nice guy.
KEN: Yeah, he was great to work with. Very supportive. One of the things I saw with [R.E.M.], ‘is that they didn’t really have a script that they operated from in making a record. They just kind of winged it. They had some songs that they’d written beforehand, not really finished songs, but musical ideas…
J R: Kind of demo-ish stuff?
KEN: Or even stuff that hadn’t been demoed yet. They showed it to each other, and started fucking around with it, and with us as well—Scott [McCaughey], Joey [Waronker] and I. And then the lyrics kind of grew along with the song growing, and it’s like those guys could have walked into the studio with nothing at all prepared, and come out with a great record. They had a lot of trust in their creativity, and I had never done it that way. I’d always been a guy who wrote songs, and rehearsed them with a band, and then you go in and just record what’s there.
JR; Even your first solo album [1997’s This Sounds Like Goodbye], that you made in your own house?
KEN: That was a little different.
JR: Well, that was a bit of an experimental record for you. That wasn’t a formal solo album the way that Touched was.
KEN: Yeah, I took more time and care with [Touched]. I mean, the first one was not about taking time and care. It was about being spontaneous and unmeticulous. But now I really think like I could walk into a studio and just start doing stuff, and I know songs would come out. And I’m kind of interested in keeping things on the sketchy side, so that there’ll be room for things to be new. Because I did notice in making Posies records that when we’d rehearse songs for awhile, and by the time you got to record them, you knew what was going to happen, in a way. So you weren’t going to allow new things to come in, and [the songs] did get a little less exciting, and that shows up on the record somehow.
J R: A little less spark to them? [Yeah] It gets to be too “workman” like. I know what you mean.
KEN: It wasn’t quite drudgery or anything; I mean, they were still enjoyable records to make. But I just have a real different idea about music. I know that the way I organize music will be song-like, so I’m even less worried about going in and doing something that’s really sketchy. I’m more excited about having the opportunity to be spontaneous.
JR: Of course, some of the selections on Touched had previously been recorded by you, so they already had quite a finished shape. [Yes] I know at least “Find Yourself Alone” and “Here’s To the Future” had already been released, right? Are there more?
KEN; Yeah, and “Reveal Love” had been released, too. But all in different versions.
JR: Yeah, they were all re-recorded [for Touched]. “Here’s To the Future” was in a totally different form on the first solo album, I remember that.
KEN: It’s just a really different kind of sound, a little more demented.
JR; I don’t actually own the Saltine EP so I’ve not heard the original “Find Yourself Alone” and the original “Reveal Love.”
KEN; They’re not that different, they’re just a little more basic. You know, just like two guitar, bass, and drums recording, with very little keyboards. Whereas the main instrument on the “Reveal Love” version on Touched is Hammond organ. The guitars kind of fit around it. I slowed it down, and the song it actually was kind of aping was The Cure’s “Love Song” from [1989 LP] Disintegration. It’s the same kind of chord progression, and it’s mostly keyboard —even though The Cure is a guitar band, extensively. That’s kind of the thing I was ripping off, but because I wasn’t using synths, but a Hammond organ; I wanted to be more organic, more of a soul music thing.
JR; Was this album sort of what you would have envisioned Saltine doing had it stayed together?
KEN: No way, that’s why we didn’t stay together. I was trying to make this record without really knowiiig that I was trying to make this record, and the people I was working with [in Saltine] weren’t really flexible enough to go there with me. And then I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to explain this and make this with other people.
JR: Was it a differing opinion issue, or just a lack of ability?
KEN: I think the people I was working with were younger and less experienced, and hadn’t really learned to be flexible. Part of doing music for a long time—or maybe this is part of life in general—is the idea that you don’t have to control everything. That kind of releases as you get older, and you can just let a situation be what it wants to be. Every kid who is 20 thinks they know everything, and then you break through to the next level of realizing you know nothing, and you’re OK with it. That’s been my experience.
JR: You’ve been recording now for 14 years, right?
KEPi: Yeah, even longer, in a way, like doing home and bedroom stuff, and stuff [Posies bandmate] Jon [Auer] and I did in high school. I’m in my 20th year of recording and playing rock and writing songs.
JR; My acquaintance from Orcas Island, Thor Hanson, mentioned that—at least he thinks—that he was in a very young band with you called Shout back in your and his Bellingham days, or was it The Shout?
KEN: It’s very possible. I think it was just Shout.
JR: Why don’t we talk a little bit about your pre-Posies days, since I haven’t seen too much on it. You grew up in a couple different places, right?
KEN: Well, I grew up in a few different places, but I moved to Bellingham in the summer before fifth grade.
JR: Did your Dad have a job where he was constantly on the move?
KEN: He had like an executive-type job, and every couple of years he got a transfer to some new gig.
JR; Always tough on the kids.
KEN; I don’t think that was too hard. There was something exciting about it. But it certainly made me self-entertaining. Because you’d have these periods, before you knew the neighborhood kids, where it would take a while to build up friends. So I had a lot of time of being my own friend.
J R: The music you liked was probably something you could bring with you everywhere you went, though.
KEN: Well, that wasn’t really happening yet, other than as a musical listener. But when we moved to Bellingham, we stopped moving around. And as I became a teenager, I started moving away from playing with toys and stuff.
JR: So you started putting together your first band when you were, like, in sixth grade?
KEN: Yeah. I met this guy Chip Westerfield in sixth grade, and we became friends, and then by seventh grade we had the band going. We wrote a few songs, but mostly we did covers, Beatles songs and stuff. I did write songs at home, though. I actually wrote a kind of weird, science-fiction-esque rock opera about this time. I had ten songs, and I recorded them with just a guitar and singing into a ghetto blaster. I’ve since lost the cassette. I’d bet it’d be interesting to know what those songs were like, because they had chord progressions and lyrics, and some of them were really strange.
J R: This was like your Blade Runner, or something like that, eh?
KEN: Oh, this would be more in the Lifehouse vein [Pete Townsend’s infamous rock opera/film project; conceived between Tommy and Quadrophenia, the project was scrapped for various reasons with some of the Lifehouse songs eventuallyrecorded by The Who as the famous LP Who’s Next. All of the project’s recordings were released as the six-CD box set Life-house Chronicles in 2000- MS]. I was pretty obsessed with The Who at the time, so I had to write a rock opera! So Chip and I formed this band, Shout, and we actually played gigs. We played at a talent show, and an eighth grade bake sale! [Jack laughs] And we played at our eighth grade dance, even. One of the songs in our repertoire was [1981’s] “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band.
JR: Shame on you!
KEN: The gym teacher was the administrator of the eighth grade dance, and he really took us to task. He pulled the plug on us.
JR: Because you should have been playing [1960 jazz hit] “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck. [i.e., some more “formal” music] It might have been a little over your head!
