Music Feature: Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow Of The Posies

By Brian Phillips

For The Posies 2010 might seem like several years in one. The veteran band is on the verge of dropping “Blood/Candy,” (9/28) which may in the end stand as their greatest album, at least on par critically with the much loved “Frosting On The Beater.” Band founders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow also saw the tragic death of their friend and Big Star band mate Alex Chilton. The mythic and elusive Chilton’s passing at 59 this past March is, for Auer and Stringfellow, a loss with which they are still coming to terms. In recent conversations, Stringfellow in France, and Auer in Seattle, the pair talked about their time apart, the terms of their rekindled partnership, the new album, and their fallen friend.

It is something isn’t it? How is it that Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow ended up in the same high school class? I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it was nothing more than a happy accident, or whether God just has really good taste in music. From there the story is not hard to understand. Two young men, both singing in the school choir, gifted as they were and sharing a precocious interest in music, would become fast friends. By the time they were 19 Auer and Stringfellow had the home recorded “Failure” in shops, and were the subject of a major label bidding war. They would sign with Geffen imprint DGC a full year before Nirvana would do the same.

In the early 90’s Nirvana would go one direction, and The Posies another. “Nevermind” sold millions and defined a generation, and The Posies, now a four piece, cut “Dear 23” a year earlier and defined song craft and elegance. “Frosting On The Beater” would follow. It was sonically more in step with the times than “23,” though still generously topped with Jon and Ken’s finely tuned two-part harmonies. “Frosting” never caught on the way it should have, though time has only enhanced its reputation. “Amazing Disgrace” would close the DGC years, and after a 1998 indie album and tour Jon and Ken, by this time hardly able breathe the same air, took their leave.

Jon Auer: The Posies put a lot of pressure on our relationship to be too many things. It had to be everything to us. That’s just too much of a burden to place on any one thing I think. At one point it really just imploded and we had had enough of being around each other. We had personal things that had nothing to do with each other that we had to figure out on our own. We needed that space and I’m not going to lie, it got to a point in The Posies when it was pretty unbearable to be a part of.

The break didn’t last long. After holing up in a studio ten years ago to assemble a boxed set, Auer and Stringfellow did some acclaimed shows as a duo. A full-fledged reunion album “A Different Kind Of Light” would follow in 2005.

Ken Stringfellow: After restarting the band after a short pause of animosity (laughs) and throwing ourselves into a massive tour of hundreds of shows that we did for our last album and kind of going through the good, the bad, and the ugly even on that tour and then having that go past, and having the band really grow up in that sense, where everybody feels very responsible and that sense of responsibility to one and other is huge. Everybody feels that they’re getting something from it and everybody’s giving something to it.

Part of what makes The Posies a going concern again is the time Auer and Stringfellow spend away from each other. Both work regularly as producers, on solo material, and Stringfellow is a full-fledged member of the otherwise Norwegian garage rock band The Disciplines.

Auer: The Posies are not the end all be all existence that it used to be. It’s one of the things that we do and we only do it when we want to do it now and I think that’s the best way to go about doing it with us. It feels worth doing that way. It feels necessary that way, instead of obligatory. It’s just nice to be at a point now where not only can we appreciate what we have, but also we can have something come out of it that I think is as challenging and sophisticated as probably anything we’ve ever done. That all bodes well for me. It makes it feel like there’s life left in what we have still.

Their enthusiasm for the project is well founded. Over two decades in, and The Posies have never sounded so confident. “Blood/Candy” has the band taking musical risks they’ve never before taken.

Stringfellow: Well I can tell you that the last record that we made was where we said ‘hey let’s do all this stuff we’ve never done before’ and so you have a funk song and you have a blues song and kind of a country rock song and all this kind of stuff. So we said after that let’s maybe make something a little more straight forward. Believe it or not that was our original intention, to make it a bit more in our classic, true to our roots thing. We set out that as the guideline and that’s just not what came out.

Auer: You kinda just have to follow where things go if you’re paying any kind of attention to what you do as an artist. I will say on this one we really did paint ourselves into a corner and it was pretty tricky to get out of it, but then once we finally did I was really happy with the result. I think there’s some stuff on there that arguably could be considered examples of what we’re known for doing, but then there’s some things that are just so out of left center. I hear it and I go ‘where did that come from?’ I think that’s a really good sign especially as late in the game as it is for us. Obviously we’re not a new band, so to be pulling something out this far along I think is a really positive sign for us.

That is not to say The Posies have flown into outer space. The songs remain anchored in their timeless vocal parts, but for the first time they brought in guests to round out what became the album’s first three tracks. Hugh Cornwall (The Stranglers) Kay Hanley (Letters To Cleo) and Lisa Lobsinger (Broken Social Scene) dropped in for a track each. Lobsinger’s turn on the single “Licenses To Hide” is particularly good.

Stringfellow: I thought it would be a good idea to make the song a little more universal to have it sung between two people… to make it clear that I’m telling a story of lives, not a life, to have someone else singing with me, and that a female would be nice. We haven’t really had that on an album of ours before. Dorius (Minwalla) our drummer has been really friendly with Broken Social Scene and playing with them and hanging out with them a lot and just mentioned it to Lisa and she was like ‘oh yeah I’ll do it, sounds great.’ I never would have thought of her. I didn’t really know her that well or know her stuff that well, and her part was just amazing what she brought to it.

The layered chorus on “Licenses” is something straight out of a Queen song.

Auer: That’s the thing that’s consistent on all of our records… it’s the way Ken and I sing. We grew up singing in choir in school together. I think our bio described our harmonies as almost genetic harmonies. I really liked that. At this point it’s second nature to us.

For The Posies 2010 has been a year of artistic rebirth, and a year of tremendous tragedy. For 17 years Auer and Stringfellow were members of the seminal Memphis band Big Star. In March, just before what was to be a rare Big Star appearance at South By Southwest in Austin, Chilton died of a heart attack at 59. The show turned into a hastily assembled all-star tribute. It was an event that might have baffled Chilton.

Auer: I think he was a little mystified at the whole mythological status that Big Star had attained. He was like ‘why now? Why are people paying attention now? What’s so much greater about this than anything else?’ And like all myths, part of it’s true and part of it’s been fabricated and regurgitated, and propagated throughout the years to where it’s almost like the myth of it has less to do with Alex than the reality of it. It has a life of it’s own now doesn’t it.

Stringfellow: Alex was a person who had an immense number of interests. His whole life was spent educating himself and he never stopped. He studied a number of subjects including in music. He taught himself to write sheet music and was arranging classical pieces, going from string quartets to arranging it for two guitars, bass and drums, and we played some pieces that he arranged. I think he felt like Big Star was such a small slice of his career, it was a couple of years for him and that’s why I think he was so frustrated that it was the thing people fixated on.

Auer: He had a really wicked sense of humor too. I remember we did this festival in Scotland and it was far enough away from Glasgow that we had to take about a two hour drive, and I was with some friends of mine from England on the bus and we were talking about bad American television and somehow “Walker Texas Ranger” came up as a prime example of the worst of American Television. Alex was sitting in front of me and his ears just perked right up when I said “Walker Texas Ranger” and he proceeded to sing the entirety of the “Walker Texas Ranger” theme, note for note, word for word, completely perfect in just a completely jaw dropping fashion to us and he got done and there was just silence, and then laughter and he was like ‘I love that show man, that’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.’ Things like that would happen quite regularly with Alex. He would surprise you.

The Posies’ “Blood/Candy” drops September 28th on Rykodisc.