Big Starring The Posies
First Published January 2006
Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer are remarkably polite and good-humoured considering that they have got up at dawn to drive from Belgium to Islington where their band the Posies is playing a one-off London gig at The Garage. Over a pre-gig tandoori Ken and Jon were happy to talk about the part they play in the latest incarnation of Big Star, where John plays guitar and Ken handles bass and keyboards in support of original band members Alex Chilton (guitar, lead vocals) and Jody Stephens (drums).
Jon and Ken first made their admiration for Big Star public in 1992, when they released a single on Pop Llama featuring a faithful recreation of “Feel’ from the first Big Star LP ‘Number One Record’. The other side was a cover of the then-obscure “I Am The Cosmos”, written by Big Star co-founder Chris Bell prior to his tragically early death in 1978. Even the singles sleeve is a recreation of the ‘Radio City’ back-cover, with the Pop Llama label logo redone to resemble that of Ardent Records. Why the homage ? Ken: “ We did it to see how they did it – sort of reverse engineering. We got a great response to it.” Jon suggests a more market-orientated strategy “We knew that certain people in the business or who love a certain type of music would respond to it because they’d be in the know. It led to us getting together with Pop Llama and then pretty much everything else.” The Posies went on to a career that peaked commercially with the Geffen LP “Frosting On The Beater’ which included power-pop classic ‘Flavor Of The Month’. Tonight the Posies are promoting their new Ryko record “Every Kind Of Light”, their first studio release after a nine-year hiatus.
In 1993 Jody, impressed by ‘Feel’, suggested Jon and Ken as the missing links that would allow him and Alex to play live gigs under the Big Star brand. One of their first gigs together was recorded and released as Columbia and they have been touring the same set pretty much ever since. Seeing Alex, Jody, Ken and John recreate live the stunning songs from the first three Big Star LPs was an unforgettable experience for me, and I suspect for many others who saw them at Reading Festival and the Clapham Grand (both 1993) and more recently at the London Mean Fiddler (2001). However there is a law of diminishing returns here as Alex refuses to vary the set. Jon: “We’ve tried to introduce other songs into the set but Alex seems to feel that all the songs we do from the Big Star records are the only ones worth doing. Alex knew ‘I Am The Cosmos’ straight away and it’s not on a Big Star record so he’s paid attention to it at some point.” Ken elaborates “When we started working with Alex it was like a process of elimination. He tells you what he doesn’t like. There were songs that we wanted to do that he didn’t want to sing so we ended up singing them. He didn’t sing ‘Feel’ originally – he didn’t want to do ‘Back Of A Car’, which is bizarre to me. Or ‘O My Soul’ -‘If you guys want to sing it I’ll just stand back here and play’. It’s weird how he steers things.”
But wait…there’s more – last years ‘In Space’, a new Big Star studio record and their first in 30 years. Was it recorded to allow the live set to incorporate some new songs ? Ken: “I’ll debate that. That would be a fringe benefit but I don’t know how we’re going to play these new songs live. You’d think it would be easy to do. But its like the new Posies record – when it was time to play the songs live I didn’t have a clue what I’d played on the record. I haven’t thought about how to play the new Big Star songs at all so I suppose in a couple of weeks we’ll need to do a round of emails and say ‘hey what are we going to do? “Jon: “I was talking to Jody and we’re going to meet up and do these Big Star shows pretty soon and we haven’t rehearsed. I think we’re going to show up and be prepared to have anything happen on the spot. I don’t think we’re going to get too many instructions on that. I reckon if we play anything off the new record it’s going to be the cover (‘Mine Exclusively’, originally by The Olympics), we have done that live.”
So in a mere three weeks the Big Star will be playing live gigs in Sweden, Holland and Belgium to promote ‘In Space’. But no UK gigs ? Jon: “For whatever reason Mr Chilton has deemed Great Britain off-limits. Which is unfortunate for many reasons. One – it would be fun to play here. Two – we’ve had some incredibly good offers to play, including All Tomorrow’s Parties to play one of the first two Big Star records all the way through – prestige, lucrative. But that would require us to play Songs That We Don’t Play. Alex doesn’t really explain stuff. One year we had an offer to do the New Orleans Jazz Festival but Alex didn’t want to play in New Orleans that year, even though he lives there. Who knows ? Mystical criteria are involved. Alex also does shows with the Boxtops, and gets more money than he does doing Big Star shows. He really gets down and has a real good time, dancing and singing – the chameleon aspect of him.”
