In the latest episode of the Modern Musician Magazine Podcast, we talk to Ken Stringfellow – singer, songwriter and producer for The Posies, Big Star, R.E.M. and hundreds of other songwriting and production credits.
Ken talks about songwriting, diversifying his musical talents to stay busy and working from home during Coronavirus times, some new plugins he has been experimenting with as well as the upcoming new Posies album.
Ken’s work has been a huge musical inspiration to me so it was really exciting to get a chance to talk to him.
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Full Podcast Transcript
Hey, everybody, this is Sean from the Modern Musician Magazine Podcast, and today I am joined by Ken Stringfellow from the Posies Big Star and RTM. Ken shares a lot of insight on songwriting. So this is going to be a great episode.
So I will see you in the podcast if you like this podcast. Be sure to hit the subscribe button. You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and ticktock in order to stay up to date on all the latest episodes.
Today’s podcast is brought to you by Kemweb, offering full-service digital media marketing, video production and consulting services to help you grow your digital business. For more information, go to kemweb.de.
Welcome to the Modern Musician Magazine Podcast covering all the latest news reviews, gear, software, events, artists and tutorials for today’s modern musician. This podcast is brought to you by the Robot Spaceship Podcast Network.
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And now your host, Sean Early.
Hey, everybody. welcome to this episode of the Modern Music magazine podcast. Today, I am super excited about today’s guest, Ken Stringfellow, who is from Poses Big Star RTM, big fan of The Posies back in the day. Ken, I’m so happy to have you on the podcast. How are you doing, man?
It’s my pleasure. And I’m, uh, I’m doing just fine considering the unusual circumstances we find ourselves in these days. Yes, I can understand that.
So obviously, it’s a it’s a question I have to ask everybody these days on the podcast. But, you know, as a as a career musician, I mean, how how are you coping with this whole situation?
I’ve been extremely lucky. One of the things that I saw early on in my career was that it would be best if I diversified and tried to be good at a few different things so that I wasn’t totally reliant on any one aspect of my career, as it were. And so starting in the mid nineties, I started engineering and producing records which had up to that point been the domain of my band mate, who is an excellent recording engineer. So I hadn’t really bothered, but I figured I should probably learn as well and just getting good at several different instruments and being able to be flexible in styles and stuff like that, I don’t know.
All of that has been enriching as opposed to making me more generic, which I suppose might be some people’s concern.
But anyway, so, you know, I was on tour up until March doing some solo dates in the US and things started to really accelerate in terms of the. Global reaction to the coronavirus novel coronavirus situation, and I hightailed it just out, I’ll be quick. I hightailed it home March 17th. I’ve been basically home ever since that now over two months. And I did one thing that I’ve never done before, which is to advertise. I just went on my social media and said, hey, I’m here.
I’ve got my studio. My I saw that. Yeah, yeah. My catch phrase was studio won’t travel. Yeah. Hit me up. And also I. Did another thing which I haven’t really done before, which is I put myself out there for teaching lessons. I thought I’d see what that was like. And so that’s pretty much what’s kept me going. I’ve worked all the way through so far, Touch Wood. I’m booked out for studio work for about a month right now ahead.
And I work Monday through Friday, which is another thing I’ve never done. Actually, I usually as a freelancer, I’m like, oh my God, I’ve got work. I better work seven days a week until it goes away and it never does touch wood again. So I’ve been working Monday through Friday and then doing lessons on the weekends and it’s been really great. It’s kind of been a nice rhythm. And again, I recognize that a lot of people out there in the world, not just musicians or artists, but a lot of people are dependent on kind of one area for their work.
You know, if if you’re if you’ve been working in a restaurant as a as a host or hostess server, this has been a pretty terrible situation. If that’s if that’s what you’re good at. Right. There’s nothing there’s been nothing there for you and I. So I feel really lucky that I’ve got a couple of things that I can do. And I’ve been able to react to this situation, you know, and make a living. Yeah, that’s great.
