A Cult Within A Cult: The Posies Interviewed

Peter Bagge, whose underground comic book Hate was perhaps the defining text of the Generation X-era, said the music of Seattle’s The Posies made him feel like a 16-year-old girl – and he didn’t mean it like the back-handed compliment it sounds like in 2018. He meant that the heart-rush of their hook-soaked pop walloped him with the same impact as ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 landed on a legion of ecstatic Beatlemaniac teens – that same dizzying, almost-physical hit delivered by their creamy harmonies, their molasses choruses, and the addictive strain of poignant brokenness at the heart of their greatest songs.

They were steeped in classic pop – covering The Hollies, Cheap Trick and Blondie, among countless others – while their love for mystical Memphian power-pop holies Big Star led to the unimaginable: dual singing/songwriting guitarists Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow getting to sub for absent members when Alex Chilton reformed Big Star in 1993. But they were no mere copyists – it was more like some of the stargazing magic of their heroes smudged on their fingertips and couldn’t help but smear across the tracks of their greatest albums.

They recorded their debut Failure while still teenagers, and signed to Geffen Records with their 1990 second album, Dear 23. They cut the sublime Frosting On The Beater three years later and flirted with mainstream success, before a brewing conflict between former best friends Auer and Stringfellow spilled out over their fourth album, their last for Geffen, 1996’s Amazing Disgrace. A subsequent album on the same indie label that had launched them ten years earlier, 1998’s Success, seemed to signal a sad closing bookend to The Posies’ story, but Jon and Ken’s friendship rekindled in the new millennium, leading to a reunion that’s delivered three further full-lengths that hold their own against the highlights of their classic era, along with countless gigs where the hit of their harmonies remains as pristine and irresistible as ever.

This year sees the 30th anniversary of the release of The Posies’ debut album, Failure, a milestone they’re marking with deluxe reissues of their long-out-of-print Geffen albums, and another international tour, reuniting Jon and Ken with their ‘classic’ rhythm section, bassist Dave Fox and drummer Mike Musberger. In the dressing room before one of those shows, Jon and Ken spoke openly and honestly about their friendship, the struggles that almost broke them up forever, and the music that has kept them together for three decades now, and can still deliver that purest pop magic every time they deliver it.

How did you first meet?

Ken Stringfellow: I’d started a band with a friend around 1980, in middle school, and by the time we started high school, we’d gotten wind of a young guitar player who had moved to town who reputedly could play virtually anything. After school one night, we were passing the local music store and saw a pretty young guy blazing away on heavy metal licks very impressively, and concluded this had to be the kid people were talking about. So we asked him to join our band.

Jon Auer: I was the shredder at the local music store, the kid who’d trudge down after school and just play until closing time. My father was a musician, and at one point he came into a bit of money and turned the family rec room into a little recording studio, using the laundry room as a control room. I did all the things that normal teenagers liked to do at the weekends – I’d go out, see friends and try and get people to buy us alcohol – but also, sometimes I would spend the whole weekend in the studio by myself, just come home, put on a pair of headphones, and the next thing I knew it was Sunday night and I’d be going to bed and starting the school week all over again.

KS: Jon joined our band, though we were really just getting together in the garage and jamming – but it did put Jon and me in contact. When Jon arrived in high school the following year, we reconnected and started working in Jon’s studio every day.

JA: We spent a lot of time together, in this clubhouse we had to do our music in. And we were so into it. That’s how Ken and I really bonded and got to be such good friends. We had so much in common: we were into the same music, and we’d laugh about the same things.

KS: You need a sense of humour to survive a conservative small town like Bellingham, WA, where we grew up – music and humour are saving graces, because otherwise it’s a really depressing prospect. Living in Bellingham was like something out of Footloose.

How did the Posies start?

