The Complete Ken Stringfellow Q Interview

this is the whole thing, in full - one of the most illuminating interviews i've ever had the privilege of being involved in. fantastic stories in here for fans of ken, big star, posies, rem and the's long as hell and worth every moment of your time - mr stringfellow should write a book about his life in music, no question in my mind.

for those that missed the original version on Q's website the idea was to propose 5 key works to ken and have him tell us a little bit about them. obviously we got a lot more than we bargained for and it would be hard to be more pleased with a musician's responses to some, in all honesty, very basic questions...

"Always operating a little under the radar, Californian Ken Stringfellow has been one of the key players in the US alternative scene for the past two decades. Aside from production, endless collaborations, live and session work and a deep level of involvement with some of the most influential American bands of modern times, Stringfellow is now taking the bold leap of going solo with new album ‘Danzig In The Moonlight’ (that title’s gotta be worth a lol, right?). Q sat him down and told him what his five finest musical moments were and happily he not only didn’t hit us for being cheeky but went so far as to tell us a little bit about each of the lovely slabs of vinyl in question:

Frosting On The Beater – The Posies

One of the definitive sugar-rush albums of the early 90s this was the beauteous pop record that brought Ken to many music afficionado’s attention for the first time – along with longtime collaborator Jon Auer Stringfellow served up a rich mix of powerpop tunes that so very nearly broke them through to the mainstream via classic single ‘Dream All Day’…

'Frosting on the Beater' was one of those difficult records that actually yielded good results. As a record producer/engineer etc. these days I am all about making the experience as smooth as possible, with good planning, good skills, and coaxing the artist into knowing where they are going and at the same accepting that we are going to go somewhere during the recording that neither I nor they predicted, and to be cool with that. I've worked with some insecure bands, but I doubt I've encountered one as insecure as the Posies were during the making of this album. We were an unlikely contender in many ways--we had so little to do musically with the bands breaking in a huge way around us. Not that I couldn't hear Beach Boys-esque melodic joy in some of Nirvana's music, e.g., but the packaging was so different, and that affected what people presumed of our cultural politics, etc. So in Seattle, our home base, we remained a band that was very popular (but with limits) that had the impression that many people felt that even that sliver of popularity was undeserved. Yikes! We came off the road in the spring of 1991 for our second album, "Dear 23"which was released in 1990, and proceeded to dive right into recording, down n dirty style, with our live sound engineer. Many of these songs were scrapped, and soon, so was our bass player, who insisted on writing songs for the band, despite our insistence (based on observations that I deem correct) that they didn't fit in at all with what we were doing.

It was Gary Gersh, our A&R (who also signed Nirvana, Sonic Youth, etc) who proposed Don Fleming to produce the album 'for reals' and he was an inspired choice. But a three-legged dog is still a three-legged dog. And that makes peeing on a fire hydrant a tricky proposition indeed.

It was decided that Don come to Seattle to to a trial run and in a few days, where we funneled a sizable portion of the budget into keeping Don's weed and Heineken levels operational (to say the least), we recorded "Solar Sister", "Burn & Shine" and several more of the most important tracks on the album. We'd enjoyed working with John Leckie on our previous album, but Don's method was more true to life to the live band we'd become. Our meticulous UK production was great for a band that had never toured…but there was a real (uh, three-legged) band here, and the record showcases that marvelously.

Then we went to New York.

Sharing a room at a hotel on Central Park, the three of us didn't get along stupendously well. I was dark, drinking hard, and, frankly, irked at the prissy ways of my bandmates. Jon was achingly insecure and moody. Liable to burst into tears at mild criticism, it didn't help that Jim Waters, our engineer was possessed of a New Yorker's idea of bedside manner ("You call that a take? That's a faggot take! Do it again, or I'll be sick!" Actual quotes. ) Mike, our brilliant drummer, was a nitpicker ('uh, by the way, It seems I should have gotten $1.50 in change back on that take out we ordered last year in the studio. I take checks') and cynical in the ways that aren't funny. We had endless tech problems, none of Jon's guitars seemed to stay in tune, no matter who we called in to work on them. Stuff like that. It was a long, slow slog that yielded in three weeks about as much as our 5 day session in Seattle did. Ouch. However, we did have visits from Thurston Moore, who proclaimed the guitar sounds on the album 'very cool'. That's high praise.

Then we went to L.A.

