When the Posies (singer-songwriters Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow) formed some 30 years ago in Washington State, Seattle had yet to become the epicenter of alternative rock.
And yet, thanks to a cassette demo that the band circulated, the group became successful and signed to a major label at one point.
“Dream All Day,” a prickly pop tune with harmony vocals and grunge-y guitar riffs, became a commercial hit in 1993, and Auer and Stringfellow would even team up with the power-pop act Big Star, one of their key influences, in the 2000s.
Now, to celebrate its 30th anniversary and the reissue of its albums from the '90s, the band has embarked on an extensive tour. The group performs with Terra Lightfoot at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 20, at Music Box Supper Club.
In separate phone interviews Stringfellow and Auer discuss the band’s legacy.
Talk about what kind of aspirations you initially had for the band when it formed 30 years ago?
You know what, we had really small aspirations. We formed this band and had our songwriting partnership. Initially, we had trouble finding other musicians to play with us. When we made our first demo, Failure
, we wanted to use it to get other people to join our band. We recorded every song we had because why not. When we got the final product, it was clear that it was more than a demo. It had a personality. People told us they thought we made a record. Our earliest goal was to be on PopLlama Records, which is the indie label that our heroes, the Young Fresh Fellows were on, and we wanted to play Bumbershoot, the big music and arts festival that takes place in Seattle over Labor Day weekend. That was pretty much it.
We weren’t even about aspirations to begin with. What occurred with us and where it all led to wasn’t something contrived. It was something that happened organically and naturally. We just did stuff and kept doing things we wanted to do. We weren’t looking at a huge prize. The prize was what we were doing. It was a very innocent time. I grew up in a musical household. My father was into music, and I had music around me. I started playing drums when I was 3 and violin when I was 6. It felt like I was a lifer. I never considered anything else. I just put one foot in front of another and kept doing what I loved. We had loose goals but nothing we wrote down. It’s remarkable we achieved all those things in a short period of time. There has to be something slightly cosmic involved. When you look back at the things and see how they all line up, it seems like it was a plan, but it wasn’t. At the time, you don’t see the big picture. It’s remarkable, really.
You’re known as such great songwriters. What inspired you in that department?
We set our standards really high. You have to be careful with production value, and energy is another thing. There are lots of pop bands with great energy but okay songs. The songs stick out. The song is the information that stays. When someone else covers it, it still has the DNA. If some young band plays a Beatles song, it still has Paul McCartney or John Lennon’s DNA in it. It’s weird. It’s like cosmic DNA. We just zero in on that. Some people went for who is pushing for the most extreme mood, and I love bands like the Butthole Surfers, who just had jams. But I wanted to listen to great songs. We loved Husker Du, and the Replacments who went from being a thrashy band to becoming alt-country or something like that. I liked the wordier counterparts from across the Pond like Elvis Costello, Squeeze and XTC. We admired how they took the complexity and put it into a beautiful pop song with material for the intellectually curious. That’s what we wanted to do.
We have a lot of the same influences. Telling a journalist you admire the Beatles as songwriters is like saying you admire oxygen and air for breathing. They’re so ubiquitous. The Posies were about the songs and not about window dressing. The song had to stand on its own. The song was all and the song is all. We were going through a Goth phase at the beginning. We looked like that and were playing songs like what Squeeze would do. It didn’t add up to people. The funny thing was that people didn’t get our influences. Husker Du and the Replacements were huge. We were also fans of Depeche Mode.
I feel like the band somehow appealed to indie rockers despite the fact that you had more of a power pop sound. What’s your sense of that?
I think our vulnerability gives us a place. Some of power pop isn’t very vulnerable. It’s kind of one-dimensional. It’s just one mood. It’s a little shallow. Our melodic nature and the positive nature of our music might confuse people into thinking we’re another power pop band and that’s right from one angle. But the themes were rarely boy-girl. There’s all this divorce shit on Dear 23
, and power-pop is generally not divorce rock. We’re a good filter for people who respect vulnerability.
I think we’re this band that has been able to draw fans from different camps and different cliques, if you will. It’s been interesting to perform and look into the audience and see a metalhead and a punk, if you want to typecast people. Then, you see people with a paisley shirt on who are into '60s music. We get labeled as power-pop, but there’s eccentricities in there if you look beneath the surface. Our lyrics aren’t average. When we get typecast as heroes of power pop, it always mystifies me because so much of our music doesn’t fit that.
Talk about your solo career. What have some of the highlights been?
I had some great shows. I was the first person to play Houston Street in New York after 9.11. It was Sept. 20 and the first night that people could deal with a show. That was pretty intense. Every year, I travel to places I’ve never been and play a show there. It’s not just about planting a flag though I’m the first American indie rocker who’s played in Bhutan and all kinds of places. It’s fascinating. Seeing how you can connect with people who don’t even know my solo music has been great. I worked with REM and Neil Young so might know a name in there but they have no context for my music, and it’s cool to see your art succeed in that kind of environment.
I’ve put out one solo EP and a covers solo EP. Songs From the Year of Our Demise
is a record that I spent a long time making. The joke was that it was my Chinese Democracy
. I’m working on remastering it and reissuing it. There were even five songs that I recorded but didn’t put on the record. I did the Todd Rundgren trip where I played almost every instrument on the record except for a few songs where someone else played the drums. That was a big moment for me to have that come out. Once it did, I was amazed at the response for it. The people who really loved it, loved it. Being able to pursue our solo interests has enabled the Posies to last as long as they have. It's like being in an open relationship.
What will the live show be like?
It’s an anniversary tour, and we’ve had different people come and go over the years. We’ve been unlucky in that it’s been hard to keep a stable lineup and lucky in that everyone who played in the band has been a great musician. For the anniversary tour with the reissues, it appealed to us to do a little bit of a victory lap. We had [drummer] Mike Musburger and bassist Dave Fox, who played on Frosting on the Beater
. We thought it’d be great to support the reissues with Mike and Dave, who haven’t toured with us in 24 years. We are playing largely like we played in 1994 with the benefit of experience we’ve had since then. It’s not like we’re making jillions of dollars. We’re eking it out, and I’m doing my best to keep the ship tight. That’s not why we’re here. We need to make money to make it possible, but it’s really about coming back to things that got interrupted due to personal circumstances and with the benefit of maturity going through this tour together and having it be more enjoyable. There are people who didn’t see that lineup. A lot of people saw that tour but there are still people who never saw it and I think it’s a treat for everyone. It’s arguably the greatest lineup we ever had. It’s nice to bring that out and have it work so well.
The special thing is getting play with Mike Musburger and Dave Fox again. These are friends of mine. There's something chemistry-wise about this combination of people. We had some incredible firsts together. We went to Europe for the first time together with Teenage Fanclub and Juliana Hatfield. That was an equation for great memories. This is what we share with this lineup. We've been having a great time, and we're looking forward to getting back to Ohio.
The Posies, Terra Lightfoot, 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 24, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main St., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $20 ADV, $24 DOS, musicboxcle.com.