Interview: Ken Stringfellow of The Posies

Interview: Ken Stringfellow of The Posies

posiesPower-pop legends The Posies are reissuing their beloved 1988 debut album Failure on Omnivore Recordings. We recently spoke with one of the band’s co-founders, Ken Stringfellow, about the album’s legacy and about the band’s humble beginnings.

When you and Jon [Auer] were coming up with the songs on Failure, what were you looking at for inspiration?

It’s probably important to state how much we had yet to learn; that was as big of an influence as what we were listening to. I didn’t know about Can or whatever; there were a billion things I had yet to discover. We had gone about learning about Sixties music — whether that be the Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel — via our parents record collections. That got us started.

Living in a small town meant that things took a little longer to get to us. In high school, which was not that far behind us when we made this album, we were into clever sort-of-New-Wave British music; hyper-brainy songwriters like Squeeze, Elvis Costello, XTC were all big for us. And The Replacements and Husker Du were all there, as well.

It’s interesting; because Failure has a lot of acoustic guitar, you might think that the Sixties influences are emphasized there, and the production helps that a little bit. But the song “Under Easy,” for example, is clearly an homage to Bob Mould. If you played “Under Easy” on really distorted guitars, it would totally be a Husker Du song. Also, “At Least for Now” is, I think, Jon’s take on a Paul Westerberg song. Jon’s voice is a bit purer than Westerberg’s, so that could fool you into thinking that we were going a bit more retro, but the retro influences were still there. There’s a lot of McCartney-like bass things happening.

It’s interesting that you bring up Bob Mould, because you could argue that he was just as influenced by Sixties rock as you guys were.

Yeah. Right about that time, the album Warehouse: Stories & Songs came out and it was huge for us. You take a song like “Could You Be the One?,” and it’s like Husker Du turning into The Byrds. That’s kind of what “Under Easy” is: a very Byrds-like song with a Bob Mould chord progression and melody.

The Seattle grunge and indie rock scene was coming up around the same time as Failure’s release. Did that have any effect on you guy while you were working on the album?

Our town, Bellingham, Washington, is as close to Vancouver as it is to Seattle. Back then, you didn’t have Google or Spotify, so distance mattered. We had word of mouth. We had radio, which wasn’t playing the bands that we wanted to listen to. We had Rolling Stone and Musician, which didn’t go very deep, though to be fair, Rolling Stone was where I first read a review of Zen Arcade. We had record stores, but the stuff that came into Bellingham was pretty random. I call it “record store roulette.” You might read a review of an album and it just might never come to your record store.

As for Seattle, we were dimly aware of what was going on, but it wasn’t really “it” yet. All of those bands were fairly embryonic. We could get down there to see shows sometimes, and I moved to Seattle to go to the University of Washington in 1986, but those bands were playing in bars, so I couldn’t get in. We saw Soundgarden as an opening band on big international tours, but at the time, they sounded more like The Cult than the band that we would eventually hear. We were at Green River’s farewell show in 1987, but Green River didn’t play all-ages shows. But all of that — Mudhoney putting out their first album, the first Sub Pop compilation coming out — happened just as we were putting out Failure, so it was too early for that scene to have any effect on what we were doing at the time.

When you were writing songs with Jon for Failure, did these songs come as a quick burst of inspiration or were they something that you had been working on for a while?

They were kind of something that we had been working on for a while. We had bands of varying styles with different people all through high school. Some things that I was involved in were very experimental, similar to the Butthole Surfers, and Jon would occasionally join in. We got recruited into another band that more or less sounded like Journey. We just tried doing all sorts of different things.

Jon had this home recording studio where we would try to do all these things. We were into all kinds of music, and we were learning about music by slowly increasing our record collection while trying our hands at different kinds of music. So we had all this experience behind us even a couple of years before The Posies and Failure would exist as concepts.

I started writing songs after I went off to college; the four-track demos that I recorded are the first songs on the reissue. In the fall of 1986, we didn’t work as much because I was caught up in college work and adjusting to life in Seattle while Jon was still in Bellingham. We didn’t really touch base until 1987, when I made those demos and presented them to Jon. We found out that we were really on the same wavelength as far as what we were into and what we wanted to do. Having been through these experiments with other people and sharing in other people’s visions, we figured out we liked the best. At this time, there was plenty of insipid Top Forty music, as there always is. It was a lot of style with no substance. We wanted as much substance as was possible for two teenagers to provide. We had aspirations and we knew in what direction we wanted to head.