Out of the frying pan….did we have an album? We thought so. We called it 'Eclipse' and set to mixing it with John Hanlon at Ocean Way in L.A. Big time stuff. John had mixed 'Ragged Glory'. Don ran out of weed and, as the Beatles said, 'proceeded to lie on the table'. And that's about it. Mike Watt came by, that was fun. Mick Jagger argued with his soon to be ex wife on the pay phone RIGHT OUTSIDE OUR LOUNGE! We heard every word and he didn't seem to care. Pay phones! Those were the days. I still have a note that Rick Rubin placed on the phone to get Mick to check in on his album sometime. "Mick. Help. Rick." In fact, at one point we were listening to a playback, very loud, and in walks Ahmet Ertegun with two, uh, females. He swoons, he LOVES it, eyes rolled up in his head. Track ends. "That's fanTASTic. But what did you do to Mick's voice, it sounds quite different!".

John Hanlon, however was fresh outta rehab, and had shall we say, a personality that was used to high levels of energy. He was totally not ready to adjust to the real world. Typical exchange: "John, this mix is great, but, uh, there's a lead guitar missing, after the second verse could you, uh….. " "WHY DON'T YOU MIX THE GODDAM RECORD YOURSELF IF YOU'RE ALL SUCH FUCKING GENIUSES? I DON'T NEED THIS SHIT!".  We fired him after a few days. Bye, fucker.

So, we regrouped, did some more writing, got back to the same 5 day, same studio in Seattle, set up  with Don that yielded such good results, and did amazing stuff (the weed *is* good in Seattle, that prob helped)-- "Dream All Day", "Flavor of the Month", etc. Our spirits up, we then hooked up with Dave Bianco, went back to L.A. and he did a bang up job mixing the album. To be fair, John Hanlon mixed "Love Letter Boxes" and "Earlier than Expected" and they sound really good.

Did it feel like a breakthrough for you when it was released?

Frosting was a slow breakthrough. It didn't feel like it, but we started to tour Europe, but it felt more like--oh, Big Star has reunited, and their agent says we have to have the Posies, too. OK. Haha. Then the reviews came in. I didn't speak French then, but our live sound engineer did, Craig Montgomery who also toured with Nirvana. He said "these are the same level of reviews that Nevermind got…wow!". We did a great, epic, tour with Teenage Fanclub, occasionally joined by Pulp, Superchunk, Juliana Hatfield, and even Alex Chilton at one point. We were young and so excited to be playing, and we were good. The Fannies were hit and miss, sometimes Norman lost his voice (there's a recording of us singing their set for them in Amsterdam), more often Brendan O Hare partied too hard and didn't eat and would just run out of gas in the show. Of course, they were often awesome too but we looked very very good and people were excited to see us (new kid in school, only happens once). In the states our live draw went from zero to 600 very fast. Nirvana-esque. But, we weren't metal enough to survive the US radio market, still dominated by 'Rock' stations, and we weren't considered indie enough to go thru back channels, so we didn't end up selling as many records as bands that are less renowned from the era. We sold like 150.000 of Frosting all told.

Are The Posies the band you’d like to be remembered for? Are The Posies the most important to you of your musical work?

I'd like to be remembered for all the work I've done, a body of work. The productions, the bands, the sideman stuff, the compositions, etc. My view on the Posies body of work is hard to detach from my experiences with the participants. And I think the solo work I've done is a stronger statement.

Do you still consider The Posies an ongoing concern? Do you have plans for a new record or to tour again?
What does this record mean to you now? Do you still listen back to it?

The door is open, for the Posies to continue. Jon seems to be coming to my neighborhood, marrying a girl from near Paris. Kind of chuckled, kind of horrified. I like my space. But it does put us in range of working on stuff together. No plans are in the works, tho. I plan to be busy on the solo album and other projects for awhile.  I don't listen to Frosting on the Beater these days. It's fun to play the album live, which we've done a few times over the years. It's a little simplistic for my tastes, and lyrically, it's interesting, but not as interesting as things have become in my life.

Reveal – REM

In many eyes the last REM record worthy of admission to their esteemed canon this found Stringfellow augmenting the Athens Georgia jangle legends with an armoury of keyboard sounds that he would go on to replicate with them across several huge world tours. That you could hear Stringfellow’s influence across the music is unarguable – what’s more impressive is that it doesn’t unbalance the songwriting of Buck, Mills and Stipe in any way.

How did you become involved with REM in the first place?

