Friday, May 23, 2014

INTERVIEW: Ken Stringfellow (the Posies, the Disciplines, Big Star)

Photo by Christine Taylor

There are few people in music I respect more than Ken Stringfellow.  An erudite wordsmith, joyously inventive composer, and stellar producer, Stringfellow's work solo and with the Posies is some of the most inspired of the past 25 years.  And the guy is good enough to have been asked to augment two of the most influential bands in rock (Big Star and R.E.M.), so anything I can sling is superfluous.  Ken reached out via email to talk about the live production of his last solo album (the gorgeous "Danzig In the Moonlight"), celebrating 20 years of the Posies' biggest hits, his time in Big Star, and how he stays creatively engaged.  Enjoy...

“Paradiso in the Moonlight” is a tremendous live experience and seems to revel in its size and scope – what went into the decision to recast the “Danzig in the Moonlight” album this way, using many of the same collaborators? 

The show was the record release party for "Danzig" in Amsterdam, and one of the rare occasions I could get most of the players on the album, the majority of which are Dutch, in the same room, what with all their busy schedules. The Paradiso offers recording services so it was a no brainer to document the evening. However, I have to give credit to the LAB for really making this recording shine--being that it was a one-off, with limited rehearsal, the recording was much rougher than the final product would lead you to believe.

The Posies’ “Frosting on the Beater” just celebrated its 20th anniversary and you played some shows honoring it with the album line-up.  As an artist you seem to constantly push yourself to find new ways of musical expression – given that, what was the experience like revisiting it so many years later?  Are you prone to nostalgia as an artist?

Nostalgia, no. Fun, yes. It had been so long since that lineup had played a full show together, almost 20 years--we played a couple songs at the Posies 20th in 2008--that I'd really forgotten what the vibe was like, and surely, it's different now than it was then, we've grown and changed much. I like these people, so it's nice for us to meet up from time to time.

Speaking of 20th anniversaries, this past week was 20 years on from the initial reunion of Big Star that you and Jon Auer participated in (which I have to imagine was probably one of the most amazing and flattering experiences ever) – how did you get involved in that and what are your fondest memories of being “in” the band?

I've recounted this a-plenty, but the simplest thing is that Jon & I were already diehard fans by 1990, when we got in touch with Ardent Studios about the possibility of recording our major label debut, "Dear 23", there. It didn't work out that way, but it got us in touch with the studio's public face, Big Star's drummer Jody Stephens. He heard what we were up to, including the note-perfect covers of Big Star's "Feel" and Chris Bell's "I am the Cosmos" we released as a 7" in 1991. So, we weren't the biggest names on the short list of people considered to round out the Big Star lineup for the 1993 Columbia MO show (Matthew Sweet, Paul Westerberg, Mike Mills, Chris Stamey all were asked and declined for various reasons) but I think we had the best chance of hitting the material note-perfect, and our smaller marquee value meant we wouldn't overshadow the music. As for fond memories, every show was spine-tingling for me, to hear these songs I love come to life, and to be in the middle of it. The later shows--the London show at Shepherd's Bush Empire c. 2008, the last show we played together at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in 2009 -- you could really feel a deep, warm love from the audience, and Alex even allowed himself to be moved by it, openly.

You have worked with several very high-profile collaborators are there any collaborative experiences that were particularly memorable that you wish to share?

Well, as I have often recounted, jamming with Neil Young and playing with him live, that's about as good as it gets. I loved the Posies tour with Brendan Benson, where Jon & I were 50% of his band for his set. He headlined the eastern half of the tour and we the western half, but always in his set Jon played guitar and a little bass and I played bass and a little keys. There's a film of the LA show "Brendan Benson Concert" or something similar, it's REALLY good. We are on fire. Of course Brendan is great and he has drummer Brad Pemberton, a truly astonishing player and a great guy, on board. For things further afield check out the album "He Who Travels Far" by China's Hanggai, I produced the album with JB Meijers (who is a big part of "Danzig" and one of my closest bros) and do some playing on it; it's a rock take on Mongolian folk music. Super. And JB & I did a great album with Carice van Houten, who is primarily known as an actress (see: GOT, Black Book, etc) but man, did she blossom on this record. I helped write some of the music and produce; I play bass, keys, etc. Great, great album with some awesome collaborators on board (Howe Gelb, Antony, Steve Shelley, Marc Ribot).

I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?

Sophie's Choice means one lives while another dies. Music, luckily, is not life or death. I think of songs as moments in my life, that can be tied to moments in my current life. When that stops being possible, I stop playing the song. There are always new ones. I love the songs on the last Posies album…"For the Ashes", "She's Coming Down Again"…I think they are both poignant and clever.

Your solo career allows you to delve into fairly idiosyncratic song structures and media…can you describe your songwriting process for me?  What inspires you to create?  How do you determine which songs are right for the bands you are a part of and which are destined for solo projects?

I tend to write in the studio a lot. So, the musicians around, the situation, etc, influences me. I often have just snippets, or less, to bring to the studio. I develop the stuff on the spot so it’s fresh. So, I can bend those snippets and ideas in any which way. Ask me to write a Posies album tomorrow: in 5 days, you'd have 5 great songs. Ask me to write a solo album tomorrow: in 12 days, you'd have 12 great songs, all appropriate. I'm only saying "great" because I know how to express what I feel, what I want to say…so….each song I write is satisfying to me. I don't waste time on bullshit--it's too urgent, inside me, to do anything but what's urgent.

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  Who inspires you musically?

To be honest, I go back to listening albums I've worked on. I have many great memories of these projects.

What’s on tap for you next?  Any chance of another Posies album? 

I have quite a few album productions happening over the next few months, including some pretty recognizable names, which I can't speak about yet. The 1st four Posies albums-- "failure", "Dear 23", "Frosting on the Beater" & "Amazing Disgrace" will get deluxe vinyl/CD/digital reissues over the next year on Omnivore Records; "Failure" will come this summer, in fact. Jon & I have discussed writing a new album, too…I'm game.

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