"I was the annoying kid who would go to the local music store and play for hours on other people's guitars and equipment every day after school," recalls Auer, now 36. "So one day this guy comes down, and he was like, 'Oh, I hear you're this hotshot guitar player.' I was like, 'Who is this guy?' And I look behind him and there was Ken."
Word had spread around town about Auer's "blazing heavy metal leads," Stringfellow says, so when he found the culprit, he immediately asked him to join his high school band, The Shout. That band fizzled, along with a series of other teen acts (including The Process, which Auer called "an excuse to write bad Night Ranger rip-offs"). But Auer and Stringfellow went on not only to become The Posies, one of the most tuneful and literate rock bands of the past two decades, but also to annoy the living hell out of each other.
Between the Posies' 1988 debut and 1998 breakup, Auer and Stringfellow's friendship wasn't just strained--it was downright nonexistent. Entire years passed with barely a conversation. Prior to the '98 split, "Our relationship had deteriorated at that point to where it had been reduced to a series of grunts," Auer says. "And not very pleasant grunts, either."
Seven years of perspective later, the Posies have built themselves back into a full-on band. Growing slowly from an occasional acoustic duo gig to a few sporadic tours, the band, now with a new rhythm section, is back on a full tour to support their first album of new music since 1998, Every Kind of Light.
The album--whose music and arrangements were written and improvised on the spot during a 17-day session last February--is the most deeply textured of the band's seven albums. Whereas previous works were held together by a common tone--folkish pop on 1988's Failure, Crazy Horse-frayed guitar on 1993's Frosting on the Beater--Every Kind of Light is a delirious collision of styles. "Conversations" mixes a quiet, nearly baroque verse with a pounding, distorted chorus. Stringfellow describes the languid, lustrous "Last Crawl" as a "Smiths-cum-lounge thing," while Auer likens it to "a '70s AM radio torch song."
The album's best tunes, though, recall places the Posies have been before. "Second Time Around" is stratospheric hard pop, all blazing guitars and undulating Moog, perhaps catchier than anything on 1996's Amazing Disgrace. The soaring "Love Comes" has as clean an arrangement and indelible a lilt as "Golden Blunders," the Posies' minor 1990 radio hit, and it also features some of the Posies' best lyrics, putting a clever finger on the confounding subject of most pop songs: "Love cuts inside you, gets behind you, takes you under its wing/Is it some kind of function or reconstruction of where you've always been?"
Like all Posies albums, Every Kind of Light is gilded by the burnished, sometimes melancholy harmonies of Auer and Stringfellow--one of the most unaffected vocal sounds of any rock band in recent decades. It's remarkable that the acrimony that once spoiled the duo's relationship could ever have resulted in a sound so fluid.
While Auer and Stringfellow agree that things are smooth now, the cause of past animosity remains a dicey subject. "From my point of view," says Stringfellow, "I saw Jon just totally go into a kind of catatonia--he slept all day, only to go out of the bus or hotel to do a soundcheck, then went back to bed, got up again for the show, then went back to bed."
"It runs both ways," says Auer, who remembers things differently. "I kind of went into a withdrawal mode, and let's say Ken might have gone into an aggressive mode to keep the band forging ahead. For me it started way back on Frosting on the Beater. There had been an altercation between Ken and our drummer at the time. I thought, maybe people aren't all peace and harmony--maybe people are really different and we're all, at some point, not gonna want to be with each other."
Was there a particular event or argument, some breaking point that finalized the '98 breakup? "Let me think about this," says Auer, pausing and then cracking up: "Nothing I'd want to tell you."
Nor any other publication, for that matter--the reasons for the break have never been made clear by either band member, but in 2000, Auer and Stringfellow began to patch up their decade of ill will while compiling the Posies box set, At Least At Last. That led to an acoustic tour the same summer. "We drank like fish," recalls Stringfellow of the tour, "so maybe there wasn't much introspection, but it was a nice change of pace."
Not that Auer and Stringfellow spend interminable hours together these days. Both married, Stringfellow lives in France, Auer in Seattle, and they each have solo careers (Auer has a new album due in January) and work separately as producers. But their latest tour will take them out west and across Europe for more dates than smaller tours in the past few years, and the duo has an ongoing backup gig with the reconstituted '70s power-pop legends Big Star.
"We have this really long-term relationship," Auer says. "I mean, I don't think I've known many people as long as I've known Ken, besides people I'm related to. I think the main difference now is that we both had a chance to take a break from each other and define ourselves as individuals and kind of come back to appreciating each other."
"I think it took a couple of years for us to really trust each other again," Stringfellow says. "I have my perspective on how things went and John has his. And it doesn't matter."