KEN: I don’t think Mr. Gleason had an appreciation for Brubeck.
JR: He probably just looked liked him! [meaning nerdy]
KEN: No, he wasn’t nearly that cool.
JR: So this is Shout, that may or may not have included Thor Hanson! He is sure he was a member, but you can’t seem to recall!
K E N: I wonder if maybe he was an early drummer or something? It’s possible. But then, Chip and I started high school, and we continued kind of farting around. We never played another gig again after junior high, but in our first year of high school, we continued to jam over at our drummer Dean Rothcar’s house. One day, Chip and I were going to the music store downtown, and we’d heard about this kid who had just moved to town from Billings, Montana, who was like a guitar shredder. And lo and behold, there this guy was, in the music store, shredding away, playing Van Halen and Iron Maiden songs by himself. That was his daily ritual. So Chip said, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about this guy, we need him in our band.” And that’s how we met Jon Auer. Jon’s “growing up” history is fairly complex, but he’d lived in Bellingham before, and was back in town. He was in eighth grade, and we were ninth graders.
J R: This would have been around 1982 or so? [Yep] In the midst of the post-punk revolution and the beginnings of real hardcore rumblings.
KEN: Yeah, which was all Greek to me in Bellingham! We did have a college radio station that was fairly decent, but I hadn’t quite discovered it yet. I was still into classic rock. My step-brother gave me a stack of records in junior high that included Led Zeppelin, and weird Bee Gees records, like [1970’s] Cucumber Castle.
JR: Yeah, that is a weird one. The only one I don’t like of theirs from 1962-1972.
KEN: It’s actually a record that I truly enjoy. By that time I had kind of taken classic rock as far as it had gone, so I went to a record store in Bellingham and asked the guy to pick out two records that would be awesome to have. He had me get [1983’s] Mummer by XTC, and [1979’s] A Different Kind of Tension by Buzzcocks, which was like…
JR: One of the greatest albums ever made! Yes!
KEN: Yeah, and that opened it right up. That was the best thing that could have happened to me as a 14-year-old.
JR: Wow, what an LP to start with, of all albums of that time! That one is really contentious and truly challenging. The second side of that album just blew my mind when I was 17.1 was already a long-standing fan of the group, they were my out and out favorites, and it still completely floored me.
KEN: I heard they wrote and recorded the whole record on acid. JR: Pete [Shelley] more or less did. That’s why it’s so paranoid, at least that second side [songs such as “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Life,” “Hollow Inside,” and “A Different Kind of Tension”—you can get it just from the titles!]. The [final] three singles that followed it, same thing!
KEN: I heard a story from [their ace producer] Martin Rushent that Pete Shelley bought a house in the country, and realized he was afraid of the dark, insects, and quiet.
JR: [laughing] That sounds like something Pete would do!
KEN: He’d turn on all the lights, but had all the doors and windows open, because it was summer, so instantly his house was filled with insects! [changing subject] So, after the Shout thing dissipated, Chip and I kind of diverged from that point. He was basically a Keith Richards lover, which was fine up to a point, but I had discovered new music. I became friends with this guy in my freshman photography class, which I failed, named Scott McCloud. And he was more adventurous musically than other friends of mine. We started listening to “Brave New Wave” on CBC [a Montreal-based radio show]. And also, there was some BBC stuff that got shipped over. Because of our access to Canadian media, we heard The Smiths when their album had yet to come out, and all sorts of stuff that was really mind-boggling. Then I discovered the SST bands, and got really into Black Flag, and Husker DO. Every time a Black Flag or Hiisker Dii record came out, I had the guy at [Northwest record store chain] Cellophane Square in Bellingham set it aside. That was my main record-buying place. I would be aware when they were coming and get them on the first day.
JR: Speaking of which, I imagine [Husker Du drummer] Grant Hart knows about the Posies song “Grant Hart” [from 1996’s Amazing Disgrace]?
KEN: For sure! As a matter of fact, he started coming to our shows! We played a festival in 1996 and he was on the bill! He was going to play solo, and Jon and I actually played bass and drums, and we did [Husker Dii songs] “Diane,” “Green Eyes”…
JR: …Which Jon himself recorded and released fairly recently [on his all-covers mini-LP 6-1/2]. Wow, what a great time you must have had!
KEN: Yes! We did a few others, I think we did “She Floated Away” and “Keep Hanging On.” It was insane, all my favorite Grant Hart [penned] Husker Du songs! “Sorry Somehow” is my favorite, but we didn’t get to do that one.
JR: He still does all those songs when he plays these days! I just saw him by himself at [that same] Mercury Lounge.
KEN: Then he opened for Jon and my acoustic show in Minneapolis, which is a really bizarre thing! [Jack laughs] That didn’t seem right at all!
JR: Well hey, weird as that might seem, at least both acts were good—it’s not like when Alex Chilton was opening for Counting Crows!
KEN: [continuing] So Scott and I formed The Genetic Defects, and that was my main high school band.
JR: Sounds very punky.
KEN: It wasn’t so much punky. We were more influenced by The Butthole Surfers, or someone like that, but it wasn’t as violent or loud. We just made up shit, some of it was kind of jokey. We made up songs and recorded them, right there. There was no actual writing of songs. We would just start layering stuff, by ping-ponging cassette players, and overdubbing that way. At the shows we’d have to make up all new songs while we were playing. So we never played any of the recorded songs live.
JR: Weird. Pretty ass-backwards, isn’t it?
K E N: Oh, it was kind of ass-forwaxds, in a way. Just being able to make up a whole show’s worth of songs, and have them all come out as songs is pretty awesome. [For the band, maybe! Poor audience!—MS] And then, Jon and I hung out and recorded stuff at his house all the time, and that kind of eventually led to The Posies.
JR: Weren’t you an R.E.M. fan?
KEN; Oh, I totally forgot, that was another pivotal moment! In 1984, I was doing landscaping stuff for a friend of my step-dad’s, and there was a new-wave station, KYYX in Seattle, that I could just barely get. They played a lot of Flock of Seagulls and that kind of stuff, but this song came on that had guitars that was just awesome. I was like, “What the fuck was that?” It had a weird kind of rootsy thing to it.
JR: Was it “Radio Free Europe”?
KEN; Yeah! I thought it was Dave Edmunds or something, because I’d just seen a Dave Edmunds video on MTV. Of course they didn’t back-announce it, and I just could not fucking figure out what it was. But I read about R.E.M., and I realized they had to be talking about the band that played that song. So I hunted high and low for a record by them, and finally found the only copy in Bellingham of [R.E.M.’s first LP, 1983’s] Murmur. It was on cassette, and that was a total life changer. And then Reckoning came out a few months later .
