September 1st 2005, by Derk Richardson, San Francisco Gate
When the Posies emerged from the Seattle pop scene in the early 1990s, their refreshing bursts of power pop updated a legacy rooted in the late-’60s British rock of the Beatles, the Kinks, the Who, the Zombies and the Move, and traceable through later decades in Big Star, XTC, the Replacements, Young Fresh Fellows and Husker Du.
As the band re-emerges today, a full 15 years after making its major label debut — with a new album, Every Kind of Light (Ryko), and a U.S. tour that brings the reinvigorated quartet to Slim’s in S.F. on Wed., Sept. 7 — little has changed in the band’s bracing blend of big, crunching guitar chords, complex keyboard ornamentations and sumptuous, alternately smooth and tangy vocal harmonies. But a lot of turbulent water has passed under the bridge.
“We’ve had this amazingly up-and-down relationship over the years,” singer-guitarist Jon Auer said in a phone call earlier this week from Seattle, talking about his partnership with singer-guitarist-keyboardist Ken Stringfellow. “There’s something about what we create when we do work together that just seems to be indestructible. We’ve done things to each other and said things to each other that perhaps would cause most people to not even bother talking to each other ever again. Yet for some reason we feel still drawn to making music together.”
Auer and Stringfellow started recording together as a duo in Auer’s Bellingham, Wash., basement studio in late 1987. They released their first record, Failure, on the PopLlama label, and then got the jump on the Nirvana-triggered Seattle-scene explosion with their 1990 DCG release as a quartet, Dear 23. By the time the Posies broke up in 1998, with two more studio albums in their catalog, two drummers and three bassists had passed through the band.
“Our relationship, musically and friendship-wise, came to a halt for a couple of years,” Stringfellow said in a separate phone conversation from France, where he and his family were taking a vacation break after the European leg of the Posies’ tour in support of Every Kind of Light. “Slowly those doors opened again, and we had an opportunity to do some shows in Spain and took the chance to experiment over the course of a year or so. I spent some time repairing my friendship with Jon, and then we were probably open to anything at that point.”
The sporadic reunions that began in 2000 seem to have settled into a groove, with the Auer-Stringfellow creative alchemy supported more or less permanently now by bassist Matt Harris (of Oranger) and drummer Darius Minwalla. “We saw that we had a golden opportunity to make something new out of fossils and bones and burnt pieces of wood we had laying around,” Stringfellow continued, “and that it could be more exciting than certainly the last few years of the Posies, when whatever excitement happened was balanced out by a not very good personal vibe — moments of exuberance surrounded by months of quagmire.”
“There’s just something that’s greater than the sum of its parts when we play together,” Stringfellow said of his creative bond with Auer. “It’s always a high-energy, intense experience for us to play together — we anchor each other’s extremes in a certain ways so that we can push ourselves out a little bit farther musically — and energy-wise — and know that there’s something solid holding it together. It has a unique, as “Star Trek” fans would say, energy signature.”
While Auer noted that hooking up with a new rhythm section “made it easier to move forward,” Stringfellow offered a caveat. “We weren’t really sure about yet another go-round with yet another team: Was it going to be mining past glories for ever diminishing returns? Or was it going to be able to generate something new. With a little time, it did generate something new. Somewhere along the line, we went through the appropriate bonding experiences to feel like a band.”
The band ethos is serious enough that album royalties, tour income and even songwriting credits are being shared equally among the four members. Of the songwriting, Stringfellow said, “One person may have worked up more of the starter dough than another, but by the time the thing was recorded, all these things had been pushed and pulled by all of us.” On the same issue, Auer added: “It’s funny how many things someone can start versus finish. What ends up being the important thing is what gets finished, and the new record wouldn’t have been made had it not been for all of us being there together.”
Nonetheless, in keeping with the Posies’ origin and tradition, Stringfellow and Auer were responsible for the lion’s share of lyrics on the quickly recorded Every Kind of Light, though the collaboration was anything but straightforward. Take the CD closer, “Sweethearts of Rodeo Drive,” for instance. The title, with its pun on the classic Byrds country-rock album, was Auer’s idea. But after sharing it with Stringfellow, each arrived at the recording session with his own melody and set of lyrics, resulting in the intriguing vocal interplay that starts the tune and a point of view that weds an anti-war sentiment to a critique of conspicuous consumption.
“As soon as Jon evoked the image of Rodeo Drive,” Stringfellow explained, “I certainly wasn’t going to set about glorifying consumerism. Lord knows, popular music has enough of that in it already. Granted, I’m not against consumerism per se — I have been known to spend $700 on a bottle of wine — but I was really thinking more about how Paris Hilton’s whatever can be Page One news and a kid getting his arm blown off doesn’t even merit news coverage. A death is still like Page 12 news, and that totally blows my mind. It infuriates me. I find it so insulting to that person’s death, especially, and to my intelligence, also, to see it presumed that I would find Paris Hilton more interesting than a dead American soldier, which I do not.”
Stringfellow and Auer have maintained busy, even hectic lives outside of the Posies: Stringfellow has recorded solo albums, including last year’s exquisite Soft Commands, toured as an adjunct member of R.E.M. and performed as a member of the Minus 5 and Saltine. He and Auer have also rounded out the reformed Big Star (with Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens), whose new album is about to arrive in stores. And Auer has worked for several years on his own, long-anticipated solo CD, Songs from the Year of Our Demise, which will be released next March by Pattern 25.
“With the solo stuff,” Auer said, “you get a chance to be a bit more — I don’t want to say ’emotional,’ because I’m emotional with the Posies — but maybe it’s a bit more personal. The record I just made is more of a heartbreak record, more melancholy. It’s hard to fully express oneself in a group, so with the solo records you get a more direct path to me and a direct path to Ken.”
“There’s something altogether different that happens when we get together,” Stringfellow reiterated. “Something sonically more aggressive. Our live shows are nothing short of furious.”
Auer agreed. “There’s a certain level of insanity that occurs in the Posies that doesn’t necessarily happen other places,” he said. “One thing about the Posies now as a live group — it’s a rock show. You can’t come to a Posies show expecting a kind of moody, melancholy, ‘it’s four in the morning and you’re by yourself listening in headphones’ affair. It’s hard to describe, but once you come see this version of the Posies live, you’ll understand what I’m trying to get at. It’s almost like a Kiss show without the makeup.”