Shonen Knife didn’t make much of an impression overseas until the release of a 1989 tribute album that included versions of their songs by the likes of Sonic Youth and Red Kross. Coincidentally, the whole Seattle rock scene went global shortly thereafter, pulling into the spotlight bands that happened to be on the scene but didn’t necessarily fit the flannel stereotype.
The Posies emerged as its representative power pop quartet, and as such are closer in musical sensibility to Shonen Knife, which is why it seems appropriate that they are playing at their 25th anniversary party next month.
Most of the Seattle groups looked to early punk and metal, but The Posies reached further back to the British Invasion (The Hollies, in particular), the first folk-rock era (The Byrds) and Big Star, the legendary Memphis band who invented power pop in 1972.
“It was sort of a problem that, as Jon and I were looking up and down the timeline of music for influences when we started playing, there was this punk ethic at work,” says Ken Stringfellow by phone from Barcelona. “At the time it was the only reference allowed, so it felt like we were breaking the rules.”
The irony is that Stringfellow and Jon Auer, who are The Posies’ singers and songwriters, were in Barcelona together to play the Primavera Sound Festival not as The Posies but as members of Big Star, with whom they’ve toured since original members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens reunited in 1993. Looking up and down the timeline has paid off in other ways, too: Stringfellow is a member of R.E.M.’s touring band, and in Barcelona both musicians were invited to sit in with another group that shaped their musical tastes, The Violent Femmes.
“Looking backward is just another approach,” Stringfellow adds. “The guys in R.E.M. are 10 years older than me and the guys in Big Star are 20 years older, but I can relate to them on a musical level without being obsessed with the past, or thinking that it was a superior time to now.”
“It does feel good to be part of a tradition,” says Auer from his home a week after the festival, “and I don’t mean that in a pretentious way. It just knocks me out to play in front of that many people in Big Star. I’d be proud if someone thought I’m part of some continuum.”
In their own way, The Posies represent an irreplaceable section of that continuum. Along with Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” and Teenage Fanclub’s “Bandwagonesque,” their 1993 album “Frosting on the Beater” remains the pinnacle of the power-pop revival that rode the coattails of grunge. Stringfellow’s and Auer’s tight harmonies and solid command of melody, not to mention an often sour sense of humor that counteracted whatever sweetness their musical predilections engendered, stood up mightily to the noisy onslaught of their guitars.
But despite a faithful cult following and positive critical reception, the group disbanded in the late ’90s. Auer and Stringfellow remained friends, continuing to play together with Big Star. They would occasionally go out on the road to play Posies songs as an acoustic duo, and realized there were more fans of the group’s music than they thought.
“What surprised me was how far we got with what little we did,” says Auer. “There are parts of the world where we are well-known, even successful. Scandinavia, for instance, and Spain. We’ve done well enough there that I’ve done two full solo tours by myself with bands. And people actually showed up. I got paid.”
Though both musicians are enjoying fruitful solo careers, it wasn’t difficult to regroup under The Posies banner, and last year they released an album, “Every Kind of Light,” consisting of all new material. “It felt like it had to happen — things occurred that reminded us how much we enjoyed doing it,” recalls Auer. “And we ended up being a full ensemble, not just a duo. I think Ken and I have an ability to look forward into the future and not get hung up on the past.”
Stringfellow is more philosophical: “[When we broke up] continuing just seemed impossible. But as time goes by you get this soft pressure from the other side, because even if the band is finished the music never goes away.”
The Shonen Knife party, therefore, was fate. “When we were preparing the new Posies record for release we were soliciting quotes from musicians for the one-sheet,” explains Stringfellow. “Here are some artists who say The Posies are great,’ or whatever. I dropped a line to Naoko and she sent us a very nice quote. Not long after that she wrote me again saying, ‘By the way, we’d like to invite you to play our anniversary shows.’ “
The last time Stringfellow and Auer played Japan was 2000, when they did some acoustic shows. “We probably wouldn’t have gotten over to Japan again if this hadn’t happened,” says Auer. “The bottom line is we get to play with and hang out with Shonen Knife.”