By L.D. Beghtol, IndiePlanet, 2000
After some ten years of near hits and astonishing misses, power popsters The Posies called it quits in 1998. Despite three albums on DGC, a killer track on the enormously popular Reality Bites soundtrack, critical acclaim from all corners and a rabid international following, singer/guitarists Ken Stringfellow and Jonathan Auer–the heart of the band amidst a revolving lineup of drummers and bassists–pulled the plug. They went off to tour and record separately (Auer with the legendary Big Star, Stringfellow with indie gods REM), as well as pursue their solo careers.
But now it seems the world is finally catching up with the Seattle band’s unique blend of literate, melodic, harmony-laden ’60s pop and massive guitar rock: Witness the current release of two Posies live albums, an official “Best Of” compilation from Geffen and a jumbo box set of rarities, outtakes and lost gems. About damned time, as any Posies fan would say, waving a copy of Frosting on the Beater like a battle flag in your face.
I talked to the angel-voiced Stringfellow at the beginning of a cross-country promotional tour last month, in which he joined former Posies mate Auer for a series of intense, intimate acoustic performances. Charming and candid as always, Stringfellow shared stories of his life on the road with REM and in the studio with his new band, Saltine. The shocking pink hair and the Betsey Johnson frocks may have gone the way of his former label, but Stringfellow is still doing what he’s always done: making great fucking music and having a laugh about it along the way.
IndiePlanet: What’s it like to be a Posie again?
Ken Stringfellow: There’s something so joyful about it. It’s so direct. It’s just the two of us vibing off each other and the audience: very intimate and very real.
IP: Was that a problem you had with a “real” band?
KS: It put a damper on it. We tried to do things to make it more intimate-like getting everyone onstage or playing really mellow. But the average Posies show didn’t foster the kind of experience we wanted… something unique that showed our weird chemistry.
IP: Is the current Posies tour a reunion, then? Or is it strictly a promo tour for all the new compilations and live discs coming out?
KS: We played the show last February that’s on the new acoustic album, In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Plugging In, to see if it would be fun. And it was so great that when it was over and we were drinking champagne and counting the money, we decided: “Let’s take it on the road!” The new records gave us a reason.
IP: How did The Best of The Posies: Dream All Day album happen?
KS: We got a call from Universal saying “Here’s what’s on it,” so we made some changes and gave them some photographs. But we were really shocked since we’re probably the lowest-selling band ever to have a “best of.”
IP: There’s a terrific photo of you in a red plaid dress in the booklet….
KS: That was from the ’96 tour–it was Betsey Johnson all the way! Some pants, but mostly dresses.
IP: Stunning! What about the other live record?
KS: It’s called Alive Before The Iceberg. Live albums are what they are. But we figured many people who like our band know how different we were live than on the records. So this was for them.
IP: And the gigantic four-CD box set on Not Lame, called At Least, At Last?
KS: It’s a lot of different things, including live tracks from our very first show and stuff from our last show, in San Francisco in 1998. Every time we did an album we’d record stuff that had been tried before and hadn’t quite worked or new ones that, in the end, just didn’t fit.
IP: Posies songs always seem personal, in that they deal with problems and personal crises–but they’re never just escapist, happy-crappy love songs. What influenced that?
KS: I always draw a blank when asked this: I think we didn’t want to do anything super-obvious. We were trying to explore things that aren’t explored every day. It was equal parts Black Flag and Burt Bacharach.
IP: You’ve been touring–variously, with The Posies, Big Star and REM–almost constantly since your late teens. Do you like being on the road?
KS: I’m a junkie for stimuli, so touring is great since you’re out there playing for people who love you, and running around all night and having fun–I live for that. And, having done that a lot, when I’m home I can stay home and be quiet. The one allows for the other, really. The worst possible scenario, though, is being physically ill on tour with the flu, or the runs or something. I never get sick. But just the thought of it scares me… in some club bathroom where everything is disgusting and wet and gross.
IP: What are you listening to these days?
KS: The five million CDs that people have given me in the last few months that I’ll never listen to. In my car stereo right now is Joan Jett–she’s pretty fierce. Diamond Dogs. And Foot, which is Thurston Moore, Don Fleming and Jim Dunbar’s amalgamation.
IP: What song do you most wish you’d written?
KS: Probably some terrible Whitney Houston song.
IP: So you’d be rich?
KS: Right! But the ultimate song? Probably “God Only Knows” [from The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds]. But I don’t know that I’d presume to wish I’d written one of the classics. So I’ll go for the cheap answer.
IP: So what’s up with Saltine? You’re working on your full-length debut, correct?
KS: Essentially it’s all recorded, just has to be mixed. I’m extremely proud of it–it’s the most “me” thing that’s ever happened. It’s my head poured directly onto tape. Working with Mitch Easter was a genius move, because he ended up just engineering and making suggestions. So I got to do everything I wanted to do. He was extremely patient about letting that go down.
IP: You’ve mentioned wanting to capture some of the spirit of the old live Posies shows on Saltine recordings, since you never felt that had happened on Posies recordings. Is that what you did?
KS: No, all that went out the window. I just wanted to get my feelings on record. The way I envisioned them, without the compromise. I guess that sounds selfish.
IP: Are you selfish?
KS: Extremely. I’m like a lot of people: I’ve maybe felt that I didn’t get enough of something in my early life that I wanted or needed, and so that’s made me… self-absorbed.
IP: But aren’t artists supposed to be, not self-absorbed, but focused in order to create?
KS: Yes, but that’s just one area of life. And I’m working on not being that way so much in the other areas.
IP: What’s your favorite indulgence?
KS: I love great wine, a great meal. Travelling with REM is great because they know where to find the best of everything. But if you mean, if I had a million dollars, would I buy a Rolls? The answer is: Yes. Probably a ’70s Rolls Corniche.
IP: Until then?
KS: I drive a Honda BRC. I used to have old cars. I had a 1964 Falcon–Chantilly Beige–until the engine blew out. But I got tired of always having to have them fixed. For someone who doesn’t technically have a lot of money, I try to live as if I do. It’s always about having good experiences. Life becomes very easy, very easy when you don’t feel you have to deny yourself. The whole Judeo-Christian ethos is about self-denial. You have to give up a lot to get something else. But it doesn’t have to be that way unless you want it to be that way. I just try to enjoy the amazing creations that exist. It’s the highest tribute you can pay to God.