Since the publisher of Pyragraph will be singing backup in one of Ken Stringfellow’s concept-cool Tears of Silver tour stops when it hits Albuquerque on Sept. 21, I’ve been offered the opportunity to write about Ken Stringfellow, and because he played instruments on REM records and toured with them for years but I’ve never heard of Ken in my life but he seems wild, smart and creative — and my dream is to sing with REM at a show one night, just one night at Carnegie Hall, except they disbanded in 2011 — I say yes to the interview and never once mention Michael Stipe. Because I’m elegant. And I keep it classy like that. Ken’s been there, done that.
We are sitting on a dark mood-lit stage at a long folding table covered in red velour at Cape House in Brooklyn near the Morgan stop off the L train. My $4 Bud Light can — all I can really afford right now — stands at attention to the left of my MacBook Air I bought on a payment plan from a friend as Ken sorts through his vinyl. He‘s like, “Tell me when you’re ready to start the interview.” I say I don’t really have a list of questions — the interview’s already happening, my hands typing away as we make small talk. He quips that in British media, you have to slag someone off to make it big.
Communicating with people in a very direct manner is a tremendous relief.
“Did you slag someone off in British media?” I find one UK publication referring to him as indie royalty.
“Not lately,” he answers from his new spot on the side of the stage as he sorts through more merchandise.
He unpacks more vinyl. No more cassettes, he says. They just break. Cassettes are the worst to bring on tour. He still doesn’t even know what’s in his suitcase. He walks back to the table with another box. He asks about Pyragraph. I tell him it’s an online shoptalk rag for artists, by artists, and I mention our podcast, Self-Employed Happy Hour.
“I like to think of myself as permanently unemployed,” Ken says. “That’s not a joke. That’s for real. As soon as I start thinking of this as employment, that gets absurd, right? It’s supposed to be fun. Work is like going to the AT&T store. That’s work. I guess technically work would be going to work for someone else at the AT&T store.”
Ken lives in France. He woke up in Paris this morning and now he’s jet-lagged in Brooklyn. At his performance later that night, he steps onto the stage with his guitar as his fans cheer. He’s finally here!
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom first,” he says, and disappears amid laughter. He comes back. “I was just in the bathroom” (I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s basically what he said) “and I was thinking how jet-lag is almost superior to drugs, cheaper too. But wait! I realized jet-lag is like $400 a hit! That’s not cheap at all!”
Tonight he’s playing solo, but for his Tears of Silver US tour, he’ll be with select musicians from the bands Mercury Rev and Midlake making a coming-together-without-much-rehearsal go at it, as they trust each other’s musicianship as the foundation for an ephemeral supergroup. That’s the beauty of music between musicians. The venue spaces will be revealed to ticket-buyers two days before the show; instead of regular venues these shows will be in places like homes, art spaces, churches, recording studios. Someplace sexier than a typical club; spaces with intimate sound quality and without bar culture.
“I have found it seems to work best when it’s really just me and an occasional visitor to the stage, even though my records are quite elaborate,” Ken said. “It can work with a band — but there’s something much more unique about the kind of things that I can do when I can take the night wherever I want it to go in the moment. And that can’t really happen with a band.”
You also can’t mess with the time signature, I say.
It’s almost like a standup comedy cabaret whatever but also with this incredibly sincere music.
“Right,” he says, now sitting down in a chair at the table. “Or whatever musical shenanigans you wanna pull. Unless it’s a band where people play with Frank Zappa but that’s not really what I’m here to do.”
It can be uncomfortable playing without a band filling in the empty spaces for you and I ask him how long he’s felt comfortable playing his own sets without bands. He says it took hundreds of solo shows before he really understood how to do it.
“It grows — it’s still growing. It was very uncomfortable to do for a long time and I did it out of necessity,” Ken said. “I had some trial-by-fire experiences that kind of cemented the idea that there might be something very powerful by making yourself this vulnerable to start out with as an opening statement for the evening. I mean, playing with a band is sometimes, I think, kind of antisocial in a way. You’ve seen certain groups who just put their heads down; that’s totally cool too. When people are presenting their music, I’m not very critical. I mean, it all sucks of course. Other people’s music is like other people’s kids, or other people’s dogs, they all suck. But other people shoegaze, whatever. That’s totally cool. I just found my niche in that communicating with people in a very direct manner is a relief. It’s a tremendous relief.”
He gets the sense of theatre involved — being yourself but more than yourself. Like any performer, he is both himself and not himself.
“I’ve always been eccentric and a typical outcast kid, no friends, blah blah blah, this kind of typical story,” he said. “And I’ve kind of used that tact now as kind of a best-defense-is-a-good-offense kind of idea. So I put the eccentricity on the front end and they deal with it cause they’re here to support you in theory. But we’re getting away from the fact that I’m extremely sincere.”
He came of age musically in Seattle while the American Northwest cultural shift was afoot and grunge was taking over. When his bands were forming, there was this primal-scream-therapy era of music where everything has to be cathartic and a way of howling out your pain, he said. He co-founded The Posies in the ’90s. (They’re touring January and February of 2018.)