In the studio Alex and Jody were very different. Ken “Jody is very patient and he had a really strong idea about what would be the way to go. When Alex never really went in that particular direction I saw Jody biting his tongue quite a bit. Jody is a very peaceful guy, doesn’t seem to worry about much, happy to meet everybody, treats everybody pretty much the same. Jon ”Alex has done more for himself by saying nothing. We do talk to him…but he doesn’t talk to us.” Jon was surprised by the recording process. “I didn’t know what to expect but to be honest I would have thought there would have been more leading coming from Alex. It was amazing to see how much they looked to us to fill in the blanks. It was a fairly democratic process, which surprised me. After doing it my sense is probably that most of the Big Star records in the past were actually very collaborative affairs. Alex always gets the lions share of the credits but Chris Bell has as much to do with it as anybody, he just wasn’t around to carry it on. More of a tragic figure than Alex.” Ken takes up the theme “I think they could have each gone that way. Alex pulled out of his nose-dive, I think he was just one bad decision away from ODing. Maybe Chris was more of a depressive and Alex was more of a ‘I’ll take it out on anyone around me’ type thing. I am really glad I didn’t know Alex Chilton in 1978.”
But today a reformed Alex calls the shots in the studio, according to Jon: “An unspoken executive veto – if Alex doesn’t like something it’s just not going to get by him. It was funny to see the sort of things he really did zero in on, like the classical piece on the record (‘Aria, Largo’), its one of three similar pieces we did. Alex came prepared with full charts for the bass, my guitar parts, there was even parts for the drums “. Ken points out that ‘Turn My Back On The Sun’ is not the obvious Beach Boys tribute that could be expected. “Alex has a love of all things Beach Boys. I thought the lyrics would be good to do a kind of anti-statement, very Alex ‘I’ll turn my back on the sun”. Of course as soon as a Beach-Boys like piece of music appeared Alex’s eyes lit up.”
Were they worried about the responsibility for The Fourth Big Star Record resting on their shoulders? Ken “There were many, many people who would have liked a carbon copy, a remake of the first two records but that was just not going to happen.“ Jon amplifies: “There are elements that Big Star had which we have tried to include but we didn’t try to copy it. You’re gonna want some harmonies on a Big Star record. It doesn’t sound the same but it has some of the same components. The song I had the most to do with (‘Lady Sweet’) I was trying to write my idea of what a Big Star song would be, specifically in terms of the more melancholy ‘Radio City’ material like ‘Daisy Glaze’ or ‘My Life Is White’. It’s a cool experiment to try and create something through the filter of what you think it should be and I think it works.” In contrast to the year-long recording process for ‘Number One Record’, John explains that ‘In Space’ was recorded live and quickly. “Two ten day recording sessions but we weren’t around for the mixing unfortunately. Alex and (producer) Jeff Powell pretty much did the mixing themselves, we got a couple of calls ’Is it OK if we take out all of your stuff?’. There was one thing that got taken off that I definitely would have raised a stink about, we did these call and response vocals at the end of ‘Dony’ and it was a very hooky part in what was already a pretty hooky song.”
Have they read Rob Jovanovic’s book about Big Star ? Ken: “I’ve never read it. I’ll get to it eventually. We talked to him. On the REM tour Peter Buck was reading it. I know it is as good a book on Big Star as could be done.” Jon: “I’ve only thumbed through the chapter about us. It was highly accurate.” What about the cover of ‘In Space’ ? Ken is unimpressed “I was not thrilled by the cover artwork but that was Alex’s favourite out of about 30 rough drafts. There were a couple I thought were better. It is what it is. I will say it is very identifiable. And the title? “ Alex just pulled that out of his ass. I would love to know the reason behind it, but I’m not sure there is one”.