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July 21, 2011

Another Crash Landing?

In the early-to-mid 1990s local hard rock act Sqwearl was known for starting its shows at 2 a.m. and finishing around 4 or 5 a.m., keeping long-since closed venues with names such as The Headroom, Mr. Yucks, and Club Zero, packed with adoring fans.

In the early-to-mid 1990s local hard rock act Sqwearl was known for starting its shows at 2 a.m. and finishing around 4 or 5 a.m., keeping long-since closed venues with names such as The Headroom, Mr. Yucks, and Club Zero, packed with adoring fans. Those same fans purchased a reported 20,000-plus copies of Sqwearl's independent release "eight ball of confusion," the band's first full length recorded project. The CD sales, sold-out shows, and loyal fan base, were enough to garner the serious attention of a major record label.

Twenty years later the band is missing two of its founders to premature deaths, and the remaining members (including the founding bassist's little brother) are no longer kids in their early 20s, and now have day jobs and family obligations. A few are married with children, and another had his first child just days ago. Times have changed for Sqwearl, but not so the desire to rock; and just as Jake Blues famously said as he rounded up his Blues Brothers, so says Sqwearl; "We're puttin' the band back together."

Sqwearl will perform on a multi-bill show at Butter's Pub in Socastee on Friday, and the band says the event will mark a new beginning and a renewed commitment to come out of retirement, permanently.

Men of a certain age

In February the band played a benefit show at Uncle Tito's in Murrells Inlet, at the one-year anniversary of the death of Chris Frye, its original bassist. The benefit was to raise money for Frye's young daughter. On the bill with Sqwearl at that February benefit - Bazooka Joe, Strike-O-Matics, Flick-iT, Hollywood Water Rats, Bitterseed and others, some of them bands with whom Sqwearl shares nearly two decades of memories. Local bands of a certain age share a commonality and a fraternity that seems foreign to newcomers and outsiders.

Many of the remaining old guard rockers of the Grand Strand like to tell heroic tales of the old days - the mid-1980s through the mid/late 1990s - when rock clubs on every corner were filled to capacity, nearly every local band was courted by a major record label, and live music in Myrtle Beach was more than touristy restaurants with a cover band stuffed in the corner.

The Drag, The Independents, Sqwearl, and arguably a few others, were all local bands of that era with a legit shot at fame. Local metal act The Classic Struggle came a bit later (2002) and scored with a label deal and widespread distribution, and a rabid local following, if not superstardom. Those of us who moved to the area after this heyday have heard the story ad nauseam. We might suspect the retelling of the "old days saga" has been exaggerated, except that it keeps repeating itself, with more and more credible witnesses corroborating the wild claims.

Four piece hard rock act, Sqwearl, is one such old guard rock band filled with legendary local rock reputations and minor celebrity: stalwart rock surnames such as Long, Roberts, Koon, McKenzie, Frye, Collins, and Gunter will have our 30 and 40-something local rock geezers nodding their heads, saying "Oh yeah, those were some good times..." Well the good times may be back as a slightly reconfigured Sqwearl will headline the grand opening of Butter's Pub in Socastee (formerly The Pub), with local acts The Slobz, and Flick iT, around 11 p.m. Friday.

We recently spoke with the current Sqwearl line-up about the old days, their personal losses, plans for the future, and Friday's show. "We won't be starting at 2 a.m.," laughed David Koon, founding member and Sqwearl lead vocalist. "We're way too fucking old for that." Koon, along with original drummer Langdon Gunter, guitarist Brian McKenzie, and longtime family member and new-ish bassist Robbie Frye have decided to see if some of the old magic might still be there. The act hopes to perform a few times each month without any of the pressure associated with "making it" in the music biz. "We're way over that," said Koon. "We've got jobs, families, but we still want to have fun."

Part of the "fun" of which Koon recalls was being at the top of the regional heap of original rock acts while he and his band mates were still in their early 20s. "We played Columbia and Charleston all the time, as well as Myrtle Beach," said Koon. "We headlined the House of Blues. We were getting $4,000 - $5,000 a night at local bars."