I can’t believe Ken Stringfellow is giving lessons online.
So that’s if you’re not booked up enough yet, I would say jump on that.
That’s a chance of a lifetime.
But yeah, I’ve been doing basically I’m out there for like do voice guitar, recording composition. I can do, you know, piano and bass and stuff like that.
And most of what I’ve been doing has been guitar, although I think some of the kind of composition and not really music theory, but more like.
The philosophy of music theory has been like coming up a lot. That kind of branches off from songwriting and we start to talk about.
You know, rather than songwriting being this mechanical thing where we we mechanically find out what works, because that’s that’s more of a theory, it’s more about the why and what the goal is of songwriting and why do we write songs and what’s the point and how will that you know, if you’re coming to me for songwriting help or just songwriting inside or you want to learn a little bit more, what I think we should first discuss is.
Why do we do this and what’s the point? What do we want to leave behind when we write songs? Right.
I remember I mean I mean, obviously you had much more success than I did, but we were both in Seattle in the 90s at the time.
And I remember when The Posies came out and, you know, you were a couple of albums in and you were like all over the radio at the time.
And I just I till this day, I remember back then thinking about how, you know, in comparison to all the other sort of Seattle sound, you know, whatever that really is. But, you know, the the bounding drop dead kind of rhythmical aspect of it or, you know, the Posies. In contrast, there’s so much songwriting involved, you know, as a you know.
You were so different than every other, you know, stereotypical Seattle band at the time, and that’s one of the things that I think it’s funny, you’re probably you’re probably tired of the cliche, but I think this whole coronavirus situation, the whole I can dream all day long, has been in my head like since before I even thought that we were going to do this podcast.
So it’s like on my top playlist of songs for Korona time. But now in another, you know, in other words.
But I think that’s that’s really what I think of in terms of you and your career and the bands you work with is it’s it’s it’s songwriting, you know what I mean?
And I think these days everything is very you know, it’s another question I want to lead to, but I think everything is very formulaic these days. Maybe it’s just because I’m a crusty old man at this point, but I think. I would really like to hear your opinion, one like.
How you feel about modern music these days and to how you feel this current situation will either change it or keep it the same, or, you know what?
What are your thoughts on that? Wow. Well, those are two pretty big questions, right? Um.
I think my thoughts on modern music are pretty much my thoughts on music. I don’t think that nothing has come along that for me it changes the basic underlying philosophies that I have in my approach to music.
Whether we use certain technologies or we do something old school or whatever, like I think that.
There’s all these different options, but that’s I mean, music was kind of technological when I started in in the nineteen eighties when I was in high school, and then when I started to be a professional musician and my band started to be my band coalesced into what it became and we started to play and all that stuff.
I mean all this technology was coming onto line and digital boxes had sort of made certain aspects of studios more accessible, blah, blah, blah, which is why John, my band mate in The Posies, John Hour, had managed to put together a pretty neat studio in his house when we were in high school, blah, blah, blah.
So and we had drum machines and John was very into programming drum machines. For some of the projects we did presupposes that they were really you know, we did live shows with tracks and things like this stuff that, you know, I mean, that’s when people see a laptop on stage for the last 10 years or whatever that’s been considered. And still, sometimes it’s considered kind of novel in a rock. Context, but that’s just the delivery device. I mean, the idea of playing with tracks and playing to rhythms, you know, people are experimenting with that, even with tape machines back in the 70s.
So it’s the the the fancy kind of front end or the the interface of music and technology. It changes, but the basic premise for me hasn’t changed much, and it’s more about. The goal? Which for me, is is still this is still the same, it hasn’t changed, hasn’t been altered by the possibility, the technological possibilities of music. For me, it’s still about connecting people and communicating emotions and ideas and sort of a combination of.
Reflecting what you see in your environment, but through the lens of your own personal experience, which you know, that there’s a million different ways that that that we can respond to. What’s going on around us right now? I mean that both in a macro and micro sense, I mean, I’m not just talking about. Today’s highly charged political environment or this year’s pandemic, bang, I mean, those are big things, but you don’t have to write about either of those things if you don’t want to.
