Released by DGC Records
A decade ago two puny kids ages 13 and 14 began a band. These were formative music years, of course, but while others might have practiced air guitar solos and rock n’roll posturing, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow were actually teaching themselves notes, keys and harmonies. They spent years noodling around in different styles and bands, culminating in a 1988 homade cassette they enginereed, arranged and played all the instruments on — record in Auer’s basement on his Dad’s eight-track recorder.
Egotistical “rock stars” that they were, they titled this tape (made for all of 50 bucks) Failure. Eventually released by the Seattle-based PopLlama label, Cashbox magazine called it “an album of major importance masquerading as a harmless little indie project… there hasn’t been a better, purer pop record produced by anyone this decade, and by few artists ever.” This recognition caught the attention of A&R executive Gary Gersh who signed them to DGC Records, where they released Dear 23 to major critical acclaim in 1990. Filled with soaring harmonies, amazing hooks, soulful guitars and thoughtful lyrics, the Los Angeles Times describedDear 23 has a “near masterpiece.”
Well hello 1993 and enter Frosting On The Beater, produced by Don Fleming (Screaming Trees, Teenage Fanclub, Gumball). More sophisticated than Failure and less structured than Dear 23, Frosting On The Beaterhits squarely, punched with passion and insight.
“Our songs are not as straightforward this time — they’re more impressionistic,” says Jon. “However the whole album is less thick and lush than Dear 23; you can hear each instrument.” A large part of the change is due to switching from the more old-school-perfectionist production leanings of John Leckie (XTC, The Fall) onDear 23 to the more laissez-faire-tendencies of ex-Airforce satellite photo anaylyzer and New York hipster, Fleming.
“Don’s a fun guy, bottom-line, but he also has a good grasp on both the pop and noise aspects of bands,” says Jon. “Plus it’s fun to watch him inhale for twenty hours straight,” adds Ken.
The resulting music is so pure, open and melodic that the Posies singing “la la la la la” doesn’t sound corny in the least. Their harmonies fill you up as the melodies cushion dark, stinging emotions. This is not what we’ve come to expect from Seattle rock; it’s not sloppy in your face, or grungy.
“We enjoy noisy music and we make it too,” Jon explains, “but we also go to the other extreme, getting quiet and sensitive, which can also be extremely powerful.” When the band does let go into a frenzy of guitar and sweat it’s as if they couldn’t hold it any longer and were about to burst.
Ken feels at this point in their lives events no longer pummel them. Failure happened to fast, they barely had time to form a band, let alone adapt to all the new circumstances thrown their way. Immediately after Jon and Ken put out their home-duplicated cassette, prominient reviews and radio airplay led to performance offers for the “band” that had released Failure. Fortunately, Mike Musburger and Rick Roberts, two guys who lived up the street, were looking to be in a band. They all hit it off, and two weeks later were playing live.
The Posies easily played 150 shows in the first year they were together, including opening for The Replacements on their last American tour (Paul Westerberg requesting them after hearing Failure). The Posies were one of the first Seattle bands signed by a major label. When their DGC debut, Dear 23 was released in October of 1990, the Los Angeles Times compared the album to Abbey Road-era Beatles, dubbing Ken a “pop intelluctualist” and Jon a “budding rock god” of a guitarist.
Jon and Ken continually dismiss the boy genuises hyperbole and insist it all boils down to the songs. None of the songs are musically pretentious; any would sound great coming from a musical jewelry box, or played on a tinkly piano. Sad and inspiring at once, the Posies cut through the static of the everyday din and chaos, emotionally sweeping the listener away.
Being “swept away” is something the band may have preferred at times. “Almost every peripheral part of our environment that could be changed, has been changed,” says Ken. “In the last year and a half we’ve changed managers, agents, even bass players…”
Yes, a new bass player: Dave Fox played one of his first shows with the Posies in front of 10,000 people at Seattle’s Endfest, which included Sonic Youth, The Beastie Boys, L7 and Mudhoney. Some initiation gig.
All along the way things have moved quickly for the Posies, especially considering Jon and Ken began the band as choirboys with modest ambitions, never realizing that someday Ringo Starr would cover their song “Golden Blunders” from Dear 23.
“I think our earliest goals consisted of putting a record out on PopLlama and playing a show with the Young Fresh Fellows,” says Jon. “Everything else has been just one big bonus from that point on,” adds Ken. “We’re perfectly happy to constantly be playing, recording and generally hanging around music in whatever capacity it’s presented us. It’s more of a fun thing than a monetary or status goal, though if our drummer had his way we’d have more guitar cabinets, higher drum risers…”
Live, Mike Musburger’s explosive drumming contrasting with Ken and Jon’s sweet vocals is mesmerizing… then suddenly you notice their hands have bled into their guitars. That’s the Posies. What they really want is to get back on the road, playing both the States and beyond, although they admit touring hasn’t always been the frosting on the cake.
“We reached a low point on our last tour, in the spring of 1991,” says Ken. “A typical show: playing in the town that’s next to the airport that’s next to the city we’re supposed to be playing, in a club called Sinbad’s, opening for a metal cover band. Of course, while we’re playing, everyone goes outside and plays volleyball on a fake beach and cranks up Billy Squier so loud that we can’t even hear ourselves play. None of our fans were there, because the show was advertised as happening the night before.” “But,” he adds. “We miss it.”
Overall, they’re nice guys, numbering “boogie music” and what they term “moustache rock” among their few dislikes. When not doing Posie type things, Mike fills in as the Fastbacks’ drummer; Jon is busy producing and engineering records for bands like Pond, Gnome and Truly; and Ken is concoting a band with Aaron Stauffer of Seaweed and producer Steve Fisk, an apparent hybrid of techno and “Manchester elements” with grunged guitars. Dave still plays with the band he was in before joining the Posies. And then there’s just being all around swells; answering their fan mail, taking Nyquil gel caps, eating Thai food, seeing bands at clubs…
“We’re always being so nice,” complains Ken. “Why are we so nice? Our new thing is to be terse. We’re the terse band. The young terse.”