December 1987 ~ Guitarist/singers Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, friends since collaborating in a series of high school bands, pool their symbiotic talents to record an album’s worth of original songs. Jon’s father’s home eight-track studio serves as a perfect catalyst for their grass-roots intentions. Finding compatible musicians a scarce commodity, they perform all the parts themselves, as well as writing, arranging, engineering and producing all twelve songs. The album is released to local Seattle record stores in a cassette-only format. Jon and Ken both beat Exacto..scars from cutting the covers by hand. They call themselves The Posies. The album is called Failure. It isn’t.
December 23,1988 – Failure, clad in sumptuous blue vinyl, is forced on an unsuspecting public by the legendary Seattle-based record label PopLlama. Cashbox magazine calls the record ‘an album of major importance masquerading as a harmless little indie product… There hasn’t been a better pure-pop record produced by anyone this decade, and by very few artists ever.’
Between paragraphs one and two, The Posies expand into a four piece band and begin a relentless series of live performances. With the addition of Rick Roberts (bass) and Mike Musburger (drums), over a hundred shows are played in less than one year. A local alternative radio stationwitnesses their efforts and places several Failure tracks into rotation. Unsuspectingly, The Posies find themselves the object of more than local attention.
September, 1990 – Dear 23 their major-label (DGC Records) debut album, is released. John Leckie (XTC, Stone Roses) and The Posies are the producers. The first single is “Golden Blunders.”
“We didn’t have incredibly grandiose thoughts,” admits Auer. “Our ambition was simple: to make pop music where the songs were the most important thing – songs with an implied simplicity.” “If there were two of us who like it,” adds Stringfellow, then maybe others would appreciate it too.” On first listen, the music is buoyant guitar-rock with smooth vocal harmonies, and more than a passing focus on pop song structure. Deeper attention to lyrical and musical twists reveals something more cynical, maybe even sinister.
Maybe this ail stems from being nurtured in the lush but heavy Seattle music scene. Sure, it rains a lot, but something is definitely happening there. As Spin magazine described it, “Seattle’s like London but with way more guitars.”
“It’s an isolated environment,” offers Stringfellow. “We don’t feel watched by critical eyes so we’re allowed to develop without any outside influences. It’s a do-it-yourself atmosphere. And because so many bands bypass us on tours, the audiences here are also very appreciative when something does happen.” However, when the international music press discovered Seattle, it was hard, heavy rock that received the initial attention. “We were going against the grain,” says Stringfellow. “Other bands were trying to be outrageous and loud. We were out of place.”
“The extremes of one generation are not so extreme for the next, so you have to be even more extreme just to get a reaction,” propose Auer. “But what we do is not extreme. We don’t force someone to listen by shoving volume and bombarding them with images.”
Regardless, the band soon was at the front of the exploding interest in the Seattle music scene. When the Replacements came through town and heard the Failure cassette, they requested The Posies to open two concerts. Other major-label acts, including the Hoodoo Gurus and the Grapes of Wrath, also tapped in. Roberts’ and Musburger’s input, combined with a growing mass of more sophisticated songs, had created an intense five show that remained unique.
In 1989, A&R executive Gary Gersh signed the Posies to the then-fledgling DGC Records. “A young, artist-oriented major label with a roster of legendary underground bands was too appealing,” says Rick. “We could keep the freedom of an independent label while receiving the promotion and distribution of a major.” The Posies began work on their next album with their chosen producer, John Leckie. Having helmed the first two albums of one of The Posies’ favorite bands, XTC, as well as The Dukes of Stratosphere, The Fall and The Stone Roses, they were well familiar with his work. Says Auer, “We were always big fans of his as well as the bands. It wasn’t just the songs, but the textures of the instruments, the production, everything. Leckie was someone we had admired for a long time.”
Remaining far from the music industry, The Posies stayed in Seattle to record. As Dear 23 proves, much had changed since the first album. Lyrics, though still accessible, had become much more suggestive and image-laden. The music, once sparse and clean, turned dark and dense. A full four-member band in the studio meant performances could be captured with the live feel intact, and Leckie’s technique mixed with the band’s creative approach provided a wash of squirming sounds. At the core, as always, remained the songs. “If you played these songs on acoustic guitar or piano they would still come across,* says Stringfellow. “There aren’t repetitive grooves, and the lyrics aren’t written separate of the music, like many current songs.”
Says Auer, “The beauty of pop music is that it’s both direct and indirect. Failure was more direct – you get what a song is saying after a couple listens. Dear 23 is more moody and melancholy. There’s an upbeat approach to the music but the lyrics are intentionally downbeat. You’d be too quick if you wrote these songs off light. On the other hand, while they mean something,, neither do we pretend to know it all.”