Archive for the ‘pop’ Category

A Chat With The Turtles’ Mark Volman, Part 2

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I was ten when the film came out, and even though Dirty Duck was a cartoon, I wasn’t allowed to see that one. It got an X rating…

Mark Volman: Right! “Livin’ in the Jungle” came from that, and several others. “Get Away,” “This Could Be the Day,” an unreleased version of “Goodbye Surprise,” and “(You’re Nothing But a) Good Duck.” And another song we did called “Rollin’ in the Hay.” “Youth in Asia,” “Mystic Martha,” and “The Big Showdown.” Some of those were some sort of [Bruce] Springsteen stuff that we were messing around with. Those are all unheard material that we thought maybe we could add to make a Battle of the Bands reissue even more special. It would have a little more volume to it, instead of just being a 34-minute record. So we’ll see how that comes out.

It’s fun to dig into the archives. We haven’t really unearthed our old unreleased stuff the way that other artists have, because we didn’t feel that there was really that big of an audience for it.

Bill: I’m a big fan of the Flo & Eddie albums.

Mark: All of it is available. If you go onto The Turtles‘ site, you can buy albums one and two (The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie from 1972, and 1974′s Flo & Eddie) and albums three and four (1975′s Illegal, Immoral and Fattening and Moving Targets from 1976). We packaged the two Warner Brothers albums together, and the two Columbia ones together on CD. And online you can actually download the reggae album (1981′s Rock Steady with Flo & Eddie).

Bill: That one’s very, very hard to find on vinyl…

Mark: And it would be a hard one to pull together for a CD or vinyl release, because of all the song ownerships. But it hasn’t escaped us as a potential vinyl reissue. As well as The Crossfires! We did a CD reissue [of the pre-Turtles surf group], and one of our hopes is to do a vinyl reissue. Ultimately, the plan would be to do vinyl reissues of all of those, and then put them in a box set for sale in Europe. Because the fan base over there knows our history, because our connection to Frank Zappa.

The music of Flo & Eddie never, unfortunately, broke in America the way it did in Europe and internationally.

Bill: I was at a garage sale last summer, and I stumbled across a copy of the 1982 Checkpoint Charlie EP. The one where the record plays from the inside out.

Mark: What a fun record that was! You know what’s so funny, that record – as crazy as it was to do – we did it in an afternoon. We sold Rhino on the whole idea; not just spinning it backwards, but doing it using only kids’ toys. All the recorded instruments are just toys, stuff that a kid could own at the time. It was a hidden project for years. When Rhino finally put it out, it became kind of an underground thing. And listening to it today, we were really way ahead of what the curve was at that time, in terms of the whole electronic thing; it hadn’t really happened yet. We just did it as a one-time thing and then moved on to something else.

Same with the reggae album: we were just messing around with that, and then we found somebody to finance us going down there [to Jamaica]. Because we didn’t want ot do it with a bunch of musicians from California!

Bill: Howard has been quite bust the last several years, what with the My Dinner with Jimi film and his book with Jeff Tamarkin. Besides touring with Flo and Eddie and the Turtles, and teaching at Belmont University, what do you have going on these days?

Mark: I’m a full time professor. So I don’t really have a lot of extra time. This new box set has been about a twenty-four month consideration. Right now our Happy Together tours fill up summertime, so we really don’t have to do a whole lot of extra touring. This last year we did a show up in Bearsville NY, at the Performing Arts Center, with Dweezil Zappa. So we’re talking about maybe playing the music if his dad, and taking that overseas. So there’s all that, and we’re pushing these vinyl reissues now – we did the Happy Together and It Ain’t Me, Babe albums on vinyl just last year. And besides Battle of the Bands, we’re also looking at reissuing Turtle Soup on vinyl. And otherwise we’ll kind of lay low.

