A Conversation With...

Swimming Pool Q’s: Working At The Nut Factory

spqsSome bands are always going to reside on the peripheral of the greater scene. People know the big names–The Beatles, Sex Pistols, Nirvana--but not as many know Gerry and the Pacemakers, Buzzcocks, or Mudhoney--all bands of quality, but ones that have a smaller and just as great a following. Such is the case with Swimming Pool Q’s, ostensibly a Florida-based band, but heavily linked with the College Rock scene of the 1980s–the scene that produced The B-52s, REM, and Pylon, and a host of other equally talented yet obscure names.

 

It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Swimming Pool Q’s flirted with the mainstream; first signing to A&M, and then to Capitol Records, the resulting three albums were superior in quality in spite of being critically ignored. Ostensibly, the band came to an end after the release of World War Two Point Five, but the band never actually broke up; they simply went into a hibernated state, playing sporadic shows here and there, releasing the occasional record–but at their leisure, and no one else’s.

 

As you can see, leader Jeff Calder is a man with a lot to say. He and his music are one and the same–smart, literate, with a lot to say, and always saying it in a very compelling, interesting way. And though this is the history of the Swimming Pool Q’s, it is, by no means, the final word; as we speak, they have recently released an EP, as a precursor to the band’s next full length album, due Spring 2014/.

 

 

 

What do you remember about the making of your debut single all those years ago? How was it received? What were your goals for as a band when you released it? Do you feel like you met those goals?

 

Anne Boston: I do remember working on the packaging. A friend, Walton Harris, designed the cover and printed them at a quick-print shop in Atlanta. We had a rubber stamp made of the band name and hand-stamped them all. And I remember the photo shoot by Monroe Hemmerdinger in Florida. I don’t have the polka dot outfit anymore, or the Charley McCarthy head which I think belonged to Jeff and became some warped persona of Roy Rat Bait at live shows.

 

JC: We tracked “Rat Bait”/”The A-bomb Woke Me Up” in Ybor City near downtown Tampa at Hitmakers Studio, a building that had once been a produce stand. Their console came from a room at the famous Electric Lady Studios in New York City. As a side note, Ybor City in the 1920s is the setting for a recent mobster novel Live by Night, although I don’t believe the author mentions the fruit stand.

 

Earlier in the Seventies, I’d been a free-lance rock journalist living in Central Florida. I had a network of old friends in the area, so when The Q’s started playing, a lot of our first dates outside of Atlanta were in the Sunshine State. We opened three Florida shows for The Police in spring 1979, so we had a good following down there, cutting our teeth in an environment that was much rougher than the high-hat circles we ran with in Georgia. Anyway, that was our connection to Tampa.

 

We released “Rat Bait” and “A-bomb” on our own label, Chlorinated. Danny Beard of DB Recs helped us distribute it through Important, a company that operated from the back of his record store, Wax n Facts. DB Recs wasn’t fully established yet, but, because of his success with “Rock Lobster,” he helped us get it around to the right places, mostly up and down the East Coast. It was well received in Washington, as well as at the New York Rocker and Boston Rock. Along with a steady touring schedule, the single furthered our reputation in advance of The Deep End in 1981.

 

After the initial batch of “Florida songs”—oddball tales, cracked narratives– that made up the early Q’s material, “A-Bomb” was one of the first songs we created in Atlanta as a band. There’s a Theremin on it, but you can’t really hear it, so I don’t know why I’m mentioning it except to say that it was built from a Heathkit, a do-it-yourself electronics project package. Anne Boston had begun to step up as a lead vocalist. She sounds really cool, although, as a work, “A-Bomb” doesn’t provide an opportunity to demonstrate the more emotional qualities found on her later odes from The A&M Years, where she delivers the goods.

