Contrary to most critical opinion, as ever it seems, I humbly reckon The Posies' album 'Frosting On The Beater' from 1993 to be not only their own personal best, but one of the better LPs of that entire year. Don Fleming's production lends the erstwhile fragile power-pop duo — a term that points to only two of the contradictions surrounding this Seattle quartet — a gravity which fits them like a space-suit, highlighting all the subtleties within their songwriting and vocal harmonies whilst at the same time adding a certain punch which has, for me, been tantalisingly absent on their previous two albums (1990's 'Dear 23' and 1988's debut, 'Failure', both of which have been hailed as "masterpieces" at various times). Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow's songwriting has been fairly consistent throughout their lengthy career, and yet all the first three numbers on 'Frosting', the plangent and worryingly catchy refrains of Dream All Day, the comparatively complex graphics of Solar Sister (from which the album's title is taken) with its playful backwards guitar break, and the stomping, ringing tones of Flavor Of The Month (forever "melting slowly in your mouth") are absolute gems, mined from a seam so rich that it even seems to have caught the band themselves by surprise. Whilst Definite Door has its moments, they are plainly mechanical and not inspirational; only Burn & Shine thereafter scales similar heights, and that by taking a far more circuitous, if scenic, route which concludes unexpectedly in a welter of distorted guitar sound. Playing the album now after a break of a couple of months or so I am reminded that almost every song on here has memorable hooks of some kind buried somewhere amid the texture like tiny pieces of Velcro — and there ain't many albums that have that kind of pulling power.
Interestingly however, I have yet to see anyone else claim that 'Frosting On The Beater' is a near masterpiece, or even a Velcro space-suit, the Posies included. I therefore determined to ask them, these now-famous Geffen Records major label recording stars, for their thoughts on the subject. Unfortunately, because time is basically circular and space is just an extension of one's mind, all attempts at personal communication seemed to be foiled. I missed them in Seattle by a couple of days, was in Europe when they were in London and vice versa, and eventually handed the entire job over to the far more capable and slightly more presentable man-on-the-spot, Mr. Michael Piper. With a free hand to ask whatever questions sprang to mind, the following potted history of The Posies was wrung from the charming messrs. Auer and Stringfellow. Hereafter Jon Auer does most of the taking, except where it's obvious that Ken's speaking.
One thing I've always been curious about is the name of the band. I notice in the dictionary that 'posie' is defined as 'the art of poetry'.
Is it really? We certainly didn't have that in mind. It's one of those names we picked out, not really trying to have a heck of a lot of significance or meaning behind it, but it does serve to annoy or disturb people because it's so fey or whatever. It's not the most important thing about us.
What would you say are your earliest or most meaningful musical influences?
Obviously the Beatles were huge at first, to my parents they were at least. They were into folk music and stuff too. That and the early Who and Jimi Hendrix. I liked Cheap Trick a lot when I was about eight or nine. There's so much more we picked up on after the fact. We have voracious appetites for collecting music.
How did you guys get together?
We met by being in a band together. Jon was drafted into a band that I was already in which didn't last very long, but at least we met. Eventually Jon was going to the same school as I and we used to play in bands together. That's all we've ever done. All we've ever done is play in bands.
How did the home recording come about?
By necessity. It was an after-school hobby, we used to go over to my house and use the eight track studios that my father and I set up there. We never made a big deal out of it, we just started recording songs, eventually finished them and put them into an order, got a little package together and had a whole new album.
That's where the 'Failure' cassette came from?
Totally. One of the earliest tangible goals we had was to open for the Young Fresh Fellows, who were on PopLlama Records. About a year after 'Failure' had come out, PopLlama put an LP of it out. It then took a while for it to become a CD. One step at a time... get the record out, then more money went into the manufacture of the cassette, then the CD came out in 1990.
Around the same time if memory serves me 'The Sky Cries Mary' project began?
Well, that came to pass about the same time as Jon and I were recording 'Failure'. I was living in Seattle and met Roderick who was the singer/instigator behind Sky Cries Mary and I helped him out doing their projects, recording on a 4 track and just helping him to do his thing. Then we got Jon involved and we decided that we'd go up and record some songs for him. So we just did a couple of songs. It's not like Jon and I were involved in it as a band or anything. We even played some shows, Jon was on drums and I was on bass and he sang and... we were just trying to be noisy. We were trying the whole time to be the Posies, but we just did this thing for a year or so. I would say that The Sky Cries Mary now is more "normal" and the Posies are weirder; we're not as straightforward, and they're a lot more straightforward now.
Then the Geffen Records deal came through. Was that because of the positive press generated by 'Failure'?
As far as I can tell 'Failure' was the main reason we got signed to Geffen. We played live shows and stuff, but I don't think anyone payed any attention to them, not as far as A&R people anyway.
You then went into the studio with John Leckie, a pretty accomplished producer who certainly brought a lot of his own flavour to the band. How was that experience?
We took a long time. We were adamant about not doing it with John. Looking back on it I can remember some enjoyable things, but it took so long... Our first major label record, so we spent a lot of time working on it and planning it out, and what actually came out of it wasn't a real band record. Everything was played separately, pretty much.
So the album 'Dear 23' comes out and the critical acclaim starts pouring in; how did that affect you? All those very favourable comparisons to Badfinger and Big Star?
"Aaaah, neato" we said. Then we sold no records.
Did the reviews set up expectations which were hard to meet, or was it just the "critics darlings syndrome"?