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A Chat with The Turtles’ Mark Volman, Part 1

Monday, October 6th, 2014

The TurtlesMark Volman and Howard Kaylan, aka Flo & Eddie – have worked tirelessly to regain the rights and control over their catalog; the latest fruit of their labor is a new 7-record box set containing 45rpm records. I spoke to Mark about that set, their larger plans of a vinyl reissue program, and a few of their lesser-known works. – bk

Bill Kopp: There’s something special about having Turtles music on vinyl. Just last year, FloEdCo reissued the Happy Together and It Ain’t Me, Babe albums on vinyl, and now there’s this set of 45s. After years of not having control over reissues, and seeing haphazard collections of your music coming out, how does it feel to be able to, shall we say, set things right?

Mark Volman: Well, of course that’s always been on our minds. There were so many outside deals that had been negotiated. We needed to clean up everything, and it took a long time. I would guess that some of the deals had to be attacked a lot more than others; some just had to kind of run out. But ultimately, to do things right, we wanted to get everything in-house. And that took a whole lot of years.

But vinyl has always been something that we loved, because we collect; both Howard and I are fans of vinyl. I’ve collected 45s and albums since the sixties. So having the ability to pull this stuff together for vinyl collectors has been really fun. We did the Greatest Hits; the 45s that we’re putting out are another version of that, but we wanted to do something in kind of a fun way. So we created a reproduction of the original way these came out: we used the colors of the label…

Bill: The deep blue labels are very reminiscent of the White Whale labels on the 60s records…

Mark: Yeah. And we wanted to include the “Turtles on 45” spindle in case people needed it. Everything about it was nearly done, and we got to the point where it’s going to be made available internationally. We’re really excited about it, though I don’t expect it to sell more than three, four, maybe five thousand copies.

For the last two years, we took a prototype of this package out on tour with us, and sold them. And those limited edition ones were in a little different package, and they were sold on our Happy Together tours. This upcoming summer, the fifty cities that we’ll hit, we’ll take out this new version. There’s a diehard fan base that stays with us through the years, and they just love it when we put together this kind of thing.

Bill: The one thing – and this isn’t a criticism, it’s a question – is that you didn’t include a set of liner notes, a booklet or anything. I wonder if that was a missed opportunity.

Mark: I think that The Turtles history is pretty intact online. If someone wanted to go online, they could read all about it. And every greatest-hits album that we’ve put out has had a little blurb or something. What we really did here was just focus on the records coming out. We weren’t really trying to reach a new audience as much as we were providing a new version for the older audience.

We didn’t want to do a booklet; we had our choice: we could have done six 45s and a booklet, or eight 45s. We felt it was more important to put the songs in there. And so rather than treat it like it was history, we presented it like it was new.

Bill: Are there any plans to reissue other Turtles music on vinyl? Maybe my favorite of The Turtles’ albums, The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands?

Mark: Yes. In fact Howard and I entered into discussions about a couple of things. Battle of the Bands, definitely. But if we do that, we want to do it with all the visuals, and do a little bit more of a presentation. There’s also a second Battle of the Bands record that Howard and I have assembled, which includes a lot of music that was never released. That includes some of the things that Howard and I did for movies. We wrote original songs for some movies back in the 70s. And we called it Battle of the Bands just so we had a way to refer to it. So what we’re considering is repackaging Battle of the Bands on vinyl, but with a second record. There’s stuff from the motion picture The Dirty Duck

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Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 5

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

I’m on my honeymoon this week, so I thought it would be a good time to offer up some backlog-clearing entries in my occasional series of Hundred Word Reviews. And though the musical styles are all over the map, there’s a theme of sorts this time: each of the acts reviewed has been covered previously, either via review or feature/interview.

The series wraps up – for now – with looks at new music from American artists.


Steve Wynn – Sketches in Spain
This Omnivore Recordings collection isn’t exactly a reissue: the albums from which the 19 tracks are drawn (Smack Dab and Australian Blonde) were released only in Spain. Sounding like a cross between Television and Gang of Four, Smack Dab prominently features Linda Pitmon‘s thundering bass. The even-earlier (but released later) Australian Blonde material is surprisingly poppy, shimmering ear candy that may come as a shock to those familiar with Wynn’s other work. Some unexpected and thematically linked covers (Three Dog Night‘s “Never Been to Spain,” Los Bravos‘ “Black is Black”) showcase Wynn’s latent skill at interpreting the work of others.


