BY SOPHIE BURKHOLDER Thirty years ago, the Posies recorded their debut album Failure in a small amateur home studio in Bellingham, Washington. In 2016, they released their eighth studio album, Solid States, and now they’re off on a 30th anniversary tour (which stops at World Cafe Live on Wednesday) in celebration of reissues of Dear 23, Frosting On The Beater and Amazing Disgrace that will feature previously unreleased bonus tracks. Though they’ve gone through a series of line-up changes in their rhythm sections, the Posies have always included core members Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer. We got them both on the phone to talk about growing up power-pop prodigies in the high rainyland of the Pacific Northwest and the world-beating ambitions of youth, battling depression and the death of bandmates in middle age, playing in the re-activated Big Star with Alex Chilton and joining R.E.M., and how it feels to have one of their songs covered by former Beatle Ringo Starr.
PHAWKER: So, the first question is actually from my editor. He said, “I’ve been to Bellingham and fell in love with the place. It was the first time I ever saw a whale in the wild, and it really struck me as about as Twin Peaks as it gets.” So he was kind of wondering what it was like growing up around there, assuming that you did? And what impact, if any, do you think it had on the art you’ve made since?
KEN STRINGFELLOW: Well, that’s a big question. Oh boy. First of all, I should point out that David Lynch is from Spokane. So, if you want, I think, the inland part of Washington is even more Twin Peaks-y. But, I would say that Washington for me, like moving to Bellingham and the Seattle area, etc., was a real breath of fresh air, despite the fact that Bellingham’s a small town. I was living in the burbs with my folks, and my folks were, you know, like preppy, basically. They were not, my folks were not bohemian. They were the opposite of bohemian. And we lived in white-people land. You know, outside of Chicago, outside of New York, outside of Detroit, you know we lived in, I would say culturally sterile environments. And I was hungry for culture. So, moving to Bellingham, which is where I moved with my mom when my folks divorced, I mean it was funky, and it was the first time I’d ever been anywhere funky. And Bellingham’s like a great hippie refuge. And it wasn’t Connecticut. The lawns weren’t all neat and tidy, it was just more interesting. And you know there was a mix of everything. There was a college there, so you had the student population and the interesting professor population. You had the aforementioned hippies and all the things that they brought in, which in the 1970’s, you know we didn’t have Whole Foods, we didn’t have an organic supermarket every 500 yards. I mean, organic stuff was very underground, and the fact that Bellingham was kind of a known spot for people to run away from San Francisco and all the cops and heroin that was kind of getting the hippies bummed out – they moved up to Bellingham because it was peaceful and you could do your thing. And they brought all the primitive ways of thinking that had come from that generation. So that was all there, and it really expanded my mind I think.
JON AUER: It was a pretty amazing place to grow up, because there were a couple different things happening there. You had the regular population, but there’s also a very nice university there called Western Washington University, and actually my father ended up working and teaching there for 33 years. So I was kind of a kid on a university growing up around that kind of culture. My parents at the time were both into music, and they were responsible for bringing musical acts for a concert series to the campus. You can imagine, you know, colleges tend to attract arts and music and all kinds of interesting things, so I had a serious influx of culture at a pretty early age in an area of the country where most people wouldn’t think it would have existed. I was super fortunate. It was also safe, and it was also close to Seattle, and also Vancouver. It’s right in the middle basically, so we got the crossroads of culture from both places and could also visit those places on a regular basis, which we did. I lived in Seattle for a while when I was a kid. But Bellingham, it was just a great place to be a kid, really. It was also an interesting place. It wasn’t just about the norm. It did have its fringe elements and its artistic types, which is what I benefited from, I think. My father was really into music, so for my part of the equation in The Posies, he put a recording studio in our house. A modest one, but this was back in the day before things like GarageBand existed and everyone had a laptop. It was pretty unusual, so my house was kind of the hub for people to come make music at and record music. That’s actually where I learned to make records, and I recorded the first Posies record at my house. That got us deals with the big labels. It was kind of the thing that started everything for us. It was just done in a very modest place in Bellingham. You could say that Bellingham has been exceptionally good to me, personally.
