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The Posies' Ken Stringfellow: 30 Years of Magical Experiences

The Posies played their first gig in St. Louis in the KDHX studios in 1990. Nearly 30 years later, co-founding member Ken Stringfellow is back in town on a solo tour playing a secret venue show on Saturday, September 14. His more than 30-year musical career with The Posies has also allowed him to participant in the careers of R.E.M., Big Star, Mercury Rev, Neil Young, Thom Yorke, Damien Jurado, Ringo Starr, Robyn Hitchcock and others. 

KDHX DJ Rich Reese, host of Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst (Thursdays, 10-Noon) caught up with Stringfellow as he was making preparations for his solo tour from his studio near Seattle.

Rich Reese: Let's go back to your roots. What you were listening to before you started writing music? What did you have in your house? What radio stations were you listening to? What was your record collection like? 

Ken Stringfellow: Wow. Well, you know, I did start writing songs pretty early. So I kind of started writing songs soon after forming my first band. And I found my first band, which is a band that Jon (Auer), my future partner in the band, The Posies, joined. That's how we met. He joined this little band that I had started when I was 14. We did write some songs in that band, but anyway, before that I had my parents' record collection, which did have a couple of Beatles records in it and a Beach Boys album. And, after that it was a lot of easy listening and whatnot, which I also like. And I started buying records when I was like, 10, I suppose. The first record I bought was, E.L.O. Discovery.  And, and then I got really into Electric Light Orchestra. I used my mom's copies of Revolver and Sergeant Pepper as a departure point. I started getting into all the Beatles records kind of at the same time. And then also at that time, there was the Hits of the Day.

Right. So we're talking mid 70s, probably?

Late 70s. Yeah, I was born in 1968 so I turned 10 in 1978.

So, I'm listening to the Hits of the Day, which, you know, you tend to overlook or some people – I should say tend to overlook those bands that got all of the AM airplay, but you know, there's a reason why they got there. Some fantastic songs. I can see those, those touchstones with your writing. I mean, you've recorded a Burt Bacharach Song, you've covered the Beatles...

... and a Beatle is covered us... 

Yes! Mental Golden Blunders. But how did that happen? Let's go ahead and talk about that. 

Yeah, it's quite an amazing thing ... that just that we wrote this song ... the subject matter is kind of serious, you know? It's about kind of getting into family ... parental and marriage situations perhaps too young, not being really ready for it which is stuff that happens. You know, to me, I became a father when I was 17, and it was quite ... I wasn't really that well prepared, you know, I was still a kid. 

Right. It's definitely difficult enough when you are fully matured. 

Yeah. Actually I didn't know enough to ... you know ... I mean, nobody knows exactly what to do, but you don't know that when you're 17 ... you just know that you don't know anything (laughs). So it was a real challenge ... there's a little bit of that in that song, but for whatever reason ... Jon put in these Beatles references. I guess to make it not so Maudlin. In a sense ... to say that ... lots of people go through this kind of stuff. I think that's how that the Beatles reference kind of democratize the subject matter a little bit. But strangely enough, it caught the attention of Peter Asher who heard the song and liked it and was on the way to starting to produce a Ringo Starr album. 

It's kind of a nod to the Beatles ... he really liked it. He thought the lyrics were really touching and he wanted to do the song. We had no awareness that this was happening. This was all happening behind the scenes. We didn't know about it until it was actually done. And, somebody from Peter Asher's office called us and invited us over to the office, saying they had something they wanted to share with us... which we had absolutely no idea what it could be. And without any introduction or whatever, played us this incredible thing which is immediate –  you know, it starts with the song title. And so it's very obvious what song it is and the melody, but it's Ringo singing and his voice is incredibly recognizable. Imagine... you know, we were like 23- and 22-year-old kids basically with the most influential band on our music and one of the most influential bands in music history ... feeding back this song of a reference to them. That's just is not supposed to happen.