Alarm Clock Conspiracy – Harlequin
Back in early 2012 I championed their first album, but on Harlequin, this Asheville NC-based quartet has seriously raised the bar. Thanks in large part to the songwriting prowess of two very different composers (guitarists Chris Carter and Ian Reardon) the album is a near-perfect balance of powerpop, Southern rock and progressive-leaning rock. Reardon’s title track hints at what “modern country” could sound like if the genre didn’t, y’know, suck. The soaring yet understated harmonies on Carter’s “Thinking Of” are delightful. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this album picked up by a larger label and reissued. Buy this disc.


The Squires of the Subterrain – s/t
As on the last outing from this “group” (Christopher Earl and occasional guests), this disc – either self-titled or called Stereo – feels like a lo-fi update of The Beach Boys, SMiLE era. That said, its most modern corollary might be Olivia Tremor Control; Earl and those Elephant 6 guys share a common aesthetic vision. Ba-ba-ba vocalisms rest comfortably aside jangly guitars and intentionally gauzy production. With its chirpy horn section and chiming backing, “History” weds Sgt. Pepper stylings to Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. With his deft way around a melody, Earl could be labeled America’s Martin Newell.

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Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 2

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

I’m on my honeymoon this week, so I thought it would be a good time to offer up some backlog-clearing entries in my occasional series of Hundred Word Reviews. And though the musical styles are all over the map, there’s a theme of sorts this time: each of the acts reviewed has been covered previously, either via review or feature/interview.

Today’s three feature new music from British and/or part-Australian acts.


The Britannicas – High Tea
It’s thanks to the wonders of modern technology that an act such as the Britannicas could even exist: the members are scattered across the globe (USA, Sweden, Australia). But the infectious, highly melodic result of their internet-based collaboration belies that fact. Creamy vocal harmonies, beefy bass lines and chiming electric guitars are the order of the day. The music is richly textured, not unlike a slightly more jangly (and occasionally, slightly less rocking) Smithereens. For people who believe that the best kind of music came out of A Hard Days’ Night, The Britannicas’ High Tea will be manna from heaven.


The Penguin Party – Mesherlek
Don’t let the endlessly inventive packaging distract you from the fact that Mesherlek is simply wonderful. Equal parts snotty and uncompromising pub rocker (think: Graham Parker, early Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe) and wry commenter on lives writ small (think: Fountains of Wayne or Ray Davies), Dave Milligan has a seemingly bottomless well of wry/hilarious story songs wedded to killer riffage. Topping Sex Furniture Warehouse would seem an unachievable feat; with this album, Milligan and his mates have pulled it off. From the jaunty ska of “Do You Know Who I Am? to “Token Tree Hugging Ecological Song,” it’s essential.


Cleaners from Venus – Return to Bohemia
Martin Newell‘s witty observations are always wrapped in lovely melodies. His latest one-man effort is no exception. “Cling to Me” sounds like the demo of a hit tune (and is a bit reminiscent of Robyn Hitchcock‘s “Element of Light”), and the rest of the album is just as swell. Newell won’t likely win scores of new converts with this low-key affair, but those who’ve been hipped to the wonderment of his work will surely find plenty to treasure here. He has a huge catalog, but Return to Bohemia is as good a place as any for the initiated to start.

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Honeymoon Hundred-word Reviews, Part 1

Monday, September 29th, 2014

I’m on my honeymoon this week, so I thought it would be a good time to offer up some backlog-clearing entries in my occasional series of Hundred Word Reviews. And though the musical styles are all over the map, there’s a theme of sorts this time: each of the acts reviewed has been covered previously, either via review or feature/interview.

Today’s three are all new reissues of previously-released albums.


