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Ken Stringfellow has spent most of his life touring and playing alongside some of the greatest musical treasures to ever grace the stage, including R.E.M., The Posies, and Big Star. The multifaceted producer and musician took the time to answer our ‘questions’ while driving through the backwoods of Louisiana en route to Little Rock from New Orleans. We played a game of phone tag for a while as technology failed us with inconsistent cell phone receptions, and the phrase, “Can you hear me now?” became about as common as they did in those wretched Verizon commercials.
Regardless of a few pitfalls, we got to the basics of Stringfellow’s successes pretty quickly. He recalled his time spent playing with R.E.M., explaining how it proved to be a learning experience he treasures to this day.
“R.E.M. came along and asked me if I’d like to play with them and it was kind of the first big thing I did, and I didn’t f*ck it up,” Stringfellow says. “That’s good to know. It’s good to know that you have no limits, that you can trust yourself.”
In fact, he recalled a moment when he made a mistake on stage that was brushed off without a comment from the famous rockers. They were more concerned with the passion and energetic spirit of what was going on around them.
“That was a really great thing to find out,” Stringfellow explains. “That at the height of what we call ‘professional’ was actually the most artistic and the most free. People try and fit music into a profession, and I think it should be respected as one. You know, we bring a lot of musicians into the world, but it doesn’t resemble working in an insurance company. It just doesn’t. The idea of being professional in music is just bringing energy and kind of confidence and care to the table. A little ability doesn’t hurt, but definitely time takes care of ability. You can do a lot with a little ability if you just take the time to develop it.”
Stringfellow’s traveling sensibilities have taken him to France where he lives with his wife and children, while still continuing to tour and release music on his own time. His latest album, Danzig in the Moonlight, released last year and expresses his unique aesthetic of refusing to commit to just one kind of genre. Stringfellow’s interests and tastes are about as diverse as his answers were to our questions. You can see him when he takes the stage at Club Dada on Friday night.
FrontRow: What is the best concert and the worst concert you have ever been to?
Ken Stringfellow: The best concert I’ve ever been to was, without a doubt in my mind for many reasons, Neil Young and Crazy Horse in 2001 in Buenos Aires at a festival that R.E.M. had played before. I’m a great admirer of Neil Young for being an artist who appears in many guises and many styles and retains a very strong sense of personality. You always know it’s him and he’s very adept at jumping around. He just does his thing exactly how I do my thing. I just do my thing. I had seen Neil before and I had played with him at that point.
And Crazy Horse was just…wow. You know, that is the ultimate in musical telepathy. It’s just astonishing. I had a pretty good viewpoint; I was watching this show on the side of the stage with the guys from Oasis on either side of me, having a beer with those guys and just getting into this show. I had better than front row seat into this view of mind-melting, face-melting rock show. Maybe the ultimate rock band, really. There’s this thing about Crazy Horse — that they’re supposed to be this bad band that Neil just sort of likes because they’re so scruffy or whatever. But man, everything was tight, all the endings were tight and they were listening to each other and it was completely organic and completely solid and awesome. It was just magical, I’ll never forget it. I doubt I’ll see anything better in my life. That’s the funny thing. I’m 44 and I’d like to think I still have a few good years left in me, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to carry this concert as a highlight of musical excellence to the grave.
The whole worst concert thing…the good news is nothing comes to mind. I have pretty good instincts for gravitating towards things of musical quality, so I’m racking my brain here. I saw The Replacements many, many times, toured with them, and have never seen them do one of their legendary bad shows, ever. A couple of The Replacements shows I saw in the 80′s were some of the best rock shows I’d ever seen right up there with that Neil Young show. I’ve seen bands trying too hard, I don’t know. I don’t like to put bands down either, you know? I have a pretty strong BS filter and I just don’t go in the direction of bullshit and it really doesn’t come in my direction either. That’s one of the beauties of being me: I avoid a lot of the BS.
FR: What was the first movie you saw in the theaters?
(The phone starts cutting out.)
KS: Damn it, this reception is just sucking ass. I’m going to keep driving forward…oh, I got two bars! This answer is probably just so generationally correct. It’s definitely Star Wars. I saw that film in the year of its release 11 times. I kept making my parents go back and go back and go back and go back. We’re down to one bar again.
(The phone cuts out. One hour later…)
FR: What’s the closest you have ever come to dying?
KS: Through my own misfortunes, well my own potential misfortunes, and using drugs and alcohol and driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, I have come very close to dying and found myself in situations where I was like, “Wow, this is it.” A couple of times being so drunk that my consciousness actually separated from the drunk part of my brain pulled back and said, “Okay, you’re on the edge here. You want to go or do you want to stay?” I’ve experienced that kind of thing with drugs and thought, I’ve done it. I totally blew it. I came through it all and I must have a very large contingent of guardian angels or I must have some purpose or whatever that I needed to be here and I take that very seriously now. I never drink and drive anymore, not even one sip. I don’t take drugs anymore. I love drinking wine but only if I’m outside of a moving vehicle. I had a family member get really into drugs, and it really messed up his life and for me it’s really not a laughing matter anymore.
Having said that, I think some youthful experimentation for most people is inevitable. I’m not here to lecture, I’m here to say that I got lucky but I could have been very unlucky on many, many, many occasions. I took drugs that I didn’t even know what they were. It’s like, “Here take this, take a whole bunch of it.” “Oh, okay.” I mean, that’s just f*cking stupid.
FR: If you could choose any decade to live in, which would it be?
