Rock's indie superman

Ken Stringfellow is grateful for the opportunities he got with REM and The Disciplines, and excited for his chance to play here.

Ken Stringfellow 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ken Stringfellow 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ken Stringfellow has been convalescing in his Paris bed for the better part of a week. The 40-year-old California native isn't sure what's knocked him off his feet, but a quick rundown of his work schedule might help explain the problem. Not only is he maintaining a thriving indie solo career as one of rock's most innovative songwriters and performers, he's also juggling tours for The Posies, the acclaimed Seattle alternative pop band he cofounded with Jon Auer in the late 1980s; The Disciplines, his current band with three Norwegian musicians; Big Star, the reformed '70s power pop legend and Posies inspiration led by Alex Chilton; and numerous production dates for up-and-coming European and American bands. And to think, until a few years ago, he was also a semi-permanent fixture in REM's touring and recording band. "I'm getting better," Stringfellow says with a touch of optimism in a phone call from the home he shares with his French wife Dominique and their young daughter. "I've been working way, way too much - seven days a week doing shows and studio work, nonstop, for quite a few months. When you see those stories about big time celebrities that say they're suffering from exhaustion, you go 'ok, that's a code word for too much partying and they're in need of rehab.' Now I understand that it really is possible without the partying." Despite the unexpected setback, Stringfellow expects to be in fine form when he plays two shows this week in Israel, Thursday night at The Lab in Jerusalem, and Saturday at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv. Both shows are being hosted by local power popper Shy Nobleman and band, who will play their own set as well as back up Stringfellow. "We got in touch around four years ago through the Internet when I was looking for a producer for my second album," said Nobleman. "I had heard of comparisons between my music and The Posies, but hadn't really heard them. When I finally did, I realized we were kind of influenced by the same artists. I was a big fan of Big Star and still am. They were brilliant. And Ken was instrumental in their reincarnation." Nobleman had approached Stringfellow about producing the follow-up to his 2001 debut How To Be Shy, but due to prior obligations it didn't work out. However, the two like-minded musicians stayed in touch. "When I brought up the idea of him coming here, he loved it," said Nobleman. "The shows will likely be three parts - my band and I doing our material, then Ken will play solo on piano and acoustic guitar doing material from his albums. Then we'll back him up on some Posies and Big Star songs." FOR STRINGFELLOW, it's been all about songs ever since he was 19, when inspired by the three-minute, harmony-laden, guitar-centric pop songs of Big Star. He sat in the basement of Auer's parents' Bellingham, Washington home, recording demos with his mate. The Posies evolved out of those sessions and signed with Geffen's DGC label, releasing three critically lauded, tunefully sonic albums in the '90s that didn't make much of a dent in the charts. Instead of being bitter, Stringfellow doesn't spend much time these days analyzing why The Posies didn't become household names when other regional contemporaries like Nirvana did. "It's probably a combination of many things. Even on our riffiest material, I think our music was a little complicated - it's not the easiest thing to learn on the guitar at home. But we got real close, we were in the charts, and selling some records at different points in the '90s. We had a good label behind us and built a following with lots of touring and videos. In that sense, it may be true that our music wasn't meant for the mainstream, it was a little obtuse," he says. One thing was certain, Stringfellow recalls, The Posies weren't going to jump on the grunge bandwagon, which was synonymous with Seattle in the '90s. "There wasn't any question though that we were going to change, other than on our own path. "In some ways, that was a long-term benefit. Many bands that fit perfectly with that time of grunge aren't around or aren't very interesting now. The fact is, our music has aged better because it's not tied to a particular time. We did our own thing, partially through naivety." While The Posies broke up in the late '90s, Stringfellow and Auer have regularly resurrected the band for tours. And their partnership has also continued as part of the Big Star lineup since the mid-'90s, when the enigmatic group reformed with original members Chilton and Jody Stephens for a one-off show that evolved into a steady gig. A