Peter Buck moved to Seattle c. 1994, and already being well acquainted with my friend Scott McCaughey, hung around Scott a lot. Peter is the ultimate Rolling Stone--he cannot be, will not be, has not been idle, like, ever. Scott was working on a solo album with me, and Peter soon was a part of it too. This became a band: The Minus 5. We played live, etc. Jon Auer sometimes joined us. This would be 95, 96.  One day I got a call from Barrett Martin, the former Screaming Trees drummer, who had been working on the album 'Up'. So, we're talking 1998. He said 'hey, REM asked me to go on tour, but what they really need is a keyboard player. I recommended you."That's nice! I had noticed already that Peter was pretty curious about what I was up to, etc. Then one day, he asked me if I'd like to come to San Francisco and do an audition for REM's tour. Sure! Then, like a day later, I got a call: "Ken, it's Peter, forget about the audition. Just come down and play". He gave me a list of roughly 40-50 songs from REM's catalogue, and asked me to learn them. "On which instrument?" "Oh, you might play guitar, maybe bass…probably some keys". So, yes, I learned ALL the parts on ALL the songs.

Playing the arena and stadium shows with REM must have been quite an experience – tell us a little bit about that?

I'd had experiences playing big festivals with the Posies, but yes, this was a whole 'nuther thing. We headlined Glastonbury! Twice!  We played to 250,000 people (at least) at Rock in Rio. We played to a TV audience of something like a billion for Live 8. The most interesting bits tho were just having great musicians and artists in my social circle--dinner with Radiohead one day, playing cards on a private plane with the E Street Band and its leader one day. I am nothing if not a good observer, and there was much to observe, absorb, learn, and experience. And REM themselves, the three guys, were and are generous, unpretentious, and supportive.

How easy was it for you to fit into a role in a band where you weren’t necessarily ‘in charge’?

Oh, it's a bloody relief! It's great to contribute to the structure of the cake, and not have to be the fucking cherry all the time.

How do you feel about REM breaking up? Was it right for them?

When REM broke up, it seemed so…severe. It's brave tho, most bands just…stop existing, no fanfare. It's noble to put a statement out and preempt attempts to get you back for this benefit, this event. Was it right for them? Only they know. I guess so, tho.

What does this record mean to you now? Do you still listen back to it?

The making of Revel changed my whole working method in music. Their unscripted way of making this album was a master class in total trust of the creative process. Prior to that, I made albums, like the Posies albums, that had demos, rehearsals, and such--nothing was left to chance, really. REM were really fearless in their approach to recording, re-doing, jettisoning, re-working material. With my albums, since then, and I've made but three, but they were a mix of songs 'written' and songs 'made up'. To be honest, there's not much difference…at some point, to write something, you have to make something up.

In Space – Big Star

Did people want a new Big Star record? More than 25 years after the late, much-missed Alex Chilton’s last release under the Big Star name (‘Third’, without doubt one of the great records of our times and recently celebrated on an all-star tour organized by Stringfellow and featuring the likes of Mike Mills, Jeff Tweedy and surviving Big Star member Jody Stephens) Chilton decided they would get one either way. With fellow Posie Jon Auer also on board, Big Star 2.0 happily delivered a vintage quality album of gorgeous powerpop that holds it’s own set against the excellence of the ultimate cult band’s ‘70s output.

Tell us about how you first came to work with Alex Chilton…

Just extreme applied fandom. We, the Posies wore that influence on our sleeves, socks, sombrero…just about anywhere we could shout out the lore of Big Star, we did. That sort of thing gets you noticed, and the result is usually either a restraining order or immediate deployment. We were lucky--Jody Stephens, Big Star's drummer, is always supportive of efforts to keep Big Star's music out there, and he picked up on our recordings of Big Star & Chris Bell covers and was enthusiastic about that and what we were doing with our own music. All of a sudden Alex was interested in playing Big Star's music again, after turning down countless requests he agreed to one. And Jon & I were there, volunteering like the biggest school nerd--hands up--call on me! call on me! I also did some Goodfellas stuff on the poor kid who had the idea to make this show happen and drew the golden ticket; I cornered him at SXSW and basically threatened things.

Being a member of Big Star – a surreal experience to begin with?

Was being part of Big Star, playing those songs, surreal? Always! But my life is totally surreal. Half of the posters on my teenage bedroom wall peeled themselves off and started playing music with me--I've made music with a Beatle, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, REM…I'm still not sure how it happened. I'm a kid from a small town, like a million billion other ones, who probably play guitar better than I do.

