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Interview: A Conversation with Ken Stringfellow

Posted: 21/09/2012 11:56

Ken Stringfellow's musical career, which spans three decades, is one that many would kill for. His work with power-pop legends The Posies, rock giants REM and Big Star have confirmed his place as a indie rock trailblazer. Not one to rest on his laurels he returns to the UK with his new solo album 'Danzig in the Moonlight' released on the 1 October through Lojinx.

1) Your latest album 'Danzig in the Moonlight' is one of the best albums I've heard this year. It's been quite a long time inbetween solo albums (though you have been keeping very busy!) What was the writing and production process for this album?
Thank you!

The production process was quite efficient. Having waited a long time, I realize now that the reason I didn't act sooner, despite the fact some of these songs have been around for quite awhile, was that I was waiting for the right situation and right timing. Probably I didn't even know the timing was so good myself, I was lucky to have good instincts on that. The instinct *not* to act when the moment isn't right is a great asset.

In the last couple of years I've been working a lot with a Dutch producer, musician, arranger etc named JB Meijers. He's very successful in Holland, has a lot of good things going on around him, and has invited me to be a part of a lot of great projects, and we've enjoyed working on them. It was JB who proposed that we combine resources and go into our favorite studio, ICP in Brussels, and do two albums at once--one for me, one for him. He's brought a lot of productions there so he had a buddy rate to do his own project there, and by using the same musicians, etc, we were able to split that buddy rate in half and walk away with the bases of two great records.

The tracking was very live, with myself, JB, a keyboardist named Pim Kops, and a drummer named Joost Kroon, all from Netherlands, all people we work with often. Shelle Dierickx, the house engineer at ICP, is well known to us and was perfect for the job. Usually we had two rooms in the studio going--one of the main rooms for tracking, and there's a great loft space there where whoever wasn't tracking in the main room could go and do overdubs. The studio is filled with an incredible collection of equipment, instruments...it's paradise, really.

So, after that, there were just a few bits to add, strings and horns were added by musicians in Amsterdam and Seattle. I did some tinkering, not much mind you, just a little, at home in Paris and in Seattle. I had some musicians from Mumbai, all top Bollywood players, add stuff there--I played in Mumbai earlier this year and made some good contacts. The songs were mixed in L.A. by a great production duo called TheLAB. Great musicians, with super modern sensibilities and with a deep understanding of the classics--I feel at home any studio that chooses to have an Elvis Costello poster on the wall. With them I also wrote and tracked the opening song, 'Jesus Was An Only Child'.

When I make an album, I try and mix songs that I've composed, demo'd, played live, etc--the familiar, in other words-- with songs that I more or less make up on the spot. That's been done here, and I'll be happy not to tell you which ones. I don't think you can tell.

2) The album has a really diverse soundscape, there are elements of indie rock and phsydelic pop. It's a real musical journey. Was that your intention when you set about writing this record and were there any records you were listening to during the making of 'Danzig in the Moonlight' that inspired the writing?
It's a reflection of the many journeys I've undertaken (what, did somebody die?) since I released my last album, in 2004. I've made so many records since then, and learned a lot. Both in terms of technical skills and also just seeing ever more of the world. Since the release of my last album, I've performed in almost 40 countries that I hadn't visited before--all over Asia, South America, etc. Meeting musicians from all kinds of scenes, indie rockers of the world included. My vocabulary has expanded, shall we say, so the writing is much more interesting--I can say more and say it more precisely.

3) The album is being released by indie label Lojinx. How did your relationship with Lojinx come about, and how do you see the state of independent music progressing in this somewhat precarious time for music in general?
One of the artists on the label, Henrik, has been a friend a great supporter of my music, and that's the connection. I met the label owner, Andrew, about a year ago, and I think things have been on track since then, really. He's been very vocal about his support. He came to visit me for a meeting in Brussels when I was working on another album there this year, to listen to the tracks, discuss.

You could have asked me at different times and I would have said my last album was the last one I'd do for a label, that they wouldn't exist in 2012. Yet they do. Everything is evolving, including the purpose and business model of a label and the delivery of music. It's not a precarious time for music. Music is fine. People in every industry have been speaking about the end times since we entered a period of ever increasing dynamism in society about two hundred years ago. It's just change. You don't even have to predict it, as long as you're willing to roll with it. Ask an older person from any generation and almost all of them lived in a golden age that disappeared and was replaced by something inferior in quality. If you asked their parents, they'd say the same things. And their kids will too. Some people get attached to moments. It's a perception, not a reality.

4) You have worked with many up and coming artists both producing and writing with bands. Have there been any really standout bands that you would recommend?
I'm really into a record a mixed for a Spanish band called Oh, Libia! It should be out this fall. I worked on their first album too. Very Apples in Stereo, Of Montreal...trippy and joyful.

