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In 1988, two teenagers named Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer recorded twelve songs at Jon's home studio after school and on weekends, eventually developing aspirations of recruiting some musically kindred spirits to round out their duo. Instead, they recruited an audience, and rapidly. Their songs went viral in the way things went viral then, which meant a proliferation of home-copied cassettes and sudden, heavy radio play. The collection of songs became "Failure," the first of eight albums The Posies would put out intermittently, between engagements with solo projects, side projects and touring engagements with the likes of R.E.M. and Big Star. Following the death of longtime drummer Darius Minwalla, The Posies are on tour playing intimate shows in secret or unusual venues. I spoke with Stringfellow from his home in France ahead of a "pop-up" show scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 29, at Capitol View Studio.
It's probably an understatement to say you and Jon have experienced a lot of loss in the last several years, or as Jon said, "Life threw many profound, out-of-the-park curveballs in our direction." I wonder if there's a certain comfort in performing "Solid States" in smaller venues, given that headspace. Somehow playing these stadium venues with faceless crowd — like you've undoubtedly done with Big Star and R.E.M. — would seem like an ill fit right now.
First of all, let's be clear, we don't choose to play to less than 15,000 people, it's because playing to less than 15,000 people is just not gonna happen. As far as playing to 75 people instead of 300, I mean, I'm open, I just think that we've basically raised the stakes in terms of choosing venues that aren't that big — like, how much is it worth to our core fans to have us to themselves, more or less? (And, our core fans could've been somebody who discovered our music yesterday, they just might've really fallen in love with it, or it could've been somebody who's been following us for almost 30 years.) We found out that yes, it's quite valuable to have a show that is in a pleasing setting, a setting where there's no third party agenda. Like, there's no Miller Genuine Draft neon signs and there's no Monday Night Football being shown on the flatscreen by the stage. We found that we would like to create conditions where there's no other information other than the show — an aesthetic that we choose to present, and the audience's reception to that; there's no distraction from the emotional content that we're pushing.
And, it's not a commercial content that we're pushing. I mean, we're not looking to make a big statement in the sense of like, a Katy Perry big statement — wishing her no ill will and not wanting to deride her thing, but that's a whole different world than what we're interested in pushing. It's not like we're just sour grapes, either, like we would rather be in Katy Perry's position or Drake's position or whatever, it's just that they've got that ground covered. We're working on something that is, by its very nature, more personal, and kind of just doesn't work in those contexts. For the kind of song I wanna get across, the rule should be that I should be able to really connect with everybody in the room pretty much by scanning from one to one over the course of two hours. Not just, like, Section 17M, where you can see a little mosaic of different skin tones 500 feet away. I want eyes and I want hearts. You know, I'm a little biased, but I do think that there is a diluting of the message for anybody playing to a big crowd. That's why certain artists get to that point and. ... I'm gonna up open up a bracket here, if you don't mind —
There's a band I really, really like, and they've crossed this threshold. They became very popular on their own terms, and then what? Well, they thought, "It's growing so fast we kinda have to respond," and this band, Tame Impala, have gone through this exponential growth over the last 10 years and are playing these huge stages, and I think their music has mutated to accommodate the fact that some of the subtlety and bizarreness that they can create in the studio is just gonna get lost in the shuffle when you're 50,000 people deep, headlining a big festival stage. I think they felt a responsibility to respond to people in the back row and to make a message that's clear from beginning to end and from back to front. However, for me as a listener, I've lost interest. It's become too generic for me. I understand exactly what they're going through, and it's a tough choice. In my years playing with R.E.M., I saw the audience shrink dramatically, because they kind of steadfastly ruled with the big statements for a while. Then, they took another turn and started making music that had a more esoteric nature. I think it's some of their best stuff. The album that I toured with R.E.M first for, "Up," had some wonderful music, but it's more for me than for everybody. By the end of my tenure with R.E.M., we had trouble filling 2,000 seat-ers, and were being vastly outsold by Death Cab for Cutie, for example.