PHAWKER: Well, also more specifically, because you’re from that Northwest area and in the 90’s you were making music, but your sound was so different from those other grunge bands, so do you think that hippie influence helped it be more pop-ish?
KEN STRINGFELLOW: Not really. I think what that is is that Bellingham is not Seattle, and we didn’t have the same access to everything that people in Seattle did. You know, the people who you know from the grunge world, I mean they almost all went to the same private school. Half of Pearl Jam, guys from the Presidents of the United States, and a couple guys from other bands – they all went to the same private school in Seattle. They had a different life, and they were older. They had cool, punk-rock record stores on every corner in Seattle, and Bellingham, you know, we didn’t have hardly anything. I mean, we could hardly get the radio. It’s a small town in the middle of nowhere. And there’s no Internet at this time, of course, so information was not so easy to come by. So, our first album, Failure, is a cross between our parents’ record collections and what we could discover on our own, which is why it’s a little bit retro. I think that’s why that 60’s vibe is there because our parents’ record collections were one of the biggest sources we had in that small town.
PHAWKER: Speaking of the ’60s, what does it feel like to have Ringo cover one of your songs? My editor said that it seems a bit like having God quote you in his grad-school thesis.
JON AUER: That was insane. I wrote the lyrics to that, and that’s one of my songs. Because Ken and I, we write stuff together but we also write stuff apart. I gotta say that when we heard that, you know there’s that old show The Twilight Zone. That’s the kind of vibe. It’s just so surreal. And then I read an interview from Ringo saying that he was presented the song by his manager at the time, and he wasn’t totally sold. But then he read the lyrics, and thought the lyrics were very good, and that’s what convinced him to do the song. So, you can imagine that for me, that was pretty special. To think of this band that I grew up on, that my parents grew up on, and because of them I ended up loving them. The song itself is a play on a Beatles song titled “Golden Slumbers.”
PHAWKER: I was going to say that’s my favorite Beatles song actually.
JON AUER: Oh, it’s beautiful, right? You can just say the circle is complete on that one now. I mean that’s probably just one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me.
KEN STRINGFELLOW: [laughing] Yeah, you’re right. I mean, it was shocking. And it was done as a total surprise, that was the best bit. Talk about a moment where reality flipped itself on his head. Ringo has probably one of the most identifiable voices. He wasn’t say, the best singer of the bunch, but his voice is very recognizable. And growing up with Beatles records, I knew it very well. So, we weren’t told, we didn’t know that it was happening. We were in LA, and we were invited over to Peter Asher’s office. Peter Asher’s the producer of that album, and he’s also got a management company. He’s, you know, a player in the music world. And so they said, “Come over to Peter’s office. We have something we’d like to share with you.” So we were like, “Okay, are they gonna pitch us something or what?” I don’t know. And then they just didn’t explain anything and they just put the song on. That was just mind-blowing. I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense. I felt like a crazy person. It really would be like if during an eclipse, God wrote like “Hey Ken,” on the black disk of the sun. You know, it just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. But it was a great surprise. And I got to perform with Ringo later on. And on another note, he became aware of us not only through the song but a dear friend of mine became his personal assistant. So one time, when he was performing in Seattle, I sang with him, and that was pretty incredible, to sing a Beatles song with a Beatle. It was just a magical moment.
PHAWKER: What song did you sing?
KEN STRINGFELLOW: I sang the background vocals, along with Randy Bachman for “With A Little Help From My Friends.” On the [singing] “Do you need anybody?” All that stuff. And from my other favorite band of my childhood, The Who, John Entwistle was the bass player in this all-star band. So I got to hang out with him and party with him a little bit, chat with him. That was kind of a big day for me [laughing].
