Jon Auer – The Posies/Big Star – Uber Rock Interview Exclusive
Written by Ben Hughes
Sunday, 14 September 2014 03:00
There’s a lot of love for The Posies amongst the Uber Rock writers, there are a few of us who love their sweet harmonised Powerpop and can count many of their albums, if not the whole damn discography in our collections.
It’s been four long years since the last album ‘Blood/Candy’ was released and just as long since the band played these shores. On the eve of, and then again directly after, a one off intimate show in London town from vocalist/guitarist Jon Auer I jumped at the chance to put a few questions to the man. Here I find out about all his various projects, what we can expect from the much anticipated Posies re-issues and also some little known facts for fans of Jellyfish and Redd Kross.
Hi Jon, now you are playing what is billed as an intimate gig in London at The Islington on Friday, what can fans expect on the night?
Well, I’m going to wager a mix of songs both old and new, solo and otherwise. You might hear a Big Star song or two and there’s a medley I like to do starting with The Posies’ ‘Burn and Shine’ that morphs into about a million others songs. I’ll also probably talk a lot.
We don’t get much live action from you or The Posies here in the UK these days, are there any plans for some future dates?
Plans, no. Intending to get back there as soon as we can? Yes. The last time I played solo in the UK was 2006. Big Star played the UK three times between 2006 and 2008 I believe. The last Posies show was…2010? My, it has been while hasn’t it?
I presume you will be playing songs from your solo album ‘Songs From The Year Of Our Demise’. Were you surprised at the positive response when the album came out, many critics and fans felt it was a stronger album than the previous Posies album ‘Every Kind Of Light’, many said your best work since ‘Frosting On The Beater’?
Let’s just say I was very pleased with how well it was received. And, it got an 80 out of 100 average on Metacritic which I have to admit made me feel good.
It felt different to a Posies album, sparse arrangements, the delicate feel of tracks such as ‘Song Noir’ and ‘Daytime Lullaby’, the dreamy pop of ‘Sundown’. It all sounds effortless, yet I know you put a lot into this album was it a labour of love looking back at it?
Most definitely. I put a tremendous amount of work into that record and a lot of songs I started with I ended up throwing out for newer ones as the project progressed. I had like 25-30 songs, all of them recorded or at least partially finished and ended up with 15 on the final release.
Do you have plans for a follow up?
Certainly, I have intentions… but no concrete plan at this point. I’m focusing on a new duo project at the moment called Dynamo Royale.
The debut Posies album ‘Failure’ is getting the re-release treatment right now. It’s hard to believe you and Ken were teenagers when you recorded it in your parent’s basement, how do you think it stands up after all these years?
I have to say that hearing it again recently, as much as I had to listen intently to it to approve masters and such, that it really kind of charmed me again. In fact I may like it more now than I did then because I have so much distance from it. It still feels fresh to me and the re-mastered version sounds excellent. There’s a great piece in Tape Op talking in detail about how this record was made, worth checking out for the “how was it made?” stuff. There were many limitations when making that record but we didn’t let that stop us.
With Omnivore re-releasing your first four albums, will there be exclusive material or will it be songs previously available on the ‘At Least At Last’ box set?
There will probably be a few tracks from the box set but luckily there a quite a bit of new items to be had as well. It’s not like we’re just going to repackage and redistribute the tracks from the box se although, like I said, some will probably be included, the ones we feel are key. We’re working towards making definitive editions of these records and that includes the extras and packaging as well.
How much are you involved with the re-issues, did you and Ken personally archive and pick the bonus tracks?
Actually, I’m the guy with the archives for the most part in this case and it was left to me to sift through my old collection of DAT tapes (anyone remember that obsolete media?). Luckily, and surprisingly, when I went hunting for the extras, I discovered that in fact I’d been smart and pretty much put everything in one place and it was a little easier to deal with than I anticipated. The label doing the re-releases, Omnivore Recordings, then enlisted the aid of the great Brian Kehew (of ‘Recording The Beatles’ fame and more) to do the transfer from DAT to digital files and then I really was able to sift through it all (no pun intended) bit by bit. Turns out I found a lot of great extra stuff, and a few things no one could really recall even recording in the first place, especially in the case of ‘Dear 23’ and ‘Frosting On The Beater’. Naturally, along with the label, Ken and I will approve everything to be eventually included, but the initial and rather extensive leg work was Brian’s and mine.
‘Frosting On The Beater’ is by far my favourite Posies album and I really look forward to the re-issue, when is this to be released and what can we expect on it?
