Ken Stringfellow: A Long Way from Home

Music Features Ken Stringfellow
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It’s 1:30 a.m. in Oslo, Norway, and the official shows at the 2008 by:Larm music festival have all shut down. But as I squeeze into the tiny music room at the back of hole-in-the-wall pub Revolver, the band shows no signs of slowing. The miniscule stage is only a foot or two off the ground, and red velvet drapes hang from the low ceiling, partly obscuring the bass player. This is power-chord bar rock, and with beers in hand, the crowd loves it.

The wiry frontman is unleashing his inner Iggy Pop, jumping around and off the stage, singing his way to the back of the room, hugging the woman standing next to me. “Fucking great band,” the bloke on the other side says in English after first trying Norwegian. “What’re they called?” I point to the huge banner behind the group that reads, “The Disciplines.”

I’d be raising my glass with them, but all I can do is stare and think, “That is Ken Stringfellow?” Anyone familiar with The Posies will be a little shocked to see “Power Pop Ken”—a man known for polite, literate songwriting—fronting a Norwegian garage-rock band, but tonight he looks like he was born to sweat and scream. When the show finally winds down sometime after 2 a.m., I track him down to find out how a mild-mannered keyboardist from California ended up in a dive bar in Oslo.

“My wife is French, and we have a family there,” he explains. “I’ve been in The Posies for 20 years, and its main musical thrust has been expressed as best it can. I was looking for a new schtick, ready for fundamental changes. I’d met some dudes in France, and it was cool. But then I met these guys [from The Disciplines], and it didn’t take any effort. I liked them as people right away; we clicked as musicians right away.”

Stringfellow’s bandmates were working with a female lead, playing spacious Scandinavian pop, but something about the collaboration led them all to get a little grittier. “Growing up, I bypassed that whole Iron Maiden-AC/DC phase of my teen years for whatever reason,” Stringfellow says. “I was either into The Bee Gees or Black Flag—way more fey and way more arty. But what [guitarist] Bjorn suggested as song ideas were so much simpler than whatever I’d do, and I had to accept that simplicity is not a four-letter word. I just went with it. I decided I wasn’t going to smarty-pants myself into these songs and make people go find a dictionary. The less brainiac we were, the better it felt. It’s very English-as-a-second-language.

“It’s not going to be insulting to anybody’s intelligence to just be real,” he adds. “I’d love to go insane on many occasions, and it’s just not appropriate to be. And, here, it is. And I don’t think there’s anything harmful about that. In fact, I think it can be a good thing.”

The next night, The Disciplines played one of Oslo’s bigger rock clubs and got just as crazy on stage. Nobody needed a dictionary, and I’m pretty sure everyone was OK with that.