PHAWKER: Speaking of these different collaborations you’ve had, Ken, what was the best part about being in late-period R.E.M.? And what was the worst part?
KEN STRINGFELLOW: I can’t really think of any downside. It was an amazing rescue, really. They invited me along with them, basically the day after our band, The Posies, split up. In the 1990’s, I think we were just a little bit overworked. We hadn’t had the million-selling success that everyone, including ourselves, had hoped for. We’d done well, but didn’t push it over the top to a Weezer level or something like that. And so I think we were frustrated that our hard work hadn’t paid off to that degree, because we all felt that what we were doing was great and that we’d done everything we can, but sometimes fate has other plans. And I think at the same time, my bandmate Jon, was pretty depressed, for other reasons – you know, just the reasons that make people depressed – and didn’t understand what was happening to him. And I think that he just wanted to get out of everything, and go hide basically. And we broke up, because he quit. He just wanted to stop doing everything. Touring, playing, communicating. It was basically like I was being fired from my job by everyone else quitting [laughing]. You know, I was still showing up for work every day. So it was frustrating. And R.E.M. called me like, the next day. It was just, again, one of these strange and wonderful things, because R.E.M. is one of my favorite bands. The only band I ever wrote a fan letter to.
So, all of a sudden, my life changed dramatically. From not only all the wonderful things like playing with Neil Young and playing at Red Rocks and doing all of these amazing things and traveling all over the world and private jets and blah blah blah – all of that was great. But what was really great was to work and put my efforts into a team that wanted to succeed. And they wanted to play a great show every night. Whereas when Jon was depressed, he didn’t care. There were a couple of years where he just stopped caring. Of course, we were all really ambitious in the beginning, and then he just kind of lost himself. And I’d been dealing with that. Like practically physically dragging him through life for a couple of years, and all of a sudden I didn’t have to drag anyone anymore. Everyone wanted to go. And with R.E.M., of course, they can go far. They already had such a huge following, but they still wanted to be the best. They still wanted to play an amazing show. They still wanted to deliver. And it was great to be working with everyone who wanted to work in a positive direction. All of the perks that I mentioned were neat, but the feeling of going for something and having everybody be real about it and go for – that’s the feeling that you want. I have to say that everybody now, in our band, appreciates what we have. It’s not what R.E.M. has. It’s not what we had 20 years ago. But it’s still great, and we still have great opportunities. Getting to do this tour and have people show up is a great opportunity, and I think everybody now is about going forward. It’s too late in life to really make that massive difference, but it’s not too late to have it make a difference.
PHAWKER: Going off of all of that, what is your favorite R.E.M. song, and what’s the best album, and why?
KEN STRINGFELLOW: Wow. Well, you know, there’s a lot of songs that I love, but I have to say, I made them play, and they hadn’t played it in 15 years or so, and I made them play the song “Camera,” which is on the album Reckoning. It’s such a beautiful song. It’s so powerful, and like anything from R.E.M.’s early days, it really is impossible to know what it’s really about. I think it’s about the death of a friend who was a photographer. I think. But even now I’m not sure [laughing]. I said, “Can we play ‘Camera’? It’s like my favorite song of your guys’ work.” And we did. It’s a long, slow ballad. It’s not the biggest crowd-pleaser, because more of their fans know their later work than that record, but it’s still fantastic. I think “Cuyahoga” is an amazing song. We played that quite often, and that song is more clearly about the environmental issues of the Cuyahoga River itself seen as a kind of metaphor for the general lack of care that America had had for its own land, and how we basically stole our land from the people living there back in the settler times, and we abused it. So, you know what that song’s about, and it’s super powerful.