It’s still. The personal is still worth writing about, too, I mean, what happens in your head and what happens between you and people you care about or whatever, these things are still going on. We’re still human beings and we’re still we’re we still haven’t mastered the art of being human, even after Binyomin for a hundred thousand years or how long homosapiens. We’re still working on it.
So that that’s.
You know, there’s wonderful things that come down the pike and people that’s why I think music is is is quite an art in general is. Is so fascinating because it’s it’s it’s still. No one’s just done it, no one said, OK, I’ve written the song that now we don’t need music anymore. I mean, that’s never going to happen.
So but the part two of your question was how I was I think how I think that this pandemic will change our relationship with music, art, etc. and. I don’t think it actually fundamentally will change our relationship with art and music. I think that. Something like this pandemic, which has been like a big slowdown, is temporary and, you know, art and music will carry on, we. We don’t need it any more or less than we’ve ever needed our right, and to think that art will be needed less when the pandemic is over.
I think it’s foolish, right? I think it’s just art is there commenting on and it’s helping us make emotional sense of what’s going on around us. We have documentaries and news and essays to do sort of.
Help us with the intellectual sense of how the informative sense of what is happening and.
Music and other forms of art are how we emotionally navigate, I think music is. Unique because it’s got a very, very. Small aspect of it, which is informative. And the vast majority of it. Is is emotional words like in filmmaking, for example, you can have documentary films that that are just 90 percent informative, for example, or even even a novel could be written with a lot of infamy. A historical novel could be written with a lot of informative stuff and then a little bit of emotional storytelling to get it through.
Blah, blah, blah. Music that’s purely informative, doesn’t really it doesn’t really do much or songwriting or whatever. It’s it’s I was talking to this to somebody about this recently, a younger student who wasn’t really familiar with with Bob Dylan. Just to kind of contrast the range in Bob Dylan’s work, and I brought the song Hurricane as an example, which is a very factual song. I mean, it can only be about one thing.
There’s no there’s no real room for interpretation what the song is about. It’s about a specific. Thing that happened to a specific person, and then there’s something like you ain’t going nowhere, which appears to be about dot, dot, dot, and then you go from there and try and take it apart and get some some imagery that that sort of you’re wondering. It’s a non sequitur. You’re wondering what it’s doing in there. That’s part of the game.
But all this to say that music has been a companion for us, music that we know and then music that’s been created during this time. But that will continue to be the case when when things get back to a more familiar rhythm, which I believe they will, I hesitate to use get back to normal because, you know, something like this will have protocols in place and just kind of. I think we’ll be a little bit cautious about this for a while, but we’ve taken a little bit of a left turn because of coronavirus, but.
It doesn’t mean that it’s back to normal, it’s kind of we’re not going back to twenty nineteen, but. Right. But we’ll be in places that feel generally familiar and we’ll stop at some point. I, I assume it’s a pretty big assumption, but I’m I’m pretty sure that I can be safe with this assumption. At some point. We will not be thinking about coronavirus in our daily habits, just like with 9/11, which was a huge event and very traumatic and changed a lot of protocols about the way we deal with travel especially and security in general.
But I was saying in twenty nineteen when I was on tour, sure, I was going through airports and having to deal with the protocols that emerged from 9/11. But I guarantee you my thoughts were elsewhere as I traveled to the Germans.
No, I think that’s a good point to make. I was also yeah. Just thinking in terms of, you know, we’re such a sort of a performance culture these days and it seems especially with like a lot of electronic music, dance music, all that kind of you know, it’s very event focused.
And I just wonder, you know, on a personal side, I’ve had a lot of discussions just if, you know, if that will continue the way it was or I guess, you know, you made a good point in terms of it.
It will sort of change the protocol around it, but maybe eventually things will be the same, but different.
