Ken Stringfellow Interview
By Martin Jones
Ken Stringfellow’s extensive and diverse musical career has included The Posies, REM, The Minus 5, Lagwagon, The Disciplines and the final incarnation of Alex Chilton’s Big Star. Then, of course, there’s a five-album solo career.
Stringfellow is about to return to Australia to perform songs from his latest albums, Danzig In The Moonlight and the new compilation album, I Never Said I’d Make It Easy, sharing a bill with Chris Stamey. He’ll also be contributing to live, large ensemble performance of Big Star’s intricate Third/Sister Lovers album for the Sydney Festival.
I’d like to start doing about the Big Star Third show you’re doing in Sydney if you don’t mind.
I think that would be entirely appropriate.
Is the Third performance something you’ve done previously over in the US, or is a one off?
Yeah we have done a few of them. They are sort of rare because they’re quite ambitious to put on. We have the band plus the guest singers plus the orchestra. So that takes a special kind of environment not only to finance such an endeavour – usually a festival. But also just to have a stage big enough. It’s not something that we can at this point easily do in a small venue. Although it has been done. But generally it works well in a festival context. For example, the show that kind of led to this one there in Sydney was a show we did this summer in Central Park in New York. Central Park does a summer concert series on an outdoor stage, obviously, and the shows are free and they can hold a couple of thousand people in the area. (New York was the last place Big Star played before Alex died).
I guess all told, there’s certainly been less than ten of these shows. Each time the core band is more or less the same. Mike Mills, myself, Chris Stamey, of course, who came up with the whole idea to do this, and Mitch Easter. And, of course, Jody, the only living member of Big Star. The guests are always very different and of course we have a different orchestral ensemble of various sizes.
Are you guys involved in the orchestrations, or are the local orchestra learning parts from the record?
Well the orchestrations are very specifically put together by Chris. The whole brainchild for doing the Third album, which of course most of those songs were never played live by Big Star, and in fact when the album was made Big Star didn’t even really exist as a band let alone a live band. And when Big Star started again in the ‘90s with myself playing, we did just a couple of songs from the album. Actually we did ‘Big Black Car’, ‘For You’. Oh ‘Thank You Friends’. ‘Jesus Christ’. Okay, we did four. But a lot of those songs are pretty challenging to present, especially if you’re going to present them exactly as the record. And Chris thought, and I agree, that that’s the most interesting one to present live because not only are these songs challenging but they are musically elaborate. They have these arrangements that are very specific. The string arrangements on the album were originally done by a guy called Carl Marsh who was a very young guy, I think he was 19 at that time. So he was still around and still doing things, so he was available and had the scores and could copy them out and make notes and explain to Chris what it was he was thinking. It’s very valuable to have the original arrangements on hand. And so that developed from there. So from there Chris made more arrangements for other songs so that the orchestra would have more to do, even Chris Bell’s song ‘I Am The Cosmos’, or the ‘EMI Song’ which has been released on Alex’s lost solo album. So Chris made a really nice program out of it.
It is a special thing to find orchestral players who are used to being on stage with rock dynamics. Because that can be unsettling for an orchestral player who’s never done it. It’s different, it’s louder. So they have to be kind of ready for that.
There are few Australian vocalists for the Sydney performance, I know you guys have played with You Am I before but have you had previous dealings with Kim Salmon and Dave Faulkner?
Well of course. As far as the guests go, they’re hand selected as people who know the material, love the material, and would be good. And of course the guests we’ve had over yther course of different shows we’ve done so far, whether it be Sharon Van Etten or Ray Davies or Tommy Stinson, the guys from Wilco, the guys and gal from Yo La Tengo, we’ve had just great incredible guests. So for Australia, we’ve got a few international folks, some of whom I’ve never met. I’ve never met Edwyn Collins for example. Of course I’m an Orange Juice fan par excellence, thanks to Teenage Fanclub. But as far as the Australian guests go, all three were my selections. As much as Chris is the musical director, sometimes he’s not sure, especially if it’s outside his home reason, who might be a good singer. So all three were my suggestions. Kim I’ve been a huge fan of for twenty years. I was aware that he did a version of Holocaust and just thought he’d be great. Plus I just wanted to hang out with him. But I knew he was a fan and this Third record was a very important album for him as he has now told me since we’ve been in touch.
