The Sweet Smell Of Success – 2001
By Neal Weiss, Launch.com, 14 August 2001
Sometimes it seems like Northwestern powerpop demi-legends the Posies have released more posthumous albums than Tupac. In the three years since Posie cohorts (and part-time Big Star members) Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer parted ways with the ironically titled swan song Success–both went on to release solo albums, while Stringfellow also formed a new band called Saltine and played with R.E.M.–they’ve released a rarities boxed set and not one but two live albums (Alive Before The Iceberg, recorded in 1998, and In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Plugging In, recorded during an acoustic reunion tour last year). And now it seems like they’re back possibly for good with their first studio album since Success, this year’s fine offering Nice Cheekbones & A Ph.D. Fortunately for fans, the Posies are–unlike the sadly slain Tupac–thankfully still alive and well and able to create great music, and pop buffs are welcoming them back with open arms. Stringfellow and Auer recently dropped by the LAUNCH studios to play a couple of acoustic numbers for the lucky LAUNCH staff and talk about where they’ve been all these years, why they’re returning now, and if they’re planning on sticking around this time.
LAUNCH: Last year, you released a live acoustic album. Why was the timing right to do that in 2000?
JON: Well, I think the main reason that we put out a live acoustic record is back in February of 2000, we decided to do a kind of an acoustic show together. It was just a one-time thing. Someone suggested, out of the blue, recording it just for the hell of it, and we ended up having a really good time–I think a better time than either of us expected we would–and it actually came out sounding pretty good. So we figured, why not, let’s just put the thing out, and that’s kind of what led to what’s happening with us now. And it’s kind of funny, because I don’t think either of us thought we’d really want to spend that much time together doing this kind of thing again, but the good news is it’s actually kind of fun again, so that’s why we’re doing it.
KEN: You know, it’s not like we have a master battle plan or anything. But you know, kind of a spontaneous situation arose where we had a good time, and we thought, “Hey, we should do a show together,” and so we did a show together and we recorded it and it turned out well, so we thought we should put it out. But I think the whole inspiration behind doing the show as an acoustic show kind of dates back to the early years of the Posies and how we came together. Jon and I used to do that sort of thing quite a bit before we had a full-on band; we played at coffee shops and things like that. It’s also the most musical way to present our songs–it’s really how the songs sound when they are written. They start out with that very simple presentation, and as simple as it looks, there’s a lot of sophistication in that approach of playing, with just those elements and making the most out of those simple elements.
LAUNCH: Just the two of you with no bass and drums is kind of getting back to basics. Is that how you guys started out?
JON: Oh, yeah. I mean, the way that Ken and I play acoustic is pretty much stripping things down to the essence of what we do, I guess. I mean, the songs were all pretty much written to begin with on acoustic guitars. And we kind of had a rule that if it couldn’t play it with just the two of us sitting there and have it sound good, that we didn’t want to put it on a record. And not to get all new-agey or clichéd again, but you could say it’s come full circle and back to the source, or something like that.
LAUNCH: So what is it like for you two to be out together again?
JON: Well, Ken and I being together is actually a natural thing. We’ve definitely had our ups and downs–all the clichéd things you could say about long term relationships that anybody has, the classic love/hate scenario or whatever. But there is so much history between the two of us that no matter what either one of us does to annoy each other or infuriate each other, that history will always be there. At this point, it’s just all good. We’ve had enough water under the bridge and we’re both older and wiser, and so it’s really natural, it’s really easy. And it’s also like returning to our roots, ’cause we started off just the two of us playing together, so it’s not the added baggage of having a whole band and worrying how to figure things out as a diplomatic four-piece unit. It’s just the two of us deciding what we want to do, when we want to do it. So it’s a good thing.
LAUNCH: How did you choose the songs for the show?
JON: The thing about the setlist that we do at the shows is that every one of them is different every night. Because when we first got back together, we spent a couple of days basically running through everything that we knew, and realized of course we had a ton of stuff to play. So every night we just basically f–k it up, and we can’t please everybody, of course, because people are always requesting for certain things. But it’s nice, and it’s kind of weird, to actually have that much stuff to pick from. I’ve kind of taken it for granted, but now that we’ve gotten to this point and we’re doing it, it’s kind of like we have that hindsight thing happening, and to look back and realize you have a pretty good body of work to draw from…so every night is different and exciting and all that good stuff.