The success, demise, reunions and rebirth of Sqwearl during the past 15 - 20 years comes fraught with personal tragedy. Two of the band's founding members both passed away while still young men. Wes Long, original guitarist for the band, and older brother of local country crooner Brad Long (Carolina Opry), was found dead in his truck near the Backgate of the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base in 2002. In 2010, original bassist Chris Frye also died after battling a rare disease - Acromegaly, the same condition that afflicted wrestler/actor Andre The Giant. Meanwhile, Koon and his family lost their home to a fire, in which lives were thankfully spared, but all else was lost. He said of the fire in a 2007 Weekly Surge interview "It was as close to dying as you can get and still talk about it."

Still the band perseveres, having played a handful of reunion shows and benefits through the years, but the guys say that this reunion is different. It's a fresh start.

"If everybody's gung-ho, then I'm game for as much as they want to play," said guitarist Brian McKenzie, who is a well-known producer/musician and part of several regularly re-appearing local acts; Something About Vampires and Sluts, The Wet Teens, Electric Bird Noise, and others. "I imagine we might be able to play out more regularly then in the past. We already know the songs, and there's still a lot of name recognition and fans who seem to want to hear us, thankfully."

On Sqwearl's Facebook page, fans are clamoring for the band to re-release its out-of-print classic "eight ball of confusion."

A Sqwearl sighting always creates a buzz, after all these years.

"This show is a get down, get down," said Koon, using his sometimes-cryptic metaphors. "The phone calls I get, and the comments we get on the Internet - why not?"

But Robbie Frye says the band won't over saturate the market.

"We won't be as busy as we were back in the day," added Frye, using that favorite "back in the day" talking point that older local musicians use who remember when.

But just what was it really like "back in the day?"

Cue wistful looks, squiggly lines and dreamy harp music here...

Back In the Day

Sqwearl formed as tween hellions, when Koon, Chris Frye, Long and Gunter were 12-year-old kids, romping around Myrtle Beach looking for trouble and finding music. It was the mid 1980s and life was sweet and sunny at the beach. A few years later, while still teenagers, the boys started making real music and developing a style, once described as a cross between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Metallica, with a little Creed thrown in. Several players would come and go in the early days around 1990-1994. Bradley Roberts (The Regime, Sideways Derby) and Bart Collins (Rollo) both performed with the band. McKenzie remembers filling in for bassist Chris Frye at Sqwearl's very first gig in 1991 at an unlikely spot for a hard rock show - Dagwood's Deli in Myrtle Beach.

"I wasn't the official first guitarist," said McKenzie, "but strangely I played the very first Sqwearl gig. I actually played bass at their first show. Chris couldn't make it due to a work conflict, so I filled in. I'd known these guys for a long time. We were all friends. I went to high school with most everybody in the band, and all the punk rockers hung together."

Koon remembers that gig.

"We had a crowd that night," recalled Koon. "We had a mosh pit. No one in Myrtle Beach had ever seen that. I remember a few redneck types out front saying 'Man they're body slappin' in there - that's cool." While Chris Frye would return to his position as the band's bassist, McKenzie, was added as a permanent guitarist, along with Roberts who played guitar with the band through the mid 1990s.

While its members were still in their late teens and early twenties, Sqwearl was one of the bands enjoying a free-wheeling wild west rock 'n' roll heyday in Myrtle Beach and in nearby cities.

"We played the Purple Gator, Mr. Yucks, The Headroom, the Afterdeck," said Gunter, naming once-renowned local rock 'n' roll venues that no longer exist, though The Afterdeck does occasionally reemerge as a spot for live music.

"We headlined the House of Blues, [which opened in 1997] and were paid $5000," said Koon.

Robbie Frye, younger brother of original bassist Chris Frye, and younger than his band mates by five or six years, didn't let his youth stop him from being at nearly every one of Sqwearl's shows. He speaks with the authority of a full-fledged life-long band member, who, because of his age (and youthful sobriety), remembers more details than his formerly whiskey-swilling band mates.

