Interview: Ken Stringfellow (R.E.M., Big Star, The Posies) – part 1
Published on August 21st, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Ken Stringfellow is indie royalty: how else to describe a man who’s played for – not just with, but for – Big Star, REM and of course The Posies, the most eminent platform for his own material along with that of co-Posie-in-chief Jon Auer? Stringfellow also now fronts Oslo-based garage rockers THE DiSCiPLiNES, but for the time being attention turns to his stunning fourth solo album Danzig in the Moonlight, a relentlessly colourful and masterfully melodic display of black belt-level psych-pop-ing, and one of the best things Rocksucker has heard this year. If it sounds like your kind of thing, you are heartily recommended to pre-order it from here.
We fired him over some questions and received back the following, thoroughly illuminating set of replies. First, though, check out this choice cut from Danzig in the Moonlight, which incidentally is Stringfellow’s first LP to be released on Andrew Campbell’s utterly splendid Lojinx label…
Congratulations on a stunning new album. How long has it been in the making? Were all the songs written close together or do some date back a bit further than others?
Thank you! We can go back to my last album, Soft Commands, released in 2004. By 2006 I was done with the major touring for the album and already starting to think about the next one. But, at the same time, in 2006 I started a band in Norway called THE DiSCiPLiNES which spent the next year developing songs for an album, which came out in 2008, and we followed it up with a second album in 2011. And between those two albums The Posies released Blood/Candy and we did a bunch of touring for that. So, that, and the many other projects I am involved in just took over.
It’s been psychologically difficult for me to devote the same authority and belief to my solo work as I do band projects, and production projects–with no one to spur me on but me, it’s the easiest thing to blow off. You have to *spend* money, which is always intimidating. It has been easy for me to convince myself that doing a KS album is a major indulgence and totally unwarranted. Which is odd, because, in my own final analysis, from a musical point of view both the recordings I do solo and my live presentation which I’ve been developing for a good decade now are, no offense to the other things I do, my greatest musical strengths. So, we have to count my grappling with this as part of the answer to your question.
Meanwhile, in 2007, on two occasions I rented a small place in a quiet town–in Burgogne, and on the French Atlantic coast, and spent time writing. Just a week in each case but a large number of songs came from those writing sessions. Including two songs on the last Posies album, and about half this album. In other words, it could have happened awhile ago. But, the time and my psychology just wasn’t right.
There was another period maybe 2008-ish that I wrote some of the other tunes–at least the music. When I was in the studio recording the songs I knew well, I found instrumental demos that became “Drop Your Pride” and “You’re the Gold”. I recorded this music in the main album sessions, and wrote the lyrics as I did overdubs at home in Paris. “Drop Your Pride” needed some id, so I spent two hilarious nights improvising lyrics to greater and greater amounts of champagne…you can really hear it on a couple of lines.
“Pray” was music I wrote last year for a French artist, but he never got around to finishing his lyrics, so…I took the music and gave it a different feel and wrote lyrics during the session.
This has been true of my solo albums in general– I like to mix songs that have been worn in, shall we say, played live, etc. with some things that totally come to life in the studio, where during the recording I have no idea where I’m going with it, and there’s a reaching, exploratory dimension.
“Jesus Was An Only Child”, the first tune, was assembled out of a jam with TheLAB, the production duo who mixed my album, in L.A. We did a couple of jams, the piano-based soft part was always intended to lead into the more intense, drum-heavy part. They did a great job editing the ideas into an arrangement, and when I came by their studio earlier this year for the mixing, I wrote and recorded the lyrics in an all-night session. The guys left me and a mic there after hours.
“Odorless Colorless Tasteless” was composed by cellist Annie Tangberg of the West Side Trio–I’d been working with her a lot on different albums and thought she should step over from arranging to composing, this being the first result. Like “Jesus” I carried the music around with me and when I got to LA I had a second all-night session where I wrote the lyrics, and sang them the next day.