Rick Wakeman – White Rock
Another in the keyboard virtuoso’s steady stream of 70s album releases, this is Wakeman’s official soundtrack for the 1976 Winter Olympics. This one is all instrumental, featuring only Wakeman and a bit of percussion on some tracks. No mucking about with singing or guitars, and precious little choir either. With the exception of the somewhat pedestrian “blues” of the title track, it’s lovely, varied, evocative music that shows the once and future Yes keyboardist’s skills as composer, arranger and musician. Those digging this may also enjoy Real Gone Music‘s reissue of Wakeman’s 1977 Criminal Record (I wrote the liner notes).


Cass Elliot – Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore
To me, the music of The Mama’s and the Papa’s always leaned in a wide-appeal direction, the kind of thing you parents wouldn’t hate. And that’s not a bad thing. On this, Cass’ final release, she lays bare her ambition to be an all-around entertainer. Backed by a crack band including Joe Osborn and Jim Gordon, she’s the singing star of a very successful show, working her way through a nice mix of showbizzy tunes on this soundtrack from her 1973 CBS-TV special. Her delightful reading of Paul McCartney’s “My Love” is a highlight. Bonus tracks make it even better.


John Wetton and Richard Palmer-James – Jack Knife/Monkey Business
This interesting gap-filling release is a 2CD set documents the work that bassist/vocalist John Wetton did through the 1970s with musical partner (and sometime King Crimson lyricist) Richard Palmer-James. Though dated in places, it holds up well. Some of the playing is quite fiery; Palmer-James is an unexpectedly good guitarist. Some tracks are mere snippets (“Starless 1,” “Starless 2”) and as such aren’t nearly as interesting as their titles might suggest, and a couple of late 90s tracks are merely okay, but the package overall is recommended to progressive rock fans who don’t mind the more commercial side of things.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Five

Friday, September 19th, 2014

Continued from Part Four…

Bill Kopp: For a lot of people, myself included, Dear 23 and/or Frosting on the Beater are cited as the best Posies work. With Amazing Disgrace, you went in a much harder rocking direction. There wasn’t really anything on Failure that sort of hinted at that sort of future. Was the change a sort of natural progression for you both, or was a conscious decision: “hey, let’s rock out on this one.”

Ken Stringfellow: It’s very easy to explain. When you listen to Failure, you’re listening to a duo who had never toured, never played in a club. We had played two acoustic shows. By the time of the release Dear 23, we had been playing as a local band quite a bit, but had done very minimal touring. But then we toured and toured and toured throughout the US. And then we played empty clubs for a year, and then we toured with The Replacements, which was obviously much better. And then after that we were a touring juggernaut. Venues were packed. And it upped the ante on our live show. The energy you have playing in clubs for four people night after night, I’m sad to say, is different than playing to 500 or 800 people who are really into it. We gained confidence, and we enjoyed playing intensely. And that resulted in a more rock kind of presentation.

Jon Auer: It wasn’t a conscious move, not at all. I wish I could say The Posies were calculated, but we really weren’t. When I look back at things, I see that we just went where the music took us. Every one of our records from that era is incredibly different. Amazing Disgrace is an eclectic bunch of songs, if you really listen to it. By the time we made that record, we were a little angrier. We had gone from youthful enthusiasm to early adulthood, a time when you’re figuring out how the world works for you.

Even from the time of Dear 23, if you had seen us onstage, we were a rock band from the get-go. By Frosting on the Beater, it became more about the visceral side of things; there was still craftsmanship, but it was more about the energy.

Bill: If you’ve got a rhythm section behind you, kicking your ass, then it’s going to rock harder…

Jon: And playing in front of people makes a difference. You can be precious about things in the studio, but I’ve found that doesn’t transfer live. I want energy when I see someone play live; otherwise, what’s the point? I can stay home and listen to the record.

Bill: The last Posies album was Blood/Candy, and that was four years ago…

Jon: It’s really cyclical with The Posies, because we both have a lot of things going on otherwise. It’s a long term relationship, so it’s good for us to be able to do all these other things. We’ve got these reissues happening, but we don’t want to just be pushing the old; we want to push the new, too. So while I can’t say when, I feel like it’s going to be sooner than later. I wouldn’t be surprised if you see something new [from The Posies]  in the next year…or two.

