Amidst the Seattle grunge-rock surge of the late 1980s and early ’90s, the Posies struck their own idiosyncratic path. In 1988, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, two indie-pop prodigies from Bellingham, Washington, released their homemade album debut, Failure—on cassette. Still in their teens, Auer and Stringfellow reframed their influences—the Beatles, Beach Boys, XTC, R.E.M., Talking Heads, the Smiths, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü—into a precocious collection of deftly crafted, infectiously alive songs.
The Posies’ debut provided bright, much-acclaimed contrast to the dark and wrenching music that made Seattle famous. In 1990, major label Geffen Records released the band’s second album, Dear 23. The bigger-budgeted follow-up fully realized the promise of Failure. And by then Auer and Stringfellow had discovered Big Star, a major new influence. The long-disbanded cult favorite from Memphis, Big Star had featured Alex Chilton. A star in the 1960s with the Box Tops, Chilton moved to New Orleans in 1992. From 1993 until Chilton’s death in 2010, Auer and Stringfellow joined original Big Star members Chilton and Jody Stephens on stage for reunion shows.
Geffen released two more Posies albums, 1993’s Frosting on the Beater, the band’s biggest commercial success, and 1996’s Amazing Disgrace. In 2018, the Posies are marking their 30th anniversary with a 78-date world tour and expanded re-releases of their Geffen albums. Omnivore Recordings will issue Dear 23 on June 15 and the succeeding albums on August 3 and October 28.
In advance of the Posies’ June 6 show at The Parish at House of Blues in New Orleans, Stringfellow spoke to OffBeat from his home in Tours, France.
Your 30th anniversary tour features the Posies’ 1992–1994 lineup—you, Jon, drummer Mike Musburger and bassist Dave Fox. When the four of you first reunited, was it just like old times?
We toured Spain together for the 20th anniversary of Frosting on the Beater. It went great. So, I have no doubt that everything will fall into place. When the drummer clicks his sticks together and we start, it just comes out. It’s still in there somewhere. Muscle memory as well as emotional memory.
When you were reviewing tapes for the Geffen album reissues, did you experience any revelations about what you’d done during that six-year period?
All these outtakes, if you’re a fan, they’re curiosities. But in my mind, the reason for them to exist is that they tell a story. Progressing from four-track demos to more elaborate demos, I hear the refinement in the songs, I see the album coming into focus through what we prune off.
In general, do you love, like or possibly even dislike at least some of the songs you’ve composed and recorded through the years?
I love the work. Of course, since those early ’90s days, when we were a band full-time and had little time to do anything but be in the studio or on the road, we’ve branched out into a lot of different things. I think I’ve become more expressive and skillful. One would hope that would be what you do with your next 20 years.
Do you think something special, something new happened with your earliest albums?
That initial burst of creativity was really neat. I give myself more credit now than I did then. I see our vision was intact. In things that I was saying and writing back then, I was more focused than I realized. But at the time, I thought of myself as an insecure, unfocused person. Now I see that our difficult childhoods gave us an edge in terms of wisdom. That’s why there are so many grownup themes on those early albums. We’re not singing about partying and stuff like that. There are a lot of turbulent family themes on the albums we’re reissuing.
In 1987, you moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington. What happened to your musical partnership with Jon, who was still in high school in Bellingham?
I didn’t have any real desire to do anything at the University of Washington. But I knew that not going would produce an untenable situation with my mom. I went to college to get her off my back. And I thought I’d figure out what I was going to do along the way. It didn’t occur to me to study music to make a career. I didn’t have the chops. I also got accepted to Washington University in St. Louis. Imagine how different my musical life would have been if I’d gone there. Maybe I’d be in Wilco now. But Seattle was the perfect choice.
Neither you nor John stayed in college?
Jon attended Western Washington University in Bellingham. But it didn’t last. We made Failure and things happened. Jon immediately moved to Seattle. I dropped out of the University of Washington and off we went.
You and Jon played your first show when you were 18 and he was 17. Your first album, Failure, despite being created by teenagers, is so exceptional. Were you and Jon deeply serious about music from very early on?
In a way, we already were who we would become. We honed our craft as songwriters. We didn’t know it, but instinctively we knew that songs are the things that endure. Songs capture the moment.
As good as your first album is, you hadn’t heard Big Star yet. You hadn’t had the chance to be influenced by the band’s singer-songwriters, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. When you finally heard Big Star, what was your reaction?
Big Star was not on our radar when the Posies started. But when Big Star’s #1 Record came out on CD in 1988, it was love at first listen. When I heard the first notes of “Feel,” I was transported. Big Star filled a huge missing link in my musical knowledge. The records had everything. They mixed the Byrds and the Beatles, but were more rocking in the era that delivered Led Zeppelin. Big Star became our favorite band. Our most important band. Our biggest inspiration.
What was your experience working in Big Star with Chilton and Stephens like?
We met Jody early on. He became a fan of ours. Alex was more elusive. We didn’t meet Alex until we were going to play together in the spring of 1993. The same weekend that Frosting on the Beater was released we played with Big Star in Columbia, Missouri.
All these unlikely things happened. It was shocking. Like the Star Trek episode where Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a planet run by 1920s-style gangsters. We were walking around within these Big Star songs that we knew so well. We walked within this music and were part of it for many years. We usually played together four or five times a year—until Alex died. It [performing with Chilton and Stephens] was a magical privilege, an honor, a joy. Something I could have never imagined. Not only that Big Star played, but that I performed with them.
You worked with Chilton for 17 years. Did you become close with him?
When we first started playing together, he wasn’t unfriendly, just calmly aloof. He was still drinking a little bit then. He smoked a lot of pot. That made him a little distant. But that went away. Gradually, as he grew to trust us, he became affable. We spent some nice moments together, especially toward the end, when he was coming to Paris.
In the last year I knew him, Alex was really transformed—a much happier, friendlier person. He got married and he seemed to make peace with a lot of things. That’s clear in the film footage of the last show we did together, in November 2009. It was the first time I’d seen him allowing himself to be touched by how into it people were. He moved into the moment and enjoyed the show. He loved the way all the people sang along.
Alex wasn’t like that at the beginning, even on stage when people were going crazy for the band. I don’t think he believed it. He thought it was a misunderstanding, a fad. Like it would come back into fashion for a second and then go away. But then, 17 years later, here we were playing the Masonic Hall in New York and people were still going crazy. He’s like, ‘Okay, I get it. People love this music. I think I’m cool with that now.’ In a weird way, by the end, I think he’d completed his mission.
You mentioned that Chilton visited France during his later years?
He came to Paris frequently. He was sort of looking to me and my friends, and also his friends, to help him find a place to potentially live.
Many artists and bands acknowledge and capitalize on anniversaries. And some don’t. Why have you and Jon chosen to recognize your 30th anniversary?
It’s not that we’re capitalizing on it. We’re not buying an extra sailboat each from the proceeds. Really, it’s just that we’ve never been the kind to look back. We did a little acknowledge of our 20th anniversary with a show in Seattle, but, usually, we’re thinking about the next thing. But I’m turning 50 during this tour. And we’ve experienced loss. Parents and two band members in the past five years.
So, the 30th anniversary is a celebration of our stick-to-it-iveness. Also a way for us to say, hey, we didn’t know it at the time—because we were so young and insecure, and we had band members coming and going and tension—but we actually had a vision and we carried through with it. We’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re still here and you’re still here with us.’