LAUNCH: When deciding on your setlists, are there some songs that have weathered better than others?
KEN: Well, we have a few B sides and a few things that were never released and a couple of covers that we have recorded that people would have known that we’ve done before, so we tried everything. We said, “We want to try everything once on this tour, at least,” and we’re actually rotating–the setlist is never the same, so we play everything from our whole career. Some of the songs are a little bit hard to relate to, you know–hadn’t really played them in almost 10 years and were just written from a perspective that I don’t really have anymore, but eventually you kind of find a way to do it. So I think we’ve played like almost every song in our catalog at least once.
LAUNCH: How does it feel to be in a band that created enough music where something like this could happen to you?
KEN: You know, I never thought of the Posies as being that prolific a band. We didn’t put out records every year, you know, we made five albums in 10 years, and what I’d forgotten to take into account were the numerous other songs that we’d written and demoed, even if the band never learned them. We had 4-track demos and stuff. Looking back on all that stuff together, the boxed set doesn’t have anything from our albums–it’s not a “career retrospective plus extra tracks” to goad you into buying it. It’s purely our unreleased music. so there’s a ton of 4-track demos, of either songs that are on the albums but in their most primitive form or songs that just never made it past a certain stage. It really made me realize that we could have made a record every year out of the songs we had. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as good as making the selective records that we made, but maybe it would have been, I don’t know. I’m kind of one for just throwing it out there, anyway. I think the most fascinating thing about the whole thing for me is that I think there are people that are going to buy it, and that really the main compliment is that somebody wanted to put it out and go through the expense and trouble of figuring out which songs needed to be cleared by which label and putting together a very nice package with a nice booklet and a nice box and nice artwork. And even more amazing still is that because it was such an ambitious project to do and there wasn’t really a budget to do it, the person who designed the package did it all kind of as a favor. He was like, “Hey, I like your band and I’ll put this together for you,” and he did this incredible layout and design. The booklet has a lot of info and a lot of photos and there’s liner notes for every song and all this kind of stuff. So it was really like an incredible compliment that people were willing to go through that much trouble for something that is not like a huge money-making venture. It’s just a piece of art, just a piece of art.
JON: My perception of the Posies is really weird, because I’m a fairly modest individual and I’m the kind of guy that actually doesn’t listen to certain records of ours until a couple years after they are actually released. But in doing something like the boxed set that we did, a majority of it was stuff that actually originated from individual demos that Ken and I did. I really like that aspect of what we did–I’m really proud of the demos that I did, and he did some really good demos too. So that wasn’t hard for me to listen to. There was just so much cool stuff to me on it, and especially for a fan of the Posies, they will really like it a lot, cause it’s designed for them, really–people that are into what we do. Blah, blah, blah.
LAUNCH: The sentiment is that the Posies didn’t get their due. Do you agree with that?
JON: I look at the success of the Posies as…um, I think that we were successful. I’ve never really aspired to–even though I wouldn’t say no if it happened–selling millions of records. Again, the classic artistic cliché of “I’m in it for the music, man,” but it’s true. That being said, there’s definitely a couple of records that, had they come out at a different times, perhaps would have done better. I think Frosting On The Beater, which is probably almost my favorite Posies record, if it came out after the whole grunge revolution, when the pendulum swung back to kind of a more poppy thing on the radio, I think it could have done better. With that being said, I make a good living, I have a good time. I get to go where I want, do what I want, so I’m happy. I’m still doing that, and the Posies also achieved a certain level of respect which I’m just becoming more and more aware of at this point–because again, I don’t sit around and think about these things all the time. But I keep seeing our name popping up in articles describing other bands, record reviews. I read a review of a Swervedriver record, who are one of my favorite bands, in Mojo, and they compared one of the songs to the Posies. And for me I was just like, “How cool is that?” That’s just great to me, ’cause I’m a huge fan of Swervedriver. So I’m happy. It’s good. It’s all good.
KEN: You can say that this band deserves that and that band didn’t deserve that, but that isn’t really true: Every band deserves everything and no band deserves anything ,so I feel like the experience that I’ve had being in the Posies has been great. I mean, it’s allowed me to experience all sorts of amazing things and travel all over the world and have these great shows and fun times and create this great music and make these records. It’s such a large amount of experience that came my way, because of this one little project that I started with my high school buddy in the ’80s, that I certainly feel amply rewarded for it. I didn’t do it for any rewards, so I wasn’t really expecting anything, you know. When we started out I was like, “Hey, you don’t want to over-expect the world, because if you are tied to these expectations, then you are going to be let down. Let’s see what we get.” Actually, I do kind of think that way now, but I also think that you can ask for the world and it’s OK to ask for that. Some of my modesty has dropped away with age because it’s too tiring to maintain it, but I feel like everything that’s happened has been absolutely appropriate, so I have no complaints in this department.
