Jean Barker, MWEB: How did you get started?Ken Stringfellow: "We (Ken and friend and collaborator Jon Auer, with whom he formed The Posies) grew up way in the corner of the United States, in a place filled with hippies and religious nuts... actually it still is. Jon's father built us a studio in the rec room, with real studio gear. It was the 80s and there was some beautiful 1960s gear lying around and we got it for nothing. Because then everybody wanted new, digital equipment. And it was sound proof. You could close the rec room off from the rest of the house - I'm not joking - with these sliding panels, so we could make music whenever we wanted to, as long as the rest of the family didn't want to watch TV. So we made a reel and we took this reel to the station and... they played it! Not only did they play it but they put two songs back to back in heavy rotation." In a sequence of events Ken portrays as the luck of the naive, they got a mention in a newspaper column, their first gig, a drummer and bassist, and launched The Posies. That's how Ken and Jon's careers as successful, though fairly underground, musicians began. Failure - their "demo" tape recording, was released in 1989 as part of a three album deal.MWEB: We got a question posted for you. An MWEB visitor who calls themself 'Rapid Ear Movement' asks: "What are some of the conditions REM stipulate for their dressing room? Anything weird about other bands? Like Foo Fighters, for example put in their contract that they won't share a dressing room with other bands except 'Supergrass, and maybe Led Zeppelin?'KS: "First of all, it's extremely rare that a band at the level of the Foo Fighters would be sharing a dressing room at all. Usually the kinds of venues they play, like massive sports stadiums, have tons of dressing rooms! The only time I've been with REM where we've shared a dressing room was at a music awards show in Prague and we shared it with Cher and Andrea Bochelli. And at the time none of us really spoke to each other but it all worked out peacefully."
MWEB: And what kind of things would you expect to find in the dressing rooms?KS: "Nothing really weird. There are three dressing rooms. I share with the drummer. There are actually two rooms between the other three (Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Michael Mills.) And nothing weird. A couple of bottles of wine. We asked them to stop putting food in there because it was going to waste. Water. Something to make tea with... I mean it's really boring!"
MWEB: So, no chickens.KS: Nothing like that.
MWEB: You could lie, you know.
KS: "Ya I know but I want a to prove a point. That they're a sensible band." (laughs) "I mean it's funny to ask for weird things as a joke, but then you start getting them! REM started touring like 1981, really early in their career, and they've learned to live simply. In Europe we bring a caterer along, which is not unusual for a big band and crew. They're rock and roll caterers and they go with different bands - Paul McCartney and whatever. They're called Eat Your Heart Out, and they are amazing."
MWEB: How long have you been travelling now. Do you have a home?
KS: "I have two homes. I have a home in Seattle which is the house that I've owned for eight years and I share with my manager. She pays me rent. And then my wife Dominique has an apartment in Paris which she owned before we were together." But The demands of touring means he's home rarely and briefly. "Next time I'll have a chunk of time, I'll be going home to Seattle for a month."
MWEB: And you're reforming The Posies?
KS: "You can kill a band, implode a band, but you can't kill the music. We have a certain audience that's spread all over the world. It's not a massive audience. But it is what it is, and those people have done a marvellous job of keeping that musical information alive. Other bands mention us in interviews, we're that kind of band." So after a cool off period of years, and a "final" breakup that gave them space to develop whatever they wanted, Ken and Jon are giving it another album. "It's not going to go away, so we might as well."
MWEB: With all this touring, do you have enough time for your solo projects?
KS: "Not really, but I'm here by choice. And with The Posies we've agreed that ... when R.E.M.'s done, everybody get their shit together. From 10th of July, we're going to go forward with it."
MWEB: I came across a site where your 10-year-old sister was quoted. Is she still 10?KS: Actually she was 11 at the time and she's now 16. It was from a paper that she wrote for school. But she left a copy of it in the printer. My dad found it and said 'Oh my God, this is hilarious.'"
