by Thomas Durkin, 27 March 1995
Picture if you will: a girl is aimlessly flipping through her radio dial, finding nothing but an increasingly meaningless musical menu. Suddenly, she flips to that one station in town that can always be counted on for the coolest of the cool tracks, and hears these lines sung over a swirling mass of guitars, bass and drums:
She dropped my hand
And said, "I will go no further"
I dropped my head
And hid my tears with laughter
-- "Any Other Way", J. Auer/K. Stringfellow
From that moment on, the girl is hooked by the true melodies, the dead-on harmonies, and the rise and fall of the timbre so rare in today's tunes. She even sits through five less-than-spectacular songs just to hear the DJ say who sang the song she heard. The ride home has become that much better, and another Posies fan is born.
The birth of the Posies is somewhat less cataclysmic of a story. Jonathan Auer and Kenneth Stringfellow met each other in Bellingham, Washington and started playing in bands together even before the former had gotten out of grammar school! After a few years of playing together, they developed an ear for the sounds that they both loved. As Ken says, "We had a few years to try everything else before we tried the stuff we do in this band. That's kind of why we could be so committed to it. We really spent time figuring out what was important to us. We were very, very prepared to stick with this kind of music we do regardless of whether anybody ended up liking it or not. So, those years were good for us..." he finishes, with a facetiously nostalgic tone.
The recording of their first album Failure was in reality the beginning of the Posies. The name "The Posies" was chosen at the last minute as "a crazy joke," Ken says. "We just thought it was a stupid name in a way. It had a kind of annoying charm to it." Besides, "We had to commit to something to put on the tape covers, so we said, 'All right, let's commit to that. That'll do...'"
Failure was originally self-released on "23 Records" on cassette only. All instruments on Failure were played by Jon and Ken themselves, and mostly recorded in their living room. Shortly after that album's release, Jon and Ken were joined by Rick Roberts on bass and Mike Musburger on drums. Ken says, "Rick had ideas of forming a band of his own, and having Mike as a drummer. But then they met us, and we were two guitar players looking for a band. Rick could play bass, and so things immediately fell into place. Rick and Mike were great, and things were great."
After the release of Failure, the band grew up and "never looked back. We just kept playing shows, until we built a reputation around town for what we do. People started coming to see us in larger numbers, we started to get good opening slots."
The band didn't really tour, but they did manage to go down to California a couple times. Failure started attracting good reviews from music industry trade publications. But it took a "glowing" review from one trade publication, Cashbox, to grab the music industry by the ear and make them pay attention to the power pop that was the Posies' stock in trade. "This label SBK started talking to us," Ken says, "and as soon as one label gets interested, all the others try their hand as well. I think PolyGram, Warner Bros., and a few others started talking to us. Really, rather late in the game, Gary Gersh of Geffen Records [the same man responsible for signing Nirvana-- ed.] came up to us and said, 'How would you like to come and make records for a real record label?'"
The band was impressed with Gersh's audacity. But they were also impressed with Geffen's track record for supporting its bands. ("We were huge XTC fans," Ken enthuses, "and Geffen has stuck by them for years, even though XTC hasn't sold diddley.") Not long after the Posies were signed, Geffen decided to start a new imprint, DGC, and the Posies, along with John Doe (of X) and Sonic Youth, became the new label's first acts. Dear 23 was released in September of 1990, with the songs already having been written before the group had been signed. Immediately, radio stations began playing tracks like "Golden Blunders" and "Suddenly Mary". The band's reputation grew even further, and through radio play and touring, the record sold more and more copies.
However, the road to the Posies' success was not without its potholes. In the fall of '91, Rick Roberts left the band. From the beginning, Rick had plans of starting his own band, but when he joined the Posies and saw the subsequent success that they had drawn, he decided to stay on. "Eventually," Ken says, "he just got fed up with just being 'somebody's bass player,' and every move he made was to protect or expand his own interests. This kinda bummed out Jon and I, because there wasn't enough room for that, to be honest. Jon and I had so much that we wanted to accomplish; there wasn't room for another songwriter. Plus, the matrerial that Rick was writing didn't really fit in at all. He was trying to fit his style into ours, and once you try to contrive something like that, it's doomed. We just said, 'Look, Rick, you gotta get out of here. We can't handle this. Everything we do makes you resent us, whenever we accomplish what we want, you resent us; whenever you try to accomplish what you want, we resent you. You should get out (of the band).' I think he'd wanted to, he just hadn't, for some reason. When we said that, he said, 'Okay, I'm outta here.' This made everyone happy all around."
The band then continued with, ironically enough, the bass player that they currently have, Joe "Bass" Howard, who played with them for a couple of months at the beginning of 1992. However, at the time, he was still in the band Sky Cries Mary, with no intention at the time of leaving. So the Posies found one Dave Fox. In Dave, they found someone who had a cool personality and was easy to hang out with, and just happened to be a great bass player to boot.
The band then recorded Frosting on the Beater, and released it in April of 1993. It heralded a harder-edged sound that, coincidentally, fit in easily with the current Seattle alternative scene without sacrificing any of their pop smarts. However, Ken claims that the sound of Frosting was NOT a conscious effort to fit into the current sound, but a natural band progression. "We could have done something more ridiculous if we were trying to do grunge. In some ways we're so oblivious to what's going on. If I hear a record, I don't think, 'Hey, that's a really popular record!'. As far as (my personal tastes go), Red Red Meat and R.E.M. are equally popular, because I just don't pay attention to who's selling more records, although R.E.M. is obviously much more popular. I don't know If I react to what's popular." The band did more touring to support Frosting, which was finding radio success on the strength of "Dream All Day" and "Solar Sister".