As for a complete album, boy, that Lifes Rich Pageant is a pretty fucking good record I gotta say. I like Lifes Rich Pageant because it’s clear it was made by a band that was constantly touring. It’s a very energetic album, and it sounds like songs were written on the road. They’re simple, they’re clear. It was when R.E.M. really started to reach a little bit beyond their peculiar corner of music that they started out in. You could understand the words for the first time, for example. That album had a huge impact on me, really. I saw that tour when I first moved to Seattle to go to the University of Washington in ‘86, and they were touring Lifes Rich Pageant. I think it was October when they played Seattle, and I’d just gotten to town and was living in the big city, and my favorite band that was touring at that time was coming to Seattle. And then I joined them. I don’t understand it either. I don’t know what happened. Just a lot of things like that have happened to me, and I can’t really explain it. There’s a lot of talented people in the world, millions of them. There’s a lot of great musicians out there. I don’t know why this particular path of great opportunities and wonderfully lucky things have happened, but I’m not gonna complain [laughing].
PHAWKER: I wouldn’t either. Now, jumping forward to the album that you and The Posies released in 2016, Solid States. It’s a great album, but it also seems that it sounds more like Failure with a return to the idiosyncratic art pop? Do you think that’s accurate?
KEN STRINGFELLOW: Well, I would say idiosyncratic, yes. It’s less of a rock album than our previous ones, for sure. But I don’t think it has any of the retro stylings of Failure. It doesn’t have the 60’s pop kind of thing happening really at all, but it is not a rock album. It is like Failure in that sense. But like Failure’s not a rock album because of the predominantly acoustic nature of it, and Solid States is not a rock album because of the predominantly electronic nature of it. I think that Solid States is far more in-sync with the contemporary musical environment than Failure, which was decidedly retro. Even in its time, you know, it’s ancient, this record, it’s 30 years old. But even then, it sounds retro. But Solid States, to my ears, doesn’t sound retro. I think the stuff I was listening to was quite contemporary. I feel like it owes more of a debt to Dirty Projectors than it does to Simon & Garfunkel, for example. Whereas Failure clearly owes a debt to Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles and The Hollies.
JON AUER: I think that’s totally a great description to be honest. I think when you say it’s different but it’s the same, I think that the common thread between all of our records is our voices really. It’s the way that Ken and I sing, and the way that we write song. And now we have a super long history. We’ve had 30 years of the Posies, but I’ve known Ken since five years before that. That’s a lot of music history to have with somebody. And I think that sound is the thread that makes our records have similarity, even when we try to be different. It’s just the way that we sing.
PHAWKER: So, last question I have is about Alex Chilton and Big Star. You guys knew him and you played with him. Do you remember the last thing he said to you before passing? And what is your favorite album from Big Star?
JON AUER: Oooh, boy, picking the best. This is always a fun one. Boy, this is a tough one. You know, in a way, I think the best introduction to Big Star is their first record. I’m gonna say not best record, but best introduction, how about that? That would be the record called #1 Record. And there’s a song on there called “The Ballad of El Goodo,” which is just such a beautiful song. Anyone who hears it instantly recognizes what a great song it is. It’s just amazing to note how ignored it all was the first time around, but now everybody loves it. You wanna talk about things being criminally underrated, Big Star was so underrated that it should have totally been against any kind of law really. And of course, now all the records that nobody bought back then, they all ended up on the Top 500 Records of All Time on the Rolling Stone list. So, just goes to show you. But, I would say check out #1 Record first, and listen to the song called “The Ballad of El Goodo.”
KEN STRINGFELLOW: I don’t remember exactly what Alex’s last words to me were, but I can say that that last show we did in 2009 in New York was a great show, and I’d never seen him so happy. He’d really gone through some life changes, including getting married and stuff like that. It just seemed like his whole life was on a positive upswing, and it’s kind of unbelievable that a couple months later, he died. But I always viewed that as somewhat philosophical. Looking at it now, it kind of looks like he completed some things in life, and brought things to completion so that he could move on in the next world, and it looks a little bit like that to me sometimes.
