KEN AND JON’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE Posies Pt. 2

 

“When you stay ready
you never have to get ready”: a rock ‘n’ roll manifesto to live by.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

 

In Pt. 1 of our pair of Posies interviews, Ken Stringfellow
shared his thoughts on the Posies’ place in Rock’s pantheon, the history he
shares with his longtime friend and collaborator Jon Auer, the circumstances
that temporarily tore them apart, and the current state of their ever-resilient
relationship. In part two, we turn our attention to Jon Auer, and give him the
opportunity to reflect on some of those same subjects, as well as his views on
the Posies’ new album and Big Star’s continuing prospects following the recent
passing of its founder, the legendary Alex Chilton. (You can read the
Stringfellow section of our story here.)

 

***

 

BLURT: Given your initial promise, why did you
title your first album Failure?

 

JON AUER: Hmm. Why did we title our first album Failure? Because we’re really quite
twisted. That just kind of shows you where our heads were at, coming from the
minds of a 16 and a 17 year-old respectively. I was just getting out of high
school, Ken was going to his first year of college, and we just thought it
would be really funny to call the first thing you do Failure right out of the gate. It was about being aficionados of
dark comedy, black humor, whatever you want to call it. You can also blame the
Smiths for that too because we were huge Morrissey fans at the time, as well as
the whole obvious kind of ‘60s thing we were going through. We were huge fans
of the dichotomy and juxtaposition of catchy melodies and hummable type things.
But if you look beneath the surface, there’s a lot more going on there in the
lyrics than people would instantly assume from hearing a bouncy tune. That’s
where we were at though. We just thought it was terribly funny to do something
like that.

 

So you guys met in
high school?

 

We met before high school. I think I met Ken when I was 12
and he was 13, at a local music store. He was in a band and they were looking
for another guitar player, and I was the kind of guy who spent every waking
hour at the local music store playing guitar and annoying everybody in the
store. Word kind of spread and these two guys came down one day, and this one
guy said, “You’re a hot shot guitar player and we’re looking for a guitar
player for our band and do you want to join?” 
I was like, who is this guy? And I looked behind him and there was this
other guy who wasn’t saying anything, and he was kind of shy and that was Ken.

       To make a long
story short, we always were joining the same bands and kind of gravitated to
each other, and then we would quit these bands and sort of form these other
things together. That kind of led to us hanging out all the time. We were kind
of best friends, like bosom buddies in the early days. I had this studio in my
house eventually too, because my father was a musician and he kind of stopped
using it, so I would spend all my time just kind of hanging out there and
trying to make little records. And eventually Ken became part of that equation
and that’s where we did the first Posies record. We did it on weekends, between
school basically. It’s really kind of ridiculous and quaint in some ways. But
that’s really what we had to work with in Bellingham, this small town that we
came from.

 

Do you still live in
Seattle?

Yes, I travel a lot but that’s kind of my home base. I just
got back from New York and I’m going to Singapore in about a week. I’m doing a
couple of solo shows there and I’m doing one in Malaysia too. It’s funny —
since ’92, let’s just say I have a lot of frequent flyer miles. Ken’s in Europe
now obviously, but a lot of what we do and what I do has to do with going to
Europe. So man, I travel a lot. He
travels a lot as well, but also we do a lot of travel in Europe. Going from
France to Norway is kind of like going from Washington to California, or even
less. For me, I’ve got to do the ten-hour plane ride. That’s okay because we’re
just lucky, I’m just lucky, even beyond the Posies, for my solo career. It’s
nice to have that kind of support somewhere in the world.

 

You and Ken are
remarkably prolific, even beyond your work with the Posies. How do you manage
to balance it all?

 

I think it’s like life. The more you put into it, the more
you get out of it. Isn’t that the equation? Sure it can be challenging at times
in terms of scheduling and putting your nose to the grindstone, but generally I
find that the more I’m working on things, like other projects, the more they
tend to inform everything else. It’s kind of like getting on a roll and staying
on that roll, and maybe you don’t get as many breaks as you’d like sometimes,
but that’s just par for the course. I find it kind of easier to just keep going
than to try to pick the breaks. I can’t remember who said it, but there’s a
saying that goes something like “when you stay ready you never have to get
ready.” You stay prepared. Like I said, it all informs everything. When I work
on a project with the band, or I’m producing a band or I’m playing solo, or I’m
playing with Big Star, there’s always little chunks of inspiration that are
related to other things you do. And I think it’s super healthy for the Posies,
because the Posies were really something we put all of our eggs into one basket
for, for so long back in the day, and I think it almost got to be unhealthy in
the long term. In fact, I know it got to be unhealthy in the long term.