LAUNCH: Is what you are doing now an aside, or are the Posies an active thing in the future?
JON: As far at the Posies and the future, I guess it’s the classic 12-step program thing: one day at a time. See how it goes. We just have a good time right now, and what I do know is that it’s fun right now, and if that continues to be fun, who knows what could happen? But we both have plenty of other things going on too, and I think that’s really good. I think it’s nice that we have other things going on, so we can do this but it’s not the only relationship that we have anymore, like we did in the past.
KEN: The music exists, so I guess in a sense we will exist as long as the music exists, which is a comforting thought. I suppose. I mean, for those of you who are afraid of mortality. As far as us doing things, I don’t have any plans–I have my own things that I’m working on. My new songs are going other places, but you know, it’s also a matter of you have to just see where the energy is, and if there’s energy for us to do a tour in a short amount of time from now–again, if two years from now it seemed like it would be a fun and not, you know, a whipping-a-dead-horse kind of thing to go on tour again–then maybe we’ll do that. But those kinds of things are impossible to determine in advance, and there’s no point because everything changes every day.
LAUNCH: Ken, tell me a little bit about your band Saltine.
KEN: Saltine is the first chance I’ve had to fully just pursue what my vision of music is; the situation in the Posies was a series of compromise to reach a common ground. Which is definitely not a bad thing at all. Eventually, I really have felt like I want to be in a situation where I really could indulge myself completely and every idea I had, I could try it out without nobody saying, “Hey maybe we should do this instead” or whatever, and going for it in every possible way. I think I’m at a point in my life where I’m comfortable with myself enough and I can be really open, so what I’ve done with Saltine is I think I’ve really been like, as nakedly honest as I’ve ever been in a songwriting environment. Like “it’s so me, it hurts” kind of thing. And I think it’s a very bold thing to do, if I don’t say so myself. You know, there’s no posturing or posing or any kind that would stand between you knowing exactly what’s going on in my head or heart or whatever. So I think it doesn’t really matter what kind of reaction that has on the listening person, it’s just such a step for me to do it for myself that it just had to happen, and I’m glad I did it.
LAUNCH: Jon, tell me about getting your solo career going.
JON: Well, as far as what I do on my own, I’ve had a couple detours along the way too, besides just working on doing my own thing as far as making records. I was talking about the boxed set earlier and how there’s demos I’m really proud of. I’m a multi-instrumentalist and a lot of the demos that you’ll hear on that boxed set are things where I played everything on them, and you know, you might be surprised if you’re a Posies fan to hear some of the versions that I did and then to hear the recorded versions, because they’re really similar. So for me, it’s a really fun thing to be able to play everything and just not have anybody to make art by committee with or whatever. Right when the Posies were at the end of our rope, so to speak, I joined another band just to kind of get away from doing what I did and being a songwriter and frontperson and a singer–I joined this band called Lucky Me that was in Seattle, and they actually opened for the last Posies tour. And although I didn’t sign on the contract because I was kind of wary of labels at that point in my career, we made a big record for a big label–they gave us a lot of money and I spent a good year and a half doing that. And then that label went the way of the dinosaur, then they gave us a lot of money not to put a record out. I wouldn’t say that it wasn’t a waste of time, because it was a good experience, but it put a dent in what I wanted to get moving on my solo career. So finally I have something out of my own, which is good. As far as the direction, people always try to pigeonhole the Posies, and I think one thing about the Posies is if you really looked at our catalog, we were really diverse–we had really poppy stuff–there was people who were into the pop that wanted to say that we sounded like this band or that band from the ’60s or classic vocals–but we did weirder stuff too, and there was even some punk rock and, dare I say, like a power ballad or two. So I’ll just go wherever it takes me and just keep doing it and definitely try other things and other side-projects too. Things are totally different, but nothing I would elaborate on here.
LAUNCH: What are your thoughts on being linked to a band like Big Star?