JR: You were 15 years old at the time too, which I think bears mentioning. Very young to have such cool tastes!
KEN: That was how Bellingham was. In Seattle, there were really cool kids who knew a lot of stuff, and they made the cool stuff all the more intimidating for some people. But Bellingham was like random-ville, there was no telling what records would be in the stores. So it made things very exciting.
JR: I bet you could never have imagined, when you were 12 or 15, playing Beatles covers and getting into Husker Du and R.E.M., that you’d one day play with Ringo Starr, join R.E.M. on tour, and have Grant Hart open for you! [laughs] The complete troika of your favorite early-teens music!!! That sure doesn’t happen to most people!
KEN; It’s really inexplicable! I remember doing a Minus 5 session for their second record [1997’s The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy], and I brought down a bunch of guitars and instruments just to fuck around with. And my very first guitar was in the mix. It was this super-cheap, crap Italian-made Vox guitar. [R.E.M. guitarist and Minus 5 bandmate] Peter [Buck] was looking through the stuff, and he said, “Oh, this looks interesting.” And he flips open this crummy case, and there’s my first guitar, and he picked that one to play. I thought, “I learned to play R.E.M. songs on that guitar.” And I didn’t say a word!!!…
JR: You didn’t? You should have!
KEN: It was just such a weird juxtaposition. Everybody has these ideas about wanting to be in their favorite band, or whatever, and I know it doesn’t happen to everybody, but it happened to me, somehow. So I have to believe it has to be possible for everybody. It’s a mystery to me. I don’t really know what it means. Maybe it means nothing other than it just happened!
JR: Yeah, and we haven’t even mentioned Big Star! You’ve had quite a long and unusual career! And you’re still only 33! That sounds like the career of some 60-year-old bluesman, or something, [tune in next issue for the exciting conclusion to Stringfellow’s truly bizarre and chameleon-esque career on his own and with so many artists he’s long admired.]
PART TWO – ISSUE #52
Welcome to the second half of our interview with Ken Stringfellow, of the excellent on again/off again Posies and his new, superb solo career. A full introduction ran with part one last issue, which mostly ran down the Posies’ considerable history, and a summary of the best-known different bands/musicians/projects the talented and affable Stringfellow has been involved with—into which we go into much more detail in this part of the chat. For example, if you missed it, Stringfellow’s bursting resume includes:
#1: Co-leader of The Posies since its inception 15 years ago, with a string of credible-to-great power-pop-flavored rock LPs, hinging on the pairing of his songwriting and singing with that of co-founder Jon Auer.
#2: How much do we owe Stringfellow and Auer for their massive part in reviving Big Star, perhaps the greatest post-Beatles power-pop band ever, and a group none of us under the age of 45 ever thought we’d see in our lifetime?
#3: How many of us get to tour the globe in our favorite band from when we were in junior high school? Yet that’s exactly what Stringfellow has done, joining R.E.M. as one of their touring musicians since their 1998 Up comeback tour. He’s also played live with at least two R.E.M. offshoots, The Minus Five (with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and early Posies’ champion and pal, Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey), and the more one-off “Four Croakers” (R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, McCaughey, and Robyn Hitchcock).
#4 & 5: Two more of his teenage favorites were Husker Du and Cheap Trick. The latter’s singer and guitarist, Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen, joined The Posies in the studio on Amazing Disgrace to guest on “Hate Song.” And as Stringfellow revealed in part one, another song on that 1996 LP, “Grant Hart” led to Stringfellow and Auer serving as a live backing group for Hart on a bunch of their old Husker favorites.
#6 and #7: Just when you’re about to say, “What next, did he sit in with the bloody Beatles?” comes the astonishing answer | YES! Stringfellow actually joined Ringo Starr on stage to sing [ with him (and Randy Bachman) in concert. We discuss it below, I as we do his stint during another memorable evening trading licks : live with none other than Neil Young!
#8: If all that isn’t enough for you, how about this: Screw all his side projects, unusual and exciting as they may be; Stringfellow is no mere sideman hack! The Posies’ best songs such as Stringfellow’s “Please Return It” are reason enough to admire him. And now, with only his second solo LP (his first, 1997’s very patchy This Sounds Like Goodbye, was strictly lo-fi and experimental), he’s recorded and released the finest LP of his long career to date by far, and easily one of the five best LPs of all 2001, in the extraordinary, Mitch EASTER-produced Touched (Manifesto Records). Released, oddly enough, right on 9/11, it became the absolutely perfect post-9/11 soothing, spiritual-quality LP, as if fate had deigned it to appear exactly when it did. We’re still listening to it, 18 months later.
In any case, it was a fine time sitting down with him and all his fun and funny anecdotes and remembrances (for such a young guy!) here in New York in the summer of 2002, at a tiny little Thai Restaurant called Kai Kai. If you missed part one, we talked a lot about Touched; his post 9/11 concerts that moved this writer so much; and his pre-Posies days in Bellingham, Washington, where his incredible fascination with music began (he was obsessed with such giants as The Beatles, Who, Buzzcocks, XTC, ’60s Bee Gees, etc, bless him!), where he went to middle school with my wife’s first cousin, oddly enough, and apparently started his first band, Shout, with one of that cousin’s close friends, Thor Hanson.
Since this interview, Stringfellow hasn’t stopped at all—of course not! He’ll be 92 and smoking a George Burns cigar before that happens—so we emailed him to ask him to update us on what his latest activities were, since our conversation. This was his reply: “Well, in the last part of ’02 I produced some tracks for the upcoming Long Winters LP to be released this spring on [Seattle’s] Barsuk records; I collaborated with Jill Sobule on some songs, produced the recordings, etc; I went on tour in Europe with White Flag; I recorded some new tracks for an upcoming split EP with Jon Auer, to be released this spring on Arena Rock Records; and currently I am on tour both playing in and opening for White Flag in Spain; after that I am heading to Senegal to do some recording, collaborating with a band there called WaFlash. I am going to be working on a new solo record this year, and there’s some R.E.M. in the summer. This month The Minus 5’s new LP Down With Wilco comes out on YepRock, I play on that and will be doing some M5 shows here and there.”
The man must breathe, eat, and sleep rock ‘n’ roll. A Big Takeover bird of a feather! As Neil Young himself might say, “Long may he run.”
My thanks to Barbara Mitchell for facilitating our getting in touch with him, to Mark Suppanz for his expert transcription of both parts, and the dashing Mr. Stringfellow himself for granting us a full 90 minutes of his time—and for playing his Touched gems at my wedding, a few months after this interview! The man looks damn sharp in a Prada suit, too; if it wasn’t for the snazzy, small green tint in his hair he could be an NBA coach! Pat Riley look out.
