Stereo Subversion Features: The Posies

Stereo Subversion, September 10th, 2010

Blood/Candy is The Posies’ first studio release in three years. The group is centered, as usual, on the songwriting nucleus of Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. And while these two talented musicians have had their differences over the years — even leading to a temporary breakup — they’ve found a way to get past these issues in order to keep on creating great music. They’re not, no matter what lazy journalists might try to tell you, a power-pop band — even though there are power-pop elements running through what they do.

To paraphrase the poet Thax Douglas, who inspired the group’s latest album title, there is a sweet side to this act, as well as an equally strong dark undercurrent. Stereo Subversion had a chance to speak about the intoxicating sweetness and darkness of The Posies over the phone with both Auer and Stringfellow recently. Here’s what they had to say.

SSv: Can you tell me a little about Blood/Candy, and how it may differ from prior Posies releases?

Jon Auer: Sometimes we get these intentions in our heads when we’re trying to do a Posies record. We think a record’s going to be a certain way, and we maybe have an idea that we’re going to follow some kind of a pattern or a concept. And generally what happens is, we try to do that and it just falls by the wayside. We fail miserably at trying to follow our concept for it. I believe we talked about making this a simpler, more stripped down kind of record, and the complete opposite occurred. We just went overboard, basically — and I mean that in the best possible way.

It’s really kind of this kitchen sink type of record where it definitely has elements that could be construed as what people might expect from The Posies, but then there are things that come so far out of left field for us that it’s really quite striking in that sense. If you’re asking me to tell you how it differs from other records, I think it has, perhaps, our most experimental stuff on this record.

And I also think what else is different about it is, let’s face it, we’ve been around for a while. It’s impossible not to change and evolve if you continue as long as we have. It’s the only way to stay together and make it worth doing. It’s just not worth it to keep doing the same thing over and over again for us because, I don’t know, we’re just too creative. We’re just too in need of different kind of stimuli in our lives. So that kind of sums it up, if that’s enough on that for you.

SSv: What songs are you most proud of on Blood/Candy?

Ken Stringfellow: I think there’s two parts to that answer, which are songs that I had the major hand in writing and songs that Jon did. And I think about them differently. I’m proud of both of them. Obviously, something that I sort of kickstarted is something I can take sort of special pride in if I thought it turned out really well. Not that the other guys don’t matter, and not that their achievements aren’t worth lauding, because they are.

I think “Licenses to Hide” and “For the Ashes” are two things that are really knockout songs, and I think they’re interesting and I think the story is not taking place in my own immediate world or emotions; you know they’re more imaginative than that. They kind of move around through a variety of different landscapes, and I think they’re just really cool pieces of music that the band played excellently. They’re really grown up in a way.

On a similar note from John’s side, I would say that “Accidental Architecture” and “Holiday Hours” are two very unexpected and very complex and interesting developments in our music careers. And I think what we all played on them is really cool.

SSv: Is there any significance to the title, Blood/Candy?

Auer: It’s actually kind of from a poem by this guy named Thax Douglas. He’s this kind of local poet in the Chicago area that would come to rock shows and he would write poems for the bands about the bands at their performances. It’s kind of like poetry performance because sometimes the bands would have him read his poems about them and things like that. He’s actually kind of self-published a couple poetry books — at least one that I know of — and I believe that the phrase actually comes from a poem he wrote about a show that Ken and I did as a duo in Chicago. I want to say it was at Schuba’s, probably back around the turn of the century.

One of the phrases he used to describe us was something about blood candy. I think he was talking about how there is this totally sweet, harmonious side to what we do, but also there’s a lot of passion. There’s also more of a darker undercurrent than just maybe what the melodic, harmonious side might imply.

SSv: Do you buy into that? Do you agree that there are two sides to The Posies?

Auer: I think we’ve been unfairly mislabeled sometimes as just kind of a pop band. It’s kind of like saying that The Smiths were a pop band. And if you don’t read their lyrics, you feel like a really great melody coming from a Smiths song and it’s really catchy, and then you realize it’s all about how it’s somebody’s birthday and he wishes that they were dying. Or it’s about a girlfriend in a coma.

It’s the same kind of dichotomy, a juxtaposition, which also I think fits back relating to the title. It’s about duality. It’s about having the bitter with the sweet, the light with the dark. I don’t want to get too pretentious about it, but that’s kind of how I feel about it.

SSv: It’s almost as if bands are penalized. ‘Well, you can’t be a serious band because you have such a gift for melody and for songs that are easy to hum along with.’

Auer: Right. Like the Beatles weren’t a serious band. Or even…let’s be fair. I mean, are you going to tell me bands like The Shins don’t have melody? They’re a serious band. To me, it has more to do with perception and about how one has been marketed — and also timing within the history of rock. We came out at a time when what we were doing was really an anomaly from where we were, from the area we were from. And there was a lot of other bands maybe doing things similar to us in the Seattle area, but also didn’t get a lot of attention and whatnot.

But it’s funny. I think timing has so much to do with it because I think maybe if we put our records out later when it was more accepted to be melodic and sensitive on a massive scale, we might have had some better luck as far as greater acceptance. And I say that with the caveat that we’ve done pretty well for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong. I can’t complain. It’s just so funny how a few years’ difference will make all the difference.

