Luna Kafé e-zine  Luna Kafé interview
coverpic flag US - Washington - Full Moon 173 - 10/23/10

The Posies
- an interview with Ken and Jon

"This new record for us is ambitious as we can be"

Sure, The Posies' comeback album after a lengthy release break was 2005's Every Kind Of Light (written and recorded in the studio within a matter of days), but it's only now, with the release of their impressive seventh album Blood/Candy, that the Seattle four-piece is experiencing a real renaissance. Instead of just reproducing their glorious power-pop-infused sound from the 90s, Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow, Matt Harris und Darius Minwalla explore many new avenues on their new album, mixing classic 90s indierock with just the right amount of modern-day indietronic to not scare away old fans, even though Blood/Candy sounds more current than anything they have released in the last 15 years. On the new album - initially recorded in the south of Spain last May and then finished at a variety of studios in the following months - they really re-define what their sound is all about, despite the fact that on some tracks they sound more like The Hollies, The Zombies and The Beach Boys (three groups the Posies have been compared to since pretty much day one) than ever before. But the lovely vintage sound is met by scattered modern ear candy and raw sounding guitars are complimented or even replaced by complex keyboard arrangements. Straight-ahead rock songs like the super-catchy "So Caroline" stand next to more involved songs like the over-the top "Licences to Hide", a mini rock opera squeezed into a four minute pop song, or the intricate pop epic "Accidental Architecture". In other words: Highly melodic, passionate indierock that aims both for the heart and soul has rarely sounded better!

And we're not alone with this conclusion. Indeed, interest in the band has been so high, that we could consider ourselves lucky to catch the two principal songwriters, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow "on the fly". In early September, we met Ken at a café in the Gare du Nord train station of his adopted hometown Paris, France, while Jon promised to answer our questions by e-mail en route to a gig in Singapore!

Luna Kafé: There seems to be a very positive buzz surrounding the new album from just about every side (band, media, fans and friends) - is that just my imagination or do you feel as well that this album is more anticipated than Every Kind Of Light was five years ago?

Jon: "I do feel the reception for The Posies and Blood/Candy is stronger - people in general are paying more attention. I hate to say it, it's a less than ideal way to get attention, but we also received a fair bit of press from all the happenings around Big Star this year as well, the loss of Alex Chilton and Andy Hummel. Sad to say in a way, but it's probably true that it's helped some. But, overall, people seem ready to hear this record and the band in manner they weren't when our last record was released. It's just better timing I guess."
Ken: "The last record was finished a long time before it was released, almost a year, I think, and the general organization wasn't super-good. At the time, our label was in chaos in many ways. Every week somebody would quit or get fired. Not only is our label much, much better organized this time, and has been sort of stable with the same people for some time, we also made this record and played some shows around it already, and did promotion sort of in advance. Different things have happened to put the attention on the record itself while our momentum of gearing back up after another absence was in its initial thrust. It's better timing! Plus, it's possible that the very hard work we did five years ago, which - at times - didn't seem to have as much effect as the amount of effort we were putting into would suggest, is paying off a little bit now. This year, we've already been asked to some events that eluded us in the past and I think that's a result of the hard work we did in 2005/2006, plus, we have a really excellent team around us. If something smells good, people will support it. It's hard to be a dissenter when there is assent and vice versa. If things are moving forward, people will be happy to say: "Ah, yeah, they are great, I've always liked them!" Generally, I think things just smell a little bit better this time and the record's really good, much better than the last one. I think the last one was cool, but the new one has a certain forwardness about it, it's more moving in a direction. The other one was more diffuse in a way. Even though you could argue that the last one was even more experimental in a sense, there is a vibration of something alive on the new one and maybe that is helping."

Luna Kafé: Ken, It's interesting that you consider Every Kind Of Light to be more experimental, because as far as the resulting records are concerned I'd say it's the other way round. As far as I see it, the last record was more experimental in its approach, while this time the finished album actually sounds more experimental.

