Ken Stringfellow of The Posies

by Roger Catlin

Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer started The Posies while they were still teenagers in the Pacific Northwest. Nearly 30 years later, they're continuing to put out music in their own terms - in albums like this year's Solid States, their eighth overall, that they sell online - but also in tours they book themselves in dozens of "secret" locations on what they call "pop-up tours."

At the same time, their music, which so epitomized guitar-based power pop of its era, has evolved a bit as well. Stringfellow, 47, spoke over the phone from his home in France, about the evolution of the band, which now includes drummer Frankie Siragusa following the sudden death of Darius Minwalla last year. He also talks about his time in the reconstituted Big Star in 1993 and playing extra guitar for R.E.M.
Songfacts (Roger Catlin): How would you say the music of The Posies has changed over the years?

Ken Stringfellow: Oh golly. I think there are several things at play. When we started we were just children, so our level of maturity and our areas of interest have just expanded so much.

We were very naive guys from a small town, with a certain kind of musical aptitude. Our first album, that was largely recorded and mixed in a home studio in Bellingham, Washington, in 1987, is pretty adept. It's just that its perkiness, which is part of its charm, is the product of not knowing much about the world. And certain sophisticated listeners saw through it and some didn't. I mean, some people couldn't go there with us. They said, "Hey, this is just too squeaky to me."

But some people loved it. What can I say, I was who I was in 1987. I was 18 when we were first making the album, but now we're talking about people who are in their late 40s who have been married and divorced, and have had children — well, I had a child even in 1987 — but more children.

We traveled the world and have done amazing things, and played with the cream of the crop. The level of experience coming into the songs now in one sense, it makes writing a little more intimidating, because of course you have so much awareness of what's been done. In 1987 we didn't know jack shit about what had been done.

We had record collections and they were growing, but in 1987 I didn't know about Can or whatever. There were a lot of things missing from the picture that were all really interesting, and would go on. I really didn't know about Big Star in 1987 and that would change the level of maturity that I would want to put into any given lyric.

I think that's the most obvious thing: Time marches on and we've grown a lot, and I think we've grown in very nice ways. But we can never go back to the perspective that we had, which of course would be terrible to have now. I would be a real stunted person.

Other than that, in our musical explorations — producing records for other people, working with all kinds of technological and musical solutions in various different forms, using various different computer-based forms like Ableton, and Pro Tools and Logic and Q-Base — this is all part of the process for me now.

I will turn to those tools before I would turn to switching on a tape machine in a heartbeat because the instantaneousness, and the endless manipulation that you can make just for fun is very very tempting. God bless John Vanderslice. I made a record with John Vanderslice a couple of years ago and I think he's awesome and he has a certain thing he's locked onto. Then you hear Keith Richards talking about, "I only record on tape, you have to do it." I just don't share their views, as much as we respect them.

When they started out, a cassette of songs Stringfellow and Jon Auer traded back and forth went viral, which in the late '80s meant copies got passed around and radio stations started playing them. Just one problem: Stringfellow and Auer didn't have an actual band together. Drummer Mike Musberger and bassist Rick Roberts were added as the first Posies rhythm section, and they were playing the ominously titled Failure soon after the album's release in spring 1988.

The Posies soon got signed to DGC and "Golden Blunders," the first single from their Dear 23 debut on the label, became enough of a college radio hit that Ringo Starr recorded it as part of his 1992 album Time Takes Time. Several albums followed with some success, such as the song "Dream All Day" from the 1993 set Frosting on the Beater, but they broke up a couple of years after their final DGC record Amazing Disgrace in 1996, only to reunite several times in the 21st century, most recently with Solid States.
Songfacts: Who were your inspirations when you started the band?

Stringfellow: Well, I can say leading up to that point we were really into the clever, guitar-based end of the British new wave, like Squeeze, and XTC and Elvis Costello, these very brainy, complicated things these guys were into we really loved. We were in the age of Milli Vanilli, stuff that was absolutely insulting to the intelligence. So this was something we could really lock onto, and it was a challenge to decipher and keep up with. So we loved that.

