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coverpic flag US - Washington - Full Moon 213 - 01/16/14

Ken Stringfellow
"Anything could happen" - an interview with Ken Stringfellow

You'd think making records comes naturally to Ken Stringfellow. In the past few years, he has been involved in literally dozens of records, producing, mixing, arranging, singing and playing on other people's stuff. Yet making Danzig In The Moonlight, his ambitious fourth solo album, wasn't an easy task the 45-year-old American who has been living in Paris, France for a decade now. In fact, the sprawled out epic was six years in the making, before in was released on both sides of the Atlantic 15 months ago. On the album, Ken touches on a lot the cornerstones of his long and storied career, but also goes way beyond that. Dashes of classic indie rock, folk, country, soul, and modern day indietronics are just the tip of the iceberg here and there's still room for a lot of wonderful (and sometimes wonderous) experimentation, too, you know, the kind that would make Howe Gelb proud.

Stringfellow has toured the album extensively in Europe and America since its release and now he is taking on the rest of the world. First up is Australia, where he has lined up a nationwide tour starting in late January. To coincide with the trip, he also releases the compilation I Never Said I'd Make It Easy (Lojinx, 2014), covering the best of his three pre-Danzig In The Moonlight albums - his low-key solo debut This Sounds Like Goodbye (Hidden Agenda, 1997), his Mitch Easter-aided masterpiece Touched (Poptones, 2001) and the 70s-AM-radio-infused Soft Commands (2004) - and rare tracks from the same period.

Time to catch up with the co-founder of The Posies and long-time sideman of both REM and Big Star!

LK: Ken, where are you right now?
KS: I'm flying to London, as part of my homeward travel after Brendan Benson's show in Nashville last night, of which I was a part. The vibe is, I'm pretty tired, the plane's pretty full, but glad to be on my way home.

LK: 25 years after your first album with The Posies, a just released solo "Best Of" and a Posies reissue campaign to come in 2014, it's fair to say that you are in it for the long run. But do you remember a specific moment when you realized that music could be more than just a passing thing, but rather a life-long career?
KS: I never really gave it that kind of thought, oddly. It didn't occur to me that these things were what people did. I didn't really ponder what the musicians whom I was listening to growing up did when they weren't on stage, etc. None of the practicalities entered my thoughts. I played music, went to school, worked summer jobs, and prepared to go to university. To do what I wasn't sure, but I didn't study music. Then, during my uni years, the Posies began, and had quick success early on, and within about a year I could quit working the job I took when I dropped out of school to pursue the band. I wasn't thinking long term about music as 'employment', I was just following my instincts and wanting to do what was best for the band. And then ten years went by, and I was just in music, all the time, producing albums, taking part in tours, etc. Now it's just a part of me, and I am engaged 24-7 in it. I still don't think ahead, just follow my instincts and inspirations, and make sure to send an invoice.

LK: Just to take a quick look back on the albums that the songs on I Never Said I'd Make It Easy were taken from: I guess your debut This Sounds Like Goodbye - obviously a fantastic title for a first solo record! - was recorded at a time when The Posies were kind of falling apart, but were not quite finished and you were quite reluctant to even release the album. You obviously didn't think of yourself as a solo performer yet?
KS: Definitely not. I wasn't 'performing' really. I had done maybe half a dozen, probably less, solo shows, and I thought of them more as aberrations from my normal way of doing things, as opposed to now, where I think the solo shows are the essence of what I wish to share with people. In fact, I only did one very short tour around the first album, opening for Juliana Hatfield. But it wasn't until I toured quite a bit for Touched that I started to develop my live show and understand a little what I was trying to say, what was unique about my presentation and philosophies.

LK: When The Posies did break up for good (as you probably thought at the time) in 1998, you soon put together Saltine and started performing the songs that would form the backbone of what eventually became your second solo album Touched in 2001. How did you arrive at the decision that Touchedi should be a solo record rather than a band record with Saltine? I know the difference might be subtle, but did you actively decide to make a solo record or was it more of a decision against the band situation?
KS: I think I formed the band because it didn't occur to me that I could be interesting as a solo performer. That 'Ken Stringfellow' was not a complete artistic concept. Perhaps it was too facile to do the 'band breaks up, singer goes solo' trajectory. But, I also found in Saltine that a new band was going to be a new form of confinement -- I'd experienced a little frustration in the Posies that I had only half an album's worth of space to express myself, plus the other compromises you make in bands -- and the Posies were not a very restrictive group; Saltine had, if anything, more rules. Blake Wescott, who formed the band with me, had quite a lot of beliefs about what would we should be, especially in how to relate the indie scene at large, and I just didn't have the ability to allow myself to have restrictions. So, tension soon arrived, and I realized that I needed to see my vision through. I will say, that the mastering test CD of Touched lists the artist name as "Saltine" so I don't know when I came around the fact that I could, and in fact, should, call this album a "Ken Stringfellow" album.