Ken: "Before the last record, we had spend so much time avoiding each other and not being focused on what we were up to, that we lacked quite a bit of knowledge of what might be possible. When we made the last record, we were just out of touch with our fan base and with ourselves. In one sense we found it hard to imagine what kind of audience might exist for us still, even though we had visited Spain and done a few things in the intervening years, but it was all very nebulous. It's hard to explain, but the way we did that record was so haphazardly. Yeah, it was a cool experiment, but it put a lot of risk on something that was going to re-introduce us to whoever was going to listen. It's a very bad habit we have. For a band that has had big record deals and all kinds of things over the years, organizationally we sort of exist in a way that is not very ambitious, but has high expectations. We tour very modestly, because that's realistic for what we bring. Sometimes we have sold out shows, sometimes hardly anybody shows up, so we have to find something that works for all those situations and doesn't cost lots of money when there is no money coming in, but still looks good when the show is well-produced. It's all kind of reasonable. We don't have a manager except for me - but is that realistic or unambitious? You could call it either way. But I don't want to pay someone 15 to 20 percent of what we make, because we are on a very slim margin. When we go on tour, we have to make a lot to make a little, because it's expensive to drive a big gas-guzzling vehicle full of rented gear around Europe. I also feel that ambition is a nice idea, I think it's great to have ambition and to want to try and do things, but I also know that that there are big, ambitious projects from labels that you and I have seen, where tons of money was invested and nothing happened. Ambition isn't everything. But this new record for us is ambitious as we can be. I think there is a good little furnace in there for generating songs that work well with our band and we didn't write a hundred songs to get these twelve, we wrote fifteen. But that's just focus and we're much more focused now. We feel so much better about what we are presenting and so much more relaxed about who we are. You sort of set your own price in the world. When you go out and say: 'Ah, I'm a piece of shit', people will agree and vice versa."

Luna Kafé: I guess every new album is a reaction to the one preceding it in one way or another. With that in mind - what do you think of Every Kind Of Light and especially the way it was written and recorded in retrospect?

Jon: "Hindsight is a double-edged sword. It gives you excellent perspective on a situation that has already occurred but also reminds you that maybe you should have done a few things differently... but of course by the time you figure that out it's too late. I like Every Kind of Light, I'm proud of a lot of it, but I just wish we'd had more time to hone it a bit more, really address some of the finer details. For me, there are even a couple of songs on it that ultimately I just wish we'd had more the time to maybe come up with something a little better. Not that any of the songs are bad per se, they are all good at least, and some of them are great - but a few don't feel as necessary to me as I think they should. But hey, we had a choice - make a record from essentially what could be considered scratch in two weeks or not make a record at all. I think we made the right choice. I just don't ever want to make a record in that way ever again."

Luna Kafé: How did you decide to make a new album, this year? I do remember Ken's initial idea was to record an album to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the band's first album in 2008, which obviously didn't come to pass.

Ken: "In some ways I would say, Jon and I... to make a cliché out of some of our tendencies, you could say I tend to be enthusiastic before the resources arrive and Jon tends to be skeptical long after the resources have shown up. Were those two thing cancel each other out, what you have left over, is where we can move. But a whim or an idea from either one of us could turn those two conventions on their heads. Despite the head start, Jon got to the point of releasing his own solo album (2006's Songs From The Year Of Our Demise - ed.) slightly later and it took him a while to play that out. While that happened, in 2006 and 2007, I made up for some lost time and toured my last solo record (Soft Commands, originally released in 2004 - ed.) around and then I met The Disciplines and that pushed things along. That project came to life in 2008 and became something very interesting and fun. So at that point I wasn't really going to push things along and I think Jon was totally happy with that idea. A lot of times Jon is very hesitant about certain things, until he gets into them and then he's really into it. Last year, Rykodisc met up with us in New York. They just said: You need to make a record, like, now! You have to make one! No more waiting, if you want us to be here for you! It's time - we should get it out, we're here for you, the team has been assembled! All of a sudden there was an obligation in a way and Jon wasn't really into that either. He wants to have an escape patch somewhere. I don't really need one. Jon was also worried that he'd be too busy and that he wouldn't have enough time to write songs that would be good enough for this album. Of course that is part of the equation, too, and I could have made the same argument, but I just said: Fuck it, I'll find a way to write those songs, which may be less realistic than Jon's concerns, but in the end it worked out for both of us. I'm not going throw a delay of game penalty on Jon, but I would say in general, he wanted to over-estimate the amount of time it would take to prepare, in case the quality wasn't good and me, I was happy to under-estimate it, just to put enough pressure on us to make us come up with the quality."

Luna Kafé: I really like the way Blood/Candy sounds like an album, despite the huge musical variety it offers (unlike Every Kind Of Light, even though I loved individual songs on that album). Was this a conscious effort and/or something that took a lot of work, or did you just get lucky and everything fell into place?

