Ken Stringfellow is a singer, pianist, guitarist, drummer and musical producer. He has played in a lot of bands as R.E.M., Big Star or LagWagon and is one of the leaders of the mythical group The Posies. He spends most of his time working inside his musical bubble. As he affirms, his problem is not a lack of creativity, it is a lack of time. With all this info I guess everybody could imagine that his concert in El Patio de La Favorita (Gijón, Spain) last 6th December was amazing. Indeed, it was. Ken delighted fans and no fans with his compositions in a crowded bar (the concert was free entry). He lost the notion of time up on stage and his piano, guitar, harmonica and voice resounded tireless during two hours. Two hours where there was time for a complete tour by his last album Danzig in the Moonlight (a careful blend between the classic pop and the avant-garde one, some flirts with the soul genre and gloomy sounds that stain his maturest album), for some The Posies tunes and for a beautiful and improvised cover of After the Gold Rush of Neil Young with Maite Vázquez (vocalist of the Asturian band Kozmics) who also accompanied him singing a song off of Ken’s latest album. His shows try to look like life, with its magical and ridiculous moments. So with a great sense of humor and a pleasant spontaneity he showed up on stage five minutes before expected time: « should I start the show now? » he asked us while tuning his guitar. And his voice like a torrent of words and powerful sensations and other times like a soft and warm breeze invade our ears and made us realize that pure and true music will never die if guys like Ken continue swarming around the world.
This time I was able to ask him some questions before the gig. Some questions that started at 17 :00 PM with a coffee and ended up at 19:00 PM eating some typical Spanish tapas as octopus or pig ear in a tavern near the venue of the show. Ken opened his heart and shared his particular vision of life and art regaling us a lot of interesting declarations. We could say his music is genuine and that is not difficult to imagine when we are in front of a genuine personality too.
– How and when did you start in the music world?
Well after starting professionally I had my first band in 1980 at school. We played some covers, school shows…that kind of stuff. I started to write songs in that band and later Jon Auer (leader of The Posies) came into the group. I guess he and me had more imagination that the others so we continue playing together. In 1987 The Posies’s project started to get serious, we wrote a lot of songs. At the beginning it was more acoustic, then we started to experiment with synthesizers and I think after that we came back to our early style. I think we had a pop appeal but it was unique. Then, after the popularity of The Posies in Seattle, in our place and in USA, we got some renown, we started to be professionals musicians (at least people saw us like that), we toured around the world and that put us in another category. I was a big fan of R.E.M. and Big Star. So imagine how wonderful was to receive a call asking me if I wanted to play with them because they needed some help. When I was younger I lived in a town, and getting info of the bands you love was very difficult. There was no Internet, no Spotify… It was also difficult to buy their albums in my town. The radio was your only option, and it did not show what was coming from underground…it was always the same. First time I listened to R.E.M. on the radio I was amazed. I became a fan inmediately. And with Big Star, kind of the same story. It was a big deal, specially where I am came from (a town where everybody played in their garages). I was so lucky to play with almost all the bands I love. It has no explanation. I think it is not just that I’m lucky: it’s weird. I’m not the greatest musician, but somehow that happenned…I think I’m good at fitting in,I’m likeable in a way, easy to work with. I spent my childhood moving almost every year, so it was easy to adapt myself. I worked with so different bands with different styles and it has always been very easy for me to fitting in the group but without losing my own personality and tastes.
– Which are your main musical influences? What did you listen to when you are younger?
When you are young it is true that you have a special connection with music. You don’t have a total vocabulary for emotions and when you’re teenager you discover this big thing. At that time, you need experience to find the words and to be able to communicate and you don’t have it. I think communication is the last thing we learn in a way. We learn how to be ourselves and then how to tell people about it. So at this time music is very useful to you. At least, in my generation, it was like that.
When I was younger I used to listen to R.E.M., The Smiths (they are kind of melodramatic in a wonderful way,they fit me very well); some of the american punk bands like Black Flag for example; some kind of British New Age Pop and Elvis Costello; some Be-Bop and 50’s jazz…
– After your long career and having played in R.E.M, Big Star, The Posies, LagWagon…what have you learnt from them and these experiences? how did they influence your way of composing/style?