Jon and Ken also talked with me at some length about Big Star. We reflected on their experiences as young musicians discovering the band for the first time, and then upon later years as members of the re-formed lineup. I’ll share those in a feature that will be out later this year, around the time of the release of a Memphis Big Star concert. – bk

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Four

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Continued from Part Three

Bill Kopp: There’s a track of yours on Yellow Pills Volume 2, “Saying Sorry to Myself.” To my ears it has all the hallmarks of the first album. I like the way you take a bit of the lyric of “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and stand it on its head. Does the song date from the period around the making of Failure, or is a later recording?

Ken Stringfellow: It’s funny that you bring that song up. We haven’t played it in ten, fifteen years. I just had someone write me from Japan today, asking me if I had the lyrics to that song handy. I said no; I hadn’t even thought about it in fifteen years. By the time we got around to recording “Saying Sorry to Myself,” it was with a full band. It was done, I think, at Egg Studios, an eight-track studio that was owned by the owner of PopLlama.

Jon Auer: It’s interesting that you picked that song to mention. That’s one that kind of got thrown by the wayside. If you consider that it was an eighteen year old singing it, it does have the feeling of someone a little bit older. I’m glad that you appreciate that one.

Ken: That song followed on the heels of Failure, as our songwriting transitioned from the chirpy, bright- eyed, bushy-tailed thing that Failure is. Every line in “Saying Sorry to Myself” is clever wordplay. That clever thing was very appealing to us, because we were not grown up or experienced enough to put that much emotional depth into words. But things started to happen shortly after that; we matured, and some of the darkness that we knew from our young lives started to make its way into the lyrical content. The mood of things got a little deeper even by our next album.

Just as Failure came out, and we did find a bass player (Rick Roberts) and drummer (Mike Musburger), I moved into an apartment in the house that they were sharing. And a month later Mike moved out to his own apartment, and Jon moved in. We had a central room in that house to rehearse in. I dropped out of college and took a job that wasn’t too demanding so that I could have my living expenses covered. And that summer of 1988, we really got into writing a lot of songs. A lot of those songs were in the vein of “Saying Sorry to Myself.” And in that house we wrote a lot of songs that didn’t make it onto our 1990 album Dear 23. We were more dialed into things; three of the four of us worked in record stores, so we had access to a lot of things.

And in turning this chirpy, clever kind of melodic pop songwriting into something with more depth, it was at this time that we were introduced to the music of Big Star. And that was thanks to some of the more wise fellows who worked in those record stores. And that changed our songwriting: here was great, exuberant pop music with a lot more depth and wistfulness, a whole ‘nother emotional dimension. And it was made by people who were our age: when #1 Record came out, Alex Chilton was about 20. They set our bar to a whole different level.

The subsequent intertwining of The Posies and Big Star and REM is getting into the quantum physics field. It’s so odd that I went from such a distant observer of these bands to entering their lives.

Jon: I’m the guy who had to go through the archives for all these reissues that are coming out. After Failure, eventually Dear 23, Frosting on the Beater and Amazing Disgrace are all getting this reissue treatment from Omnivore Recordings. And I think that “Saying sorry to Myself” has definitely got to be a bonus track on the Dear 23 reissue. I had forgotten we had so much stuff; these reissues are not going to be like just repackaging. We’re going to have a hard time figuring out what not to put on these things.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Three

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Continued from Part Two

Ken Stringfellow: Listening to Failure, it would be hard to tell what we were listening to. Because the album has a very sixties vibe to it, kind of like if some sixties beat group moved to California. But I can give you a breakdown that will show you where some of these songs came from. I can tell you what I think they’re direct rip-offs of, and you’ll see through the sixties-ness of them to the original source.

