Ken Stringfellow: Touched on Tour

Typically half the creative engine of The Posies, Ken Stringfellow has both played with a number of other bands, including R.E.M., the reconstituted Big Star and the Minus 5. But he’s also found time to put out a few solo records over the years—one of which seemed destined to be buried in a day of national tragedy.

He’s back to play that album, the 2001 Touched, on a solo tour that kicks off September 12 in Nashville and includes a September 21 show marking the 25th anniversary of the Mercury Lounge in New York. We reached him in Europe just before he flew over.

Seems like you’ve got a lot of dates on this solo tour.

Yeah, it’s ambitious. Sixty shows, or something like that. It all started from one show, which has to do with my album Touched, which has the dubious release date of September 11, 2001. Waking up that day, I had bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate the release. My phone was ringing as I woke up, and a friend of mine was like, you probably need to turn on the television. I can’t really explain what’s happening right now. Of course, we all know how the day was. It completely torpedoed my plans. and my solo career was probably forever stunted by this. Of course, that’s not such a big deal—I’m still alive. Many people suffered far worse things on 9/11.

People didn’t really know what to do with themselves, which you probably recall, the first couple of days, they were just sort of processing it. A lot of people canceled their tours immediately. I remember that Nick Cave announced he was canceling his U.S. tour. People just didn’t know if it was safe or what was happening next. I decided to carry on. So as soon as planes started flying again, on Friday—9/11, you’ll recall was on a Tuesday—I got on a plane and went to New York and picked up my gear. New York was still burning basically. When I landed at Newark, you could still see smoke coming out of the crater.

The tour taught me a lot of things, and playing this particular record taught me a lot of things about this record. Suddenly it seemed like this record was a response to 9/11 in a lot of ways. There was a lot of feelings of grief and healing. It suddenly seemed very cosmic and appropriate being on tour at this time for people who needed some messages that not only encapsulated their grief, but also offered a little bit of caress as well. It was not a time for Limp Bizkit.

But anyway, I got an invitation from the Mercury Lounge in New York to play for their anniversary this year. And the Mercury Lounge is where I played on that tour, nine days after September 11. It was kind of an intense moment. It was probably the first moment where people could deal with a show, or anything emotional. People were way too raw. I had played a couple of shows, Boston and Hoboken and Philadelphia before New York, in between September 15 and 20 and people weren’t really ready. But getting to New York September 20, they needed something. So for people who were there, and it wasn’t a bad turn out—a lot of people who had tickets may not have shown up. But the people who were there, say 75-100 people, it was very intense that is burned into a lot of people’s brains. Because I’m connected in their minds to that week, in a good way.

Anyway, because I’m coming back to the Mercury Lounge and it’s their anniversary, I thought I should revisit Touched, because it’s connected to that venue. And as soon as I announced that show, a lot of people were like, ‘I want to see that.’ Touched is my least brainy record in many ways. A lot of things I do with The Posies, and my other solo record, there were some literary things to it. But having been though the breakup of my band and the breakup of longterm relationship, and then the breakup of the band I formed after the breakup of my band, the Touched album is not an intellectual thing. It’s very much a thing of finding my way out of crisis, so it’s very sincere in that sense.

Anyway, people were excited about it, and all of a sudden I had 60 shows playing Touched around North America.

In that 2001 tour, did you pick other songs that resonated for that moment?

I only had only one other record out at that time, my first solo record, which was also kind of a raw album, come to think of. So that’s all I had to draw on. I probably did play the odd Posies song, or the odd Big Star song, but I think between those two albums, it mostly filled the night. That was before the era of where my shows ended up being over two hours long. Now, it makes sense to play a long show. But in those days, I think I only played like an hour and 20 minutes—a more reasonable length, because I didn’t have that much material, not counting the Posies stuff. But I think I pretty much focused on those two records, and it’s pretty relentless. Because the first album was a breakup record too. In fact, it took me two records to get over the one breakup, because it kept happening.

I remember playing at Iota [in Arlington, VA] on that tour. DC had gone through almost as much as New York. It was very close to home and people were really freaked out. That one was really intense. People were like, crying and I just kind of laid it on. I had my own angst to express and it was like throwing gasoline on a fire. One woman even scolded me after show, saying this is too much; I shouldn’t do this to people. But I said, this is what I do. Personally I’m on the side of you should do that to people. Catharsis is totally legit in music, and music is one of the few things that does it, at the end of the day, gently. It’s not violent, even if it’s powerful.

There are a lot of home concerts on your tour, and you make a point to say a lot of the places have pianos as well. Is that an important component of this tour?

