US - Washington - Full Moon 42 - 03/20/00
an interview in Seattle
So much more than just "a Posie"
The day after the awesome Acoustic Posies "comeback" show at the Showbox in their hometown
Seattle, WA, I had the pleasure to join singer/guitarist/songwriter Ken Stringfellow and his
girlfriend for dinner at Shea's Lounge. Just in case you don't know, apart from being in The
Posies, maybe the greatest "lost" band of the 90s, and being busy with his latest
project Saltine, Ken worked with gazillions of cool bands like Big Star, LagWagon, R.E.M. or
The Orange Humble Band, did a very nice low-key solo record in 1997 (This Sounds Like
Goodbye) and also produced bands to many to list here. It also turns out that Ken is one
of the nicest people I've ever had the pleasure of talking to and here's what he had to say
on the latest ventures in his long career.
Lu.Ka.: Ken, how's life at the start of the year 2000?
Ken: Musical things aside, I think the most interesting thing about this time of the
world is that a lot of things are becoming very different very fast and it's quite exhilarating.
It's a great time to be a - person and have the opportunity to change the world in a good way.
My life's totally open and could go on in a lot of different directions and a lot of new things
Lu.Ka.: As far as the music is concerned, a lot of your old fans - especially in
Europe - probably haven't heard from you in quite a while. I guess it's been two, maybe even
four years since you last appeared "in the spotlight"...
Ken: I did a lot of shows in Germany in 1997 with LagWagon, but I agree: That was
such a brief and specified thing. There probably isn't anything that would connect me to a
large number of people in Europe... People who know that I was in The Posies might not even
know that I played with LagWagon etc.
Lu.Ka.: You really seem to enjoy that though, playing with a lot of different
bands, yet keeping a rather low profile.
Ken: Yeah, that's definitely something I really, really like. I like variety, doing
different things. And I do it all the time, so it must be important. I think that's one of the
greatest things about life in general, there are so many things you can do and I have not been
able to find it necessary to just stick with one thing. Well, except for you (Ken turns to his
girlfriend, smiling). Your best bet is to do what you wanna be doing and that will give you the
best chance to get you where you want to go. The commercial side isn't that important to me. I
can make a living out of it, I can do it full time and provide for myself, but there's no
motivation for me to say: I know if I'm gonna do this I'm gonna make a million dollars. Nothing
like that exists.
Lu.Ka.: But if I compare the last Posies album for Geffen, Amazing Disgrace
and your solo record, This Sounds Like Goodbye (on Munster in Europe and Hidden Agenda in
the States) I come to a different conclusion. At least the Geffen album was there in the stores,
ready for people to buy it, the solo record is 10", coloured vinyl, limited edition - and as much
as I adore that, it was very hard to get a-hold of, if you knew that it existed at all.
Ken: That's kinda how I felt about it. I didn't want to try to get it licensed anywhere.
A friend of mine in Spain wanted to put it out, so he did and then I talked to a friend of mine
on the phone, who works at a small label here in the States and he put it out too. That's as much
work as went into it as far as distribution is concerned. It was more of a fun thing. I'll probably
do things in the near future that I'll try to get licensed in as many places as possible. But that's
the next step.