The conversation picks up where we left off, with Stringfellow recounting for us on the events that led him to become part of R.E.M.’s touring band since 1998, again, a bizarre turn of events given how much he idolized them so long ago:
JR: How did you end up in R.E.M.? I know Scott [McCaughey] from Young Fresh Fellows has been playing with them for so long. I guess The Posies had announced their breakup and stuff…
KEN: Sort of. You know, The Young Fresh Fellows were local heroes, they started playing in 1983-84, they came to Bellingham and played the college, so I’d seen them and loved them. When I moved to Seattle, they were a very popular band around town, and they had the notoriety of being an indie band that did a U.S. tour, on their second indie record [Topsy Turvy] in 1985, or something like that.
JR: Yeah, the [guitarist] Chuck [Carroll] era.
KEN: Jon [Auer] and I, through people we met, kind of gravitated toward the Pop Llama [Seattle record label that released YFF’s first two LPs] people, because of our love of that music. And if there was an opportunity to hobnob with those kind of folks, we would definitely hobnob. Scott McCaughey heard our first album Failure when it was initially issued as a cassette…
JR: On 23 Records…
KEN: Exactly, which was something we just made up. We were just dubbing cassettes with a bunch of double-cassette decks in our basement. Jon was getting promo cassettes from the record store he worked at, and we’d tape over ’em! Sometimes we’d make a copy of Failure where the last song would be the end of a Kenny Loggins song, or whatever! [loud laughter] Or the tape would run out halfway through the last song. Anyway, Scott was really helpful, and gave us our first show. We were huge fans of Scott’s, and he became a mentor of ours, and a friend, and over the years a compatriot. The first Minus 5 record [1995’s Old Liquidator] was to be Scott’s second solo record.
JR: Right, I have his first solo record [1989’s My Chartreuse Opinion} with the Bee Gees cover [1969’s Odessa’s classic, “You’ll Never See My Face Again”].
KEN: …And he asked me to join him on his concept for his solo record. He and I would go to Egg Studios, Conrad Uno’s basement studio, and play the songs live, facing each other like you and I are now, each with an acoustic guitar and a mic to sing. He’d do the lead vocal and I’d sing some harmonies. So we recorded a couple of songs like that, and he had a couple other things he recorded elsewhere that were a little different. And then in addition to what we had, we said, “Well, let’s overdub a couple things.” And then the songs had millions of overdubs on them, and all sorts of people ended up playing, and one of those people was [R.E.M.’s] Pete Buck. The Young Fresh Fellows had played in Athens, GA, and Scott being record-reviewer guy [for The Rocket] was at the R.E.M. shows in Seattle, and had very much similar tastes to Pete Buck…
JR: Two staunch record enthusiasts indeed!
KEN: Exactly. So when Peter moved to Seattle, he really only knew Scott, so he called him and they became best friends and still are to this day. So that’s how Peter ended up coming down to play, and that’s when I first met him. And we all had a great time playing together. And there were some live Minus 5 gigs, like in ’96, quite a ways after that record came out.
JR: Was that the tour with Mark Eitzel and Tuatara and all that stuff? [the “Magnificent Seven” tour]
KEN: I only appeared with The Minus 5 at the Seattle shows. I think that tour was in ’97. This was just a couple of local shows, with Scott, Peter, Jon, and I. So we had that experience of playing together, and Scott started playing with R.E.M. in ’94, auditioning for what would become the ’95 tour.
J R: Yeah, I saw that Monster tour. At Madison Square Garden.
KEN: And on that tour, I remember, Peter bought my wife at the time, Kim [Warnick, of the wonderful Fastbacks, now in Visqueen], and I tickets to the R.E.M. show at the Gorge [Amphitheater, in George, WA], and invited us down, always very friendly. And then, interestingly enough, in ’98, The Posies weren’t really broken up yet, but I remember hanging out at theCrocodile [Cafe, Seattle nightclub, part-owned by Buck] and Peter was mentioning, “Hey, if you want to record some stuff, you should come over to my house, I’ve got an eight-track there, and I really love playing bass, do you want somebody to play bass on your stuff?” And I was like, “That’s awesome.” Then [R.E.M.] finished making [1998 LP] Up, and Barrett Martin had been playing on the record, who had played in a Bellingham band at one point, this band called The Thin Men, like way back in the day…
JR: That was before what, Screaming Trees…?
KEN: Before Screaming Trees, he was in Jack Endino’s band… Oh hell, what was that called?
JR: Skin Yard? [Yeah] You’re really taxing my brain here!
KEN; Yeah, that was good recall! We played shows with The Thin Men back in Bellingham, and I always thought Barrett was a great drummer. And then he moved to Seattle, and started playing in Seattle bands, and ended up in Screaming Trees. So R.E.M. made Up, and they were thinking about doing a tour at some point for the record. And Barrett said that he would rather pursue his own things. He didn’t really feel he was qualified to be a keyboard player, and since the record was very keyboard-heavy, it would require someone with those kind of skills. And he said theyshould get me, which was totally out of the blue. We had played together in Minus 5, but he knows thousands of musicians, so I still think it was very interesting that I was the person he thought of! And Scott was like, “Of course,” and Peter was like, “Oh, yeah,” and the other guys [in R.E.M.] were like, “Oh… another guy from Seattle?” [both laugh] But I got a call from Barrett, saying, “Hey, I just recommended you to the R.E.M. guys for their next tour, just to let you know, so maybe Peter’s gonna talk to you about it.” I was like, “All right,” trying to suppress my expectations, because that would really be quite a dream come true. And. Peter eventually did talk to me, and said, “Yeah, here’s the deal, what we’d like to do is a promo tour for this record, and then we’re gonna do a world tour, and we’d like to have you audition for the tour.” And I said, “Great. Tell me when, where, what songs! I already know a lot of R.E.M. songs from the old days…”
JR: .. .that they won’t be playing! [both laugh; short conversation follows on the old songs R.E.M. did end up playing on that tour, right back to their earliest releases]
K E N: So, I was all ready for my big audition and I got a call from Peter two weeks after that, saying, “Oh, you know what, don’t worry about the audition, you’re in!” And then he said, “Scott will e-mail you a song list that I wrote down for him.” And I got an e-mail of like 50 songs. And I called Peter back, and said, “That’s great, what do you want me to play? Am I playing keyboards or guitar?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t know, just kind of learn the songs and we’ll figure it out.” And so, just to be sure, I learned 50 songs on guitar, bass, and keyboards! Including [Green’s] “World Leader Pretend,” that has a piano solo, and I worked that all out, which we never played!
JR: Too bad, it’s a wonderful song.