Dave Faulkner of course, I go way back with the Hoodoo Gurus. It was the Hoodoo Gurus who first brought me to Australia when they asked The Posies to support them in 1996. And we had a great time. And I’ve run into Brad many, many times, but I’ve seen less of Dave, so it will be really cool to connect with him. And then Tim, about twenty years ago, You Am I came to Seattle and I met them and they asked me if maybe I was interested in working with them in the studio and I said, at that time, it was before I had started my illustrious production career, unfortunately, so I had to pass that one on. And I passed it onto my bandmate John and John ended up mixing Hi Fi Way. So yeah we go back some twenty years with You Am I.
Can you remember when and where you were when you first heard Third?
Yes. First of all I have to add some back story to that. Which is, during the ‘80s, I lived in a pretty small town north of Seattle. And as I probably don’t have to tell you, that was pre-Internet, you could not hear stuff on Spotify or YouTube or Google it. And especially living in a small town it was basically record store roulette. Records came in and sometimes the records you were reading about in the magazines came into my town and sometimes they didn’t. I had a hell of a time locating REM’s first album… with Big Star the chances were far less that the records were going to stroll in the door. And they didn’t. And I’d seen the name referenced in magazines like Rolling Stone and Musician or whatever and I was perplexed. It was like seeing a word in Sanskrit, it didn’t have any context. When I moved to Seattle in 1986 to go to university and then in the next year the Posies started to form and then by 1988 we recorded our first alum at that point my bandmates all worked in record stores and right around then Big Star’s albums got reissued. And it seemed all in a row John found the Italian vinyl reissue of Radio City, and our bass player Rick found the German CD pressing of the first two albums in one, and then shortly thereafter the Third album on CD which were imports on the Big Beat label from Germany. From moment one of hearing the first album on CD and hearing this incredible album we were hooked. And for us at that time it was a lot easier for us to get our head around the first two albums. And the third album was a little intimidating. And of course over the years that has become the album that’s my favourite. I just think it has so much more to offer in terms of innovation and depth and musical chops in a way. I love all three, don’t get me wrong. But I remember in a way Big Star’s Third kind of fools the listener into thinking it’s like an unfinished symphony. Many of the most interesting things about it, like the orchestration, are not in the front of the mix. They are kind of in there somewhere and it’s all a bit reverby. In fact I often pull out ‘Big Black Car’ or ‘Kanga Roo’ to young bands I’m working with to say, ‘this is music production via reverb.’ Sometimes reverb is all you need to make the difference between an okay track and a really interesting track. So it took longer to get into Third because the pop song, post ‘60s idiom that the first two albums are written in was more my milieu at the time.
I was reading some criticism of Danzing In The Moonlight, much of it grappling with the diversity of it, terms like “wilfully schizophrenic,” which I guess reminiscent of how Third would have been originally received. Do you think you can gain personal inspiration and courage to be diverse and adventurous from examples set by albums like Third? Was that one of the albums that helped liberate the rock album from traditional format for you?
Yeah just format in general. Many of today’s artists, especially if you go up the charts, are just squeezed into a category. But also people, even at the indie level people cultivate their audience and are perhaps adventurous in one direction that sometimes I have to wonder if it’s somewhat calculated. You can detect the element of fashion in music, quite often. And I’m against that. I think that art should be art, I know that’s kind of naïve. And of course art should reflect the world around it blah, blah, blah, blah. But I like to mess with people. I think that’s one of art’s jobs. The punk rock spirit in me is not forgotten and music can be confrontational, really. Not just elitist and ‘hey, we’re all in on the joke’ kind of thing. But actually confrontational, like ‘I’m not going to play the way you think I’m going to play and let’s see if you can dig it.’ And certainly when the folks at Ardent were trying to get Big Star’s Third release back in the day, back in the ‘70s, there were people that said the album was violent and disturbing and all that kind of stuff. And I listen to it now and the funny thing is that it fits in so well with so much… even like, it’s not a coincidence that Jeff Buckley did a pretty well known cover of ‘Kanga Roo’. The kind of things he was doing that were both angular and sustained at the same time, and acoustic and slightly tension building, that’ very Third. It’s music that didn’t care about its time, think about 1975, and those big flares and wide lapels and everything and then think about this record. It’s a record that was meant for the 2000s.
