KEN AND JON’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE Posies Pt. 1

 

“A bad plan that
worked out fabulously”: on friendship, feuds, Big Star, and why you don’t want
to tag them as Power Pop perfectionists
.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Like many outfits that boast a lengthy trajectory, the
Posies have had their share of triumphs and tragedies over the course of their
stellar 22-year history. While universally lauded for both their aptitude and
invention – evidenced by a musical palette that’s brightly illuminated and yet
often cast in shadows – the band’s two principals, Ken Stringfellow and Jon
Auer, have rarely been content to pursue the predictable, either within the
confines of the group or through their own individual efforts. The pair are
intrinsically intertwined, both personally and professionally, having known
each other since their school days. Yet, they’ve frequently pursued parallel
paths, reverting to solo projects and even splitting up for a time, most
famously when internal friction forced a hiatus during the latter part of the
‘90s.

 

Fortunately, their bonds weren’t severed entirely. Recruited
by Big Star’s Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, Stringfellow and Auer helped
revive that revered band while reinventing themselves in the process. Their
first major effort following their much anticipated reunion, 2005’s Every Kind of Light, demonstrated that
they were as inspired as ever, and like such perennial Posies classics as Failure, Frosting on the Beater, Dear
23
, Success and Amazing Disgrace, it elevated them to a
new peak of creative prowess. Their extraordinary combination of craft and
composition is evidenced once again in the band’s new opus, Blood/Candy (Rykodisc) an album that
further expands the Posies’ sumptuous template. With the added input of bassist
Matt Harris, drummer Darius Minwalla and producer Paco Loco, Auer and
Stringfellow are convinced they’ve made an album that will seal their
reputation as two of Rock’s most profound practitioners.

 

BLURT recently had the opportunity to speak with both of the
Posies’ main men individually, and over the course of some lengthy
conversations, we were given some intriguing insights from each man’s
individual perspective. Aside from delving deeply into their tangled
relationship and the schism that pierced their partnership, they also spoke
passionately, and at great length, about the misconceptions that dog their
band’s identity, the challenge of convening when they’re half a planet apart,
their ongoing personal projects, and Big Star’s uncertain future.

 

In part one of our discussion, we talk to Ken Stringfellow
from his home in France. In part two, coming Monday, we conclude by chatting
with Auer from his longtime base in Seattle.

 

***

 

BLURT: So with the
band’s ups and downs, lulls and activity, what still drives the Posies at this
point?

 

KEN STRINGFELLOW: We’ve never been so successful as to be in
position where we can unquestionably question how are records will be received
or anticipated or perceived. We don’t have too many laurels to rest on in a way
and that’s really for the betterment of our hunger in our pursuit of
excellence. I mean, we’ve never to gotten to the bloated stage, shall we say,
but we don’t do stuff very often. We have a pretty rich life, both Jon and I,
doing other things and I think that’s part of it too. As I have pointed out in
previous interviews, the last album we made, we were in our thirties, and the
album before that, we were in our twenties, and this album is out and we’re in
our forties, so we’re taking it slow in many ways. And then also I think it’s
not like, “ok, we have to get an album out this year so we can do the tours,
and then we have to do it again, next year.” It’s far from routine, and I can
even see us doing it a little more than it’s been done before, but it certainly
hasn’t been… You have to save up some juice each time, and I think that’s been
the case with us. So many things have changed and gone on in our lives since
the last album a few years ago. But we still bring a lot of experiences to the
picture on this album especially since our last album in 2004 when it was
actually recorded. 

 

How do you balance
all the various projects you do on the side and still make time for a Posies
project?

There seems to be a natural kind of way to some degree for the material. I kind
of write as I feel like its going to be used for something, so as this album
became an instant reality last year – we thought, “ok, let’s do this thing, we
have a couple of ideas for it, let’s inspire some more ideas.” I started
writing more frequently. I’m a very infrequent writer in general, as silly as
that may seem for someone who has a reputation for having a prolific output. So
hence there’s some confusion there. But basically, by planning ahead for this
album, we cleared out a huge chunk of this year knowing if we put a record out,
we could probably do a lot with it. So that’s just about planning ahead. As far
as which material goes, once the plan was in place, it was very easy to start
writing, knowing it would be heard in a way. It sounds very selfish, but in
fact, knowing that there would be this idea of an album gave me enough of a
framework, and it was inspiring enough, to start writing. Writing for me is
kind of anything goes, but at least it kind of spurred me on to be a little
more active. I’m really, really very much an opportunist in many ways. If it
wasn’t for this album, I’d be doing what I normally do, which is sort taking
things as they come up, which is, oh yeah, I’ll play over here and ok, sounds
good, I’ll play over there and do that… This is like going forward with a plan
of attack, and that’s very refreshing and inspiring.