You gave us a little insight, too on how you write, but I, imagine nobody writes the same way for every song. I see that it's kind of that Lennon-McCartney thing as far as if one or the other wrote the song, it's credited to both of you. 

Yeah. That we share all the credit. 

So you obviously started that song ... Jon gave you his input and is that how it usually worked? Where you'd come to the other person with a half-finished song or do you sit down facing each other in chairs with guitars or is it always something different? 

It's been different, but I would say that the primary writer presents pretty much fairly finished songs. There have been songs that got started by one of us and we reached a dead end with it. Just kind of like, 'you know, I kind of liked this idea, but it's just not really coming together as a finished song.' And the other one was like, 'hey, you mind if I harvest from that and, and kind of reimagine it?'

Probably the best example of that is Apology on our second album ... the same album that has Golden Blunders on it. That is a song that I started and well, never finished. But I thought it just didn't have the right feel and it was kind of long. And Jon took that chorus and wrote completely new verses. And bridge for it, too. So it's a real half-and-half ... but there's not a lot of half-and-half credits, yes, but, the actuality is more like 90/10 and for each, you know, but we, we blend that in. Especially in the early days on our first album, I think it's pretty hard to tell who the singer is, even. Our voices were really similar and we had the same accent. We came from the same choir. So, it was really a unified front. 

Yes and you've gone through so many changes. I mean, your lives are so different than they were when you started. The music industry itself has changed so much – for good and bad. What are some of the things that you find in the music industry these days that you like – if there are any. 

Do you have more control over the music now? I don't think that control of our music has ever really been much of an issue except for, I guess, like master ownership or something like that. But actually, how we make the music has always been the same. But I think it's more (about) having access to it. Like back in the old days, I wouldn't have known how to approach this station for example. It was more formal. Whereas now, I can just call up people or email people and deal with it directly and kind of be the master of my own destiny, which I think is much more satisfying. And, and you know, if you do it right, you can make a good living. People talk about, 'oh, there's no way to make money in music anymore.' And that's not really true. It's more challenging. But, it's not hopeless by any means. 

The Posies did their first show in St Louis in the KDHX studios, is that correct? 

That is correct. In 1990 of course ... the St Louis show was a KDHX show. 

Do you remember any specifics about that specific show? 

Well, I can kind of picture the room in my head and you know, that it was a small show. I really don't think there were more than 20 odd people there, which is really cool. It was so new for us and really exciting ... first time playing in all of these cities and states. It was really magical.

You've doing been doing a show here and there with The Posies, but you're doing a solo tour right now, which sounds like it's a very different kind of tour. You're playing in unique venues. 

Because of the solo tour where it's just me ... no band. I can fit that show into a number of different places, which gives me some options that you might not have with a full band show where you need proper production and stuff like that. And because my show is totally solo and a lot of it is very quiet and delicate. I'm always looking for places where people are going to come to listen. Sometimes bars, which, you know, I mean we can say music venue, but at the end of the day, it's more like it's a bar that has live music because that will get people in there to sell the beer, which is the product that the bar sells. I'm not saying that as a criticism, but it is a reality. 

So the priorities of the venue can be different than my priorities and my priorities to have an audience that's there to listen. And if they're in an environment where they won't be distracted, whereas, you know, the average venue, they want to get as many people in there so that they can buy the refreshments that allow their business to operate and allow them to have live music. They might be great music fans, but they have a different motive. I don't want there to be necessarily more people in there if that means there's people there who aren't really committed to listening and this can be a problem. You can have drunk regulars who just don't even care or it's Friday night and it's the cool club in town. 

People might come and pay the cover and they don't really care who's playing and that they will be coming into conflict with my listeners and with me trying to do something very gentle. So I like to just eliminate that and keep it simple. And also give a sense of adventure too. I looked for places that you or I might not have known about before ... that are hopefully ... beautiful spaces. I can bring this show into churches and things like that that might not be appropriate for a rock show. And I always try and find a real piano ... you know, a place that has a real piano. And most rock clubs don't have a real piano. 