welcome monkey wrench in Stringfellow's post-Posies career was the invitation to join REM on tour and in the studio in the late '90s and early '00s through its albums Reveal and Around the Sun. It was a good fit. Stringfellow had been part of REM's original fan base, and The Posies were known to cover early REM songs in concert. In addition, back in the mid-'90s, he had joined REM guitarist Peter Buck and second guitarist Scott McCaughey in a busman's holiday band, The Minus 5. Still, Stringfellow had lost touch with REM's music, and had to run out and learn the songs from albums like Out Of Time, Automatic For The People and Up to get up to speed. "Being in REM's musicians' party, you get so much slack. It wasn't really regimented at all, they live at their whim. They might say 'Let's not do a sound check today, I don't feel like it,'" recalls Stringfellow. "Musically, it was top notch. They'd go, 'here's the songs, just play along. We like you and what you do.' That was great. Every now and then, there was this part from the record that they might say, we really want it to go like this, but most of the time, I was on my own and came up with my own parts." Stringfellow wasn't invited to join the band on its most recent tour for its stripped down album Accelerator, but he bears no ill feeling. "I would have had a hard time saying no. For us freelancers, paid work is paid work, and we hardly ever say no. But their musical idea was to go with two guitars, bass and drums and their second guitarist is Scott. So, in that sense I couldn't argue with them, I think it sounds great as a four-piece," he says. THE SILVER lining, Stringfellow discovered, was the opportunity to develop his relationship with The Disciplines, his European-based band that is currently knocking his socks off. "Had I done the REM tour, I would have completely obliterated my chance to do The Disciplines. There would have been the financial reward, but the greater reward at this time in my life is to develop myself. Taking two years out for an REM tour might have killed that band for good," says Stringfellow. "The Disciplines are really the sort of band I maybe should have done first, before The Posies. It's a very direct band, with some of the nerdiness of The Posies, but in a much simpler package. It's very liberating for me." Equally freeing is working on his solo career, which has produced three albums - This Sounds Like Goodbye (1997), Touched (2001) and Soft Commands (2004), as well as an EP released this year with covers by other artists, The Sellout Cover Sessions Vol. 1. Stringfellow says he continues to vary his work configurations because there are different benefits derived from playing by himself and with a band. "In live performances, playing with bands is real easy. I love it, and things start to come together real fast," he says. "Playing solo is really challenging and can be lonely, especially if people aren't paying attention. But when it works, it's magical. When you connect and hold their attention, they allow you to transport them on the journey you're going on. It's an incredible feeling, and very rewarding. There's a little alchemy that happens and suddenly I feel not like a guy banging away on an acoustic guitar, but something bigger is happening because of collective attention. I couldn't live without either one, and couldn't live with just one." In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Stringfellow will enjoy both sensations, playing solo and with Nobleman's band. And despite being in throes of recuperation, Stringfellow sounds positively charged about the shows. "We've been talking about doing this for years, but the timing was never right," he says. "I'm really glad it's happening, and I have to say, for someone I've never met personally, Shy has been incredibly generous with his time and energy, and I owe him a great debt." Being based in Paris has opened up many musical doors for Stringfellow and enabled him to experience off-the-cuff moments - like flying to Israel for two shows, something that wouldn't have been financially viable if he were still in the US. "I've been making the transition to Paris for the last five years, but in the last two, it feels more complete. I've sold my house in the US and I'm here. It's a huge benefit, actually. I've been making connections with bands and fans in Europe in a more profound way for most of my career, ever since I started touring here 15 years ago with The Posies and Big Star," he says. "I've found a real sympathetic audience in many parts of Europe - not to discount fans I have in the US. But there seems to be a higher per capita density of appreciation for what I do in large swaths of Europe. And being in Paris places me closer to the densest pockets of fandom, which has enabled me to expand on it. I'm basically a two-hour flight away from anywhere."