A conversation with Ken Stringfellow

 

    We spoke with Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star) about being like a Mormon for Big Star’s music, holding onto thirty-year-old clothes in his wardrobe and the trials and tribulations of completing the final record by a departed friend.

    Every step of the way, I had to think about what Scott Miller might have wanted to achieve and be true to his legacy.

    1

    Morgan Enos

    The final, posthumous album by the great songwriter Scott Miller, Game Theory’s Supercalifragile, was recently released. As I understand it, you had a tremendous hand in making this happen. I can only imagine the level of loss experienced by all involved, but there’s so much joy and appreciation in the sound. Can you tell us about what it was like to work on Supercalifragile in this heartbreaking & unusual situation?

    Ken Stringfellow

    There’s a pretty elaborate backstory to this album that goes all the way back to me discovering the band in the 1980s. I was a huge fan of Game Theory’s Lolita Nation (1987), really one of the most extraordinary albums of its time. Scott was hyper-literate, endlessly referential a la Pynchon, gifted with a soaring high tenor not unlike Alex Chilton’s and could make the most arbitrary sequence of chords or rhythms sound as appealing as a vintage AM radio hit. This was the music I was waiting for, in many ways… music for post-punk bookworms. I saw the band live a couple of times when I was attending the University of Washington from 1986 to 1988.

    In 1993, I remember being in Columbia, Missouri on the eve of the first of the Big Star reunion shows, the first time the band had played live in nearly twenty years and somehow, I was the bass player. Someone had slipped me a cassette of Scott’s new band The Loud Family’s debut LP Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (1993). I can’t remember who ended up introducing us. As I had become a peer out there in the world of music, we met on more or less equal terms. But inside, I was still the fan from my younger days, incredulous with my dumb luck. I began spending time at Scott’s house working on his music with him and became involved in the next two Loud Family albums, playing various instruments and doing backing vocals. Scott was married to his first wife Shalini when I first met him, then that marriage ended and he married Kristine. I ran into both of them on many social and musical occasions. They were always at my Bay Area shows, either by invitation from me or just because Scott was a sincere and vocal fan of my work.

    All this is to say that the monumental nature of the task to make this album was felt deeply by me not only because of the circumstances, which we’ll get to, but because of the incredibly high esteem in which I held Scott’s work, and also because of the friendship I developed with Scott and Kristine.

    In 2009, Scott emailed me out of the blue to say he was inspired to make an album and revive the Game Theory moniker. However, instead of using his bandmates from two decades before (Game Theory had a fairly fluctuating lineup and Scott was the only consistent member) he wanted to gather people he knew and liked collaborating with. He wanted to give each one a sphere of influence on the album. They might help him write the song, perhaps produce their portion of the album, maybe even sing the song they were commissioned to help complete. A highly collaborative, collective approach to the record that wouldn’t really be a “band” per se, but a community of related individuals with Scott as the common denominator. He hoped I would produce the album, and some of the collaborators he imagined being involved included Aimee Mann and my bandmate in the Posies, Jon Auer. I was honored and asked to hear what he was working on, ready to commence immediately.

    He never did end up sending me music, and the subject seemed to fade. When he came to my solo shows in 2011 and 2013, it wasn’t really mentioned. I sensed without clearly understanding that he was not the same. More shy and withdrawn. It seemed like he relied on Kristine to be more of the social end of the couple. He was a presence, but seemed to hang around in the background, mostly.

    And a couple of months later, he took his own life.

    A year later, Kristine opened the subject of this proposed album, which in fact Scott had been continually writing for. There are demos and sketches he recorded on his phone just two days before he died. He had a rough sequence and an album title, Supercalifragile. Kristine asked me to help finish the album.

    To say this was a massive undertaking is being polite. Taking stock of what was available, I found we had a handful of studio recordings that could be finished without too much trouble, some acoustic demos that it would be possible to track instruments along to and make them album quality, and then… almost 300 song fragments and about 50 lyric fragments. Imagine someone dumping the contents of several jigsaw puzzles into one box, and you have to sort out what goes with which puzzle, then assemble each one, which may or may not have enough pieces to complete it. Oh, and there’s a few jigsaw puzzle-shaped pieces that might not even be from any of the puzzles at all.

