Ken Stringfellow Interview
Not many artists are as versatile as Ken Stringfellow. Power pop fans will know him for his work in the Posies and The Orange Humble Band, his own solo projects and part of the revival of pop legend Big Star. I was thrilled to get to interview him. We talk about his move to Paris, his involvement with Cheap Star, his new band The Disciplines, and even touch on his time with REM. The opening clip here is “Definite Door” from the album “Frosting On The Beater.” Listen to the entire interview streaming (21 minutes).
Written transcript edited by The Rock and Roll Report 9/28/2009
I know you’ve lived in France for about 5 years now, do you feel like a native at this point?
KS: No, I don’t feel like a native. You have to be one – especially in France. I don’t have an absolutely perfect command of the language by any means. French culture is very particular. When you are in France, even if you speak the language very well, people always can tell. There’s always a “Hmm, you’re not from around here” kind of thing. I enjoy living here and I’ve gotten used to the fact that I’m kind of always a fish out of water in one way, but I have a great life here. It’s not a bad situation to be in.
Your latest band, The Disiplines, how did that get started?
KS: Well, The Posies and my solo albums have always been pretty well received in Norway and I play there quite often. Through that I met these guys [The Disciplines]. First they came from another band, Briskeby, and I got to know them and did a little work with them. That band split up and a few of the guys wanted to continue doing stuff with me based on what we did before. This was three years ago and right away we started writing these songs we really loved. I found out that it might be fun to be a lead singer without an instrument. As it developed it became this really fun cool thing, that’s very different from what I’ve done before, and what they’ve done before. Since then we’ve made an album [Smoking Kills] and it came out in Scandinavia and it’s done really well in Norway especially. It’s out in the States and Canada now and we’ll be playing some shows in October to support the release. The live show is really smokin’, really fun.
The vocals are really different in The Disciplines, it’s almost unrecognizable compared to your Posies persona. Do you prepare differently for this band compared to playing with Jon Auer or any other band?
KS: Not really. Depending on the company I’m in I pretty much just snap into that mode. The way that I play with these guys and the way I play with Jon, Matt and Darius in The Posies, or any other band I might be joining for a lunchtime or a lifetime, I get the vibe pretty quick and the environment inspires the outcome. In that sense, the environment is the people you are with. It’s the same methodology – singing is singing to me and I think in The Posies live shows I’ve gotten used to singing pretty hard. So it’s not that different. But on record The Posies dynamic tends to be a little softer. If I were singing that way live it would be going beyond where the song needs to go, generally. And The Disciplines is very much the live show. We recorded our record live in our rehearsal room and so I can push it a bit harder. It sounds good with those tracks.
You’ve also been working on another project, Cheap Star, what is that like?
KS: They are a band from here in Paris and they are Posies fans. Remy, the singer, just looked me up and it turns out now we are neighbors in Paris […] The stuff I recorded with them was done five years ago. I had a little down time when my daughter was born […] I worked during that time and they knew I may have to disappear for obvious reasons. We worked on half the record and they did the other half with Jon. Then Jon went to mix it and spent quite a bit of time perfecting his mix. Most of the work was done in 2004 and 2005, it just didn’t see the light of day till recently.
What was it like playing on your own tribute album?
KS: I’m only on one song. I thought it was an opportunity to record what I did for live shows. I often play a piano version of Everybody is a Fucking Liar and I thought here’s a place for that. I recorded it at home […] As an artist, you’re always revisiting your old stuff. You know, I’m playing in Big Star and people want to hear stuff that was recorded in 1971, much to Alex Chilton’s bewilderment. But that’s how it goes, in many ways you’re reliving your past all the time as a musician. People want to know about those times when they connected with your work and in that sense I’m always in my own tribute band. Very often I’m playing songs with Jon from 1988, but they have adapted over the years to benefit from our own musical experience.
Are you going to continue with Big Star? Is there another album in the works?
KS: Well I don’t know about another album. Of course I didn’t know about the last one until it came up, so you never know. With Big Star we don’t really tour, as it were. We play shows here and there when the situation is right. As it turns out we will be having a show in New York on November 18 at The Brooklyn Masonic Temple.
Authors Note (3/18/11): Little did we realize this would be Big Star’s final concert performance with Alex Chilton. The show at the Masonic Temple was filmed for the documentary “Nothing Can Hurt Me: The Big Star Story” see the post here.
Any new The Posies material coming up?
KS: Well, we’d like to work on a new record. We’ve been talking with the label and we’re just trying to figure out how and when it can be done. It’s been four years since the last one. To get a record out next year is going to take a lot of organization: we have to write and rehearse and record, with me living on another continent and the guys living in the United States and Canada. It’s hard to do, but we’re all into it. I can’t guarantee next year, but it’s our goal.
In an interview you said The Posies shows are like “controlled chaos.” How does it compare to a The Disciplines show?
KS: I can say by virtue of the fact that The Disciplines are a new band, we have our following [in Norway], 15-20 people, and The Posies audience in the States, people that have come to see us for years, it’s a totally different vibe […] The audience in a way does control what the show is like. The audience is like our energy source. It’s our power sink, where we get stuff from.
With playing in Europe and living in Paris, do you think Power Pop music has taken a hold anywhere in those areas?
KS: I tend to think more cross-categorically and that’s typical European thinking. Music divided into categories is sort of hard to follow here because people don’t think that way. But having said [..] when I think of Power Pop music, which is upbeat, simple rock music […] not too much punk, melodic with 60’s kind of vibe, that music goes over really well in Spain.
YouTube videos show you walking through an audience like a troubadour with your guitar, and that’s certainly different from a straight stage show.
KS: I don’t really do straight stage shows. I’m in the audience a lot in my solo shows, in Disciplines, and Posies shows too. I don’t have that invisible wall between me and the crowd. 99% of the time, that’s normal for me.
Has it evolved from the early days?
KS: Definitely, I was more shy back then. I had to learn the formula before I could break it. After a while playing by myself it seems a bit strange to hold myself removed from the audience. I mean, if you’re on stage where the lights are then they can technically see you better if they sit far away, but for club shows, pretty much my favorite place to play is right in the middle of the floor. Bring in that human crush is a little more fun. I did this tour with a German band called Subterfuge, and we toured Germany, Austria and Switzerland years ago and we played with no PA. We set up on the floor of each club, where the audience would be standing in a circle you might call a Buffalo Stance, and we just played right there and it was really cool and people loved it. I’ve seen other bands do this too. I saw Crooked Fingers start their set playing acoustic on the floor, but then they retreated to the stage after a few songs. We played the whole show on the floor. We didn’t have a drummer so it was super quiet.
You’ve played with R.E.M. in the past, do you miss the band?
KS: Sure, of course. I spent a lot of time on tour with them, in studio, hanging out in Athens, GA. Great people.
You all get along well?
KS: Yeah, absolutely. We got along like a house on fire. They had their musical agenda for this last album and tour and they were more rock and roll and didn’t want a keyboard thing. I’m the keyboard player, so it put me out of a position. I was really sad not to be involved, but I understood their reasons and I knew it wasn’t personal. And if I’d gone on tour and was on that last album [Accelerate], I couldn’t have put any time in with The Disciplines. At this time in my life, I’m clearly not twenty-five, but I can push myself and get energy to make things happen. It was one of those mean-to-be moments really […] I would have missed that opportunity because if I had told the guys in The Disciples, “Hey guys, could you wait a couple years while I do this tour thing?,” they have lives and would have gotten involved in other things. I wish I could do it all. I’ve tried to do it all. The next time R.E.M. does something I may get the call. It’s hard to say.