KEN; It is a wonderful song. At the same time, they had also decided not to go on tour. [Jack laughs] So it’s totally like a wild ride, already. And that was fine, it didn’t matter to me. I was just like, “I’m gonna play with R.E.M., that’s great.” So we got together at Pete’s house a few times to go over things, he has a little attic/jam room with keyboards and recording stuff. We went through some of the songs, and immediately started messing around on his eight-track with musical ideas for future things, and for fun. Then we went to San Francisco—I had never even met Mike [Mills] or Michael [Stipe]. I knew of Joey [Waronker, drummer] because we had played a show with Beck, and I’d seen him play, and thought he was awesome. I had no idea that he’d actually opened for me in Minneapolis, playing with Walt Mink in 1991.
JR: Walt Mink, that’s a ways back! We [Springhouse] were on the same label as them, Caroline. You’re really jogging my memory with all these bands today!
KEN: And then we just dove into it. It went like this: The first show we were to play was the Bridge School show [annual benefit organized by Neil Young, for children with severe speech and physical impediments], so it was all acoustic, like unplugged style. We had one day to rehearse this whole promo tour, with all these gigs and TV stuff and whatnot, plus full-length concerts for MTV like the one we did at [NYC’s] Bowery Ballroom. So I hadn’t even learned the songs this way [unplugged], and it was totally different instruments, but I was rolling with it, you know? And the second day was—and none of this is meant to be a complaint, it was totally like an adventure—the second day was merely a three-hour jam with Neil Young at the practice place, playing alternating versions of “On The Beach” and “Ambulance Blues” [both from Young’s 1974 LP On the Beach] over and over again.
JR: You really have played with everybody, haven’t you? Neil Young, Ringo Starr…not a bad life at all!
KEN: … it’s just a one chord progression, and I’m trying to jam with Joey, and just trying to get it really… and I’m fucking nervous too, this is my first show! Basically the way it’s set up, there’s a grand piano here, and the drum set, and I’m kind of standing in this space here, and behind the group are some bleachers where the kids from the Bridge School sit with their families. It’s pretty common for a performer to go back there and play something to the kids, or a singer to sing to them, because it’s their show. So you know, Neil’s kind of scary, he’s all scruffy, and dressed like a homeless guy [Jack laughs], and he has a fedora on, and he’s shuffling around like a maniac… he kind of has a Jack Nicholson look in a weird The Shining way. So he starts galumphing over in his weird, Neil way, and this is like ten seconds into the long jam session. I thought, “Oh, he’s gonna walk to the space, and he’s gonna play to the kids!” I’m backing up, trying to get to the piano. But then I also realized that when I started to vamp, he would start playing with the holes that I was leaving, and he would fill it in. I thought, “Wait a second, I’m jamming with Neil Young!” [Jack laughs] He just gets up there, and he’s doing his total spaz thing, like six inches away. There was a camera that could get a close-up, and there was a big DiamondVision [screen], but it was also on a TV monitor backstage, so people who couldn’t see from the side of the stage could watch. And a friend of mine who was back there said that he kind of turned, and said, “Wait a second, Ken’s jamming with Neil!” And he said that my face was purple’. Beyond red! [Jack laughs loudly] He said it looked like I might die in the next 30 seconds, because I was like, [in robotic voice] “Can-not make mistake! First show with R.E.M., jamming with Neil!” It was pretty heavy duty. That was a huge digression of how I started playing with R.E.M., but it is one of the better stories that came out of it.
KEN: Oh, man…that was insane. And remember, I’d played with The Posies for years, and I was an experienced musician, but I wasn’t like, a professional guy, who was used to playing in these situations…
JR: Yeah, you weren’t a studio hack.
KEN: …which are the same as all rock, but different. In other words, a lot of times the musicians are better, as in this case. So then the third day was a cursory run through of a possible set of some of the songs that we played. So the rest of the promo tour I was winging it. But the first gig was the Bridge School show, and this is just a good story, of super “green” guy [Ken] getting thrown into a major situation! We played the Neil Young song first [“Ambulance Blues”], with him, and I was just playing the Neil Young pump organ, kind of in the back… and that was rad, but the thing was turned around, so I couldn’t really see. Then in our set, we played the song “Country Feedback,” [from R.E.M.’s 1991 Out of Time] and had Neil come out and play, and I’m the bass player in that song, because Mike [Mills] plays organ and piano. And what it ended up being—and this was like, day one—was basically, Neil picking me out as the guy that was something to jam off of!!! So I’m sitting there playing my bass bit…
J R: … minding your own business!
JR: And that’s a good ten years after the ups and downs of the Posies, obviously. [Yep] You were starting to tell me some Posies stories about some of the bands that opened for you, where you said, “Oh God, those guys will never get anywhere!”
KEN: Oh, yeah, that was that one year, the Frosting on the Beater tour, in 1993. In one year, The Cranberries, Blind Melon, and Counting Crows all supported us. In each case, I had to admit, I really didn’t think much of their music, and I don’t like to put people down, especially in print, but I was young and I was a saucy little bastard. I was like, [shrugging indifferently] “Huh. Listen to these guys!” Plus, you know, the Cranberries weren’t very nice. As a matter of fact, I will go as far as to say that they deserve… [restraining himself, thinks better of speaking his mind]… whatever. They opened for us, and the promoter had invited us all to go to this go-cart place. And so we hung out with them for the afternoon, and they weren’t super friendly but they weren’t unfriendly. But then I got to talking to one of them, and at the show, Mike Gibbons, the drummer for Badfinger, had come down to the show.
JR: That’s amazing. I’ve never met him.
KEN: Yeah, this was in Orlando, and he lives there. He was hanging out, and of course, he was a sad figure… I mean, he was in Badfinger, and how can you be happy, when people you were in a band with died, and all that stuff…
JR: Died? How about, both hung themselves. That makes it even sadder!
KEN: Yeah… But, you know, we were pretty honored to have him there. So I was talking to one of the Cranberries, and I was like, “Hey, the guy who played drums in Badflnger was at the show, that’s pretty rad.” And the guy was like, “Who?” I was like, “You know, Badfinger. They were on The Beatles label, and they were produced by George Harrison and Todd Rundgren, and made these great records.” [Begins singing the chorus to “Without You,” the 1972 #1 hit for Harry Nilsson they wrote.] And the guy finally got pissed at me, and goes, [in Irish accent] “Look, I don’t know who they are, and if I did know, I probably wouldn’t like ’em!” And he stormed off. I was like, “Fuck you, dickwad! You call yourself a musician? In a guitar band?” It would be one thing if you were deep into house music, or something, but… whatever. Nothing excuses not knowing your history, in my mind.
J R: And taking a bad attitude about it, besides. Pretty sad.
KEN: The Counting Crows people were actually decent, and the singer, Adam Duritz, said very nice things about The Posies.
JR: He was obviously a huge Big Star fan, too. [Ken agrees] They had [Big Star’s] Alex Chilton open for them. Much as I never liked their music either.