JON AUER: It’s funny because I actually called him two days before it happened, just to check in with him. Because we were all gonna converge and meet in Austin, Texas for the SXSW festival. And I was just talking to him about how he was and what we were going to be doing. We were trying to convince him to do some new songs all the time, you know, try some different songs. That didn’t always work out, but we kept trying. But he was in really good spirits around the time that he passed away, because I don’t know, he was in a good place in his life, let’s put it that way. He’d gotten married, and the last time I actually saw him was when we played together in Brooklyn for the last actual Big Star show with Alex at a place called the Masonic Temple. He was having so much fun during that show. He was smiling a lot. You can tell when people are having a good time or when they’re putting it on, and he was definitely having a good time. I think he’d gotten to that point in his life where he was enjoying it. It’s just such a shame, and you can imagine it was a real heartbreaker.
And of course, we ended up at SXSW anyways, and what was going to be the Big Star show became a tribute to Big Star. It’s funny, Jody Stephens, of course, the drummer in Big Star, he was overwhelmed and people were calling him all the time. And Ken, my partner in the Posies, he was traveling from Europe – he was in the air basically. So it was left to me to kind of call the artists and try to organize, you know cobble together this tribute for Alex. Basically we had 48 hours to do it, and we managed to make something really beautiful out of it, and it was a great show. I gotta say though, I really miss Alex a lot. I don’t know if Ken told you this, but we’ve had a lot of loss in the Posies’ world too. We had a drummer die and a bass player died. In the last decade here, it’s been pretty intense for that. But, what can I say, we got to play with one of our favorite bands of all time for 17 years, and we became lifelong friends. I guess I just wish they were still around.
PHAWKER: Well, you’ll always have the music.
JON AUER: That’s kind of true. You know the thing about music and art is that it always lives on. Big Star, there’s only one living member of Big Star now, but that means they’ll go on forever. I agree with you there. It’s not even a cliche to say that, it’s just true I think. The music lives on and the art lives on and the feeling lives on, and that’s a good thing.
PHAWKER: Even with the members of the Posies who passed away, you’re going to be singing some of the songs that they helped write on the tour.
JON AUER: Yeah, we’re playing things from every era of the Posies. We’re now almost 50 [laughing], so we have a lot of eras, and we’ve had a lot of members in our band. The cool thing is that we’re getting to tour with some friends of ours that we haven’t played with in a long time. Like, we’re playing with the lineup that recorded arguably our most popular record, Frosting On The Beater. But yeah, you know yesterday was the anniversary of the death of both one of drummers and a bass player, and it wasn’t lost on me how lucky we all are to still be here.
PHAWKER: Going back to Failure and flashing forward to now, what are some of the things you remember from that whole process? Any interesting anecdotes?
JON AUER: This is kind of going off on a tangent, but I produce a lot of other records in my career. Like half of what I do is I make records for other people. Recently, I started working with this young fellow from middle America, who nobody knows of, and I don’t know if he’s ever going to sell a lot of records or become famous, but I love his songs, right? And it reminded me, working with him, his enthusiasm reminded me of what I felt like when I was back at that age, at that point. With Failure, we were just making it because we wanted to make it. There was no other reason. It was just fun. We wanted to have this record, and it wasn’t about where we were gonna get with it or who was gonna review it. It was just a couple of kids in a home studio enjoying each other’s company and writing a record. This recent project that I’ve been working on just reminded me of those days. I’m not a super nostalgic person, but when you’re out on a 30th anniversary tour, you may end up looking back at your life a little bit [laughing]. It’s inevitable. That’s what kind of struck me. Those times where it’s so fresh and so unburdened with ambition or any other kind of complications. I’m just really glad that, you know like the times I had with Alex or that Ringo covered a song I wrote – you know, those experiences are things that no matter what else happens in your life, they’re always a part of your life. That’s a part of my life that I actually really cherish, and it all happened so accidentally. I don’t even know how it all came together, it just occurred. So, yeah, I just think it was the kind of formative experience that you couldn’t pay anybody to have, and I’m just glad that I had it.