After a year of loss (drummer Darius Minwalla and former bassist Joe Skyward both passed away) and of new beginnings (the release of their first record in six years, SOLID STATES), the Posies – Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, with drummer Frankie Siragusa – hit the road with a string of secret, “Pop-Up” shows. Playing in unconventional locations and venues, the newly revitalized band has hit upon one of the more intriguing ways to get their music out to the most die-hard Posies fans. I had the opportunity to speak with Jon Auer before a recent show in Minneapolis, which found him traveling and taking a ferry to his appointed destination.
THE MULE: So, you’ve been doing this since you were… what, seventeen? The Posies, solo work, REM, Big Star…
JON AUER: Well, yes…there’s solo work and I’ve been in Big Star. Ken’s done REM and also Big Star… we’ve both done many other things and worked in many different situations with different people… for instance, I’ve also worked on a record with William Shatner and Ben Folds (2004’s HAS BEEN).
THE MULE: Well, there you go. That’s even more important; that’s really impressive!
JON: Right, haha! But, anyway… you were saying?
THE MULE: How do you keep things fresh? How do you maintain that initial excitement? You know… what you felt at the beginning?
JON: I think it’s by trying to not repeat ourselves. That’s had a huge impact on the amount of enjoyment that I or we get out of what we do. I mean, I think it’s the same in life; if you’re sorta coasting and doing what you’ve always done perhaps it’s nice for awhile but eventually it can become stale. I mean, it may be comfortable in a way but… is it exciting? That’s the question. And, I think we’ve been very good about making the effort to not just take an easy route when we make a record or try something new. I think that if you examine every one of our records there are common threads for sure but they are all very different, each their own distinct thing… like little aural time capsules of where we were at the point in time we made them. I don’t know, man… I mean, there are bands that just try to do one thing and they do it – like Orville Redenbacher, you know? “Do one thing and do it better than anybody else” haha! – That works for certain groups… AC/DC springs to mind; I mean, I don’t really think I’ll be expecting a new AC/DC record to surprise me. If they do, that would be kinda cool but, by the same token – no offense to AC/DC – will I really need a new AC/DC record if it doesn’t? I mean… I could be wrong but I’d wager it’s probably just gonna sound like what you would expect. The Posies aren’t like that. We fall into the camp of musicians and artists who ask “What’s the point of repeating yourself?” But, the funny thing is, though we often make concerted efforts to sound massively different and then, you know…. we are who we are anyways. It may be different from what we’ve done before, often very much so, but it still sounds like “us.” It doesn’t ever sound like a completely different band because it still has the vocals and the harmonies and the way that we write songs, it’s just… It’s more like buying a new outfit ’cause you wanna try a new look or feel or maybe like trying some kind of new food that you’ve never had before because you don’t want to keep the same items on the menu all the time. It’s that kind of vibe. That’s what keeps it fresh: The new ideas and approaches.
And, adding to that, this whole method of touring that we’re utilizing now is another way in which we’ve been able to re-invigorate the process because it’s not being done in way that we’ve experienced ourselves before. It’s a new format, a new line-up… we’re going out as a three-piece, playing unlikely spaces, unusual venues. We’ve turned it into a way of doing things where it’s just… the band. We are the crew, we are the roadies, we are the ones who sell the merchandise… we’re the drivers. We do it all.
THE MULE: So, it’s almost back to the beginning again.
JON: In a way, yes. We’re finding… you’d think it would be kind of like, “Oh jeez, what have we taken on? It’s too much!” But, the opposite has occurred where I feel like, “Wow, I’ve got a real sense of purpose here” because there’s always something to do and nobody’s doing it for us. You either succeed or fail by your own hand, whatever you have to accomplish on any given day. It’s really kinda up to you; there’s no one else to shoulder anything on. All the activity morphs into having a lot of satisfaction with what gets accomplished, which is a ton.
THE MULE: Right. Uh… how did this idea of the pop-up show come about and how does that exactly work?
