This Sunday, October 1, you have a rare chance to see Tears of Silver, a kind of super group consisting of Ken Stringfellow of The Posies and Big Star, Jonathan Donohue and Grasshopper of Mercury Rev and Jesse Chandler of Midlake. The show will happen at an intimate venue in the Denver metropolitan area announced a day or two before the show to ticket holders and you can buy tickets here. The set will consist of material from across the careers of all the musicians as well as select covers that fit in with the aim of the band to make a special evening of music that transports players and audience into wondrous emotional spaces with the aid of having the music take place in a space outside the usual environments most people are used to. For the full tour schedule please visit the Tears of Silver website. We recently spoke with Stringfellow about the tour and the group’s aims in doing a tour of venues that don’t normally host music and how that, for him, makes for a richer, more satisfying experience for everyone present.
Queen City Sounds and Art: Last year the Posies did a tour of unconventional venues which you’re doing this time too. What made you want to do that?
Ken Stringfellow: There’s quite a few reasons why this kind of tour appeals to me. First and foremost it’s aesthetically pleasing to find unusual places and warm places that don’t have that slightly seedy aspect lurking at every bar to some degree. Of course some people like the raw, underground feel of a bar because it is seedy and that gives it that kind of edge. I’m more into something more beautiful. Also, a bar, their job is to sell alcohol. That’s their business model and that’s their focus and everything that goes with it. Meaning staying open as long as possible to get the most sales in a night. They put music in bars as a loss leader to get people in. I want the focus of the evening to be the music. That’s what these shows have come to be about. It’s not a bar that has bands on now and then. This is something where we’re gathering at a place for a purpose and to share that experience and only that experience of music.
Denver has a long tradition of unconventional places that people play regularly. Did you have those kinds of experiences with live music coming up as a musician in Seattle and elsewhere?
Mostly if it was going to be an unusual [location] it would be a small festival put together for an event like Fourth of July or whatever and those places would be impromptu. But generally no, we would play the same clubs over and over again. The clubs would change names but it would be the same room. The club that’s called El Corazon now where punk bands usually play now used to be called The Off Ramp. It was called Sub Zero at one point but it’s been a few different things over thirty years. There isn’t that much variety and now touring for over thirty years coming back to the same clubs is fine and some of them take care of the bands the best they can. But we’re at cross purposes, generally. They want the shows to go from eight to two in the morning with the headliner on at midnight even if it’s a Tuesday because the longer it stays open the more booze it can sell. My audience and I on a Tuesday would pretty much be over by ten. Which is reasonable because there is no point. The only reason shows happen late is to sell beer. So I elminated that reason. It’s not beneficial for the art or the participants. It’s just beneficial to the beer companies and I don’t really care about their business and they’re doing fine without me. They don’t need my help.
With the Posies you played at churches and other places most rock bands aren’t playing.
Yeah, like empty office spaces, after hours retail, recording studios and some houses. This tour is continuing this them. I have a partner in booking these spaces, Tina Dunn, who has been finding even more spectacular places to play for this tour. There are a couple where I’ve never seen anything like it. On Saturday we played this plant nursery. This guy has a couple of acres in central San Diego, it’s mostly residential and business out there, and he has an oasis with plants and farm animals and he sells everything you need to grow food. Farmer Bill is his name and his family has a house they built in the middle of the nursery. They have a great vibe and have these seed beds in the back boxed in with railroad ties and they’re a foot high. They’re laid out in parallel rows and make natural seats over which they throw burlap sacks. Then you look up fifteen feet above you where there’s a slope, a little hill, with a flat area up there where you can set up. It’s weird because you’re fifteen feet up looking down on people four feet in front of you. It was strange and wonderful. On Monday we played this motorcycle repair place on Treasure Island. It was an old, industrial building built with thick, wooden beams. It was clean but had a gritty vibe. They put two work lights on the floor turned to not blind people sitting in front of us. We were back lit but no standard show lighting and that was really cool.
Do you find playing the environments affect the way you play?
I think it’s fairly consistent the way we play but I think it makes sure the audience knows this is something unique and will only happen once. I think that’s the subtext. I don’t know if we’ll ever play shows again in this configuration. The plan is to play the tour and put out some online tracks. It’s really just about coming and playing this music this time in a unique way, with a unique line up in a unique place.
Why did you want to work with these other guys in the band for a tour like this?
I’ve just been an admirer and I worked on Mercury Rev’s last album, contributing vocals, creating elaborate vocal landscapes, stacks of surreal vocal sounds. That’s the only way I know how to describe it. I really want ot make a distinction, especially with my solo work, that the power pop thing that comes up again and again my solo work is further away from it. It’s more an Americana jazz-o-sphere. I think if you lined up Lyle Lovett, Bill Frisell and some kind of Gershwin influence or something, that’s where I’m at. All my music has a spirituality to it that’s probably the thing that I’m getting at. The power pop genre isn’t particularly spiritual. It’s kind of a feel good kind of thing—light and romantic. Whereas there’s a gravitas to my solo work that I’ve put in there as well as spiritual, philosophical and scientific themes. I want to make sure people know that’s not power pop as I know it. Power pop isn’t a dirty word but it just doesn’t apply. People base their conception of what I do based on, shall we say, The Posies’ first album, which came out when I was a teenager thirty years ago. It would be silly to assume that I would be in the same place now that I was then with all the experiences that I’ve had and all the opportunities to grow. I’ve done my best to capitlize on growth as a person, a thinker and a writer.
I think Mercury Rev has a spiritual depth and has a hymnal aspect to their music that is also not what a [hardcore] power pop fan would choose or want. If I were on tour with Matthew Sweet and Tommy Keane, who are on tour together know, a power pop fan might think that’s the best thing ever. And they might be disappointed when they find that my solo work doesn’t really fit. I’d rather stop that argument in its tracks and say I’m out here in a more ethereal sound [as is the case with this tour]. Whether we play in a church or not, our sound has a cathedral-sized reverb on it at all times. There’s no drums so it’s more hymn-like than it is rock or pop. Three guitars, beautiful piano and four voices sometimes doing four-part harmonies. I said in a recent interview that it’s more like if Crosby, Stills & Nash were a shoegaze band and released albums on 4AD.
I’ve seen Mercury Rev a couple of times, not since December 2008, and it felt like a spiritual experience. It was transcendent and you felt like you were in a different place other than regular, mundane earth for the duration of the show.
Exactly. That’s how I feel about what they do and I think what I do as a solo artist is a little more earthy but the sentiments and the philosophy apply well to this lofty, otherworldly playing so it’s a good mix.
You were a member of one of the ultimate power pop bands with Big Star but there was always something otherworldly about their music, especially Third.
Precisely. And we open with “Nighttime.” It kind of sets the stage because you’ve probably not heard it the way we play it before. We all know it, we all sing on it and fans know Third. I think it really sets the tone for the evening.