LK: After the release of Danzig In The Moonlight in 2012 you often talked about how you've waited for the right timing to finally record that album, thus explaining the eight year gap since your last solo album. I've always wondered if that was a hidden comment on the fact that Soft Commands was released in a period of transition (personally more than musically) for you in 2004?
KS: Well, one thing that's true is that when I arrived to Paris around 2003-4 I looked for musicians to perhaps start a project with, even did a little jamming to that effect. I don't really know what I was ultimately trying to do. But then, I formed The Disciplines and put a lot of effort into that band, which ate up 3-4 years, and the Posies released two albums, etc. I had intended to do another solo album, and in fact, much of the writing for Danzig took place in like 2006. Some of the songs from that writing session ended up on Blood/Candy [the Posies' 2010 album]. It's just that other things took over and suddenly seven years passed and I hadn't made a solo album... and then the perfect circumstances arrived. Another thing to note about this is that when Soft Commands was released, it was squeezed into a tiny window between REM tours, and my initial touring for the album was pretty short -- a two week US tour in summer and a two week European tour in December 2004. So, when the Posies/REM touring died down two years later, I felt I had to expand upon that and starting in 2006 I did a lot more shows in Europe; I'd toured Australia and New Zealand in 2005. So, I was still, in a way, touring for Soft Commands for some time, in my head.

LK: Talking of timing: Did the opportunity for I Never Said I'd Make It Easy just arise, or did you really feel it was the perfect timing to take stock after the release of Danzig..., which was obviously a milestone in your career in many ways?
KS: The licenses for my solo albums had expired and the Australian label said it would be a great companion for Danzig 's release, which itself was held back until I could organize a tour there... so, it's an opportunity to present itself. But, Danzig represents a kind of completion, in the journey of my tentative steps towards becoming Ken Stringfellow the stand-alone artist, with the first album, to the person that made Danzig -- I fully developed my solo concept, the kind of emotional palette that I want to draw upon and execute, the sense of adventure and experimentation wedded to a songwriter's songwriter. And the live shows I've done for Danzig are even more 'in the pocket' for the kind of thing I want to present. So, I feel that, while not abandoning the solo style I have developed, I should probably do a very different kind of album next time and reinvent, or at least, bring new dimensions to, Ken Stringfellow the artist.

LK: I guess with a lot of artists, a compilation like this would basically compile itself, because older songs tend to fall by the wayside once new material emerges. But despite the fact that you have been concentrating on the Danzig In The Moonlighti songs in concert lately, I have heard you do all but two songs from your four solo albums in the past 12 months. With that in mind - did you consider the idea to compile the best of your solo years to be a daunting task or a fun excerise?
KS: It wasn't so easy; in the end, since it was autumn, and autumn is my time (I'm a child of October, after all) I felt that rather than focus on the wilder, squonkier side of my music, the songwriting craft perhaps comes across best in the more melancholy, ballad-y songs, so I focused more on those. So that dictated the run of the album, a little. I tried to do it quickly, not think about it too much. Again, the instinct thing. That's how I operate.

LK: Despite of what I just said there are obviously songs that you tend to play more than others in your current live shows. Are you sometimes surprised which songs stick with you, so to speak? Or did you write, say, "Known Diamond" or "Any Love" and knew instantly that you'd be going to play these a lot for years and years, and did you anticipate that, say, "Uniforms" and "You Become The Dawn" probably would never make the heavy rotation?
KS: I could say that about "You Become The Dawn" because the recording is so integral to the song, it's a proper song, but the sound of the track kind of took over the focus. I do play "Uniforms" pretty regularly, though! But, I think "Known Diamond" has lasted because it's one of the simpler songs -- just four chords, for the bulk of it; and it's versatile -- it sounds good on piano or guitar. I have been playing "Any Love" a little less since the new album since it was played every night for the last one. "Any Love" when I wrote the chorus, I was really jazzed. I remember it was while I was staying with Jill Sobule, working on songs with her, and I showed her the chorus, which was all I had at that time, and was like…"I'm keeping this one!" It felt familiar, which is a good sign, I think, when you're writing. Like something that should have been there already.

