On the eve of his Australian tour (playing at Sydney’s Petersham Bowling Club on 11th April, Melbourne’s Grace Darling on the 13th, and Hobart’s Homestead on the 14th), the legendary Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, R.E.M, Big Star) took some time out to chat with Sydney Unleashed.
How did you get your start in the music industry?
Music had been, since I was very young, the only way to complete the huge gaps in my ability to communicate, to end the isolation I felt as a young boy. I no more thought of myself as entering the Music Industry than a starving man who forages for food thinks of himself as being in the Agriculture Industry. Music is and has been central to my coping ability to deal with the world, the world that impacts me so deeply.
Music is an art form, which is to say it’s not immune from commerce, but it’s to say that I didn’t set out to enter an industry, I set out to find a way to express what I couldn’t do any other way. Even my band The Posies’ first album was conceived without a business plan, or much of a clue of how things could work. It was very successful – one could say for an investment of $50, I got a lifetime in return, literally millions of dollars back on my investment.
Best part of what you do?
I suppose the thing I am grateful for the most is that I’m not beholden to anyone. No one can fire me. No one can really power trip me or intimidate me. I’m a self-made person. Everything I have, I did starting from nothing. No trust fund kid am I.
And the worst part?
I suppose the trade off of working for yourself over working for a company or something is that there’s no guarantee. No one sends me a paycheck every week. But, then again – see above; I can’t be fired, which is always the fatal flaw of working for a company – you see, there are no guarantees after all. So, I merely have the downside of the fact that I have to look the truth in the eye every day, and I can’t really entertain the fantasy of security. And it seems to work out fine.
Any interesting experiences you can share?
Only a lifetime’s worth. This question is a little…I mean, where to begin; with 45 years spent on planet earth? If I didn’t have experiences that even qualify as merely interesting…why would you listen to my songs? Technically this was a yes or no question, which means you entertained the possibility the answer was ‘no’. Ouch.
I think it’s best people read my blog at www.kenstringfellow.com/blog. I share a lot, my experiences, travels, sensations, projects. I update it every Sunday with a recap of the week. Some weeks I write a paragraph; some weeks I write a book. The more I’m traveling, usually, the more there is to say; I love to write my impressions of new places, especially.
Favourite album of all time and why?
I’m too in the moment to really anchor myself to something like that. I love being in the moment of creation, whether that’s a private moment where I’m making something spontaneously or a studio moment where I’ve been assembled with other musicians for the process of producing an album, or writing a song, or whatever. I live for that moment, especially since my hands are on it. I love other people’s work, but…it’s rather like the difference between how I feel about other people’s kids and my own children – it’s different when it’s your own blood, sweat and tears in the thing. I just recorded a few songs with a German singer named Mimi Schell, for example, and it turned out so good…I was shocked (I knew her songs were good already, don’t get me wrong), as it’s me who more or less played all the stuff. It’s one of those neat moments where you’re working and working on a track, and it’s coming together slowly, but after spending all day on it, it still sounds skeletal and vague and you almost give up on it…then you decide to put in an hour or so on it after the dinner break and then…it just blossoms, and you end up working four more hours on it because you’re so inspired…that’s just the greatest feeling, and it’s a surprise every time. It’s never sure that your ideas are going to coalesce into something above mediocre.
Best live performance that you’ve ever seen?
This one I can answer more or less accurately – it was watching Neil Young & Crazy Horse in Buenos Aires in 2001. From the side of the stage, hanging with the Gallagher brothers, I had this powerful, brutal sound all around me, Neil himself only 20 feet away. It was my first Crazy Horse experience, and I’d heard all the chatter about how casual, laid back and loose they were; but this night they were furious, tight and so incredibly larger than life. Their passion was not ‘laid back’, it was ‘laid bare’. There were the hits, and a lot of obscure tunes too.
Take us through a typical day in the life of Ken Stringfellow.
There’s a couple different kinds of typical days; ones I spend at home in Paris, and ones I spend away from home. The away from home days can have different flavours, too – I might be in the studio with an artist, or I might be playing a show. When I’m in Paris, typically, in the morning I walk to my studio, seven minutes from home, have a coffee on the way, and get to work – mixing, composing, recording – whatever it is I’m doing that day. I usually go home for lunch, especially if I’m mixing, I have a reference listen on my home stereo. Then back to the studio, home for dinner, maybe for more listening. Or I dine in the Chinese restaurant next to my studio. I usually work in my studio til about midnight. Walk home. I usually get up around 9am. My family and I live between three houses in different parts of France, we’re vagabonds of a sort, so…this routine changes if I’m getting up to walk my daughter to school, or at our summer place. It’s hard in the end to say that I have a typical day plan. Things come in waves – a tour has its routines, and its surprises; mixing an album, its own; recording a band or artist is less structured still. And in summer, I have a whole different routine when we’re on the island.
What advice would you give to someone looking at getting involved in the music industry today?
It’s tough for me to answer. Part of me wants to say to stop calling it an industry – it’s an art form. But, you also have to know your value and protect it, make sure people are paying you for what you do. It’s like you have to maintain this buoyant naiveté and enter situations with as few expectations as possible, so you can be fresh. At the same time, you have to be firm and bold enough to ask for what you are worth, what you need. That has to be sincere, too – you have to *know*, with a deep certitude, what you are worth. In a way, my advice for this question’s intended reader is no different from the advice I’d give anyone from any walk of life, for whatever path they choose for their life, career, what have you – know your value, and don’t let people take advantage of you; at the same time, don’t be a pain in the ass about it.
Any news or final comments?
In the end, everyone has a story to tell. What’s interesting is not the famous people I’ve met, or the mega-moments, like, those peak experiences – the biggest show, where everything went perfectly. The interesting bits are the daily life moments, I think. The details.
For news, we will see over the next year the re-issue of the Posies first four albums with expanded content, quite a bit never before heard and that’s *after* we released a 4-CD box set of outtakes in 2000. We found even *more* stuff. Plus the albums will get remastered, pressed on vinyl, etc.
For my solo work, a live album and video, that is a double vinyl + download, will be released in June. Normally my solo shows are stripped down affairs, but this was one of only two occasions that I was able to assemble the musicians from the album for a concert. It’s 12 people on stage – strings, horns, my daughter Aden and even a duet with comedian Margaret Cho. Recorded at the legendary Amsterdam venue the Paradiso. It will be available pre order only limited edition – follow me on twitter @KenStringfellow for details.
© Danny Canak