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The Posies perform a pop-up show in Charlotte on Oct. 7.

Dot Pierson

The Posies perform a pop-up show in Charlotte on Oct. 7.

Power pop group The Posies pops up at alternative venues 

Back in bloom

We're not nostalgic about any particular period in our music making," Ken Stringfellow says, "often to our fans' frustration."

Speaking from his home in the south of France, Stringfellow is discussing a new musical direction for The Posies, the melodic, hard rocking outfit he founded with fellow guitarist/songwriter Jon Auer in 1988. This fall, The Posies are back after a six-year hiatus with Solid States, a set that suffuses their power pop with electronica, impressionist washes of sound and their most challenging lyrics to date. Just as the new album subverts fans' preconceptions, Stringfellow and Auer are also embarking on their most unusual tour. For the Solid States Secret Shows, The Posies are playing non-traditional venues, including private homes. Fans who purchase tickets only learn the exact location of the gig 24 hours before the show. The Posies play Charlotte on Oct. 7, but I haven't the faintest idea where.

The Posies have made a career of confounding expectations. Surfacing in Seattle on the cusp of the alternative wave that lifted Nirvana to fame and (mis)fortune, The Posies went against the grunge grain, marrying bright '60s Britpop song craft to loud '90s guitars. This approach produced at least one stone cold classic, 1993's Frosting on the Beater. For any other band, Frosting would have established a surefire sonic template for commercial success, but The Posies subsequently showed scant interest in any formula, exploring everything from baroque psychedelia to stripped down roots rock. Their signature guitar sound is present on Solid States, but it's just one aspect of a multifaceted project that also displays an increasingly political bent.

With couplets like "don't trust no God who says he needs to be relied on, or a government that says I should be spied on" in the song "Squirrel vs. Snake", The Posies examine the concept (and illusion) of liberty on the new album.

"I think the walls are closing in on personal freedoms," Stringfellow says. "It's amazing what people are willing to give away (to government and corporations) on the first negotiation."

"America's had a few sunny years, enjoying the somewhat progressive policies of Obama, but the corporate land grab of intellectual space continues unabated. It's growing, especially in the information sector. Google is an effective monopoly. It's much bigger than our government. Since when is that a good thing?"

The erosion of free speech and free will is a serious matter, but Solid States is informed with even weightier concerns, Stringfellow reveals. As he and Auer assembled the building blocks for the album, they were shaken by the passing of two former band members, Darius Minwalla and Joe Skyward (born Joe Howard). Skyward's death from cancer in 2016 was not unexpected, says Stringfellow, "But with Darius we had no ability to cope."

"He was a fit and healthy man in his late 30s with a long and healthy life ahead of him, who just fell over and died. For us it was Pearl Harbor. We were annihilated."

"A good half of the album is about Darius," says Stringfellow pointing to Solid States' prettiest, most tranquil tune "Unlikely Places."

"It's a bright melody, but what I'm really saying here [to Darius] is 'I'm still looking for you. I still think you're going to walk into the room at any moment."

Even "Radiance," the album's mystic and uplifting coda, contains currents of questioning and doubt. "It's a transcendent song because Darius transcended — in the way that energy is never destroyed. He's converted into something else." The tune attains a hopeful peak, Stringfellow asserts, "But we wouldn't have reached that note if we hadn't been hit with a hammer. That's what rang that bell."

Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies. - DOT PIERSON
  • Dot Pierson
  • Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies.

Themes of loss and transition thread through the album, but they didn't dictate Solid States' change of musical direction — a shift from upfront guitars to subliminal electronics and experimental rhythms. Stringfellow says he and Auer had their blueprint for the record in place before their two friends and colleagues died.

The band's previous two albums — Every Kind of Light (2005) and Blood/Candy (2010) — were tracked live in the studio, drawing on organic, in-the-moment energy, Stringfellow explains. In contrast, Stringfellow and Auer drew from their considerable experience composing soundtracks and producing records for other people for their current collection. Applying layers of textures, Stringfellow and Auer assembled each track like a puzzle, placing emphasis on effective sounds rather than easily identifiable instruments.

"In the past, we amped up our songs live and played as fast and furious as we could," Stringfellow recalls. For this tour, he proposed using a laptop to weave electronics into their performance.

"It's worked like a charm. The shows feel wild and everyone forgets there's a computer involved. We're going places, but the sound is more subtle," he says. "Now, there are more diverse timbres live."

The change in playing live inspired a new, guerilla approach to touring — namely The Posies' slate of pop-up gigs in alternative venues.

"You have to buy tickets to find out where we're playing. That creates excitement for the audience and us," says Stringfellow. He notes that the ticket price, double the cost of a club date, has not been an obstacle to sales. "If you love our music, you're happy to pay that, because you don't have to share the space with people who are ambivalent about being there."

No club dates also means no gigs in beer soaked bars, says Stringfellow, and that's provided an unexpected bonus.

"There's a pure vibe when you remove alcohol. The music benefits immensely from that healthy energy. In fact, these are some of the best shows we've ever played."

With a challenging album, a dedicated following, and a surprising tour, Stringfellow seems to have found the sweet spot between too little and too much success. That suits him fine, he maintains.

"I don't make music that's easy to digest with the goal of getting on the alpha track of my profession. I just make stuff I believe in."

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