Ohhhh…I could fill a book with that answer. It is difficult to summarise. I try to learn everyday. It is all I’ve done in my life. I would say that, overall, I learnt to be more flexible. I don’t want to be in a situation where you say “hey, sorry I can’t do this, I don’t know how” or “I don’t understand that kind of music, I can’t help you”. No, you have to try. We also enter a philosophical idea with this question because: “what do I want?, why am I doing things?”. In one way I am the worst record producer ever because the aim of the producers is to earn a lot of money and I don’t care very much about that. I think money is a thing for people with a poor imagination. It is so boring to me. I’m interested in kind of a complete learning. For example if I play a concert and there are 5 people or 5.000 it doesn’t make any difference to me. It has to be done perfect. Well not perfect, that word doesn’t exist. Competently would be the word. You can learn from these 5 people as much as from the 5.000. I have also learnt during all these years have to be cool in uncool situations, in the awkward ones. There is almost no situation I find awkward now. And I have leart that the first thing is to satisfy yourself. If you are not happy and satisfied with your work you can’t satisfy the others. So that’s what I’ve learnt.
– For somebody that doesn’t know your music (your solo career), how would you describe it?
Good question. I think there are two parts: the record and the live show. I think the record is kind of touching and in a way it is my graduate project: “look, everything I’ve learnt during these years it’s here”. It is a very colourful album. And the show is like my recreation of life, which is intimacy and awkwardness. When you imagine a young couple making out their first time it’s kind of a mess: “hey, sorry, ups, ouch”. My show is like that. My show is like real life. Life is full of awkward moments. Some people want their show to be perfect. This is Michael Jackson’s idea for example. That’s great, but this is not my style. Life is savage and art is civilised. Life it is what it is and it is beautiful. I want people to be back in life, not to step them out. Sometimes you see a concert and it is like watching it in TV. I don’t want that. I want contact and communication with the audience.
– What can we find in your last album “Danzing in the Moonlight”? What is it about?
Well it is about many things. There is the end of the world in there. Then it is about what happens after that. I think about the old-fashioned God with his bear and cane and he thinks: “ok, I’m gonna end the world”, he pushes the button, “ok, it’s done…wow, this is boring”. I think it is grateful album too. There is a theme about “thank you”. I think it’s more difficult to write a complaint song than a “thank you” one. It is so hard to define in words that kind of emotion sometimes. I guess the theme of the album title it’s in a couple of songs too. I have become a kind of man without a country. I’ve lived in France, USA…This is a bit contradictory but the whole reason I fit in so well it because I never fit it. I can relate to people easily. That kind of knowledge is how I survived in a way. This record is very individual. You can’t speak about good or bad. I have bad reviews of the album all the time. They tell me: “oh, yes, is so diverse”. And I think to myself: “oh, really?”. I tried to make this album wide. I’m guy with a very personal perspective and that’s my curse and my blessing. I’m aware of what Pitchfork or other magazines write but I don’t care. I think reviewers are a bit nonconformist nowadays. The ask you for something different. You give them and they tell you: “oh no, it was not that kind of different”.
– What differences can we encounter between your first solo album and this last one? I have the impression that is a bit gloomy in comparison with the others. What was the evolution like?
Wow…well sure it has been an evolution. Fifteen years of stuff. The first album was recorded in Spain. It was like an experiment of “not to produce an album”. It had to be spontaneous and improvised. I had to start recording without knowing what I was recording. I had to make up the song and let it flow. So there is a big contrast about what I was doing before and now. This album has been recorded in an studio in Holland, very carefully.Maybe nothing special has changed in my style. It’s only that I have more experience. I’ve lived more years, I’ve visted more countries, I’ve released 100 albums now…all of that enriches your personality and your way of thinking. Experience is the difference.
About that gloomy thing you tell me…it’s interesting. Yeah, maybe it is. You know what? I’m 44 and I’m at an age where dead it is something more than a concept, it is a reality. A couple of friends have died recently and well you start to see death as something tangible and not so abstract.
– How important are lyrics to you? How important is to have a story to tell in a song?
Well, they’re another layer of the song. In my lyrics there is a lot to tell. Each lines tells something. In a way, for somebody whospeaks english as his/her mother tongue would be difficult to follow. You can appreciate the songs by how they sound but if you want to go deeper you will find things hidden in a sentence.
– Do you have any ritual at the time of composing or getting inspired? And before the show?
Ritual? Do you mean killing a goat? (laughs).I don’t get inspired. It just comes…I live like a man in a hurry to do things. They say “live your day like if it was your last one” and that’s what I do. Even when I have a big hangover. I work all day, everyday very hard. Inspiration is not my problem. Time is my problem. I need more. Once I met a guy in London that told me: “oh man, I’m going to write a song everyday” and I said to him; “ok, cool, and what about writing a good song everyday?”. He forgot to insert that. Of course he didn’t speak to me anymore. I scheduled my days to do a lot of things. For example today I spent six hours in a bus, no battery in my laptop, so the only thing I could do was thinking and thinking. And when you think sometimes songs come up.