I think that influence is quite clear. You can hear an XTC drum pattern straight from the song "Ball and Chain," starting the song "Paint Me" on our first album, for example. And we really loved the SST bands, both the raunchier end of the spectrum and the pop end of the spectrum.

Like Husker Du. We were huge fans of Husker Du. And in fact, again on Failure, the song "Under Easy" is very much like a Bob Mould song played on acoustic guitars. I think it's wonderfully derivative of our influence. You know, and the Beatles and all the '60s stuff. Bands like Black Flag, and the Dead Kennedys and stuff like that. And you just don't hear that on our first record, but I was into it.

And we also liked Depeche Mode and I liked Snakefinger. I liked some cool things, but I think that the songcraft element of an Elvis Costello was really the kind of thing we were shooting for, especially since we didn't have a band, and therefore didn't really have a way to generate a band sound. We kind of made one up on the studio, but the core values that we were trying to illustrate were based around extreme songcraft.

It was founding members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens who personally recruited Stringfellow and Auer to join the reconstituted Big Star in 1993, and nobody could be more surprised than the two guys from the Posies. After all, the iconic band had only existed for three years in the early '70s and broke up in 1974. Founding members Chris Bell and Andy Hummel left after the band's first record in 1972. Bell wasn't alive to take part in the reconstituted band, as he died at 27 in a 1978 car accident. Hummel simply declined to take part (he died of cancer in 2010 at 59).

The new Big Star lineup made its debut at the University of Missouri in 1993, in a show recorded for an album. The new quartet continued touring Europe and Japan, where Big Star had become a cult attraction. They issued a new studio recording In Space, its first in over 30 years, in 2005 and continued to appear at shows and festivals until March 2010 when Chilton died from a heart attack at the age of 59, three days before Big Star was scheduled to play the SXSW Music Festival. That performance turned into a big tribute concert to Chilton that drew Hummel, as well as Evan Dando, Chris Stamey and R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills. It also became the basis for recreations of Big Star's never-performed final album, Big Star's Third, with a revolving cast of artists including Stephens, Stamey, Mills, Mitch Easter, Auer and Stringfellow.
Songfacts: It's quite a road from not knowing who Big Star was when you started to you and Jon joining the reconstituted Big Star in 1993.

Stringfellow: Truly! Yeah. By virtue of the fact that those records were impossible to find. Although I found them. I found both Radio City and #1 Record in the mid-'90s. I don't know who fucked up, but I found both of them, mint vinyl copies at Golden Oldies Records in Seattle in the mid-'90s.

But, yeah, Big Star was a reference and Alex Chilton got press and was sort of known. I wouldn't have connected the Alex Chilton who was being reviewed for his mid-'80s records with the guy I was hearing on classic rock radio. I didn't know his biography or anything, but when we started and came out with this record. I have to also say I was a huge R.E.M. fan in high school and the Smiths were a pretty big band - I forgot to mention those two.

And we got into the Replacements around the time we were making Failure, at the time trying to be the mellow side of Paul Westerberg. Anyway, we're getting to these bands and reading about Big Star and right around that time, '88 and '89, they started to get reissued, and they found their ways into our hands. Once we heard Big Star, we heard our calling, as it were.

Let's analyze the pop music that we were listening to at that point. There's epic-ness to Husker Du that's relatable, but it's loud. It's not like they're talking to you. The Replacements have this craziness with the drinking and "I'm such a broken dude, here's the beauty that exists in me." We couldn't relate to that really at all — we weren't even old enough to drink. Elvis Costello is not a normal person. He's this incredibly erudite, cerebral dude and he's spewing out this stuff and it's like doing a crossword puzzle every time you listen to a song.

Big Star had this wonderful musical sophistication, and you could tell there was so much more behind the music than you might think, considering it led to such catchy, enjoyable songs. But they also sound like people who were talking to you, at least to me. That's what I found remarkable about Big Star is that it was just so relatable. Their contemporaries like Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk, they were just not relatable. Great bands, but they didn't seem like people you could really talk to. Big Star just sounded like normal people who were making music that was really cool which had a wonderful guitar pop to it, but it wasn't stupid.