KS: In the fall of 1986 I went to University Of Washington in Seattle. Jon and I had been really inseparable up till that point, but then we took a little break. We reconnected the following January, though, and we’d both been writing songs. One of mine was called ‘Blind Eyes Open’, and he’d written one called ‘Closed Eyes Open’, about the same kind of subject, but from the opposite perspective. Despite not spending time together or communicating for several months, our wavelengths were synchronised to the point where we’d written songs with almost the same title. We thought, well, something has come into focus here.

JA: I’d started writing songs when I was 14. The first one I can remember, ‘The Longest Line’, ended up on [the Posies’ 1988 debut album Failure]. I remember writing ‘I May Hate You Sometimes’ when I was still 16.

KS: We listened to really rockin’ music – Jon had an affiliation with metal in his pre-teen years, we loved punk rock – but we were moving towards writing songs that didn’t need attitude or production to stand on their own. Husker Du had moved in that direction, and The Replacements – that progression where songcraft entered their work.

JA: We decided to impose on Failure the idea that if the song didn’t hold up with just a voice and an acoustic guitar, then we weren’t interested in doing it. You had to be able to strip it down to the essentials and have it work.

By 1990’s Dear 23, you’d signed to a major label, you were working with famed producer John Leckie, and you scored a minor hit single with ‘Golden Blunders’, which would later be covered by Ringo Starr. More importantly, there’s a huge leap in the maturity with your song-writing – particularly on ‘Suddenly, Mary’ and ‘You Avoid Parties’, heartbreakers both.

JA: We weren’t even 20 yet, but the album seems like it was written by people who know more about life than they probably should at that point. A lot of that record is me working through my perceptions of my parents’ relationship. I’m from the first generation where divorce was really widespread – it was like an epidemic. There’s multiple marriages and divorces in my family. On Dear 23, I’m trying to grapple with that, trying to be more mature and deal with it better than I was actually really able to. It was helpful to try and put myself in my parents’ place. And ‘Suddenly, Mary’ was me looking at my father and the different relationships he went through. There’s a line in there, ‘I burned all my clothing and found a new tailor’, about how he would change with every relationship slightly, and adapt himself to the situation to survive. It wasn’t lost on me, and it wasn’t lost on him when he heard the song, either – he knew exactly what it was about when he heard it. He’s very perceptive. ‘What Little Remains’, off Failure, was about him, too, and when he heard it he knew what that was about as well. It’s been an amazing way to communicate. It’s been a great way for Ken and me to communicate, too, telling our story in kind of an indirect way.

KS: ‘You Avoid Parties’ was a slightly sympathetic condemnation of somebody who started off on the wrong foot and ended up as a hollow person – an assessment of someone’s entire life, which is quite a move, considering I was 19 when I wrote it. The song is me actively choosing the person I don’t want to be. There’re some references to difficulties growing up, with parental failures, which Jon and I had definitely experienced from our parents. That divorce generation of the 70s, where personal relationships were such a disaster, seems like it universally affected our generation. It seems like this is the person I don’t want to become, who’s a shell of a very socially confident exterior, hiding a completely broken interior.

One of your key influences was Big Star, whose cocktail of brilliance and obscurity and doomed-ness made them the archetypal ‘power-pop’ band – while also transcending the genre much as you have. 18 years after they split in disarray, Big Star unexpectedly reformed in 1993, with you guys in the band. That reunion would continue, off and on, until Alex Chilton’s death in 2010, even siring a fourth Big Star album. How the hell did any of that happen?

KS: We discovered Big Star’s music in the early days of the Posies. People, upon hearing Failure, directed us immediately to Big Star. They weren’t that much older than we were when they were making [their 1972 debut] #1 Record, but they had a maturity and worldliness that’s kind of shocking, considering that Memphis was kinda provincial back in those days.

JA: When I moved down to join Ken in Seattle, I got a job at a record store, and there was this mentor-like fellow there who was also a musician. I was always putting on Squeeze records or XTC albums, and I played this gentleman Failure, and he started playing me stuff like NRBQ, deep cuts by Elvis Costello, and he asked me if I’d heard of this band called Big Star. I said no and, very dramatically, he took me to the vinyl section, handed me the 2-for-1 copy of #1 Record/Radio City and said, “I’m gonna do you a solid and let you get off work early, and I want you to go home and put on ‘September Girls’ immediately.” So I put it on, and I was totally hooked. I started to listen to more of it. People considered them a ‘power-pop’ band, but they were so much greater than bands like the Raspberries and the Shoes and all these other bands that people tried to foist on us at times – Big Star was so above and beyond. They covered so much ground, and they were so diverse.