And nothing special before the show. Like I said the show for me is nothing more than life. So I think that if you put a top hat, take a magic wand and say “I’m a magician” and do your trick won’t have the same effect than making a miracle when nobody notices it. That’s what it is really cool and miraculous.
– When The Posies was formed, like twenty five years ago, a new musical movement called “Grunge” was shaping in Seattle. How was coping with all of this sudden success by the grunge bands? Did you get influenced by their sound? Because at the beginning your style approached to a pop genre…
Wow, sure…It was an exciting thing. We were in Seattle by that time and we lived that. It was amazing. We were lucky enough to be there when all of that happened. We could have been in the other corner of this world and maybe our music wouldn’t be what it is. So yes, there was an influence. And yes, we were there: right time and right place.
– Is there any special place where you would love to play again? Any special audience do you remember?
Mmm well…Now that I don’t live in USA, Seattle would be great (I think that I will play in february). And I’m into playing in new countries: Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro…all that European side. But yeah, Seattle and my hometown would be good. By not living there I have a bit of respect. If I lived there nobody would give a shit about my music, they wouldn’t appreciate it.
I remember millions of audiences…tonight’s one could be a good one. It keeps going, I don’t want to talk about it that past. I like to think that the good one is going to come.
– Are there any current bands that make you get excited (underground or not underground ones)?
Yeah, loads. I’m a producer so I’m in contact with new bands constantly. The underground genre is so wide. I worked in many wonderful albums. People think that Coldplay is underground. The play pop with experimental details and nouances. Yes. But they are not underground when they sell millions and millions of records. For example, I’ve worked in Oh, Libia!’s last album. They are from Alicante (Spain) and it’s a lovely pop-psychedelic album. I have mixed their recordings and twisted them a bit. It is a very cool and recommendable piece of work. Ian Mc Glynn has worked with me as well and he is from New Jersey, a very good piano player. I’m proud of this album too. He wanted something related to that 80’s synth sound ( the early Depeche Mode and that stuff) and I said to him: “no, if you want me to work with me I won’t do that. We’re not going to get stucked in an only genre the whole album. I want to have thousand genres in every song”. And that’s what we did. It has been recorded in his appartment. It’s an interesting album, quite of technological but organic. I play drums on it.
– How do you see the current musical panorama? Do you think now it is more difficult to make a living being a musician? Do you think the Internet is a trustable friend or a sweet enemy?
I think what I think doesn’t really matter. It is what it is. You know what they say: adapt or day. You can make many excuses for not doing things but at the end if you really want to do it, you’ll do it. A lot of people tell me: “hey, I want to record an album, but you know the crisis…”. Well, yes the crisis, ok. But if you don’t have a job you have time to make that fucking record, you have nothing else to do. You’re not in crisis. Your creativity doesn’t have to be in crisis. People tell me too: “I want to make an album but I have a baby…” And I say, ok, do you know that Led Zeppelin‘s drummer had three kids and he made a lot of concerts a day when nobody gave a shit about the band? Children are not an excuse. I know how hard it is. I have two kids too. But I make an effort and I make music, crisis or not crisis. You have to adapt yourself.
– The last record you have bought:
I can’t even remember…I have so many free stuff to listen to, bands to produce…but I can tell which ones I would buy: “Transcendetal Man” – Sonja Van Hamel (she did he artwork of my last album) or “See you on the Ice”- Carice Van Houten.
– A record for a Saturday Night/A record for an informal dinner with friends:
For me these two questions are quite the same. Last night I was with friends I played a Belle&Sebastian‘s record and they loved it. I prefer mellow things for a saturday night.
– A record for a Sunday Morning:
I have some neighbors that have wild parties until 11:00 AM. All the night playing loud clubbing music. So on Sunday mornings I put some reggae records or something with loud basses.
– A record for a romantic dinner.
I would say that my last album: “Danzing in the Moonlight”. It has a song dedicated to my wife (“Your Sign”) and sometimes I play it when we are dinnering together.
– A record for a car trip.
Death Metal records (like Slipknot or Brujería for example).I need something loud that keeps me awake.
– A record for making love.
I think every kind of music turns into something funny when you start having sex. Mmmm I would say Tortoise. They have a beautiful and rare music for doing that.
Photos: Nacho Iglesias