LK: Talking of your live shows: What would you say is the biggest (musical) difference between the KS who played his first solo show at, I believe, the Pacific University in 1992 and the KS that will appear live on stage in Australia at the end of January and what do you enjoy the most about "being solo" these days?
KS: Well, that very show was more or less playing Posies songs unplugged. I didn't realize then what the potential impact of a solo show could be. And it can be very intense, when you can connect so personally to the audience, and just drill into them with pure feeling -- no throwing shapes, no lights and smoke machines, no beats. And now, I know. I think what will be cool about the Australian shows is that it's been nearly a decade since I did solo shows there, so there will be some anticipation; my shows were well received in the past, and I've already got a kind of 'grand old man' status there, at least that's how people have been reacting so far.

LK: With the exception of your "Judee Sill phase" back in 2007 or so, the piano seems to have become your main instrument over the course of your solo years. Interestingly enough, almost all of the songs you perform 'only' on the piano in concert seem to be absent from I Never Said I'd Make It Easy. Pure coincidence or did you choose the "campfire-compliant" material on purpose?
KS: Well, the piano thing has really grown, especially from Soft Commands onwards. I remember, just before that album came out, I played a show in New York only on piano -- it was billed to be a unique thing, you know (John Roderick opened that show, BTW!) and I was barely able to pull it off. Touring for that album, my piano playing got a lot better, and now, I'm more at home there, and if we were to put Danzig in the pool of songs to choose for the best of, the balance would be very different.

LK: I suppose you're not the kind of guy who sits at home listening to his own records. So did revisiting not only these old songs, but old recordings bring up any unexpected "Oh, didn't remember it this way" moments?
KS: I do listen to them! Haha. I like to, it brings back good memories.

LK: There's one previously unreleased song on the album, your - lovely! - take on The Replacements' "Kids Don't Follow". You seem to have taken a somewhat different approach for this. I'd say of all of your cover versions this is the song that you've transformed the most.
KS: Thank you! I felt there was a melancholic song inside the original. I never bought the idea of Paul Westerberg as a punk rocker; I don't think he did, either. So, in a way, I imagined what the "real" Paul Westerberg song would be like.

LK: When you look back on your solo years so far - what do you regret the most?
KSSometimes I think the cover art for the albums is a little simplistic... the detail and artistry that went into Danzig's cover is at a very high level; I could have pursued that a little harder, brought more people in. Not to knock the work that was done on those albums, but I think I could sourced material a little wider and put even more depth into the album art packages.

LK: Danzig...'s critical reception suffered a little, because many people don't seem to have the patience anymore to listen to a whole album, regardless how good or eclectic it is. Do you think this will have an impact on your future ventures or does that make you even more determined to do things your own way, like the title of the compilation would suggest?
KS: Actually, I feel like I've been difficult enough, at this point. It might be nice to meet the audience half way. I will say I was a bit miffed reading reviews of say, Brendan Benson's album, or John Vanderslice's album, praising them for taking on so many different styles in one record, etc ... I was like...hey, why wasn't I allowed to be diverse?

LK: Talking of the future - Danzig... just hit South America, you'll visit Australia at the end of January for a Big Star Third performance and the aforementioned solo tour, then there's the upcoming Posies reissues plus, I assume, the usual flurry of activity with production and sideman work. Amongst all this - did you find time yet to make up your mind in what form or shape the next batch of KS songs could materialize?
KS: I try not to think ahead too much. I know that some concepts have crossed my mind, like being much less lyrical -- Danzig was a wordy album, which suits me fine but perhaps I've exhausted song craft, or satisfied my curiosity about it. Obviously my production work has opened up skills in programming and other electronic based music construction. But, in the end, I follow my instinct. So, depending on the prevailing winds, anything could happen.

Copyright © 2014 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

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You may also want to check out our Ken Stringfellow articles/reviews: Jukebox Pop-Quiz! Cologne, 2001, Paradiso, Amsterdam, Holland, 29.3.2002, So What!, Oslo, March 13th 1999, Soft Commands, an interview in Seattle.

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