 

Is that why the two
of you decided to take a break for awhile?

 

That’s why we had to take a break from each other at one
point, why we had to have the proverbial break-up. I just think there’s no way
you can have a successful long term relationship and not go through some kind
of major overhaul or reassessment at some point. That’s the way it works in any
kind of long term relationship, and we have that kind of long term relationship
and it still exists, which, I think, is a testament to the relationship itself.
We’ve taken it for granted, we’ve enjoyed it, we’ve nurtured it, we’ve abused
it… we’ve done everything we can to do to a relationship and it’s still here,
so I don’t want to get too analytical about it because it’s hard to know how it
works, because ultimately it does or it doesn’t. But in our case it does.

 

There seem to be a
lot of Rock duos that have had the same challenges – Lennon and McCartney,
Simon and Garfunkel… do you think it’s the same scenario? 

 

Wow, it’s hard when you put it in comparison with those
other relationships. I don’t know about that. I just know what it was like for
us to have two hyper-creative people in a situation like that for that long,
and then you compound it with the fact that there’s a lot of friendship and
history there. You’re talking about people that went through many formative
experiences together. We’re talking graduations from school, we’re talking
proms… you know what I’m saying? That’s a lot to put on one relationship.
That’s a lot within one relationship and in many ways, I think ours is unique
in that respect. I know there are other partnerships that have been together a
long time and have gone through similar things but I’m not sure if all of them
go as far back as ours…

 

The two we mentioned
before certainly did though.

 

I guess that’s true. I guess in those cases you’re totally
right, so I guess it’s fair to draw parallels.


So when exactly did you two decide to declare a break?

I think the year we can agree on is 1998. That seems about
right. In fact, that’s totally right. We had a European tour that we came back
from and it was pretty obvious that the writing was on the wall. And I think
the writing was large enough on said wall that we actually just blew off an
entire U.S. tour that we had lined up just afterwards because it was just
pretty unbearable. I mean, we still played well because we’re professionals and
we pride ourselves on putting on a good show no matter what, but it just wasn’t
worth it at that point. For me personally, I didn’t get into this to not enjoy
myself. We both had things going on in our personal lives so that contributed
to it, but it wasn’t enjoyable to go out and be around each other any more, and
I wasn’t the only one who was feeling it. It was pretty much everybody in the
band at that time. It was just pretty ridiculous at the time and not healthy.

 

It sounds really
tense.

 

If you’re detecting some understatement, feel free to quote
me on that. But when you put this in the context of our history, it doesn’t
seem like something inappropriate. It seems like what was necessary to happen
in order for it to be what it is. That’s the way a lot of life is. I mean,
sometimes you go through something that seems quite horrible at the time, but
you realize later that it’s exactly what was required in order to have this
experience in your life. It was necessary, and I think that it was totally
necessary for us. It was the only way we were going to get back to appreciating
each other.

 

So how many years did
this split last?

 

Not very long. Even though in the eyes of the public we
weren’t working together, we were working together as soon as 2000. In fact,
Ken and I were working on this box set, At
Least At Last
, which is actually one of my favorite things. It’s this
straight warts and all collection of demos and outtakes, and we wrote these
fairly cool liner notes too. We took turns, and they’re fairly revelatory, and
they don’t pull any punches and people really liked that about them and I did
as well. But we had a lot of fun doing this box set. We sat in this room
together and went through multiple tapes and archives and it was kind of – this
might sound like a cliché – but it was a process of rediscovering one another.
And I think our humor was also was appreciated a lot too. We make each other
laugh and we were still doing that, so it still seemed like there was still
something there worth investigating.