KS: People talk about Big Star as a cult band, but we were really like a cult within a cult. We were so into Big Star we were almost a little bit frightening. We were talking about almost nothing but Big Star and listening to and analysing their records, non-stop. It was only a matter of time before we put ourselves in the path of actual Big Star members. But they were pretty mysterious, back in 1989 – Alex was not very active at that time, and the rest of the guys… Who knew? Now there’re books, MOJO articles, documentaries about Big Star. But back then, there was nothing. It was really like uncovering some Mayan thing in the jungle with a few cryptic runes on it.

When we were gonna make Dear 23, we investigated recording it at Ardent, where Big Star had made their albums, and where Pleased To Meet Me by the Replacements and Green by R.E.M. had been done. No websites back in those days – we wrote to the studio for a brochure, and the guy who wrote and signed the cover letter was [Big Star drummer] Jody Stephens. He was the studio manager! And we couldn’t believe it – it didn’t compute. It was like writing to the chocolate factory and Willy Wonka writes a letter back. Or, at least, Willy Wonka’s drummer. [laughs]

We met with Jody, and he was quite flattered by what we were doing. I think our sincerity and our lack of cool detachment – and we’ve never mastered that art – spoke to Jody, who is very sincere. He admired us for who we were, and he loved the music.

JA: A journalist we knew in Memphis, Rick Clark, sent me a cassette of the then-unreleased I Am The Cosmos album by [troubled, deceased Big Star guitarist] Chris Bell. I remember hearing ‘I Am The Cosmos’, and within 20 seconds we were like, We’re gonna cover this, that’s all there is to it. And that led to us doing that 45 on Pop Llama with Big Star’s ‘Feel’ on the A-side and ‘I Am The Cosmos’ on the B-side, which was like a great audition for us joining Big Star. Jody really loved that single and thought it was eerie how much we nailed the vocal inflections and the sounds. And that’s sort of how we ended up playing with Big Star.

Were you nervous at that first Big Star show?

JA: I was nervous, but I wasn’t about to show it – I went into denial mode, I just had to get on with it. I had to go wake up Alex – he was taking a nap before the show, I had to go knock on his door and wake him up.

KS: And we barely knew Alex. We’d only met him when we rehearsed in Seattle for that show. Even by the time we played the shows, it was still only our second meeting. It’s amazing to me when I think about it, considering that when this was happening in early 1993, we had signed to a major label, released a rather elaborate album with a British producer of renown, toured the United States three or four times, and then made another album with a hipster American producer… And yet we were so green! We really were so green, still, in 1993. We were in our early 20s – still kids, really.

That “hipster American producer”, Don Fleming, gave Frosting On The Beater a rougher edge than Dear 23. Was that a conscious move?

KS: You certainly weren’t going to get an elaborate production with Don.

JA: Part of it was the speed with which we did things – we didn’t labour over stuff like we did with Dear 23, which was super laboured-over.

KS: We went out on the road to support Dear 23, and we had acoustic guitars along with electrics, and we were switching guitars, trying to recreate every little sound that happened on the album. And it was just impossible. We wanted to do something very ‘musical’, but it just wasn’t practical at our level. Touring the states for x amount of months after that, the show got simpler and simpler, because a) it sounded better, b) it was easier and c) it was more fun. We became that band we were on Frosting by stripping away all of the excess.

JA: There’s an energy to that record that’s just so, like, visceral and spontaneous. We had a frame of mind like, Let’s just get this down and move on, let’s not fuss over whether the second note of the first verse is totally perfect. It began as just a four-day trial session with Don at a studio in Seattle, and it went really well. Then we wrote more, and recorded for three weeks in New York, but not much from that session got used. Then we wrote some more and recorded for another four days in Seattle, and it was done.

