Today, April 27th, marks the 20th anniversary of The Posies‘ landmark album Frosting on the Beater, and to celebrate, Audioasis host Sharlese Metcalf, along with KEXP staffers Chris Beiter and Janice Headley, reached out to founding members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow to ask “twenty questions.”
1) One of the songs on Frosting on the Beater is called “20 Questions.” How do you feel about answering 20 questions about the album with “20 Questions” on it, 20 years after it was released?
Ken: It’s starting to dawn upon me a) how long ago it was and b) what a monumental time it was. The same week, we embarked upon 17 years of playing with Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens in a reformed Big Star. I was so young… not yet 25. In many ways, a different person. The moment for me is always now. I’ve never been a fan of being sentimental, but I’m ok with looking back at this moment as one where we finally lived up to our potential, and made an album that really holds up over time. And hence, is worth asking about 20 years later.
Jon: Jeez… That sure is a lot of 20s, innit? We were in our 20s when that song was written. Hindsight is 20/20. Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours ago…I wanna be sedated. It was a great time I have to say.
2) How was it working with producer Don Fleming?
Ken: Don was very casual, and very fun. That was his secret. He was not a Svengali, or a technological geek by any means, but he took the preciousness out of our recording process, and showcased the band we had become, by two years of sometimes brutal touring we did for Dear 23, an album made by a band of 20-year-olds, who had never toured, with an English producer. There was no translation of our live show on that album, it was really hard to recreate it live. Not a problem with Frosting.
Jon: As I remember, Don never let me do more than a few takes of any guitar part or guitar solo pretty much… ever. Unlike the recording of Dear 23, there wasn’t time to over-think things.
3) Dear 23 was your major label debut, and it achieved a fair amount of notoriety. Was there pressure when working on Frosting to have a bigger breakthrough, especially in light of other Seattle bands having commercial breakthroughs in the early 90s?
Ken: Certainly we felt we could have done better. But yes, the landscape of 1992, when we made Frosting was so different than that of 1990, when we made Dear 23. 1991 was a turning point in music. We were doing our best to keep up.
Jon: Honestly, if you’re on a major label there is always pressure to do better, sell more. It’s par for the course when so much time and money is invested in you. Frosting really seemed like the first time we had captured something on record that had a visceral impact, and we were really happy about that.
4) What is your favorite song on Frosting on the Beater?
Ken: Though it’s hard to deny the sunny (haha) charm of “Solar Sister,” perhaps “Earlier than Expected” is the most enlightened song and the most easy to lock into as a performer. It was a nice message, about the challenges for young women, the glass ceiling, the nature of youth culture and its particular navigational challenges for young women, made by an observer to the Riot Grrrrl era.
Jon: If pressed, it comes down to two for me: “Solar Sister” and “Coming Right Along.” You couldn’t pick more polar opposites as far as tuneage, but they both still do it for me pretty much every time.
5) Did you ever perform Frosting on the Beater in its entirety?
Ken: Sure, we did the night of our record release, I believe, which was done in a Belltown art space, on a stage that had been turned into a giant stovetop — a loose reference to the baking imagery of the album title — and in 2008, we took FOTB on tour and performed it in Spain, New York, Seattle, Chicago, L.A. We will be going back to Spain this year to perform it, with Mike Musburger and Dave Fox, who played on the album originally.
6) The album opens with the track “Dream All Day”… do you have any reoccurring dreams?
Ken: Usually zombies, alien invasions, and tsunamis (last night, all three), when I’ve had a stressful period.
Jon: Mine always seem to involve Anthony Bourdain and the cast of “Different Strokes.” Don’t ask.
7) Where is the forest where you filmed the music video for “Dream All Day”? Is that in Bellingham?
Ken: Mammoth Ski Resort, outside of L.A. by a couple of hours. We were supposed to have these fog machines making swirling fog around us, but the director did not take into account the effect of altitude and they basically sprayed us with water for three hours. Dave Fox actually broke a rib in one of his pratfalls.
Jon: I believe the director sold it to us by referencing Fellini movies and talking about the “dreamlike” quality it would have. Perhaps it was more akin to “Hot Dog: The Movie” as interpreted by The MC5 with me playing both the Wayne Kramer and Rob Tyner parts. Minus the nudity. We spent all day in the snow performing for the cameras to a double speed version of the song so it would look all slow motion when the film was played back at regular speed. Talk about a mindf”*k… and a cold one, at that.
8) Have The Posies ever written a song about Bellingham?
Ken: Not exactly. The yearning evident on our first album may be teenage longing, but also maybe a need to reach the wider world, something I always felt growing up in Bellingham and the suburbs of various cities before that.
Jon: “Holiday Hours” from Blood/Candy has a bit of Bellingham in it, the line about the “parent’s hometown”.
9) Can you tell us more about this Bill Nye: The Science Guy video parody of “Flavor of the Month”?
Ken: It’s not really a parody. We rewrote the song with lyrics to fit the theme of “Ocean Exploration” and recorded a new version, and made a hilarious video segment. But it doesn’t mock the original song.
