The Posies are pure pop incarnate. Ever since emerging from the Seattle music world with the 1988 album Failure, the two mainstays of the band—singer/guitarists Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow have moved in and around the pop universe, adding in the influences of '70s power rock, psychedelia, and punk into the mix. And during the almost 25 years that they have been writing and recording together, the pair have embarked on many adventures together and separately: solo albums and tours, a long stint as members of a reunited Big Star, Stringfellow joining as a touring member of R.E.M., and even recording a psyched up version of "What The World Needs Now Is Love" with that song's creator Burt Bacharach for the first Austin Powers soundtrack.
The Posies most recent album Blood/Candy—a crackling collection of modern psych pop released last year on Rykodisc—further solidifies the band's reputation as one of the premier NW rock groups of all time. As does the show they will be playing on Thursday at the Doug Fir where they will perform their 1993 masterpiece Frosting On The Beater in its entirety. We caught up with Auer and Stringfellow via e-mail for this edition of Videosyncrasy.
The Posies performing "Definite Door" (from Frosting) on The Word in 1993
This is a particularly keyed up performance for you guys...was there something in particular that set you guys off?
Ken Stringfellow: We had a very specific time limit. They said they would only show us for three minutes or three and a half minutes, etc., so we decided to end the songs ourselves. We timed it, so that at the time right before they would cut us off we would destroy all the backline, etc. But also, we were just into it, at the time.
Jon Auer: They wanted to fuck with the arrangement of our song so we decided to fuck with their show. Seemed like a fair trade to me.
Did the folks at The Word give you any grief about you smashing things up?
JA: I honestly can't remember. In the end, it seemed to work in both our favors.
KS: I doubt they were speaking to us by that point. But it was good TV, so it was probably OK with them.
How do you feel about doing TV performances like this?
JA: Personally, as strange as they can be, I wish we would do more.
How excited were you when you got the call asking you to be part of Big Star?
JA: Very excited. I still have a cassette recording of the message Jody Stephens left me asking to be part of it.
KS: Well, at first they only needed one person, and they called asking for Jon. But I was determined to get in there...and I did. Their first choice of bass players, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, was too busy to do it (this was five years before he & I would end up playing together, so I didn't know him yet). I went to SXSW that year and found the kids from University of Missouri that were putting on the show, and cornered them. I am not sure I threatened physical violence, but it wouldn't have been beneath me to do so when the stakes were that high. I HAD to be involved.
Did Alex and Jody ask you along primarily on the strength of the 1992 "Feel"/"I Am The Cosmos" 7" like the liner notes to the CD of this show said?
KS: Alex had nothing to do with it, really. Jody was more on the logistical tip, and we knew him quite well at this point. The single was certainly an icebreaker, but also, Jody was a real fan our album Dear 23, which we'd thought about recording at Ardent.
JA: The liner notes of the CD also say that Alex requested certain songs to be sung by someone other than him and this is inaccurate. We just sang the songs he didn't feel like singing, simple as that. There's an account of it all in this book.
What was the experience of this first show like? Did it feel like the big deal that it eventually was?
JA: Surreal is the most appropriate word to describe it. I was just glad to get through it and didn't make too many mistakes. I remember waking Alex up pretty close to the beginning of the show as well; knocking on his hotel door room very nervously. I'm glad he answered.
KS: It was pretty intense. People flew in from all over the world. The front row was like Jonathan Poneman, Nick Kent...well, every UK journalist you could think of, really, and lots of people from bands. We knew we had to do it right. And we didn't have that many rehearsals—two days in Seattle with Alex & Jody and a run through the night before with just Jody. The results are quite good, but nothing as good as the band we eventually became. Chemistry cannot be faked and it took a few shows for us to get the vibe of Alex at that point as opposed to the guy we only knew from records.
Can I ask what it was like for you guys when you heard of Alex's death?
KS: Well, I was about to get on a plane and head to Austin to perform with Big Star at SXSW. It was Thursday morning in Paris, and I was leaving Friday. I logged in and saw that Alex was trending on Twitter, and I just knew that couldn't be good. I knew instinctively what had happened. And of course my phone started ringing off the hook—NME, Uncut, all the UK press calling. So meanwhile, I had to compose myself and find some intelligent things to say, and then we had to decide: do we the show? We decided to go forward and make a tribute show out of it, and that was a huge organization to do last minute. In fact, there was no time to reflect on the events. And it really hit me if and when there were moments to catch my breath. I've really not suffered much in terms of loss. My folks are still alive, and I've had only one close friend pass away, many years ago. So, this was a major, significant sock to the gut. And I was still standing there with the wind knocked out of me, for a long time, 'til I could actually work my way through it. Of course people interview me all the time and I speak in the present tense about him. "Well, Alex is the kind of person..." and then I correct myself.