I mean, these things come to a natural decline, if not an end, but I'm engineered to have incredible respect for them, because they just stopped trying to make big statements, because I think they thought that was a little bit disingenuous at a certain point. So, they did what interested them. I'm more in that camp for us, for sure, and I think that I have done everything I can to ride a threshold where I can maximize everything that we do without having to make that "Tame Impala" choice. You know, we were kind of there, in 1993, you know, and in 1996, getting to a certain threshold, and we just said "No." We didn't wanna be Weezer, for example. Weezer are a great band who are very happy to take on a more simplified, kind of fun vibe, to make it so that all the people can feel included, and I think that's a great sentiment on their part. They want everybody to be welcome to Weezer. I'm not trying to lock people out. I just know that certain people are not gonna be interested. That's the way it is, and I'm totally fine with that. So, we struck our balance with our fans and said, basically, "Hey, we're gonna be doing this, and if you're cool with this, what's it worth to you to keep us in business? If we go on tour and you don't have to sit in a sports arena to see us, or even sit in a big nightclub, you don't have to do any of that — what's that worth to you?" And it's been worth a lot.
When I hear songs like "Big Mouth," it makes me think you guys were millimeters away from having a hit that could have yielded you short shrift as a one-hit wonder. Like the guys that did the theme song from "Friends."
That's The Rembrandts, right? I mean, those guys can probably tour forever under that premise, but it definitely changes the way that you're gonna be promoted and marketed, and the kind of people that are gonna come see you, and the kind of places you're gonna play. The Rembrandts are perfect for, like, a '90s cruise — and Jon and I have endless jokes about "The '90s Cruise" — or a casino or a corporate event, and they may be totally happy with that. Or they may be totally frustrated. I would be sad to find out if they were really trying to do artistic things and that nobody was giving them a chance, that the path of least resistance was just to focus on the fact that they did the theme for "Friends." But for us, even having solid radio songs like "Dream All Day," etc., they just didn't cross that threshold where they become sort of enmeshed into a time period where our only utility to someone is to relive that time period.
I've noticed that there are these theme nights, like one that my friends are doing in Orlando, and the theme is something like, "The year is 1996, and we're playing all the songs that you wanna hear from 1996." They're not gonna play songs from our record, even though, we had a pretty popular record that got played a lot on the radio that year. I mean, we were out of step with our time every time. I have no problems with that. We reaped the benefits of having some good exposure, and we have members of our audience that go back with us to the beginning and have good memories of those times, but it's a much more simple relationship than having to have this other factor of, "I like you guys because it reminds me of when I was young." I don't really have any bands like that. If, for example — and not that it's gonna happen — but if The Smiths reunited today, I would be going to see them because I like the tunes, but there would be people that would be going because they're like, "Oh my God, I like the '80s so much, I wanna go back there." It's hard for me to believe because I don't think like that, but there's people who think like that. Some of my friends say stuff like that, so I know it's true.
I've read that "Failure" wasn't intended to be released as an album. You went out with intentions of recruiting other people who might get this music and want to play with you, but you came away having recruited people who wanted to listen to it.
We made "Failure" to have demo tapes to get people to be interested in playing with us because we couldn't find a band. That's true. From the time that we put out this cassette to everything else was like, 10 days. We made the cassette and walked into some record stores to consign them, and we made like a couple hundred or whatever. Then, we dropped it off to some radio stations and our goal was like, if we give this to people, they're understand what we're trying to do and they'll wanna play with us. In 10 days, there were reviews in the local press and we were on commercial radio. Stuff happened. Like, we were on commercial radio in a way that was so hardcore it just defied all expectation.
Then, once that happened on one, the others were like, "Well, we should play that, too, we don't wanna miss out." Our little tiny goals, we left those way behind. We were in a complete daze, and it just kept snowballing for a good year or so, until our first major label album came out, and then that was like a plateau that we had to catch up to. From 1988 to 1990, things were accelerating so fast we were just trying to hold on. Then, after our second album came out, the rest of the country had to catch up to where we were on the West Coast, so we drove around playing to four people for months on end.
As early as "Failure," The Posies have had stellar, evocative album art. How do you feel about the way the role of album art has shifted over the years?
