With Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, the band’s “musical polymaths” back working together for the last five years, the second act of The Posies‘ ongoing and far-reaching career is continuing and thriving.
On the eve of the release of their much-anticipated 7th studio album Blood/Candy, Jude Clarke put the same set of questions to the pair, and got these thoughtful, detailed and fascinating answers, providing great insight into their influences, history, and how they collaborate to produce their brand of “moderate, brainy, literate, melodic indie rock“.
You’ve both had long musical careers. How did you first get into “the business”: were you in bands at school / college etc? Have you ever had non-music jobs? If not, what non-music job would you take, if you *had* to?
Ken Stringfellow: Jon & I were in bands long before there was business to do. We took ourselves quite seriously, and worked on things every day, while we were in school. After school each day we’d head to Jon’s where he and his dad had put together a formidable little studio–the REC. room you could say. Haha. I was also in bands before I knew Jon, starting in about 1980, at which point I was 11. It just came naturally, and grew naturally. It’s not like the first stuff I did was awesome, but practice is practice.
When the Posies started, we made what was meant to be a demo, but turned out to be an album-length recording of very good quality. And then bam–it was on commercial radio. The first radio station we gave our ‘tape’ to, put it in heavy rotation straight away. Something that’s not supposed to happen. At the time, I was attending the Univ. of Washington in Seattle, and Jon had I believe by that time already sort of left W. Wa. Univ. in our hometown of Bellingham. Neither of us really had our hearts in our studies, and of course as soon as the music hit we did everything to fan that fragile flame. I quit school soon after and took a job in a futon company warehouse, unloading trucks, fulfilling orders, and supervising a crew of mischievous Cambodians who were the futon makers. It was actually fun, and I knew it wasn’t going to last forever. I did that for about a year, and by then we could live off the band (barely).
I like the idea of working, but not of a job. A job is an obligation; but for me, work is a pleasure. I like working hard. I could imagine being a kind of teacher, it’s basically what I do as a producer, anyway. A writer, an editor…all this appeals. I’m good with words….then again, I see the guys down at the fish shop every morning and they look damn happy (as clams, perhaps?), and I know they make shitloads of dough, so…I could do that. They are a family, too–I think *who* you work with makes a difference too.
Jon Auer: My father was a musician and I grew up in a musical household, went to concerts from the moment I was born really, and there were always instruments and musicians around. My parents were involved in grass roots concert promoting and musicians used to come to town and stay at our place all the time, so at a very early age I got a taste of ‘the life’, the whole kind of community/family aspect of it. I started playing drums at the age of 3, violin at the age of 4, guitar at 6, and the rest just kind of happened after that, I never stopped, became obsessed, and luckily had the tools and support around me to grow and flourish. My father eventually put a modest but powerful little recording studio in our house during my teenage years and he never used it passed a certain point so I just took hold of the reins and kind of ran with it, got a crash course in production and engineering. It’s where the Posies made our first record and arguably the reason The Posies had the early success we did. I also learned you could make some pretty decent money being a producer, something I still do a ton of.
Amazingly, the only other jobs I’ve had have been music related: I worked at two record stores, one in Bellingham, the town we made our first record in and Ken and I met/lived during our teens, and a store in Seattle I worked at when I moved down to Seattle to join Ken, who had left for college the year before, and give the Posies a real try. We worked our asses off – really, we were so determined, but not in a ‘douche bag’, opportunistic way – we were just so into music and did nothing else, lived and breathed it.
If I had to pick a non-music job, I think I’d take a crack at the film industry, I love film so much, but maybe that’s too closely related. My father was/is a teacher at Western Washington University in Bellingham, I suppose I could do some of that…but I bet it would be related to the teaching of music somehow, haha!
If really pressed, maybe some work involving animals…can’t get enough of the little buggers…although arguably I already do a bit of that in the music biz as well, haha…!
What, in your career, would you say was your finest moment, or the record of which you felt most proud?