Jon: "Well... we put a tremendous amount of work into Blood/Candy and I think you can really tell, that the effort and care is apparent. I would say that there was some fate or luck involved - for instance, the 12 songs on the record are the only songs we rehearsed and recorded for what became Blood/Candy; there is no extra material to speak of, what you hear is what we came up with. That has to be a bit of 'kismet' if you're asking me. But to be fair, there was a TON of work as well - I mean serious, proverbial "nose to the grindstone" as they say. Sure, a lot of it was recorded in a furious 10 day burst in the south of Spain at the studio of Paco Loco, that's true - but there was about 5 weeks of work after that fact - editing, assembling, organizing things like the strings and the guest artists, and then of course the mixing, which was very involved, hyper detail-oriented. Do you know the saying, something like "Don't make a mountain out of a mole hill"? Well, in this case of creating Blood/Candy I think we planned and we prepared for a molehill but in fact really indeed did have a mountain in front of us - we just had no way to see it yet. We tend to do that though, be the optimists and convince ourselves we'll be able to pull off anything we set our minds to in the time we schedule. OK sure - maybe if we'd made as simple punk rock record this go around, 10 days would have been enough but obviously, from what you hear now, that didn't happen ha ha! Honestly, if I'm being truthful, we severely underestimated the amount of time we ultimately needed to create such an involved and ambitious record. Oops. At least we were able to pull it off in the end."

Luna Kafé: Did you really approach Blood/Candy with more of an "anything goes" frame of mind than previous records? In other words: Did you have songs like "Licenses To Hide" or "Accidental Architecture" for past records, that you either didn't even present to the band or where everyone just thought: "Nah, not on a Posies record", whereas this time you just gave it a try?

Jon: "There was no manifesto, no mandate, no declaration made with regards to the direction we would take, nothing we demanded of each other definitively - it was far more organic in its creation/evolution than that. We just followed our instincts. I'd liken it more to painting ourselves into a musical corner and then figuring a way to get ourselves out. That was fun. And challenging. And sometimes terrifying. All of the above. In a good way, in the way that it's nice to not just be comfortable in what you do, but to keep pushing the boundaries of the band and each other. Really, I believe it's the only way to have a long-term career like ours and still keep it fresh, make it still worth doing after all the years, keep us interested. I mean hey - if we're not interested, what's the point?"
Ken: "I can say for my case, that my work on lots of other things and my slow acquisition of musical knowledge and just seeing what's out there in the world has given me the opportunity to branch out a bit. I have more ways to do things now. Also, writing a lot of stuff on piano changes the dynamic a bit. I wrote all of our old songs on the guitar..."

Luna Kafé: ...and The Posies are still viewed my many people as a guitar-band, I guess!

Ken: "We are sort of subject to periodic misunderstanding. It's definitely an uphill battle, not only to convince people to pay attention but to pay attention to several things. We may be too hard to pin down to ever really be digestible. There's a number of avenues blocked. We are not young, we are British. There would be two easy things, if we were young and from, you know, Shoreditch, our problems would be solved. But we don't have those options. Without saying that these things are certain, these things are possible, having learned from the story of Big Star: Put everything you can into the record and maybe people will catch on later. Maybe they will catch on now! There are so many fluky things that have happened in the world, it's not unimaginable to say that something that we do - especially since we are throwing things in different directions - will connect with something else and that will snowball and we will suddenly be a blip on the radar of public consciousness. But that's not really in our control. What's in our control is to not be our own cliché, because there are definitely bands that I used to like and when I get their new album it sounds disturbingly familiar - just not as good. That's terrible! I'd be horrified, but if I was at that point, I probably wouldn't be able to tell. You wouldn't do that on purpose, you just do it out of a lack of imagination."

Luna Kafé: I guess you've come close to that point maybe once in the Posies' career, with Success. The album has its moments, but to my ears, you never you never made less progress between two albums than from Amazing Disgrace to Success.

Ken: "We stopped progressing for the very reason that some of us didn't want to continue. At all! Some of us had other ideas, and we couldn't go on. But Success had some more involved songs that had not been met with enthusiasm by our previous album producers, that I think have lasted. I think "You're The Beautiful One" is kind of ambitious in that it's such a slow grower, but we play it all the time. But there's also a couple of songs that we played then and never played again. But that's just what we had."

Luna Kafé: Jon, listening to the album it's obvious that Ken's songs sound different from the start because of the aforementioned prominent use of pianos and keyboards. So I was wondering if you actually found it very challenging to stick to your instrument (assuming that you wrote the songs that seem to be guitar-based on the guitar), yet having to find ways to make the songs sound different?