JA: I was really crushed. It just came so out of the blue. Jody just called and told it like it was. I was rehearsing for a David Bowie tribute show at the moment I heard, singing the song "Quicksand." After Jody told me, I couldn't get past the line in the song, "Knowledge comes with death's release" without choking up. So strange. I'd just talked to Alex two days prior as well, so it made it even harder to accept.
How do you feel about folks filming your live performances like this? All part of the game? An annoyance?
JA: Part of the game. What can you do? Life is too short to get annoyed by this at this point.
KS: I'm glad things get documented somehow. Every now and then there's one with good lighting and sound.
Your new album was recorded in an impressive number of studios...was that just a result of all the people you collaborated with?
KS: Yes, partially. The guests did things on their own. It also reflects the fact that the band is spread across three countries on two continents in terms of where we live. So, Paris and Seattle were represented in various studios. And, I happened to working on a record in Ecuador when Jon needed a correction in some backing vocals, so I did that there.
On the recorded version of this song, you have a guest vocal from Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers. How did you connect with him?
KS: Firstly, we thought that the bass line of this song sounded like the Stranglers. Secondly, our engineer, Paco, at the studio in Spain where we tracked the album, happened to know him—many a musician finds there way to El Puerto de Santa Maria, it's like a little colony of music and art people. Passed me the email and Hugh was thrilled to do it. He's truly a gentleman, very generous with his time and really kind and fun to be around. He was coming to El Puerto anyway, later, so he hooked up with Paco to do his bits.
Was there any reasoning behind the length of time that passed between Every Kind Of Light and Blood/Candy? Busy with touring and other projects?
JA: You said it best, "Busy with touring and other projects." I spent a lot of that between time promoting a solo record called Songs From The Year Of Our Demise. Toured Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, etc., to support it. Big Star figured in there as well. There's always something going on. Never a dull moment.
How does it feel to hear people doing versions of your songs? Flattering? Terrifying?
KS: Depends. Sometimes both. No, I'm kidding. I always find it very sweet.
How about when you heard that Ringo Starr was going to cover this song?
KS: Well, we didn't hear about it. It was even more shocking. We were in L.A., and we got a call from Peter Asher's office to come by and they had something to play for us. So, there we were, sitting in this office, and they put on the CD or DAT or whatever and there was the voice...a voice from my childhood, you know..."In the tooowwwwwn where I was borrnnnnn" singing a song from my band. Of course I was shocked and flabbergasted. It was fantastic. The production was so slick that it was almost comical, just over the top. We loved it. I mean, the song is based on a Beatles reference...so, how odd that the circle closed thusly.
JA: I describe that as a "Twilight Zone Moment". Even more surreal is that we were invited to the management office of Peter Asher of Peter & Gordon fame to hear it. Asher was the producer of Ringo's version. Even Andrew Gold played on it. Truth is indeed sometimes stranger than fiction.
JA: True. And it was my Dukes of Stratosphear poster from a British vinyl copy of 25 O'Clock. I'm sure he thought we were serious geeks. We were.
I always curious if Grant Hart ever said anything to you guys about the tribute song you wrote for him?
KS: No, not really. But we became acquainted. He used to call me up and ramble on for an hour or so every now and then. And Jon & I backed him up at a festival in Minneapolis around the time that song's album was out. Playing several classic Husker Du songs. I REALLY wish that was on YouTube.
JA: Funny, I just played a show with Grant in Vancouver B.C. back in July. Did a solo set before his. We had sushi together before the show and talked about many different subjects. The song "Grant Hart" was not one of them. I know he is aware of it.
I heard you play this here in Portland a bit ago, and Ken sounded like he was going for a full-on metal/punk vibe with his singing. How much do songs end up changing from show to show and tour to tour?
KS: I think over the years we punked up our show more and more. I was always into punk music. That The Posies came out of the gate so sweet and light is simply proof I had nothing to prove, nothing to hide. We could be naive and innocent sounding. No need to tattoo up and swagger. And we took a lot of shit for it. We weren't "heavy" enough for some people. Like music can only go one way.
JA: Not much really, honestly. That said, we have been known to do a country version of "Solar Sister" and a wicked reggae version of "Dream All Day."