Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow – The Posies – Interview Exclusive
Written by Johnny H
Friday, 17 September 2010 05:00
When you get a chance to interview two legends of a musical scene like Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow you don’t let the small fact that the individual band members of The Posies now live in four different cities in three countries on two continents. Nah you have the wonders of the Internet to help facilitate the discussions around their first new album in five years, albeit you do it as two separate interviews with the same set of questions. Simple.
I’m not going to bore you with the usual band history/introduction, as you all know who these guys are right? So, what follows is the two interviews totally uncut and unedited, brought together in Uber Rock’s usual inquisitive style, just how we like it.
First up guys it’s been quite six years since the last time you were in the UK supporting your then new album ‘Every Kind Of Light’. What have you been up to in that time?
Jon – I released a solo record called ‘Songs from the Year of Our Demise’ and it took me far and wide – Europe, Australia/New Zealand, Japan, etc., toured the US as well (in fact I’m writing this whilst in Singapore, playing some solo shows, so I’m still supporting it really). I kept myself busy with production work and Big Star obviously figured in there, played with Spiral Stairs of Pavement, produced and mixed a record of his, did some solo touring with Fountains of Wayne, even got to be a member of Bob Mould’s band for a couple of nights – but that’s another story. Even when many thought we might be lying low as The Posies, we were actually touring every now and then, keeping busy when we felt like being together. That’s how we ‘roll’, as they say in the vernacular.
Ken – Technically, it’s been four years though. We released ‘Every Kind Of Light’ five years ago, but did a second London show in 2006. We kept touring, and then I spent some time touring for my solo album, ‘Soft Commands’–which did come out six years ago–but I was too busy to tour it effectively. I formed another band, THE DiSCiPLiNES and released an album, ‘SMOKiNG KiLLS’, with them, and toured that. But, we kept thinking that another Posies album was around the corner. The time just fast-forwarded, it seemed. Suddenly we were looking at half a decade between albums….again.
You’re just about to release your latest album ‘Blood/Candy’ (via Ryko as was ‘Every Kind Of Light’), what’s the story behind this album?
Jon – The story is pretty simple really: Boys have band – long history together, boys haven’t made record in a while – been busy doing all sorts of things, boys decide to make a new one and release it before the end of 2010. The timing just felt right. We’d given it plenty of space since our last release, ‘Every Kind of Light’, and everything just kind of came together plan-wise at the end of 2009. When we started discussing making in Spain at Paco Loco’s studio I got really enamoured with the idea.
Ken – It’s simply our most adventurous, genre-bending, densest, most creative album to date. “It’s our Radiohead moment”, he said unironically.
And you’re also touring Europe to coincide with the release, right?
Jon – Indeed, many a Euro-date has been booked and a long tour of the US to follow. Hopefully it will lead to more everywhere next year as well.
Ken – Starting in Spain on September. 28th, we are then playing France, London at the Garage October 5th, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Finland. We just announced US dates with Brendan Benson for November-December as well. We hope to do a lot more touring in Europe next year.
I hope you don’t mind me pointing out you’ve been a bit mean on the UK dates
front this time around guys..
Jon – Feel free to point it out – it’s true! Ha ha, what can I say? We couldn’t cover all the bases this go around, a timing thing really. Hopefully, there’s always next year as well, maybe spring 2011? Please stay tuned and bear with us.
Ken – I know, I know…just the London show. We had a lot to fit in the one month window we had for this album. We’ll do more in 2011, I’m sure.
Back to ‘Blood/Candy’ is the six-year hiatus due to you guys living on separate continents now? And just how do you mange to record an album with that situation?
Jon – Actually, it’s been five years, but we won’t hold that against you, ha ha. And, I must say, living in different parts of the world has really has nothing to do with any time between – it’s just the way things worked themselves out. Making a record is a matter of making the decision to do it, and then we find a way to make it work. The desire has to come first. We travel internationally all the time, so we just find a common meeting point and we’re off and running. As far as the ‘hiatus’, we just had other things going on. In actuality, it’s been five rather productive years, both together and apart.
Ken – “FIVE YEARS”. As David Bowie would say. Ha ha ha. I think the separate interests we’ve developed does play into it–we just do more things, so we have to plan further and further ahead. But, beyond that, it’s not really a big deal to live in different places and get things done. For example, I’m doing an interview with a journalist in Britain right now…but seriously; it’s just a plane ticket. We have a good network in Seattle, our traditional home base, so that’s where we rehearse and do a lot of work. The album itself was recorded largely in Spain, however–a place we could all agree on, happily, to work.
We haven’t heard ‘Blood/Candy’ yet but I have heard you describe it as sounding more Science Fiction.What do you mean exactly by that?
