This has been a tumultuous year for longtime friends and musical collaborators Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, the two primary figures behind the stalwart alt-rock/pop group The Posies and stand-ins/sidemen for the legendary Memphis power-pop outfit Big Star.
The latter project came to an untimely end with the March passing of bandleader Alex Chilton just two months before a scheduled homecoming gig in Memphis that eventually morphed into a bittersweet tribute concert. But the year has also seen the Posies reemerge in the national spotlight — fueled somewhat by the Big Star-generated publicity but also thanks to an impressive new album, Blood/Candy, and a co-headlining tour with ex-Raconteur (and fellow Big Star tribute participant) Brendan Benson, which rolls into Memphis this Sunday at Minglewood Hall.
"Memphis is the reason we're doing this tour. It's where we connected with Brendan," Auer says. "It should make for a special evening."
The Posies rose to popularity in late '80s and early '90s out of the Seattle rock scene, but they bore little, if any, resemblance to the dark and heavy grunge sound for which the town is known. Instead, the duo (joined by a rotating cast of musicians) honed a sunnier, more melodic approach influenced by groups like the Beatles, the Hollies, and, of course, Big Star.
In 1990, the group signed to Geffen, embarking on a successful run with the label and highlighted by the 1993 release of the band's most widely revered album, Frosting on the Beater.
"We were living a dream situation. We never really thought it would happen for us," Stringfellow says.
Along the way, the group also attracted the attention of Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, who, also in '93, was looking for some musicians to join him and Chilton onstage for a proposed Big Star reunion.
"I had seen Jon and Ken play as an acoustic duo at the CMJ Festival in 1992 and had also heard their cover versions of 'Feel' and (Big Star co-founder Chris Bell's solo work) 'I Am the Cosmos,' which are both amazing," Stephens says. "So I called them up, and they were interested."
From that point on, Stringfellow and Auer became permanent fixtures in Big Star, even contributing their own new material to the 2005 reunion album, In Space.
"We've had a terrific 17-year friendship and musical relationship, so it was a good suggestion on my part," Stephens says.
"We're both very honored to have been a part of Big Star over the years," Auer says. "Obviously, we cared about the material very much and are very proud to have contributed to the continuation of the band."
By the late '90s, however, the Posies themselves had begun to sputter out.
"We started young and became successful very early," Stringfellow says. "So we didn't learn basic life skills and just couldn't get along anymore."
Auer and Stringfellow's dysfunction reached a boiling point, and in 1999, the Posies played what many thought would be the band's final show. But in 2000, they were approached to put together a boxed-set to appease longtime fans.
"Ken and I reconciling happened very organically," Auer says. "It started with the boxed-set, which, ironically, is the death knell for many bands. But I think the process forced us to reassess our history and forgive each other. It was obvious that the band and our friendship was important to us both."
This April, the Posies reconvened to make their seventh studio album, Blood/Candy, which was released in September. The record finds the band in full melodic stride but also experimenting with an expanded sonic palette, and to great effect.
According to both founding members, the extra effort that went into Blood/Candy was purposeful.
"Jon and I have a lot of projects that are all good, but we feel the Posies' material has to be absolutely top-shelf," Stringfellow says. "The quality has to be transcendent, the emotions resonating, because we aren't a band that can rely solely on nostalgia. Our back-catalog was not so iconic as to be essential to the average, 22-year-old, new music fan. The new songs have to be engaging."
The Posies, with Brendan Benson and Aqueduct
Sunday, November 21st, 8 p.m.