So a very intimate settings it sounds like ... a real piano guitar, small amplifier and lots and lots of anecdotes because you've played with quite the variety of bands and artists that KDHX is still playing – all the stuff that you have played on with other people ... Robyn Hitchcock and Ringo Starr and Big Star and all that great stuff that you have, been lucky enough to partake in.

It is lucky. I don't really know very many other musical paths that are similar.  I've found myself in all these situations and uncannily a large percentage of my absolute favorite artists, I've become a part of their band if either for a long term thing like with R.E.M. or Big Star or short term things, you know, I may have with, with Teenage Fanclub or with Robin or whatever, you know, like it's, it's kind of an incredible, uh, like little engine that could, right? Good kind of vibe. 

How did you get hooked up with Big Star? 

Well both Jon and I are just mega fans. You know, it's easily our favorite band. We first heard that music as our band was just starting in the late 80s. Big Star albums became available after being out of print for many years and we got ahold of them ... we heard about the band and then when we heard the music, just everything changed. And that was like our blueprint. We became a less retro and a lot more real. In a way it's odd because Big Star was a very old band by comparison to ours, shall we say. They started in the early 70s when we were basically toddlers. But they have a certain trueness that keeps being relevant like decade after decade. It's not kitschy at all.

We wanted to know everything about the band and we were talking about going to Ardent Studios in Memphis to record. And by doing that we met Jody Stevens, the drummer of Big Star. Who by now is the only living member of the group and he was working at that studio still 20 odd years later, much to our surprise. So he became a supporter of ours and a friend and that kind of set things in motion and, and as many people might know. We knew Jody, but it didn't really seem like that the band Big Star would ever exist again. It was an old story at that point and nobody was really involved with each other. 

Chris Bell, one of the founding members, had already died in a car wreck and things like this. So it just never seemed like something that would happen. But leave it to two college radio DJs at KCOU in Columbia to proposed that, that should happen. They were just like "hey, we want Big Star to play. Do you think it could happen? Alex Chilton, the singer of Big Star who passed away in 2010, who always had said, 'no, I'm never doing that music again, I'm over it,' just for whatever reason said 'yeah, sure, why not?' all of a sudden. That set into motion, 'now what?' Jody and Alex were the only members left, so how do we actually do this? Jon and I basically volunteered from the minute we heard about this cause we couldn't imagine ... we had to do it. But of course, Big Star has a lot of famous fans. But what kinda worked out to our favor is we were young and naive and enthusiastic and the slightly older. More seasoned musicians who were asked like Paul Westerberg, or Mike Mills, or Matthew Sweet (were all asked as well). They're like, 'no, I can't. It's too much. And I can't be the guy that ruins Big Star. They were respectful in a sense. So they declined because they didn't want to be responsible if it didn't go well and they didn't want to soil the legacy of their favorite band. Whereas we were like, 'at any price, I will remove a limb as long as it's not one of my playing limbs.I will do whatever it takes to do this.' And eventually we just kind of won everybody over. And we're the last men standing. We were the only ones who are naive enough not to care if we fucked it up. We love the band so much. We knew we wouldn't fail. 

So a secret house concert coming up here in St Louis...

It's actually not a house concert. It is a secret venue, but it's not a house. There is even a bar in this one. It's a secret secret venue. It's more like a speakeasy in a sense. We just can't say where it is in advanced, so you have to buy a ticket and then you get the address. They only want people showing up who are going to be at the show cause it's a little bit fragile, shall we say, but it's not a house. It is a space and it has a real piano. It's not a traditional music venue. That's what's cool. So you will be in for a nice surprise I think. 

September the 14th. Is that correct? 

That is correct. That's a Saturday, which is cool. I know there's a lot going on in town that weekend, but, this will be the best one, I promise. If people are trying to figure out kind of where it is ... it's very centrally located. Sort of in between the Tower Grove Park and Forest Park pretty much so it's easy. It's accessible.

Tickets and more information can be found here.

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