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the AU interview: Ken Stringfellow (USA)

Ahead of his Australian tour, Ken Stringfellow talks to the AU's Mary Boukouvalas about heartbreak, the choices for his latest compilation I Never Said I’d Make it Easy, and crowd-surfing at the Corner Hotel.

Hi Ken, this is Mary Boukouvalas for the AU review. Thank you for your time. Are you at home at the moment or touring?

I am home in Paris, today I'm recording some music for a Colombian singer named Maria Mallol, and touching up some mixes this morning for German singer/visual artist Nicole Bianchet. Nicole's album is stunning…sounds like Vashti Bunyan, or Sibylle Baier, or Karen Dalton, or…Nicole Bianchet.

I haven’t interviewed you before so I was hoping you would indulge me with a few introductory questions. Who were your influences growing up?

Growing up, like kiddie time? My influences were my dog, nature, the Monkees, the Exorcist.

How did The Posies form?

The Posies started as a project between myself and Jon Auer. We met as far back as 1983, when he joined a band I was in already, me being 14 and he being 13 at the time. We were buddies in high school, making music every day after school. And the Posies recordings took shape from this friendship. We recorded an album without having really played live, maybe 2 acoustic shows in our home town of Bellingham, 90 minutes north of Seattle by car.

What was it like working with Big Star and R.E.M?

Well, great! That's kind of a big question to answer. It's like saying what was it like being in the Beatles?. I think I have to save this answer for the book.

I look forward to reading that. How does it all differ to working "solo”?

I have crafted a very individualistic style, that's a balance of extreme emotions--if such things can be balanced. I can indulge my humour, my sorrow, my anger, my joy…in ways I see fit. I think in the end, it's a more complete artistic vision than the Posies, for example--the Posies is a blending of two visions, which has great results too, don't get me wrong--but for that reason it lacks the purity of what I am willing to put forward in my solo work. That little bit of committee thinking dilutes things ever so slightly. Still, art made by teams-- a great film, for example--can be great art. But something more personal, like a painting, or a novel, or one of my solo albums/shows--is a direct view on the artist's psyche, and a direct message that the artist wants to communicate, with no compromises. And that's great art, perhaps greater.

Definitely. And now you’ve compiled some of your great art into your latest release I Never Said I’d Make it Easy. Listening to it, I hear and feel both heartbreak and hope. What are the stories behind some of the songs?

Any Sign At All: This was from the heartbreak years. After the end of my first marriage, I entered, too soon, into a new relationship, and paid the price for haste. Things were on, off, nebulous and brutal---often all at once. What did I get for my trouble? Songs, *lots* of songs. Plus, my band The Posies, which had been the center of my musical world and my closest mates since I was a teenager, was crumbling. More songs…ouch. Well, here's a classic example. I don't do writing from the victim perspective any more, I think it's immature and I am wiser both with my conclusions about and with my choices in life.

Down Like Me: I actually had considered a dramatic ending to my life at that young age. I got a grip. I kept my sense of humor.

Find Yourself Alone: The heartbreak hits keep coming. All about that one lady, and realising you have to be strong solo.

Sparrow: My album Touched that yielded tracks 2-6 was released in the US on Sept. 11, 2001. I know, right? career killer! The terrorists won, yahoo.

That day I was scheduled to drink champagne at night and do interviews for my upcoming Australian tour that day. The interviews went ahead as planned, obviously we talked only about current events. Now, this song was inspired by my dealings with the Christian indie scene in Seattle--Damien Jurado (whose 1999 album Rehearsals for Departure I produced), Jeremy Enigk, Dave Bazan, are but three of many lads who at least at that time were indie rockers of faith. I felt that religion served too often as an arbitrary division of humanity, it had nothing to do with my own experiences of the divine.

The heart wants to be free - anything else is oppression, IMSO*. And then, boom--the divisions of the world, with religion at the center of the debate, set the world on fire (again). My release date seemed to be no coincidence, as I watched the planes hit the towers again and again, and this song proclaimed: the arrow winds in two wounds deep. Written and recorded over a year beforehand. *S is for Spiritual

By the way, Alan McGee, who released Touched outside of the USA, said it was the best thing he released, ever. Yes - even over Loveless, Bandwagonesque, Primals, Oasis…take THAT, mofos.

Here’s To The Future: What started as total irony on my first album, became richer and deeper for all its sincerity on my second album. My first album's title paraphrased a lyric from the Big Star cover that closed the album: "This Sounds Like Goodbye". The album was my suicide note, and Here's to the Future was conceived of as having without me implied. Now I play it as anthem of warmth, to all the survivors. The string players are Melodee Karabin, Andrew Emmett & Marla Woods.