It is a very important component. In fact, because the Mercury Lounge is tied to Touched, and it’s almost the same day 18 years later that I’m playing the show—off by one day—I made an exception there. But in general, the rest of the tour, is a non-club, piano-equipped environment. My show is not a rock show. It’s just a guy playing songs and telling stories. It’s more like a recital, I suppose, without it being stuffy. But it’s not something you want to generally do on a Friday night in a packed bar with frat dudes pounding Miller Lite and not paying attention. You know what I mean—people who aren’t there for the show, and this is still the problem with bars, and why still I put the ticket price up a little bit because I want the shows to be small. I only want people who really, really want to be there. And everybody’s happy with that—people are happy to pay extra to get those distractions out as well and to be there amongst company who are there for the same reason. We all want to go to the same place. We want to go as far as the music will take us, and to be able to do that you really have to concentrate on it.

From past experience at home concerts, do you find most of these places have pianos for you?

Well, that’s why I picked the places. That’s what I’m looking for. It’s a little extra challenge to find places that have a piano. But I’ve managed to do it. There’s maybe one or two other places where it’s like a Monday night and there’s not a lot of options. I think the place in Columbus didn’t have a real piano, so we have to get a keyboard. But we’re talking out of those 60 shows, I’d say 55 have pianos.

What else will you be playing on these shows?

These days my typical shows last a couple of hours, so Touched is like 45 minutes, plus a few stories, two that takes up about half of the show. And after that, I’ve got I three other solo albums, I do Posies songs, Big Star songs—no real set list at that point. I have a country album that I did with another singer a few years ago, and I usually have a local singer join me, because it’s kind of a George and Tammy vocal duet kind of deal. So it kind of goes in a number of different directions, but it’s nice to have that kind of variety. I could spend a whole night doing the heartbreak songs, I could spend practically a whole night complaining about my bandmate. He seems to come up on every record. But yeah, there’s a number of different ways things can go. There’s a format with the Touched record, and then I can break and do what I want or what people are telling me. People are emailing me requests and stuff like that, even now, which is cool.

I should also say the presence of a real piano—my technique is the same whether I play on a digital stage piano or an acoustic piano, but the effect is so much different. It’s so much bigger when you play on the real piano and that kind of tends to keep me stuck to the piano a little more. I could play guitar through these shows, with all one tone, but when you have a big, beautiful Steinway, of course I’m going to use it.

Are you playing acoustic guitar or electric?

I only play electric guitar. In fact, that’s one of the little quirks of my solo shows. I’m not really coffeehouse stuff—though there’s nothing really wrong with it. It’s just that the kind of tonality. It’s just a richer sound. I play a Gretsch guitar; I really love the sound of it. I love an amp with reverb. Acoustic guitars to me can sound a lot like thimbles on washboard. I think the stuff I do on electric guitar, I’m also always hitting the tremolo bar, giving a little personality to each note, a Neil Young kind of deal—it just kinds of suits me better.

You mention your complaints about your Posies bandmate. You and Jon Auer are still recording together, so how does he take those gripes?

He knows I’m right. We’ve kind of thrown it all at each other over the years, and even going at least a year or so without even speaking. But that was a long time ago. We’ve kind of been there and done that. It’s like roommates—you’re going to detest each other at one point. Especially because, we were like one brain in two bodies when we first started and we were also kids. So you develop your own life and its own richness and you cannot be on the same page just by virtue of that. Those changes seem to affect us greatly, and then we just came back around. We understand where the Venn Diagram of our creativity overlaps. And here we are.

But I have to say, about our working relationship, we know what to expect from one another, which I guess we didn’t know once people start doing certain things. I think my bandmate maybe had some depression issues which neither of us might not have understood in the ‘90s. And people in general didn’t have a lot of knowledge about those issues. And those changes made it hard to trust each other. There were some drugs involved at a certain point, stuff like that, some strange behavior that made us lose trust in each other. And I think now we trust each other. We know each other’s flaws and we know what not to expect from each other and we know what to expect. And that makes things at least clear, and actually quite peaceful.

We’ve been working on a new record in Seattle, it’s really turning out good. There’s a couple of songs on there that I think are really top-notch, among the best I have contributed to anything. Really moving. So it’s made it so, the fact that I can get so much satisfaction from the band these days sort of obviated my need to make solo records at the moment. Until I have a really good concept, at this point we have more fun together, cramming each other’s musical extremes into one package than having just a totally blank canvas.

I was going to ask whether you knew whether you were writing Posies songs when you write these days, or coming up with solo material.

