Posies Dig Into the Pop Dirt, But Beautifully – 1993
By Jim Washburn, The Los Angeles Times, 14 August 1993
“Is that Blue Oyster Cult?” a friend asked recently while the Posies’ latest album, “Frosting on the Beater,” was playing. Given that many listeners also think the Seattle band sounds reminiscent of the Hollies’ soaring ’60s harmonies, you might get the impression this group covers a lot of ground.
The quartet also has been likened, in one regard or another, to XTC, the Everly Brothers, Neil Young, the Beatles (Ringo Starr recently recorded their song “Golden Blunders”), Squeeze, the Who, Big Star, the Raspberries, Cheap Trick and Husker Du, to name a few.
All the comparisons are apt, though none quite prepare the listener for the Posies’ potent blend of power and pop. Nearly every song on “Frosting on the Beater” overwhelms with the hypnotic hooks, passionate playing and embracing harmonies of band architects Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow.
Their harmonies may indeed recall the Hollies (who weren’t an influence, they claim), and Auer often solos with the same squawking abandon as Young (who was), but the group spins those and other elements into something almost beyond definition.
Not that they’re unwilling to try.
“Without wanting to seem pretentious, I’d say that we’re beautifully dirty pop,” Auer said, speaking by phone earlier this week from New Mexico, on a tour that brings them to the Coach House tonight.
“That’s the only description I can come up with,” he said. “One thing that sets the Posies apart is we really can’t be ugly-sounding too easily. We’re not like the Butthole Surfers, who I like… We don’t have that in us. We always end up sounding pretty somehow, no matter how much we try to screw it up.” For the dirt in his equation, Auer cites an appreciation for Neil Young “and the more haphazard approach to playing…
“Then the pop part of it is just songwriting, really. People always want to know what we mean by pop, and all I can say is songs. I consider almost every band that’s got good songs to be a pop band. Nirvana is a pop band. Even on the first couple of Ozzy Osbourne albums, there’s some darn good pop songs there. So we’re beautifully dirty pop.”
The guitars sound especially soiled on the current album, which was helmed by Screaming Trees and Teenage Fanclub producer Don Fleming, as opposed to XTC craftsman John Leckie’s intricate production on the Posies’ 1990 “Dear 23” album.
“We wanted to do something that we could pull off live, and that wouldn’t confuse people from how we are live. `Dear 23′ confused a lot of people. Even though I like it as a record, it never really captured the essence of how we are on a good night,” Auer said.
“I can appreciate bands that do very different records from their live shows, but there’s something to be said for having a record that is representational,” he said.
There wasn’t much question of whether the Posies’ first album, the independent release “Failure,” captured their live sound, because they didn’t have one at the time.
The “band” then was just Stringfellow and Auer, who had recorded their 1988 debut album in Auer’s dad’s basement 8-track studio. Their only gigs had been a couple of acoustic shows in coffeehouses.
Auer, 23, and Stringfellow, 24, met a decade ago when Auer was still in junior high.
“We met in a music store, and we ended up being in different bands together, never being the pivotal guys,” Auer recalled. “But through a process of elimination and natural selection, Ken and I always ended up hanging together while the bands fell apart. After being through two or three of these, we realized we should do something together.
“So we experimented a lot in high school, going through every phase imaginable, everything from techno to punk to metal. We listened to Love & Rockets, Devo, Ozzy, and I liked the Beatles, the Who and all that, too. We went through major phases.”
Auer says they have a bond that goes beyond their years of making music together.
“The thing between Ken and myself I definitely think is special. I don’t know how it worked out that two guys (who) knew each other as well musically as we ended up knowing each other. We always have had some major intuitiveness with each other.
“I remember when we got together in the first leanings toward the direction of being the Posies, we each were going, `Well, I’ve got this song…’ It turned out he’d written a song called `Blind Eyes Open,’ and I’d written one called `Closed Eyes Open.’