JON: Well, as far as this recent touring we’re doing, Ken toured in a very similar manner with an artist named Holly last year and he thought it would work really well with us… and he was right, big time. Due to scheduling, we missed a window in 2016 to do a regular club tour and this is what we did instead and it was a real eye opener, a pleasant surprise. That said, I’ve got to go back a little farther even. I realize that playing living rooms or atypical spaces isn’t a new concept. I mean, other people have been and are doing it and I admit that even as a solo artist, I’ve done… I had a nice little… what would you call it? Not a tour per se, but I had a nice little thing going where I would do certain house concerts every year at the same places since the mid-2000s. I had a nice group of regulars, really cool people, that would have me to visit and perform and they were always super great places and people there were just people there to listen. The audiences were a nice cozy size and merch sales were always good. Often there would be excellent bottles of wine around, you know… nice meals and you were well taken care of and had a great time hanging out around the show as well. There’s a lot to be said for that way of doing it; you take that and compare that to the model of maybe playing a dingy rock club in some city and then staying in, say, a Motel 6, if you wanna be cost effective, and it’s not quite the same equation, is it? Haha! Don’t get me wrong… there are many cool, classic clubs in America but then there’s often the issue that not everybody in the club is there to see you. Like, maybe there’s someone that comes because they’re a friend of the bartender or they just come to casually check you out for a few songs or they just come because they got on the list for free and wanna drink beers and talk in the back and they aren’t listening to you anyway.
That’s why this whole pop-up thing, playing in these unique venues, is so… works so well, because you really don’t get anybody there that’s just a casual audience member; they’re all usually, generally, fans that have many of your records. Or, they’re bringing people with them who’ve never heard really us but are very curious, like they’re friends are trying to indoctrinate them into the ‘ways’ of the Posies, pass it on to them. People are very respectful and they’re there because they want to listen and have a fun hang. Not only that, they’re also willing to hear us play new stuff, you know? It’s not just someone showing up to hear the hit. You know what I mean? Like they want to hear the one song and then they’re gonna leave? That never happens. We actually play our entire new record in our set… we mix it in with other stuff, of course, but, we play all twelve songs most nights. Nobody seems to mind and I think we did a very good job of designing our set list so there’s just enough familiar stuff and new stuff mixed together in the right combination at the right times so that nobody gets bored or too anxious…us included. It’s worked out incredibly well. I mean, when you experience something like this and everybody has such a good time, you kind of wonder, “What’s the point of doing it the other way?” And, also, in terms of the whole pop-up concept, it really does add mystery to the whole event as well and I mean, hey…who doesn’t like a little mystery in life? That also keeps things interesting, keeps things humming. It makes everyone more curious and filled with more anticipation and then there’s also the surprise and payoff of showing up and finding out, “Oh, this is where the show is tonight!” Okay… I’m in a back yard in Phoenix. Or, I’m at some recording studio I’ve always wanted to go to that I didn’t know they did shows there. Or, my God, look at this amazing house and how good it would sound in here.” Anyway, it’s surprising how well it’s worked… and that’s why we’re doing it again: Because it was so good.
THE MULE: Very cool. So, you’ve kinda half way answered one of my… well, actually a couple of other questions. The first, about how the tour is going; obviously, it’s going swimmingly well. And, the other thing is, obviously, I’m talking to you not only because of SOLID STATES, but also because you are playing in kinda my back yard, next Wednesday, in Saint Louis. So, I was going to ask you what we could expect at the Saint Louis show.