 

We auditioned for our first drummer Robert Schmid over the radio; Anita Sarko suggested broadcasting “Rat Bait” on her WRAS show for his evaluation. Robert joined the band, but, possibly due to its odd time signature, he refused to play it for several months. “Rat Bait” was the first song Bob Elsey and I wrote together. In January 1978, right after the Sex Pistols American debut in Atlanta, Bob came down to Florida to record some demos with me, and he created the main rift on a Telecaster while walking around in a cow pasture next to my house. I had the words, and we put it together quickly. It was inspired by an odd character we saw making a call at a convenience store near the Silver Moon Drive-In Theater. We watched him for a while, and then he drove off in a Gremlin.

 

When “Rat Bait” was done, we played it for a local mandolin player named Mike Marshall. Mike was still a teenager, and he later became a star picker in the bluegrass world. Thoughtfully, Mike listened to the song, then passed judgment: “It’s pretty good, but why would you want to do something like that?”

 

Before we had the band together, Bob and I performed “Rat Bait” on an Atlanta cable show, prompting our first review: “Just plain awful.” (Russel Shaw, Performance Magazine). This rude reception guaranteed the song would not be denied, and, in time, it became a signature for The Q’s. People still hoot for “Rat Bait” at our shows. As a source of aggravation, it seems to have staying power. In 2006, when The Swimming Pool Q’s performed it at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame annual show, a statewide television event to be precise, the Governor sat stone-faced at the VIP table; our hopes for early induction were dashed. Afterwards, a state senator said to my friend Mike Clark, “I didn’t much like that swimming pool band.” Mike responded, “I’m sure they’ll be pleased to hear it, Senator.”

 

I was an impostor on the saxophone, but the “solo” in the bridge sounds nearly accomplished. The band didn’t play “Rat Bait” when we toured with Lou Reed in 1984, except one time when we pulled it out at the Orpheum in Boston. We came off stage, and Lou said, in his best Jerry Lewis voice, “Hey, I like the new thing with the sax. You guys should put that on your next album!”

 

As for our goals, they were more immediate at the time. We were in the thick of it right away, the Atlanta/Athens music scenes materializing all around us. So much was happening so fast, there was no time to map-out a sensible career path. It’s not easy to describe the feeling of exhilaration. If you had stopped to think about it, you would have been intimidated—there were so many great creative groups!

 

I suppose The Swimming Pool Q’s ambition extended to having as good a band as possible, a goal I think we met after a lot of hard work. I will say that following our tour dates with The Police, during which we played in front of large crowds around the region, we began to sense the potential for a broader audience than the underground one to which we had been exclusively confined.

 

 

A bit of time passed between the single and the debut album. Was it a case of being too busy touring and performing to make an album, were you working on it piecemeal, and how did the time between releases help your song craft?

 

Before 1980, it was unclear how we could make an album, even if we had the dough, which we didn’t. Until Danny Beard got DB off the ground, there wasn’t a regional label that would have been interested in what The Swimming Pool Q’s, or any of the Atlanta/Athens bands, were doing—the exceptions being The Brains, who signed with Mercury, and, of course, The B-52’s. A chap named Bob Currie at EMI saw us play in New York at The Danceteria, and flew down to cut a few songs. We mixed them at RCA studios in Nashville, where, for the first time, we heard expressions like “in the pocket” and “on the diamond,” neither of which we were, so it didn’t go anywhere with the label. (George Jones was in the RCA studio corridor having a panic attack: he couldn’t find an exit door that would open. After some effort gaining his trust, Anne ushered him out to his new Cadillac, the one with the flat-ass trunk, which had a fat white-wall hanging up on the curb.)

 

Danny was just formalizing DB Recs—he’d already put out singles by Kevin Dunn and Pylon. We’d first met him when we opened for The B-52’s in Athens in November 1978. We thought he was in the band because the cuffs of his slacks were really high off the ground and for some reason we associated that style with the group. Danny became a fan of The Q’s, and, as his label developed, it seemed like a good fit. We were extremely anxious to make an album. The notion of a “deal” was a little square, so there wasn’t a contract. And we still needed to raise some cash to make it happen. Kickstarter wasn’t around then, so we called our friend Howard Jenkins, who came through, just as he would in 2013 when we were funding The A&M Years project. Everything about The Q’s history seems like a full circle, albeit with a diagonal line coming out the bottom.