KS: My finest moment might possibly be when I talked Miss Czech Republic 1999 into coming back to mine. But seriously folks. I think if your life has just one ‘finest’ moment, that’s not the full monty. There have been so many experiences where I’ve come off a show feeling like I’ve just shared something incredible with an audience and feeling great. But those moments didn’t come very often until more recent years–it took a long time to get the skills to be able to guide the situation of being onstage into the places I want it to go. And of course, not all the finest moments are musical–the births of my kids, opening a fantastic bottle after aging it in my cellar for decade, having a laugh at home with Mrs. S.–this is all good stuff, and in those moments, I am definitely not thinking of Ken Stringfellow, musician-at-large.
I happen to be very proud of this new Posies album, I think it’s what we’ve been working towards all these years. And I still think we could do more work just as good or better from this point forward.
JA: Honestly, I’m not sure how to gauge things on a scale like this – * really *. This whole business of ‘picking one’ just doesn’t sit well with me. There are moments I remember being super excited, like when Ringo Starr covered a song of ours I wrote called “Golden Blunders”, that was an amazing moment – I mean, there are only a few people in history who can say they were a member of The Beatles and one of them covered our song – that’s pretty cool.
But really, some of my favorite moments are the quiet ones, the ones no one else might see, just being somewhere in the world, traveling, and just feeling really lucky to be doing what I enjoy, and having a lot of good people in my life I get to do it with, be around. That is ultimately the reward of rewards.
If you could erase or change one moment, what would that be?
KS: Oh, god. Many. I almost killed a chap in a bar brawl some years back. That could have gone so much worse. I was very lucky.
On a musical note, I wish we’d taken our label’s advice and remixed at least some of our second album, Dear 23 (DGC, 1990). John Leckie, who produced the album, did a great job recording it, but I think he hedged his bet too much in the mix and tried to slick it up with digital effects and such. There’s a much more interesting record underneath.
JA: Besides the birth of Sarah Palin? Oh jeez – there are a few, aren’t there? Many of them were hairstyles I believe…But seriously, it might behoove me to compile a list of said moments one of these days so I can refer to it at times like these, haha…
Life is full of moments you wish you could live over, ‘tests’ you wish you could ‘retake’, yes? Anyone who says they have no time they’d like to relive is lying. I will say some amazing things in my life have come as a result of what I perceived as horrible experiences at the time. Sometimes you get so down the only place to go is up and if you’re paying close attention, you can really learn something invaluable about yourself and life. So yes, I’ve had my ‘moments’ but for the most part I’m happy to report that a majority of the ‘clouds’ in my life have come with silver linings. You just have to wait a bit for them to reveal themselves, have a little faith. Sometimes it takes years.
I’m really enjoying the new album. Where would you place it on the scale of your overall body of work? How’s the feedback that you’ve been getting for it?
KS: Excuse me, place my body on a working scale, what?
I view this album as potential, realized (at long last). Anything that came before–we were either naive doofuses, like on our first two albums, or wildly undermined by doubt and insecurity and emotional weirdness. And not the good kind. So, this really is what we can do when we achieve, and don’t hold ourselves back, or shoot ourselves in the feet.
Feedback has been excellent. I saw a couple thumbs down on the blogosphere which immediately led me to believe this has to be a good sign–there’s people out there whom I’m *glad* aren’t our fans, I don’t need more douchebags in my life.
JA: I think Blood/Candy is up there in the top three for me, and it’s easily our most sophisticated in terms of overall layering and scope. Most folks are really impressed with the variety and the way we’ve managed to juxtapose styles and textures. There’s still plenty to enjoy for long term fans but we’ve also introduced a few wild cards into the mix, upped the creative ante a few notches on songs like “Accidental Architecture”, which is almost from some alternate Posies universe, a universe where time gets stretched and rearranged. “Licenses to Hide” is also unlike anything else in our ‘oeuvre’, if you will.
Could you tell me a little bit about how you and Ken/Jon work together? Do you parcel things out, or is it more organic and collaborative? Who would win in an “artistic disagreement” these days?