“4am Birds” was written, musically, in a one-off session at this great keyboard studio Electric Piano Services, in Holland. I wrote the lyrics in Paris.
“Superwise” was demo’d a couple years ago in Italy, for a compilation, but they never used it, the compilation never came around to existing, so I re-recorded it for this album.
So in one sense, this album could almost have been recorded a few years ago, but, all the musical experiences I’ve been having, working on so many cool projects, that I could never have made this record as *well* as I did now. And I think lyrically, what lyrics I did write during the sessions also have depth and gravitas and conceptual completeness that has only benefited by my waiting ’til the time was right.
It’s got a really expansive sound compared to your previous solo records. Was it something you’d always wanted to do or did it just work out that way?
At first I thought you wrote ‘expensive’ and I sort of agree with both. Actually, I think each of my records have cost about the same except for the first one which is much more rough by design. Again, the exponential increase in projects that I worked on in 2004-2012 compared with the other intervals between albums, and the fact that all this knowledge is cumulative, has just given me much better skills in several areas–how to get the most out of a studio, is one; but one that’s more subtle is how to know who you should be working with.
It’s good to know a lot of different musicians, so you have a sense of comparison–who might be compatible with your material, who might bring the right dash of the unexpected. I picked an excellent team, and also, we can say by good fortune but good fortune is an effect not a cause, some excellent musicians picked me.
The first album (This Sounds Like Goodbye, 1997) like I mentioned was meant to be rough. I had to write and record the song, from the germ of idea to the final mix, in one or two hours max: those were conditions I imposed upon myself to keep things from being precious, which is a fault I had with some of the Posies material.
The second album (Touched, 2001) was recorded in a gorgeous analog studio, Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium, but again to keep things from being too lush I ended up using almost entirely my rough mixes, which were done in a day, total. Tho there’s lots of overdubs on that album, it doesn’t sound like it–the lack of effects keeps the sound modest, which I like.
The third album (Soft Commands, 2004) was a mix of digital and analog tracking. There’s a massive amount of tracks on this album, and I think the mixes are great, but now by comparison I can see there’s a kind of mid-2000s digital smallness.
Let’s say that the recordings for this album sonically blow away the other albums–part of that is the studio, part of that is the recording, part of that is the aforementioned knowing how to get the max out of a recording situation. And the musical interplay of the musicians. The studio where I did almost all the tracking, ICP in Brussels, is a major component of this album. All the songs except ‘Jesus’ and ‘Odorless’ were tracked there. I’ve done a few projects there now, and I’m convinced that sonically it’s one of the best designed, best appointed studios on the planet.
Most of my tracking was done in the vintage Neve ‘C’ studio. I did some tracking in their SSL room too. And I did overdubs in the ‘D’ room which has an amazing vintage Telefunken board. These different environments, plus the vast amount of instruments, pedals, amps, outboard gear, etc. — plus the engineer, Michel ‘Shelle’ Dierickx — are a major, if not *the* major, component to the album’s sound. Shelle has been working at ICP for thirty years, and it’s always brilliant to have the confidence of a seasoned engineer to guide you.
Then, there’s the fact that this album was tracked live, unlike any of my previous albums. This is a big contributing factor too.
So, when I got my basic tracks done, and went home to Paris to do overdubs, I really didn’t add much at all: the tracks had a vibe, and a depth that sounded complete. In many cases I had already done the vocals, so with some songs it was a case of adding a tambourine. Some of the songs needed lyrics and/or vocals, so that was done in Paris at home. But I could have rough-mixed the album then and there and had a pretty decent record. That’s how good the recordings were.
How much of the album’s instrumentation do you handle yourself? Who else was involved in the making of the album?