 

The band had a large repertoire of original material that we’d been playing intensely for about three years. We’d started to grow beyond the early “Florida” songs—though they’re a blast to play today–so we kept our most popular ones like “Stock Car Sin,” “Stick in My Hand” and “Rat Bait,” supplementing those with the more citified “Atlanta” songs like “Little Misfit” and, my favorite, “Overheated.” The angular selections such as “Big Fat Tractor” and “Black Bug” fell into place a month or two before we started recording. Like most first albums, The Deep End was cut “live” with a few vocal and guitar overdubs. We spent a lot of attention on Bob’s solos, which were superb and crazy. The Q’s were a tight band, so if there are flaws in the execution, they were tight flaws. We were in a bit of a rush to get the album underway before Robert left the group, which added some anxiety to the process, perhaps contributing to the urgency of the sound. In one of those typically Q-ish turns, Robert is now the bassist with the band; I guess that makes as much sense as anything! Oh, and we played The Deep End release party in May 1981 at the 688 club with R.E.M.

 

 

The self-titled album was a major stylistic shift from Deep End. The quirkiness replaced by a very earnest, collegiate sound–and it’s almost hard to believe that it’s the same band that wrote songs like “Walk Like a Chicken” and “Model Trains.” Was this a conscious decision to get more “serious,” had you felt a fear of being pigeonholed as a “funny” band, did A&M have a conversation about this with you, or did it just happen organically?

 

 

Anne Boston: We WERE a funny band (weren’t we?). But we were also serious about making music and connecting with all kinds of listeners. There were the Jeff-voiced songs and the Anne-voiced songs and the Jeff and Anne-voiced songs and each category had humorous and serious sides.

 

Jeff: I believe it happened organically. Prior to The Deep End, I’d been trying to write songs better suited to Anne’s ultra-harmonious voice and to her personality, which was a little more serious–not that she doesn’t have a sense of humor. I was the funny guy, so it was a struggle at first. Being a sort of blues-rock croaker, I had few melodic virtues as a songwriter or singer, but I was determined to make it work and eventually relaxed into it, especially when Bob began reinforcing Anne’s vocal lines with his guitar ideas; that certainly helped. Regarding gender, I felt we needed a balanced presentation, so, yes, for me there was a conscious decision to get more serious, as you say.

 

We had a rollicking image, for sure, but it wasn’t for nothing that we were known among friends as “The Moody Q’s,” so it was easier than you might think to shift the energy in a melancholy or emotional direction. Things finally collapsed into place in early 1982, when our new rhythm section stabilized with Bill Burton on drums and J.E. Garnett on bass. Prior to that, as The Q’s more manifold identity emerged, it was hard for the first rhythm sections to reconcile the two sides of the band. But when Billy and J.E. came in, we got “the feeling.” When that happens, you don’t want to let it go, and so we were drawn to creating the bright sound with a dark mood that you hear on The Swimming Pool Q’s.

 

Everything came in a rush after that. It was all there for David Anderle, our A&R person at A&M who produced the album; he responded immediately to what we were doing, so we didn’t have to have the “talk.” He didn’t know much about our Deep End past–he probably thought it was just another nutty New Wave record; you know, good, but not ready for the big time. I think he liked me as a character, my ambition and emphasis on language, and he loved Anne’s voice. So in his subtle, artful way, he may have encouraged the warmth and delicacy you mention in your next observation. Anderle was a brilliant painter in the manner of Modigliani.

 

What I like about the self-titled album is that even though it’s a more mature record, it has a wonderfully warm, delicate feel. Was making it an arduous or detailed process for you, or was it more of a chance to finally get out of the indie-rock recording mentality and finally focus on and develop your sound in the studio?