    With great effort we managed to determine largely which fragments were similar and went with which proposed title and which were just unfinished, unassigned ideas that were never developed. Most of the fragments were a line or two, never more than 30 seconds long and usually about 10 seconds. Some were voice and guitar, some were just melodies Scott hummed into the phone or dictaphone while walking, driving or taking a bath.

    From here, I assigned the task of assembling a finished song to various songwriters that were in the known or requested collaborators list of Scott’s – Aimee Mann, Will Sheff (Okkervil River), Doug Gillard (Guided by Voices/Nada Surf), Jon Auer, Mitch Easter (who produced nearly all of Game Theory and The Loud Family’s recordings), Ted Leo, and Alison Faith-Levy (who had been at times in The Loud Family). They each had to complete the composition based on the fragments and deliver a recording. I also completed two songs. It all proved to be a mix of archaeology and forgery (of the loving kind.)

    And then, it all had to be mixed. Either the engineers working with the artists above did this or I did or the artists themselves and I also got Chris Xefos (King Missile) to mix two songs. All these diverse masters were brought together in mastering by Bob Weston and now, they’re finally available.

    Every step of the way, I had to think about what Scott might have wanted to achieve and be true to his legacy. Scott and Game Theory also have a particularly particular fan culture. There are discussions online about single lines from one of his songs that might have one hundred messages back and forth trying to decode the meaning, intention and references. I had his audience in mind as well, as well as making it on a pretty lean Kickstarter budget so that ultimately there’d be money coming in from the record that would help Kristine and the two daughters Scott left behind.

    Imagine! As a fan, as a friend, as a producer… all this was in the mix. And knowing that going through these fragments and asking questions to Kristine or having her dig up a missing hard drive was basically opening up the wound of her loss, again and again. It’s a Russian novel’s worth of story behind an hour of music that forms the coda of a 30-year musical legacy and a 52-year life.

     

    2

    Let’s rewind from this moment in your career to a point even before your tenures in the great rock bands Big Star and the Posies. Is there any single flashpoint in your life that led you to do what you do? This could be any event, series of events or even a thought you had.

    I’m pretty sure my relationship with music was formed in grade school. I was a gifted, hyperlexic student who was fascinated by everything around me. I was also lonely and absolutely unable to find commonality with my peers at school. A little bit on the spectrum too, so communication and understanding were really difficult for me. I felt like the kids at school were speaking another language. Music, however, was a revelation. The emotional cues of the classical, jazz, rock and easy-listening music in my parents’ record collection spoke to me plain as day. Mussorgsky or McCartney, I felt I knew them better on the grace of what they were telling me than I did anyone else around me. I had found my native country.

     

    So it’s to this land that I feel my basic citizenship, culture and kinship. My voracious appetite for any kind of music led to my parents buying a piano and enrolling me in piano lessons, which I didn’t like at all, I’m afraid to say, but it brought me basic technique and theory and further developed my ear. When my parents divorced and my mom and I moved far away, to a new town, I was led to guitar simply by one that came along with my stepdad. He didn’t play, it had been left behind by someone else. I learned to play by ear on this agonizingly difficult cheap acoustic.

    I never thought of music as a “career,” like a trade. I simply was a musician. It didn’t need a context. I didn’t search for a justification for what was, to me, evident. I didn’t immediately start to chart out a course for how to monetize my being. When my band the Posies had a fluke radio hit in Seattle, I dropped out of university, which to my experience had been a disappointingly narrow little trade school itself, more about making a well molded executive class than actually pursuing knowledge. I worked a menial job for about a year, and at one point, I saw that the band had too many opportunities than that which could fit outside working hours. It was time to make the leap, and pursue these opportunities, at any cost. I gave my notice, was sent off from my little job with a party and cake, and that was that. Without knowing it, I became a full-time “professional” musician.

    We adored Big Star and spent time knocking on every door in town to spread the good news. “Behold! A star…” We were like Mormons for Big Star.

    3

    From there, what was your relationship like with Alex Chilton’s music before you joined Big Star? Can you describe how this collision happened between yourself, Chilton, Jon Auer and Jody Stephens? How did these relationships continue throughout the years?