The core band are people that I work with often in my productions. In fact, we need to introduce here another, crucial part of the story. For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a lot of albums with one JB Meijers, who is an Amsterdam-based musician, producer, arranger, and so forth. He contacted me three years ago to play on his last solo album, Catching Ophelia, and we’ve been working on projects together ever since. It was JB who proposed these sessions take place in the manner they did–by virtue of the fact he’s brought a lot of albums to ICP in recent years, they offered him a decent rate if he wanted to bring his own project there, and he proposed that we book the studio and cut two albums simultaneously, one for him, one for me, and we use musicians that we work with often in our mutual projects.
So, we had Joost Kroon on drums, and Pim Kops on keyboards, and JB and I trading off on bass, guitar, keys, whatever was needed. We recorded a couple dozen tunes in November-December last year, I think we were at ICP for 12 days. So, on an average song, it’s a four-piece band, in a way. So, it should be stated that this album might not have ever happened without JB presenting this proposal, and certainly I think what was proposed was the best thing, ultimately for the album–the results speak for themselves.
While I was in Brussels, I had a few other folks come in for parts. I found out a friend of mine in Brussles was now living with a jazz pianist, Matthieu Vandenabeele, so I had him come and play piano and lead synth on the third, mostly instrumental part of “4am Birds”. Eva Auad, a Dutch singer whose album I produced with JB, came in and added vocals to a few songs. And Sonja van Hamel, another Dutch singer whose album I produced with JB, came in and did vocals, and played guitaret and Omnichord on some songs. Sonja also did the album package graphic design and layout, by the way.
Meanwhile, I had been asked to collaborate with a production duo called TheLAB, two guys from L.A, on a song of theirs (the results are really incredible and you’ll be hearing that soon). So, in December I went to LA to work on that song in their studio and in the same moment we recorded the music for “Jesus”. On this song they play drums (both of them) and piano, and other things I don’t know about…they have a way of adding instruments into a mix, which they did throughout the album, in a very subtle manner, in fact I have no idea what they added in total. But, their mix is an important part of the puzzle here too. I might have mixed this album a bit more like Soft Commands, kind of everything up, everything in style; they were much more selective in how they sorted through the tracks.
Beyond that, Sonja was also part of the keyboard overdub sessions I did at EP Services in October and December (“4am Birds” was tracked keys only, before I added drums and bass at ICP). Then we have the West Side Trio, a string trio led by the aforementioned Annie, with whom I’ve worked on several recordings, who did all the strings for the album. And there were several horn sessions–Craig Flory organized some in Seattle; several Dutch horn players did their parts in various sessions, and horns were also done in LA.
“Doesn’t It Remind You of Something”, the duet, was recorded in Seattle with Charity Rose Thielen from The Head & The Heart singing, and in LA with Margaret Cho singing. For the strings and horns, and these extra vocals, I wasn’t present. And finally, when I was in Mumbai this year, I met with a studio engineer named Reeky Dev, who arranged to have several Bollywood musicians — percussion, vocals, sarengi, flute– add parts to several song. Sarengi is a violin-like instrument that you can hear on “Jesus”.
As far as what I played, I played some basic rhythm guitars, and built up “4am Birds” on keys. But again, the delegations here are pretty well appointed, and I didn’t have to add that much. “Shit Talkers” has some cool overdubs, synth and guitar, that I did both at ICP and at home. I played some guitaret. Some percussion. Mostly, I sang. Maybe the most interesting performance in terms of musical challenge is that “History Buffs” is tracked live, with me singing and playing piano, with the band playing along.
Ken Stringfellow will play the following live dates in October and November…
12 Oct 2012 – Dynamo, Turku, Finland01 Nov 2012 – Paradiso, Amsterdam, Netherlands02 Nov 2012 – Rotown, Rotterdam, Netherlands03 Nov 2012 – Mezz, Breda, Netherlands04 Nov 2012 – Tivoli Spiegelbar, Utrecht, Netherlands06 Nov 2012 – Botanique, Bruxelles, Belgium07 Nov 2012 – Mod Club, Hasselt, Belgium08 Nov 2012 – Beta, København S, Denmark15 Nov 2012 – The Lexington, London, UK