Before The Swimming Pool Q’s, we had a hard time in the studio capturing whatever it was we thought we weren’t capturing about the band in the studio. In 1983, we finally made some progress in the right direction on a tape produced by our friend Glenn Phillips. It featured “The Bells Ring” and, as a demo, it got us a lot of major label interest and the contract with A&M Records. To record the album, Anderle brought in Ed Stasium, who was a world-class rock engineer. He was a hip guy who’d made albums with Talking Heads and The Ramones. We had two weeks of pre-production with David and Ed, then went into Axis Studio in Atlanta and cut the songs live, just as they were.

Except for the advance planning and the advantage of having more time, it was not unlike the process of making The Deep End. Beside the professional strengths of the production team, the crucial differences were that Axis was a huge room with a great Neve console, and, by then, The Q’s had a much bigger sound; we were really ready to do it. Because Axis was a 24-track facility, there was more flexibility to layer sounds, so Ed, Bob and I spent days orchestrating the guitars to be something like a rocking 6-string Avalon.

It’s hard to believe now, but in the little world in which we operated—the American post-Wave guitar-rock universe—there was always a lot of aesthetic blather about “overproduction.” Ergo, the prevailing studio doctrine, as I understood it, was quite conservative, even reactionary, despite all of the big-mouth future-talk from the movement’s now-forgotten leading theoreticians. (Wait a minute: they could be back!) The Albion equivalency was far less stuffy—the Brits had no problem making bands that were flat-broke sound expensive and superlunary. But any backlash fears we may have had turned out to be unfounded because the album was well received across the spectrum of opinion, a few local cranks aside.

 

Anne: We spent so much time as a band rehearsing and playing and touring that recording didn’t seem arduous at all. We had also done quite a bit of recording before the A&M deal: demos and rehearsal recordings. I remember having some “pre-production” meetings where the producer (David Anderle) and the engineer (Ed Stasium) came to our practices and talked about lots of stuff but I don’t recall it being anything but positive working with those two. They were fun and totally professional and upbeat.

 

 

Blue Tomorrow–to me it seems to meld the earnestness of its predecessor, while building upon the clever humor of your previous work, albeit not going for the quirky factor that was found on Deep End. Was there a sense of trying to break away from that more serious side of the self-titled album?

 

It’s an interesting question because, to me, Blue Tomorrow seems like a more serious, earnest album than The Swimming Pool Q’s. Maybe that’s because tracks like “Wreck Around” dominate the album in my mind. Thanks, Joseph: now I have to rethink everything!

 

I’ve talked to bands like Dead Milkmen, B-52s, and They Might Be Giants, and often as they matured, they felt a certain identity crisis as they matured from bands with a humorous side–that when they try to do something a bit more serious or not as intentionally funny, that they feel they aren’t “being themselves,” or that they’re potentially alienating those who came along from the beginning by becoming a more “mature” act. As you progressed over the years with each album release, did you ever feel a sense of that identity crisis? Did it cause problems within the band?

 

I know what you mean. Even today, it’s a little difficult to give a Swimming Pool Q’s set equilibrium. One part of the audience likes the quirkier monotone music; the other part might like the more melodic aspect. Bands always lose old fans and pick up new fans along the way, for any number of reasons. Some stay with you though it all. As for the group, when we began to make our transition after The Deep End, I think Bob, Anne and I were prepared for the change, so it wasn’t a crisis for us; it was more like elation.

 

I’m sure there was a trivial side to the Deep End-era Q’s, but there was just as often a strong satirical streak that indicated a deeper, confrontational agenda at work behind the lark. It wasn’t quite so difficult to direct that inward to the emotional terrain of The Swimming Pool Q’s and Blue Tomorrow. I’m proud of all our early work, even if it some of it seems to be a little sophomoric now. It’s still a hell of a lot of fun to play, and our drummer, Bill Burton really enjoys it, even though he didn’t play on the album. I think we maintain a humorous side, even on the later material that has a cerebral dimension.