And I also refuse to be formatted so yeah certainly Third is a fine justification for that. But I also think that I would be just doing that anyway, because I want to be doing something different and I want to make it challenging. Hence the name of my compilation. That really is chosen for those reasons. I’m a marketer’s worst nightmare. I cannot be pinned down in category and easily summed up in a sentence. So be it.
It sounds like the making of Danzig In The Moonlight was as much as an adventure as the listening to it, recorded locations and guests… was that you deliberately shaking things up for adventure?
I think it’s just part of my adventurous nature in general. But over the years my solo albums have been a place where I can really shake off the normal procedures and the kind of lineal way of making records with bands that you have to – ‘okay let’s track the drums. Now track the bass.’ And even with songwriting, much of my three albums, and much of this album and all of my first album are acts of improvisation in the studio. Where rather than it ending up sound like Zappa in some kind of free jazz jam, the improv is directed into a song format. So it doesn’t sound like we’re just making it up as we go along. But to be honest, composition at some point, even if you’re sitting down with a pencil and staff paper, at some point you’re just making it up as you go along. Maybe you refine it a little bit, but at some point there’s nothing on the paper and then there’s something on the paper. It happens. So in my mind I’ve figured out that that distinction is the only distinction.
And I think it’s kind of cool that there’s an elaborateness to Danzig In The Moonlight… a lot of the album sounds pretty elaborate and complicated and doesn’t sound like something that you could just do off the cuff, but actually it is. And I pick the musicians I work with who are willing to go into that and can make it happen quickly. The people I work with are really really ace players, but musically sensitive ace players. There’s a difference.
So more than in your early career as a musician it’s about learning to trust your instincts?
Absolutely! Yeah. With The Posies for example, with the albums that we were doing they were very expensive albums. And we felt some pressure to live up to the expectations that our audience, our record company, ourselves all had for us. And make well crafted albums. Which we did. We demoed. And rehearsed. And tracked very carefully the songs that we rehearsed the way that we rehearsed them. And the results were good. That’s a fine way to do it, especially as a learning process. After having done that a few times, I was way ready to try a different thing. So when I did my first solo album in 1997, there was no demos and no rehearsing and no band and no nothing. I just set up my ADAT multi-track recorder and pushed Record. And from that moment I had to make up a song and record it in that pass. No fixing, no editing, no nothing. It had to be all actual spontaneity. And you know, on the first album, some of the results are kind of wild and woolly and chaotic. And some of them are really nice little songs. I didn’t belabour the composition, I just trusted myself and opened up and that for me is the essence of music. I do play with artists who are really meticulous, and that’s all fine. But it’s no wonder that those artists who are really meticulous call me to rescue them. To get something that, because I can be meticulous, but when it comes to playing live and being in the moment, I usually just throw it away and say, ‘fuck it I’m just going to put my hands here and see what happens.’ And usually it works out good. Every now and then there’s a mistake, quote unquote. Or something that doesn’t sound so pleasing or whatever. But that small price to pay is worth it for all the great magical serendipitous things that come out of it.
Haha, I remember one of the greatest shows I’ve seen was you and Jon on stage in Melbourne working your way through a bottle of tequila.
Yeah! It should be like that. That was an exercise in how far can we impede ourselves and still play music. And in fact it’s pretty far, you know. But I always say to musicians who say, ‘oh I’m not ready, blah, blah, blah. I need to rehearse more.’ ‘If somebody threw a guitar in your hands and pointed a gun at your head and said, play something awesome’, you would do it.’ Rehearsal, for me, rehearsal for the next show is the fact that I’ve been alive for forty-five years. That’s all rehearsal. And I think that’s plenty.
