Even if you don't know Ken Stringfellow by name as one of power-pop's finest songwriters and performers of the last twenty years, you're probably familiar with the bands he's worked with - R.E.M., Big Star, and the Posies, to name just three. Now he's lifting the curtain on his latest project, the Disciplines, whose supercharged debut album, Smoking Kills, has just been released in the US.
Stringfellow first hooked up with the Disciplines when they were known as Briskeby, a slick Norwegian pop band who'd found massive success in their home country but couldn't get arrested anywhere else. Briskeby called it quits soon after Stringfellow toured with them in 2005, and he decided to try writing with the core members of the band with the goal of making harder, more elemental music than they had on their own.
"Briskeby had made three albums for, like, $3 million, and had spent three years in the studio, if you add it all together," Stringfellow says. "They'd done a lot of work and made a lot of money, but it was not exactly what you'd call spontaneous music. The Posies were kind of like that, too. The Posies don't have very many songs that you can just sit by a campfire and play on an acoustic guitar. So that was the point - to do something not only with quick results, but [to] not wear each song down with too much musical baggage."
And with Smoking Kills (Second Motion), the Disciplines' full-length debut, they've succeeded and then some. The album is lean, raw garage-rock that's faster n' harder than the Posies' grunge-pop or Stringfellow's elegant, baroque solo work. But Stringfellow's fans will eat it up for the infectious melodies and razor-sharp hooks behind the powerful riffage.
Ken is a multi-talented instrumentalist who can bounce seamlessly from guitar to bass to keyboards, as well as providing gorgeous vocal harmonies. But with the Disciplines he's a real frontman, singing lead vocals without a keyboard to stand behind or a guitar to clutch. "I tried to have a little keyboard at the start," he says, "but it just got in the way. So, I became Mr. Lead Screams. It was awkward at first, but now it's perhaps my favorite thing ever. Being naturally lazy, the idea of not having to carry or hold anything, or even think about anything other than singing, suits me just fine. It really allows me to concentrate on getting close to the audience, and interacting with them."
While Stringfellow is looking to the future with the Disciplines, he's also revisiting his past with the Posies, the band he founded with Jon Auer in 1987. They'll be coming to New York in June to play their classic 1993 album Frosting On The Beater onstage in its entirety for the first time in the US.
Frosting made a splash at the time thanks to the alt-rock hit "Dream All Day," but the band never became the commercial juggernaut many thought they'd be. They were in the right place, having come out of the Seattle area around the same time as Nirvana and Alice In Chains. But their music, heavily influenced by '60s pop bands like the Hollies and the Zombies, didn't quite fit in with the hard and heavy grunge rock that sold millions at the time - which may be why it still sounds so fresh today.
The Posies officially broke up in 1998 but never really called it quits, periodically reuniting for tours and even recording a new studio album in 2005. Does Stringfellow feel strange about presenting their now 16-year-old record as a sort of museum piece? "It's just nice that we have an album that people think is kind of iconic, as opposed to just being completely forgotten, like a lot of bands who I liked at that time."
"Those shows happen quite a bit now," he adds. "I've seen the Zombies do Odessey & Oracle, I've seen Slint do Spiderland ... it's just something people do nowadays. We did it [last year] as a tour in Spain for our 20th anniversary as a band and the 15th anniversary of the album, and it was awesome, people loved it. We play other songs too, but it's a nice little framework to make it like an event, in a way, and it gets people to come see us."
Stringfellow is a master at juggling lots of projects simultaneously - this spring he's been playing shows on multiple continents with Big Star (featuring the eccentric pop genius Alex Chilton) and as a solo act, as well as with the Posies in both acoustic and electric modes. But right now, he makes it clear, his primary concern is the Disciplines. "All the other stuff I do can't really go away.... But I'm putting more energy into this because it needs more energy. The Posies is done - it'll do what it'll do. But [the Disciplines] is a new thing so it's worth kind of pushing it a bit."
Smoking Kills has already made a splash in Norway and South America, and the Disciplines are steadily building their following country by country. "It's coming out on really small labels in some cases, and in some cases on big labels," Stringfellow says, "but I'm looking for the people who are most into it. And when that person doesn't exist, if it hasn't happened yet in that country, that's OK. I believe in the record quite a bit, so I'm not gonna worry."
Smoking Kills was one of the best import releases of 2008, and with two extra tracks added, it's now one of the best albums to come out Stateside in '09. Check it out and hope Ken decides to bring the band and their incendiary live act to the US of A sometime soon.