 

After Anne left, you continued on with World War Two Point Five, and to these ears, it’s as much a stylistic jump from what came before it. Looking at its arrival time, it also appeared shortly after REM became one of the biggest American bands at the time. Considering your mutual Southern roots, was the production upped in order to compete with or be a possible “next REM,” at least in the eyes of Capitol Records? Are you satisfied with the results?

 

In the late 80s, there seemed to be a tendency among the bands that came up in the Southeast guitar brain pop scene to heavy it up a bit. I’m not sure I can tell you why, other than it was probably a reaction to the lighter-weight jangle thing earlier in the decade. World War Two Point Five is representative of how The Q’s sounded at the time. Elsey is a powerful guitarist, and Billy and J.E. make a quartz-like rhythm section, so the group was well suited to the more hard-rock approach we took on the record. I think of the album as a pretty angry piece of work, so I’m sure that contributed to the edge it has.

As for the politics of the recording, it was a joint Capitol/DB venture. DB had a production deal at Capitol, and they did a few projects together, including Fetchin’ Bones and The Reivers. Since we were making World War Two Point Five in Atlanta, Capitol was way in the background. We had all of our contact with Danny Beard of DB, our old friend who never pressured us to make it like this or that band or, for that matter, any which way.

One or two more interesting things about Two Point Five. Greg “Fern” Quesnel, who had been the tracking engineer for Blue Tomorrow, produced the album. Leaping forward, we worked very closely with Fern this year on Pow Wow Hour, the bonus disc for The A&M Years, which he and I co-produced. Fern mixed songs like “Power and Light” and “Fading Star” from the original 8-track masters. It was often a technical nightmare, which is my idea of a dream.

World War Two Point Five was recorded by Brendan O’Brien, an old friend who became an astonishingly successful producer (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, STP, etc). Brendan was probably the first rock engineer indigenous to Atlanta to have the super-fast approach that we’d seen with Ed Stasium and in New York City studios. He was a funny guy, but he didn’t play around. Late one night, Andy Slater and Warren Zevon gave me a bell, wanting to know who had done the album, because they liked the sound. Then, one of The Black Crowes called to ask if Brendan would be a good choice to track their first album; I said yes.

 

After that album, you effectively ceased to exist. What caused the band to end? What was that one moment where you decided, “I don’t want to do this anymore?”

In actuality, the story of The Swimming Pool Q’s is that, 35 years on, we’ve never broken up or ceased to be. After World War Two Point Five, it took us a year to figure out our next move. We were a strong live act, but the more contemplative album that I envisioned didn’t lend itself to a gangbusters club-rock approach. So, at the end of 1992, we went to Savannah and with co-producer Phil Hadaway, cut three songs that would become the template for Royal Academy. Building those tracks over the next two years, we developed an experimental methodology that demanded patience and reflection, or patient reflection. The concept and instrumentation expanded to include a large cast of additional musicians, among them Moe Tucker, who played a drum on “The Wheel of the Sun.” It took us until 1998 to complete the album, and then another four years for it to find a home at Bar/None in 2003. (I should mention that Bar/None is currently distributing The A&M Years.) I wish that Royal Academy had come out in ’98, because it would have stood apart from the American alternative scene which was still captivated by grunge, its aftermath and its various indie offshoots; regionally, everything had gone jam rock. So, while 1998 may not have been the most hospitable year for a grandiose, ambitious, self-indulgent, exceedingly complex and, above all, ambient pop record like Royal Academy–particularly coming from a Southern guitar band perceived to be from of an earlier epoch–it would have stood very much apart. Nonetheless, in 2003, the climate was more open, and Royal Academy of Reality was embraced by some critics as an avatar of the New Psychedelia. I think.