When Failure came out, everybody put their favorite power-pop bands on us, and I'm not saying they're all stupid, but there's kind of an aesthetic to power pop to be light on purpose. That, I just couldn't relate to. I was light by virtue of the fact I was 17 or 18. I was trying to be as deep as I could be and I didn't want to hear more light, I wanted to hear stuff that had more gravitas. And Big Star also had gravitas despite being very melodic and enjoyable. So there you go. They were like the best of all possible worlds, and we were like, This is what we should be doing. And yeah, we were such extreme fans that we recorded note-for-note cover versions and got to know Jody.

But it still doesn't really explain how we ended up in Big Star, as much as it can be explained. We were just very lucky, very ardent fans - ha ha - some people who in some sense should have been there didn't want to do it or couldn't do it at the time they were doing this one show. And thus, we were the best people for the job that could do it, or would do it. Maybe we weren't the best people for the job that could do it, but we were trying and therefore, we kept moving to the front of the line.

It shouldn't have worked. Just like so many things in our career shouldn't have happened, like the way the Posies began with a homemade cassette. The reason you're having this conversation with me now is because we put this cassette together and we gave it to a commercial radio station. They should have just thrown it in the wastebasket, but they put it in rotation, for whatever reason.

It's a good record, but Christ on a bike, I'm sure they're getting lots of good records every day that they don't play. But they decided to take a chance on us.

So our career has had a number of amazing flukes. We do write a good tune. We are good players and we care about what we do, but people have always seen in us enormous potential, whereas I think we have very limited appeal. But we've had some crazy flukes — like that field goal kick from 75 yards made it and then we got in the playoffs. We are survivors of a series of flukes and it's allowed people to appreciate our qualities, which I think normally would have languished, because we're not really that commercial.

Songfacts: Well you may be.

Stringfellow: So far results are mixed. But yes, we did sell half a million records. So to some degree if you put enough money behind us, we can look kind of commercial. But it's kind of like elections: It probably cost the record company four bucks for each one of those half million records to sell each one of those for a buck.

Songfacts: You continue to salute Big Star with those big tribute shows.

Stringfellow: Yeah, we do the Big Star Third thing. Since Alex died six years ago, I'm part of this committee to keep the music of Big Star in the public consciousness, because we love it so much, and it's important music for us. So there is a kind of brotherhood, although there are women involved as well. A society, shall we say, of myself and Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone from Wilco and of course Chris Stamey, who has been absolutely instrumental in this project, and Robyn Hitchcock and Norman Blake - a whole bunch of musicians who adore the music of Big Star and have been involved in this project to present Big Star's music as it really was or maybe even better than it was. We played the Third album as if it were played live like the record, which of course never happened. They never played any shows when they were making that Third album and after, so nobody knows what that live show would have been like. But we take the elements of the album and put them in a live setting just as the record implies the intention. And that's pretty magnificent.

We just filmed one of these shows, to be released as a concert film next year, with Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone with myself, Robyn Hitchcock, Jon, Jody, and Chris Stamey running the show. We had the Kronos Quartet doing the strings and Carl Marsh, who worked on Big Star's Third as the original arranger coming back to conduct and work with those arrangements and get them up to speed. I know I'm leaving people out, but suffice to say, it's an incredible array of really talented musicians whose common point is that Big Star is a major point of reference for them.

So yes, we keep this music alive and I'm honored to be part of that. Absolutely. There's nothing about Big Star, despite the fact

They're in the canon now: Here's Michael Cera in some hipster movie putting on a Big Star record, and Big Star was referenced in Vinyl, and so forth. We still don't take it for granted because their music was put under for so long.

Stringfellow joined R.E.M. as an extra guitarist in four world tours from 1999-2005 and also appeared on latter day R.E.M. recordings including Reveal, Perfect Square, Around the Sun and the Man on the Moon soundtrack, as well as R.E.M. Live and the compilation In Time.