Jon: "Perhaps keyboards do make thing sound different initially on some songs more than ones with guitars on Posies records, but maybe that's because we made our first impressions as a guitar-based band. And, it's possible a lot of what people recognized as a distinctive guitar sound from Posies records, say like on a record like Frosting On The Beater, probably, arguably, originated from me. Ken also plays keyboard more than I do, that's obvious, even though I do play them on records as well, more than some might suspect. "Love Comes" from Every Kind Of Light for instance - the idea for the song originated from me, written on piano, and I play all of the keyboards on that, every layer of keys in fact, and Ken plays all the guitar. We just switch it live because it ended up being easier to perform it that way. That said, on Bloody/Candy, I think two of the more 'different' songs do come from me: "Holiday Hours" and "Accidental Architecture", both of which feature prominent keyboards as well as guitar. In fact, really, every song on Blood/Candy has keyboards on it, just some a lot more than others."

Luna Kafé: Unless I'm forgetting something, female vocals are new to a Posies record (save for Brette Howard singing a line on "Sad To Be Aware")...

Ken (laughing): "Well spotted! On an album, definitely! I just remembered one other example, our "Christmas" song, but on an album - yeah! And really in general, I don't think we really had any prominent guest vocal of any kind and hardly anybody playing on the records, except for the guys from Cheap Trick on Amazing Disgrace. But even "Licences To Hide" - I could have sang the whole song myself, but I really wanted to make it a bigger story - not by who would be singing it, but I wanted it to be clear that it's not about me and my problems, it's not an autobiographical song per se. It's a general idea of things that happen in life. By presenting the two halves of the human race, I thought that might broaden the story as it were. Not only are these things much easier to do now from a technological point of view, but also, all the musicians we know and all the musicians we have known, and all the collaborations we have done with people out there in the world, it's shocking actually that we didn't reflect that in our own music."

Luna Kafé: But how exactly did you decide on who you've wanted to work with? You guys must have 5,000 musician "friends" on MySpace and Facebook alone, not counting real life friends...

Ken: "Yeah, we could've done more! Some were just happy accidents. For Lisa Lobsinger's involvement - I was racking my brain as to who would be a good person to do it. Darius was heading to London to play with Spiral Stairs, opening for Broken Social Scene, the week after we were recording in Spain and he said: "This girl Lisa is a really great singer, would you like me to talk to her?" And I said: "Yeah, that sounds cool" and I was sort of looking up her stuff and realizing that, hey, she is really good and the next week we were all back in Seattle, playing a festival with Broken Social, so I got to meet her and we all got along really well. They are really a great bunch of people and it happened that that was their last show for a few weeks, so she could go home and do the thing, it was all lined up in a nice way. It was similar with Hugh Cornwell. Again, I was racking my brain as to who could do this speaking part that I had in mind. I actually tried to do it myself, but I don't have the right voice for it. Without connecting it to that, Paco, the guy who runs the studio in Spain, mentioned that Hugh was coming to town to hang out a few days after we leave. I was like: "Wait a second, that guy speaks a lot of his lyrics. He's perfect!" He was happy to do it and he was going to the studio anyway! Kay Hanley is Jon's connection, but that happened like 48 hours before mastering. The band she was in, Letters To Cleo, I think they got quite popular in the States at one point, but we met them several years before that happened. They were at one of our shows in Boston and they were really young and really into it fans. They begged us to come and jam with them after our show - and we did! We went to their practice space and rocked out with them. That was a big experience for them - a band they really liked being part of their world for a little bit. I never saw them again, actually, but Jon has stayed in touch, I guess, and Kay just dropped a line, wanting to know how the record was going and Jon was like: "Send a vocal in five minutes!" - "Ok!"."

Luna Kafé: As far as I remember, Every Kind Of Light was conceived in kind of an old-school way (all band members in one place at once), this time you seemed to have used modern technology and, well, alternative ways of recording much more. The list of studios you utilized seems to be even longer than that on Amazing Disgrace... Was this just a bare necessity or did you actually consider it part of the (for a lack of a better word) experimental approach of this album?