Look at it this way — I always use this as my example — but Sup Pop in Seattle made their name. They cut their teeth signing and promoting really heavy bands with loud guitars and a lot of angst in the vocals and whatnot. I defy you to show me a band on their label now that they signed recently that has that sound. They’ve reinvented themselves. Now it’s all either folk music or even the kind of electro pop of something like The Postal Service.

Or I’ll use the band The Shins as example. I don’t think we’re that far removed from a band like The Shins. Guitars. Catchy melodies. A love for writing songs. You know what I’m saying? And then I’ll even go a step further, if you’ll indulge me, in that there’s also a sensitive side to what The Posies do. There’s always been an acoustic kind singer/songwriter part of us, as well. And that was so against the grain then. But lo and behold, who also is really big from the Sub Pop label is Iron and Wine, whose most popular songs are a couple of songs that are just played on an acoustic guitar with a lot of harmonies and very thoughtful, introspective and sensitive lyrics. You see where I’m going with this?

SSv: Right.

Auer: I really think it’s a timing thing. And then one last thing I’m going to add to this; I just feel like sometimes we get lumped in with this category of… we always get called a power-pop band. And I don’t think it’s doing us 100% proper service. People talk about a record of ours called Frosting on the Beater a lot. ‘It’s a classic power-pop record!’ And yet, I really question anybody who says that.

Honestly, I’m gonna just say it: have they really listened to the whole record if they’re calling that a power-pop record? Because where I can see a couple songs on it, maybe three or four that possibly fit into that category. That’s fair. There’s so much that doesn’t even come close to being power-pop on that record, but it’s all about labeling, how you get labeled. I’m going way off now. I’ve been in the studio for the last three weeks.

Stringfellow: I think people who like that kind of music [power-pop] like us. And in that sense, we are like honorary members. When I listen to music that people generally put in that category, and I listen to what we do, I don’t see it. I can see momentary aspects of it, but I like to think we sort of surpassed the limitations of that genre or any other. I think we’ve done a very, very wide body of work, with a lot of different twists and turns.

I think those kinds of [music genre] labels are like viruses. They just stick with things and they never go away and they get passed on to the next thing and never get erased. Maybe there’s a virus in a computer document and it just gets sent around, but they’re too lazy to get rid of it. ‘But then, oh yeah I’ve got a virus, oh well, whatever.’ It’s sort of like that. People miss the point of a lot of things, and we are subtle, so our point might not be so easy to get. So that might be the way it is.

SSv: Let’s now talk about your partnership with Ken; the fact that you’ve been able to make music for so long together. Why do you think you’ve been able to keep that collaboration going for as long as it has?

Auer: I don’t have a really good answer for you on that. I don’t know why it still works, really, other than I will say that we did everything possible to destroy it.

SSv: Really?

Auer: Sure. Maybe not intentionally, but just… if you’ll bear with me on this as well, I’ll explain that having a long term relationship like that. I’ve known Ken for longer than I’ve known most people in my life. We grew up together. We went to high school together. We were best friends growing up together, getting into music together. We also went through a point when we didn’t want to be around each other, too.

The Posies, as you probably know, did break up at one point. We didn’t see each other for a couple years. It’s one of those things that we really couldn’t put it down once we tried it again, it just was, ‘There’s still something here,’ even though we decided that it wasn’t something that we wanted to do anymore. It kind of made its own decision for us. I also will say that a huge part of it was just the growth of us as individuals. Like, making sure that we have other outlets and we do other things, between solo stuff that we do and playing with the other bands that we play with.

We both produce a ton of records. It’s so much better after a while that we didn’t put all our eggs in the proverbial one basket. And I want to clarify something I said earlier about how we did everything to destroy it. I don’t want to sound too melodramatic. I’m just saying this relationship between the two of us has definitely been tested and tried over the years. And the fact that it’s still here — God, I mean this, which I think is creatively is like, we just went for it — and that fact that it still feels that vital, it answers the question for us of, ‘Why do we keep doing this?’ It’s because it still feels like something that works and is special. Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it. We’re not doing it to get rich, that’s for sure.

Stringfellow: I think we just make the effort because it’s worth it. I think we believe we have kind of a special and unique thing going, in a musical way, and I think we are very different. And we see that as a strength although sometimes it’s hard. If it’s something that’s going to make it into a band situation, it’s going to be altered by that person’s ideas if what they bring to the picture and isn’t what you would do on your own.

That’s a double edged sword. You have to like it. You know what I mean? That means usually you have to learn to like it and you have to learn to listen to the other person and just appreciate them for who they are. Depending on how you feel on a given day, it’s sometimes harder or easier to be open-minded. Depending upon how you feel about yourself, really. I think, in a strange way, we work even better even though our experiences in life have become so different.

You know, I live in another country and I do a lot of other things; I do more things outside this band than in it, as opposed to many years ago when I did more things in this band than outside it. Maybe that helps me just relax about the rest; that this is just a component in what I do – an important one – but if I really have to be a control freak, I can go do that somewhere else.