The Return of the Posies

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Comfort isn’t often a term used in discussing rock music.

It’s supposed to be rowdy, provocative and rebellious. Rock wears boots, not slippers. The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Radiohead, The Clash—their best work is hardly music you’d listen to while relaxing by the fire.

Without a certain level of comfort, though, it’s hard to make music in the first place—something The Posies discovered while recording their latest album.

When longtime songwriting partners Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer dismantled the band six years ago, it was supposed to be permanent. “We managed to not play together for two years,” Stringfellow says over dinner at a Thai restaurant near the Seattle studio where the band is recording its sixth full-length album.

But somehow, the pair wound up doing a successful acoustic tour, an EP, and eventually some full-band shows. Now, Auer and Stringfellow are working on an album for 2005 release on Rykodisc, and both say they couldn’t be happier with the sessions. “It’s all been really organic,” Auer says. “That’s what appeals to me about the situation we have now. We’ve just been doing various projects for a while, off and on, and it’s amazing how uncontrived the whole thing has been. One series of options led to another one, and here we are making a record … in a way that I don’t think we ever would have imagined possible for us to do before.”

It’s a simple, fairly common band writing process: someone comes into the studio with a rough idea, the other band members play along and make suggestions and, before long, a song is born. But the method is a total departure for The Posies. “Stuff would be demoed a year before the record was even started,” Stringfellow says of the band’s approach on previous albums.

Auer and Stringfellow, who both play guitar and swap lead vocals, would come into the studio with “mini-records” already recorded at home—Auer’s often complete with self-recorded bass and drum parts. So why the change?

“In the past, we weren’t that grown up,” Stringfellow explains. “We weren’t very strong people, probably. Being young, we didn’t trust ourselves or each other to really have a very open atmosphere. The situation was fairly controlled in the studio, and that’s kinda worked. But this is much more free and much more creative.”

However controlled and untrusting it may’ve been, Stringfellow is right about one thing—the old method worked. From 1988 to 1998, the band released a series of critically acclaimed albums, all different production-wise (and with a rotating rhythm section), but all bearing the signature Posies stamp of melodic power pop, tight vocal harmonies and clever lyrics.

The Posies’ discography starts with 1988’s self-recorded, self-released Failure, which was picked up by Seattle indie label PopLlama the next year. Shortly after, they signed to Geffen, which released the band’s next three records. The most popular of these was ’93’s Frosting on the Beater, home of radio hit “Dream All Day.” But when the album’s ’96 follow-up, Amazing Disgrace, sold poorly (due in part to a lack of promotion), the band was dropped from the label.

After a short-lived breakup, The Posies recorded Success, released on PopLlama in ’98. After touring behind the album, Auer and Stringfellow threw in the towel, “with the understanding that [it] would be permanent,” says Stringfellow.

Before the “final” breakup, both songwriters began working on other side projects, to which they naturally devoted more time during The Posies’ breaks. Both have also played in the reunited Big Star since 1991. And Stringfellow recorded and toured with a variety of bands, including R.E.M., Scott McCaughey’s Minus 5 and his own short-lived project, Saltine. He also produced albums by Damien Jurado, The Long Winters and many others, and has put out three solo albums. Auer, too, has done production and solo work.

Though none of the band members recall exactly how the new Posies record materialized, they entered the studio (aided by drummer Darius Minwalla and Oranger bassist Matt Harris) with a new outlook. Given the number of projects on the band members’ respective plates, The Posies no longer had to be a high-pressure situation. “We used to have to get everything we possibly could get out of The Posies because it was the only thing we really did,” Auer says. “It was kind of an all-or-nothing thing, and now that we have all these other things going on it’s so nice to not have it be this thing we’re forced to do, or we have to do, or are demanded to do. It’s just what we wanna do, and we do it.”

The only major problem is that, between The Posies and the new Big Star record In Space, plus their solo albums, Auer and Stringfellow have had to write an overwhelming amount of songs. “The morning of the second day of this session, it was kinda like, ‘How the f--- am I gonna do this?’” Auer recalls. “It was the first time at all during this set of sessions that I felt remotely panicked. I think it just … all caught up with me at one moment. It was like, ‘How are we really gonna come up with all this shit and make it sound believable, all in this short of period of time?’”

They managed to crank out a dozen songs, including the up-tempo ballad “Love Comes.” Auer wrote the music, including the vocal melody, and Stringfellow wrote the lyrics—in fact, he’s still finishing them up when I arrive at the studio, just moments before he begins recording the lead vocal track.

He sings them to Auer on the control-room couch, “Sense memory / that’s so passé / is that what passes for love these days?”

The song’s overall affirmation that “love comes inside you / gets behind you / takes you under its wings” fits nicely with the chorus’s piano-driven hook, and Auer likes what his bandmate of 18 years has come up with. “This is the first time we’ve actually torn apart each other’s lyrics,” Auer says later. “A couple of [the songs] actually were half and half. We’ve never really done that before.”

Stringfellow says he looked to a simple source for the album’s lyrics. “Blank slate,” he says. “I really didn’t listen to any music at all, to sort of clear the voices out of my head. It’s much better to try not to sound like something.”

Lyrically, at least. In writing music for the new songs, The Posies intentionally traveled new stylistic terrain. “It’s different from anything we’ve ever done before,” Auer says. “I’m sure there’s gonna be people who are surprised by some of the things that we put on there. We actually consciously made an effort on certain days to say, ‘What haven’t we done before? Let’s try and write something like we haven’t. [Let’s] do this different genre or style, or something to emulate this thing,’ which is a first. … But we’re not going to, like, write some kind of bluegrass record.”

As they said before, a critical part of the songwriting this time around has been including every band member in the process. Harris, the band’s newest member, said joining the band a few years ago was relatively painless, and that contributing to the new material was a relaxed, enjoyable process. “At least for me,” he says, it seems like it was a really easy, natural fit for me to kind of come in and do what I’m doing with these guys. Working with them is really fun, and playing live, and just generally hanging out and talking shit has been really good, too. And that’s always really important—to get along with your band members.”

And talk shit they do. Not more than a few minutes go by before either Harris, Auer, engineer Kip Beelman or Stringfellow (Minwalla is busy touring with Preston School of Industry) cracks a joke. No one is safe, whether they’re making fun of themselves over dinner, each other in the studio, the CD in Stringfellow’s car, or the patrons of the Waterwheel bar, where the band spent many of its studio breaks. (“You ever been to Montana?” Stringfellow asks before we go in for an after-dinner drink.)

This is the way brothers act, which is to be expected when the band’s key players have worked together for nearly 20 years. “I don’t want to get too New Agey about it,” Auer says. “But I don’t have anybody else in my life that I have this kind of relationship with.”

“I think there’s sort of inevitability to our working relationship,” Stringfellow says of their obvious chemistry. “It’s like, ‘Well, we’re stuck in this thing. We can’t seem to get out of it. We might as well make it livable,’ you know?”

Auer laughs. “That’s a really sweet way of putting it.”

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