"The only two bands I've ever seen from Myrtle Beach that could really draw a crowd were Sqwearl and The Classic Struggle," said Frye. "They were the only two where'd they'd have to stop people from coming in the door."

Rock clubs of Sqwearl's legendary heyday were often packed to the rafters with kids and young adults, who sought out live music, bought CDs, and paid cover charges - bars and bands both made good money. It was also an era when rock ruled and record deals were a commodity, and industry money flowed in and out of Myrtle Beach.

Deal or No Deal?

Frederick Jay "Rick" Rubin, legendary songwriter, producer, A&R rep and label creator (Def Jam, American Recordings) had an interest in the rock 'n' roll of Sqwearl, sending reps to check on the band on "more than one occasion," recalls Gunter.

"Rick Rubin was a cool guy," added Koon, "but very intimidating. I heard him say 'sign them now.'"

"A couple of times he sent one of his guys from New York City to watch us at the Afterdeck," said Gunter. "Then they paid for us to go to New York two times to make demos." Besides its live shows, some of the label interest came from the extraordinary sales of Sqwearl's "eight ball of confusion," engineered by guitarist McKenzie and produced by the band. The recordings were sold at shows and at an equally extraordinary record store, Sounds Familiar, an iconic Myrtle Beach record shop and hangout which closed in 2004.

"Yeah, it was a different world," said Seth Funderburk, co-owner of Sea Note recording, manager of local rock act Ten Toes Up, and former store manger of the once thriving Sounds Familiar. "Sqwearl's music was at the right time (the post-Seattle boom). That really contributed to their popularity, and they did it well. At the time they had a bigger shot [at breaking out of Myrtle Beach] than probably anybody but the Drag."

Funderburk couldn't verify the exact numbers of Sqwearl's CD that sold, but confirmed that 20,000 units is "quite possible." The store once reserved a section for local acts and their CDs, and Funderburk recalls that the Sqwearl section was usually empty. "They had a permanent marker in their space," he remembers. It said "Are You Kidding? There's No More." "When a rare used copy came in," said Funderburk, "it never hit the floor."

The CD "eight ball of confusion," has been out of print for more than a decade and Robbie Frye recalled seeing a copy on e-Bay recently with a starting bid of $35, though none were available when we checked. "Back then," added Funderburk, "after the project was completely out of print, and before the advent of the digital world, we'd sell copies for $40 or $50 bucks each. Sqwearl's longevity and name recognition is still amazing to me. I have a long-sleeved Sqwearl shirt that I wear, and when we're out of town at a Ten Toes Up show, it's inevitable that some one will comment on it."

Banana Jack Murphy, formerly of local rock station WKZQ-FM, also remembers the band well.

"You couldn't be around in the '90s and not know Sqwearl," said Murphy, who remembers playing Sqwearl singles in regular rotation. Murphy now owns and operates a small but growing independent radio station WLSC-AM in Loris. "Back then, WKZQ was still a mom-and-pop station," he said. "Sqwearl would come in and do [live] unplugged shows, and we had them in rotation, but it's not like that now. I understand cost cutting - I don't fault [corporate owners], but it is too bad that the local element is gone." Well not completely gone - WKZQ does still air "Flight Test," a Monday evening indie-oriented show with Mason "Mase" Brazelle. Flight Test will occasionally feature songs from local acts that fit the format, but there's no question that local content is nowhere what it once was and it seems unlikely that a band, such as Sqwearl, would get the same attention today without a full-blown record deal and national distribution.

So what happened?

"[Rick Rubin] asked us to do the one thing we weren't willing to do," said Koon. "We got to where we were [ in our popularity] by the music we wrote, and by the way we were on stage - and they asked us to change."

"When we were in New York we went in to meet with the producer before we were to record a demo," said Gunter, "and he had re-written the song. The changes weren't too major, but...

"They were drastic," said Koon, interrupting.

"[The producer] had made it radio-friendly," said Gunter.

"And then we got home and they started telling us what we were going to record, where and when we were going to go on tour," said Koon, "- and that didn't sit right. We were doing what we wanted to do and making all those decisions ourselves." Gunter recalled an eye-opening number. "We were offered a $100,000 record deal with American Records," he said. "But we were making $4-$5,000 a night playing locally."