KS: I think the person who wins in our artistic disagreements is: you, the listener. We take the points seriously we each have to make. I like to see us as a kind of federal government, with a system of checks and balances so that the “Jon-dicial” and “Ken-gressional” branches don’t overstep their mandate (there is no “Posie-dent”, if I may complete the cycle of rancid punnery). If it’s not representative of each of our visions, it’s not a Posies album. It’s K or J solo album with the other guy guest appearing, and that’s not what you want in the end.
These days, we each write songs, at home, away from the others, and send the demos around (or not) and then get together and start learning the songs from the demos. We exercise a lot of precious, protective bullshit over our songs like any songwriter will do, but we try and remember that the people we have in this band are trustworthy people that will bring only good things to the picture….easier said than done.
After that–on this record, there was so much work to do that Jon & I then went off with the songs we were responsible for and worked on them at home and other places. Jon has been the liaison with with the visual arts side of the album, working with the designer and illustrator to make sure the package comes out like we want it and do all the paperwork. I do a lot of tour managing and logistical work for the band, and we both have a hand in what you might call management.
JA: The initial part of our collaboration involves more hunting and gathering than anything else; it’s later that it becomes a bit more confrontational. Most of what we do together comes so easy and natural that it’s a bit scary really, like second nature. A lot of “I was just going to say that” or “You read my mind” occurs and we value each others’ opinion tremendously, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get a bit tricky at times trying to get both of our needs met and voices heard. But hey, that’s a * good thing * – it’s par for our course. Understatement: Ken and I are both incredibly headstrong and we work our material together to the nth degree until we feel we’ve given everything a fair shake and sometimes that is an intense process. It’s both inevitable and necessary. That’s what makes us The Posies.
If you could choose to only tour or only write and record material, which would you take?
KS: Oh, touring for sure. I’ve been touring for 6 years on the same solo album (Soft Commands, Rykodisc, 2004) so obv. that’s what I like. Since that album has come out I’ve toured South America, Asia (twice plus a visit to Israel), Africa, prob. 200 shows in Europe, plus the US, Australia and New Zealand. I love to connect with people, and see new places. And you’d be amazed–I have heard many times that hip hop is the world’s music, but from what I’ve seen….kids all over the world are into indie rock. Everyone wants to be a hipster.
JA: Will you think I’m a grump or a stick in the mud if I say I hate these either/or type of questions? Too bad…(haha)…Regardless, for me there is never really a fair or accurate answer in these situations. You’re asking me to pick between two things I can’t live without at this point. It’s like having to choose between food and water. Granted, I pretty much grew up in a studio, like I mentioned before, and it’s a very comfortable place for me to be. There is so much I associate in my life about and with it, a lot of formative experience that will never be erased from the memory banks. During high school, I used to work in my father’s home studio until the sun came up on weekends, by myself, completely driven. I was seriously obsessed.
That said, I could never have predicted how fucking addictive playing live is. Really, it’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s like getting a ‘fix’ every time it happens and I know for a fact I get depressed if I don’t play live for a while, so I try to keep something on the performance schedule as often as I see fit. Between some other back to back sessions for other artists I’ve been producing, I just returned from a solo trip to Singapore and before that had a couple of shows in New York City. The Posies record kept me in a studio for like a month and a half will little or no reprieve, and as soon as I hit the stage at these shows, I got that shot, that rush, and the light bulb turned on in my head yet again. It’s like a kind of hyper reality and when it’s happening I don’t want it to end.
But, since you asked – say, if I was forced at gunpoint…or needlepoint, perhaps…nah, forget it. I’m not gonna choose. Not gonna happen. Next question!
What other bands and artists are you enjoying at the moment? Are there any other bands that you think are directly or indirectly influenced by The Posies? If so, is that flattering, or irritating?
KS: If we include *indirectly* then…well, pretty much you’d be laying all of modern, brainy, melodic, literate etc. indie rock at our feet. Posies fans are everywhere–you’ll find them in the lineups of Snow Patrol, Death Cab For Cutie, Modest Mouse, and so on and so on. Is there any way that could be irritating? If I become destitute, I can always call in a favor and wham: I have employment cleaning a swimming pool, somewhere.