“Definitely I didn’t feel like that, and so at that time it was a bit perplexing because I don’t have an angsty howl to put out there, so I wasn’t speaking my generation’s language necessarily,” he said. “In all of the experiences that added up over time, I think the kind of stand-up thing that I do, in a way, it’s almost like a standup comedy cabaret whatever but also with this incredibly sincere music. It’s as un-showbiz a thing as I can imagine but it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d want to watch. Those kind of Andy Kaufmans and early Robin Williams and people having basically these very open kind of meltdowns in a very nice way, brilliant meltdowns. People coming on with something that’s too slick, it starts to look carny. The extreme end of showbiz would be something like American Idol where people are trying to fit into this mold, have to athletically win this competition by making themselves as appealing as possible to a very broad denominator and it’s very bizarre and it doesn’t have anything to do with feelings.
“This is a lot of directions at once, I’m looking at it from different angles in front of you. But at the end of the day what I do is the simplest thing to do: just get up and be yourself.”
Mercury Rev is a less-than-obvious choice to travel the country with.
“You’re good at talking about what you do,” I say, and I ask if it’s because he’s used to reading lots of good music writing because Seattle has such a locally and internationally refined music industry with bands working the hierarchy every day; no shortage of music writing abounds in the 206. He doesn’t think so necessarily, as he’s been living in France since 2003. He’s got places in the countryside. He’s got a flat in Paris.
“I grew up in many places — moved around a lot,” he said. “When my parents divorced my mom and I went to Bellingham and I formed some bands, including The Posies. I went to Seattle to go to U-Dub and music was what I was really about and I forgot all about college because I didn’t care about it anyway. Happened to be there totally as a coincidence as Seattle underwent this incredible cultural explosion with all the famous bands and everything that went with it culturally, Microsoft, etc. Seattle was a fucking fishing village when I encountered it in the ’70s and now it’s this cultural and business epicenter.”
Paris has been an enormous influence on what he does and how he is, because moving to a culture where he didn’t speak the language and didn’t know the cultural cues allowed him to walk into cultural booby traps on a daily basis, thus helping him truly see himself objectively for the first time.
“If you live in New York, you start talking like a New Yorker,” he said. “If you live in the South, you start moving into those rhythms.”
In France, he came out of his shell.
“I try to make things difficult for myself; I try to defy categorization; I unbuild my brand on a regular basis,” Ken says.
Along those lines, Ken’s Tears of Silver tour defies expectations as well. “I really admire Mercury Rev and I worked on their last album as a musician, and I think they are a less-than-obvious choice to travel the country with as far as what the audience expects me to be pairing up with.” he says. “I think the very almost spiritual nature of what they do, it’s so deep and it really resonates with what I aspire to do with my solo work.”
We talk about the mood they create — he detects spiritual depth, not so much philosophy-book-depth but more like their sound is spacious and unhurried. Jonathan from Mercury Rev, who used to play second guitar for the Flaming Lips and appeared on two of their albums, will be part of the Tears of Silver tour.
“They started as a companion piece to the Flaming Lips,” Ken says. “Jonathan and Wayne are both high tenor, they do that Neil-Young-on-acid sort of thing. Both bands were into sonic destruction and I think over the course of time moved into loftier places. Maybe the Flaming Lips have kind of deconstructed that and went to a whole other place. But Mercury Rev is not quite so. The Flaming Lips make, to me, these days, these psychedelic selfies they do under the guise of cover albums. They’re media-sensitive and media-aggressive in a sense. And Mercury didn’t take that tact. They moved into a more contemplative vein. And that’s maybe a little more resonant with what I am trying to promote around me.”
The interview kind of ends itself when some “freelance writer” from the bar upstairs that Ken appeared to know from over the years, he comes downstairs beer in hand and proceeds to “help” me with my interview by hijacking my train of thought and interjecting what he thinks might be interesting questions I didn’t think to ask or, like, sneak in information by bringing up embarrassing or off-topics stories from Ken’s past. Like, just, you know, walks up while Ken and I are in the middle of a conversation which I am conducting on the clock and just starts talking with no regard for the professional nature of my visit. Sigh.
Tears of Silver US Tour, Fall 2017
September 13 – Richmond VA [tickets]
September 14 – Raleigh NC [tickets]
September 15 – Charlotte NC [tickets]
September 16 – Atlanta GA [tickets]
September 17 – New Orleans LA [tickets]
September 18 – Austin TX @ Austin Wine & Cider [tickets]
September 19 – Dallas TX [tickets]
September 21 – Albuquerque NM [tickets]
September 22 – Phoenix AZ [tickets]
September 23 – San Diego CA [tickets]
September 24 – Pasadena CA [tickets]
September 25 – San Francisco CA [tickets]
September 27 – Portland OR [tickets]
September 28 – Seattle WA [tickets]
September 29 – Boise ID [tickets]
September 30 – Salt Lake City UT [tickets]
October 1 – Denver CO [tickets]
October 2 – Omaha NE [tickets]
October 3 – Minneapolis MN [tickets]
October 4 – Milwaukee WI [tickets]
October 5 – Chicago IL [tickets]
October 6 – St. Louis MO [tickets]
October 7 – Cleveland OH [tickets]
October 8 – Pittsburgh PA [tickets]