JON: Well, you know… uh, it’s cool because I don’t think we’ve done a Posies show in Saint Louis since… I want to say… 2005 maybe? Is that even possible? Hmm… Maybe it was even longer ago than that, maybe Ken and I played as a duo last time around, in 2000 or so… it’s been a while, you know? The last time I was actually in Saint Louis for anything, I think, was to play with Big Star, at a small outdoor festival with Son Volt, I believe. I forget where it was…I want to say it was downtown by some impressive looking architecture, some State buildings or structures like that. This time around I think you can expect us to be psyched to be playing a place we haven’t really done enough playing in. And you can also expect something visceral … there’s a lot of energy in our show; I mean, the record’s very… it has a lot of energy in it but, it’s also rather lush and pretty and moody and the live show kicks all of it up a couple of notches at least, because it’s just… well, it’s louder for one thing! Word to the wise: Bring earplugs! I’d tell everybody to do that. It’s not a quiet show and a lot of these shows are in smaller and/or unusual spaces where the acoustics are more explosive sounding… So, it’s always good to have some protection for your ears. Seriously, folks. You can really expect some… We don’t phone it in, you know, just because we’ve been doing what we do for quite a while now. I mean, we really try to give it our all every night, no matter how far we have traveled to get there or if our bodies are aching or whatnot. I mean, there’s no point coming to do it if we’re not having… we just want people to have a great time and enjoy it ourselves.
THE MULE: Okay… this may be kind of a hard question for you to answer. But… uh, I’m gonna ask it anyway. How did the deaths of Darius and, later, Joe effect the recording process and plans for the tours you’ve been doing since?
JON: Well… Darius was… Oh, jeez… I mean, it’s the kind of thing you really can’t do justice to in an interview, honestly, you know. Explaining just how much of an impact not having Darius and then Joe around anymore had… just how much of an impact that’s had on my life, on our lives…well, I mean, in the case of Darius, you’re talking about someone who played in my solo band three years before he joined the Posies and then he was with the Posies fourteen years afterwards. He was pretty much my best male friend and I was devastated when he died. And, he died right near the beginning of… I’d say a third to maybe almost halfway through making SOLID STATES? So, the question for me then became, “What do I even want to make a record for anymore?” I was super distraught and confused by the loss and I was constantly trying to make sense out of losing him when ultimately there was no sense to be found in any of it. Eventually, what ended up happening was it worked its way into some of the remaining songs I hadn’t written yet and… how could it not, y’know? It’s funny, because I always think it’s kind of obvious but, many people, they need more direct clues or a clearer road map to figure it out because they often misconstrue a song’s meaning… and fair enough, people interpret songs the way they want to interpret them unless they’re clearly spelled out, sure. And, I bring in some… we often use unusual imagery and metaphors so, actually, it’s not always so straight forward. For instance, there’s a song “Unlikely Places,” I’ve seen many reviews of it now, and unless people knew what it was about, some seem to consider it… they think it’s about a boy and a girl relationship, a romantic relationship and it’s so far from that. It’s really about me dealing with the loss of Darius, what it did to me and where I was trying to go or get to to figure out how to deal with the loss. People can help you and you can get advice… you can do therapy and you can do whatever but, no one can really totally… It’s such a personal thing. No one can get you through it, to a place where you can live with it, but yourself in the end. I don’t know what you’ve experienced as far as loss… parental or… but, it was a total ‘before and after’ moment for me in life, losing Darius, and…well… that’s just the way it is. We did eventually soldier on and got back to the music but it was painful. There’s another song, “Rollercoaster Zen,” that is for Darius. If you really look at the lyrics to that, you can see that I’m talking about him… almost to him. The dreams I’ve had… I had… oh, God, I had some incredibly vivid dreams about him, like he was still here. I don’t know. I don’t wanna keep going on too much about it because it’s too hard to explain, totally. But, you get the vibe, right?
THE MULE: Yeah. I actually just lost my mother a few weeks ago and… I was actually her caregiver for the last ten years and… it’s rough, man.
JON: So you’ve been… You know – in an even more primal way, since it’s your mother – probably the stuff I’m talking about. It just is what it is but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. You’ve just got to learn live with it eventually, you know? And it takes time. And it can bubble up at the weirdest times in the weirdest places, the grief, yes?
THE MULE: Right and, like you were saying, everybody is trying to help… there are the platitudes, “It’ll get better” and I know all that stuff but, there are times where it’s just like, “Leave me alone. Let me deal.”