Jon – I believe I’m responsible for that quote. I think I was referring to some of the sonic touches really, how a lot of the ‘bells and whistles’ on the record were perhaps more ‘futuristic’ sounding and such. It would be misleading to make folks to think we’ve gone all ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Tron’ or something – although maybe next time we should! It’s still a rather organic sounding record, but a lot of the layers are quite trippy and quasi-electronic, more so than on any of our other releases. Maybe it’s more like ‘The Road Warrior’ (Mad Max to our European readers) or something, albeit a kinder, gentler ‘Road Warrior’, ha ha!
Ken – Well, I think it’s more psychedelic than our other albums….so, maybe B-movie science fiction. You can see the strings holding up the flying saucers, but we like it like that. It’s not cold and technological, it’s very warm and rich…but still, I think there are moments where if you follow the words, they are looking into possible futures…death and dying are contemplated with life and living…
How do you feel the second act of The Posies career stacks up against the
Jon – I think it’s holding its own. We’re certainly more functional as people and as a band. That’s a plus. And, back at the end of the ‘first act’, if you’d told me we’d be coming up with a record I feel is as creative and vibrant as ‘Blood/Candy’ is this late in ‘the game’, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. That speaks volumes to me. Another point in favour of the second act – it hasn’t run its course yet. I think we still have a fair bit of play left.
Ken – Musically, we are much more together. We are much more consistent, and just have better skills all around. And from the point of view of the personal side of things, it’s much easier to get things done. We were very volatile and very inexperienced in the early days. Cooler heads prevail, nowadays.
Your worlds are in much different places from the ones in which you wrote ‘Failure’, how does that influence you as songwriters?
Jon – Age and experience are the main factors – there’s no way to undo either of those things and I think that’s a good thing, the way it should be. What’s important to me as a writer is that I don’t try to recreate who I once was, that I’m true to who I am now.
Ken – Jeezus, how wouldn’t it? I mean, the perspective of a 19 year old and a….uh, older guy than that ha ha, wow, I mean…I have so much more to offer as a writer. When we made our first album, we hadn’t travelled, we hadn’t done…much. We had some interesting perspectives, in that our childhoods were full of upheaval–constant moving, family breakups far more than the average, this kind of thing. But in terms of having the wisdom to comment on it all, I mean, we were children, basically. I don’t think we were very cool people, and I think now, I’d actually like me if I met me. Not that likability has anything to do with being a great writer, but, I think I have absorbed a lot of wisdom in my travels, and don’t have the same insecurities and distractions that held me back in the past.
Looking at your back catalogue, my personal favourite Posies album is actually the one that saw act one of The Posies draw to a close, the awesome ‘Success’ (which also includes my all time fave track by you guys ‘Start A Life’).
Oh and while you’re pondering that question do you have your own personal favourites? If you do what are they, and why?
Jon – I’m really glad you enjoy “Start a Life”. I think it’s one of the most original and unique recordings we’ve ever done, the version on ‘Success’. There’s nothing else like it in our recorded output, really stands out sonically.
As far as other songs, if I’m picking others I wrote, I like “Coming Right Along” – a definite ‘mood piece’ that one, really works well live, both when I play it solo and with the band. I think it has my favourite guitar solo as well. “Throwaway” I like as well. It’s more straight ahead and the lyrics really reflect a very specific period of my life, but it still feels good to sing.
Ken – . ‘Success’ is a hint of the diversity that would follow; many of those songs were the ones that producers on the previous records talked us out of recording. From ‘Success’ on, we sounded fully as we intended to. Not just trying to squeeze a very unconventional band into a mainstream envelope. As for favourites it’s a given that we’re most excited about what we’re working on now, but I like some of the more involved songs like ‘Song #1’ (on ‘Amazing Disgrace’, 1996) or ‘You’re the Beautiful One’ (on ‘Success’, 1998). I like the songs that take their time to give up what they have to offer. Shall we say, I like movies more than I like sitcoms.
OK here’s one that only Jon can answer and the question comes courtesy of one of our writers Russ P. Jon, when was the last time that you were mistaken for Antonio Banderas?
Jon – The last time anyone really said I looked like Banderas was a while ago I have to admit. but of all people, it was Alex Chilton and it happened in the middle of a Big Star show in Stockholm a few years back, on stage. Alex and I used to goof off and smile at each other a bit, especially during guitar solos, but this show was different, he kept looking at me with different intent. Finally, about halfway through our set, he walked over to my side of
the stage and said: “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Antonio Banderas?” Certainly not something I ever imagined Alex would say to me, much less in Sweden, at a rock concert, whilst performing. But I kid you not.