“Under Easy” sounds a bit like The Byrds or something like that. But it really is [based on] a Bob Mould song. There’s so many Bob Mouldisms in the chord progression and melody; it’s just that the production fools you into thinking it’s sixties-based. We were absolutely obsessed with Hüsker Dü; they were heading into a more songwriter-y vibe; they had left the punk sound behind.

Jon Auer: Two bands that we absolutely worshiped were The Replacements and Hüsker Dü.

Ken: “At Least for Now” is maybe a little closer to its source. It’s a less agonized version of a Paul Westerberg song. Imagine it as a slightly more cheerful version of “Here Comes a Regular.” We were massive Replacements fans. And what was a nice turnaround is that when this record got released as an LP and started to get national airplay, it really became a favorite of Paul Westerberg’s. He took us on tour shortly thereafter.

“I May Hate You Sometimes” seems like it’s some sort of Beatles ’65 thing, but if you listen to the wordplay and the nonstop vocals, it’s a little bit of Elvis Costello. It’s a title that has so much irony in it that it’s not clever enough to be great irony.

Jon: You can certainly hear the influence of The Beatles, but any record made past a certain time has that influence on it. If you wanted to compare “I May Hate You Sometimes” with “The Word” from Rubber Soul, we copied the cowbell, the percussion track. It’s pretty much an homage; we just ripped ‘em off.

Ken: Of course we had the sixties music influence because of our parents and their record collections – those were the first records we were encountering – but at the time, we listened to a lot of the great, clever songwriters of the UK scene: Squeeze, XTC. In fact the drum intro in “Paint Me” is directly lifted from XTC’s “Ball and Chain.”

Jon: A band that cannot be underrated as an influence upon us at the time is XTC. So while we were into the sixties scene, we were influenced by artists who had been influenced by it as well. Skylarking is one of my favorite records; so much so that on our album Frosting on the Beater, we tried to sequence the songs in the same way that they did on Skylarking. I’m giving you way too much information; you get the gist.

Ken: “The Longest Line” is [based on] a Smiths song on Meat is Murder. And you can hear REM influence on “Believe in Something Other than Yourself,” even down to the chord progressions. It’s dangerously close to the chorus of “Radio Free Europe.” And there’s a thing in “What Little Remains” with a kind of reverb-y backing vocal; that’s directly ripped off from REM’s “Pilgrimage.”

I was really into the California punk scene with Black Flag and Dead Kennedys; and Blue Note Records stuff was a big influence on me…even though there’s no bebop on this album. We were into a little bit of everything. Being small town people as we were, in the pre-internet age, music listening was based on opportunity, on what things came your way. At this time, we were still learning. We weren’t old and experienced enough to have a body of work to synthesize into new things.

I love musical quotes; now I like to weave a musical pun into every album I make. But I vary it, and most people never discover them. At that time we were less subtle.

Bill Kopp: Your vocal harmonies have long been the main signature of The Posies. When you started out – and now, even – did you have to carefully work those individual parts out, or did they evolve naturally as you worked on the songs?

Jon: The singing is probably one of the most natural things about The Posies. This is going to sound horrible, but Ken and I were in the choir at our school. So even though we weren’t singing together in a band per se, we were learning about things like harmonies and counterpoint. To even further the geek ante here, we had extracurricular activities together that involved singing: we were in a thing called jazz choir. And to make us sound even geekier, we did that in the mornings before our first class. We didn’t wait until after school; no, we got up an hour earlier to go to this thing.

Bill: So I suppose whether it was conscious or not, there was a fair amount of musical theory underpinning your vocal arrangements on Failure

Jon: Well, again, I’m going to give credit to that early choir training. It certainly didn’t hurt.

Ken: The harmony vocal parts came very quickly, very easily. The chord progressions lend themselves very easily to being made with harmonies. That was always there with us; they were not labored over. There’s a lower second harmony in the verse of “Under Easy.” That just happened on the spot.

