Founding Posies founder Ken Stringfellow granted TCM the time to answer a wide range of questions and to reflect on a remarkable career that shows no signs of slowing down. The band is currently embarked on an 85 date world tour that concludes later in the year. Their Twin Cities appearance is Tuesday, June 26 at The Turf Club. Tickets are still available but going quickly HERE.
This one is special as it marks the band’s 30th Anniversary. While the roster has evolved over the years it has always been built around the duo of Stringfellow and Jon Auer. This band includes Mike Musburger and Dave Fox, the original line up that recorded and toured Frosting On The Beater.
The purpose of the tour, in addition to celebrating the anniversary, is a series of formal re-releases of three of The Posies best loved albums: Dear 23 (1991), Frosting On The Beater (1993) and Amazing Disgrace (1996). The first of these is available now. Each has been remastered and includes a bonus disc or vinyl replete with other recordings from the period that never found their way onto albums, including the 2000 compilation of outtakes. Together they comprise a detailed look at a highly influential rock and roll band that was churning up the charts around the globe during a particularly creative period.
The decision to reform the band for something of this magnitude prompted the question whether there was any trepidation, given this line up had previously splintered. In one case involuntarily and in another due to fisticuffs. Might it be like traveling with family or reuniting with old girlfriends after 25 years? Ken chuckled and was quick to point out that it hadn’t been 25 years. The band had a successful 6 week tour of Spain in 2016. “At that time we really didn’t know how everybody was playing or how everybody would get along. We got along well. And Mike is unbelievable. He’s always been a monster and his chops certainly haven’t diminished. Dave has improved greatly. We always loved him as a person but there were some limitations back then that were holding us back. He’s improved. And those limitations no longer exist.”
“After 25 years you learn that the world is not a problem against you. That really you’re more the problem in the world. You keep banging against realities that are fairly immutable. And that gives you a better sense of how much space you take up in the world. That’s one. And two, everybody’s been humbled. We’re not invincible enough or rich enough to isolate ourselves from anything. We’ve all changed diapers and do all the things that bring you down to earth.”
Ken took us all the way back to the very beginning in Jon’s basement studio in Bellingham, WA in the mid 80’s as he Ubered to a Pittsburgh venue. We were briefly interrupted by a call from a Spanish journalist, a locale where the band remains wildly popular and has numerous stops scheduled down the road. He’d missed his assigned interview slot and Ken was kind enough to stick with us.
In a current world where any kid with a computer and garage band can DIY an album, I asked how they managed to produce their break out album Failure as teenagers in 1988. “We had a tremendous advantage. Jon’s Dad was an amateur folk musician and part of the local folk circuit. So he was always into music and he acquired some guitars. It was a pretty turbulent time as Jon bounced from house to house as the family went through multiple divorces. And so when he eventually settled down with his Dad, I think he was trying to give Jon something to ground him and give him a safe space after so much chaos. ‘I’m going to do something nice that we can do together and help us bond’. And he put together an 8 track analog studio in the house. Nothing outrageous but it worked and Jon knew it inside out. That’s why that record sounds like a record, not a demo. It kind of became like the clubhouse for local bands. Some of that equipment was incredibly valuable because when the 80’s arrived everybody thought the technology was so much better, so they were able to get it really cheap. Some of that equipment was the stuff that was on every great album you heard from the ’60’s. Today, in mint condition one of those amps would probably go for twenty five grand. Back then you could get it for $100. Unfortunately, they sold all this shit because they’re idiots! But that’s a whole other story”. He laughed: “Jon’s kind of like a reverse Ebay.”
When asked about their early aspirations as a rock and roll stars during the high school years of ’85 and ’86, Ken was quick to correct the question. “It was never about that for Jon or me. We are dreaming about writing great songs. All the fucking clowns around us had those dreams and to get rich and buy Porsches. That was their endgame. But not us. We were different. We wanted to write great songs and to learn how those great songs got written.”