Ken – I can’t wait to read the reply to that one. Ha ha ha.
Looking again at Act one of The Posies for a minute, what was it like being lumped in with the whole Grunge movement around the time of ‘Amazing Disgrace?’
Jon – I think it might have even been a little sooner than that – ‘Frosting on the Beater’ came out April of ’93 I believe, and Grunge was in full swing at that point. ‘Amazing Disgrace’ happened at the tail end of all that and also when things like Green Day were getting really popular for the first time, so a little (supposed) Punk and Grunge you might say. Regardless, we were never in step with ‘the times’ and I think ultimately, artistically, that was a good thing.
Maybe not so good in the pocketbook sense, but hey, what can you do? (Ha ha!) There was no way we were ever going to be part of the zeitgeist of that era, we just sounded.different. I think it was our voices, really. We have ‘pretty’ voices, no matter how hard we drive them, and the massive use of harmonies in our songs also sweetens the musical pot as well. That was a hard sell when everyone on the radio sounded like they were really, really angry. We were angry too, dammit! (ha ha!), we just sounded happier by default.
This kinda proves how important timing is in the equation of commercial success, doesn’t it? Maybe if we’d come along after Indie Rock was more of a proven commodity and genre, perhaps it would have been easier to market us. Look at what happened to a label like Sub Pop; they completely reinvented themselves after their original heyday – now it’s The Shins, Iron & Wine, The Postal Service, and Fleet Foxes that are at the forefront, it’s a completely
different climate and it’s amazing to me that now melodic, pretty, and harmony-laden seem to be the norm, the new cool. Now it’s a plus to sound like The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, & Nash – it’s no longer the exception.
Ken – Well, the Grunge wave was pretty over by 1996, when that album was released. I don’t think we were lumped in; quite the opposite really. People were fascinated and confused by a band that refused to conform to the times. It’s been a question in every interview. I mean, every single interview I have done in the last two decades, but the simple perspective is…we just did what we liked to do, and we weren’t into being part of something just to get ahead. We figured we’d be accepted on our own terms, and we were right. Though, yes, it could have been tempting to copy the trends and maybe we would have sold bajillions of records…but maybe not. And then we’d have missed the chance to be the band we are, which is a much better deal for me, personally.
That couldn’t have been an easy thing for you guys..so did any A&R push at the time actually help give birth to some great songs that we wouldn’t have otherwise heard?
Jon – Funny you should ask – ‘Flavour of the Month’ is a direct result of our A & R man at the time, Gary Gersh, gently suggesting that maybe we still needed a few more ‘hit-like’ songs for what became ‘Frosting On The Beater’. So, in reactionary form, I wrote “Flavour.” as a catchy ‘diatribe’ against all things trendy and ‘of the moment’. Since we’re on the subject of that song, I also have to admit “Funk Pop A Roll” by XTC informed that song as well, it’s line “Swallowing is easy when it has no taste” is somewhat mirrored by my line, “Getting easier to swallow and harder to spit out”.
Ken – We had an early version of ‘Frosting on the Beater’ (our 1993 album) without ‘Dream All Day’ on it…and that was our biggest single in many territories. So, they did us a favour there, by urging us to keep writing.
You guys have also been prolific in your solo/side projects and with collaborations like with Big Star, which of these releases would you recommend as being the definitive ones for our readership to check out?
Jon – That’s easy: Songs from the Year of Our Demise, the solo record I mentioned earlier. I put a tremendous amount of time and work into it, really took it to the nth degree. With a few exceptions I wrote, performed, recorded, and mixed almost all of it by myself, playing everything one-man-band style. It’s very personal and cinematic-sounding. I’ll admit I used it as an outlet to exorcise a lot of personal demons, put some parts of my past to rest, but that’s what I think made it as singular and emotional as it is. I’m also very proud of a song I wrote for Big Star’s 2004 release In Space, a song called ‘Lady Sweet’.
Ken – The Big Star album ‘In Space’ (2005) is really great. It sounds nothing like its predecessors, but it’s truly worth a spin. I also have to put in a word for my last solo album, ‘Soft Commands’ (2004). It’s certainly an album with a lot of musical depth and maturity, and soul. Conveniently, these albums and the current and last Posies album are on Rykodisc in the UK…so, order direct!
I’d also be interested in your thoughts regarding the Not Lame ‘At Least At Last’ box set. That was one hell of a pivotal release, and those ‘Frosting’ era demos never sounded quite so good all gathered up on one CD. (And did it really fuel the desire for Act two of The Posies career?)