KEN: And the opposite happened, they lent their services as Big Star’s opening act at [San Francisco’s] Flllmore, unannounced, but leaking it out enough that it would fill the place. I have listened to their music, and I will honestly say that it is not my cup of tea
JR: Fair enough. Like I said, mine neither.
KEN: As concerns Blind Melon, same kind of thing, not my cup of tea. A couple of those guys moved to Seattle, and turned out to be real nice people. But in those cases, as a young man, I laughed at all those bands. And they all became huge the next day.
JR: Well, I’ve certainly been on record saying that Blind Melon abused us [Springhouse, when we played with them in New Haven, CT], so I don’t have any compunction talking about their tour manager and their late singer. Or their five roadies before they had a single record sold, but whatever! I know what you mean, sour grapes kind of get stale. But let’s just say when their singer died, I think I actually laughed out loud. When you are a jerk like that to someone else for no reason, they don’t forget it!
KEN: I know. It’s easy to put someone down. I don’t take it personally when someone says my music’s terrible. That’s fine, I like it and that’s enough.But they actually got deeply offended, because they heard that we said something disparaging about their music. Same thing with Candlebox. The singer had been like, “Hey dude, how you doing?” You know, like a friendly guy. And then one day, I went to a rock show, and this is a guy I didn’t really know, but he was always friendly, so I walked by and was like, “Hey dude!” and he was like stone-faced. So I was like, “Hmmm.” Then I heard that he’d heard something that I guess I used him as a reference point, or something… I guess I said something bad about his music. But, God bless ’em, they’ve all sold more records than me!
JR: Well, your records are better, so maybe like Big Star, you’ll sell the lion’s share in the coming years! In fact, you’ve had an interesting four years since the Posies’ “supposed” breakup. I brought a few of these CDs with me that have come out, even a whole box set [2000’s four-CD At Least At Last]. I’ve got an EP [2001’sNice Cheekbones and a Ph.D.], a best-of [2000’s Dream All Day: Best of the Posies], a live album [2000’s Alive Before the Iceberg], and a live acoustic album [2000’s In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Plugging In]. That’s not bad for a band that’s broken up! [both laugh] You were never this “prolific” when you were around!
KEN: Yeah, you’re right, it’s more records than we released when we were together! I never thought of that.
JR: It’s five to four, right? You pulled it out in extra innings! Then you add your first solo LP [1997’s This Sounds Like Goodbye], the Saltine record [2000’s Find Yourself Alone EP], and now your second solo LP, [2001’s] Touched, and you’ve been releasing quite a bit. Am I missing anything?
KEN: Of the Posies stuff and my stuff, that’s about it. The Saltine stuff makes up an EP, and then there’s Twin Princess [Stringfellow’s experimental collaboration with Seattle artist/singer and Posies photographer Bootsy Holler]. I’ll send you one of those!
JR: We’ve been talking about Ringo, and Neil Young, and R.E.M., people like that. Obviously, when you’re trying to sell records, labels often say things like, “Has played with…” or “Associated with…” Well, who are all these bands that you’ve played with? I mean, I know some of them, Lagwagon, Harvey Danger, Damien Jurado, and Fastbacks. But who is Peter Bagge?!?
KEN: Oh, he draws comic book, art stuff. Did you ever see Hate comics? [No] It’s kind of well-known, in the non-children’s comic scene. He’s a big music fan, and they had a series in England where a bunch of noted comic book artists put together and illustrated a compilation CD, with a book that talks about their favorite music and stuff. We were one of the tracks, he had [Posies’ Failure track] “I May Hate You Sometimes,” as one of his fave all-time tracks, along with The Spice Girls and Bee Gees! [See www.peterbugge.com for more info on his work.]
JR: And as they say on late-night commercials, “But wait! There’s more!” Loud Family I know, but who’s Swirl 360?
KEN: They are two good-looking twins, Kenny and Denny Scott, who called themselves Swirl, got themselves a record deal with Mercury, and found out there was another Swirl. A friend of mine hooked me up with them, and they turned out to be really nice guys, and we wrote a song together that was an amalgamation of something I had written for White Flag, called “Ask Anybody.” We kind of changed it from [the White Flag version], but it also was called “Ask Anybody,” and that ended up on the [Swirl 360] record, and I played a little bit on the song. But unfortunately, for my kid’s college fund, the record didn’t sell much!
JR: Not unless they’ve lowered tuition rates since I graduated!! What the hell did you do with Donovan?
KEN: Oh, nothing. The Posies did a track for a Donovan tribute record, [called Island of Circles; the Posies contributed “The River Song” to the LP]
J R: Now mind you, you guys have been on about a hundred tribute records, haven’t you?
KEN: We’ve done a lot, and the whole time we’ve always said we hate tribute records, and didn’t want to be on any of them! Yet each time [we get asked] we’re like, “Well, OK!”
JR: That’s because you kept getting on tributes for really good artists, like The Hollies, Left Banke, Bee Gees, and Zombies…
KEN; Well, the Hollies and Bee Gees songs were already recorded, so that was easy. A lot of those [tribute songs] were stuff we had laying around, anyway.
JR: The Kinks one Jon [Auer] is on?
KEN: The Kinks one, I didn’t get a copy of that one yet!
JR; That’s a really excellent one, actually. If I were to compile a top ten list for tribute albums, it would be on there. And White Flag, how did you hook up with Bill [Bartell]?
KEN: Oh, we’re not supposed to say that. It’s always supposed to be Pat Fear [Bartell’s nom de plume in White Flag; Stringfel-low goes by Kim Crimson]. He gets really mad about that!
JR: Oh, sorry Bill! [actually, Bill Bartell’s name is mentioned a few times on White Flag’s official website, so he must not get that mad!—MS]
KEN: He was at a Fastbacks show in L.A., and met [Posies and Fastbacks drummer] Mike Musburger, and decided out of the blue to ask us if we wanted to be on a Germs tribute record [1996’s A Small Circle of Friends]. And to be honest, at the time I wasn’t familiar with The Germs. I’d seen [1981 Penelope Spheeris punk documentary] Decline of Western Civilization, and that was it.
JR: Yeah, it’s kind of hard to hear what they’re doing on that record. [Jack does an imitation of Germs singer Darby Crash singing “Manimal,” which sounds like someone attempting to sing while being strangled.]
KEN: More or less! So I dutifully went out, and got whatever Germs records were available, and I realized that I had heard “Richie Dagger’s Crime” before on a compilation, and that song was a favorite of Rick Roberts, our first bass player. And that song was not as crazy as it sounds…
JR: Crash could sure write lyrics. For such a loser!