Well, we’re doing the re-releases in order and obviously ‘Dear 23’ would come next, maybe Spring 2015 for that? Personally, I’m hoping ‘Frosting On The Beater’ comes out Fall 2015 but we’ll see. There’s a veritable plethora of extras for that, more than we might be able to use. I don’t think anyone will feel like it’s lacking in bonus when it comes out.
At the time ‘Frosting On The Beater’ came out I was listening to a lot of Jellyfish and Redd Kross, you seemed to fit perfectly between the two for me, my ears were in Powerpop heaven. Were you a fan of either band?
Both actually, especially Redd Kross who we toured with and became friends with. I know almost all the various members of Jellyfish at least a little, or at least did. I helped remix the re-release of ‘Neurotica’ from Redd Kross and all of the Posies at one time were a huge fans of that record. Jellyfish were really impressive as well, for different reasons. I mean, the musical talent in both of those bands…wow. Redd Kross had/has more of an edge and Jellyfish had a Steely Dan or Queen level of precision to them, like crazy note-perfect performance ability. I guested onstage with Jellyfish a couple of times, played guitar on one song, a cover of Fleetwood Macs’ ‘Go Your Own Way’. The first time I got on stage with them I remember I could not believe how quiet their guitar amps were…I mean, like, they were on 1 instead of 11. So, naturally, being who I am and liking what I like, the first thing I did was turn the amp up to about 7 and I’ll never forget the looks that shot my direction, like a surprised “what the hell?” kind of thing that turned into half-smiles…but we had a good time, I suppose enough to do it again at a show in Arizona, a show that in fact featured The Posies, Redd Kross, and Jellyfish…that was the bill. Additionally, the Posies used to cover ‘Peach Kelli Pop’ before we met Redd Kross and Ken and I sung it onstage with them at a show of their once, when Jeff McDonald kind of lost his voice. Steve McDonald is one of my favourite bass players of all time as well. This all said, I always thought it was a little odd that we were often all lumped together, the three bands. We may have shared some similar influences but I don’t thing we really sounded that alike when it came down to it. But then, I never thought Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Nirvana sounded the same either, but they were always lumped together too, back in the day.
Bit of a geeky muso question, I loved the guitar sound on ‘Frosting On The Beater’ what gear were you using at the time?
Most of it was the combo of a cream-colored three-pickup 1973 Gibson SG and a mid-80s Fender Super Champ, the one that has a master volume and push-pull pots for more gain. That’s pretty much it, with a few additions. ‘Coming Right Along’ is entirely this set up, two doubled rhythm tracks and a solo, done in the basement of a house in Seattle I was living in at the time, recorded on a Fostex 260 cassette 4-track I used to do all my demos on. I recorded it late at night, in the wee hours, and the Super Champ was barely turned up at all (as to not wake up anyone else in the house) and I jammed a Shure SM 58 pretty much right up against the speaker and just got this super huge sound as a result. It’s kind of the reverse of what many might think: cool sounding small amp + low volume + close mic = huge guitar sound. I think the SGs’ pickups were slightly micro-phonic as well and that, combined with the preamp gain from the Champ, and the incredible spring reverb tank it came with were just such a perfect match, warmth and bite at the same time. I still have them both, the SG and the Champ. In fact, the solos on ‘Solar Sister’, ‘Love Letter Boxes’, ’20 Questions’ as well as most of my rhythm guitar parts…all from these two items, nothing else. I think ‘Burn and Shine’ is the SG with an Ampeg VT-40 I bought at place called Second Time Around in Seattle, in the University District. The Ampegs’ tubes were well on their way out and that gave it real Neil Young kind of tone, which of course I loved. You can hear this amp on the Posies cover of the Small Faces’ ‘Song Of A Baker’ as well. It was “gnarly” as we yanks say in the vernacular but unfortunately the tubes blew out shortly after these sessions and it never sounded the same after they were replaced. A shame.
You recently performed ‘Frosting On The Beater’ and ‘Amazing Disgrace’ in their entirety at gigs, are there any plans to do more of these shows?
Well, hopefully there will be more when the re-releases come out, it certainly would make sense and even more importantly, it would be a lot of fun. We did a tour of Spain last year were we play BOTH records every night, had two drummers – Mike Musburger and Brian Young – and two bass players – Dave Fox and Joe Skyward – on the road with us at the same time. Now THAT should have been a reality show.
You and Ken are so busy touring and producing all the time. I know The Posies is more of a sporadic thing for you these days, but with a half decade cycle between Posies albums, it seems me must be due one next year, any chance of that?
Honestly, it’s hard to say definitively but it’s starting to feel like it’s going to happen again sooner than later at this point. How’s that for an answer?