R.E.M. may be the most prominent of the many bands to which Stringfellow has lent a hand. That includes Lagwagon, White Flag, the Minus Five, Sky Cries Mary, Snow Patrol and the Loud Family. He and Auer have also done side projects such as 2003's Private Sides;
Stringfellow recorded a handful of solo albums dating back to 1997's This Sounds Like Goodbye and released a duo album with Holly Munoz, The Record: A Country Concept Album in 2015 that was meant as an answer to Willie Nelson's 1974 Red Headed Stranger.
Songfacts: Do you think you'll ever do a similar presentation of the music of R.E.M. too, to mention another band you've played with.

Stringfellow: Since they're not here to do it?

Songfacts: Let's just say they choose not to come.

Stringfellow: Mike Mills, by the way, is a major part of the Big Star Third thing. He's part of the core group of us. Sorry, I knew I was forgetting somebody important there.

But yes, I had a long run of playing with R.E.M. and playing their music, and of course, like with Big Star, I'm a real nerd and I wanted to play the parts note for note and not really reinvent the music of R.E.M., and they were cool with that. They were actually really appreciative that I ferreted out those details and played the cello part correctly on "World Leader Pretend" and whatever.

But you know, R.E.M., this was a band I connected with when I was 15, maybe 14, when I got my hands on Murmur. That record was extremely important in terms of just saying, "There is a whole world other than AC/DC and Led Zeppelin out there." Because all I could discover out there in Bellingham, Washington, was classic rock stations. There was and is a good college music station in Bellingham, but it was so small then I just didn't know where to find it when I was 14. It was a couple years before I stumbled upon KUGS. But in the meantime, you had the big stations from Seattle and Vancouver and you were just listening to Zebra or Krokus or whatever they were playing, and it was like, "There must be more to life than this."

I discovered, around this time, R.E.M. and the Ramones, and thankfully because of the CBC, the Smiths, I started to realize, "Oh, it's still going, music, I was worried there for a second." And then things just happened to open up in general. Records were coming to Bellingham, life was beautiful.

But R.E.M. was like the band that broke through, and they got played on some radio stations that were really big, meaning that I could hear them, having not discovered the college radio station. "Radio Free Europe" was played on big stations, and I was like, "Whoa. this is interesting, what the hell is this?"

I was deeply into those albums. When Life's Rich Pageant came out, that was for sure the Record Of The Year for me. We analyzed every record, but R.E.M. lent themselves to interpretation because of Michael Stipe's unusual delivery. So of course I analyzed every phrase and every measure of that music. And R.E.M., being a band that based their name on the land of dreams, they had a lot of suggestive imagery that was up for grabs in terms of interoperation. So that was wonderful and I was totally into it.

And then fast forward 15 years after discovering their music, I was playing with them. Once again, it's pretty hard to explain. There are explanations for how I ended up there, but they sort of fall short of really being satisfying.

Songfacts: It must have been crazy playing to that many people in stadiums in those shows and then also playing to very small audiences like you're doing now by design.

Stringfellow: Yeah, we played on a show on a tour this spring with the Posies that was limited to 15 people. But that's just another kind of experience. The Posies did play the main stage of the Redding Festival. We did the WHFS Festival in Washington, DC in RFK Stadium. We played the main stage of the Lowlands Festival in Holland a couple of times. We've played some big shows as a festival band. We're not incapable of playing to an audience like that.

But I can tell you that for what I do and for what I'm trying to get across - and this is no judgement on R.E.M, who simply managed a situation that is very hard to manage - playing where you suddenly cannot not play to less than 50,000 people is kind of nightmarish, because the subtlety of your music is in danger of being lost. They just trucked on and kept the subtlety in there, and probably at one point lost some of their audience because of their determination to be interesting.

Songfacts: Were you writing this album a different way? Weren't you in the same room together?

Stringfellow: No, but that's not too unusual. We usually get together from the separate work spaces that we have and come and compare notes. "I've written these songs, what have you got?" "I've got these." "Let's compare."

Then there was a whole period of teaching that to the band and sweating it out in the rehearsal place — that step we skipped. We just started recording at our individual spaces. We had a whole demoing process where we made very nice little electronic instrumental demos with no vocals, and we selected things from there that were the most interesting, but they sounded really dinky and nice. I think that would have been a little insulting for our fans to go that minimalist. It was good we filled things out a little bit and made things a little more sonically majestic to soften the blow that we also removed guitars from our whole raison d'etre.