    When our band started to perform our heartfelt, highly melodic somewhat throwback brand of pop/rock, Big Star was immediately brought to our attention by older, wiser dudes who supervised my bandmates in their various record store jobs. And it’s true, hearing #1 Record for the first time was a game changer. Here was a band whose emotional palette was clear-eyed and mature, vulnerable and accessible, speaking to us from nearly 20 years prior. It raised our bar, immediately. We pursued a singular zealotry in terms of wearing this influence… not on our sleeves, hell, it was a fucking body stocking!

    We went to the source, Ardent Studios, where Big Star had made their records. Bands we admired like R.E.M. and The Replacements had done brilliant work there too, themselves making the same pilgrimage. We were shocked to find Big Star’s drummer Jody Stephens handling the correspondence. We didn’t end up working at the studio, but we became friends, and he truly appreciated how much we adored Big Star and spent time knocking on every door in town to spread the good news. “Behold! A star…” Yes, we were like Mormons for Big Star.

    So, it was by this relationship with Jody that we were put in the mix for the the unexpected sanctioning of a bona fide Big Star show that two college radio DJs from Missouri had campaigned for. And, inscrutable in his acquiescence as he was in his previous apparent revulsion for anything Big Star-related, Alex Chilton had consented to join.

    The big names that were bandied about – Paul Westerberg, Matthew Sweet, Mike Mills, etc. – declined for various reasons, most of which had to do with not wanting to be the guy who tarnished the band’s legacy with a lackluster performance. My bandmate Jon & I had no such fears; we just wanted to be involved, at any cost. We believed that our deep immersion in the music prepared us for the role.

    As for the relationships, I can say that Jody as been consistent from day one. Affable, humble, cheerful, gentle, and practically ageless, Jody has a beatific presence that may or may not be powered by his faith, of which he says little but applies in the ways you wish most people would.

    Alex entered our lives at the first rehearsal for that first show in 1993 as a man of few words. And even though his personality opened up to us and in general over the years, I can say he had a certain consistency, a quality he detested in others. He was clear upfront about what he was willing or unwilling to do and he never wavered. Shaking hands? No way. Interviews? Never. Not one. Discuss Big Star minutiae with a nervous fan? I’ve seen him turn on his heel and exit the conversation, having offered not a single word. One thing that did change was his more acidic side. He was especially hard on Jody when we first started playing. He seemed to relish, without much pleasure, a contrarian role with Jody. If Jody made a suggestion, he immediately quashed it. If I proposed the same thing five minutes or five days later he’d enthusiastically approve it and act as if it was the first time he’d heard about it. He made more than a few inappropriate jokes onstage about Jody.

    However, something changed down the road. He softened. He never complimented us directly, but we heard from friends that Alex had mentioned to them how much he enjoyed playing with Jon and I and how much he appreciated Jody’s musicianship. I will say that in later years, certain things that he seemed to rely on to get through the day when we first met him – alcohol, pot – disappeared as far as I could see. He became much more cheerful. Especially after the ordeal he suffered during Katrina and some nagging health issues that pursued him for several years cleared up, he was charming, outgoing, and approachable. He married. He came to Paris a few summers in a row, and since I was living there I would see him regularly. It was on this high note that Alex Chilton left the world at age 59.

    4

    What is your view of the role of money in the world? Do you hate that it exists, love that it exists or wish it was distributed differently among folks?

    It’s an illusion that we all seem to have decided to agree upon. At one point recently I decided to stop being trolled by stories in my newsfeed designed to rile me up, playing upon my algorithmically-quantified prejudices. I have decided that mere words should not be allowed to bring me to a boiling rage. I have the same view of money. Something that doesn’t technically exist shouldn’t be allowed to control my emotions.

    As for its distribution, there is definitely a huge amount of manipulation involved in keeping people from moving up the ladder. Upward mobility has been proven to be skewed against those who would aspire to it. I am a kind of small-L libertarian at heart, but but this kind of model can only function if the rules are fair and respected. Unfortunately, whether your system is left, right or center, the same rules apply. Wealth and power offer too many temptations to cheat, and if the wealth possessors are also the ones writing the rules, it’s laughable to think that they wouldn’t block the doors to the halls of power from any direction, most of all from below.