KS: Between Failure and Dear 23, we had exhausted all the homage we wanted to pay to our heroes. We had to go through that, paying tribute to the records we loved. But we’re really off on our own on Frosting, not paying tribute to anybody, which is where you find your voice.

JA: Frosting On The Beater is the one that gets mentioned the most everywhere I go, its become ‘that’ record for us. The different tunings, the guitar sounds, the drumming that Mike does, the lyrics… That’s the Posies.

You’d found your signature sound, but within a couple of years, that original line-up had dissolved, drummer Mike Musberger leaving after a physical bust-up with Ken. The album that followed, Amazing Disgrace, was a markedly darker, unhappier album than Frosting.

What happened?

JA: We went through some band members, and ended up with a really cool rhythm section, Joe Skyward and Brian Young, but it was turbulent getting there. And I was definitely getting to a point in my young adult life where I was becoming more troubled, as far as my emotional stuff. I was getting out of my first marriage, definitely suffering from what I can now identify as clinical depression, and I withdrew a lot. It definitely affected my relationship with Ken – we weren’t communicating so much. You can hear that frustration coming out in the record: ‘Daily Mutilation’, ‘Everybody Is A Fuckin’ Liar’, ‘Hate Song’… I hear it now, and I’m surprised by how angry it is.

KS: Jon was suffering from depression; he didn’t really have the means or the ability or the interest in explaining anything or trying to explain. And so he just started to disappear, sometimes even when we were in the same room ­– some really strange behaviour. By the time we made Amazing Disgrace we were working quite separately. That’s all we could do, and all I felt Jon was willing to do.

JA: It was a very separated situation in the studio. One of the things I brushed under the carpet was Mike’s exit, and Ken was at least 50% responsible for that situation. And back then I was less confrontational, and it was a really hard situation for me. I really let that fester for a long time – I didn’t want to talk about it, so we never really talked about that situation, and what happened. We never did. It’s okay now, and it’s one of those things I chalk up to youth. I went through a really dark period, I fully admit. I got into really heavily abusing marijuana – looking back, there were six years of my life when I was totally a stoner. Not only did that put a wedge between us, but it also made me less reliable. Maybe it was also par for the course – we’re these two guys who were super-close, super-great friends, and then we grew up, and you have to create your own identity outside of this partnership. That can be a fuckin’ rocky road… Couple that with the fact that we were two guys in a band who both sang lead on songs we wrote, and then the label and outside forces look at you and start wondering whose songs to promote, who’s the leader? I look back on it, and I can really see it now. But when you’re in something that deep, it’s hard to see out of the hole.

The story of so many bands of your generation is, to get signed to a major and get chewed up and spat out at the end of it. This was your last album for Geffen – what was your experience at this point?

JA: I wish in hindsight that I had been more together, and paid attention more to what was going on – I did view things a bit through the lens of some of the darkness I was experiencing. I thought we weren’t getting what we deserved. And when I look through old interviews we gave back then, I’m really shocked by what I say in them. I sound mean – I seem really jaded. And to be 26 and be that jaded… But it did seem to me that Geffen had lost some interest in promoting us in a serious fashion. I said, “We should return to our roots – let’s go back to Pop Llama [the indie label that released Failure].” And I don’t know if Ken believes this, but it was really all meant in a noble way, even though it was a bit misguided. Of course, I didn’t realise how much money we were going to get for our next record, I didn’t think about any of that. That was not my consideration, at that point. And also, our friendship had deteriorated at that point, to the point where Ken and I weren’t really friends. To me, it was like, What was the point? Why do this, if we’re not. But, with hindsight, I wasn’t navigating things as well as I could have.