“We were 90 miles apart at the time we wrote them, and they were about the same thing from opposite perspectives,” he said. “I don’t want to get new-agey, but there’s something there that is undeniable to both of us, and I think that translates into the music,” he said.
He says their fraternal harmonies are an outward expression of their mental connection, noting, “We can follow each other without even having to work at it.” They were unprepared for the response to the “Failure” album, which earned them rave reviews, a tour with the Replacements and a contract with DGC Records. That’s not what the pair expected from an album that cost them an estimated $50 to record.
“This is just the grand experiment that turned into a career,” Auer quipped.
They enlisted some neighbors-drummer Mike Musburger and bassist Rick Roberts (since replaced by Dave Fox)-and became a real band, though Auer said “it took a while coming into something that felt comfortable to us. Now it’s a much more euphoric experience.”
Though Auer and Stringfellow have a songwriting partnership-songs are credited to both-they do most of their writing separately.
“We’ve helped each other with arrangements and maybe the odd lyric here and there, but we don’t really sit around with a couple of guitars and look each other in the eye, ever. So it’s like Lennon and McCartney, but in their later days.”
The Posies’ lyrics sometimes require some effort to discern amid their storm of guitars, but that doesn’t mean the words are less important to them.
“With lyrics, we’ve tried to express ourselves, and instead of falling back on cliches, we would try to reverse the cliche, make fun of it. Sometimes we’ve been a bit too wordy for our own good, probably, and that’s likely been due to our aspirations to be more like (XTC’s) Andy Partridge or Elvis Costello. We read a lot too, and sometimes try to be intellectual.”
And sometimes the lyrics have a personal meaning they can only hope carries some glimmer of meaning to their listeners. Auer’s “Burn and Shine” has verses that dwell on the taste of pemmican, for example.
“That song is hyper-personal to me. If you and I went out and had a margarita and a bowl of pemmican with it, maybe I could explain it. There’s a lot of lines on there where I’m not sure why they belong…
“We didn’t try to refine it until everything made complete sense, because not everything that is literal is that emotional for me. There are some songs by other people where I haven’t got a clue what they were saying, but they make me emote,” he said.
With “Frosting on the Beater,” producer Fleming steered the band toward recording some of the “darker, more oblique” songs they had written, which was fine by them. “There’s only so many pure pop songs you can make before you want to do something different, a bit dirtier of a pop record, more twisted,” Auer said.
Among Fleming’s choices was Auer’s cloudy “Coming Right Along,” a song he hadn’t intended for the band. The version on the record is essentially just Auer’s home four-track demo, vocals over six minutes of moody, slow-churning guitar that Auer describes as him imagining what Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” might sound like if played by Jimi Hendrix. Another seemingly hypothetical combination, the melding of legendary early-’70s pop masters Big Star and their fans the Posies, actually came to pass in April in Kansas City.
With little hope of success, a college radio station had asked Big Star’s principals to do a reunion show. They agreed and tapped Auer and Stringfellow to fill in for the deceased Chris Bell and absent Andy Hummel. An album of the performance is due out on Zoo Records in September, and the lineup is also signed for European shows that month.
“I can’t say enough about it,” Auer said enthusiastically. “It was a very good experience. Getting to be Chris Bell was a lot of fun, and Ken got to be Hummel. (Legendary quirky lead singer Alex) Chilton is definitely an enigma, and every once in a while would stare off into space with this look in his eyes like he’s seen battles you wouldn’t believe. But he was very cordial to us and liked us.
“Playing with Big Star is like a bit of musical history. To actually be in the band when it reunited for the first time, that does go down in the books. The night of the show, I’d been trying to pretend it wasn’t happening so I could get through it, but when it was done, I went `God, we actually did this.’ And I was proud.”
He hasn’t allowed himself such a validating experience with his own band.
“With the Posies, I still go into record stores and it’s like I see everybody else’s record, and go, `Those are real records.’ With ours, I’m still havin’g trouble getting used to the fact that we’ve got three records in the store.”‘