"When [Sqwearl] called back," added Robbie Frye, "there was no negotiation."

The process, the corporate mindset, and the culture shock were unsettling, especially to Koon. "When we were in the studio," he recalled, "they sent in these slick-back hair cats telling us how to re-write our songs. I said 'let us do our thing, and you won't be disappointed' - but it didn't work out. I do not regret [the decision to stay true to our music] whatsoever." Robbie Frye described what everyone in the band had hoped for. "If [the label] had let them tour on their own, with the record they had, it would have worked," he said.

Family ties

So with the deal gone, substance abuse issues flaring within its ranks, a lagging music industry, and the eventual loss of two founding members, the band faltered, but never actually said, "It's over." The glue that binds this band together is not unlike that of family, and a shared history that dates back to when its members were boys.

"We're all family," said Robbie Frye. "I grew up with these guys. I stood in the corner, this little kid, running the homemade lights, flippin' switches on and off, getting beer thrown on me."

Gunter laughed at that memory. "We've been dragging Robbie around since he was like 11 or 12," he said. "I was around 16 and we'd take off for Florida and we'd take him with us."

Koon added his favorite memory of the young Robbie Frye. "When he was nine years old he had a three-foot-tall Mohawk [haircut] and we took him out to the country - when my grandmother got one look at him she called him "Rooster."

"Even when I had my own thing, [as bassist] with 10.Gauge," said Robbie Frye, "we traveled with Sqwearl. There weren't many shows that Sqwearl did that we weren't a part of, and then after 10.Gauge I started Flick-iT."

"Our goal was to keep each other on the road," said Koon. "And Brian [McKenzie]... he and I were friends as kids racing bicycles, and then some of us went off and started surfing, which wasn't really his deal. He's a little too pale to be dancin' around in the sun," he laughed.

Though not present at the interview, Sqwearl spoke of longtime soundman and Frye cousin "Bodie the Roadie." The ever-faithful extra band member will be there moving gear and running sound for Friday's show. Funderburk remembers Michael "Bodie" Welsh from Sqwearl's earliest days. "He was notorious for blowing shit up."

What's in a name?

Beyond simply a clever misspelling of "squirrel," the band's name is reportedly an acronym created at an early gig at bar in Charleston. "There was a [regular] named Earl," said McKenzie, "who I guess some of the guys drank with, and the name "Sqwearl" actually came from that - Sipping Quick Whiskey with Earl - I think David came up with it."

"We drank a lot of whiskey back then, wrecked a few cars," said Gunter, who is now a (mostly) responsible adult and is captain and owner of a commercial fishing boat in Murrells Inlet. Koon works in HVAC installations and repairs, and Frye is recently unemployed. Hours before our press deadline, Frye had just had his first child, a daughter, Kaya Frye. "I quit my job yesterday," he said with a smile during last week's interview. The smile was not so easily shared by his then very-pregnant girlfriend Niki Hucks, who was sitting nearby. Mother, newborn daughter, and dad are all reported to be doing well.

Through the inevitable changes and speed bumps of life, Sqwearl's rock 'n' roll will soldier on - through personal loss, house fires, unemployment, lost opportunities, new families, maturity, careers and the road ahead.

"We hope to play the same towns we used to play," said Robbie Frye, "but the money and the market is so tight right now, it won't be like the old days." Koon looks forward to taking the act to North Carolina again. "It's funny... even Ashville [N.C.], which is known as a hippie town," he said, "Sqwearl has a following. You wouldn't think it but there's a select group of mountain people who like to wander down out of yonder hills, and get rowdy with this band Sqwearl."

While the band looks forward to its reunion show on Friday and the possibilities of continued performance, and even new recordings, the losses of Long and Chris Frye are never far removed from the memories of those they left behind. "I'm not replacing my brother," said Robbie Frye. "I can't. It's a mental fuck for me to [play in his place] but I'll do it. And now it's not about the money, it's all about now. We want to carry on the memory for Wes and Chris - both of them."

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