US - Washington - Full Moon 242 - 05/21/16
an interview with Ken Stringfellow
Everything feels fresh -- an interview with Ken Stringfellow
Power Pop, Retro Pop or even Grunge - the tags people tried to hang on The Posies didn't seem to fit even when they released their masterpiece Frosting On The Beater in 1993. Now back to the duo configuration that started it all, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow move beyond any kind of categorizations. On their just released 8th album with the tongue-in-cheek title Solid States, keyboards and electronics, not 60s-infused rhythm guitars form the foundation, abrasive rock band energy is replaced with a meticulously thought out modern production that makes way for more variety and subtlety. Despite these changes, their knack for impeccable harmony vocals and catchy melodies means the American duo now based in France doesn't cut all its ties to the past. Almost three decades after their debut album Failure, and a year after the sudden and unexpected passing of their long-time drummer Darius Minwalla, The Posies manage to master their sonic reinvention with almost surprising aplomb and ease. With a European tour just completed, Auer, Stringfellow and new touring drummer Frankie Siragusa are now in the middle of a four week US tour. But instead of playing rock clubs, they appear in small, pop-up locations for what will certainly be the most unusual tour in the history of the band. Ken Stringfellow (KS) took the time to talk to us and explain how it all came about.
Luna Kafé: We've probably asked you this before, but the question seems more valid than ever: What's it like to be in The Posies in the year 2016?
KS: "It feels good, I'm very enthusiastic about the future. It's taken a long time to recover (and we'll never really fully recover) from the loss of Darius. It's great that Frankie (Siragusa, from theLAB studios in L.A.- he mixed my solo album Danzig In The Moonlight, among many other things) was able to step in. We are doing some very novel things with the release and touring... everything feels fresh."
Luna Kafé: Would it be correct to say that you have a new appreciation for the band now? For a while it seemed as if you took the band for granted, until it kind of started to slip away a little bit?
KS: "I have a better understanding for the role it plays in my life, musically and otherwise. I'm not sure I took the band or Jon for granted, but there have been times when Jon has been more or less accessible, at least by me. These days he's pretty accessible, so there's a good team spirit, so to speak.
Luna Kafé: Almost 30 years in, you are re-imagining what the band can/could be, but I suppose the realization that something had to change came much earlier in 2010, after Blood/Candy, definitely one of the best albums of your career, failed to make the impact it should have made?
KS: "Well, yes, it could have done better, certainly. What can you do? There was a label, there was promotion... So I guess it actually made the impact it should have, after all... that was it! Anyway, musically we were already set on doing things differently, with less of a 'band in the room' sound when Darius died. And then there was no going back."
Luna Kafé: After the last album and tour you went back to your various other projects. When did you start about re-shaping The Posies in earnest and what was the process like? Did you have a band meeting with Excel spread sheets and pie charts or did you just swap musical ideas, like: "Hey, what do you think if we took this route"? In other words: What were the steps you took that eventually let you to Solid States?
KS: "At the end of 2014 we started talking about doing another album. I'd done all the touring for Danzig... that I wanted to do, and I felt it was time to get working on a Posies album, knowing it would take at least a year to get it out. We talked about the kind of sounds we envisioned being in the mix. With all the electronic programming I do on other people's records, and all the fantastic soundscapes I create as a film composer, etc., I wanted that to be reflected in our music. I also didn't want to do the kind of insane, punk rock kind of show we'd been doing for years any more. I wanted our records and our show to have more diversity and subtlety. We started trading demos back and forth in January 2015. From there we selected songs that we wanted to pursue, and then started recording, at home. We were adding drums last, to liven up these soundscape-y music pieces that we were recording. Then we lost Darius. We were still writing, too, so Darius is part of the lyrical content of the album. Drums eventually were added - Frankie plays most of them, but also we had Kliph Scurlock (The Flaming Lips) do a few songs as well.
But this was very different to the way we did Blood/Candy, where we rehearsed as a full band to work up the new songs, and then recorded them by setting up in a studio and tracking as a full band."