Songfacts: You removed guitars from your recordings? Have you done so live as well?

Stringfellow: We still play 'em live, but I play a lot more keyboards. There are songs where I don't play guitar at all. The way we use them is not the thick slabs of guitar that people might be used to from our live show, that's for sure. And on our record, there's hardly any rhythm guitar.

The guitars that are on the record are always playing a part - a riff or an arpeggio or something like that. In the past, we usually have strumming electric guitars that are kind of the meat of the whole thing — or the meat and the skeleton. But here they're more the tattoos.

Songfacts: Is that an adjustment for your fans?

Stringfellow: So far, strangely enough, I've only encountered one fan who mentioned anything, I think because the vocal stuff is in place, our melodic knack is still there, and our vocal interplay is there. I think that satisfied the requirements for people identifying us.

A friend of mine, who plays in a band I've worked with, I ran into him recently and he said, "I liked three or four songs on the record very much, and then I didn't really like the others. But what you have to understand is, I don't change. I like the stuff that I always have. So this is more my fault than yours. It's me being unadventurous." To which I say, "Fair enough."

I will say he's the only person I've had that conversation with. Everybody else seems to be pretty accepting about it, and I think the shows are so much fun. Yes, we play with a laptop and yes, there are electronic things happening in the PA, but I think the focus of what people see is on Jon and I singing, and that's where we deliver the emotional content of what we're talking about, and why we're talking about it.

And then, after that, they see Frankie, and he's such a spectacle in himself because he's such an incredible drummer. The interaction of the three of us is really awesome, so I think all is forgiven. I think people are happy that we're still doing it and that they're cool with us doing it this way.

Songfacts: The economics of your pop-up tours are interesting. You may be playing to fewer people, but you're making more money?

Stringfellow: We are playing a club show on this tour. We're playing Nashville on a Monday night, and it's like $17 to get in, but it's just another club show in Nashville, and worse, it's on a Monday. God bless Grimey's for having us and I appreciate the opportunity and I think it's going to be a great show, but just comparing what we can do when we make the show not in a club — suddenly that's a huge sigh of relief from our fans, who say "I'd much rather see you here."

Our last Nashville show wasn't even in Nashville — it was in Franklin, like a 40 minutes drive from downtown Nashville, in a house, a very special house, and we sold it out within a week and made a nice chunk of change. And as it is, a week away from the show we're doing now in Nashville, we've sold 20 tickets and it's cheaper. I have no doubt more people are going to show up on the day. It might end up being 50 people, it might even end up 10, but even at 100 we're probably going to make less money than we would playing to 50 our way.

We did Minneapolis on our last show and we played to 105 people, and it started to look like the kind of money we made when we were playing theaters. It's definitely a cool economic model this way, so yeah, I've been talking to booking agents, looking for a new agent, coming to them in advance, telling them about this, so they're not like our last booking agent, who was surprised and said, "Hey, what the hell is going on? This isn't a tour. I don't even know what this is."

Like I said, we'll keep all of this for ourselves, and we'll book it, but you know what we're doing for you? Development. We're developing our thing and getting people excited and people are writing about it because it's novel and then when it's time to play a theater or a club or a package tour or a festival, you come in and make the real money and we've done all this grunt work for you. Does this sound good?

The booking agents are not saying no. They're saying, "We don't have any precedent for this so we're hesitant to do it, but you have a point, and we're not saying no."

So I'm talking to a few people now and I think it's pretty interesting. But in Europe we play club tours and festivals. In Europe, I think the club experience is better for everybody and this off-the-grid thing is harder to arrange.

That doesn't mean I won't try it some time, but the club thing, you're just treated so well there, it's just harder to compete with. It's just a higher aesthetic level in general across the board in Europe, and our audience is bigger. Some places we're playing to 700 people or whatever and we can't really do that anywhere else.

In the states, we could be playing in the 200-cap rooms, and those are a little grittier and we might not get 200 people anyway, so why not play to a for-sure 75 people who are really into it and put it in a place that's really special?

October 24, 2016. Get more at theposies.net.
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