Ready Steady Go!, 1994
Ready Steady Go! Interviewed the genial Ken Stringfellow when he landed in Leeds as part of the Big star re-union tour back in the mid 90’s. Ken and fellow Posies Jon Auer had teamed up with Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens for a short UK tour. Having released two classic albums on Geffen, ‘Dear 23’ and ‘Frosting On A Beater’, the Posies had already gained a cult following.
Since then the Posies have continued to release quality records, but just like their heroes Big Star, they seem destined to remain an obscurity. A little secret just waiting to be discovered by any aspiring pop fans…
In this revealing interview, Ken comes across, as not only a really cool, switched on guy but a really friendly one too. He talks a good game and has plenty to say about his music and his inspirations. He comes across a total music nut, which I found completely inspiring! He talks about growing up with the Carpenters, Ringo Starr covering the Posies, The lethargic Stone Roses, travelling a thousand miles to see the Smiths, joining Big Star, the Posies and loads more!
“I have a pretty strong memory of finding my parents Carpenters records, this was when I was probably five or six,” recalls Ken talking about his earliest childhood memories, “I would like go along to the laundry room and sing with the lyric sheet. The record is called ‘Now & Then’ and it’s played like a radio show. So, like somebody talks and they play, they do covers of old songs, they do ‘Yesterday Once More’, it’s like the concept, the introduction to the whole album. They do all those old songs with radio chatter in between. So I would like kinda turn it into a variety show and do the whole album. For some reason my voice has stayed in the Karen Carpenter range! But then I discovered my parents Beatles records, Beach Boys records and I started listening to those. Obviously those stuck around. I mean, I still like the Carpenters but the Beatles have a lot more, erm, variety”.
Ken is as warm and friendly as the Posies often sound on record, his American drawl adds a streak of haphazard humour to the things he talks about. He’s totally in love with music and he talks enthusiastically for what seems like hours.
Who would you say your are indebted to?
“Aw, well Big Star, definitely, at this point. But I’d also say XTC. When we started XTC, Squeeze and Elvis Costello were our biggest influences. The kind of new wave 80’s stuff. But the list is always growing, ‘cos there’s always new things to enjoy”.
Tell us about Ringo Starr covering your song, ‘Golden Blunders’?
“Peter Asher (from Peter and Gordon fame) became a big time record producer and manages and lives in LA, he manages Linda Ronstadt and produces her records and he was going to be working on this Ringo record. He was driving in the middle of the US like in the south somewhere and Golden Blunders came on the radio. ‘That’s a good track for Ringo’ – sop he tried to figure out what the song was and who done it and found our record and listened to it and played it to Ringo and Ringo didn’t like it. He thought it was too far out. Our version of it was too weird. Really, it’s not a weird song at all. It’s not like he was playing Ministry or anything. But then Ringo saw the lyrics written somewhere and he though ‘Aw, wow, it’s a deep song!’, so he liked it. The (Ringo) version is what it is. It’s very much like a 52-year-old millionaire doing a song in the 90’s. But he does play drums on it and I think he did a smashing job on drums. That’s the biggest honour. I mean ‘Golden Blunders’ is a Beatles pun and then a Beatle does it! And you’ve just gotta love Ringo’s drums, he does that ‘Ticket to Ride’ kind of thing!”
What do make of songwriting standards these days?
“Well it’s divided into a lot of different groups. To some people it’s important. There’s the school of thought, where the groove is the only thing that matters and there’s the song and craft of songwriting and melody and chord structure, is all that matters. I’m more a fan of the latter but there are good things to do with the former”.
Ken starts to give us an impromptu lesson in the art of songwriting and uses two beer mats to highlight the groove aspect and the song aspect!
“But your only gonna hit good things by chance (groove) whereas you have a lot more things to work with here (song). I get more out of a song that’s put together and does a few different things and takes you on a little journey. But there are plenty of bands around that do both. I think there’s so many great songwriters and bands right now. I think music is definitely on the up swing. Maybe the late 80’s were a bad period for music, but the 90’s are great so far”.
How does the 90’s compare with other decades?