Jon: If people ask me what makes The Posies unique, I’d say its the harmonies. We did all of the vocals for the album in one weekend. Lead, harmony and backing vocals – all of them for that record – were done in a two-day period. All twelve songs.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part Two

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Continued from Part One

Bill Kopp: I thought it was a nice bit of contextualization to include Veronika Kalmar‘s snarky and negative review in the liner notes of the Failure reissue. It might be tough for you to cast your minds back to that time, but how did you react when you first read it in that magazine?

Jon Auer: I have to be honest: I was really hurt when I read that review. As a naïve, music-loving innocent eighteen year old, I didn’t consider that people could try to do you harm publicly. It wasn’t just a bad review; it was a targeted piece. It really cut us down.

Reviews are ultimately opinions, but people read them, and when it’s put into the context of a magazine, it’s an important thing. Everybody’s got an opinion, but the don’t have a vehicle for it. Well, of course now they do; it’s called the internet. There’s another great quote – I’ll paraphrase it because I don’t have it handy – that suggested the magazine made a poor choice of reviewers. [the letter writer] likened it to having a skinhead cover an Al Green concert. I thought that was pretty great.

Ken Stringfellow: Well, something had to come up; things were just going too well for us. And the story didn’t really look believable. It really is unbelievable what happened to us. So it looked like there was some payola, or some weird anti-marketing going on. There must have been a master plan to make a band from Bellingham — a duo as unlikely as us – to suddenly be everywhere at once. It defied the laws of credibility. We were two cuts deep into Seattle commercial radio a hundred hours after releasing this homemade cassette; it just didn’t make any sense. And over the course of that summer, it grew so rapidly. If we did a free show where kids could attend, we’d have thousands of people showing up. And we could fill clubs by that summer.

Jon: We became vilified by a certain segment, but it worked in our favor in a way: we kept the letters section in the magazine alive for six months.

And, you know, Veronika apologized to me. She said she didn’t think the review was fair, though she didn’t think it was the greatest record. So there you go. Sometimes you have to wait awhile in life for things to reveal their true colors.

Bill: And in her note included in the liner notes for Failure‘s new reissue, she does refer to Dear 23 as “a masterpiece.”

Jon: But she still thinks the lyrics are too angst-ridden and teenager-y. And you know what? I’ve got to agree with her. Some of the lyrics are that way for me, too. But I was sixteen years old when I wrote half of those songs. We sort of incubated for a couple of years in Bellingham, writing songs until we had enough to make Failure.

Ken: We weren’t from the same music scene as the bands we’d come to know as the recognizable SubPop bands. They were all nascent at that point, just about to happen. Those guys were all just a few years older than us, so they had played in bars; they could hang out in bars! So they had that scene going; Seattle and its environs didn’t really have an all-ages scene. We weren’t old enough to hang out in bars, so nobody knew us. So, who were these dorky-looking dudes playing this dorky music, anyway? It took awhile. So I think Veronika’s reaction at the time was based on an assumption that there must be something un-DIY about us.

The music’s good, I think, but it seemed like more than it just being good: a whole bunch of dominoes fell at once.

Jon: We were hand-dubbing cassettes, and selling them out of our backpacks. We moved like 800 copies that way. That’s not insignificant without anybody helping you.

Bill: In hindsight, Failure is really pretty out of step with what people now think of as the Pacific Northwest scene of that era. What sort of music were you listening to in the period when you were writing the songs that ended up on that first album?

Jon: Oh, jeez. There were things we were listening to that might make you think Failure was the obvious result. But you’re talking about a couple of guys who listened to everything growing up, who went through every phase. We’re just fans of songs and good music. And that comes in any genre, any shape, size or form. At the time, that would have included anyone from Elvis Costello to The Beatles. Or Depeche Mode, as you can maybe see when you look at the picture on the back of the album. We went through a quasi-goth phase.

In fact, I’ll go off on a tangent here about that picture. It tells you a lot about us then. We were always doing our own thing, slightly out of step with whatever was happening at the moment. We had a complex mixture of elements.

Bill: I look at that picture and I think, “Boots by George Harrison, hair by Robert Smith.”

Jon: Y’know what? Please put that in your piece. Because it’s brilliant.