At the moment, I’m on vacation, and I just haven’t had the heart to listen to demos, etc. I recorded a band from Cambodia (the Cambodian Space Project) in a garage near my summer place the other day, that was marvelous. Mostly I listen to bullshit on French radio as we drive around the island where we live during summer. Uh, French radio this summer is 99% Owl City, tho. And the Gossip song that sounds like “Pump Up the Jams”.
Summer holiday is when I catch up on cinema and literature, as the rest of the year it’s all music, all the time.
JA: I don’t think influence is ever irritating, but how one is perceived can often be. I get a little miffed at the lazy categorization of The Posies sometimes. We’ve been lumped into genres at points in our career that I just don’t feel do us justice and that can be frustrating especially when the labels and tags are propagated. There is a lot going on musically with The Posies, to say the least, a lot of layer and nuance and I don’t think we ever fit easily into any one ‘box’… but what can you do, except bitch about it in interviews? haha!
My favorite times are when I meet someone in a band who sounds nothing like The Posies and they tell me what a fan they are. I’ve been touring behind a solo record of mine since 2006, Songs from The Year of Our Demise, and I’ve been all over the world with it, Europe, Australia, Japan, Singapore, etc. and I constantly meet people in bands who like what I do and what we’ve done together. I remember doing a sound check at the Mercury Lounge in NYC and this kind of Stoner Rock-looking dude turned up and just stood in the middle of the showroom and watched me perform. Turned out to be a really lovely chap named Mike Dyball who was in town with his band, the band Priestess from Montreal. They had a gig that night so he came by to see my check because he was going to miss my show and wanted to say hi, had my solo record already and was a big Posies fan. I’d never met him before in my life. Now, maybe, if you judged the book by the cover, I’d wager most Priestess fans would never guess he’d be into what I do, but there you go. I love it when that kind of thing happens.
Conversely, who would you say are the main bands or artists that have influenced *you* over the years?
KS: Oh, well, at the beginning of the band (1988) i can say it was 50% early 80s braniac manic pop like Squeeze, XTC, Elvis Costello…and a hodgepodge of indie faves of the day–Husker Du, the Smiths, The Replacements, Black Flag REM. I have to see we really admired Seattle’s The Young Fresh Fellows, who were by turns poignant, clever, and inspired. And still are.
Over the years, we discovered how much we didn’t know. We heard Big Star, at one point. That changed everything. And on our first US tour, in 1990, the soundtrack was Teenage Fanclub, which sort of changed everything again.
And now? You’re talking to people with tens of thousands of records, files, whatever…it’s all in there. If we’ve heard it, it’s an influence, yes?
JA: Music is pretty much all I do now, every day of my life there is always something going on related to it, even when I’m not technically ‘working’. The gears keep grinding in my head; it’s just compulsory really. Ultimately, you end up influenced by everything you are a part of if you’re present and paying attention. You can’t help it, it just rubs off of you, either in the sense that you are moved and affected by what is happening or in some cases unexpected ways. Honestly, I can be just as influenced by discovering what I don’t like or don’t enjoy about something as well, things I see and hear that I maybe I would like to avoid becoming. In fact, sometimes that can be the ultimate influence, the true catalyst.
Also, since I’m immersed in musical matters most of the time, a fair bit of what influences me these days is outside of the music world. I’m obsessed with film and I freely admit I use it for meaningful escape/inspiration a lot of the time. Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick send me. Fellini’s 8 & 1/2 is a perennial fave. So is Hal Ashby’s Being There. Film is quite similar to music to me in many ways – except that you can see it, haha.
Could you tell me a bit about your connection with Broken Social Scene?