Jon: We had our first experience with the “green screen” process on that and recorded the track at Stone Gossard’s place, Studio Litho. It was just fun to do, a proverbial “good time.”
10) Did they write the lyrics for you, or did you all research science to write the lyrics?
Ken: Um, it’s not exactly rocket science — it’s oceanography! But yes, they did give us a few suggestions of things to mention.
Jon: The way I remember it, we took a stab at it, but they ultimately wrote pretty much all of the lyrics. I believe the text I intitially provided was deemed “not informative enough,” something like that . Mine was more on the impressionistic side, with a nod to Jacques Cousteau, probably equal parts pretentious and whimsical. Long before “The Life Aquatic,” I might add.
11) What is your favorite flavor of the month?
Ken: I think analysis of the song will show that the idea itself is a pejorative.
Jon: With “Flavor of the Month,” I was trying to write my own version of an XTC song I liked called “Funk Pop A Roll.” There’s a line in there about, “Swallowing is easy when it has no taste” that I thought was very cool.
12) Your harmonies have always been stellar, to the point where you wonder who is singing what. But on Frosting, you both seemed to develop a more uniquely-identifiable vocal styles. Was this a turning point for you to both want to work more on solo material, or was that always a desire?
Ken: I don’t think so. I think we were starting to develop our own individual lives even more at that point. It wasn’t that long before the making of Dear 23 that we were all living and rehearsing in a big house in the U-District. By Frosting, we had our wives, our neighborhoods, and were much more objective to the band, whereas before we lived and breathed it non-stop, kind of a hive-mind which was good for getting things going but obviously it was going to change at some point.
Jon: I think my voice just broke a little as well. I was 17 when we recorded our first record, and 19 when we recorded Dear 23. I had more of an “adult” voice on Frosting. Plus, the material was darker in tone.
13) “Lights Out” starts off gently, but grows into a roar, then back down to soft again. Were you influenced by the Quiet/LOUD/Quiet-style championed by the Pixies?
Jon: I was late to the Pixies party, so I can’t say that was an influence, but it just made sense for that song. The sections in “Lights Out” are different as well as opposed to the device of playing the same part quiet in the verse then loud in the chorus a la, say; “Gigantic.”
14) What artists were influencing you back then?
Ken: I can say we were really into Teenage Fanclub, whom we ended up supporting on our first major European tour later that year. Dinosaur Jr, whom Don had worked with. Neil Young (whom I ended up playing with a few years later). Big Star, Sebadoh, Camper van Beethoven’s album for Virgin Records. Many, many things.
Jon: Before I read Ken’s answer, I picked Neil Young as well, especially his first solo record and After The Goldrush. Christ, I wanted to be Neil Young. He meant so much to me. Listen to the guitar solos on Frosting, and I think you will hear what I mean. Methinks Key Lime Pie is the Camper Van Beethoven record we dug. I was also heavily into Pavement, Swervedriver, and Stereolab.
15) How do you plan on celebrating the record anniversary?
Ken: We will perform it in Spain in the fall, as mentioned. I’m still busy making records, so it will be another studio day for me, in Vlissingen, in Zeeland, Netherlands. I’m working on tracks for a Dutch singer, Eva Auad. Life goes on. Thank effing God!
Jon: I’m in Brussels at a dinner party, taking a short break from a record I’m working on with a new group I’m part of called Dynamo Royale. I’m looking forward to this fall when the tour in Spain happens. Never would have guessed we’d be doing it with the original Frosting lineup. A nice surprise indeed.
16) Did you ever think you would have an album that’s 20 years old?
Ken: Well, sure… I mean, I wasn’t planning on dying at age 40! But an album that would be remembered, that’s another story. I don’t think many, if any, 24-year-olds are thinking about the future in those kind of terms.
17) What do you miss most about 1993?
Ken: Not much. Life only got more interesting from that point onward.
Jon: Flannel shirts? Nope. “Northern Exposure”? Nah. Massive recording budgets? Hmmm…
18) Where would you place Frosting on the Beater when ranking your albums when it comes to your satisfaction with the end product and standing the test of time live?
Ken: Oh, it’s close to the top. Especially with the longevity it seems to have.
Jon: It’s in the top three for me, along with Amazing Disgrace and Blood/Candy. It’s a very streamlined record, and I think translates very well live because of that. People seem to enjoy it as well, which certainly helps.
19) It’s been a few years since the Posies have put out a new album of material. Are there Posies songs floating around there that you hope to get out to your fans?
Ken: Nope. We’d be starting from scratch. Between the 2000 box set, At Least At Last, and a few other reissues, we have a clean slate
20) What exactly is “Frosting on the Beater” referring to?
Ken: The cream of the crop. A unique indulgence. It’s not a very sexy title but many people started to read double entendres into it. That’s not how we were thinking at all.
Jon: It’s also a line from the lyrics of “Solar Sister.” We tried on a lot of other names before realizing the title was right in front of us. It just seemed to fit.
Sharlese Metcalf is the host of Audioasis, on the air Saturday evenings 6-9PM. Tonight, she will be spotlighting The Posies album Frosting on the Beater.