Luna Kafé: To make changes like this obviously takes a lot of courage. Not trying to imply that you're copying anyone else or anything, but I wonder if you had any role models in mind, artists that successfully reinvented themselves, that you looked at and thought: Yeah, I would like to do it like that - not even musically, but as far as approach goes?
KS: "There are the obvious ones, but really... we needed this for ourselves. I think even if other examples didn't exist, we would have changed this radically, really. It's just about showing what we've learned, and the amount of work I do in music means that a ton of learning is coming my way at all times."
Luna Kafé: Generally speaking - what do you look for in a song these days (and how is it different to the past)?
KS: "The same things, really. Strong emotion. It's got to really hit me. I think I'm more subject to intense emotions now than when I was younger, I was maybe more...closed off, even to myself and my music. Music was a major factor in grounding my emotional self. So, the result is that I have better access and deeper access now. So the bar is higher for what a song should stimulate or inspire."
Luna Kafé: You're aiming at a new, fresh audience with these changes. But what's there for your old audience to like - where do you see ties to your past?
KS: "I think our melodies and vocal harmonies are still recognizable. Guitars aren't banished from the mix, they are just fulfilling more specific roles, the songs are not strummed with chords... though they could be."
Luna Kafé: Much has been said about the musical bond that has kept you two together on and off for three decades now. While you obviously never made the same record twice (possibly with the exception of Success which seems like a pretty close cousin to Amazing Disgrace, same line-up and all), they still all came from the same root. Solid
States is the furthest removed from that root. In the process of making it - was it ever difficult to get on the same page?
KS: "Not at all. Jon and I discussed a lot what we were into individually, and how it could be applied to this record. We really had time to conceptualize this album, which is what we used to do in our early days, before we got on the record/tour hamster wheel cycle. But we *are* removed from our roots. We live abroad, for starters. And those two teenage guys from a small town are ... well, rather worldly nowadays. We don't have the same angst/insecurity/naivety that made our early music possible."
Luna Kafé: The sequencing on the album is excellent,. It takes you takes you from what sounds like an exciting update of something you might have done with a full band years ago ("We Are Power", "Unlikely Places") to some pretty far out-places ("The Definition", "The Sound Of The Clouds"). Is this how the record evolved as well or did you start with the (for a lack of a better word) far-out stuff first and then had to dial it down a bit?
KS: "We had a sequence that started off mellower at first. But "We Are Power" is the simplest, most... well, you don't have to understand any of the words etc to get headbanging to it. As for writing, "The Plague" was the last song I finished. I had the music a long time, but the lyrics were really slow to arrive. For Jon I think "Unlikely Places" was the last song he finished. I think the way the songs came out, the order these different ideas came out, was pretty random. We just didn't get in the way; we said yes to everything as it came up and just stayed open to ideas."
Luna Kafé: What do you consider to be the most important factor while recording these songs?
KS: "I think the most important principle, the thing that makes it a band, still, is that we had to accept whatever the other person added to our songs. If Jon sent me tracks and parts for one of my songs, it's not like I picked and chose only a few things from what he sent me. No - I had to use all of them, and the same for when I sent tracks to Jon."
Luna Kafé: In some ways you went back to the 'We're doing this ourself - at home' approach of Failure, although the circumstances couldn't have been more different. Maybe his is a silly question, but what do you consider the most striking difference?
KS: "Well, the biggest difference is my own understanding of recording. When we made Failure I was an OK bass player, and I could play guitar and sing. But Jon was an engineer, and a good one; he was a great drummer, guitarist, singer. I relied on him to make that record happen. Now, I'm an engineer, mixer, arranger - I make tons of records every year. So, with Jon, myself and Frankie, that's a lot of studio experience coming to bear!"
Luna Kafé: I want to talk about the dynamic within the band then and now for a bit. Seeing you live in the early stages of the 'duo plus laptop' phase last year, we couldn't help to notice that it was Jon singing and playing guitar, and yoou singing, playing guitar, keys and pushing the buttons. Like you just explained, it was kind of the other way round when you started. How do you split the work load these days?