Lu.Ka.: Do you also enjoy being the sideman rather than being in the limelight? You've
worked with R.E.M., played guitar for LagWagon, sang in the Orange Humble Band (without writing any
of their material) and also produced a number of records, including the excellent last album by Damien
Ken: I do like it, actually. Especially in the R.E.M. situation. I think that's the best possible
sideperson-situation I could be in.... I couldn't do it for a band I didn't really like. The way that I
was incorporated into that was very friendly and very supportive and it was a great feeling. It was
also great not to be the front-person in a band, because I could just concentrate on playing. Actually
more technically, I could play really far out keyboard stuff, but I couldn't sing and be a performer
and do that at the same time. But all of the things I do are balanced and none of them are taking over
or getting underdone. As far as the production thing goes, that's a whole different level altogether
and I really have to like the band to do it, because it is a very involved thing. It's not so much
about not being in the limelight, actually it's having a whole bunch of responsibilities, which is
again a good thing. To go ahead and to handle a bunch of responsibilities and make a good piece of
art in the process. I know that pretty much every band I produced has been doomed to financial ruin,
but that's only because they really made a good record. (laughs)
Lu.Ka.: You also sang lead vocals in The Orange Humble Band, a project guitarist
and songwriter Darryl Mathers put together in Australia in 1996. How did you get involved in that
Ken: That's a weird story, it's classic actually. This guy Darryl who writes all the songs, he
came into some money and he decided that he was gonna make the record he always wanted to make. And
he wrote all these songs but he felt that he really wasn't a good singer. So he thought it would be
much better to get all these musicians he admired to play the music and sing. I had never met him,
but he tried to get a hold of me in Seattle through David Meinert and Alex MacLeod, our Managers,
and they classically didn't give me the message (which is classic manager's behaviour, all managers
are kinda like that). Then we went on tour in Australia and I got a fax at my hotel, because
apparently all the bands stay at the same hotel, so Darryl figured that if we'd be in town we'd have
to be at that hotel. So he faxed me, saying: 'I've been trying to get a-hold of you, I want you to
sing on my record, I'll take you out to breakfast!' I called him and said: 'Okay, let's go to
breakfast... and I'm thinking of course: Hey, free breakfast - alright! (laughs). So we went out to
breakfast and he said: 'I love Frosting On the Beater and I think you have a great voice and
I'm pretty sure that I'm thinking of the right guy, cause I know there's two singers, but I think
you're singing this song and this one and this one'. And I said: 'Yep, these are mine' and that's
the voice he wanted on the record. The weird thing was: I didn't know what to make of it. I'm the
person that probably would do everything for free, if I didn't have a little voice telling me, that
I gotta feed myself and that I should charge at least a little money for what I'm doing. And then it
was a little like that Beatles story, where a promoter calls up Brian Epstein (the Beatles' manager),
offering the band $150,000 for one show, which is more than they ever been paid and Brian Epstein
didn't say anything and was kinda shocked and then the guy say: 'Okay, $350,000, but that's my final
offer'. It was kinda like that and I thought, well, should I ask this guy for like 100 bucks for
something (laughs) and he goes like: 'Okay - $4,000!' And I said: 'Well, can you fly my girlfriend
out there, too?' and he agreed. That was the weirdest part about it, if only he had known that I
would've done it for next to nothing, just because it was a fun thing to do... He probably shouldn't
read this interview... We did the record in North Carolina at Mitch Easter's place (who also played
guitar and co-produced the album), which I thought was great, because I really like Mitch's work and
his studio is so cool. It's this big old 19th century farmhouse, with like every guitar and every
amp you can imagine in it. It was a fun time! It was strange, because I had to sing another person's
lyrics as if they were mine and as if it was my or our band. But it was cool to concentrate on just
the singing, once again one project where I just can be the singer is pretty great.
Lu.Ka.: Do you have the same feeling in R.E.M., playing somebody else's songs?
Ken: The weird thing about that is, they are so open, nine times out of ten they are really
not that attached for it to sound like the record. You go into rehearsal and they say: 'Let's play
blablabla' and you play something kinda like the record and you can just tell that they are kinda
bored with it. And when you start doing really crazy stuff they think it's cool. Only in about four
of the 50 songs we learned they said: 'Hey, in this part you really have to play this, cause it's
important to the song.
Lu.Ka.: Were you familiar with all the songs and have you been a big R.E.M. fan
Ken: I was a huge R.E.M. fan when I was growing up. They were the first band that wasn't from
the 60s that I really liked. I started playing in bands at age 13 and when I started buying lots of
records and I was into the Beatles and stuff. But I lived in a small town, so I didn't really know
what was going on in the rest of the world. I liked the Beach Boys and The Beatles and the only
contemporary music I really liked was the Bee Gees. Then I heard Radio Free Europe on that
one Seattle radio station that I could barely get in my house in Bellingham [one and a half hours
north of Seattle] and I just thought that it was a really great song, but I couldn't really figure
out was it was and I couldn't get the record in Bellingham. A year later I found a cassette of it
in the cut-out section and I fell in love with Murmur and loved Reckoning and
Life's Rich Pageant. The last record I liked was Document and then I moved on to
other things. I'd heard Green, but at the time I never listened to Out Of Time or
Automatic... or New Adventures In Hi-Fi, but now I think these records are really
brilliant. So I hadn't really heard the hits. I was familiar with Losing My Religion but I
hadn't heard Man On The Moon, only in the supermarket.