I think we really had no idea what we were doing at the time. That whole experience served to teach us what the real world was like out there. Our existence was fairly ideal when we were making 'Failure'. We were going to college, living on our parents' money and recording in a home studio. We didn't have any pressure or anyone looking at us, or any of those kind of things. The reality of doing a record that goes out to the public immediately is that there's a lot of intrusions. Intrusions by people who are interested in the business side of things, like record companies and managers and what-not. It's a little bit different. But I think we learned to control those things... we went from total isolation to whatever the opposite of isolation is; immersion. Immersion in the big music world.
Around the time you went into the studio to do the follow-up album you had bass player troubles and also decided to go in for a new manager.
We spent three weeks in a studio that cost almost nothing and it didn't sound very good. It had a bad mood to it, and some of the songs... looking back, there's a couple of songs that sound alright, but I don't know if they'd have been alright to the point of putting them out as a representative record. Really I guess some of the problem was that we recorded some of Rick's songs that to us didn't fit in at all. The end result is something that sounds a little bit limp, a bit lifeless. The manager was gone by the time we were on the road for 'Dear 23'. We found we had someone who was a little less qualified for the job than he claimed to be. And we found that the hard way.
There's a big difference between playing around Seattle and playing around the world.
Working with a big label means that you've really got to have someone who's on top of it, who can direct what's going on rather than being directed by it. I think our manager at the time was steamrollered by it all and didn't know what to do.
So now it's on to 'Frosting On The Beater', a new producer [Don Fleming] and a much harder edge to it. How did that go?
Really, we spent all of 1992 either working on the record or wanting to continue working on the record. It was December by the time we were done mixing it. It was more fun making that record though, which is another difference between that and 'Dear 23' which wasn't really a lot of fun to make; it was more like hard work. It was fun to be quick and dirty about it instead of being precious, not to have to go over and repeat doing things.
Do you think you'll work with Don as a producer again?
I don't think we would, not as a reflection on him but because we like to work with different people. I think Don really did good for this record, but some of the things we wanted to do we missed out on being involved with him.
You did a UK tour with Teenage Fanclub, who Don Fleming had previously worked with. You also did a Big Star reunion show over there; how did that come about?
Well, there was originally one spot available for a bass player and I got a call asking if I wanted to do it. I said it didn't make much sense to do it if you only got one of us, because who were you going to get to fill the other spot anyway? And names were mentioned like Chris Stamey and Paul Westerburg, people of that ilk. And we were saying well that's cool, but don't you think it'd make more sense to have two guys who have been singing together for as long as we have? We know the songs and we'd also be a little more anonymous I think, their names would interfere y'know, it'd be like "Paul Westerburg of the Replacements joins Big Star!" "Chris Stamey, formerly of the dB's..." And we were just two guys who obviously cared a lot. It was a lot of fun, we had a good time. It wasn't that hard to do honestly because that stuff was second nature to us. We actually ended up doing probably four or five shows. A couple of the ones in Britain were special. One of them was pretty magical, and the one that's on the record is like the first time people got back together. I kinda wish the later shows had been recorded because by that time we were cooking. It was definitely worth doing. There's probably more in the works, so hopefully we'll be out and about although I don't think anybody wants to tour, us included. It's not like 3 Dog Night is getting back together or something.
I understand you did a few of the British festivals.
Only really two. We played a lot over there with Teenage Fanclub. We found England very receptive and very on top of it. I think there's more appreciation for the style of music we play over there than there is in America. America seems to be so driven by hard rock and MTV. As far as the radio is concerned the Posies always seems to fall right on the edge of being one thing or another, neither rock or pop. In England it seems a little more eclectic. They don't mind throwing a lot of things together.
You did some recording over there as well?
Well actually while we were on tour in England we had a request for a song for a film called 'Reality Bites'. We recorded a number called 'Going Going Gone' at this place called The Manor, which was really cool. It was unreal, the kind of place you don't want to leave. We took a day and a half, and that was our first taste of recording for a while. There's not been a lot going on in the recording department since 'Frosting'. We did some covers and demos, but nothing of real note.
Will any of those covers see the light of day?
There's an 5 song extra CD coming out with the Australian version of 'Frosting' which has 'Song of a Baker', 'Ooh Child', 'Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You' by the Bee Gees, 'I Am The Cosmos' and our legendary version of 'Beck's Bolero'. I'm looking forward to that.
A lot of your lyrics are a bit on the depressive, slightly dysfunctional side. Where does that come from?
Well, you say that, but also people have told me how good they make them feel. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we all go through similar things psychologically and emotionally as people and we just write about our experiences. Plus we listened to a lot of depressed people like Paul Westerburg while we were growing up, and it's kind of cathartic to hear somebody like that. We had to rely a lot on our feelings and our minds rather than our aggressions when we were growing up — our parents have both been divorced — and I think those were our defences.
On a completely different tack, how did you feel when you heard Ringo Starr had done a cover of 'Golden Blunders'?
We were like, "Oh my God!", y'know. It looks good on the resume. Andrew Gold played guitar, and Waddy Wachtel played rhythm.
And you popped up on Maria McKee's last album.
Popped up and mixed out. Well, a lot of it was mixed out — a lot of the good stuff. I'd like to pop her one. Right on the nose. Boink! Next question?
Actually, there aren't any.
Interview: Michael Piper
Written & directed by: Phil McMullen