I’m just curious, have you been doing, like, any sort of like online performances or anything other than teaching? Like, have you done any any like streaming shows or anything? I have it.
I’ve contributed some prerecorded. Things that were inserted into real time events, right, but one of the things here at my house where I live and the way that we live, where I live, which is not really specific to. By region, country, etc., but we’re very low tech in certain ways here, and we keep the environment in our house rather low tech, OK, and that is for reasons of health. So my wife has some sensitivities to.
Electromagnetic. OK, you see, so that we don’t we barely use cell phones. I mean, I have one, but when we’re home actually in the house, my phone is generally off.
We don’t use Wi-Fi. We use cable, Internet, blah, blah, blah. And the thing is to upgrade our Internet box, we have a like most people, we have a combined voice, basically a modem, basically. That’s where your phone and your TV and your Internet all come in on the same cable, basically.
And then you distribute that through the house. How you wish most. For most people, that’s through Wi-Fi, right? For us, that’s through cables. Right. And we have Ethernet cables that come out of the back of that box and go to each computer. That is to say that the newer boxes, it’s it’s harder and harder to find them with the option to disable the wireless aspects. Yeah. And especially a lot of the new boxes are since this your also your phone, it’s from your phone provider, basically, you know, they’re there.
What do they call those nano cells or femto cells or whatever they’re called. They’re not sure. It’s basically that you’re part of the cell phone network. Also, you have a little antenna. So it’s like a relay that helps boost the cell phone reception. And the 4G seem to be 5G reception in your area.
And so we we have an older box. So we’re sure that those things can be turned off or aren’t even installed. And so it’s hard for us to upgrade at this point because we’d get a box that has too much stuff in it. In other words, our Edsel is a little bit weak and a little bit slow, and it hasn’t really supported online real time streaming. Right. And also, I haven’t had the time because I have been working so much to go through and find I’ve tried a couple of platforms.
And the other thing is I haven’t found. Away, yet I’m sure it exists, but I haven’t hooked it up and found and troubleshoot it and all that kind of stuff to get stuff, it actually sounds good. Yeah, I can get my audio interface for my my my my dog, my digital workstation. If I could get that into the mix and plug mix into it and have and send you a signal that that sounds pretty decent as opposed to pretty much relying on the computer.
Mike. And since I don’t have the cell phone involved, I’m also just using the computer camera, which is not very nice either.
So for me, for what I have here, it hasn’t been very conducive to doing live shows.
OK, so you’re writing maybe a lot more acoustic songs?
I don’t know that. I mean, most of my studio works just fine. I’m just I’m just not able to stream video and audio without dropouts and things like this. Yeah. For all of you.
But but yeah, I mean, I’m doing tons and tons of recording and and I’ve been doing studio projects that involve multiple sessions with multiple musicians in different places. I people hire me to produce stuff. And to get that done, I can get The Posies drummer Frankie Siragusa, who’s in his studio in L.A. to cut the drums. Right, and then I overdub and do everything in my ear if I need to get some other instrument I can send out for it, just like we were doing before confinement.
But that that process carries on in here at my studio in France, which is a smaller facility than my studio in Seattle. But still, I’ve got everything I pretty much need. Right. And pretty decent space. Seattle, I’ve got an even bigger studio where I could cut live drums and all this kind of spirit.
It’s a freestanding purpose-built studio, but here is a home studio. But still you can get a lot done in your home studio.
Yeah, definitely, I guess that leads to maybe the next question, you know, coronavirus and all that stuff aside, is there anything, anything new you’re into like new bands, new music, new gear, new.
What’s what’s on your radar right now in terms of cool stuff?
I like to hear what, you know, sort of inspires people or what what they’re what drives them, you know, maybe creatively, too. But for me, it’s kind of all together. I get a new piece of gear. It turns me on to an idea, you know, leads to a new band to try out, you know, something inspirational.
I have to save it. You know, three D gear y, it’s like real world object style gear.