Ken: "We grossly underestimated how much work would be left to do after leaving Spain. We thought: "If we can write and record Every Kind Of Light (in a very small amount of time - ed), how hard can it be if we've already rehearsed the songs?" It turned out to be pretty hard, actually! In Spain, the four of us did play live, but then we just piled stuff on top. A lot of stuff! Way more stuff than on the last record! On the last one, the bulk of the way you hear those songs is really how it sounded when we played it - believe it or not. This one - not so much! It's radically altered from a very pure, old school way of recording at the start to something completely warped afterwards. I thought that after Spain I'll be ready to basically edit and mix and I can do that while I'm home the second half of May, it should be no problem. Then we got offered to do this big festival at the end of May, so that I would have to leave earlier than I thought, then I squeezed in a couple of Disciplines shows, because our record just came out in France and that took up a couple more days and in the end I went from having 18 days to 11 and this was before I realized that this record would be a nightmare to edit and mix. Then I was just frantic, because I had to look ahead and imagine every place I was going to be at and start booking time there. Luckily, through the gracious lending of large amounts of gear that sits idle in Seattle otherwise, I had basically unlimited access to my friend's studio in Seattle. Brian is like my bro there in Seattle. Not only is he my tennis partner and wine drinking buddy, he was like: "Hey, I got a studio now - and a label! Can you use any of these things?"So thank god the whole situation worked out! Most of the keyboards and a lot of the lead vocals and all of the backing vocals I did in May. Then we got to Seattle at the beginning of June and I was mixing and editing and Jon would be coming over and singing bits on his stuff and I hadn't really done much on his, except for what I did in Spain. When the mixing still wasn't done in Seattle, I called ahead to my friend Scott in Paris and luckily he had a few days free and when I got back to Paris, I set him up with a hard drive: "See you in two days!" Then back at home I did more stuff on Jon's songs, which I didn't have time to do in Seattle, and when I went to Ecuador, it still wasn't done. So sometimes, when there were a few moments, I'd ask Daniel if it was okay to exchange hard drives, set the song up and record a vocal. When I got back, it was the end of June and we were supposed to start mastering and it fact we did start mastering at that point, but actually not all of the record was mixed yet! But Greg Calbi was gonna go on vacation and he wanted to do as much of the record as possible, so he would know what it was all about and then the last songs he could tell his assistant: "Just do it like this". Then we went to Canada for another festival and when we got back from Canada on July 4th, I still did two more backing vocals, even though we had mastered the week before, and one backing vocal had been put in at mastering - all the classic "stuff it all in". I can't believe it turned out okay!"

Luna Kafé: Can we expect to hear more songs off Blood/Candy at the upcoming shows than off Every Kind Of Light five years ago? You've already played the entire new album - before it even was recorded - at a show in Seattle in April...

Jon: "Personally I think it's high time to focus on the new. But it's also tough sometimes - not everyone comes to a million of our shows, sometime they wait 5 years to see us and only come to one show and hope to hear a favorite or two. It's a delicate balance to strike, but currently I think we'll be focusing on the current version of The Posies and what we are doing now as much as possible."

Luna Kafé: After completing your European tour at the end of October, you will be embarking on a co-headlining tour of the States with Brendan Benson. How did that come about? Was it really at the Big Star show in Memphis this past May - where Brendan took the place of the late Alex Chilton for a couple of songs - that it clicked?

Ken: "Yeah, pretty much! At that point the European thing was well rolling along. Our US agent was very insistent to make a package tour and there were all kind of ideas, many of which I would have loved to see come to pass, like the Posies-Mudhoney tour idea that we had. Their agent was pretty into it! That would have been kind of amazing actually. But getting to know Brendan and his manager at the Big Star show was a great experience. I was conscious at certain points he was kind of observing Jon and I, as we rehearsed and learned some songs to play that night. I think he made a mental note: these are hard working guys. So he certainly was comfortable with the idea as soon as it was proposed. It wasn't hard to imagine that working well and the feelings were good. I think the people in the US are going to be much more into it than they have been in a long time and this package is going to be a big help. Cementing it with Aqueduct, a younger band on Barsuk - it covers many bases in a nice way and I wish we could have come up with something like that for Europe and we may have to for a another round next year."

Luna Kafé: To end with a more general question: What is making you the happiest at this point in your and The Posies' career?

Jon: "I'm thrilled with the amount of solo performing and work I've done in the last 5 years in particular. That's a huge part of my personal happiness. It wasn't until I started traveling the world with just me and a guitar and just going place to place singing and telling my stories that I felt whole as a performer. It's one thing to be a part of a group, but it's hard to not become addicted to being on a stage by oneself. As long as you are present and in the moment you can do anything you want, it's completely up to you and you alone. That's very liberating. That all said, I couldn't be much happier with the way things are going in the world of The Posies right now, so much so that I hope we make another record together as soon as possible. I really feel that we're enjoying a new creative and personal peak and I'd like to ride that wave as long as we possibly can."

Copyright © 2010 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Posies articles/reviews: Gleis 22 Club, Münster, Germany 07.11.2000, an interview with Ken Stringfellow.

© 2011 Luna Kafé