“Anything to brighten the existence of what seemed a dead end town that was a living nightmare. Especially if you were sensitive, smart and on the physical side of prey as opposed to predator. I was massively bullied and it was really a living hell in middle school. That’s why I first started playing music. I needed a safe place to go and I needed friends. Safety in numbers, you know? Music was the one vibration that proved that the universe wasn’t a ghost ship. Like Nietzche said: Life without music would be a mistake.”
In the beginning, “I wasn’t a very good guitar player yet. But I could sing. And Jon was a prodigy. He could play every Van Halen solo note for note by the time he was 13.”
As Posies fans know, a small DIY miracle occurred in that home studio. Together they recorded direct to cassette their first album, Failure. Like thousands of other young bands, they drove the recording to the local radio station and dropped it off. In an era that preceded the internet that cassette went viral, passed from hand to hand in the Pacific Northwest while being picked up by an expanding roster of radio stations. Local indie label PopLlama picked up the album and released it on vinyl. The quick rise to notoriety ended up with a major label contract with Geffen Records.
“It really wasn’t supposed to happen. We walked straight off the cliff and landed straight up in water. Everything fell into place in a wonderful way. I wish that same serendipity continued on straight to the top of the charts. We got close!” (the song Dream All Day from Frosting On The Beater topped out at #4 on the Billboard charts) “But maybe it took us where we needed to be because if we’d gone all the way to the top of the charts I’d probably be playing a casino tonight or worse yet, a cruise. That initial rush was really incredible. It’s so unlikely. There’s no accounting for it. It doesn’t make any sense in the laws of physics, chance or otherwise. Yet it happened.”
Stringfellow still marvels at how lucky the band was. He can only speculate about what those early listeners heard. “Whatever you could say about our first album’s faults, it has a lot of personality and it didn’t sound like a demo. It helped that a couple of young kids, I was 19 and Jon was 18, were referencing earlier influences, the 60’s and 70’s, in a respectful way which probably appealed to an older program director. Other than that, it doesn’t make any fucking sense.”
He paused our conversation briefly to apologize to his Uber driver for talking on the phone and hoped he found the conversation fairly interesting. He then got the driver’s name, and informed him that 2 tickets would be waiting for him at the door later that night. One hell of a tip! 30 years later and despite critical acclaim with The Posies, REM and Big Star, Ken remains the anti-rock star.
Like anyone drenched with early accolades and success, fame took a toll. While the band continued to tour, record and grow, cracks began to appear. As Ken continued to overcome what he describes as the scars from childhood bullying and alienation, some of the impacts from Jon’s tumultuous upbringing began to surface. There were some internal power struggles about the direction of the band and touring schedules. “There was a period where Jon began to turn inward and did not want to tour. But we had come too far and I was far too invested in the band to allow that to happen. I said: but we just got here!”
“You know, to be honest, let me tell you something…if we’d have been as successful as I’d hoped we’d be, we would be nightmares as people. If not dead. We got really kind of famous at an early age and I can tell you it’s fucking toxic. The unbridling of the human ego is something that was never meant to happen. And it takes a very strong character, indeed, to survive that. So the fact that life kind of humbled us and didn’t give us the ego strokes we were looking for meant that we had to learn to view the world as normal people. And that’s why we’re all here today. It’s great. Both Jon and I have come to understand that the music has taken on its own existence. The music exists in the hearts and minds of the listeners and we respect and honor that.”
Often times, music followers are tempted to lump The Posies into the whole grunge scene that exploded in Seattle. Ken is quick to disabuse that notion. “No. We were before that thing. We were really part of that very first wave. Most of those bands that came in the second or third round of Sub Pop signings were a couple years behind us.”
Ken agreed that The Posies never really fit into that scene. “You want to know what the fucking truth is? I’ll give you the straight dope. Most of the grunge movement, as you know it, with its howling primal scream therapy, with the exception of Kurt Cobain, was fucking private school kids from Seattle. That pain that you’re hearing them express, in my humble opinion, is a fabrication. We never put on the affectation because it never occurred to us to lay on the affectation.”