Throughout this 10-year period, we continued to perform, though by no means at a James Brown pace. During the wait for RAR’s release, we put together the expanded Deep End reissue for DB Recs in 2001; it got some nice attention and was a very rewarding experience.

 

You guys came back together about a decade ago. What was it that caused you to get back? How did the experience of making Royal Academy compare to your previous work?

I would say that some of the Royal Academy’s approach was based on what we had learned working with Mike Howlett on Blue Tomorrow. Mike was a terrific British producer, born in Fiji. He’d helped assemble The Police, and he had success with a diverse group of artists ranging from Joan Armatrading to the overly maligned Flock of Seagulls, whose songs “Wishing” and “Space-Age Love Song” I revere, unapologetically.

Mike’s approach to recording was advanced, not the American way circa 1985, at least not the working methods of the group of artists with whom we were generally associated. Blue Tomorrow was a 48-track affair, involving click-tracks, editing on the 2-inch tape, SMPTE time code, sequencing, and so forth. In addition to the spider’s web of guitars, which Bob Elsey spun, the orchestration included older instruments like dulcimers, harmoniums and psalteries balanced with modern synthesizers and samplers like the Synclavier. Howlett wasn’t afraid of anything, and he gave us the confidence that we needed to pursue a process that would have terrified our contemporaries, and rightly so. Blue Tomorrow was mixed to digital tape—we might have out-futured ourselves on that one—and it was the first digitally mastered album in history.

Anyway, many of the Blue Tomorrow techniques were employed later on Royal Academy of Reality. RAR came along at the dawn of accessible digital recording, which was only available to us in a small way, so it was primarily an analog project. So, in this case, we had to get everything down to 48-tracks to mix it at Southern Tracks in Atlanta. It was like filming Cleopatra on a Super 8 budget.

 

What’s in the cards for Swimming Pool Q’s? New material? Touring?

We’re still a very active band, always looking to the future, believe it or not. Over the next several months, I hope we’ll play a number of dates to support The A&M Years. We just had our 35th (Jade) Anniversary/CD Release event here in Atlanta, which went very well. J.E. Garnett, our bassist from the period, came down to sit in on a number of songs.

We have about 2/3 of a new album mixed, and a few basic tracks standing by in the queue, waiting to be finished. I’ve co-produced them with Tim Delaney, a talented Atlanta musician and engineer we’ve worked with as far back as Royal Academy. It certainly helps that I’m friends with a number of great recording engineers, many of whom I was fortunate to be associated with at Atlanta’s legendary Southern Tracks studio, which I helped to manage for many years and where I was on the periphery of what seems like a hundred major rock albums produced by Brendan O’Brien.

I like doing new things, having recently produced and played on an album by The Hot Place, Lisa King’s band based in Atlanta. It’s a pretty cool record that has a song called “Saturn Moved” on which Richard Lloyd of Television unleashes a wild solo. I play guitar and keyboards with Glenn Phillips, an old friend who was one of the guitarists in the infamous Hampton Grease Band. Glenn and I also have a project called the Supreme Court, and released an album called Sun Hex in 2010. Working with Glenn is very demanding; it requires ongoing improvement and maintenance of one’s skills, or “chops.” I’m lucky to have played for so many years with Glenn and Bob Elsey, who I think are two of the greatest guitarists in the world.

I like old things, as well, doing reissues like The A&M Years, which took the better part of a decade to realize. I’m looking toward an expanded World War Two Point Five, as well as some other legacy projects. A few years ago, I helped oversee the re-release of Pylon’s albums Gyrate and Chomp. And I just rode herd over the removal of 4,000 tapes dating back to the 1950s, transferring them from Southern Tracks vault to the state archives at the University of Georgia. I was able to retrieve a dozen lost multi-track masters of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors and shipped them to Universal Music to complete their collection for that album. I wish more people loved the smell of ancient tape in the morning. I know that I do!

 

 

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