    The kind of people that need wealth and power to feel safe are insecure to being with, so they will pursue illusions of safety at any cost. I can imagine many readers thinking I’m dodging the question by speaking in the abstract, except that we are talking about money, the ultimate abstraction. So it’s absolutely correct to discuss the theory of money as a philosophical and moral issue, a reflection of the culture that uses it.

    5

    Lately, I’ve been fascinated by how people claim to “stand for” things, when it doesn’t connect with their daily actions. What we actually stand in solidarity with is what we give our time and energy to. So, what do you stand in solidarity with, on a day-to-day basis? How does it connect with what you put forth in the world?

    Small living, really. I try and keep my consumer footprint quite small. I have clothes that are nearly thirty years old in my wardrobe. Jeans that get sent to Grandma to be mended over and over again. Having changed continents, it’s amazing what you find you don’t need, really. I don’t really “stand for” it, you won’t see my posting about it, etc., but I really live that way. I lived without a car for about 11 years, until this year.

    6

    I’d like to return to Scott Miller for a sec. I’ve been very absorbed in his music criticism book, Music: What Happened?, in which Miller explores songs he enjoys from all decades. I also wondered how that same book might differ if your name was on the cover. Can you give us a quick list of tunes from any era, and explain what they mean to you?

    It’s this question that has held me up from completing this interview. It’s all-encompassing, in one way… I have connections to so many things, and so deep, that we could end up in a feature length, Slumdog Millionaire-style plunge per track. And then there are the memories associated now with my own work. Songs I worked on with different people, bands I spent years on tour with. Magical moments that only happened once or twice — playing with Neil Young, or a Beatles song with Ringo Starr. There is no quick list, in other words.

    When I was a kid, I was terrorized by a TV ad for Ted Nugent. Scream Dream!

    In my pre-teen years, “Sister Golden Hair” by America was what I thought falling in love felt like. Gooey oohs and major and minor chords alternating.

    In my teenage years, “Could You Be the One?” by Hüsker Dü kind of brought me back to that dreamy romanticism, after using punk and… whatever style of music the Butthole Surfers are to connect to the turbulence and hallucinogenic rate of change that adolescence brings.

    In my twenties, “The Concept” by Teenage Fanclub gave me a safe footing of intelligent, melodic humanism that showed me that there were like minds out there, while most of music was caught up in a primal scream of nihilistic rage.

    In my thirties, I was so into working on music that it took up most of my bandwidth but “You Said Something” by PJ Harvey is a great, moving song from that era.

    In my forties, the game’s not over as I have a couple years to go, but “Stressed Out” by Twenty One Pilots has become a favorite singalong with my daughter Aden and I.

             

    7

    If you trace the evolution of music from era to era, there’s generally an ideal, a message or resistance to something. Flower power, the Civil Rights movement, the Reagan era… do you feel young musicians should have more of an axe to grind about the current deconstruction of Western society?

    Good question. I think if you really look at it, music is one of the ways a young generation defines itself, and one of the most typical ways youth finds its identity is by rejecting the previous generations. Your list is incomplete – if you look at the primal scream howl of grunge in the ’90s, for example, there’s no identifiable target of those bands’ angst. Grunge was apolitical except for more general attitudes about issues like feminism and homophobia; perhaps Pearl Jam had an activist bent.

    One could argue that activism is more constructive than resistance. As they say, if you’re complaining about the problem and doing nothing else about it, don’t expect the problem to resolve. The cynical voice in me says that protest music and resistance music confirms what the listeners already believe, that very few minds are changed by songs espousing beliefs contrary to your own.

    But, it’s true that some resistance music has sent powerful messages. Pussy Riot comes to mind, but their message was empowered by the fact that they sacrificed their freedom for it. Millions of people are aware of their imprisonment, but few have actually listened to the band. Then there’s N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police, Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” and the ’90s wave of hip hop resistance. I’m surprised there is isn’t evenmore of that level of anger being expressed now… at least that reaches mainstream ears. Or my mainstream ears, anyway.

    Being ambitious feels like what you do when you have a hole you can’t fill, and you feel that emptiness trailing you like a predatory beast.

    8

    Now, I’d like to go all the way to the beginning of your life. Can you please describe your earliest childhood memory? What about the town you grew up in?