My first job was working in a record store. I had been one of those kids who went to the record store every day after school. So eventually they just gave me a job. And at the time I looked like I was probably in The Cure or some goth band. But I was into everything musically. I was there when the first CDs arrived in the store, the first ones ever. And you know, of course what some of the first CDs that came out were: reissues of the Beatles albums. It was a pivotal moment; it made those records ripe for rediscovery. I grew up with my parents’ Beatles records, but to get these digital versions and explore them, we started to do that.

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Boots by George Harrison, Hair by Robert Smith: The Posies Interview, Part One

Monday, September 15th, 2014

While grunge or alternative might be the first rock genres that spring to mind when one thinks of the 1990s, an unlikely group from the Pacific Northwest had already gained a foothold – both commercially and critically – with their brand of melodic guitar-based pop. The Posies – eventually a band, but originally just a duo featuring teenagers Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow – recorded and released their first album, 1988′s Failure – in what would come to be thought of as an early example of DIY success.

Failure would go on to be reissued by a proper label, and the group’s fame grew, thanks in part to their being championed by influential tastemakers who counted themselves as fans. But it has always been the music – and the pair’s trademark vocal harmonies – that have brought The Posies their well-deserved success. Failure has just now been reissued yet again, this time by Omnivore Recordings, who have appended eight bonus tracks to the CD, along with fascinating liner notes. In my conversation with Ken and Jon, I asked them about the development of that first album, and how it fit into the arc of their constantly evolving musical style. And I learned that the coming months will see a good bit of additional Posies (and related) material released on Omnivore.

Bill Kopp: You were both short of 20 years old when you recorded Failure. I really like the production style of the album: unadorned, gimmick-free, and always in service to the songs. When you cut the album, what kind of goals or aspirations did you have? Did you think you might make the big time, and if so what would “the big time” have been for you?

Ken Stringfellow: When we started recording Failure in 1987, I was 18 and Jon was 17. We had a very fortunate situation in that Jon and his dad had put together a small studio in their family home; that was an incredible gift. We had an eight-track analog tape machine. The production limitations are more or less based around track count. We recorded eight tracks of music, and then bounced that down to a cassette, believe it or not. And then we used those mixes from the cassette on two tracks, and did six tracks of vocals. That approach dictated how the record sounded.

As far as our aspirations, we really made this record as a demo. Basically, we couldn’t find anyone who wanted to play in a band with us.

Jon Auer: I probably wouldn’t have wanted to play with us, either!

Ken: We couldn’t really explain our concept: it was so gimmick-free that there really wasn’t an “elevator pitch.” Other than writing great songs, and what’s the elevator pitch for that? So we really just wanted to find people to form a full band with. The demo would show them our tunes so that they’d kind of get the idea.

As we realized this might actually be a record, our friends who heard it were feeding back to us that, hey, this is something very special, things happened very fast. We put it out as a DIY cassette, it got on commercial radio, we had offers for shows. Everything happened at once. In ten days we went from zero to being able to fill venues. It was insane, and we saw none of this coming. We were completely overwhelmed, as you could imagine.

We wanted to be part of this local label called PopLlama. They picked it up and reissued it on LP. We wanted to play this local festival called Bumbershoot, and we did. And all that was as far ahead as we had thought. We already had interest from some major labels, but we hadn’t even conceptualized something like that. We just got carried along in the slipstream for a couple of years.

Jon: The “big time” was never a consideration. We were just very much thinking of modest goals in the beginning. We hoped we’d get to open for a band we really admired, and still do: The Young Fresh Fellows.

What I liked about Failure is that it was made in a very pure environment. It had nothing to do with wanting to get noticed in a major way at all. It was something that we did because we wanted to do it. Maybe we weren’t very smart; maybe we should have considered other things – like the potential trajectory of our career – more [than we did]. But we were just having a good time. And we were lucky because I grew up in a home that had that small but powerful home studio.

And the realization of all of our eventual goals was something that happened naturally; it was never a case of us trying to force things.

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