KEN: I realized the chord progression could relate itself a little bit to some Beatles songs, and the cover version we did turns into an amalgamation of several Beatles songs, with the same chord progressions that are actually in the Germs song. And Pat thought it was his favorite Germs cover of all time, which was a high compliment!
J R: Very much so given his obsession with The Germs! And you toured with Long Winters, and played on their record too, right?
KEN: Yeah, I played just on the bonus track. There’s an unlisted song there that’s an old favorite of [singer] John Roderick’s dad. The last song, which is unlisted, called “Take Me Back to the Old Shantytown,” is a live track featuring John and his dad singing. I’m playing organ, and Bootsy Holler brought her dog, Pony, down to the session, and there’s a point where they sing, “Doesn’t mean a thing, not a doggone thing,” and right on the word “doggone” Pony is cued to bark. Chris Walla from Death Cab For Cutie is also involved…
KEN: Yeah, the third wave of Bellingham!
JR: Are you the first? Or second?
KEN: I have to be second wave. I’m gonna have to give credit to the Mono Men for getting records out first, back when they were an instrumental band called The Roofdogs.
JR: And there’s a Beesewax record which you produced [2000’s South of Boredom]?
KEN: Yeah, I’ve done a few things like that. I produced a few bands in Spain, a couple of them for Munster Records, Parkinson D.C. and a solo artist named Ross. And then a band named Cecilia Ann, named after the Pixies song. They’re from Granada. And then I did a couple of Swedish bands, a band called Backfish. It means something in Swedish, it doesn’t actually mean a fish on someone’s back! And a band called The Pushkins.
JR: The Pushkins, named after the author? Are you sure they weren’t a Russian band?
KEN: No, they come from a college town, so it’s forgivable! And various little things, but on every record I produce I end up playing a lot of stuff on it.
J R: How do you have time to do all this stuff, and still have time for the Posies and a solo career?
KEN: Well… I don’t know! We didn’t do much in 1997 [What? Slackers!—MS], so that gave me time to really pick up the production stuff. I used to have stuff going on seven days a week, week after week. And it’s only recently that that’s kind of slowed down. 2001 was my busiest year ever, and the beginning of this year was pretty busy. Now, it’s time for something new.
JR: Well, you’ve had a very good attitude, I think, for a musician who has been dropped by a major label, which has been a death knell for a lot of creative, interesting, and talented people.
KEN: Yeah, I think that a lot of people take that kind of stuff personally. Actually, we asked to leave. We definitely wanted to be dropped, and it worked out really well.
J R: They [DGC] didn’t do much for Amazing Disgrace, did they?
KEN: No, and I don’t blame them, only in that we really didn’t know anybody there anymore. All the people we had worked with had gotten fired or moved to other companies. I mean, there were some possibilities for us at that time, but I still think that our music was a little bit intricate.
JR: Yeah, you sure didn’t sound like Soundgarden.
KEN; By that time, the biggest stuff on the label was Weezer and Veruca Salt. And they are good bands, but just a lot more… I mean, you know, the more popular things tend to be more simple. The few exceptions I can think of are “MacArthur Park” [Jimmy Webb’s often-covered song, a #2 hit for actor Richard Harris in 1968 and #1 for Donna Summer in 1978] and “Classical Gas” [Mason Williams’ instrumental guitar hit, #2 in 1968]. But you don’t hear things like that on the radio anymore!
J R: Those harmonies that you did always seem to stand out as a plus for the band, but never seemed to be true for other bands in the charts at that time.
KEN: I think that is the thing that’s really hard for people to get. I think people like to have a voice to focus on. I don’t know why, in the era of The Beatles or Everly Brothers, that was different.
J R: Yeah, it seemed like everybody back then had to do them. It went back to the doo-wop and R&B bands harmonies…
KEN: It’s a one-voice kind of thing that people have an easier time with. Because it gives a personal focus. At least that’s the theory I have, I don’t know.
JR; I think harmonies are the great lost art. Because it does seem like it was a prerequisite in the ’60s. Even if you were a band like The Who, who were not as natural harmonizers as The Beatles, Hollies, Beach Boys, or Simon & Garfunkel, they still did them and did them really well. And all those doo-wop records of the ’40s and ’50s, and the rhythm & blues records that had harmonies, when bands had four singers.
KEN: Or a band like The Association. You don’t even know who’s in that band.
JR: Or Mamas & the Papas.
KEN: It’s just like a Greek chorus.
J R: And The Byrds too, with their three or four-part harmonies.
KEN: I’m not really sure why that’s harder for people to like now, because I can’t think of anyone who does that kind of thing now. [How about Teenage Fanclub?—LW]
J R: I think maybe Led Zeppelin kind of came along and quashed that. From that point on what you really needed was one voice singing all the songs, and he was the powerful front man. Everyone else just stood in the back, or something like that.
KEN: Even the most popular groups in the world, like N’Sync or Backstreet Boys, are supposed to be vocal groups, but I can’t really hear a lot of harmonies. It’s really like them all trading off on the melody. That’s weird, you have five guys and there aren’t any harmonies? That seems really odd.
JR: They’re not exactly The Platters, are they? [both laugh] KEN: [emphatically] No! More like the Pu Pu Platters! J R: Did you actually play on a record Ringo did?
KEN: On a Ringo record, no. Some of the people in Jellyfish did. Yeah, unfortunately, because we didn’t live in L.A., or weren’t easily accessible in L.A., we kind of missed out on that. Because they got to hang out at Ringo’s house and play on the Beatles kit. But we did meet him a couple of times, we went to the record release party, and met him for the first time. Then we opened for him when [Starr’s] All Starr Band played in 1992. At one point, standing on the stage, I don’t think that they all actually met. It was Ringo, Jody Stephens [of Big Star, one of the biggest Beatle-fan groups of all time], and Mike Musburger. They were in sort of a conversational group at one point. But Ringo is very funny, he was absolutely, exactly like you’d imagine Ringo to be. [Imitating Starr:] “All right, boys. Get your shit off the stage, we’ve got a show to do now!” You know, he’s chiding us, and he’s really funny. And then I told you the story the other day, about the [singing] “With a Little Help From My Friends” [with Starr live] experience.
JR: Oh right, how did that all come about?
KEN: Well, by a strange twist of fate, this gal that we knew from Seattle moved to L.A. and ended up becoming Ringo’s personal assistant. And he told us that he really enjoyed our songs, and thought the lyrics were really good. I was like, “All right, yeah, a Beatle stamp of approval!”
JR: I’ve only been in a room with a Beatle once in my whole life, and that was two months ago when I saw Paul McCartney at the Garden [and a second time a few months later at McCartney’s Atlantic City show].