JON: In the case of Big Star, I could say a whole bunch of things about it. I just love doing it. It’s another cliché, but it’s a dream come true. It’s super-enjoyable. It doesn’t happen often enough, as far as I’m concerned. At the risk of sounding overly grateful, I just really feel fortunate that it actually happened, and it’s cool too–from what I understand, from talking to especially Jody Stephens, the drummer for Big Star, they never really played live that much back when they were actually in their infancy. So now is actually the first time you can go see a Big Star show and hear the harmonies–for instance, that Ken and I do–that are what are on the records. They never really had that before. Jody’s also said that we’ve kind of become a vital part of it; we’re not just a couple pickup guys anymore, we’ve kind of earned our place with them, and that makes me feel really good. And it’s totally worth checking out. I just wish we were playing more; everywhere I go, I get, “When’s Big Star coming to Holland?” “When’s Big Star coming to Spain?” We could go on a big tour if we wanted to, but it’s just one of those things that you can do when the people involved really feel like doing it. Which is maybe for the best–keep it vital that way.
KEN: It’s a very strange situation in a way–you know, it’s really like Jon and I have willed ourselves into our favorite bands, I guess, loving them so much that we’ve manifested this great opportunity. It’s almost kind of changed my perspective on life, actually, like, “So here I am. this teenage music fan growing up in this small town in Washington. and I’m really getting into these bands and I love.” Even then moving to Seattle to go to college, I discover some new things and I’m still like this huge fan of things like Big Star, R.E.M., or Teenage Fanclub, which were all huge favorites of mine and hugely influential on my musical taste. Somehow or another I keep joining those bands. The Teenage Fanclub thing comes from when Jon and I toured with them–the Posies toured with them a few years ago in Europe and Norman [Blake, from Teenage Fanclub] kept getting sick, so for a couple shows Jon and I actually fronted Teenage Fanclub, which was total dream come true. So I don’t know what that all means, other than I guess I shouldn’t discount my ability to conjure my daydreams into reality.
LAUNCH: I didn’t know about the Teenage Fanclub thing.
KEN: Yeah, the Teenage Fanclub thing just happened that one time–our first real tour of Europe in ’93 was opening for them. It was just insane, too–it was so good.
LAUNCH: What is it like working with R.E.M.?
KEN: It was really inspiring when I first started playing with them and realized how they put their music together. It kind changed my life and actually enabled me to take that leap that I took with the Saltine record, working every single detail out in advance–you know, you just go in and do it. They do rehearse and they do work on things, but they also leave a lot to chance and a lot to spontaneity and every idea is welcome–you know, nobody tries to talk anybody out of trying something, even if it seems ridiculous or elaborate or a hassle. They just they are open and they just do it, and that was totally inspiring. I guess that’s the way a lot of bands do it–probably most rock bands do their thing by jamming and working out songs that way and they just kind of arise. I think that’s a great thing. It’s just that my experience in the Posies was totally the opposite. My experience in the posies was writing the songs as a songwriter and then developing them individually and then presenting a pretty much finished idea to the band. So I’d never experienced the “Hey, just throw this idea together in the practice place” thing, someone comes up with something at that last minute and that’s a new song. That was just totally alien to me, even though I recognize that’s kind of the status quo in many ways. So just being that open and being that able to deal with sudden changes in plan is another thing that has been very helpful to incorporate as an artist. You know, you can be working on something and you can just change your whole idea about it: “OK, this was a guitar-bass-and-drum song, now it’s a harmonica-and-humming song and it’s now completely different, and I’m going to change the words and I’m going to call it a different band name and I’m going to get out of my contract and put it under a different label.” Like all those things…just any idea that you have, I think, you should follow it when you’re making art, I think. I think the whole key to making a satisfying piece of art is to not listen to any voice that tries to talk you out of what you’re trying to do in any way. You should just do it.
LAUNCH: In general what was happening in Seattle in the ’90s?