 

What else is on your
plate theoretically at any given time outside the Posies parameters?

 

I have this band The Disciplines, which is based in Norway,
and we have a new album that’s 95% finished that we’re going to put out next
year. We do stuff pretty regularly and I do just a shit load of studio work and
playing and producing for all kinds of records, and that takes up a big chunk
of my year. I’ve also developed quite a following and have my little niche out
there in the world that I follow around as well, and one of these years I’ll do
another Ken Stringfellow album. I haven’t done one in six years, but you can
see by my pace, that’s kind of par for the course.

 

You live in Paris,
right?

I do. I’ve lived in France for seven years now. I’m speaking to you now from my
family’s summer home, which is in another part of France. I sneak down here
every August.

 

You recorded this
album in a variety of international locales and you seem to have a huge
following in Spain. The Posies truly seem to be an international band.

 

I think that was a goal, at least for me personally, I’m not
sure for everyone. I’ve always had a, how do I say, kind of a great interest in
faraway places, and I always enjoyed pouring over maps and almanacs when I was
a kid, and was just ready to go. So in a way, I’ve used my career as a musician
as a tool to get to places in a manner that I wouldn’t get to normally. I can
just show up somewhere, but it’s much more interesting to go with a purpose,
like to meet people to work on a project together or do a recording.  I’ve definitely cultivated that for myself,
in and around the Posies, pushing it as far as I can in a global sense and
getting to new places. The Posies have played all over Europe and we’ve played
in Asia, and with my thing as a solo artist, I’ve pushed very, very far.

 

How do you come to
choose Paris as a place to live?

I married the beautiful Dominique and started a family. It’s kind of a natural fit.
I think I fell in love with France and Dominique in a very similar way and at a
very similar time, and there was no doubt that if I had the choice between
living in Seattle or living here, that I would end up living here. I ruled
Seattle with a velvet glove in many ways and I was up for a challenge, and I
have settled in very comfortably in France. 
But also Europe is really like my bread and butter, where I do the most
shows and where I draw the most people who are interested in working with me
and with my band. Now I have another band and they’re based in Europe. Plus,
there are a number of other little things that drew me here. There are many
reasons why I could justify my decision, but it was a decision of the heart
anyway… life came to me, so it was kind of like one of those wonderful things.
I took a big leap of faith and I was rewarded for it.

 

Is it a challenge in
terms of logistics when you guys do reconvene, owing to the fact that you both
reside on opposite sides of the globe?

 

It’s an extra plane ticket, but I think it works out
actually. Because we’re so popular in Europe, so many times in last few years,
we’ve been doing things only in Europe, little one-off tours and that kind of
thing, so in that sense I’m saving quite a bit of money by already being here.
That kind of balances out when I have to go to Seattle just to rehearse.
Between the four of us, we have four guys in three different countries and four
different cities so it’s just a plane ticket. You’d be surprised – even for
just one-off things it’s doable.

 

When the Posies
started off in Seattle, you emerged at a very distinctive time in the city’s
musical evolution. It was the grunge era, and yet your sound was pretty much on
the opposite side of the spectrum, very sweet and melodic. How were you
perceived back then?

 

I think it was one of those examples of having such a bad
plan that it worked out fabulously. We were couple of doofuses from a small
town – albeit a very cool small town, Bellingham – which had some very
wonderful things about it – had and has – and with a small town, but an
enlightened one in many ways, it had a university-based, kind of hippie
subculture.  So it wasn’t like being from
Kentucky or anything like that. But we were still incredibly naive and
incredibly uninformed about a lot of things in the wide world of music.

       We were barely
out of our teens when we moved to Seattle. We sort of started the band in
Bellingham while we were going to the university there and it started to take
further shape when Jon moved down to Seattle to join me. We were so naïve, we
sort of had this kind of Chauncey Gardner kind of bounce to the top. We were so
unaware of the boundaries and the limitations we couldn’t even think to respect
them or to be intimidated by them. So sometimes, sticking out like a sore thumb
is a very good thing in the artistic world, right?  Being notorious or even being despised isn’t
even a deal breaker.  It can give you wings.
People kind of laughed at the pure twee-ness of our music when we started out,
and I can too in listening to it now, but I think it’s sweet and well
intentioned. But it was so out of sync with the prevailing winds, but the
prevailing winds were strong enough that it picked up a lot of stuff that went
along with it that just happened to be from there, like us, and I think that
Seattle’s much more of a diverse place than that music scene would have allowed
you to believe.