    I grew up in a few different towns. I was born in Los Angeles and we moved to Westchester County, New York when I was a year old. Soon after, we lived in Glenview, Illinois. I went to half of kindergarten in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the other half of kindergarten and first grade in Darien, Connecticut, and second through fourth grade in Lake Forest, Illinois. In 1978, my parents divorced and I moved with my mom to Bellingham, Washington.

    Since the other places were for such a short duration, I consider Bellingham my hometown. It’s there that I picked up the guitar, formed my first band, and met Jon Auer which set me on the path to forming the Posies and everything that followed. My earliest memory is from Los Angeles. I know, hard to believe, but I have a memory of being at the beach and being mesmerized by the dinosaurian movements of the oil well pumps. I definitely have memories of being in the yard in Chappaqua, so at least from age two.

    Bellingham was a great change of pace. My experiences from Chappaqua through Lake Forest were ’70s preppie suburban clichés – country clubs, polo shirts with crocodiles logos, black labs and golden retrievers. And hard partying, bored suburbanites, marriages filled with tension. I remember staying at the Waldorf Astoria with my parents as a toddler and being absolutely confounded by encountering a man with dark skin. Bellingham as a nine year old was funky and diverse in a way that was welcome and refreshing. It was my first exposure to counterculture, too.

    Bellingham was a well known refuge for longhairs from the ’60s who fled the police harassment and drugs of San Francisco and Seattle. It was economically stagnant, with a soon-to-be shuttered pulp mill. There were parts of town that had been vacant since the Depression and even some parts that had been abandoned in the Depression of the 1890s. Western Washington University also brought some diversity of ideas and kept Bellingham from being just another dying Mayberry. We were also just fifteen minutes from the Canadian border so I was exposed to Canadian – that is to say, largely British – radio and television, which of course was culturally ahead of what you could find on the US channels.

    All of this really helped me grow and widen my horizons. Of course, Bellingham came with the requisite townies who were only able to view someone different as prey. In 6th and 7th grade I was bullied mercilessly. I should note that I started school early and was generally a year younger than my classmates, which is a major liability when you reach your pubescent years. This also was a huge influence, forever sensitizing me to the abuse of power and aggression on the weak and vulnerable. It also gave me a lot of anger, at the same time the experience of middle school was so harsh that my confidence was undermined for years to come. I really didn’t come into a sense of confidence or strength until I was in my thirties. And now in my late forties, I’m able to let go of so many needs and fears.

               

    9

    Lastly, what do you plan for your life in the immediate future? The very distant future? How would you like to be remembered by future generations?

    It’s interesting, this continues where the last question left off. At present, I’ve shed a lot of what has been the driving force of my ambition. Just being ambitious feels like what you do when you have a hole you can’t fill, and you feel that emptiness trailing you like a predatory beast. I’m much more interested in self-actualization and how I can use a more complete and integrated notion of myself to be of use to others. If this sounds like I’m uninterested in making art, you’re wrong — I’m more inspired than ever. I feel free from any kind of marketplace thinking. I view things that come my way with a lot less fear, taking risks feels like freedom. I trust myself and I trust experiences much more than I did before. In this sense, I don’t think about the distant future – it will take shape based on my choices now, but in ways that I don’t see necessary to strategize. Again, trusting myself now means I trust the distant future will unfold with need for manipulation from me.

    If I were to look at small course corrections or choices to be made, I’d be interested in doing more acting, something I did for the first time this year, I have shot an independent film as the principal actor. It was a great experience, a huge challenge and a massive opportunity to open and be brave. Alongside that, scoring films is something I’ve done a little of and would love to do more.

    I think how future generations remember me is up to them but I would like my children to turn out in such a way that it’s clear I did the best I could, and loved them the most I could and showed them I did so. I have so many stories to tell, but rather than be a bore and corner my grandkids with stuff they don’t want to be forced to listen to, I should probably write a book.

    Thank you.

    Data


    Conversation: 38
    Curated by: Morgan Enos
    Conducted by: Email
    Published: September 27, 2017
    Total questions: 9
    Word count: 4497
    Reading time: Sixteen minutes
    Hyperlinks: 20
    Birthplace: Los Angeles
    Course correction: Acting
    Mussorgsky or McCartney? Yes
    Alex Chilton handshake: Never
    Beauty: Supercalifragile

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