“It’s a do it yourself, cultural enrichment kind of thing because, I think people were a lot more secure in the 80’s for whatever reasons and they didn’t try very hard to discover new things. A lot of circumstances in the world right now are a little bit scary, so I think people are trying a lot harder to find quality and pleasure and meaningful things and not into throwaway type of stuff as much. So I think that influences music in that people are really into sincere, real, honest like meaningful music, in all its forms. As opposed to disposable crap”.
Who are your favourite British bands?
“Well definitely Teenage Fanclub, I love them. All that comes to mind are older bands right now. I was a big Smiths fan and the Buzzcocks. I did like the Stone Roses. I think they must be total geniuses because they’ve just taken Geffen records for a zillion dollars and they never have to do anything. They have enough money to live for the rest of their lives. Plus they can stay in the studio as long as they want, all expenses paid. All they have to do it turn up, watch TV, hang out and they never have to make a record! They’ll just keep putting it off, like ‘Oh! Give us another year’ and they’ll get it. They’re pretty good about asking for that kind of stuff. I saw John Leckie in Vancouver and he quit the project and he said, ‘They’ll never finish’. They literally get up at like two in the afternoon, wander down to the studio sometime in the evening, watch the TV, have dinner, drink a few beers, hang out and talk for awhile and then about one or two o’clock they go home. Maybe, once a month they might write some songs!”
“The Smiths got to be pretty big, I think their highest chart record was ‘The Queen Is Dead’, maybe made the top 15 in the states. I was a big fan and I went to see them in California right after I was out of high school. I flew to California with the sole intention to see the Smiths closest performance to Seattle, which was a long, long way. I think a thousand miles and it was great!”
Ken is a true, self-confessed Anglophile. What was it like trying to keep up with the British scene from across the Atlantic?
“Well, there’s a good network but I didn’t know who the BMX Bandits were and stuff. The thing is, all these bands I will like and I know I will like them but they’re hard to come by”.
How did you manage to hook up with your heroes, Big Star for the reunion tour?
“Jon and I forced ourselves on the show, I mean Jody (Stephens) suggested us but the kids who were putting on the show wanted famous people, so the show would do well. But we were like, ‘No, no, no! We’re gonna do the show. You don’t understand this now but you will understand it, we’re gonna do the show!’ Eventually they heard our record and liked it and thought, ‘oh yeah, it makes total sense ‘cos they come as a package'”.
What did you learn from Alex Chilton?
“Just stuff about allowing anything to happen. (Not) trying to adhere to a set idea or set list or anything. Alex is too versatile to really need that kind of thing. Rather than trying to force him to play all these songs and trying to get him to do stuff, he just does what he wants and I’ve learnt to just roll with it and enjoy it. All the stuff he does off hand is amazing. I can just watch him play guitar while he’s warming up and it’s amazing. He’s a great guitar player”.
The Posies make music from the soul, in the same way Alex Chilton wrote his best heartfelt, passionate tunes. ‘Dear 23’, their second album catches them at their most repentant yet the melancholy is warm and absorbing. Everybody hurts, in the Posies world.
“On a personal level, our families are bit screwie!” says Ken attempting to find the meaning behind their lyrics, “especially Jon’s. Jon’s mom and dad have each married five times and so Jon’s seen a lot of failed relationships. I’m sure it’s rubbed off. But interestingly enough, both Jon and I married at a fairly young age. We’ve either decided we’ve seen enough mistakes or we’re totally oblivious and stupid! One of the two”.
“The self-depreciation kind of thing is a total Posies thing. I mean, everything from naming ourselves The Posies, knowing we would get a lot of shit for it, to naming our album ‘Failure’. I mean that was all part of the package. It was like, ‘Okay lets make a band that’s got to be such an ugly duckling, nerd band that people will have to listen to it on a musical level to really appreciate it. A lot of bands get by because they have a tough sounding name. So if you’re like a tough guy, you’re like, ‘I like all these tough bands and here’s a band with a tough sounding name, so I’m gonna like all those guys!”