KS: "Those shows last year, there was kind of too much on my shoulders. The laptop is under Frankie's command now. I'm still playing keys and guitar, but we're trying to streamline it as much as possible. It shouldn't be too unwieldy."
Luna Kafé: Like you've explained, you pretty much made this album by yourself at first, but in the later stages, got some outside people involved to add drums and help with the mixing. With all your experience in that field - what can an outside person add at this point?
KS: "I think, for one thing, it's good that someone else mixes this record so that neither Jon nor I can get too protective about our own songs. We have an agreement not to mute tracks that we impose on each other songs, but that doesn't mean one of us can't turn the others parts WAY down in a mix. A mixer doesn't know who played what. If they like a part, they push it up. I mixed some of Blood/Candy, and I think I'm a way better mixer now, but if I can, I avoid mixing my own music. It's like doing your own surgery."
Luna Kafé: You singled out Tony Hoffer's contribution during the mixing. What did you hope he would add and where your expectations met?
KS: "I was hoping he'd add reverb - and he sure did. In fact, when I first heard the mixes coming back, I was a little... I thought it was too much this, too much that. I really wasn't prepared by the increase in size and dimension he brought to it. After I lived with them a bit, I realized I was just keeping myself small, and I was able to appreciate the mixes for what they are - expansive, enormous and colorful. I will say we also worked with Willie Linton on several songs - the more edgy ones like "We Are Power" and "The Plague". I encountered Willie's work via the song "God's Whisper" by Raury. That's such a magical sounding track. I thought maybe Willie would use more psychedelic effects on our mixes, but he really didn't add anything that wasn't there. He just concentrated on making these complex layers of track work perfectly together. And then Frankie mixed a lot of the album too."
Luna Kafé: Talking of Frankie. How did he get to join you for the live shows?
KS: "It was a little odd to play to those laptop tracks last year. And I think it confused people - is it an acoustic show, or what? When they see just the two of us, they are expecting something more intimate. And I think just us and a laptop is a little flat. I've seen people do this kind of thing - I've seen Bjork perform to just backing tracks and do a great show. But we missed having drums to shake up the dynamics. And Frankie is on the record, it just seemed natural."
Luna Kafé: With all the new songs and the different approach to the live shows, it'll be interesting to see which old songs make the cut. Where there any surprises, songs that were overlooked in the recent past, that fit in really well with the new material?
KS: "I think with all the new songs, we definitely owe people the classics. If we pull anything out of a hat, it will probably be an acoustic encore, something that just Jon and I do."
Luna Kafé: It's really difficult to address the incredibly sad loss of Darius last year. So we'll just ask you to tell us what you miss the most about him.
KS: "It's so odd. You know, most days I am convinced he's still here. That he's gone couldn't possibly be. He was a lot of fun, and great to laugh with and also very sensitive. He lost his dad early and grew up with sisters and cousins and mom - all female. So he had a really good energy that way. He had immense energy onstage - in fact, we could never get him to play at any level other than full blast. The world is much quieter now without him, sadly."
Luna Kafé: As the tongue-in-cheek album title suggests, a lot of the lyrics allude to the fact that everything seems to be in a constant state of flux these days (including The Posies). Does that make it more difficult to come up with "definitive" lyrics, that really speak to people on a universal level?
KS: "We've never been good at that, really. We always write from a very personal place. There's more social commentary on this record, so that I think will be accessible, it's not just musings about our own personal lives. But the bar for the lyrics always has to be - I care about the subject, immensely. And the lyrics capture that care properly, convey it."
Luna Kafé: After all these years: Is there anything you wish more people knew about The Posies?
KS: "I just wish more people knew us! I hope this record helps to that end."
Luna Kafé: Last question: Looking at the evolution of the band in the last couple of years - did you ever think: We should have done this years ago?
KS: "We could have worked a little faster, true. So much space between records. But that's where we do all our research. Working on all those different projects that come to bear on the next record. I'm comfortable with the idea that The Posies take long enough between records that we'll never burn out, and we can step back and come at it very fresh every time."
Copyright © 2016 Carsten Wohlfeld