       That box set
experience turned into this one of a kind acoustic duo show that we did
together in Seattle, which was back to how we started as an acoustic duo in
Bellingham. And we recorded it for this release that came out. So long story
short, I’m just saying that this very organic set of experiences and
circumstance occurred and then we were playing together again. And we went on a
tour. We decided this acoustic guitar duo is a lot of fun, so we took our
acoustic guitars and went around the world. And we went everywhere from Japan
and Australia to Europe and the States. We must have been gone for a good two,
two and a half months on the road together and we had a really good time. So
these kind of things, being what they are, people said, gee, if you’re going to
pick up a couple of acoustic guitars, why not pick up a couple of electric
guitars and find a bass player and drummer who want to play with you and let’s
get back to the electric side of things, and that’s what we did. We did a few
tours and then that led to Ryko’s release of 2005, Every Kind of Light, and that’s the first proper record we did in
awhile. So its funny, for a band that had broken up, we were remarkably busy.

 

Then the Big Star
thing was happening as well, right?

 

Well that’s something that never stops and we’d see each
other every once in awhile because Big Star is an infrequent occurrence, or it
was. Big Star was something that happened maybe once, twice or even three times
a year. Ever since 1993 really, so we had a good 17 years with Jody and Alex
from that. That’s another facet to the relationship. Not only were we doing
that together, but we were doing that together with someone else. That was like
such a great thing to be a part of, such a deep and dark experience as well.

       The last couple
of things we did were actually shows that were booked as Big Star, but they
turned into tributes to Alex. There was one in Memphis, and there was one at
South by Southwest that we put together at the last minute that came off really
good. I was just up in New York doing some solo stuff and then Jody and I did
this tribute to Alex Chilton, and Yo La Tengo and Evan Dando and Jon Spencer
came by. It’s amazing the number of people that eat that music up. There’s such
a longevity to it. It’s even more bittersweet now. It’s amazing the kind of
attention that it’s gotten since Alex passed and now more recently Andy
Hummel.  I guess that’s the way things
work… but anyway, I digress…

 

When you originally
decided to resuscitate Big Star, did you feel a lot of pressure, being a part
of this hallowed outfit? Did you fee an enormous sense of responsibility in
taking Andy Hummel and Chris Bell’s place, like maybe you were taking too much
on?

 

No, I don’t think so. To be honest, I think there was a
healthy amount of denial in the whole situation. I can only speak for myself,
but I can say that I just got down to business and didn’t take that situation
for granted. It was so great to even be asked to be a part of. I just wanted to
do a good job. And once you get into a situation like that, you realize people
are people, it’s not about putting on some airs or getting freaked out. It’s
just about being good and being human and being present, and it felt very
natural from the get-go. Those guys were great with us and we had a good time
with them. At first, we were like the hired guns, but we’ve been playing with
them long enough that they made us equal partners. We shared equally, which I
thought was very generous, but at the same time, we were also helping to keep
this thing alive. Without being too reverential about it, we wanted to make
sure it was done and done right, so we put a lot of ourselves and a lot of care
into the work we did with them. We had our stuff down and ready to deliver
whenever it needed to be delivered.

 

At the same time the
Posies themselves have also taken on this sort of hallowed aura. Many people
see your band as having helped kick-start the whole Power Pop/Retro Pop
movement into high gear, The fact is, when it comes down to that accessible
Rock ‘n’ Roll sound, the Posies have kind of been in the forefront of all that.
So how do you feel about your place in that so-called Pop pantheon?

 

Hmmm. Interesting, I think we’ve gotten this kind of
musician type tag in a lot of ways. We’re appreciated by a lot of people that
appreciate music for music’s sake and there isn’t necessarily a lot that’s
identifiable or fashionable about us. It’s always been about people just kind
of appreciating the songs, the craft and the ability that’s in there. I guess
I’m a little riled about the Power Pop connotation because it’s a little
misleading sometimes. There have been
points along the way, and elements of what we’ve done that have really been
construed as that. We’ve kind of gotten labeled with that for better or
for worse, and sometimes I have to say honestly, for worse.

       I’ll give you an example to illustrate
my point. The album Frosting on the
Beater
. I’m really proud of that record, and I had a great time making it,
but it always gets lumped in as “one of the great Power Pop records of all
time.” I feel like people who say that haven’t listened to the whole record.
It’s just so much more to me than just a “Power Pop” record. I do feel like
there are songs on there that fit into that category, but I just feel like,
it’s fortunate to be appreciated but it’s unfortunate to get tagged with that
label, because some people will just never give us a chance or hear anything
past that label. I think we’re more diverse than that, and if you look at
everything we’re doing, it’s not just that every song is a hummable melody. The
Power Pop thing to me implies a lightness, and I feel we have a little more
depth. You can tell, I have some thoughts on this…

 

Yes, you do…

 

Look at Big Star.
They get labeled as a Power Pop band and certainly “September Gurls”
is the template for something like that. But don’t tell me that “Such a
Lover” is a Power Pop record, and don’t tell me that three quarters of Radio City is even a Power Pop record. I
feel the same way about us. It’s a convenient label, but it doesn’t do service
for the whole she-bang, the whole picture.