JON: I’ve definitely been asked about the whole Seattle scene quite a bit. People always want to know what it was like and what was happening during that time. It was pretty great and it was also really strange, because Seattle was this place that nobody paid too much attention to, and even a lot of cool acts wouldn’t make it a stop on their tours. I mean, every heavy metal band in existence came there and did really well, which was cool ’cause I liked the metal back then. But [the Seattle scene] had a long time to kind of incubate, I think, and all these people just did their own thing without anybody watching them, and that’s why all these cool bands and cool labels and I guess you could also say really cool communities of musicians developed really naturally. And then when the whole thing exploded and the media got a hold of it, it was like everybody in the world came to Seattle to write their definitive article on Seattle, and for a period of time you couldn’t go anywhere if you were a musician like me and not get asked a million questions about what it’s really like, and people were trying to infiltrate it. I mean, enough has really been written about it, but I think the thing about Seattle and why it actually happened is it really was a great place with a bunch of great musicians. It wasn’t just some fluke–it was waiting to happen, in a way. Obviously now it’s not quite the boomtown that it was and all that good stuff, but there’s a lot of great musicians there and I’m proud to call it home. I like it quite a bit.
LAUNCH: The fact that it’s not a boomtown anymore–isn’t that essentially a good thing?
JON: It is in ways. You don’t feel like you’re intruded upon so much by the outside scrutiny of the media. But as far as like, perhaps studios and labels, it isn’t quite like the cash cow that it once was. For me, it’s OK–I don’t mind it. I can’t speak for people whose studios have shut down and things like that–that must not be a good thing, obviously. You know, that’s just the way it goes–it happens, and it’s not going to last forever. I’m just kind of glad it’s not so much of a circus anymore. It’s really funny to look back at a movie like Hype, which is a really good document of it, but boy, grunge really dated itself! I mean, people wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a flannel shirt anymore, but you look at that and it was only like, eight years ago. And we see ourselves and the way our friends looked…it’s almost like how John Hughes movies or something date themselves for the ’80s. You know, they are just so ’80s! Grunge just really kind of dated itself, even though the bands were great–just the whole scene and the whole fashion and stagediving and boots and…you know what I’m talking about.
LAUNCH: I remember when flannels started showing up on the fashion runways in New York.
JON: I remember an A&R man of ours coming up to us, after grunge hit, in his designer flannel and sneakers. It was just amazing. There’s nothing stranger than real life, you know.
KEN: I think Seattle was a hilarious and sometimes farcical adventure in cultural spontaneous combustion. I know that not everybody had a sense of humor about it, unfortunately. I saw it as a very surreal. I mean, to me it was comical until some people died and stuff. Obviously not funny, but I hope they’re looking on it all with some form of amusement now, going, “What a strange trip it’s been.” At least I felt real lucky to see it all go down, to see something that influential and kind of inexplicable happen. I love those kinds of inexplicable events, that just everybody decides that something is going to happen without realizing they’re all deciding it at the same time all over the world. Obviously I’ve traveled a lot also as a tourist–I’ve been to some places like Central America and Southeast Asia–and there pretty much are Nirvana and Pearl Jam shirts on teenagers in every square inch of the globe, so obviously it was a pretty influential thing. It was a good thing to watch–again, I hate to harp on this, but to me it was very funny in a way. I mean, it was very “what the hell?” I mean, these bands aren’t these rock stars but they are the ultimate spontaneously created icons, which is great.
LAUNCH: What are your thoughts on the music business?
JON: Well, as a guy who has always been very idealistic in the way I perceive music and the reasons for why I did music, the music business has always frightened me a little bit–’cause you know, it’s not about the business, it’s about making the music, right? But once you get involved in the business, the bigger aspects and even the smaller aspects of it, it does become a business, and I think doing it on a major label, obviously there were certain benefits and it was quite good in ways. It did kind of alienate me a little bit, and now that we’re kind of just doing things on a more independent level, which obviously a lot of people are doing now through the Internet or just selling directly to your fanbase, now I find it infinitely more satisfying. I can make something when I want to make it and nobody tells me how to do it or what to do and when to do it. You know, it’s a little more responsibility, but maybe that’s ’cause you’ve got to then take care of all the little dirty details yourself, but I like it. For me it just feels like a grass-roots thing, and I like it.
LAUNCH: Since you have played together for so long, when you are doing your own stuff is it hard to block each other out?
JON: I picture Ken sometimes, but not usually when I am doing other music. It’s weird, the one thing I would say about Ken and mine’s musical relationship is that–and I think he might say the same thing too–is that we sing really well together. I mean, we grew up in high school choirs together and listening to the same records, and it’s not so much hard to find a good drummer for me or another musician to play with, but finding someone I can sing with as well is definitely a challenge. And it probably always will be. And a lot of people at these acoustic shows that we’ve been doing have stated that to me in no uncertain terms: that we sound really good together. I totally agree with that.