Ken has a near photographic memory when it comes to remembering every tour and every gig. In the period circumscribed by the three albums being re-released the band toured with the likes of Teenage Fanclub, Super Chunk and on two tours The Replacements.
He was happy to point out the influence the Twin Cities rock scene had on him as a young musician. “I was always into really extreme music, interesting and weird music. But it’s hard to get it pre-internet or even know about it pre-internet. There was always record store roulette, as I like to call it. Back then you had Rolling Stone and Musician. Spin hadn’t really started yet. So the news was kind of filtered. Rolling Stone was always kind of a boomer rag. But God bless ’em, they’d review good stuff and they reviewed Husker Du’s Zen Arcade. I thought, that sounds interesting. I wonder how many years to get that record out here? So I’d just go down to the record store after school every day and look for those albums I’d been reading about that sounded interesting. I had this short list and one day it showed up!”
“Zen Arcade is a really interesting place to start. I didn’t grok that whole narrative part of it at all. But I certainly realized I was being taken on a journey. And that journey went all over the place. I was always confused by this definition of punk. Bands like the Ramones or The Clash sound nothing alike. Husker Du just added to that confusion by being uncategorizable. Even from song to song on the same album. I loved the fact that the world wasn’t set. That there was some wiggle room. That gave a little runt like me a path to survival. So, yeah. Husker Du is a big one.”
“The very idea that Greg Norton’s (the bassist for Husker) band Porcupine is on the bill with us at The Turf Club still amazes me. The fact that he lobbied to join us makes me think I’m in some kind of AI world where everything is reversed and one day I’ll wake up.”
How about as a kid? Even before you discovered Husker Du, what were you listening to? “I was a big fan of The Who before I discovered punk rock. The Who was like the closest thing to a free for all. That kind of a release and what you can do with it, that controlled violence without actually hurting anybody was a perfect outlet for somebody who was being subjected to actual violence. And then, of course, REM was another really big one. It still seems a bit amazing that I grew up with REM on my bedroom wall and over a decade later I’m playing in the band.”
“This opens up another track. And that’s The Replacements. When you asked me what I was listening to in high school I was certainly aware of Husker Du but it wasn’t until college that I discovered The Replacements. Once I discovered them they became incredibly important to me. In one of those really strange complements, Paul Westerberg’s first wife, Lori Bizer, was a Twin Cities DJ and she played Failure when it first came out on her shift. She got Paul into the record. So even before we toured Failure we opened for them on their Northwest slots. And then when Dear 23 came out in 1991 we did a more extensive tour with them.”
We discussed the ‘Mats reputation as a live band. While many remember the hard partying and crash and burn episodes, most fans who saw them point to a band that could turn it on a dime and was incredible live. Ken shared his favorite story. “Before I ever thought I would be near them or anything like this, when I was merely a fan, they came to Seattle twice. On Pleased To Meet Me, in one year. Each time playing the Moore Theater which is an 1100 cap early 20th century theater in Seattle. I would put both of those two shows in the top 5 rock shows I’ve ever seen by any band, anywhere on the planet. They were absolutely phenomenal. And it’s even more interesting to note that the night before that first one they’d played in Portland and it was so bad that they etched Sorry Portland! into the grooves of Don’t Tell A Soul. So it was within 24 hours that they could turn it like that.”
On the differences between performing in Europe and the United States, particularly in Spain. “Lack of morbid obesity for a starter! To be honest, our audience in Europe is a little younger, in general. We started to gain notoriety a little later. Like about the time of Frosting and our success kind of blossomed a little later. The late ’90’s was really our peak period in Europe, where you could say our peak period was mid ’90’s here in the States.”