So, you tour with The Posies and Big Star but you also produce. Who are you working with at the moment?
I recently finished a record with a Tasmanian artist named J. Robert Youngtown, a record called ‘Moderate Aspects’. I was the co-producer, mixer, and kind of, if you will, a musical Swiss Army knife on that, doing keys, guitars, bass, harmonies, percussion, etc. Russell Hopkins of You Am I played drums on it and Steve McDonald from Redd Kross played some bass as well. J. Robert is an excellent catalyst for bringing people together and he also stretched out in his writing on this record with great success in my opinion. There’s a yet to be named project from a guy named Stephen Becker who has/had a group called Le Concorde and this new thing features myself and also drummer Brian Young (Fountains of Wayne, Posies, Jesus and Mary Chain) and it’s quite fabulous, a really diverse group of songs and styles. I’m nearing the end of another collaboration with a French songwriter named Remi Vaissiere and his band Cheap Star. There is classic pop in his style for sure, very sincere and pure in its love of melody, but the new stuff we are finishing also has more sonic treats and variance than anything we’ve done before. I think it’s his best stuff to date, and I’m looking forward to getting that finished and released.
Back in 2010 when ‘Blood/Candy’ was released you toured with Brendan Benson. You and Ken were part of his band and then went on to play on his album. How did this come about and what was it like to write and record with him?
We met Brendan in 2010 when he played with us at the Big Star/Alex Chilton tribute in Memphis, A couple of months after Alex died. We got a chance to know him and vice versa and I think Brendan also liked the way Ken and I harmonized, made a note of that in his head. One thing led to another and touring together seemed like a great idea to both of us. Ken and I played two shows a night for that entire tour, a set with Brendan, myself on guitar or bass and Ken on bass or keyboards depending on the song, then a full Posies set as well. We shared a tour bus as well. That led to working on Brendan’s ‘What Kind Of World’ in Nashville in 2011 and then to a show Brendan put together at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville at the end of 2013 with a bunch of his musician pals like Jacob Dylan, Jack White, Butch Walker, Ken and I, and many more. Even Ricky Scaggs was there.
Here’s one right off the wall for you Jon. CD, Digital or Vinyl, what’s your preferred audio choice?
Hmm…Can I say vinyl with a digital download card? Digital is winning these days for its convenience I have to say…and, it does sound good, digital itself is not inherently bad in my opinion. But vinyl has romance, doesn’t it?
Finally for now, you have a new project on the go Dynamo Royale, would you care to tell us about that?
Dynamo Royale is a new duo featuring Tiz Aramini and myself. I met Tiz many years ago and helped produce a record for her at the tail end of the ’90s. She was writing these great songs with unique chord progressions and interesting changes that really grabbed my attention. I was intrigued even more when I discovered she came from a classical piano background, having spent several formative years in a European conservatory studying music. Eventually, Tiz discovered alternative music, got heavily into Juliana Hatfeild, the Pixies, and Jason Falkner and then she kind of rebelled against the conservatory life, started writing songs that had smarts and hooks and edge but also were very sophisticated due to all the training she had. Recently, we thought that a collaboration between the two of us could prove be something different from anything either of us had done before and that’s been exactly the case. So, what started as an idea to record a single song together has very naturally morphed into a full album.
Then we fast forward a few days and I picked up with Jon once again to find out how the show in London had turned out, so there was only one question I could really ask to start this session.
How was the London show Jon?
Really amazing. It’d been a while since I’d played London so I figured it had potential to be good but I was surprised how boisterous and engaged the audience was. They literally forced me to play songs I hadn’t played in a few years. It was billed as an intimate show, does this mean it was kept acoustic and if so you have to rearrange certain songs to fit the set? I did do a few songs on acoustic guitar, but most of the set was me solo on electric…I’ve found ways over the years to make this format really work for me and I also stretch out in terms of dialog with the audience. Sometimes my stories and banter end up being a third of the show or more.
What songs got the best response and were you surprised?
Of my solo material, ‘You Used To Drive Me Around’ was the surprise winner for the evening. Several people in the audience yelled for me to play it until I basically had no choice. Luckily, I remembered the guitar tuning at the last minute! There’s a really passionate blog about this song and the evening here, well worth a read.
As the show was a success do you plan on coming back for more, maybe a small intimate club tour or house concerts even, a chance to see a bit more of the UK?
I’m already working on that actually…especially after this last visit. Now that I reside just across the Channel from the UK now, it certainly makes it a little easier.
Live photo courtesy of Sue Edmond.