       I also think
that Seattle generates a number of interesting thinkers in a number of
interesting areas and I think it was sort of necessary for Seattle to have some
extra tools in the tool belt. I think that gave the story a little more weight
and more length. More things come from Seattle, and Seattle is still very
fertile, but where a lot of once-lauded musical scenes have carried forward in
the same way up until now, Seattle is still cranking them out with a lot of
interesting bands. But it’s less true for places like Minneapolis or some of
those other cities that had just exploded at the same time, Minneapolis simply
being a classic example. They were diverse too, but Seattle had a lot of things
going for it musically that were far beyond and far more interesting than just
that one sound and that’s been its saving grace in a way. I’m not trying to
take credit for being Seattle’s saving grace, but I think we did well. We were
a very popular band at that time – ’88. ’89. ’90, ’91 — before the big wave
crashed or exploded, whatever way you want to put it. I think the grunge thing
was very important, kind of the warhead of the whole thing, but there was a lot
more fuel to propel it along than just that.

 

Many people believe
that the Posies were a leading force in accelerating the popularity of Power
Pop, or Retro Pop, whatever you want to call it. Do you accept credit for that?

 

Well, not willingly. I do feel that the kind of
sunshine-ness and teenager-ness of that kind of music is associated with us
thanks to Failure, our very
sunshinery and teenagery first album we made when we were teenagers. Many times
people approach us and say,” Oh, you’re going to love this band, they sound
just like you,” and I don’t hear it at all. We’re not a three chord, bop-a-bop
kind of band and I feel like we’ve taken on a lot more in our agenda and
delivered a lot more musically than that. A band like Cheap Trick has sort of
been labeled with the same sort of thing and we’re not like that band either,
but they’ve also pushed some boundaries here and there. And yet they’ve also
fallen into a middle age groove later on. I just don’t know.  My reaction to the term is a sort of “uhhhhh.” After all we’ve done, and all
the places musically that we’ve been, and all the people from all the different
places I’ve worked with, is that going to be on my tombstone? Please, no. Please write “musician” instead.

 

But in the broader
sense, those terms represent a very melodic, very accessible, very agreeable
sound, and in that regard, those comments are meant to be very complimentary.

 

I’ll take the compliment, that’s for sure. Yes I agree in
that sense. I think the term applies to a band that’s far more accessible and
far more melodic in one way, but it also applies to a rock ‘n’ roll band that
actually has true gritty rock ‘n’ roll in their program, a band like say, the
Beach Boys. For some reason, they elude that and have plenty of one-four-five
type of things. I’ll accept membership in that club, but I would also like to
get credit for the more orchestrated and ambitious nature of some of our music,
which is definitely in there if a listener looks for it. They don’t have to
look hard; they just have to listen to more than one album.

Then they could listen to the new album.
It certainly makes that case. It seems very ambitious. Was that the intent… to
up the ante so to speak?

 

I think it’s certainly a nice by-product. I think that the
music that’s on this album is really where we’re at. From my point of view, the
songs were written kind of one-two-three-four, one after the other. When this
album was coming together, I didn’t have an agenda or something to demonstrate
in that sense. Yet, it really is demonstrative that our palette is wider than
Power Pop, which I would claim for the last one, or the one before that, or the
one before that even. I feel like we’ve already scored the touchdown of eclecticism
and I hope this gives us the extra point, at least. I would like to think the
point is sort of proven, but if this doesn’t convince people that we are
expressing a number of different styles and possibilities, then geez, I don’t
think people can be convinced at that point. Then it’s just, “okay, we’re a
Power Pop band, here we go.”

 

Speaking of which,
what’s the current status of Big Star?

 

That’s a really good question. There’s the obvious answer,
which is that it was finished long ago, and now its second life has come to an
end as well. It’s been a hard year for Jody (Stephens). His friends have died
and it calls into question many things. He’s not old — in today’s day and age
59 is nothing like it used to be — but he’s like, “What am I going to do now?
Am I going to stop playing music?” Still, people know about him and he’s been
given opportunities sort of based on that band. He loves playing with Jon and
I, and we love playing with Jody, but we’re just not really sure what to do
really. I think time will provide us some kind of opportunity, and I think it’s
up to us to exercise good taste and restraint. We can’t call it Big Star,
that’s just ludicrous.

       I think there
are so many musicians that are into that band, perhaps once a year we can do
something and the people that love Big Star could come and join us like they
did earlier this year in Memphis. Maybe we do another event in tribute that
just happens to have Jody and Jon and me as part of it. That’s something I
could imagine. But it’s really a tragedy and now we’re just trying to sort it
all out.

 

To be continued…

 

[Photo Credit: Christine Taylor]

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