I haven’t gotten much news lately, but I will say that there’s some plug ins that I have been using quite a bit because at some point I was like, OK, a certain plug in bundles are a bit out of my reach financially, but I want some variety. I want some different textures to come in there. So I started hunting around for all the smaller plug in companies that aren’t like the big radio waves. Are you basically. And I discovered a company called the Grand OC K, L, E, Viji, R and D, the Swedish company.
And they have some really cool they have a something called the core compressor presser, I think it’s called, which is a very. A very extreme, like kind of artifact laden compressor plug in, which is great for doing like very I mean, like non-transparent stuff, which sometimes what you want, you know, it’s very fast.
You know, it’s not it’s not analog modeling necessarily. It’s its own algorithm.
So you can just you can have stuff that acts very fast, but it’s very street extreme and introduces a lot of distortion style artifacts, et cetera, really, really cool and expressive they have. The reason I found it is because I was looking for something that modeled the lo fi aspects of a cassette player. I was like rumaki. Somebody makes this where searching around it turns out it’s clever friend who makes a cassette modeling plug in with different different types of tape bias and different quality of interest.
Noter and playback and noise and all that stuff. You can get all the distortion that you love from a from over driving an old cassette deck. Right. You know, I when I work in a big time studio, one of my favorites is ICP in Brussels, which is just it’s a mind blowing place. Great records have been done there.
It’s it’s got three incredible, actually four incredible studios with with the sickest gear you can imagine.
And but one of the things they did is every time, like, if I like put up a sense, for example, pretty much the house engineer, Sheila Dirac’s, his first call with that synth would be to run it through an older cassette deck that they had that had interest and input dials basically. Yeah, work with the input level. And that was just kind of their go to distortion and thickener for stuff like synths. And so. Whoa, whoa, whoa.
Wait a second. So so it’s something I wish I had. And Grun makes this plug in and they have a good turntable plug in that introduces all the surface noise and all that kind of stuff and get that going. That’s another one. They have some. They had what they called the go to IQ, which is has the I’m going to stumble over my words here, but how like on the pull tech for the low end, there’s a thing where you can boost and attenuate at the same time and the way the curves interact.
Yeah, I think so. It’s kind of a sweet spot for low end management. It’s got that aspect and a few others that that are really great to work with.
So yeah, a whole host of things. They have some audio finalizing tools that are really cool and they have some sense.
So that’s probably the most exciting discovery that I found hunting around out there in the Internet for unusual plug ins, club ground. See cool stuff. And the price points are really good. I should also.
So so are you are you working in Pro Tools or are you working in. So do they have the best versions of that, too, or is it. Yes. OK. And in fact, unfortunately for me, some of the a couple of the since they have that are really, really priced well, our only vesty.
OK. Interesting, I will have to check them out. It’s funny you’re talking about that, I just a memory came back up when I first got an electric guitar and I didn’t have an amp yet. And so I actually stuck it into my mom’s tape deck and I cranked up the input game as high as it would go. And it was the coolest distortion I have ever experienced. Maybe it’s because my first experience with distortion, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything quite like it.
I wish I had that tape deck back because that was really like something unique, you know, this weird, like splatted Elton John kind of distortion. I can’t explain it.
I know exactly where you’re going. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I had similar experiences, you know, with a tape deck that my my stepdad came with when he joined our our family. I came up with what brand it was, but it was a big instead of being like a two space to Rackspace thing, as with how like most home audio components are, this is a thing that like laid down on like rubber feet. So it looked like almost like a tiny mixing board in a sense, but it it only had two faders.
But this thing distorted extremely well as well. It had views and stuff like that. And what a funny shape, though. Like it it was the metal of it. It was basically laying flat and then curved upwards, not like it just curved upwards to where they had the view meters up on the top. Pretty neat, I would say. I want to say it was a tech, but I can’t. One hundred percent sounds so that like a style they would have.
OK, interesting. Well cool man.