“But you can’t really do that with us, so you have to get past a lot of those prejudices and preconcep-tions which is a challenge because most people don’t make the effort. But, I think it’s better, we stream out some unruly clients that way”.
Seattle is the home to the Posies. Seattle was, if you believe the fashion monthlies, the home of grunge. Ken paints a clearer picture on the city.
“I was thinking that Manchester and Seattle would be a lot alike because in the last five years they’ve had a big explosion in their music scene. There’s pleasant home-y qualities about Seattle but they’re are some depressing qualities and just because of the Smiths I guess, I picture Manchester as depressing and kind of like industrial and grey. I mean is that correct?”
Too f–king right it is!
“Seattle’s prosperous. We have Microsoft, which is this gigantic computer company, and Boeing supports ten cities in their revenues alone. The environment is grey. This summer there’s just been one week of sunshine which even for Seattle, it’s pretty bad, you just can’t escape it. When I lived in the Chicago area summer was a hundred degrees and so humid you could swim to where ever you wanted to go and then winter its suddenly sixty below and fifteen foot snow drifts. It’s very extreme whereas in Seattle it’s just kind of the same thing. It’s like forty-five degrees, it’s overcast and it’s not raining, it’s drizzling. Seeing that every day, you just want something extreme to happen. You want to see a hurricane or something horrible happen it gets so boring after awhile. I guess naturally that left people staying indoors and going to shows and doing music”.
“I like things that are different and unusual instead of the same like, Chuck Berry chord progression over and over again” reveals Ken about what he likes from music before giving a fascinating account of how the Posies sound is achieved.
“I guess songs are all accidents unless you’re like Bach or somebody like that, who could probably visualise everything he wanted to do before he wrote it down and the songs are more like mathematical. In music you’re just like playing guitar and you have thousands of things you come up with, for who knows why? A lot of them are rubbish and you throw ’em away and then sometimes, something just happens that just…It’s kinda scary because it’s like something you’ve done, that impresses you like. Wow! where did that come from!?”
What does it feel like for bands like the Posies to live in relative obscurity compared to the lives of luxury the likes of Whitney, Wacko and Phil Collins lead?
“Well pop singers like that have always been. It’s also interesting to look at the charts in the sixties and see things like Perry Como. When I think of the sixties, I think of the Zombies and The Beatles all those bands. I mean the Beatles were extremely successful but on a large scale of things it was like Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. The bands definitely had a limited appeal. I guess the only thing that makes a band interesting to people is that there’s this musical interaction, there’s something intellectually appealing about a band. I guess 80% of the population don’t give a shit who’s in the band, if there’s a band, what instrument it is. You know,they just put on music before they go to sleep. Or in the background whilst they’re doing the dishes or when they’re driving and they couldn’t care less”.
“You can’t make them care. I mean, I try. I mean, really. When I meet people that don’t really have an interest in music I try and show them that there are things worth being interested in music about. On a larger scale you just can’t convert everybody. So it will always be that way. I think they’ll always be enough people who enjoy… I mean, if it weren’t for people who enjoyed more challenging music certain things would never have survived. I think there’s always an audience that will sustain quality music. I mean I’m not saying that Whitney Houston doesn’t care about music but I think there’s something different about it, right?”
It’s not that the Posies are weird. They write accessible pop songs after all. Why, I was only looking in pop heaven the other day and there was the Posies ‘Flavour of the Month’ teasing the angels.
“I always thought that we were fairly accessible and not as a detriment to us and not as we were insincere and trying to be commercial. But even in the early days because we were a pop band people would say, ‘Aw, they’re trying to be commercial’. But of course if you look at Big Star and the D.B’s and all the classic pop bands from America there’s no commercial success involved here. I was very surprised, especially ‘Dear 23’ which I thought that was a very commercial record and people had such a hard time with it”.
Finally, I ask Ken to name a couple of songs that always make him feel happy when he’s feeling blue. He goes for ‘Ooh Child’ by the Five Stairsteps and ‘Tighter, tighter’ by Alive & Kicking, commenting on the inspiring and positive nature of their soulful sounds.