Hosted by Robert Siegel, 2 January 1997
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I’m Robert Siegel.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST: And I’m Linda Wertheimer.
In popular music, 1996 was supposed to be a big year for a group called “The Posies”. Critics said the band’s latest release, “Amazing Disgrace,” would bring the Seattle musicians the mass audience that had eluded them for nearly a decade.
But it didn’t. Perhaps because The Posies continued to emphasize pretty-metaled melodies, in a town where grunge rules.
Marcie Sillman of member station KUOM reports.
MARCIE SILLMAN, KUOM REPORTER: Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, The Posies founders, have known each other so long they finish each others’ sentences, almost like a married couple. Auer says part of what drew them together in junior high school was an interest in singing.
JON AUER, SINGER, “THE POSIES”: A got an “A” in choir every time. Ken and I also attended jazz choir, which occurred like for a couple of hours on Monday nights, and Wednesday through Friday at about, oh, six in the morning. I can’t even believe I could make it out…
KEN STRINGFELLOW, SINGER, “THE POSIES”: I can’t even…
AUER: … of bed at that time.
STRINGFELLOW: … conceive getting up for that.
AUER: Well, I did. And I sang.
SILLMAN: Choir isn’t exactly the coolest thing you can do in junior high, so Auer and Stringfellow learned to play guitar, and tried to form a band. The problem was finding other people who wanted to join.
AUER: Ken and I had a concept for a group that was going to revolve around writing, like, dinky kind of pop songs at the time.
STRINGFELLOW: It wasn’t a copy of another established genre. We weren’t saying like, well, guys, we want to form this heavy metal band. And this is what we’re going to do.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF INSTRUMENTAL BEGINNING OF “FAILURE” BY THE POSIES)
STRINGFELLOW: You know, we were trying to do something different. So that’s why it was hard to explain to other people what we wanted.
SILLMAN: When their recruiting efforts failed, Stringfellow and Auer did what every enterprising American is taught to do. They put out their own record which they called “Failure”.
(SOUND OF THE POSIES SINGING “FAILURE”)
SILLMAN: The two made hundreds of cassettes, one of which found its way into the hands of Charles Cross (ph), editor of “The Rocket”, a weekly paper about northwest music.
CHARLES CROSS, EDITOR OF “THE ROCKET”: It was surprising to me from that very first recording how melodic they were, the, the beautiful song structure. And, you know, I thought they were much older than — when I found that they were just essentially a couple of high school kids I was shocked at their age.
SILLMAN: “Failure” sold about 1,000 copies, enough to attract the attention of a local independent record label that picked it up and released it on vinyl. Seattle radio stations added “Failure” to their playlists.
And Auer and Stringfellow suddenly found themselves being asked to do live shows. They managed to find a drummer and bass player willing to play with them, and hit the club circuit.
The buzz got loud enough that in 1990, Geffen Records signed The Posies to a seven-record contract. That date’s important, because about the same time, Seattle was becoming the focus of international attention for a style of music called grunge.
(SOUND OF UNKNOWN GRUNGE BAND SINGING UNKNOWN SONG)
SILLMAN: Nothing could have been further from The Posies poppy, two-part harmonies. And all of a sudden the thrill of landing a record deal was tempered by the despair of confronting the same problem Stringfellow says he and Auer faced in high school. Nobody knew what to do with them.
STRINGFELLOW: It’s easy to market a band that fits into a pre-established category. Like, here’s the next heavy metal band, or here’s the next band that sounds like the last band that got famous. You know, that’s like an easy thing to do.
SILLMAN: Record stores didn’t know where to file The Posies’ first major-label release. And radio stations that had once championed the band stopped playing Posies’ tunes.
SILLMAN: As was singing in the high school choir, beautiful harmonies just weren’t cool. For some people, they still aren’t. At a recent concert in Seattle, some in the audience threw beer bottles at the band and shouted for the next act.
Nineteen-year-old Renee LaPlant (ph) is a Posies fan.
RENEE LAPLANT, FAN OF THE POSIES: I think that the whole grunge thing just attracted all of the young, rebellious teens. And people have just followed that along.
And The Posies were, they were more, they’re more lighthearted. They sing, like, happy music almost.
(SOUND OF THE POSIES SINGING UNKNOWN SONG)
SILLMAN: It’s never been hip to sing pop music, says critic Charles Cross. And he points out that while The Posies have sold hundreds of thousands of records, we live in a society that measures success by the millions. Cross says that’s even more true in Seattle, where a band is measured against Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains.
CROSS: And I think that’s been one of the behind-the-scene things that’s been difficult for this band. They saw their contemporaries become phenomenally successful. And I think they’ve been relatively successful as a band. But it hasn’t probably lived up to the expectations that people have had for them.
SILLMAN: Cross says the new Posies’ album hasn’t gotten as much air-play as other less accomplished bands. And he thinks frequent air-play is tied, in part, to how much money a label spends on promotion.
Neither Jon Auer nor Ken Stringfellow openly criticize Geffen Records on that score. But Stringfellow says The Posies are frustrated that it took so long to release the new record.
STRINGFELLOW: We thought we’d completely finished the record. And the record company is like, we’re, we’re getting nervous. There isn’t a single. There isn’t a hit single. See what you can come up with.
And we’re like, well, tell you what, you know, we’ll try and write a couple of things. But I’m not going to guarantee you that there’s anything better than what’s on this record. And if we don’t like it, you know, we’re going to put this out. You know, there’s only so much we can do.
SILLMAN: Apparently, it wasn’t enough. And the record company released a tune that was already in the can as the first single.
(SOUND OF THE POSIES SINGING “PLEASE RETURN IT”)
SILLMAN: “Please Return It” has done pretty well here, according to a Geffen spokesperson. But it hasn’t come close to the record’s success in Europe where the album has topped the charts in Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands. And Stringfellow says during a recent tour in Belgium, the crowds knew all of the lyrics to the new songs.
STRINGFELLOW: You know, we go over to these other countries, and it’s going crazy. And, you know, there’s hit record, things happening. That’s all very excited. And there’s nothing like that happening here. But at the end of the day, like, we played some really good shows. There’s been good music made.
SILLMAN: Lately, The Posies haven’t been making any music, at least not together, fueling rumors that the band is breaking up. But band management denies it, saying the musicians are just taking a break to look for a record label that will help them achieve the kind of success in America they believe they deserve.
For National Public Radio, I’m Marcie Sillman in Seattle.