Pop-Up Popstar
Prolific Ken Stringfellow leads a new Rolling Thunder-style ensemble

By Lee Valentine Smith

The considerably massive set of Ken Stringfellow's recorded and live performances has expanded once again. His resume of literally hundreds of albums and thousands of live performances as co-founder of The Posies, a series of well-received solo albums, lengthy stints with Big Star and R.E.M., the prolific multi-instrumentalist has just completed Supercalifragile, the final Game Theory album painstakingly culled from found pieces and concepts by the late Scott Miller.

Currently he's leading a new rock review called Tears of Silver, a diverse quartet that includes members of Mercury Rev and Midlake on a tour based on the Posies unique pop-up shows from last year. Ticketholders are only informed of the venue - often in non-commercial spaces - around 24 hours before the show date.

Stringfellow recently called from his summer home in France to catch up everything. The resulting 90-minute conversation was so comprehensive we can only present selected highlights in our main print and online editions.

As an American living in Europe, how do you think the United States perceived at the moment?

I'm glad to be one step away from the constant debate that roiling the States between the right and left extremes. Everyone's trying to figure out how to work through a very irrational situation, rationally. And that's the way it's always been in a way. So now I think people aren't exactly sure what the temperature really is, and sometimes here people get information that's translated which makes it even more cryptic. And they've got their own history to work through.

An ongoing thread in your music is a commentary on the various states of power.

Yeah, there are many moments in the Posies' music and in my solo stuff too, where I talk about the abuse of power. It's woven into it as a constant theme because power will always be abused by somebody. But I'm trying not to stay dark. I've thrown very few stones at people who think differently than I do. I'm interested in communication and I think that's the politics of now.

These intimate pop-up shows are a great mode of communication.

I learned so much from the Posies shows we did last year, the shows were so good and each one had a special flavor. If you've been touring clubs for 30 years, it becomes less and less glamourous to play those places. I wanted to make an event that's nice to look at it, interesting for everyone and an actual event rather than just another show on a Tuesday at midnight in some club. The world I've developed over the last couple of years is so personal it doesn't feel like a business, it feels like a bake sale or something homemade in a cool way.

Were the Posies pop-up shows last year successful creatively and financially?

Yes but it's still very much on the budget of a community church or something. We're more of a dot org than a dot com, you know what I mean?

The Posies have a dedicated following but is Tears Of Silver a whole new band?

What we're doing is along the lines of the Rolling Thunder Revue. It's definitely not four dudes with acoustic guitars like at a Nashville songwriters show. I'm hoping that the people who come because they like my records will be happy and Posies fans won't be disappointed because I'll hit on that catalog as well. Then inside of that we have Mercury Rev, essentially in their entirety, because Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper are the Jon and Ken of the band, and Jesse Chandler is from Midlake. So that's the body of work we're performing and we have a few new things too. It's like one of those truckstops you see out in the midwest that's like a barbecue/Mexican/salad bar place, where you can get a little bit of everything. It's different and I think it's a good challenge. Maybe it's the mischief-maker in me, but it's the way I've always been. I love mixing flavors and I think the three potential audiences of these bands will see how much they all have in common.

You've always welcomed a challenge.

Definitely. Biggest risks, biggest rewards. That's kind of always been my motto.

The Game Theory album was a huge challenge. The last time we talked it was still a concept.

Yeah and it came together fairly quickly, but the scope of the project was pretty big. I think the record turned out really disciplined and beautiful and true to Scott's legacy. Considering what we had to had to work with and how many humans were involved it's kind of a miracle that it's as coherent a record as it is. It doesn't have that un-sequenced feel of a tribute album. It seems that large-scale collaboration is a recurring theme in my life. I like these big projects.

Such as Big Star's "Third" [currently available on DVD and CD from Omnivore].

That was definitely an epic collaboration.

What a time for Big Star! Omnivore is really giving it a thorough examination. Especially considering that the original core output and commercial success of that band was so small. Basically three studio albums and the reunion LP. I love the band but the one that made me laugh was the recent greatest hits, "Best Of" repackage.

There are levels of irony there, it's hard to know even where to begin. I know there's also another live thing coming out and an expended Chris Bell thing too.

I really do think if it weren't for you and Jon revitalizing that band, none of these new Big Star reissue campaigns would exist.

We were pretty tenacious about it and pretty single-minded. Big Star really became an obsession for us circa 1990 and '91. The Teenage Fan Club guys played with Alex [Chilton] and Jody [Stephens] as well, and many bands have touched on it. Of course, "Alex Chilton" by Paul Westerberg and so many more. It all adds up but we were, what do they call it, 'on message'? We really didn't talk about much of anything else for a while and those became the only cover songs we played pretty much. It was our thing. We proselytized and preached it. I definitely believe we stoked a lot of the enthusiasm out there.

Tears of Silver's Atlanta date is September 16 at a secret (intown) location. For tickets visit www.tearsofsilver.space. Big Star, Posies and Game Theory reissues are currently available from Omnivore Recordings and in late September Shout! Factory will release the 20th Anniversary edition of the Seattle scene documentary "Hype!" featuring Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow in an early Posies performance.



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