Ken Stringfellow (Big Star, The Posies, R.E.M.) is one of those rare, consummate, multifaceted musicians who lives and breathes his craft. Among his multitude of ongoing projects is The Disciplines: a band formed in Norway that is notably louder, rockier and more raucous than any of Stringfellow’s bands before – yet still, as he attests – is “pure and elegant.” En route from Amsterdam, Ken takes time out to discuss The Disciplines new sophomore release, Virgins of Menace.
How did you originally hook up with bandmates Bjorn Bergene, Bård Helgeland and Ralla?
Bjorn, Bård and our first drummer Claus, all came from a band called Briskeby, who were really popular in Norway. Their singer, Lise, approached me years ago about doing something together, which we did: a duet on Briskeby’s final album. It was apparent that Lise was going to move on and the others were looking to stay in music. Claus retired eventually, but after we toured with Animal Alpha, featuring Ralla, that band split up and we took Ralla in. Basically, I’m a carrion bird.
You’re active with several bands. Does The Disciplines satisfy something the others don’t?
The Disciplines is simplicity at its most deceptive. There’s precise engineering and MIT-level calculating going on here, but the result is something pure and elegant. It’s just so easy, so efficient… it doesn’t need much to make it rev. It’s really liberating. Most bands I’m in are brainy, and it shows. Here it’s built into the curves, not the filigree.
How does Virgins of Menace differ from your debut, Smoking Kills?
Maybe it doesn’t…why mess with perfection? We recorded it in a proper studio, as opposed to our rehearsal place. You’d like us to say we’ve grown as songwriters. I’d like to say we haven’t. I’d like to say we’ve been true to what’s great and unique about us.
Some tracks are quite melodic, while others, not so much. How do you arrive at such different sounds?
It just comes up. The Disciplines are a band that has the closest [thing] to a formula of any band I’ve had, but the nice thing about discovering your formula is you can mess with it here and there…therein lies the fun.
Fate’s A Strong Bitch features punk legend Lydia Lunch. What was that experience like?
I’ve known Lydia for years…the ‘experience’ was simply chatting as we do, about wanting to work together. I was in a snowbound studio in the Arctic, and she was in Barcelona, decidedly not freezing her ass off. She sent me a file. She’s a love…one of the great ones.
You seem to travel constantly…so where is home?
I’ve lived in Paris since 2003. I have a few other homes tucked away. My time there can be brief or lengthy depending on where the work is. I will say, in Europe, I am central to the places where I have the most fans and friends…
It’s been said that you writhe, squirm and pretzel-bend “to a degree that would make Iggy Pop fold his cards.” What are your thoughts on showmanship?
I like sincerity and what I can do with my voice and my body. As we humans move deeper into fusion with technology, I love that my own body is a special effect. No electricity necessary except the synaptic. But before you say I’m ‘acting’, let me say that great performance in music is based upon bringing up something true from yourself and using your experience to connect you to others. No one is a natural leader but you can be a good communicator. If you are genuine, people will follow you to – and over – the edge. I’ve never needed to fake it. I love what I do, I love to communicate, and I’m always inspired. So far, so good.
Tell me about the projects you’re currently involved with.
I work in studio with many different bands. I am just now coming back from a few days in Amsterdam with a great band called, Avant La Lettre. I mix, play, engineer, arrange and produce. I play solo shows, have The Disciplines, The Posies, and a new project called, Landing Strip Choir. I played with the late Alex Chilton for almost 20 years in a revitalized Big Star. I played with R.E.M. for ten years. And, hopefully, there’s more to come…
You also blog quite a bit. Is writing yet another passion?
Seems to be. I’m not rewarded more than my own satisfaction for the blog. It’s exercises in memory that will lead, someday, to a book, I’m certain.
Virgins of Menace is available in stores and online now. For a preview, see the album’s trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnlYlDEiO0I. Learn more about The Disciplines by visiting their Facebook page or visit Ken Stringfellow’s blog at http://www.kenstringfellow.com/.