KS: I think that 2020 should be really interesting, and I’m just touching wood that I make it there and see my daughter graduate from high school, or whatever they call it in France, and start to develop into a woman and get her adult life going. I’m fascinated by that. I would like to be here tomorrow. I’m really not nostalgic, I’m like maybe one of the most non-nostalgic people you’ve ever met.
I mean, if we want to look at the glory days of the 50′s and 60′s because The Beatles or Elvis were there, I say how about a totally uptight, racist, capitalist society? No, thanks. Anything before that is asking for typhoid and cholera. I’m cool with the future; I’m an optimist. I’m going to say that I choose 2020 where people actually put their heads together and start solving problems like climate change, global poverty, all the big ones, and hope that we continue to evolve. I’d like to see what that evolution brings us.
FR: What was your favorite toy as a kid?
KS: I had many. I took great comfort in Browny. Browny was a little hand puppet that I guess was a dog. It’s hard to say, he was a little moth-eaten by the time I got him. I’m pretty sure he was my dad’s as well. I sort of inherited him by going to my grandparents. First, Browny would talk to me through my grandma’s actions and then I was interested with the care of Browny. Browny was very good, I could chew on his ears and he didn’t complain. I could wipe my crying eyes on him. Browny was a good one. He’s probably at my parents house somewhere enjoying his retirement.
FR: Should the United States adopt a national healthcare system similar to the United Kingdom or Canada?
KS: First of all, I thought we adopted a national healthcare system called Obamacare but it hasn’t seemed to manifest into what we thought we were getting into. I don’t think that Americans are ever going to want to pay the kind of taxes that French people do, for example, or even British and Canadian people. They’re just never going to want to do it and so it’s futile to say I would love to have a system like Britain or Canada. Now, I don’t know much about the Canadian healthcare system, I haven’t spent much time there. But Britain, I’ve heard plenty of good things and plenty of bad things about it in its practice. France’s works wonderfully. I live there and I benefit from it all the time and I’m not even on the system, it’s just that the prices are so low.
I would say at some point we need to take on the drug companies and get them to chill out on the prices and use some kind of collective bargaining against them because there’s got to be an ombudsman who comes down and cuts the bullshit out. There’s just money flying around in there and that’s one of these strange things that capitalism was supposed to clean up on its own. It becomes one of these ruthlessly efficient, money-making machines, and yet, our healthcare system has so much fat on it. It would probably be turned away by a healthcare system, that’s how much fat it has.
It’s a hopeless case in many ways, so do I think it should look like England’s? No. Do I think it should look like France’s? Sure. Is anyone going to pay for that? Of course not. I don’t pay French taxes and it’s tough because it’s a big sacrifice. You’ll find there aren’t a lot of freelancers in France. The environment is just too hard on them and America’s kind of built on that idea of freelancers and people doing crazy stuff, so it’s a real big thing. It’s really out of control and no one seems to be able to take it on.
FR: If global warming melted the ice caps covering 90 percent of the known world with water, what city would you hope was spared so you could live there?
KS: I probably wouldn’t choose any city like that. I probably would say, let’s use Wyoming for something useful. I just drove across it and they have plenty of room. We could everybody on there and they’d all have their own 40 aces, no problem. Who says we need to have cities? In the future, we’ll all be covered in water and half the U.S. won’t exist but like there will just be like a continuous indoor mall. Salt Lake City to, I don’t know, to Telluride or whatever. So we’ll just be in paradise, we’ll just be spending money all day long.
FR: If you could change one law — make something that is illegal legal, or something legal illegal — what would it be?
KS: I’ve got a huge list of stuff like that. The obvious one is the whole drug situation. If there’s a way to legalize it and put it out in the open, take all that money away from gangsters and drug lords, people running private armies and stuff like that. I would love to put those people out of business. Rather than wait until someone’s a raving crackhead and holding you up in the alley, get to that person within the system way before. That’s something, that’s a good one.
Sometimes I wonder if obscenity laws, like swearing on the radio, is this for real? Is this something we need to have anymore? What I don’t like about certain laws is that they take certain bad habits out of discussion and just make it unspeakable. Therefore, the conversation in how to deal with it is over. You say to your kids, “Well you can’t use drugs because they’re illegal. End of story.” That doesn’t mean they’re not going to use them. Where’s the discussion? And this whole swearing thing. I understand maybe you don’t want it in your face 24/7, but it starts to get ridiculous. If a radio station can find themselves permanently off the air because someone said ‘sh*t’, I find that a punishment that far exceeds the crime.
FR: If you weren’t playing music and had the talent and circumstances to do anything else, what would it be?
KS: Naturally, I’d be a hedge fund trader of course. It’s like all this lifting gear is wonderful but if I could just sit on my ass and make a couple billion with a few mouse clicks. At this point, I’m cool with that. I’d pay for a few music schools and a few things.
FR: What’s on your playlist right now?
KS: I get a lot of demos. I’ve been working a lot as a producer, so I’ve got a lot of cool things in my USB stick to listen to. I’ve discovered a few great singers and I get them to sing with me at each show. One of them, her name is Carleigh Aikins. She sang with me in Toronto, and I think I’ve discovered something here. She gave me some stuff and of all the demos I’ve heard and all the rough mixes of even popular albums that I’ve gotten ahead of the game, this is the most exciting thing that anyone’s ever put in my hands. She’s phenomenal. It’s very much coming from the heart, very ancient and very modern in that kind of Appalachian thing and it’s also very cocktail twinge. Basically when these Fleet Foxes and Father John Misty fans hear what she’s about, she has a real potential to blow up. I hope I’m not giving her the kiss of death here.