Lesson in Survival
If slavishly adapting to trends has increasingly become the "alternative" norm, then count the Posies among the ever-declining number of real nonconformists. Since 1988, they have quietly and persistently gone about their business as Seattle's sensitive, pop-minded outcasts, apparently relishing their role as that grunge-soaked city's milder option. Privately, though, being outside the hometown mainstream made the leaders of the Posies somewhat uneasy.
The softy tag was a little embarrassing, admits Ken Stringfellow, who shares singing, writing and guitar-playing duties in the Posies with longtime friend Jon Auer. "Especially in Seattle," he says. "Nobody was doing what we were doing."
Today, Stringfellow is willing to acknowledge his discomfort. But a few years ago he wasn't so open. In a 1993 interview, he casually brushed off any concern about the Posies' apparent frailty compared to chest-beating contemporaries such as Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. By that time, the band's delicate reputation -- admired by critics, slagged by just about everyone else -- had already leaked past the Seattle city limits and, in some circles, generated sneering insults. Los Angeles rowdies Thelonious Monster sank the lowest, referring to Stringfellow on CD as "some faggot from the Posies." (It's rumored that the insult may have had less to do with music than with Stringfellow's stealing the girlfriend of Thelonious Monster lead singer Bob Forrest).
With the benefit of hindsight, Stringfellow can safely say the wounded geek routine was all part of a plan. "We're definitely into being different," he claims. "I've never felt a direct kinship with any other band."
The new Amazing Disgrace may be the Posies' most purposeful statement of deviance yet -- and it's far from wimpy. In their third Geffen/DGC outing, Auer and Stringfellow have created a meandering and often malicious monster, from the blunt, seething attack of "Hate Song" and "Everybody Is a Fucking Liar" to the more discreetly bitter musings of "Daily Mutilation" and "Throwaway." Amazing Disgrace is a celebration of defeat; an emotionally charged muddle of reluctant highs and harrowing lows; a lumpy, semisweet batter of angelic harmonies, heavenly hooks and hellish pathos glistening with the sweat of nightmares and prolonged sexual frustration.
"I don't know if anything really fits on this album. It's a little disjointed, and we like that aspect of its personality. If it were a person, it would be this really schizophrenic freak," says Stringfellow. "We're into that. We can't just let anything be straight; we always have to mess with it a little bit."
Lately, Stringfellow and Auer have also been messing with their appearance, coloring their long, stringy hair in Day-Glo shades of purple and pink. The new look lent a punkish visual flair to the Posies' performance at this year's South by Southwest Music Conference, where the group came off like the mutant spawn of Cheap Trick and the Hollies. (On Amazing Grace, Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen and Robin Zander show up to contribute guitar and vocals to "Hate Song.")
But such dress-up displays aren't usual with the Posies. More often, they prefer to rebel a little less obviously -- sticking closer to the spirit of pop's ultimate subversives, Big Star, whom Auer and Stringfellow worship. Plenty of parallels exist between the bands -- not the least of which is a common emphasis on gorgeous harmonies and a ceaseless struggle between craftsmanship and chaos. But the Posies have already experienced more success than Big Star ever did in its short, seven-year existence.
"We've sold way more records in our time," says Stringfellow. "I have a ballpark figure of how many records they've sold, and it's not much."
Still, that commercial distance from their idols didn't keep Stringfellow and Auer from jumping at the chance to join former Big Star members Alex Chilton and Jody Stevens for a 1993 reunion tour -- or prevent Stringfellow from paying tribute to another cultish musical inspiration on Amazing Grace's "Grant Hart," a song named in honor of the co-founder of Husker Du.
"When Husker Du was around, they had quite a lot of stature at a certain level," says Stringfellow, explaining the intentions behind "Grant Hart" and its music's adherence to the Huskers' loud-and-fast style. "But, because it didn't get beyond that, they were sort of forgotten."
Does Stringfellow worry that the Posies will suffer a similar fate? "We haven't broken up yet," he says. "But if we broke up today, we might disappear."
Stringfellow and Auer see the wisdom in patience, subscribing to the view that if you stick to your guns long enough, things will eventually turn in your favor. They could have packed it in as early as 1990, when the Posies' brilliant major-label debut, Dear 23, sputtered despite a strong prerelease buzz and a glut of rave reviews. One Los Angeles Times critic had the courage to mention the CD -- with its lucid conceptual feel and its borrowed bits from the Lennon and McCartney catalog -- in the same breath with the Beatles' Abbey Road.
Despite disappointing sales, the Posies -- which, at the time, included drummer Mike Musburger and bassist Rick Roberts -- toured their hearts out for several months behind Dear 23. Then, Auer and Stringfellow sat down to work on songs for a follow-up. During that period, Roberts left to front his own band. The Posies found a replacement in Dave Fox and emerged in 1993 with the harshly melodic Frosting on the Beater, a stripped-down response to the more production-filled Dear 23.
For whatever reason, long breaks between releases have become part of the Posies' natural creative cycle. Dear 23 came out two years after Failure, the promising homemade indie release that landed Auer and Stringfellow their deal with DGC; Frosting on the Beater came three years after Dear 23; and the new CD was preceded by yet another three-year break. All that downtime between releases could be considered an asset, if you're of the belief that anticipation breeds fondness. Then again, some would argue that the Posies aren't famous enough to expect anyone to wait around so long -- even if the delay isn't on purpose.
"Our intention is never to take such a long time," says Stringfellow. "We don't write on the road, and we tour a lot. So we pretty much have to build from the ground up after a tour, and we don't feel comfortable until we have a lot of songs to choose from."
Breaking in new band members also takes time, and Auer and Stringfellow have had to do a lot of that over the years. Following the Frosting on the Beater tour, a frustrated Musburger, whose Keith Moon-ish flailing away behind the set had been an on-stage asset, left. Soon after that, Fox quit. For anyone familiar with the band, there's never been any doubt that the Posies is Auer and Stringfellow's project. But that fact hasn't always been easy for other band members to accept.
"A lot of times, they didn't like the fact that John and I got all the attention as the songwriters," Stringfellow says. "But that's just normal. If Rick or Mike wrote songs that we thought were great, we would have used them. Rick was always pressuring us to do more and more of his songs, but, unfortunately, they weren't that great, and they didn't fit with what we were doing at the time."
Fortunately, new members Joe Bass (bass) and Brian Young (drums) seem to know their place in the Posies' chain of command. "To be quite honest, we didn't take Rick's and Mike's ideas seriously because we had our own master plan," Stringfellow confesses. "[Joe and Brian] have got a really good sense of what's appropriate musically [in this band] and what's not."
Various roster issues and personal problems laid to rest for the time being, the Posies are now primed for a breakthrough. Stringfellow's mental and physical state seems to have benefited from his marriage to Kim Warnick, bassist for Seattle's Fastbacks, and with grunge on the outs and power pop back in vogue, 1996 could very well be the year the band's persistence pays off. But would the Posies be comfortable leading a trend instead of bucking it? Stringfellow says he hasn't really thought about it.
"Already, we've gotten to do all these cool things that you'd think only a bigger band would be able to do, and we're not even that popular," says Stringfellow. "We won't do just anything to be liked, and I don't even know what those things would be. But I'm always curious about what will become of it all."
The Posies perform at 9 p.m. Thursday, May 30, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Velocity Girl and Fuzzy open. Tickets are $8. For info, call 869-
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