I think the band is flexible enough now that they can accommodate all kinds of things. I compare it to, you know how there was like Genesis and then there was Phil Collins solo, and by the end of the day Genesis just sounds more like Phil Collins. I kind of feel like that’s what’s happened with our band except of course you also have Jon writing songs and contributing. I feel the band has the flexibility and the open-mindedness to accommodate more. If I want to do something country on this new record, we can totally roll with that and it doesn’t sound wrong. We fit it in and find the common ground and make it work. Same thing if we want to make something electronic, we can. The three people who comprise the Posies—Jon, myself and the drummer Frankie Siragusa, are really willing to go places that one of us proposes, without going “I don’t know.” We say, “Yeah, let’s try it.

And it didn’t used to be that way.

I will say, one day this summer we were playing in Minneapolis, and at sound check I said to the guys, “The anniversary of the moon landing is today, I really want to do ‘Man on the Moon’ by R.E.M. Would you guys be cool with that?” That’s a little bit indulgent because it’s not one of our tunes. And it’s a little bit showboaty because I played in R.E.M. They had every reason to say no. But they both were like, “Yeah, man let’s do it.” That’s a very different vibe than in our quote-unquote prime, when we had some good songs, but we were much less much flexible people.

A lot of times, fans tend to not like it when a band changes from the certain sound they expect.

Yeah, and I think actually that’s beneficial for the band’s formative years, but when you’re putting out your ninth record 30 years after your band started—32 years by the time the record comes out—it should not be a rehash. People who have been waiting three years for this record, and waited six years for the last one, each time it must be something like a major update rather than a second helping of what already had.

You were on the recording for “Man on the Moon” too, or was that just the soundtrack?

I played on the soundtrack. The song for Automatic for the People was partly done in Seattle, but that was before I was involved. But it laid the ground for me for being involved. Because when they were making that record [R.E.M. guitarist] Peter [Buck] met his second wife and ended up staying in Seattle and became buddies with Scott McCaughey, and it kind of snowballed from that recording session because Seattle was just the place to be. All of a sudden it led to a major change in my life, because I had somewhere to go.

The Posies breakup in 1998 which lasted a couple of years was at Jon’s behest. He had too many problems, and I think he thought the band was a problem and that would solve things for him, it felt like an obligation for him. That cleared the way for me to join R.E.M. Actually R.E.M. had considered asking me to join for Monster, and all that touring, but they had a policy that they didn’t ask someone from an active band because it would make them have a Sophie’s choice moment about their own career. So they didn’t ask me at that time. But when I was free, they were like, hey, hop on board. Which was an amazing opportunity. The breakup of the band really affected me, and this gave me a reason to go on and gave me something to do rather than sit around depressed, wondering what to do next.

You were also famously in the rebooted Big Star. Is there any activity on the Big Star front these days?

There’s a reissue of the album we did together, the modern lineup, we did this album that came out in 2005, called In Space. Omnivore is releasing that [Oct. 25]. There’s going to be blue vinyl, and extra tracks and remastered, and on CD. It is and it isn’t Big Star, because Big Star in those days, the guys were in their early 20s. When you’re in that age, you’re kind of searching. And Alex Chilton in 2004, was a 50-something then. He wasn’t really searching. He knew what he was about. So it was a different attitude and maybe that search is more poignant in a certain way, but I think there’s something great about Alex’s strength. He was a very individual individual, and I think that is reflected on that album.

What was it like to introduce Big Star to audiences who largely never got to see the original band?

I’m pretty sure this show we played in Seattle in the 2000s, with Elliott Smith—I think he had a big hand in making sure we played on the bill with him—there were like 10,000 people and that was way more people than ever saw Big Star, combined, in one room. When we played in New York, the last show we played before Alex died, we played at the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn and that was about 1,500. And that’s more than all the people who went to all the Big Star shows combined, minus time they opened for Badfinger.

Very few people saw the band. But yeah, from that first [reconstituted Big Star] show we played in Columbia, MO, in 1993, the first time Big Star played in 20 years, that was fricking crazy. Because it’s a weird place to have that show come up, and to get to, and every single journalist form NME, and the Sub Pop guys, people were just flying in from all over. And when we headlined later that year at the second stage at the Redding Festival, looking to the wings was J Mascis, Juliana Hatfield, Evan Dando—eyes as big as plates and every single one was someone who was in your favorite bands.

I’m glad for them that Big Star really got this kind of got this hipster cache in very recent years where they’re on the soundtrack of movies with Michael Cera in it, and stuff like that. I think we and Chris Stamey and Rykodisc and Omnivore have all done our job, which is not to let that band die and disappear.

Ken Stringfellow’s “Touched” tour kicks off this evening in Nashville, TN and completes its run on November 9 in Bellingham, WA.

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