After spending close to 30 years playing with such groups as The Posies, R.E.M. and Big Star, Ken Stringfellow is ready to really start focusing on his solo career.
But in fact, it’s something he thinks he should have been doing all along.
“My solo work has been sandwiched in amongst a lot of interesting stuff,” he said recently while driving through Nebraska on tour. “On the emotional side, I also feel that my solo work hits a place that’s the most true, and I probably should have been putting it forward all along. So now it’s the time. [This music comes] from a place of my deepest feelings, so it’s maybe the most true, in a sense, kind of music and writing that I do.”
“Danzig in the Moonlight,” his fourth solo album and first since 2004’s “Soft Commands,” represents, for Stringfellow, a culmination of everything he’s done since he formed Seattle power-poppers The Posies with longtime musical partner Jon Auer in 1987.
He’s currently criss-crossing the globe both solo and with bands to support it. His current U.S. solo tour heads to Valentine’s on Saturday night.
with Mod Fiction
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Valentine’s downstairs, 17 New Scotland Ave., Albany
How Much: $10
More Info: 432-6572, www.valentinesalbany.com
During the eight-year layoff between solo albums, Stringfellow kept plenty busy — The Posies reunited for two albums, 2005’s comeback “Every Kind of Light” and 2010’s “Blood/Candy”; and Stringfellow and Auer continued touring with the re-formed Big Star until Alex Chilton’s death in 2010. On top of that, Stringfellow continued to produce records, as well as play with his Norwegian group The Disciplines. (A Seattle native, he currently lives in Paris.)
All of these projects ended up influencing “Danzig in the Moonlight.” The album’s 14 songs touch upon the power-pop that the singer-songwriter is known for, while also incorporating new sounds and influences with a fuller production featuring synthesizers, horn players, piano and, on “Colorless, Odorless, Tasteless,” a string trio, the West Side Trio.
“I think that this is an album that really reflects the intense study and growth that I’ve undergone as a musician and writer,” Stringfellow said.
“I’ve been doing nothing but making records, nonstop, since the last solo album, and I think that that experience, which is quite large — I’ve made probably five dozen albums as a producer, as a player, as an artist engineer and mixer — I think that it’s just about now that I feel like I’ve sort of graduated to a level of someone who kind of knows what they’re doing.”
At least half of “Danzig in the Moonlight” was actually improvised in the studio, including the moody two-part epic “Jesus Was an Only Child,” which grew out of a studio jam session with Stringfellow and the album’s mixing engineers, Los Angeles-based production team TheLAB. Stringfellow has taken this approach on his previous solo albums as well.
“When I’m making a solo album, because I don’t have to teach a band something and turn it into a band feel, there isn’t a learning curve and I can kind of control the creation,” he said.
“I tend to improvise a lot more in the studio when it’s my own thing, and that improvisation, that basically takes the expectations out of the game and allows the unexpected to happen. You can go to a place that catches you off your guard and puts the most real emotions on the table.”
Project takes shape
The album’s layered sound stands in contrast to the actual recording process. Most of the tracks were cut live at ICP Recording Studios in Brussels, Belgium, with a core band featuring drummer Joost Kroon, keyboardist Pim Kops and bassist and guitarist J.B. Meijers. Numerous guest musicians from Seattle, L.A. and Europe also played on the album, notably on the duet “Doesn’t It Remind You of Something” with Charity Rose Theilen on the CD version and Margaret Cho on the vinyl version.
Stringfellow has worked with the core group of musicians before — in fact, at the same time “Danzig in the Moonlight” was recorded, the same band worked on a solo album from Meijers.
“We did 24 songs in a week and a half, basically finished,” Stringfellow said. “Even though they were recorded simultaneously, the two albums sound completely different. These players have that kind of range and sensitivity that they can switch styles and feels and get into what the song really needs in a heartbeat, without really much direction at all.”
Heart of the matter
In January, Stringfellow began touring the album in America with a series of West Coast dates backed by Seattle alt-country rockers The Maldives. But the rest of his North American tour, which stretches until mid-March, will be solo, which he almost prefers.
“One thing about the full band thing — it’s really fun, and it does justice to the album, but sometimes it can be a distraction in the sense that it actually can get in the way of the pure feeling [of the songs],” he said.
“It has its place — I did the full band shows, and they were wonderful, and we made it very emotional. But when you see me play purely solo, it gets to the heart of the matter of what I really want to say even better. Both have a purpose, but the solo thing is more intense in an emotional way.”
Working with The Maldives came out of a conscious effort on Stringfellow’s part to keep doing new things. This can be a challenge when The Posies get together to perform or record.
Auer and Stringfellow made their debut as The Posies on 1987’s “Failure,” a low-key record originally intended as a demo tape. The duo turned the project into a full-fledged band around that album, and ended up on DGC Records in the 1990s, releasing three albums including the 1993 breakout “Frosting on the Beater.” It was around this time that the duo was asked to join the re-formed Big Star by drummer Jody Stephens, who had taken the two musicians under his wing a few years earlier.
“When the Big Star reunion became a reality — finally Alex said, ‘What the hell, OK, you got me; we’ll do it’ — it was such a shock,” Stringfellow said.
“But there has to be a band, and Chris Bell is no longer with us [the band’s second guitarist and songwriter, who died in 1978 at age 27], and [bassist] Andy Hummel said, ‘I don’t play music anymore, sorry.’ . . . The kids in Missouri who were putting together the show went around and asked the usual suspects — I think Matthew Sweet was in there, Mike Mills [of R.E.M.], Paul Westerberg — and for one reason or another they all said no. They were either too busy, or — I felt like Paul said, ‘I’m not touching those songs; that’s too huge.’ The fact of the matter is, Jon and I were young and eager enough not to think in those terms — it was more, ‘Yes, how can we help?’ ”
Because of the long history between him and Auer, the situation can at times get too comfortable for Stringfellow.
“I can guarantee you that, even though I’m 44 years old, I’m a dad, a husband, this kind of thing — this is the point in many people’s lives where they start to get lazy and out of touch,” he said.
“With my pushing of the solo album, I can guarantee personally that I will push myself every day to stay current, stay true, learn, push musical boundaries and challenge myself to work with other artists and styles of music I know nothing about. I can guarantee that with myself — I can’t speak for the others, and that’s why I’m sometimes hesitant. I’m not saying Jon’s out of touch, I’m just saying he’s not me, so I can’t guarantee it. That’s why I’m sometimes hesitant to go into Posies situations now — it has to be good; it has to push boundaries.”
“Blood/Candy” did introduce new, more expansive sounds for the band, while still maintaining the signature Posies harmonies and big guitars. But Stringfellow isn’t sure whether that album really helped the band in the long run.
“The fact of the matter is, did that album, The Posies album, gain us any new fans? It’s hard to say,” he said. “It sold less albums than the album before it; there were less people coming to see us, and that bothered me, OK. It may be that our band is so old at 25 years — we’re as old as some of the audience we’re trying to go for, and we’re not a comfortable brand name like The Rolling Stones. We’re just kind of like — I have to put myself in the shoes of a 25-year-old. Why would I listen to this band, these fat old dudes? It’s not happening. It would look so suspicious — the band’s been around forever, they’ve got kind of a dorky name.”