MWEB: Is what she says true? Were you adopted?KS: "I was adopted but in her mind, being 11, the facts presented themselves in a version of the truth that is far more interesting than the truth. Like suddenly I was born in an orphanage, and I told her that "Kate, no one is born in an orphanage. You're born, and then your parents die, and then you go to an orphanage. Nobody's parents BOTH die before you're born." She simplified it to the point where it was a satire of my life but in a sweet way. And it says more than I could ever say, whether it's true or not. 'He was born in an orphanage in San Francisco because he had no parents that loved him.' (Laughs) I was not born in an orphanage, I was not born in San Francisco. I'm here today because my first biological parents felt something like love to give me a chance in the world... or they're Catholics. MWEB: Do you know anything about them?KS: I know who she is. I haven't exactly managed to establish contact with her. But I'm working on it. But the minute I emerged into the world, I was taken to a foster home for one or two months, and my foster parents who I was spiritually meant to be with, and who raised me."
MWEB: So what South African music are you into.KS: For most Americans the only South African artist they know is Dave Matthews...
MWEB: ...Who isn't really South African anymore.KS: Ya when did he leave. Highschool or something. But who've I heard? Someone from way back like the 60s... (Stops tape to try remember) ... Miriam Makeba! Write down some names of things you'd recommend for me and I'll go listen to them.
MWEB: In South Africa, a lot of rock bands start up and struggle - I mean if you sell 10 000 copies of a rock album here you're doing well. So most of them end up quitting and getting "real" jobs. What advice do you give new bands who ask you what you think?KS: "What I tell them is "Don't listen to advice, because you'll find your own way." If we had listened to the advice we got as The Posies, who knows where the f*ck we'd be. Working at McDonalds? But the fact is, we didn't even ask advice. We did some things that could have been considered "wrong" like some cheesy shows like 4th of July in the park. But very mainstream people liked our music and none of the non-mainstream people were offended by anything we did. So I would say do what you believe in, and 50% of the time, you'll be wrong! "I believe R.E.M. started out in the same way. They got lucky though (with their manager and lawyer Bertis Downs, who spotted them while at a the college town they played.) They found someone that wasn't... like... trying to work out their midlife crisis on them, like many "managers" often have. He was still young, and he wasn't a Dipsh*t. They had someone who was a smart guy their age, into what they were doing... they had very good fortune. This is very rare."
MWEB: You wrote about Hunter S. Thompson on your blog? He did an article about the Kerry campaign in Rolling Stone where he said that if Nixon were running today he'd vote for him to keep Bush out. He said that Nixon makes Kerry look like a crazy conservative... where do you think American politics and culture is going?
KS: "I often feel that we're entering what will be looked at as a sort of dark ages. It's always just little termites chewing at the edges of what I would consider a holistic and happy functioning society. George W. Bush is the most prevalent and gruesome symptom. But the actual disease is not George W. Bush. It's the campaign for ignorance. There's always a movement in the States to limit objectivity, the factual content of education, and move it toward a religious space. And to ONE religion - Christian Biblical fundamentalist forms of education - where much of literature is banned from school. You're never going to find Portnoy's Complaint in a Texas high school. Anything that involves what they would consider sin - could just be foul language, could be sex, or free thinking, really... All that is being chewed on by these termites. They're burrowing so you don't really notice it. But school by school books disappear, Evolution is discredited etc. And you know the United States wants to be the leader in technology and science. But it's not compatible with this fanaticism. No offence to Islamic states, but if you look at the ones that only teach an Islamic way of thinking, this doesn't seem to be helping them progress.
"The United States always mirrors its enemies. When the Germans we were fighting were putting people in concentration camps, we rounded up Japanese people and interred them. A pretty bad PR movement. During the 50s when we were frightened of the Soviet Union because of the repression of freedom, and them being a totalitarian state, what did we do? We censored our writers, we made people take loyalty oaths and now? Not admitted by our government but very obvious from our policy, we're terrified by religious, particularly Islamic states... We always mirror what we're claiming is the ultimate evil.
The things that are happening now make me feel like a foreigner there in many ways. I still have a life that I live there. But what I really have are people I love there, and memories."
MWEB: Are you going to have time to check out some things in South Africa? What interests you.
KS: "Well I'm not here for long, so I kind of have to do the obvious things. Like this morning I went around Cape Point, and to the Penguins (at Boulders Beach). They're so cool. I loved them."
Ken Stringfellow is touring to promote his new album, Soft Commands, which will be released in SA this year. Catch him once only at the Blues Room in Sandton, Jo'burg on the 12 of March (just after the R.E.M. tour finishes.) or live with REM all over South Africa.
- Jean Barker
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