What was the recording of this album like?

Free form. I don't think any songs were written in advance. Alex had some notes. And some sheet music--he'd arranged some baroque music for two guitars bass and drums. But the rest came thru jamming, or woodshedding after hours. Alex was very keen on NOT fixing any mistakes, and Jon & I err on the meticulous. So, he was good at restraining that--I can't hear any of the things I wanted to 'repair' or do over at the time, anymore. Alex had many moments where it first appears he's being a contrarian for its own sake, but only because it's outside your own static view. Many ties he surprised me with the accuracy of his observations, that were running counter to my perceptions, til I looked deeper.

Tell us a little bit about being out on the road with Big Star – was it a fun time? Did audiences respond the way you’d expected them to?

We didn't play often, but as you can imagine, people were so in awe of that music and Alex. When we played in Japan, and we had 7 minutes of applause when we came off stage and went to the dressing room (count it out…it's a LONG time. Really enthusiastic applause is usually like, ten seconds). Alex's response, with a poker face: "fuck 'em. Elvis never did encores".  Haha. Big Star was easy--everyone loves the band, young and old, mainstream and indie folks. I tour managed and it was a piece of cake. Alex was so easy to work with--and he had a reputation for being difficult. But I think he only complained…when there was shit fucked up. I run a tight ship! So no complaints. The last show we played, November 2009, was a great last show to have, if that's how it had to be. Alex was happy, even ready to accept the adulation of the audience, a little. We played like a million bucks and people were singing along with everything…big packed hall in Brooklyn.

The Third show that you organized this year was incredible – people in the audience at the Barcelona show I attended were in tears both of joy and sadness – do you think that tour is the full stop at the end of your involvement with Big Star? How did the tour go for you?

I didn't organize the Big Star Third show in the sense of an impresario--the conception and musical direction of this project is from Chris Stamey, of the dbs and who also was in Alex's band in the early days in New York post Big Star. I did, however, tour manage this extravaganza--I worked my tail off, wrangling this and that, and then jumping onstage to do musical things now and then. It was so intense, but the shows, wow. Yes, very emotional. There's only Jody left, and I think this beautiful cast is assembled around him by virtue of his karma, not just because everyone loves this music. But, we all hope to keep the flame flickering for awhile, obviously the band is finished but we continue, and will continue, to celebrate this music where we can. For those who say we should stop playing this music-- I say: people who aren't remotely related to Beethoven play his music all the time; Jody wrote some of these songs…and he wants to play while he still can. And I will be there to help that happen!

What does this record mean to you now? Do you still listen back to it?

I do listen to "In Space" now and then. The memories of making it are good. And, "Turn My Back on the Sun" is about as apropos an homage to Alex as I could think of, knowing he loves the Beach Boys, I wrote my own Beach Boys song, but with the Beach Boys doing the unthinkable…turning *away* from the sun! I think he appreciated the sacrilege.

Smoking Kills – The Disciplines

A change in direction for Stringfellow saw the Californian front up an otherwise entirely Norwegian garage rock band (onetime A-HA support band Briskeby) supercharged with Stooges drive, but, as ever with Stringfellow, drenched in delicious melody. This, their debut full length, is representative of another string to Ken’s bow. Who knew he was a euro-punk too?

How did you become involved in fronting a Norwegian band?

I play in Norway a lot, and my last albums got really good reviews there. So, I was on a lot of musicians' radars'. Including a band called Briskeby, who had a run of hits there in the early 2000s. Funny moment when, hanging with REM at a Video Music Awards after party, playing piano with Heidi Klum, as one does, this striking young lady approaches the table. REM guys go into highly modest 'prepare to be talked to by fan and be gracious' mode. And this young lady, Lise, the singer of Briskeby says 'scuse me, but, I am such a fan…of Touched (my 2001 solo album)!" Cut to invisibly registered shock followed by almost disappointment from my employers, as she and I work our way thru the songs on my album on the piano. I met the rest of her band, we all hit it off. A few years later, she left to do a solo thing and the guys in the band were basically moving on--Bjorn, the guitarist, is now a doctor, for example. I suggested we try something together, just as a fun thing since their band had come under a lot of pressure from their big label to make hits, etc. So, we did something more spontaneous, raw. And we had a BIG hit in Norway. And a lot of fun.