KS: Darius, our drummer, is genetically Canadian. He was born in the US, but….man…talk about God missing the free throw–that boy was meant to be up in the Land of the Loons. A fanatical connection with the band Rush is just the beginning of the story. Anyway, he lives there now. Also, he’s been playing a lot with Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, who’s been living in Seattle for years, and I think shared quite a few bills with (uh, hahah let’s not further investigate that image) Broken Social on tour with Scott. Darius is extremely likable, Canadians are friendly, and Bob’s your dad’s brother. So, D is good friends with that crew, and when I was imagining who could sing the female part on our album, D suggested Lisa. He played with them in London in mid May, and she was into the idea, and we all met when we played the same festival outside Seattle at the end of May, we all got on well, and as they had a break in the tour after that show, she could do the singing with Marty, their live and studio engineer at his place, just in time to make into the mix.
JA: I first met them in Australia in 2006 through Spiral Stairs of Pavement (whose recent album on Matador/Domino, The Reel Feel, I produced and mixed BTW) when we all played a festival called Laneways there together. Our drummer Darius ended up getting to play with them a few times and I would go see BSScene shows with him whenever they were in town and hang out. Nice folks, crazy musician/artist types in a very civilized way and amazing performers, transcendent live.
What do you think of the current debate around availability of music online. Do you think intiatives like Spotify are a good way forward, or do you have concerns around the future of “records” and bands being able to financially sustain long-term careers?
KS: I have no worries about long term careers, any more than I ever did. Music and art have a value, and there’s always a way to translate that value into something to live off of. The way you meet that money may change, but it just pays to pay attention, and be creative (that’s our job, anyway, right?). My opinion of Spotify, or whatever, is irrelevant–it’s here. Radio has been free since long before I was alive. I taped songs off the radio. Home taping was killing music, right? Wrong.
JA: The thing I find kind of odd is how little people are willing to pay for music sometimes. I mean, a lot of people are hard pressed to spend $10 or 10 quid on a CD or record they can arguably listen to for the rest of theirs lives, but they won’t blink an eye when it comes to spending that amount on a latte or two or a pack of cigarettes on a daily basis, something transitory.
Maybe we need to develop a method for caffeine or nicotine delivery via music…maybe that’s the answer. Would someone get to work on this? Please let me know when you figure it out.
What about social networking and blogging type sites? Do you think they’ve changed the relationship between musicians and their fans? Do you make much use of twitter, facebook etc?
KS: Uh, do I think…haha….what if I said ‘no’? I mean, of course….I am very comfortable with the idea of people having access to me, if that excites them a bit…and it seems to…and it seems to stimulate a lot of loyalty if you are a little accessible. And the nice thing about it is, you can turn it off. Boom. Not accessible. Seems like a win win to me.
Ha hah, I was thinking of a one panel gag with a musician at the computer: “man, this social networking has revolutionized the way I do business, and my relationship with my fans! I’ve got all the crumpet already lined up FOR THE ENTIRE TOUR!!!”
Ahem. I digress. But, it’s kind of true in a way–I mean, along comes the internet, this glorious invention that will set us all free and end all wars, and then, along come the pornographers, like 40 minutes later. Boom.
I monitor the world (my world) on Twitter. I communicate with fans on FB. And there ya go.
JA: I use all of the above and love it. The Posies started as a DIY band, we made our recordings, ‘manufactured’ them one piece of product at a time, and sold them direct to stores initially, literally out of backpacks we’d tote around with us. Man, could we have used the Internet then! People who have always had it, growing up with it today, have no idea how much harder it was to network, haven’t a clue. You actually had to leave your house to do it – imagine that! Sure, you get the crazy Internet stalker presence sometimes as well, and the spam and theft, but the good far outweighs the bad IMNSHO. I love being able to eliminate the ‘middle man’ in the relationship between musicians and fans; there is less to get ‘in the way’. The more direct the better.
Finally, if you had to nominate one of the above questions as being the one where your answer will differ most dramatically from Ken’s/Jon’s, which one would it be?
KS: I’d have to say #6, that’s my prediction. Jon seems to be slightly more into studio work and slightly less into touring than I am, based on how we use our time. But that’s not to say Jon doesn’t tour much and I don’t do much studio work. But, I couldn’t imagine Jon not in a recording studio ever again and I couldn’t imagine me not touring again.
JA: Out of all these 12 questions, I’m going to nominate question number 13. There, I said it – now it’s out there in the open. Make of that what you will…