You’ve talked how some early songs were wild and woolly and some nice little songs. What were the ones you ended up choosing for the new compilation, some of each?
I think I tended towards songs that fit together well. I think, perhaps it was my autumnal mood at the time, but I think I went for songs that reflected, from a lyrical point of view, a more sensitive… my heartfelt emotions. Not that the songs that are more wild and woolly aren’t heartfelt but they can be a little more aggressive in a way. And aggression is a kind of closed door because whoever is aggressed regresses. And I wanted to make it maybe more open and songwritery I guess.
And I will say there are some improvised songs on the compilation. ‘Death Of A City’ is one that is completely… I just made that up on the spot. And it sounds like a proper little composed song and you put a string arrangement on it and all of a sudden it sounds like I spent hours writing it, but I spent less than ten minutes writing it. It just happened and came out. And there’s something cool that many a songwriter has described in interviews; that sometimes the best things are these things that just pop out of nowhere and there’s just no resistance in your soul to them. They just come out, fully formed… of course you’ve heard many a songwriter talk about the antenna thing where “I just received the song from beyond.” But I also think that your subconscious is also constantly gestating ideas and working on problems. It gives you a glimpse to the work it’s been doing all day when you have dreams. Meanwhile it’s working out problems in the background and that’s why you have Eureka moments. It’s not because at that moment all of a sudden your brain went and did this amazing action, it’s just that your brain has been crunching numbers for months about something, ‘I finally figured out the answer to this puzzle in my life.’ Your subconscious is working on stuff all the time and it’s been doing that out of sight. So, you know, if you’re a songwriter and songwriting is your life, surely your subconscious is working on songs for you. That sounds a little bit radical, but I’ve seen the evidence when songs just pop out. I really don’t think they came from nowhere. I think that there are kind of algorithm for the kinds of emotions that you want to express translated into music that my subconscious is now well aware of having written songs constantly for thirty years. So now I just play want to play that into the title of my album Danzig In The Moonlight, which really sums up everything we’ve been talking about in an obscure way.
Danzig, the town we now know as Gdansk in Poland, existed in the 1920s as a free city that was taken away from Germany, Poland, Russia, everybody and said, okay this is going to be a separate thing belonging to no nation but having aspects of several cultures within it, from Yiddish culture to German culture to Russian culture to whatever. So it was like a unique experiment to be beyond nationalism. And that’s my life. Both as an American living in Paris. And also musical speaking. I can speak many musical languages, but I consider myself not subject to the nationalism of any genre, shall we say.
And then the Moonlight for me is the image I have of things being illuminated by moonlight… we think of the subconscious as dark because we can’t see it. So it’s like this darkness thing where things bubble up like a dodecahedron inside a magic eight ball, I don’t know if it’s a dodecahedron but it’s a polyhedron you can say that much, the thing that bubbles up out of the black ink in a Magic 8 Ball, that’s our subsconscious where things suddenly bubble up and come forward. So the moonlight is I’m turning a light on to the things that are normally kept in the dark and illuminating the things from my subconscious. The exercise of improvisation is a fantastic way to access your subconscious and I don’t edit that. I just let it come out and I trust it.
So that’s what the title is all about. It seems like just a stupid joke. That’s to fool you and disarm you which is another trick for getting people to access their subconscious and participating in the album. So it’s a message to your subconscious.
Danzig In The Moonlight and I Never Said I’d Make It Easy are available on lojinx through The Planet Co in Australia.
The Big Star Third performance takes place at the Enmore Theatre on Thursday January 23. Tickets Here.
Chris Stamey & Ken Stringfellow Tour Dates
Fri 24 – The Astor Lounge, Perth, WA
Sun 26 – The Grace Emily, Adelaide, SA
Tue 28 – Northcote Social Club,Northcote, Vic
Wed 29 – Caravan Music Club, Oakleigh, vic
Thu 30 – Blackbear Lodge, Brisbane, QLD
Fri 31 – Clarendon Guesthouse, Katoomba, NSW