Reveal Reflection: Ken Stringfellow

Ken Stringfellow of The Posies and The Disciplines has served as part of the extended band with R.E.M. in the studio and on the

road from UP through AROUND THE SUN. He graciously agreed to share a bit about his experiences working with R.E.M. during the recording of Reveal.

I played, I think, on every song on Reveal; my contributions to Reveal are definitely more numerous and prominent than, say on ‘Around the Sun’. the Keyboard solo on “Imitation of Life”, the delicate layers of keyboards in the verses of ‘I’ll Take the Rain’, The Wurlitzer on ‘Disappear’, the insane Sonic Youth guitar intro to “Saturn Return”, the scary lo blasts on ‘Chorus and The Ring’, Hammond on ‘Beachball’, etc. etc. are all key (hahah, keyboard player pun) moments for my contributions to the album. I sing some backing vocals too, on ‘Reno’, and more.
I really think “I’ll Take the Rain” is my favorite song on the album…it’s got a great mood, and the vocal is very touching and compelling. I think “Saturn Return” is really unusual vocally and musically…I like that one a lot. “I’ve Been High” is just, well, a tearjerker in the best possible way. So uplifting.
The rehearsals we did in Athens were all recorded, and in fact all that crazy guitar from ‘Saturn Return’ was assembled from the rehearsal takes, it was one of those impossible to recreate moments–radically detuned guitar, etc.
Generally, we recorded all the songs live in the studio (we worked for a month or so at the Warehouse in Vancouver), with all 5 musicians playing something. Then, all 5 of us would pick some other instrument up, and we’d do a ‘group overdub’–track 5 more things on top. I’ve never done that anywhere else. Great idea.
I had never really worked on a record of this scale before, so I felt a little pressure (for no reason, just from my own lack of experience) to do ‘nice’ stuff, ‘professional’ parts–get a good, classic Hammond organ sound, etc…and quite quickly producer Pat McCarthy asked me to do things that “sound like Ken Stringfellow”. In other words, get more ‘out there’. Which was like…such a relief. And of course we had tons of instruments and boxes and things, so it was just a thrill to imagine different combinations of things and make crazy sounds all day long.
On Beach Ball, while I was playing the organ part, there was a Fender Spring reverb tank, I kick it at strategic moments, to get a echo-y noise…listen for it.
Fundamentally, making Reveal changed my whole approach to music. I had never imagined a band as prominent as REM, making such an expensive record with such commercial expectations, would have the confidence and bravery to let things fly so loose in the studio. We did do preproduction but so much of that was thrown out the window when we got to Vancouver…and many new things came into the mix. “Chorus and The Ring” was just a jam we did off the cuff in the midst of working out ‘Imitation of Life’. “imitation’ itself was radically transformed while we were in the studio–it went thru several versions, with Michael singing very different melodies and lyrics, too. The band really was fearless in their embracing of musical freedom, and I think it made for a great album. From that point on I threw out my previously held notion that the better the preproduction, the more you rehearse, demo, etc…the better album you’ll have…now I see how important fresh ideas, spontaneity and LACK of preconceived notions are to making a great record. It’s a process of discovery, not just execution.
My keyboard solo for ‘Imitation’ was a totally off the cuff moment–we went to do the group overdub, and they started before I had chosen what to do, so at a certain moment I walked over, no headphones, so no way to hear what I was playing, to a synth that just happened to be plugged in to the mixing board, and played notes that I guessed would fit, and ended each phrase by switching the octave switch up and down.
As far as how I ended up there…these songs started to take shape at soundchecks on the world tour I participated on, for “Up” (I came along just as that album was being released, so I’m not on that one), in 1999. So the feeling was good and the band decided to translate that directly in to the recording…we did some live shows for this album and it was here that we started using a sampler on tour, there were so many sounds impossible to recreate with the keyboards we had, plus we’d been touring with vintage synths that were not really roadworthy, and they all got sampled in…it was a lot for me to take on, but by the touring for Around the Sun (which had even more samples etc) I had the hang of it…sorta!
  • Be sure to check Out Ken Stringfellow’s work as part of The Disciplines and The Posies or visit his site kenstringfellow.calm
  • Find him on Facebook
  • News on Ken’s upcoming album with The Posies (due 9/28/10)

  • 3 Responses to “Reveal Reflection: Ken Stringfellow”

    1. Ivana July 11, 2010 at 10:19 am #

      Great story by a great musician! ❤


    1. The Sun Reflected In The Back Of My Eye - September 11, 2011

      […] Reveal Reflection: Ken Stringfellow […]

    2. The Vanishing Point Appears: Life Score by R.E.M. – Part 2 « The Sun Reflected In The Back Of My Eye - November 10, 2011

      […] Reveal Reflection: Ken Stringfellow […]

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