So I guess the there’s a Posies tour for June that got cancelled. Is that still on the horizon. Coming up, everything mellows out or what’s coming up next. Yeah.
No I so basically with The Posies we, we actually started working on a record last summer.
And you know it’s basically in the mixing stage now. So we sort of planned on.
We’re working pretty hard on getting it finished in January, and then we all agreed that we wanted to do one more session. All of us together, because it’s just a different vibe when we’re all in the same room. Yeah, sure. We got together in February again at Franki, our drummer’s studio in L.A. and got it pretty much like ninety eight percent done recording wise. There’s a couple of bits and bobs that we couldn’t get done in that we were together for whatever eight, seven or eight days, came back home and had a couple of bits and bobs to finish and then basically was ready to mix.
And we’ve been working with Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie, formerly of Death Cab for Cutie, someone who’s from our home town, basically kept in Bellingham, Washington, which is where we formed. And so we’ve been working on the mixing and just taking it like super slow.
Like he’s not in a hurry, we’re not in a hurry. It’s basically we’re pretty picky as mixing clientele. And of course, we know the drill. All three of us makes records for other people. So I know the joy of getting a huge list of Mick’s revisions and notes and stuff like that.
But we have time and Chris has been great about it.
And so we’re just we’re not in a hurry, especially now.
I think our original goal was maybe to get the record out in the fall, but being that the touring environment isn’t really sure to be stable by then, yeah, I don’t really see the point to rush to get it there. And my original plan that we had some live shows, the summer, for example, there was a festival we were going to be playing in the Seattle area that was going to get us together and we could work on videos and photos and all.
That’s not going to happen.
So it just says to me that that that we should keep. Working on the music and let things kind of play out for and get try and get set next year, so we’ve often found ourselves with the telescope turn the wrong way in a sense. That is to say, the tour gets booked and then the album’s not done and crap and we don’t have time to really prepare it and make it look nice and do all the things that I think. Go with an album release in the modern era.
We should have a bunch of videos, even if some of them are really primitive. We should have kind of a.
Kind of a full spectrum world of art around the record in a visual sense, and none of us are visual artists, so that stuff takes more time for us. Right. So that that all that to say that we’re just going to let it ride and keep working on it and with the idea that probably in twenty, twenty one we should have a lot of the stuff ready and have it all in place, which should be great.
OK. Any, any singles coming out of that sooner or.
Well actually we, we did. There is a song that we felt didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the album, and it’s precisely because I think it’s a little bit more of a throwback in a sense to our earlier work. Let’s just say that it stuck out from the album, but it’s a fine song in and of itself and that’s all mixed. We just didn’t mix that ourselves and we’re actually working on a video for it. Right now, so John and myself have shot stuff that we send to Frankie, who’s, uh, Frankie is a person of a number of talents, and since his, uh, partner is working in a lot of video stuff, she opened kind of the window of working in video because he started to kind of be her assistant, in a sense, overstuff not only in the audio, but in the video.
And then he’s learned a lot. So he’s become handy in that sense for doing stuff on the fly. And so, yeah, that’s kind of coming together. And hopefully we can get that out, you know, I would say in the next month, maybe sooner. Yeah, they can go for this month is OK, but you never know. Awesome.
I’m definitely looking forward to hearing it. Um, well, I guess we’re getting long time so I’ll let you go. But thanks again for being on the podcast. I really appreciate it.
And once again, this is Ken Stringfellow and this is the Modern Musician magazine podcast. We will talk to you soon.
I look forward to seeing you out in the real world when all this blows over. Excellent.
Looking forward to it. Looking forward to that talk, because maybe I’ll run over to Spain and see it if you guys book it sometime.
Well, we will do it for one European tour. That Spain tour was just because we had a festival offer.
But generally, like when we have an album out, we will hit it hard.
Hopefully we’ll come by, come to Germany and please. Yeah. Yeah, we will. For sure. Awesome.
Awesome. OK, we’ll take care. Thanks again. And we will talk to everybody soon.
OK, bye bye.
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