 

Ken had the same comment…

 

Go figure.

 

But on the other hand, doesn’t that label
also imply an inherent melodic sensibility, a level of accessibility and
enjoyment? It inspires a certain positive surge of emotion.

 

That’s great and I
appreciate it. I guess for me, there’s a definite darkness but there’s always
light at the end of the tunnel. That’s how I view it. No matter how dark things
get along the way, there’s always that eventual light up ahead. So maybe what
you pick up on is the ultimate hope and positivity in something without being
maudlin or light about it. That’s my philosophy of life anyway. The going
ultimately gets tough for everybody in this life, but I think there is a light
at the end of that tunnel and you keep going and you persevere. We’re proof
positive that good things can come out of negative situations at points, you
know? That’s life. I’m not saying anything new. If anyone’s paying attention,
while they’re living, they’re going to notice it. Right?

 

That’s evident in your new album. It’s so
rich and there’s so much going on there. 
It’s really so effusive. It’s the kind of record that makes you sit up
and take notice.

 

I agree with all
that you’re saying and I really appreciate you picking up on that. There is a
lot going on in the Posies. There’s a complexity to what we do and I think that
sometimes that when you talk about the whole Power Pop thing, that maybe that
betrays the complexity and depth. And that’s my last point on that. But when
you relate it like that, you’re really getting the picture. We really try to go
out of out way to not have it just be average or run of the mill.

 

It doesn’t seem like there’s any danger of
that. On the new album it doesn’t seem to be only about the songs, but about
the arrangements as well. So where is the divide between the songs and the
arrangements? Which gets the greater emphasis?

 

It’s really hard to
give you an accurate breakdown. Sometimes it comes in fully formed with the
songs, and other times it’s just like we’re playing this game with everybody
involved and we’re just trying to get to the end of the game. And you don’t
know which path along the way you’re going to take or what numbers are going to
come up when you roll the dice together. It’s just something that occurs.  Sometimes it’s really quite a surprise.

       For example, there’s a song on the new
record called “Accidental Architecture,” which is actually something I brought
into the band, and I was really late with it. I didn’t have a demo for it and I
just had to show the band the song by playing on my guitar. Now if you listen
to that song on the record, it’s arguably the most complicated bit of music on
there. It has many tempo changes and it has a lot of different styles. I just
remember the looks on everybody’s faces when I played it for them. I just tried
to explain how things would go and what beats would go where, and the look on
their faces was something like shock and anger (laughs). Like, do you really expect us to pull this thing out of
thin air without a road map to follow? But we did, and we hacked through it.

 

How do you navigate through your arrangements
to begin with?

That’s all instinct at this point. There’s no formula for that. Geez, I mean,
it’s just a matter of what feels right and feels good to our ears and whatever
else at this point. I’d like to think I’ve been doing this long enough to know
when something feels right and when it’s going in the right direction in my
opinion. It’s funny… I just listen to that little voice and sometimes I get
hung up on the fact that maybe I’m getting too critical or I’m taking too long
on something, but invariably what I’ve found is that if I’m not happy with
something, it doesn’t end up being the way it should be. I keep working towards
that until it feels right and invariably it’s worth the effort.

 

Do both Ken and you take charge of your own
songs in terms of the arrangements?

 

Yes. This album is
definitely the product of us doing that. We did work with a producer, Paco
Loco, in the studio and he would make suggestions, but ultimately it’s coming
from us. That’s just what we work with and how we like to do things. We’ve
worked with other producers and I produce other records and so does Ken, so we
know what it’s like to do these things.

       But really, it just comes down to how
we’d like things to sound at this point. And I figure if we can make the Posies
happy then our listeners will be pleased as well. It’s one thing to make just
one of us happy, but if we can make the whole thing work, then hopefully
they’ll be something in there that’s worth listening to.

 

[Photo Credit:
Julian Ochoa]

 

 

 

 

 

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