KEN: Oh yeah? So, Ringo came to town for another show, this time at the Waterfront in Seattle—this would be like ’95 or ’96. And this gal, Ruth Ann, called me and said, “Come down! Come to the show. And I told Ringo he should have you come up and sing.” I was like, “That’s fine and all, I’m sure that won’t really be happening, but whatever!” So I came down, and met Ringo again, and Barbara [Bach], his wife. And I met [Grand Funk Railroad’s] Mark Farner, who was in the band at that time, and I’m really into Grand Funk, so that was awesome. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to meet Todd [Rundgren], which would have been really awesome too, but he wasn’t around. I’ve still never met him, though he’s Pete Buck’s next-door neighbor, evidently, in Hawaii.
JR: Yeah, I saw the videos of Bad Religion’s album they made with him there. He walks around without a shirt and like a baggy pair of pants, looking like a slob all day long! It’s pretty funny! He’s totally gotten off that control-freak thing he used to do, with XTC and The [Psychedelic] Furs, and people like that.
KEN: Yeah, the story I heard was that by 8 o’clock, he was either stoned, comatose, or ready to find the party.
J R: Yeah, he’s totally different now.
KEN: But the big meeting for me on the first Ringo tour was Burton Cummings, because I’m a huge Guess Who fan, and he was just kind of waiting for people to talk to him, he was super accessible and full of really good stories. And he answered the big burning question I had, which was “Why did you record your live album [1972’s Live at the Paramount] in Seattle?” And he sheepishly looked to the ground, and said, “Well, it was supposed to be Live at Carnegie Hall.” And I said, “Oh. Well, a slight geographical error!” He said, “What happened was, we had three shows booked at Carnegie Hall, and it was exciting, we flew out our wives and girlfriends, and a bunch of our friends, and some of them brought some coke, and pretty soon we’d done so much blow that we couldn’t play!” They played the show, but they were just horrible, because they were so excited about playing Carnegie Hall, that it spilled over into overdoing it.
JR: They couldn’t have waited for the Sheboygan [Wisconsin] show for that instead, huh?
KEN: The next show they could get the stuff set up at, and rebook the recording stuff, was Seattle. And they felt that, they didn’t really know anybody there, so they wouldn’t invite anybody, and it’d be safe. [Jack laughs] So at the Ringo show, I was watching the show from the semi-wings, no pun intended, and Ringo said, [imitates Ringo again] “I’d like to bring out a local musician hero, from The Posies, give him a big hand!” And some people knew who I was, it was an older crowd, obviously. So I start to walk up the stairs, and the bodyguards see this guy with a Black Flag t-shirt walking up, and no laminate—I think I had a sticky but I always put the stickies on the inside—and they just head-locked me! Barbara had to jump on them, and say, “No, he’s supposed to go up there, leave him alone!”
JR: They just announced you, for fuck’s sake!
KEN: And it’s funny, because I got up there, and Ringo said something like, “Hey, what the hell took you so long?”
JR: [jokingly] “I just had a meeting with the local intelligencia!” KEN: “They told me I should pay up and be a nice guy!”
J R: “They thought I wasn’t good enough to sing with you, Ringo, I’m sorry!” “Who’s this local wank anyway, get him!”
KEN: So they ushered me up to a mic, and it was “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and I shared a mic with Randy Bach-man, which was more Guess Who awesome-ness. I got to do, [sings] “Do you neeeeeed anybody…” It’s almost too insane for me to contemplate, in a way!
JR: I wish they’d put that out on video! We’d have a great laugh at you turning all purple again!
KEN: Yeah, I wish somebody did. But it was awesome. Then that night I got to party with the late John Entwhistle, at the Westin Hotel, who was, at the time, partying really hard, completely deaf, and impossible to understand.
JR: Drinking Jack Daniels by the bottleload, right? It was sure easy to understand why he might die young, eh!
KEN: He had a Jack on the rocks, and he was on the fuckin’ dancefloor at this cheesy hotel bar, shimmying up to some waitress, with his shirt unbuttoned with a “Boris The Spider” medal-lion thing. I tried to get some stories out of him, but I couldn’t really understand what he said. He did mention some story about how he associates some of his hearing loss. I asked him about Sun Amplification—because I think they were based in Oregon or something like that—how he hooked up with them, and he says he has no idea, but it was back in the days where things just sort of happened. “You need a new amp set-up?” And he’s like, “OK… I’ll have 50.” So they built him a concert rig that was ridiculously loud. Itt was as big as a P.A. system, just for bass. And they had it at a big soundstage rehearsal space, which still wasn’t going to be a tenth as big as the place that he was going to be playing with this rig. So he walked in, and plugged in his bass, and began playing, and it was so loud that he actually fell to the ground. And it was subsonic too, so it made him throw up…
JR: Hits you right in the stomach, yeah.
KEN: I don’t know if it made him shit his pants, but he kind of said, “That’ll be great, I’ll take it!” and walked out.
JR”, “Sold!!!” Oh, that’s really funny. Well, we’re starting to run out of time, so let me just quickly mention, for all the people that wouldn’t be interested in Entwhistle and Ringo, I’m still amazed at the two Big Star shows I saw. That is a band that I never thought I would see, and I’m sure, were it not for you and Jon [Auer], we wouldn’t have seen them. Given what we know about [bassist] Andy Hummel [not interested in playing the reunion shows], and obviously [singer/guitarist] Chris Bell being dead, you guys were a letter-perfect choice to replace them, at least I thought so. But we’ve heard it from Alex Chilton’s and Jody Stephens’ perspective, that they got this call out of the blue, from some school in Columbia, Missouri, requesting they play their college. And just out of sheer perversity, they said yes, huh?
KEN: I guess they called Jody, because Jody’s pretty easy to find.
JR; Yeah, because he works at Ardent Recording studio.
KEN: And they asked him and Jody said, “Sure! If you call Alex and ask him!” Knowing that Alex would say no. And they called him and Alex said yes! That’s the worst thing that could happen… Be careful what you wish for, you might get it! Now they were like, “Oh shit, what do we do?” Because now they had to have a band. And we knew Jody already, because we had looked into Ardent as a possible recording studio for Dear 23, but ended up deciding to stay in Seattle. But Jody had become a big-time Posies supporter in the meantime, and a friend…
JR: And he’d heard your version of [Bell’s] “I Am the Cosmos.” KEN; Yeah, and loved it. And “Feel” as well.
JR: “Cosmos” was a pretty rare song at the time.
KEN: Yeah, we got it off an 18th generation cassette. It was an honor to be asked, and it’s been awesome to play all those shows with them since, too!
JR: Having given up on the slightest possibility of ever getting to see that band do those songs ever in my lifetime, I am sure I am not alone in saying a huge “thank you” for helping to make them happen. What a thrill to hear Chilton singing those songs with Stephens again, and you and Jon.
KEN: You’re welcome!