It was hard to write songs during the school year while still studying and doing schoolwork, but once the school year ended, we spent that summer writing and actually recording the album.

A lot of the lyrics on Failure dealt with situations that one wouldn’t expect 19 year-olds to deal with. “Compliment” and “At Least for Now” come to mind.

I mean, we wrote about relationship things as we knew them, and, being teenagers, we knew what we knew. Having said that, I had a kid when I was in high school, so I had gone in deep as far as adult experiences went. And Jon, his childhood was very volatile. I think that he had a lot of exposure to his parents’ relationship problems. We’d seen too much, in a way, because those aren’t things you should be going through in an ideal situation. That kind of gave us a lot of fuel and even a little bit of depth, even at that age. At times, when Jon was writing relationship song at that period, I think he’s telling the story of his parents’ relationship, which gives it a lot more depth beyond the basic “I love you; you don’t love me” dynamic.

In a weird way, “Compliment” fits that dynamic, but it has some lyrical twists and it doesn’t feel too victimized. That’s always a danger when you start writing songs; you can write from a victim’s perspective a little too easily. I’m always counseling less-experienced songwriters to avoid the whole “you don’t love me” thing because an audience can easily respond with “so what? That’s life.” But we got away with it a little bit, because we had gone through some bigger things.

After Failure, you made two more professional-sounding albums. How was the transition of going from home recording to proper studio work?

It was difficult. It was overwhelming. I think we should have done something in between Failure and Dear 23, simply because Jon and I didn’t know how to manage that project. We went from making a $50 album to making a $250,000 album. It’s totally absurd, in a way. It was still a great opportunity, especially working with John Leckie. But with Failure, we didn’t have much of a game plan, so we focused on making the songs as best we could under some serious limitations, and it really paid off. In a way, the fact that we had these technological limitations and were just following our artistic muse kept the album in the nice place. Whereas, with Dear 23, we didn’t even know who our target audience was outside of Seattle, so we didn’t think about what our message was and who we were trying to reach when we were on a big label. We just took our songs to John Leckie and hoped for the best, in a way. Still, it’s understandable that, as 20-and-21 year-olds, we were out of our depth.

It seems like an overwhelming situation to be in at that age.

Yeah, for sure. On top of that, there’s that pressure of needing to succeed. You don’t want to blow off this big opportunity and look like an idiot. Geffen was very patient, too: Dear 23 didn’t do that well, though we got on radio and on MTV. That paid off with the next two records, which while they weren’t huge, they sold decently well and were probably worth the money people spent on them.

Another thing to note about working on Failure was that we didn’t have a band. We couldn’t find a band, actually; we couldn’t find anyone who wanted to play with us. As a result, we ended up playing everything ourselves. There was a review of the album in Paste that said that we were obviously control freaks because we played everything ourselves and didn’t bring in any other musicians or producers. I thought, “Producer? With what money would we have hired a producer?” We were just two teenagers fucking around in a home studio, and we really couldn’t find any bass player or drummer that wanted to play with us. In a way, we made Failure to have all of our songs to present to other musicians. We weren’t trying to get it on the radio. It was really a demo to get bandmates. We dropped it off at a few radio stations assuming that we’d never hear back from them; within a couple of days, we were all over local radio. Everything happened so fast that we found it hard to stay on top of things. We had offers for gigs and we still had no band, so we got some guys at the last minute [Mike Musburger and Rick Roberts] who turned out to be really good. We played live shows, and then we were signed. It all happened so fast. We went from the start screen of a video game to the 12th level where everything is 50 times faster. It’s an amazing story, given that this album is so naive and honest. We made it as tight as we could, but it ended up going so much farther than albums like that are supposed to go.

Having gone back to this album for the reissue, would you consider making another album with this low-key, DIY method?

Absolutely, especially when I use the technology I have in my studio to make records for other bands that get on the radio. The technological situation is vastly different now. Back then, having a home studio was kind of a weird idea: now, everybody who owns a Macintosh has a home studio. If you have GarageBand, you have a home studio at your fingertips.

We were actually just talking about making the next record into something that deconstructs the idea of a band; something that takes purely our ideas and places them into something that doesn’t tie them down to a four-piece band structure.

1 Comment on this Post

  1. Phil Deere

    A fantastic insight into the life and amazing workings of Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer and their early workinf of the fantastic ‘Failure’ and ‘Dear 23’ albums.


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