JON: Yeah, and you know what?… It’s so true… at times, often there’s nothing worse than a platitude because… you know people mean well but, it really doesn’t do justice to the loss. It’s nobody’s fault, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t really help so… it would almost be better if people would… So, yeah, I feel for you, man. There’s been a couple for me recently… As mentioned, Darius… and right before we went our first tour this year in Europe, Joe passing as well…In his case, Joe had been dealing with his cancer for awhile so we knew that he was in trouble and trying to work through it but when he finally passed it happened so fast that it was shocking too. I mean, one day I just woke up to a Facebook message from our old drummer, Brian Young, who was in the band when Joe was in the band, and… it was just pretty much, “Joe passed.” and I was just…I felt like… it was hard to believe. So then it became not only one friend lost in the last couple of years, but two. It’s still hard to believe, to wrap my head around it all, that they are no longer with us. I don’t know how old you are; I’ll be forty-seven this year.
THE MULE: Yeah… I got you beat by a few years.
JON: Okay. Still, my brother and I were just talking about this… he mentioned that really we’re just getting to the point in our lives, the ‘season’ you could say, where that’s gonna be part of our lives from now on. Like, simply, the older you get, more loss can occur… Okay… we’re getting pretty philosophical here now but… it seems true enough.. The record ended up being a way to help me deal with some of that and it kinda does a little bit and helps me celebrate lost friends… but, I don’t think anyone likes that kind change, losing people close to you, learning about loss the hard way. It hurts. My God! But, ultimately…what else can you do? We’ve gotta get back to life and live as best we can.
THE MULE: Exactly. Well, let’s get back to some more, uh… rock and rolley kind of things. Actually, last question and I will let you get back to life. Beyond SOLID STATES and this tour, what is next for you, personally, and the band?
JON: I have some other projects that I’d like to promote more, spend more quality time with. There’s a duo project with Tiz Aramini called Dynamo Royale that I’m working on a proper release for. The record’s called STRAIGHT ON THE DIAGONAL and there will be more time to spread that around. You can find it and us on Bandcamp as well. It’s quite different from the Posies, perhaps more layered even, but it still has that kind of… it’s got my melodic sense woven in there with hers as well. It’s a very unique collaboration. I’d also like to make another solo record. It’s been… Jeez, the last one I put out, SONGS FROM THE YEAR OF OUR DEMISES was in 2006 so, like… I’m way overdue! And, there’s also a group I’m part of called Unseen Beings with Stephen Becker from Le Concorde and Brian Young, who played with Fountains of Wayne and now plays with The Jesus and Marychain, we have a record called AKA INFINITY due to be released next year. Then, hopefully, along with all that, we’re going to continue to realize some Posies reissues that we’ve been talking about. One of them has been out for a while – our first record, FAILURE – on this great label called Omnivore Recordings. They do excellent reissues with deluxe packaging and a lot of care, the works…we feel they like do things right, let’s put it that way. They’ve been asking to do our three major label records too: DEAR 23, FROSTING ON THE BEATER, and AMAZING DISGRACE. That’s been in talks for a while and I think 2017 might be the year for it, when they actually do come out or at least they start to come out.
And then, beyond that…I had so much fun doing this last round of touring, it was so reinvigorating and life affirming after everything we went through so, I think we’d… You never can predict what’s going to happen exactly but…I think we’d really like to try to make another Posies record and sooner than later, you know? Not wait another six years… Try to get one out in the no so distant future because… hey, we’re not getting any younger and we’re having so much fun. I think we all thought this, you know, that this is working, what we’re doing now feels good… we’re playing great, we’re enjoying it, we are a good working unit … and I don’t think we expect to enjoy it as much as we did. I certainly didn’t. To me, it feels like we thought, well, let’s see if we can do this even, after what we went through with losing our bandmates and… we pulled through and it feels… It feels really good. So, uh… I’d like some more of that feeling, please.
Jon and the Posies are playing a pop-up show in Saint Louis, on Wednesday, September 28. For ticket prices and location, visit the band’s website. Other upcoming tour dates and more news about the Posies are available there, as well.