However, misfortune was again to drop a doozy on the band with not one but TWO personnel changes within a short time. Dave Fox was the first to go. As Ken tells it, "It's not that Dave was not a good bass player--I've seen him play in Flop and he was amazing! It's just that he was not a great bass player for our band. It's how he played with Mike, and our differing philosophies that in the end just wasn't cutting it. We can't have any slack in the band anywhere; it has to be perfect. Mike was probably the least happy of all of us, because Jon and I would be out in front doing our thing and he'd want somebody great to play with; he was getting bored. One day we had a band meeting that Dave happened to be late to. Jon, Mike, and I were just sitting around at my place when I asked, 'What makes you guys unhappy about this band?' Mike said, 'Dave.', and Jon said, 'Dave.' The playing just wasn't up to snuff, so when he eventually showed up, we kinda said, 'Dave, sorry man, you're outta here.' I know that sounds kinda harsh, but it's like breaking up with someone. It's better to do that than to marry them, and be stuck with them, where you're both unhappy. It's that little bit of honesty that hurts that actually is better than avoiding someone and never bringing up the issue."
Joe Bass came back into the fold, and the band went on tour. However, Mike was unhappy; since he didn't tell the rest of the band, it created a tension that no one could really identify. Since Jon and Ken had been getting so much attention, he felt slighted, as if his contribution wasn't being recognized. Things finally came to a head when Mike and Ken got into a big fight, which resulted in Mike's departure from the band. "At the time," Ken remembers, "he said that it was because of the fight and because of me. Later, he admitted that maybe he'd been waiting for something like that for a long time."
On a brighter note, around this time Jon and Ken became part of a newly-reunited Big Star. It's well-known how two DJs at University of Missouri's radio station KCOU called up original drummer Jody Stephens and then original songwriter/guitarist Alex Chilton to see if the two would be interested in reuniting Big Star for the University's annual Springfest. However, they needed a guitarist and a bass player, since original members Chris Bell and Andy Hummel were not available, as the former had died tragically in a car accident in 1978, and the latter had quit music altogether for an aeronautics career. "We just hassled and lobbied," Ken says. "We knew Jody, and he liked our stuff, and he knew what big fans we were. And then, it just kinda worked out that nobody else did it. They (the people putting on the show) wanted some popular guys, 'berg (Paul Westerberg), Matthew Sweet, and all that other shit, but those guys couldn't or wouldn't do it. Alex was indifferent, and Jody had recommended us. When the smoke cleared, we were there and willing to do it. At one point, they had no choice. We didn't need to 'talk about it', and we wouldn't take no for an answer." As far as how the two Posies played, they received a high compliment from Jody Stephens, who said, "Their record of 'Feel' and 'I Am The Cosmos' gets so close to the whole Chris Bell vibe. I was really proud of having chosen them; their performance was just incredible."
So what's it like to work with Alex Chilton anyway? "He's, um, actually pretty professional, usually, especially towards us. He was pretty nonplussed about the whole thing, he didn't see the need to rehearse or anything. His commitment factor was that he could just take it or leave it, so that means he wasn't as bent out of shape by things that someone else might. His attitude was, 'Let's just go out and do these shows and make some money.'" Since that original reunion show, the group has played in San Francisco, Chicago, Memphis, England, Japan, and, believe it or not, the Jay Leno show. As far as additional shows, Ken says that it's "probable. There are offers ot play Minneapolis and New Orleans, but these things are always kind of, 'We'll see if things work out.' You know, I'm sure that something somewhere someday will work out. I know that we want to go back to Japan someday; Alex was really psyched about that when we were over there. I can't imagine us not wanting to do that. And there was so much of Europe that we left untouched. Big Star, however, is one of those things you can only do once in each place. I mean, the set list is what it is, really, and it's really not gonna change. Once you've seen the show, you've seen it; I don't think it would be good to wear out its welcome."
The Posies have found a new drummer in the person of Brian Young. They have been working on a new album with Nick Launay as producer; his credits include Midnight Oil, Talking Heads, Public Image Ltd., and, perhaps most impressively to the Posies, work on XTC's _Black Sea_ album as an engineer. When Launay told the group that he had since modeled his sound after that album, Jon and Ken said, "What a coincidence..." According to weekly recording diaries that Ken posts on the Dear23 mailing list, recording of the album seems to be coming right along.
There is one question, however, that is on the minds of almost all Posies fans: the name of their second album is Dear 23, the cataogue number of their first album was PL2323, they named their song- publisihing arm Twenty-three Songs Music--what is the significance of the number 23? "I'll never tell," Ken says with a devilish chuckle. Pressed further, he says, "You'll have to read the Illuminatus! trilogy. It was this kind of theme that we became obsessed with, that started taking on larger-than-life proportions." So why did it mean so much to the Posies? "We didn't mean for it to," Ken almost apologizes, "it was suddenly just everywhere, and we couldn't get away from it. But i think it's okay now; it's run its course."
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