“In some of those places some of these people are under the impression we’re one of the biggest bands in the world. Spain, I walk down the street and get recognized. That can happen once in a blue moon here. But in Spain it’s kind of like an alternative universe where it looks like it would have been if we’d have been as successful as a lot of people thought we would be. They just seem to love crunchy guitars with nice melodies. That’s a pathway for success over there. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was like that everywhere?”
While a 30th anniversary is certainly a reason to hit the road, why the decision to repackage and put so much effort into those 3 seminal albums? “I think the whole impetus for me fighting so hard to get all this stuff released is that we’ve fallen through so many cracks and I kinda refuse to keep doing that. I will fight against us being forgotten because it’s so easy to happen. People have such short attention spans. It’s an opportunity to tell a story and I think there’s a really interesting story in all those demos and outtakes about the amount of care and editing we took in our songwriting process. That these things didn’t just happen by accident. We really refined and honed our stuff. There’s so much bonus material that you’ll see how much good stuff we put on the wayside. It was a very intense editing process. In general, I think we made the right choices.”
When asked who that target audience for the albums might be, existing fans or people coming to The Posies for the first time, Ken reflected a bit on how the industry has changed from albums being the dominant art form to streaming singles on Spotify. He acknowledged the challenge it presented but insisted that there have always been two types of listeners. The curious and the passive. The latter will always simply accept what is fed to them. The former will always go where their curiosity leads them. “It’s like every town has a library. But how many people actually use it? I choose to cater to the curious.”
Stringfellow and Auer have been frequent visitors to the Twin Cities over the past couple years albeit not in a full Posies configuration. They have focused on playing unique pop up shows that their fans have loved. In most cases, it’s just the two of them or a very stripped down band. The venue is never announced until the last minute. The venue must be a space that does not normally host music. The last three trips to town have been an open theater space in St Paul, an art gallery in Minneapolis and a church in Dinkytown. “I can’t tell you how sick you get of the same black rooms with moldy dressing rooms and band stickers all over the walls! Those pop up shows are a win-win for everybody. We get to interact with the audience and the audience seems to really love them. However, when we decided to do this tour that just wouldn’t work. Way too much firepower. So we need the big sound system.”
What can we expect to hear when you come to The Turf? “My impression thus far on the tour is that Dear 23 kind of takes the cake in terms of set list bandwidth. Even though this band is the band that made Frosting. And I mean Frosting is well represented. It’s all in there. After a bit of try this try that, it’s pretty clear what works in terms of a general approach to the set list.”
When asked what else Twin Cities music fans need to know about their current efforts and the re-release of Dear 23, Frosting On The Beater and Amazing Disgrace, Ken pointed to a number of things. First, he wants people to know that the re-release of Dear 23 is radically different from the original. Not that the songs have changed. However, the album was recorded in 1990 which was very early in the digital world and it went direct to CD. It never really sounded the way they wanted it to sound. It always seemed muddy. The new version is just the way they wanted it to be.
“There’s also a pledge campaign with the albums coming out on PledgeMusic and we can really use peoples’ help. It costs an arm and a leg to lease the rights to our albums from the record company. We just thought the time was right, particularly to give fans all that new material that’s never seen the light of day. These are songs we put a tremendous amount of effort and passion into. It wasn’t that they weren’t good enough. It’s just that as a producer you have to make judgment calls about what fits on a particular album and what doesn’t. So if you want a better formed picture of who we are, they’re an essential part of the story.”
“Finally, I’ve already mentioned Norton’s band Porcupine and how excited we are to play with him. There’s this tremendous opportunity to play some songs with him. And the awesome Terra Lightfoot is on tour with us. Anybody coming to see us would be well advised to get there early.”
The conversation closed with Stringfellow looking down on a Pittsburgh street from his 3rd floor perch, cold press in hand. “There goes Jon Auer checking his phone.” A few minutes later Mike Musburger also wandered by on his way to the sound check. We wished each other good luck and off he went to prepare for another show in a 30 year career of concerts for dedicated fans.
Doors at 7pm, everybody. Don’t be late!
Be sure to check out Pledge Music online.