Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

Imaginary Girl Dana somehow found out Math and Physics Club contained unnaturally high levels of Posies adoration within their organization. When she asked Math and Physics Club about interviewing the Posies ahead of the release of 'Every Kind of Light', their first new record in seven years, we {Ethan Jones and James Werle} naturally jumped at the chance. We both are huge fans.

We caught up with Posies founders Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow after their sound check at the opening night show of the Seattle Film Festival. James was overheard telling Ethan before they met the Posies, "Oh crap, I've had a dream about this moment. I've seen this in dreams."

Ethan: So, ah…

Ken: Do you have a list of questions?

James: Well, I have a pad. I've even got a pen here somewhere. I know I do.

Ethan: Hmmm, well, our band, Math and Physics Club, is just starting out, but is it weird for you, after so many years of working together, to keep returning to the Posies as something that works for you artistically?

Ken: I think we have just learned to appreciate that — how can I describe it to you — it's like a baseball glove all broken-in in the right places.

James: Mmm feels good.

Jon: Oh yeah, it does feel good.

James: Except when you get that sore spot in the right in the palm.

Ken: Well that's part of the experience…

The Posies and Math and Physics Club. Photo by Christopher Nelson.James: So was there something about how you have been collaborating on material together or by yourselves that reached a critical mass, where it got to the point you suddenly realized it was time to record a new Posies record?

Ken: Definitely wasn't for supply of material. In fact we made the whole record up on the spot.

Jon: Yeah we did it in the studio. We just had the time set aside, and it was kind of a make or break situation. We made up a song every day basically.

Ken: There's something about this combination of people, this time, and these experiences that we've had as separate individuals that has made it… its energy being created all the time that we're together.

Jon: Obviously Ken and I started the Posies, and we're arguably the main dudes, but what makes it different now is that we made this record as a collaborative effort between the four of us, and we share songwriting credits for the first time. So you know, it's different from what we do outside the Posies, just because it's the four of us doing it. There's a distinction.

Ethan: In the past you both wrote songs individually and then brought them to the Posies, right?

Jon: And sometimes we could be… dictatorial about how we wanted them done. Now we're just over that, and open to whatever point of view someone else might have.

Ken: And it makes it so that things can be reassembled and come to life without any bottlenecks or dead ends. We never ran into any dead ends making this record, whereas if you have that dictatorial thing going on, it's like your doing this isometric exercise, only no one's getting stronger!

James: So walk us through a typical track on the new album. How did it come about? You started the day, had some Corn Flakes, then…

The Posies and Math and Physics Club. Photo by Christopher Nelson.Jon: There's one that comes to mind which is called "Love Comes" which to me is about as collaborative as it gets on the new record. I mean, with any collaboration someone's got to start with something, someone's got to throw an idea out, but where the idea started and where it ended up… Someone would throw out what was supposed to be the chorus or a verse, and then another one of us would say, 'you know what, that sounds like the bridge to me and why don't you make the verse the chorus and vice versa' and just totally flipped it on it's head. It was amazing to me.

Ken: Usually the solo guitar is Jon's area of specialty and keyboards are kind of my area of specialty…

James: Like, expertise?

Ken: Yeah, expertise. You are an expert tease. And a warrior and a gentleman — and a doctor! And on that song, Jon just ended up on the piano and I ended up playing lead guitar all the way through it, and I didn't even know what the chords were until we had to learn it to play it [live].

Jon: Yeah we did a lot of that. Whoever felt comfortable doing whatever just did it. Our bass player played the congas, and our drummer even wrote some lyrics.

Ken: Usually a big Rock No-No, with Rush being the great exception.

James: It almost feels like you guys are starting over as a band.

Ken: Certainly nothing that was there in the past is still in place, except for those people who liked out music. We don't work with any of the same people we did back then: different booking agents, different band members, different records labels…

James: You guys have always struck me as a band that really pays attention to and you're really loyal to your fans. I think 1990 was the first time I went to see a Posies show, and I was just learning the guitar and asking some dumb question about the guitar solo on "Flood of Sunshine" or something, and Jon actually took the time to give me some sort of rational answer to a completely dumb question. Does that attention to the fans play into your continued devotion to the Posies?

Ken: It's not really on the forefront of my mind as to why I would continue to do it, it's more the musical experience that we're having at that time. And all the other stuff, just sort of comes naturally to us as people.

James and Ethan of Math and Physics Club. Photo by Christopher Nelson.Ethan: It seems like when you first started out, you were kind of pigeonholed locally, with a certain sort of image and sound, but both of you continued to grow, and grow away from that. Was that a difficult transition for both of you, to be in band, trying to grow together and individually?

Ken: I think we were so naïve when we started. It's always that great thing of learning how much you don't know it kind of wasn't a fair fight. We were really young — teenagers really — and we didn't have a full education on a lot of what was out there musically, and we acquired t
hat as time went on. I like our first few records, but I can see that those people were in the student phase. It was a little bit 'high school science project' compared to the NASA engineers that we are now!

James: Once you established yourself in Seattle, did you find certain people or bands that you would consider mentors that helped bring you into the fold?

Jon: PopLlama, all the people there, yeah.

Ken: Scott McCaughey especially really helped us out a lot. We're forever in indebted to Scott because he gave us our first review in the Rocket and gave us our first gig.