Don’t Break The Silence: The last of heartbreak years songs on this comp. Here you hear my trying to let go. This heavily features the Lexicon 224 digital reverb, my favorite 80s effect device. Check out the decay on those tambourines -yes, I was hitting two together.

Any Love: Inspired by the writing sessions that Jill Sobule and I were doing in New York in 2002, a flood of new songs was arriving, so this I wrote myself, but while staying at Jill's. It speaks of someone whose heart is big enough to not judge a lover that is surely doing their best to be difficult, remote and judge-able. Distant and cold is the moon. But Cassandra is undaunted. Musical quote, that to this day only one listener has identified: the mandolin solo is a melody from "Jupiter" by Gustav Holst, from his suite The Planets, a favorite of mine as a kid. This, like most of Soft Commands minus You Drew was recorded at Studio 44 in Stockholm by Jorgen Jugglo Wall, who also plays drums and percussion on the album. It was the first album he'd recorded, ever, as engineer. He's a good friend and I totally trusted him and he did a great job. The string players are Pelle Halvarsson, Lotte Johanson and Sara Edin. Their parts were improvised on the spot, absolutely magical. This trio specializes in accompanying live theatre with an all-improvised soundtrack.

Known Diamond: Another song written, well, shall we say, inspired by, my friendship with Jill Sobule. I'd started the Stockholm sessions recording a kind of upbeat, Attractions-meets-Foo-Fighters rock version of this song, and hated it. We broke it down and I realized it could work as a piano song. We initially tracked it live, piano and vocal, but the vocals weren't good enough--luckily, Jorgen had done something ingenious: he'd laid over the piano the rubber mats that every Swedish building has in their entry way, so in fact my vocals did not get in the piano or the piano tracks…except the loudest parts, you can hear ghosts of the original vocals if you listen on headphones. For this album, Katherine Bergström, who had fronted the band Backfish whose 1997 album I'd produced, served as my muse--I sang this song facing her, to her, to make it personal and moving.

Cyclone Graves: I know, I'm stepping around the more upbeat songs on Soft Commands, but I feel these songs are less gimmicky, more representative of my work as a songwriter's songwriter, so, here you go. This song was written about my daughter, who was notional when we tracked this song. But I knew she was coming, saw her, even before she was physically conceived. I knew she would be one of my greatest teachers, and she has proven to be so. This was recorded in Seattle with Bill Rieflin (at the time we were touring together in REM) on drums, Fred Chalinor on bass.

Death Of A City: I'd run out of songs to record. I felt I didn't have a complete album. "Kip (Beelman), could you roll, I'm going to improvise something at the piano.". Ten minutes later, the basic piano track for this song was recorded (on my Kurzweil PC2X, which I still tour and record with to this day. Sounds good, no?). I took the music home, wrote the words on my kitchen table that evening, recorded them the next day. I knew I was saying goodbye to Seattle soon for Paris, and my frequent touring had already made me feel a bit of a stranger in my own town. Imagine now! The string players are Phil Peterson, Heide Oveson, J.J. Jang, and Rosemary Townsend. Despite the Scandi sounding names, this was all done in Seattle, in Ballard, the closest thing to Sweden you'll find outside of Sweden. Where I owned a home at the time. Velocity Girl singer Sarah Shannon does backing vocals here.

Why did you choose the covers you did for I Never Said It’d Be Easy ?

Airscape by Robyn Hitchcock: It's such a touching song. Robyn's playfulness makes it easy to forget his sensitivity. I was asked to submit this to a tribute record, but I kept it for myself in the end as it's such a touching version. Robyn & I played it last year for his 60th birthday.

Ask Me No Questions by Bridget St. John: I just completely fell in love with this song when I first heard it. The whole album. Bridget lives in New York and performed with me last year when I played in Brooklyn; that night, I sang this song *to* her, to show her how much it had touched me.

Never My Love by The Association: It's such a great production, the original. When I was making my previous solo album, "Soft Commands" (2004), I brought in the legendary musician Larry Knechtel -- whose bass and keyboards can be heard on everything from Pet Sounds, to That's Life by Sinatra, to Mr. Tambourine Man by the Byrds…to the Association's recording itself. So, I thought it would be great to get his keyboards and bass on a version for me. One take, including those lone bass notes in the breaks…the guy was a monster. He passed away in 2009; I'm so honoured I had the chance to work with him.

Kids Don't Follow by The Replacements: The Replacements meant so much to me…I can't really even…I mean, they were probably the last heroes I had before I was too old to have heroes. That the Posies ended up touring with them, with Paul becoming such a fan of ours…was…woah. I never bought the idea that they were a punk band in the beginning, I think they bent their music towards punk as a way of surviving what was the predominant force in the local scene at that time. So, I de-punked this great song, which was the first Replacements song I ever heard.