Also, I did an album in the same studio and with the same cast as my album, for a Dutch singer, currently more known as an actress, Carice van Houten. Incredible album, produced by JB & myself. I helped write a couple of the songs. Play on it. Steve Shelley, Howe Gelb, Marc Ribot, Antony Hegarty all appear on the album. It's diverse and challenging, a cousin to my own album. Coming out in Benelux at the end of September, I think when the rest of the world gets wind of it, it will be a sensation. The video for the song "Particle of Light" a duet with Antony, is viewable now online.

And, one of the recordings of which I'm most proud, I produced an album for an American musician named Ian McGlynn. Bon Iver epic-ness, Animal Collective trip-blip, and beautifully melodic songwriting. We recorded and mixed half the album in his apartment. It's sonically stunning. "Now We're Golden" it's called.

5) If you had to pick, say 5 records that have really summed up a time in your life, or even changed your life what would they be and why?
Hmm. If we go all the way back...my mom's copy of "Revolver" by the Beatles got me into rock music and all its sonic intrigue. REM's "Murmur" was the first alternative-y album that had the marketing power behind it to reach my small home town of Bellingham, WA in the early 80s and got me out of the classic rock propaganda in place in my environment. "My War" by Black Flag was the first music from the punk wave I heard, and that turned music on its head for me yet again. Not long after I would mark time with my own albums--as those are like big milestones in my life, marking my progress as a musician. Damien Jurado's "Rehearsals for Departure" is probably my first really good production. And I think this album of mine is really the most significant mark of my progress towards being a better musician, arranger, producer, writer...the journey continues but this album has a sense of 'you made it kid, you graduated!' to it.

6) Even though this is a solo album, you do have a solid line-up of session musicians who helped with the instrumentation of this album. Let's have a little talk about those guys! So what other musicians helped you out in the process of this record?
JB Meijers, as I mentioned, is responsible for how and when this album came together the way it did, and plays bass and guitar on it as well. He's a very very successful producer in Holland, and strongly associated with one of Holland's biggest bands, De Dijk. He plays guitar live with them and produces the albums. We've now worked on a bunch of albums together, for example the Carice album, and the album "He Who Travels Far" by China's Hanggai.

Joost Kroon plays drums on the album. He's been in many of Holland's biggest bands, currently concentrating on a genre-bending big band called New Cool Collective. Two of the horn players from New Cool play on my album too.

Pim Kops is the keyboard player in De Dijk. He plays electric and acoustic piano, organ, and accordion on my album. He's also a brilliant photographer and can also forge you a Rembrandt (he's a descendant) or a faux Chopin mazurka. Should also note that the horn players from De Dijk also play on the album.

The West Side Trio are a cellist, Annie Tangberg, a violist and a violinist. They all play in the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam, known for its adventurous curriculum. They play all the string parts on the album, and it was I who encouraged Annie to compose her first composition, which is the music for "Odorless Colorless Tasteless" on this album.

"Doesn't It Remind You of Something?" is a duet that I recorded with two partners--on the CD you hear Charity Rose Thielen, of Seattle band The Head and the Heart, and on the vinyl (and soon in the video) you hear Margaret Cho, the American comedian. Both did excellent versions, it's a very fun track.
TheLAB are an incredible production duo from LA., their studio (also called TheLAB) is where we mixed the album, added some horn parts, and recorded "Jesus Was An Only Child". They have a great trick--they play two drum kits at the same time, come up with these incredible rhythms, and edit that into a tight, modern, electro-influenced sound.

Dutch singers Sonja van Hamel (who also did the package design for the album) and Eva Auad, for whom I produced albums, also contribute to the songs.
There's also horn players from Seattle led by Craig Flory, with whom I've worked on several projects.

There's a bunch of players from Mumbai on the song, you can hear flute, percussion, sarengi (a very expressive form of violin) and vocals, woven in carefully.
Matthieu Vandenabeele is a jazz keyboardist in Brussels who turned out to be the new boyfriend of an old friend of mine, and their new place is around the corner from ICP. He plays on the apocalyptic tryptic "4am Birds -- The End of All Light -- The Last Radio"

7) Finally you have an upcoming tour supporting this record. What can we expect from the shows?
In Amsterdam I will have almost everyone from the album, the Dutch ones anyway, performing live with me at the Paradiso on Nov 1. Feel free, readers, to make the commute!
Generally, my shows are totally solo. Very minimal. Very quiet. I dispense with not only the 4th wall, but walls 1-3 as well. If I could play inside your head, I would. This is as close as I can get.
I play the Lexington in London Nov 15.

Ken Stringfellow: http://www.kenstringfellow.com/


Lojinx: http://www.lojinx.com/

 

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