Jon – I love ‘At Least, At Last’ – in fact, it’s one of my favourite things we’ve ever put out there. I love the ‘warts and all’ quality of it and I think we managed to not pull any punches in the liner note as well, the individual notes that Ken and I wrote to accompany every song, while still respecting our relationship. Talk about eliminating the middlemen – a lot of it is as direct a representation of us as songwriters and arrangers as you are ever going to get. I’m proud of some of my demos as well, some of them are quite detailed and almost sound like mini- records.
Ken – Yes, I think working on that really did give Jon & I a perspective that what we had was a legacy that shouldn’t be going straight to the poubelle. I think we blamed each other and the band and the label and whatever for what were essentially personal problems, and we were starting to get over some of the biggest hurdles in our personal lives, bad habits, bad relationship choices, to come back and see that what we had was simply a great musical connection and a great, well loved band.
Whilst on the ‘Frosting’ era, Jon your lead guitar playing around that time is quite unique. It sounds like a combination of brittle guitar tone and an extremely wide vibrato. How did that sound and technique develop?
Jon – Thank you for saying so. I just kind of felt my way into it really. I have this amazing Gibson SG Custom from 1973 that I married to a beat-up mid-80s Fender Super Champ and that combination is almost all of my sound on Frosting On The Beater’: the solos on ‘Solar Sister’ and ‘Love Letter Boxes’, all of the guitar on “Coming Right Along”. It’s those two pieces of gear and the way I would attack the guitar – that was ‘the formula’. I’d be strangling the neck when I played, shaking it, that’s where the vibrato came from, no ‘whammy bar’ to speak of, and I’d beat the crap out of the strings, half with the pick, half with the side of my hand. Really, I just wanted to be Neil Young – still do a lot of the time, ha ha!
Getting back to the here and now before we are swept away in nostalgia what
can the fans expect set list wise from the upcoming shows? Any surprise
inclusions you’d like to share?
Jon – Personally, I’d like to shake things up a bit – I don’t just want to rely on ‘the hits’ in all the old familiar positions in the set and this is coming from the one who has written a majority of the sets over the years and sometimes, in lazier moments, falls back on proven templates. If we are gonna do this, I think we should give the newest version of The Posies a fair shake, really get into performing the new material from ‘Blood/Candy’.. We’re not ready for the ‘greatest hits’ tour, know what I mean?
Ken – Man, if we just learn the new album competently, I’ll be happy with that. I think we have so many new/young fans, a lot of the obscure early things we could play would be lost on most of them.
And talking of surprises could you share a bit of current day Posies trivia
with us that no one else knows?
Jon – Besides the fact that our bass player Matt Harris dresses up like Lily Allen every17th of March and goes rock climbing? Oh wait – that’s me. Nothing else really springs to mind at the moment – except that we are all fans of The Mighty Boosh.
Ken – I like this little study of numerology. J for Jon, K for Ken–sequential. Jon was born September 29, 1969; I was born October 30, 1968. All sequential. Our bass player, Matt is an excellent cook and was the assistant pastry chef at one of San Francisco’s top restaurants. The Posies members live in four different cities in three countries on two continents…
Finally just to finish off I’d like to get inside your musical minds by asking you to take the Uber Rock random music test where if we were to do the random first five tracks on your I Pods/I Phones MP3 players right now what would come up?
‘A Tear for Eddie’ – Ween
‘K-Stars’ – Stereolab
‘Leaves Are Green'(live) – Simon and Garfunkel
‘While You Are Gone’ – Sarah Vaughan
‘Some Kind of Stranger’ – The Sisters of Mercy
Ken – Here’s what came up:
‘Same But Different’ by Vashti Bunyan (from ‘Lookaftering’)
‘Take Me There’ by Agincourt (from ‘Fly Away’)
‘Shampoo Suicide’ by Broken Social Scene (from ‘You Forgot It In People’). Note: the current BSS vocalist Lisa Lobsinger appears on our new album
‘Feathers and Down’ by the Cardigans (from ‘Long Gone Before Daylight’, one of my favourite albums of all time, truly)
‘Second Guessing’ by REM (from ‘Reckoning’)
And with that we’d like to once again thank you for taking the time to speak with us at Uber Rock (we really are massive fans of your music), we’ll hopefully catch up with you sometime soon over here in the UK, so until then we wish you and the gang every success with ‘Blood/Candy’
Jon – Thanks. Hope to see you at one of our shows!
Ken – Thank you so much. See you in a couple of months.
So with you all now wondering “what exactly does this new ‘Blood/Candy’ album sound like then?” We’ll leave you with a small taster via the track ‘Licences To Hide’ which you can hear by clicking on the link to the band’s Myspace page. The full on Uber Rock review can be expected in a few days time, in the mean time you can ‘Dream All Day’ like the rest of us.
Photo Kudos Christine Taylor