Do you see yourself as European after so many years living in Paris?

As long as I'm paying my taxes in Washington State….haha. I think my natural state of being is new kid in school. Why not uproot myself from Seattle, where I'm practically a city councilman, to Paris, where I couldn't get arrested if I dealt acid to preschoolers. What can I say? Anonymity is power. So, I feel like a guy who lives in Paris, speaks basic French, and shuffles off to Buffalo now and then. Family life is great here. And access to quality cuts of horse meat a plus.

How does the process of recording with The Disciplines work? Is it logistically harder than on other projects?

I think recording with The DiSCiPLiNES is easier than many of my other projects--we know the vibe, the basic formula, there's a template for what will work in that band. We get together infrequently, but we can write 2-3 songs a day when we do.

How does your work with The Disciplines sit with the rest of your output do you think?

The DiSCiPLiNES music is not so removed from my other work. I get to be naughty and climb on things and act out, which is what I WANT to do in the Posies, and I hint at it. Hulk SMASH. Even the get in the audience, look people in the eye, perform ON them and WITH them not FOR them is a sort of meth-ed up cousin to my solo shows.

Is there more to come for The Disciplines?

We have written some new songs….

Danzig In The Moonlight – Ken Stringfellow

Perhaps the most experimental work he’s ever committed to, this brand new solo outing, Stringfellow’s fourth in 15 years and first release under his own name since 2008’s  EP ‘The Sellout Cover Sessions’, is a reflective, sometimes somber, often darkly humourous and cynical but always tuneful set of modern pop, alt-country and delicate electronica songs – even boasting a little old skool soul for good measure. It’s out on October 2nd.

What made you decide after a few years of not doing so, to release a solo record?

I was waiting for the right moment. It's incredible how a year can go by, when I'm working on so many projects…this happened several times. I went, happily, down many a rabbit hole (note to readers: rabbit = delicious! The French perspective). I had many of the songs written. But, obviously, as the results are plain to see, I wasn't inspired to do it. Otherwise…we would have done this piece pre-Obama. But, I'm glad I waited, as the conditions that presented themselves were ideal. For the last couple of years, I've been working a lot with JB Meijers, a Dutch producer, musician, arranger…we've done many albums for many artists together. And he proposed that we go into this legendary studio, ICP in Brussels, and cut two albums at once, one for each of us, with the same musicians, etc. What a great idea, and it totally worked.

Do you approach solo work very differently to other band work? The buck stops with you so – is there more pressure?

There's more freedom, no one second guessing. That's the dirty secret of art--your ideas are ALWAYS good. I mean, if you're good. If not, you usually get the hint. But not having to drag someone along to my party is a great, great thing. And my solo shows or sessions can be any kind of format--I can play alone, with a band, with an orchestra, with a laptop…it's always Ken Stringfellow. Strength in being flexible--that's how you build your earthquake-proof skyscraper, right?

What do you expect from this record? Do you have particular hopes for it?

Are you kidding? I want everyone to hear this record. I'm very proud of it, I killed it, nailed it, brought the hammer DOWN. It's the one thing from my CV that I could play anyone anywhere and think there's no chance their eyes will wander 30 seconds in or whatever. So, I will not be leaving that to hopes or expectations. I will be personally, actively…uh, politely, getting people to take notice and give this record some attention.

What’s your stand-out track on the new album?

For stand out tracks, for pure musical out there-ness, I think "Odorless Colorless Tasteless" my collaboration with Amsterdam's West Side Trio, a subset of string players from the Metropole Orchestra, is pretty intense. As it's 2012, and at one point everyone had the end of the world in their planning for this year, I acknowledge that with two end of the world songs. The suite "4am Birds/The End of All Light/The Last Radio" is the objective beauty that the methodical deconstruction of the earth would contain--fire and surreal light. "Odorless" depicts God, lonely after bringing the world to an end, essentially unemployed.

What’s the next project you plan to work on?

I have another pretty cool release coming soon, actually, I helped produce (with Mr. Meijers again) an album for Dutch thespian Carice van Houten. Very adventurous, moody, and gorgeous album. Basically the same band as on my album for much of it, plus contributions from Howe Gelb, Steve Shelley, Antony Hegarty, Marc Ribot…it's quite the bouillabaisse. Her voice is from another time…like Julie London, or something. I'll be touring with her as well, she'll be concentrating on the Netherlands to start out with but this record is really tasty and I think it will catch on.