This Friday, Seattle alt-rock icons the Posies will roll through Memphis for an already sold-out show at a secret location to promote the group's eighth studio album, Solid States, in a nearly 30-year history. Co-founding members Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer should be no strangers to followers of the Memphis music scene, as they were the backbone of the Big Star reunion that started in 1993, alongside original members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens (the two were inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame as a part of Big Star in 2014). Stringfellow, who has also served time in R.E.M., Tav Falco's Panther Burns, and, most recently, Marky Ramone's Blitzkrieg, spoke to the Flyer this week.
The Memphis Flyer: Why did you guys decide to do this tour in this format, secret shows at non-traditional venues? Did your recent house-show tour with Holly Munoz (Texas singer-songwriter) influence that decision?
Ken Stringfellow: Definitely, Holly's way of touring opened my eyes. I know bands do house concert tours. I know there's an entire agency, Undertow, who does only house-concert tours. But the tour Holly and I did was not just house concerts. We played in a few different kinds of spaces — a cave, a chocolate factory, the NASA Johnson Space Center. For the Posies, most houses would be too small, but we found some incredible spaces to do the tour.
For this tour, so much is different — the way our label functions, the fact we have a new drummer, the fact we're touring with electronic accompaniment. We thought it would be great to do a paradigmatic shift in the way we tour as well.
You and Jon have spent a fair amount of time in Memphis over the years. How connected to the city and the music scene here do you feel?
Well, we're in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame! And we love coming to Memphis. The core of people around Big Star and Ardent are super important to us.
Are you surprised by the continued and increasing interest in the music of Big Star?
The range of Big Star's influence and the protective loyalty of that fan base is definitely astonishing. Until you consider the quality of the music. Then it's more like, "of course." It's some of the greatest music of all time, from which, behind the scenes, many of the indie-rock notions we take for granted were generated.
Most of the people I've spoken to who knew Alex say he would have hated all of the attention the band has received lately, especially for the Third album. Do you think that's true?
Oh my goodness. Yes. He would have definitely been against any kind of celebration or edification or museum-izing of Big Star's music.
How did Solid States come together?
We started the writing process in early 2015. We basically blocked off January to write and demo and share things with each other. A lot of the recording, then, was done in February, each of us working in our respective home studios. The idea was to add drums last and let the electronic elements take the foreground. Then, something unimaginable happened, when our drummer of 15 years, Darius Minwalla, died suddenly.
There was no going back to the way things were — we almost didn't find the strength to go forward. It was a major shock. We did regroup and the record entered a second phase, where several new songs were written or completed as a way to deal with this loss. Darius is a major part of the album. It's dedicated to his memory.
What inspired the increased use of electronic and synthesized elements on Solid States?
It's kind of where music is these days. But also, as producers, these kind of textures are pretty common on albums we work on. Both Jon and I wondered why we were doing these extremely modern sounds and textures on albums for other people and not benefiting from these skills we've acquired for our own work.
Was it hard to adjust to playing live along with electronics and a metronome?
Credit is due there to Frankie [Siragusa, the Posies' new drummer], who really brought the Ableton elements to life. Jon and I spent some time in Berlin last year learning how to use Ableton, but I have to say Frankie made it come to life, and as the guy who has to play drums to the metronome, makes it feel spontaneous and real every night. We didn't rehearse together until the week before the tour, so we had no idea if it was going to work. I mean, there's the Ableton stuff, and then there's playing with a new drummer. As great as Frankie is, I was unsure how this would really work live — chemistry, groove, etc. Also, I added a synth to our lineup, and on this tour I have the piano and synths in front of me, and I play those and guitar at the same time.
I understand that Solid States is currently only being sold at your shows and won't be widely available until after the tour. Why did you decide to "soft release" the album this way?
Just to shake it up. Drive the tour ticket sales. Like Led Zeppelin used to say: "We don't tour to promote albums. We release albums to promote the tours."