James: Cool, where was that?

Ken: At the Attic Tavern. It was his wife Christy's band at the time, called the Power Mowers, and they needed someone to close the night. Actually so our first show was sort of like a headlining show in a weird way. So those first steps were crucial and Scott did tell a lot of people about us.

Jon: Totally, and also we only had modest goals when we started. I think one of them was….

Ken: To buy a lawn mower!

Jon: Yeah, to get PopLlama Records to put our records out for us and I think within a year of moving to Seattle we achieved that goal. Conrad Uno was really cool to us — as a producer/engineer he sort of took us under his wing. We learned a lot from that guy. He actually has a lot of equipment that used to belong to us in his studio. Some of the stuff we got out of one of our major label budgets [laughs].

Ken: When we first moved to town and started playing in 1988, Sub Pop barely existed at that point. They were just getting up to speed and PopLlama had been putting out records for like five years. You could not predict where things would turn out at that point.

Jon: It's weird because a lot of people really liked us but a lot of people didn't like us too. For a while there we were just a couple of wimpy Pop kids that came from Bellingham and 'why would anybody listen to these guys?'

Ken: It was a pretty hard sell.

Jon: We weren't like Soundgarden or Mudhoney or any of those bands that started to do really well.

Ken: We were a lot younger though. There was a lot of 'hang' that we couldn't partake in, you know. And a lot of what made that Sub Pop thing work was all those people went to school together and they'd hang out together from when they were kids. It would be like if there was a whole town of people like Jon and I that knew each other.

Jon: Plus we were trying to promote Failure which to me is almost like a glorified demo tape really.

Ethan: That's part of its charm though.

Jon: It is part of its charm, and I'm really proud of it — the fact that two kids made it in 85 hours in their parent's basement. We had to do it that way because we couldn't find anyone else to do it with us.

Ethan: It took Math and Physics Club like 85 hours to make our first EP and we wish it was as good as Failure!

The Posies and Math and Physics Club. Photo by Christopher Nelson.Ken: We were pretty unique because in the eighties there was a lot of stuff that was just so full of shit going on. It was a decade of full of embarrassment and horrible atrocities against music. One of the greatest achievements of the Sub Pop grunge revolution was its ability to point out some of the most poserific stuff going on as laughable. Also in 1987 when we were trying to find people to play with, we weren't trying to be part of a certain scene like Goth or Metal or anything. People didn't know what to make of us. They didn't know you could just base something on the music.

James: You just wanted to be a couple of guys writing catchy pop songs.

Ken: Yeah, that just wasn't enough for a lot of people.

Ethan: But that changed for you pretty quickly. It seems like each album was a fairly large musical step away from the previous album. You can really hear the growth in your recently released box set.

Ken: Yeah, it would have been interesting if we didn't make a record for the first two years. I mean, in 1988 when we made Failure we hadn't even heard of Big Star or things like that. It probably would have made a big difference if people hadn't of had that image of us initially.

Jon: I guess that's what is weird for me, that aspect of sort of semi-growing up in public and not getting a chance to woodshed before getting it out there for people. I'm glad it worked out, but it's like having your high school year book photo out there for people to look at. For the rest of your life people are going to look back and judge you on that. Most people can get away with that being shoved in a drawer somewhere. Ours is out there, for better or for worse, for everyone to see.

James: We're so happy to have had that record to grow up with.

Jon: That's really cool. I guess being one of the guys that did it it's hard to have that perspective. Where the Posies get really good for me was Frosting on the Beater. That was easily one of my faves. I think a lot of it has to do with the experience of going through it. Dear 23 is a cool record, but I think we were trying so hard to make our first major label record. We were justifiably excited by all the attention and getting to make a record in a studio with a producer we had always wanted to work with.

James: Alright, last question. You've had the opportunity to play with tons of great bands from Big Star to Cheap Trick and you've worked with a lot of musicians you admire and have influenced you over the years. Is there anyone you haven't had a chance to meet or work with who would it be?

Ethan: Shatner?

Jon: Done!

Ken: I had an interviewer ask me that question recently and the answer was obvious once I though about it: Barry Gibb. If I could write a song with that guy it would be bad ass.

James: So for you in that particular instance is it the songwriting?

Ken: Yeah, I think he's someone who can apply themselves to a lot different situations and there is something real about . it. They went into this disco era, but those songs are all believable. I'm sure they were into soul music, who isn't really, but actually managed to be convincingly funky for white guys from the Isle of Man.

Ethan: They're styled as a disco band but you can tell there a good song under there.

Ken: And their chord progressions are wicked.

Math and Physics Club. Photo by Christopher Nelson.Ethan: What about you, Jon?

Jon: I was going to say Roy Wood.

Ethan: From The Move.

Jon: Yeah, another guy that's always fascinated me is Gerry Rafferty but I don't know why.

Ethan: The Beaver Brown guy?

Jon: No, not John Cafferty.

Ken: You don't get many set ups like that!

Jon: Ok, I'm going to stick with Roy Wood.

Thanks to Jon and Ken for taking a moment from their demanding rock star calendars to chat with two overly enthusiastic fans from Math and Physics Club. The Posies new album "Every Kind of Light" is now on release from Rykodisc along with a full raft of European shows scheduled this summer. Welcome back, Posies!