Lu.Ka.: I guess you did something similar when you joined Big Star - getting
together with a band that you obviously admire(d) a lot.
Ken: Yeah, I conjured all these things, concentrating really hard. All I really want is to
transport myself back in time to see a Big Star show, but I didn't know that it would turn out the
way it did... joining the band, which I think is quite a coup. Now I think: How many other bands
can I join? I wanna be Malcom Young for a day, that would be my thing!
Lu.Ka.: Having said that, I remember John Lennon once said he'd rather been in Monty
Python than in the Beatles. Thinking of your tribute to Grant Hart (in the song of the same
name on Amazing Disgrace), would you rather have been in Hüsker Dü than in Big Star?
Ken: Well, both of these bands it would've been terrible to be in at the time, because I guess
they all had traumatic experiences being involved in these bands, but having said that Jon and I
actually got to play with Grant Hart! He came to see us play when we came to Minneapolis and then he
was playing this festival there, maybe three or four years ago and he was really a great guy, even
though everybody told us that he's usually a complete asshole to anyone that he thinks is a fan of
his, because he's really bitter. But he was really nice to us and when he played that festival, we
were like: 'What songs are you gonna play?' and he was like: 'I'm gonna play a couple of new things
and blabla" So we asked him if he could play Green Eyes and stuff. Typical fan requests...
Anything that normally I think the guy would've just said: 'Fuck you', but for some reason he
replied: 'Yeah, but it sounds better with bass and drums.' And Jon and I just looked at each
other... And so he asked us to name five songs that we could play and he said he'd play guitar and
Lu.Ka.: So what can we expect from you in the not-too-distant future?
Ken: I've been working on this record with my new band Saltine (who released a very
fine 7" single, Reveal Love, on Casa Recordings late last year), but I'm kinda debating what
to do with it right now, trying to decide if it's really where I want it to be . I stopped working
on it while I decide what to do next. I've been working on it at my studio and my studio has its
limitations and I don't know exactly where it's at right now, so I'm kinda taking a break for some
more perspective. Meanwhile I'm gonna go on tour in Australia, play some songs with the guy from
The Orange Humble Band (who release another Australia-only album, Humblin' Across America
this month on Nic Dalton's Half A Cow label) and that'll be a very good time to do something
different and be really far away. We also have a few shows with Saltine in Texas and in Seattle,
I'll do some production work in April and then after that some time in the spring, R.E.M. are
recording and I'm supposed to participate... hopefully I'm not blowing some kinda secret here right
Lu.Ka.: How does last night's Posies acoustic "comeback" show fit into all this?
Ken: I don't know. Jon is the first I played music with and longer than anyone. We've known
each other for like 16 years I think and there's just so much going on between us, that even if we
take a year off or two, it's still a very deep connection that has manifested itself in the music.
That is the easiest way to communicate for us. It truly is effortless for us to sing together and
blend our voices. That's one of my favorite ways to play music, to play acoustic with him. Playing
in the Posies as a rock band was fun and we did a lot of good shows together but the best part of
our musical endeavours were always when we got to play a couple of acoustic songs together. That
always felt the most direct.
Lu.Ka.: Do you find it difficult sometimes to work on your own now, especially when it
comes to the singing and the harmonies?
Ken: Yeah, it does. You have to do something very different. There's nobody I've ever met
that could sing with me the same way and I can't imagine there would be.
Lu.Ka.: Until no it seemed that the Posies were definitely history, but now you
mentioned the possibility of an acoustic tour this summer, possibly even in Europe and there
has been the recent live album Alive Before The Iceberg and there's a Posies Best Of
album, Dream All Day, coming out next month, too.
Ken: If I ever finish it, there's also a Box Set of outtakes, rarities and live things,
four CDs, coming out on a little label here in the States. We haven't put it together yet. We've
picked all the songs, but we haven't mastered it yet. That'll happen next month so I imagine it
couldn't be out till May at the earliest. We did record the show last night, too. If it sounds
good, we'll put that out as well!
Lu.Ka.: Thanks so much for the interview, Ken!
(Ken Stringfellow held an acoustic concert in Oslo a
year ago, while promo-touring with R.E.M. - editor's note)
Copyright © 2000 Carsten Wohlfeld