Interview The Posies: Tunes, Togetherness And Thomas The Tank Engine

We catch up with core member Ken Stringfellow.

From contributing to the ‘Reality Bites’ soundtrack to having elder musical statesmen courting their cool, you could be forgiven for remembering The Posies as one of the alternative pop punk posse from Generation X and American college radio. Since their early years, core members Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer have developed a reputation as Seattle’s answer to Jack White - going from working with R.E.M. to Big Star via The Posies and back again after another side project. To celebrate the release of their first new record together in five years, ‘Blood / Candy’, which has guestspots from Lisa from Broken Social Scene and Hugh Cornwell from The Stranglers, DIY caught up with Ken from The Posies to talk tunes, togetherness, and their direct connection to Thomas the Tank Engine.

The new album is called ‘Blood / Candy’. You’ve said that we are to expect the unexpected with this new record… how so?

This record is a very good cross-section of all the things we can do, and the eclecticism that we inhabit as musicians and songwriters. After making our last album five years ago, we had ideas to reign it in a little bit, but the exact opposite happened. The ideas are quite interesting and diverse and only in a few places do we brush by what would be ‘classic’ territory for us.

You wrote your last album ‘Every Kind of Light’ during a furious twelve-day session… how did you manage to brew so many ideas together so quickly? Was the process similar on this record?

With EKOL, we came in with no demos, no nothing, and we said we’re going to do one song a day and just went for it. For this album, we wrote the songs in advance. Most of the songs that I contributed to the record I did write in a relatively short-period of time, as usually I’m busy working on all kinds of projects for myself and others. We assembled for a rehearsal period in Seattle for a week, and that proved to be way too short because a few songs were quite challenging to learn. Then we went to Spain to record for a couple of weeks, and that also proved to be way too short. Our last album was recorded in twelve days, so we thought this one would be a ‘no brainer’, but these songs are a lot more complex.

Do you actually collaborate on the writing of the songs?

Obviously Jon and I bring in the main ideas, but for the last album, we’d come in with a very rough ideas in the morning and work on it until it became a song. We like making these kind of challenges for ourselves and push ourselves musically. For this album, Jon and I individually created the songs and brought them into the group. Of course, things change after that, but generally, the song is pretty complete. The song ‘Holiday Hours’ on our album - a gentle majestic piece that seems quiet but is also quite intense - has an outro that is musically different than the rest of the song. The song ended when Jon wrote it, but I helped him work through adding an ending that is like a curveball. Generally the structure is pretty faithful to the demo. The problem with demoing songs is that suddenly you have a precedent and then you get protective because you think I did my experimenting on the way in - don’t fuck with it!

Can you describe the song ‘Accidental Architecture’, which you have compared to visual entertainment?

That’s a Jon composition. It’s one of the most unexpected things to come out. Jon never demoed that song. He was working on it right up until we started the rehearsal period in April. In many ways, he wasn’t sure what would happen over the top of it. It had to be worked through by playing it because he hadn’t had time to conceive anything other than his main guitar and vocal ideas. In that sense, it had the most contribution from everyone on it and it had these instrumental sections to it. In that sense, that is songwriting and that is composition, which is also very important at that point. Once you’ve been inspired, things tend to come a lot more quickly. Living in different countries now, when we get together we have a bit of pressure to execute quickly. I can’t stay forever in Seattle.

Sometimes you have to let go, I suppose, otherwise you’ll end up with a situation like Chinese Democracy!

We don’t have that luxury. In a way, we do. It doesn’t cost us anything to work in our own studios, as I’ve a little one in my apartment in Paris, where I do a lot of mixing for people, and John has his own space in Seattle. We could have easily spent another month in each on the album. Maybe it would’ve been better or maybe not! You want to be an artist in control of your art, and that can make you quite fanatical. It’s interesting as circumstance can influence the art. You want art to be a reflection of the moment, and if you’re controlling the moment, that’s not as interesting to me as letting the moment take you somewhere. A deadline takes you somewhere and makes you work differently.

As well as having Lisa from Broken Social Scene on the record, Hugh Cornwell from The Stranglers provided vocals on album opener ‘Plastic Paperbacks’… how did this vocal collaboration come about?

I had this idea for the part that I’d like to have a really cool speaking voice for the part. There’s only a few in the indie rock world that could do this - like Mark E. Smith.

He did the football scores once in England!

That sounds surreal. Did it have a beat?

It was quite random. It was just him reading the scores, saying ‘Tottenham 4 - Chelsea 0’, not like that would necessarily happen!

I can’t do that cool voice thing. We record in this little studio in Spain, which is a magnetic place for musicians [El Puerto de Santa María near Cadiz] - one of the Jayhawks was living there for a while. Weird people end up coming to the studio. It’s not even a charming village, but it’s a very normal Spanish town, with a beach that winds around, and no dizzying nightlife. Hugh visited and said ‘I’m going to hang out there a lot more’. The guy who runs the studio is really cool, and a magnet for people himself, and there’s even a little house for the band to stay in too. He mentioned Hugh was going to be hanging out for ‘the day after you guys leave’, and I sent him an email. There is an ‘if you build it, they will come’ thing going on with these collaborations.

Fantastic! Speaking of collaborations, which was a greater honour… working with Burt Bacharach or having Ringo Starr cover one of your songs, ‘Golden Blunders’?