It didn't really change much until this current album, in which we crowdsourced the album art, and that kind of crowdsourcing anything is a relatively recent phenomenon. We basically had a contest to make the album art. In the past, we've had certain directives that we wanted in the artwork to convey specific things, but this artwork, the woman who submitted the winning entry — her name is Elena, she lives in Moscow — she didn't pay any attention to any of my directives, she just submitted something that she liked. It had relatively little to do with the themes that we wanted to present. It's the first time that we've had that happen, and I think that's why, for me, it's a successful pairing, because she brought in a little bit of a non sequitur that, when you start reading into it, isn't a non sequitur at all but is actually very apt. Because it's so perpendicular to our aspirations, it can only be successful, whereas when we did something that was in line with our intentions, they kind of captured that intention 50 percent or 40 percent or 75 percent of the time. Basically, varying degrees of failure ... and I don't mean the album. It reminded me that in many ways, art is about the juxtaposition of things. It's about a reshuffling of the deck, not always just about your intentions. Sometimes your intention can work yourself out, and you sort of, oh, what's that word? ... Wait a second ... it's a great word ... [makes thinking noises]. Give me a second.
... RETCON. We can retcon the intention, and say "That was meant to accommodate that the whole time." Basically, you do a revisionist history on your intentions. Before, we were always too literal, and being literal in art does not always serve you so well.
"Of course that's what we meant to do."
Yeah, with making musical decisions, with artists feeling unconfident about a certain result, you have to remember that everybody sees what you do as you doing it on purpose. So, go with that, and don't break character. They will take what you present as if you intentionally sculpted every moment that happened.
People have talked a lot about how you guys backed down on the guitars for "Solid States," maybe because there's so much emphasis on keyboards, but when it comes in, it comes in big, like the solo on "Definition."
I had said to Jon when we started that I didn't want any rhythm guitars. I didn't want any guitars just strumming anywhere. I think those should all be replaced by guitars that are doing things, or keyboards that are doing things, and those things should be active. I didn't want to have very many pads, as they call it. But, I mean, Jon is a guitar player. So I put this box around him and said, "Here's all the "no fly" zones," and he thought, "He's challenging me and I'm gonna respect the challenge. How can I work around it? I think that when he has a chance to overwhelm the restrictions for just a moment when he's got a guitar solo, he's got free reign. There's a similar one in "Radiance" that is maybe my favorite. It's not what Jon turned in originally, and I was like, "Dude, no" — and this was pre-Prince's death — I was like " 'When Doves Cry.' You have to take it to that level of rad." And I think he did a great job. Even with a guitar solo, you really run the risk of taking an instrument cable and flogging a dead horse with it, and I wanted to make sure that even things like guitar solos weren't being taken for granted. "Oh, there really should be a guitar solo." No, there really shouldn't be. In my directive, a guitar solo has to earn its place to be there. Otherwise, there's a panoply of samples and invented instruments that could occupy that space.
You're shooting a movie in which you play yourself, but with emphasis on the "play," you are acting as yourself, reliving parts of your life, but with this plot where you break down on tour and go into deep memory mode, not in that documentary sort of, "yeah, here's where I went to high school and where we used to smoke pot behind the bleachers" sort of way.
Exactly. It's portrayal. I'm not even portraying myself, I'm portraying someone who's pretty much just like me. Because it's a fictional film, we have the right to tweak the facts wherever we see fit. It's about as much of a documentary as "Being John Malkovich" is a documentary about John Malkovich, which is a comedic fantasy about the idea of famous people and how much being famous has its own life beyond the control of the celebrity. In my case, not being a celebrity, this film is more about someone in a very interesting set of circumstances, which my life is.
For this show, you'll have our very own Sarah Stricklin. I understand you recruit a local woman to sing backup, I'm guessing maybe on songs like "Unlikely Places?"
It's not so much backup as a duet. There's a song "Licenses to Hide" where Lisa Lobsinger sings alternating lines, but she's like a featured singer. Part of the story of the song. We're doing that song and another one. So, it's more like a co-starring role instead of a supporting one.
The Posies play with Frankie Siragusa on drums and special guest Sarah Stricklin on vocals at Capitol View Studio, 120 S. Cross St., at 8 p.m. Sept. 29. Tickets are $20-$100 and are available at capitolviewstudio.com/events.