Pick A Pair Of Posies – 1996

by Bernard Zuel, Sunday Morning Herald, 12 July 1996

There is a slight chill in the Texas air as the Posies’ guitarists, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, cross the street. They’ve finally discarded the bags of clothing – from Austin’s thrift shops – they have been carrying all afternoon and evening.

Stringfellow – long, angularly slim and sporting bright pink hair – lopes to the dark park across the road from the beer barn where he will play later tonight. The heavier and darker Auer, his hair a rich purple, finds us a seat under a wide overhanging tree.

In the background the ex-Go Go Kathy Valentine is taking her sub-Seattle-sound band through their paces before a receptive if small crowd. Usually only the throb of the bass and some feedback reach us and the Seattle-based Auer and Stringfellow are polite about the songs. But when the band go into a very Nirvana-like bass and drum breakdown, they both burst into laughter.

You can laugh, but why didn’t you take the grunge route and make millions? Where did you go “wrong”?

Ken: “Well, no-one from Seattle is from Seattle. We grew up in this town called Bellingham. It’s halfway between Seattle and Vancouver. It’s a college town, not too hip, a small seaport.”

Jon: “It smells bad.”

Ken: “Yeah, there is this pulp mill there. Pulp mills all smell like cabbage.”

Jon: “Like something rotted in it, like in a dryer.”

They have avoided answering the question, but really it had never been an option to be Grunge Band #37 for this pair. That would be an easy choice – something The Posies have often perversely avoided.

While the world was discovering the attractions of angst and flanellette, the band moved from the Beatlesque pop of Dear 23 – itself a huge leap from the home-recorded debut Failure – to the ornately filigreed Frosting On The Beater. And this year, now that pop bands are as common as bindii on a summer lawn, The Posies released Amazing Disgrace, a stripped back and choppier album.

Frosting may well go down as one of the lost gems of the ’90s. Like the first album by one of their heroes, Big Star, it is both complex and daringly simple in taking pop songs seriously. Why lost? Well, it just never seemed to be heard at the right time by the right people in the right places. As fellow Seattle musician Dave Dederer, of The Presidents Of The United States Of America, told Metro recently: “They’re one of my favourite bands, but I can’t believe their bad luck.”

The lyrics and musical aggression of Disgrace suggest that Auer and Stringfellow may have had enough of the “bad luck” too. One song is explicit, Everybody Is A F—ing Liar, others are slightly more oblique, such as Ontario (a dig at their record company’s desire for a hit record) or Grant Hart (which takes aim at the underground music scene’s holier-than-thou attitude).

Auer, who shares the songwriting and singing with Stringfellow, explains the anger on the album by going back a little further. “After the Frosting touring was done, I was pretty disillusioned with the whole bit. I wasn’t that excited by music any more, which is pretty weird after you’ve been doing it for that long to get to that point. I likened it to seeing some magician doing some trick and finding out how he does the trick and once you know it’s like, well, it’s a trick.”

Stringfellow pipes up: “Then you invent like a whole new trick and everybody wants you to do that old trick they’ve seen the other magicians use and you’re like, “wait, this is a very good one’ and it’s, “nah, we want the rabbit out of the hat again’.”

The set they play later that night in Austin is short but bristling, the spot-on harmonies effortlessly layered onto often lashing guitar – particularly from Stringfellow, who revels in an entertaining quasi-metal head bouncing, legs-spread-wide performance. It’s invigorating and confirms that the injection of new faces – bass player Joe Skyward and drummer Brian Young – may make this the best lineup yet.

So there is still enthusiasm for the slog of touring? “That’s pretty much why I am in the game,” Stringfellow says. “I like travelling, meeting the kids, jamming.”

(An amused Auer interjects: “Yeah, do it for the kids, man.”)

“It’s like Groundhog Day,” Stringfellow continues. “You’re living this day over and over again, but you have this ability to change it a little bit each time, but never quite perfect so you have to keep doing it.”

Then you marry Andie McDowell?

Says Auer: “I’d take the groundhog.”