KS: Between the publishing deal – which, of course, we lost when we left Geffen – and the next advance, we had a million dollars about to come our way. When Jon proposed [leaving Geffen], it was presented kind of as, “This is all I’m willing to do. I wanna make one record for Pop Llama, I don’t wanna tour, blah blah blah.” Jon had just decided this, and that was that. And I was understandably quite upset, because that torpedoed everything we were working on. Even if the relationship with the label was in trouble, I thought we should give it another try – they were obligated to do another record, and obligated to give us a six-figure sum. We could have bought a very large house each, or done all kinds of interesting things with that money. And it’s not just about the money – all the promotion and stuff got harder when we were off a major label. Success did okay, but it was on a totally different planet from where even the poorly promoted Amazing Disgrace got. I was pretty upset about that.

But moreover, I was seeing this really unhappy person, and not really having access to him – Jon didn’t confide anything to me. If I roomed with Jon, I would hear him have arguments with his spouse, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. And all of that angst is going on, and I was too timid, and too freaked out, to just say, “What’s going on?” So that was quite traumatic, really. ‘Song #1’, ‘Please Return It’, they’re all about Jon. ‘You’re The Beautiful One’, which dates from that time, is about Jon, and about me trying to cope with the affect of a very different side of Jon was more apparent during these times.

JA: I feel like we were both acting out in different ways at that point. I withdrew, and I felt like Ken got more aggro. We’re like yin and yang, he and I, in a lot of ways. But yeah, I was totally out of it at times, that’s for sure. I didn’t go quite as far as some of the other urban legends you hear about in the music business, but in my own quiet way, there were times when it got really dark there.

There’s a poetry to the band that debuted with Failure ending their career with Success. But then you reunited, and have continued on. How did you pull it back together, from that darkness, to where you are now?

JA: We compiled a box set, At Least At Last, in 2000, that was going to be the nail in the Posies’ coffin, the last thing that we did. But I really enjoyed hanging out with Ken again. And I think he got something out of it, too. Even with all this stuff going on, we started to see the humour in it, sometimes even darkly so, in a rolling, conspiratorial kind of way.

KS: It was quite clear that the music had its own life outside of us. You’re in the tunnel of work and recording, plus all these personal things, whether positive or negative… We were just cruising forward for about ten years. Taking two years away from it, we could see the music, our little tiny legacy, from the outside, and it looked kind of cool. We made some records we were really proud of, and people enjoyed them, they seemed to continue to mean something. And we both realised that perhaps that deserved some kind of gratitude, in a sense. We had these amazing breaks – our first album went viral, we got signed, Seattle became Seattle, all that shit. It’s not that we were completely ungrateful. We were just trying to stay on the rolling logs, and not fall off. But after a couple of years of pause, we could look back and say, “Wow, people cared about this music.” And also, doing our solo stuff, it’s not the same – our solo things have their own life, but it’s not the same as when we are together. It means something different to people. I mean, here we are in Spain, on our 30th anniversary tour, and people are going apeshit every night. And I think that was the bridge, the doorway, to not continue down the same path of antagonising each other, or outdoing each other, or acting out, or whatever. And, to be honest, the communication part still took a while…

JA: It did. For sure.

KS: But it happened over time, and it’s actually quite interesting now. I don’t know what other band psychologies are like. I haven’t personally watched all of those VH1 Behind The Music documentaries, so maybe I’m a bit naïve. But we have survived all of that. We had friction with Mike sometimes, and obviously mine got way worse, and there was friction friction friction between Jon and myself. But I would say now, there’s really no tension, as we’re touring now. There’s much to appreciate, let’s put it that way.

JA: We’ve got to a point where it just, we can appreciate each other, and appreciate giving each other space. And also, I really enjoy it, and I think he does, too. There are times when we’re singing together now, and I just think, we sing really great together. After all these years, we have this ability to perform together and create this ‘third voice’ that occurs, when we put our two voices together. We’re just enjoying it and each other as much as we possibly can at this point. And that’s not some Hallmark card sentiment, it’s the truth. And that’s a really good feeling to have, after all these years.

The Posies’ 1990s back catalogue has been reissued on vinyl by Pledge Music and more is available here

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