KEN STRINGFELLOW OF THE POSIES, INTERVIEWED (2001): Back after calling it quits

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KEN STRINGFELLOW OF THE POSIES, INTERVIEWED (2001): Back after calling it quits
There's an irony here. In September 98 Seattle-based Posies, one of the hardest working dark-hearted power-pop bands, called it quits. Through the 90s - from their debut album Failure to their last album Success - they'd raised the banner of catchy rock'n'roll based around cheerful Beatles/Big Star chord changes and introverted lyrics.

The sole constants in the band - guitarists and singer-songwriters Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer - were acclaimed by their peers such as REM, and when the Alex Chilton cult band Big Star reformed it was Auer and Stringfellow who were called in to replace the dead or departed members.

Of course, they sold fewer records than they should so, out of road weariness and tired of line-up changes, Stringfellow and Auer - who have played together since school bands - called it a day.

Since then, however, the Posies have had a higher profile than ever. There's been the four-CD box set At Least At Last, a "best of" compilation, two live albums, and, since February, Auer and Stringfellow have been taking an acclaimed acoustic tour on the road. This arrives in Auckland on Tuesday.

Better known since you called it quits. Ironic or what Ken Stringfellow?

"Not ironic," the good natured Stringfellow says from a hotel room in Tokyo, "but illustrative of the fact that when you relax and stop trying there's somehow more energy. We were a hard-working young band, and I felt we had some kind of ambition. But it seemed a struggle to get our point across. Once we split we weren't struggling, and things happened of their own volition."

Certainly plenty has been happening for Stringfellow. He's been seconded into REM, he and Auer still play as part of the occasionally resurrected Big Star with original members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens ("it was supposed to be a one-off, I think it's about a 30-off by now"), he briefly had his own band, and has recorded an as-yet unreleased solo album.

Then in February he and Auer were invited to do an acoustic show and one thing lead to another ...

But as former power-poppers there must be times when they want to crank up the volume?

"Not really. Most of the stuff was written on acoustic guitars and the way it was recorded was never that important to me because they could have been recorded a number of different ways.

"I prefer playing these songs this way because, as a rock band, it was hard to hear the harmonies and we wrote a lot of these songs in weird guitar tunings. Some of the chords are complex and you couldn't hear those either. This way allows us to rediscover those things and let people hear them in way they probably never could."

After their high-profile retirement of the Posies masthead, Stringfellow says he intended kicking back.

"But less than a month after we stopped I was playing with REM which filled up the rest of 98 and 99, plus recording this year. I had the band [Saltine] for a while. We recorded an EP and then started to make an album but in the middle of that I thought, 'Ah, I don't want to have another band' because I didn't like how the record was turning out. So I did a record by myself. Then this came up.

"I thought this year I'd relax and write. But we have shows until Christmas then there's another Big Star/Posies teaming up for some shows and we play New Orleans on New Year's Eve. In January REM is off to South America for a couple of weeks. And then there's the album I recorded and have to figure out how to play it live. I was thinking about not making a band even though the record has bass, drums and keyboards. I was thinking some kind of performance art taking shape. That may take some time to conceptualise."

And in REM, are you a fulltime member or, like Ron Wood in the Stones, a salaryman?

"There seem to be a few Ron Woods in that camp. I play it by ear. They sketch it out and might say, 'Don't do anything in this month but if you have to do something let us know.' It's pretty casual."

Stringfellow concedes while the Posies were critically acclaimed and had a ferociously loyal following, their music went by most people. For their benefit, he offers a tidy description of what he and Auer deliver acoustically.

"It would be like if the Everly Brothers had a weird Thomas Pynchon fixation and wrote really obscure songs as opposed to popular ones. I think we sing in a way that's quite sibling-like, two voices almost as one in harmony. But the subject matter is more internal and dark in a certain way.

"One of our favourite bands when we started was the Smiths and we liked the way they juxtaposed cheerful, bright and happy guitar music with melodramatic lyrics.

"We're not that extreme but it was an interesting idea to build on. Some of our songs sound upbeat but most of the lyrics are downbeat."

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