In the pantheon of pop/rock music there are only a handful of iconic duos – those whose voices mesh together seamlessly, whose songwriting and approach perfectly complement each other, who sang as if some kind of magic wand tapped them on the vocal cords at birth and made it so.
There is Lennon & McCartney, Simon & Garfunkel, Phil and Don Everly, and I submit, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies.
As they say, “don’t @ me”.
Their voices together are a seasoned instrument, intertwined by 3+ decades of music making. “Our bodies weren’t even finished when we started making music – our whole physiological mechanism for singing grew up together – and that’s not going to happen twice in a lifetime,” Ken Stringfellow told me during our one-hour conversation over dinner at Eldorado Grill in Madison before their show at The High Noon Saloon.
Speaking of dinner, as we sit down, Ken gives me a quick, off-the-cuff ranking:
I agree, tacos are really important. Like, essential. And I get it. Food before rock. Makes sense. Food gives you energy, and by all accounts from what I witnessed only a couple of hours later at The High Noon Saloon during their hour and a half set, energy was in abundance. Tacos, passion, power chords.
Jon and Ken are mid-tour, celebrating the re-release of their three albums on Omnivore Recordings; originally issued on Geffen Records; Dear 23, Frosting on the Beater, and Amazing Disgrace. I found them to be introspective, ready to wax poetic about their journey. “There’s a mythology around bands that it’s like a brotherhood or sisterhood,” Ken said, “that you’re kind of like two or four against the world and then there’s the VH-1 stories that it all falls apart. It’s not totally untrue.”
Their ride, as the cliché goes, has been a bumpy one; it wasn’t lost on me that underneath the gorgeous harmonies and instantly hummable melodies was a documentary worthy series of twists and turns over a musical partnership spanning over 3 decades. “You start out fresh,” Jon said, “and you have a common goal and then stuff happens along the way –things occur that you are not prepared to deal with.”
That “Stuff” Jon is pointing to has a lot to do with he and Ken’s relationship. “There’s very little boy/girl stuff in The Posies,” Jon told me, signaling that most of the “relationship” songs are actually about their own. And the songs highlight turmoil the way Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors did in the 70s– with their album Amazing Disgrace as ground zero. Songs like “Hate Song,” “Please Return It” (in which Ken sings “Like the year I spent comparing me to you, please return it”), Everyone Is A Fucking Liar” and “Song #1” where Ken, thinking the end is near, sings “I'll never have a friend quite as lovely again.”
Don’t let the flowery band name fool you. This is heavy, emotional stuff, and shows just how personal The Posies music is. It sparks a conversation about the label “power pop” that has been bestowed upon their music. It’s always kind of bothered me. I prefer the term “Esoteric pop.”
Ken admits that power pop really doesn’t capture who they are. “For me power pop has this implication that has nothing to do with music – it’s white guys who live in a fantasy world where they don’t want real life problems to invade and they can stay in their Beatles-lined man cave – in reality 90% of what we do does not qualify.”
The Posies songs may be simple. But they are anything but simplistic. Jon told me about the message they got from Geffen after delivering their Frosting on the Beater album. The label politely asked “Are you sure it’s done?” It was the label’s way of saying can you write a couple of, um, hits?
I thought this may be a bone of contention – but Ken and Jon see it in retrospect as a blessing. Jon told me, “Dream All Day and Flavor of the Month did not exist before someone says keep writing.”
Flavor of the Month is the perfect Posies song, no fluff, tight, compact, catchy. The drum fills are iconic. But here’s the thing about that song -- as Jon explains, “It took a swipe at the concept of trying to write a hit song and the zeitgeist – it pokes fun at the very thing that it was trying to be.” The chorus flies right into the crosshairs of pop culture:
Flavor of the month is busy melting in your month
getting easier to swallow and harder to spit out
Again – it’s simple. But not simplistic.
We closed out our dinner, and about two hours later at their show at The High Noon Saloon in Madison, a little magic happens; toward the end of their set, the drummer, Mike Musburger and bassist Dave Fox (original members of the band during the Frosting on the Beater sessions) leave the stage to make way for Ken and John to do a duet.
They ask the crowd, (small but incredibly enthusiastic -- hey, it’s a Sunday night in Madison) to get close to the stage and Jon and Ken step down to the floor, crowd level with their guitars. Microphone free, they launch into an absolutely gorgeous version of “You Avoid Parties” from Dear 23. It’s a “time stands still” moment; the song is melancholy; its central character, damaged, alone. It speaks to the tendency that we may want to avoid life when life hits you hard.
I’m sure Ken and Jon had these times, and thankfully decided that they couldn’t shut themselves out from each other, regardless of how difficult the journey got. It reminded me of something they told me about the early days, when they first began playing together:
“It was clear that we had a vision that was not superficial that we had real dreams and real goals and real ideas about what we wanted to be. And we didn’t give two fucks about any kind of fantasy that could come from being famous. We did see something majestic and magical and intellectually complete and challenging about music, and wanted to be part of that conversation.”
As the Ken Stringfellow song goes, "Here's to the future, my friends."