Did you have a particular vision for the album as a whole?

It was hard to pick, but in the end I went for the less quirky songs, and focused on the balladeer side of my songwriting, as I felt it showed the most depth in terms of my writing, and just plain feeling.

Which track was your most challenging/rewarding, and why?

I don't think the songs themselves were particularly challenging --- when it has to come out, it finds a way. The life lived to *get* to that point…phew. There's definitely some pain in those tracks. Around the time of my first album, which is where songs such as Here's to the Future, Reveal Love, Any Sign at All, Don't Break the Silence, Down Like Me, all come from…was just this turning point where my divorce and then the really fucked up relationship that followed were a one-two punch to my self-esteem that I almost didn't make it past. My first album This Sounds Like Goodbye (1997), which opened with a different version of Here's to the Future, was conceived as a suicide note, Here's to the Future was meant to be ironic…as in….no future. But I chose to live, and that's why I re-recorded Here's to the Future, the version you hear on this collection, for my second album Touched (2001).

Wow! That’s amazing. Thank you for sharing your pain with us. On a lighter note, how do you feel about touring and are there any on-the-road anecdotes you can share with us?

Well, anecdotes are for when you're sitting in a padded booth in a late night bar with me. I wouldn't even know where to begin. And some of the best moments aren't really anecdotes -- "it was an incredible show with an incredible audience" sounds total shit written down. But to experience it…it's like nothing else. I really live for this miracle, so…there's why I go traveling about. And they pay me for this!

I am sure many would like to take you up on your late night bar conversation when you’re in Australia soon. You’ve been to Australia a few times now. What were your impressions/favourite moments down under?

Well, the Big Star Third show in January was a highlight, it was an incredible meeting of old friends and new ones, in a fantastic venue with a fantastic audience, playing the music I love so much. I mean…wow. The Enmore was also the first venue I played in Australia, in 1996, the Posies kicked off a tour with the Hoodoo Gurus there. That show in particular…haha. Well. Our set ended with my hand gouged and bleeding from playing so hard, baptizing the crowd with upside-down crosses in blood on their foreheads.

That same tour ended with a headlining show at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne, where, despite the contents of a bottle of Jack disappearing sometime around soundcheck time, we played a furious, awesome gig…the guitar solos Jon Auer & I duelled on during the song "Burn & Shine" was carried out as the audience ported us, crowd sufing style, from the stage to the back of the venue and back to the stage, so we could enter the band's heavy outro right on cue, landing on our feet on the stage.

The vivisection of a foolhardy heckler at the Hi Fi Bar in 2000 by Jon and I was a highlight.

And for what it's worth, my show at the Petersham Bowling Club just last month was…something. Packed house, great friends and guests joining me onstage, and a truly intense audience that was ready for everything.

What else…I brought down my parents for my stepdad's 80th birthday when REM was touring, and we spent some days in Adelaide & Sydney, that was so wonderful. Tasting at the Torbreck winery.
It goes on and on!

That Corner show definitely was a furious, awesome gig – I’ll have to look through my negatives to see if I have any shots of the crowd-surf. So, what can Australian fans expect from this tour?

I guess I will do what I do best, deliver an uncompromised, emotionally naked, intense, simple, and touching performance. Believe it or not, that's what my audience and I like the best.

I’d believe that. Now, even though this is a solo tour, will anyone else be joining you on stage?

Yes, a few people. You'll have to come and see.

What is next for Ken Stringfellow?

Aside from the usual production/mixing work I do, I have a few interesting things coming up. I have my first ever show in Qatar in May, which means I will have performed in some 72 countries around the globe. In June we are going to release a double vinyl, limited edition live album from the release show of Danzig in the Moonlight at the legendary Paradiso in Amsterdam, one of two occasions I was able to perform with nearly the full complement of musicians from the album -- including the string players, the horn players, my daughter, and a duet with comedian Margaret Cho.

This will be available for pre order only; follow me on Twitter @KenStringfellow for announcements.

Also, over the next year starting in summer the Posies first four albums-- Failure (1988), Dear 23 (1990), Frosting on the Beater (1993) & Amazing Disgrace (1996) will be re-released with deluxe vinyl and CD editions with mountains of bonus tracks; we even found things that *weren't* on our (now out of print and commanding Ebay prices in excess of $300) box set.

That’s fantastic. Lots of luck Ken. Thank you so much for your time. Looking forward to your show in Melbourne!

Me too!

Ken Stringfellow's Australian tour dates:

Petersham Bowling Club, Sydney - 11th April

The Homestead, Hobart - 12th April

Grace Darling Hotel, Melbourne - 13th April

I Never Said I'd Make It Easy is out now on Waterfront Records