I’d have to go with Ringo on that one. The Burt Bacharach thing was done in pieces and it’s not like we were hanging out or anything and we covered one of his tunes. Ringo covered one of ours. It totally came out the blue. It was already recorded and his management called us up and say ‘Hey, come down to our office!’ when we were in LA and they said, ‘We have something to play for you’. Ringo’s voice is pretty recognisable. We were surprised. It was completely nuts. It was quite early in our career, so it was quite an odd thing.

I suppose he must have been tickled by the fact that it was called ‘Golden Blunders’ also?

He selected it on the merits of the story in the song, and the off-shoot that it was funny. Peter Asher heard the song on the radio and was driving somewhere and sent it over to Ringo, who was probably in Monte Carlo something, and he liked it. We played a show with Ringo at that time. He was extremely friendly and funny - a really cool guy.

He’s been getting some hard press, I’m glad to hear something nice about him!

A friend of mine, totally unrelated, was working for him for a while and she had a great experience. He’s a family man and very down to earth.

According to your biog, your album ‘Every Kind of Light’ was informed heavily by the Bush Administration and Iraq War. Dissatisfaction arguably inspired a lot of great ‘art’… what things are worth commenting on in America now it’s gone?

At that time, before Bush got re-elected, we were going into attacking another country without proper provocation, which was crossing a major line. I saw it as a cynical version of us entering World War II by a friendly invitation from the Japanese, which had the effect of turning the Depression around. This was like ‘Hey! Let’s start a war and that will make a bunch of people rich’, which is exactly what happened. Now it’s just spiralling and spiralling and I’m not sure we’re out of the woods yet. I was moving to France anyway - the timing was good, as I moved to be with my wife. I read the papers every day and am frequent visitor to the US, which is perhaps a hard thing to say, but a bit of a cartoon. As a two party government, the two sides have to pull really hard and it becomes almost comical, as there is no reconciliation on a number of issues. It’s black and white. On one side, global warming doesn’t exist. On the other side it does. On one side, all immigrants are potentially dangerous and must be stopped. On the other side, we are a nation of immigrants and it’s been working for us so far. It’s a parody that’s only funny until someone like Sarah Palin reaches high office, god forbid! She is a cartoon. Politicians absorb sentiment from the people around them - a politician is a follower rather than a leader. The sentiment of a lot of ignorant people is fear, and fear makes people angry. People on the centre-right even absorb that sentiment which pushes them further right. I am not a political analyst and cannot put wisdom in a three minute song. During the Bush administration, especially after September 11 and the War on Iraq, people were fooled into choosing a side. Now, people have the facts and are choosing to live in a hallucinatory world. For instance, there are people saying that Barack Obama is not American, and that he was born outside the States (but he was born in Hawaii, which was a US state at the time) and he’s a Muslim despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. People have found their sides by choice. I’m not going to change anybody’s mind. On this record, we looked at the human psyche rather than the political landscape, but this record is more going inward.

You’ve lined up lots of club shows across Europe. There must be a hardcore group of fans around Europe? If so, what is your weirdest experience a fan / fans?

The song ‘Dream All Day’ was a massive hit in France, and my wife was in a way responsible for the marketing for it at the time, and I thought, ‘that’s a girl I need on my side!’. We were over there living it up and quite well loved over there. We were at the airport in 1995 when they had some terrorist bombings, so then, as now, there was a heightened presence of security in the airport. We were waiting for our flight to Spain at Charles De Gaulle, and an officer and some guys with machine guns came walking up and we said ‘We’re Americans. We don’t speak French’ and they said ‘Can we zee yur pass-porte please?’ so we gave them our passport to check out. Then he asked, ‘What’s ze natur of yur visite?’ and we said ‘We’re in a band and we’re on our way to Spain’. He said, ‘What is ze name of your band?’ and we said, ‘Oh, you haven’t heard of it but anyway, but it’s The Posies’ and he’s not looking at us, and just looking at the passports. Then, without looking up he starts singing ‘I can dream of days, dream of days’ and the other guys he’s with start laughing but try to keep the game face on.

Fantastique! Though outside of the band, you have both been involved in so many different projects from working with REM to Big Star. The only obvious ‘industry’ examples I can compare this to are Jack White and Josh Homme. Is there still room for spontaneity in musicianship within the music industry or do you find you play by a different set of rules to make the music you want to make?

If there are rules, I don’t really want to know them. It’s like - ‘that sounds fun!’ It’s probably not that different to Jack and Josh - they probably live the same way, but just happen to be coming off the back of a situation where they have more connections and success. People call them or they see people at a bar. Many things don’t happen and get talked about, but a few of them do. You could follow the rules and record companies have steps for a successful artist but it doesn’t happen always and it totally flops, so maybe there are no pure rules. It’s based on what people like and you never really know what people like. I’m more of a dreamer in that sense. I do what’s fun. I only work with people I like. Spontaneity is the key factor. You have to have your mental ears tuned to the way things are going. I’m not an expert on marketing. You have to be yourself.

Thank you Ken for all the chat. It’s been so interesting. Finally, since we are in the age of the download, could you tell us which five tracks should new listeners download as the best introduction to The Posies?

A song from the new album, which is available for download with Lisa from Broken Social Scene [‘Licenses to Hide’]. ‘Solar System’ from our 1993 album, which is a defining moment. [Pauses to think.]

‘Golden Blunders’?

If you say so, maybe it’s better that you judge than me! The song ‘Conversations’ on our last album [‘Every Kind of Light’] has a bit of everything. ‘Precious Moments’ on our 1996 album [‘Amazing Disgrace’], that’s really beautiful.

The Posies ‘Blood / Candy’ album is out now.

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