In the corner of a back room in a house off 12th Avenue in Conway, the past and future of Grand Strand rock ‘n’ roll sits in three cardboard boxes.
Chris Smith, who lives in this house, opens one of the boxes and pulls out something that isn’t seen too much these days outside of flea markets, as decor pieces, in deejay booths and collectors’ stashes. The dimensions are familiar to veteran music lovers but not so much to anybody younger than the age of 30.
It’s a 33 rpm album, an LP. The cover bears an image that instantly brings back memories to anybody who knows anything about Myrtle Beach music of another certain era, the 1990s.
A billiard ball, an eight ball, sits on the keys of a piano. In stark letters across the front cover are the words “eight ball of confusion,” the now-legendary 1990s independent release by the Myrtle Beach grunge/hard rock band Sqwearl. The original CD sold as much as 20,000 copies.
Flip the cover over and in bold white capital letters are the names of songs instantly familiar to local music fans in the know: “LOUDLY BEING,” “CRASH LANDING,” “FIRST AMENDMENT” and five others.
Smith peels back the cellophane wrap and gently pulls a white disc from a white paper cover.
He holds up something that has never been seen before, until now, 2012.
“eight ball of confusion,” an album long out of print, coveted by fans who search for copies on the Internet and treasured by those who still hold it nestled in collections of Myrtle Beach music from a seemingly distant, treasured era, is back.
And it’s on vinyl.
“This should have been done back in the ‘90s,” Smith says with a huge smile on his face. “If this had been done back in the ‘90s, it would be probably nearly impossible to get your hands on a copy right now.”
Sqwearl might seem like the random misspelling of the name of a common tree-dwelling rodent to the uninitiated – namely, anybody who knows nothing about the Myrtle Beach music scene of the 1990s – but to people who lived around here then, or made spring break and summer pilgrimages to the beach, and to thousands of others who were fortunate enough to see live shows or hear songs on the Internet – those seven letters spell the name of a band that has earned the status of legend.
Sqwearl, formed in the early 1990s, achieved a cult following through raucous live shows that often lasted way into the wee hours. The band has been through its share of tragedy and ups and downs, surviving the deaths of original guitarist Wes Long and original bassist Chris Frye. The surviving members have started families, taken other jobs, and been through their own personal crises, but the band resurfaced about a year ago and has played occasional gigs around the Myrtle Beach area since.
And now the band’s most famous release is on vinyl. It’s been resurrected by Smith and has been released on his new label, Turnip Farm Records. He started the label, largely with his own resources, as a way to give today’s fans a chance to hear both old and new music in new ways. Beside “eight ball of confusion” on vinyl, he’s also issued music by current Myrtle Beach band Shark Legs on…wait for it…cassette.
Down on the farm
Smith’s favorite band of all time is Dinosaur Jr. so when he decided to name his label, he turned to one of that band’s songs, “Turnip Farm,” which was featured on the “Reality Bites” soundtrack.
“Dinosaur Jr. is the reason I started playing guitar, the reason I started going to live shows, they’re the reason why I’m in music now,” Smith said.
The name is also strangely fitting, considering Smith lives in Conway, a river city surrounded by hundreds of acres of rural farmland, and also because in their own way he and his coworker on the label, Conway resident Patrick Richardson, are planting and harvesting their own crop of old and new music.
Even the label’s logo – a boxy, robotic-looking rabbit pulling a globular turnip from a hat – evokes both a techno and down-home flair.
It’s a perfect mix because Turnip Farm survives through the intersection of modern and vintage technology and commerce.
Smith relies on e-mail and social media such as Facebook to communicate with the companies he works with and get the word about the label out. He sells Turnip Farm releases on the Internet. Richardson uses Photoshop and other software to create the artwork for Turnip Farm’s releases.
The vinyl, however, is done the old-fashioned way, by United Pressing Company in Tennessee. A Missouri outfit, National Audio Company, does the cassettes. And the releases are for sale in a genuine brick-and-mortar music store, Kilgor Trout’s Music and More on Eighth Avenue North in Myrtle Beach.
Smith conceived Turnip Farm Records less than a year ago simply because he wanted more people to be exposed to music he first came to love as a teenager, and he wanted them to hear it in a new way.
“I started the label because I like vinyl and there’s a lot of music, like ‘eight ball of confusion,’ that you just can’t get your hands on these days,” Smith said.
He wanted to work with vinyl because, like many music connoisseurs who have stuck with the format through more than two decades of the digital onslaught, he just believes it sounds better.
“I think there’s no comparison to the sound of vinyl compared with digital,” Smith said. “People will debate you about that until they’re blue in the face, and your preference is largely a matter of who you are and how you enjoy your music, but I think a lot of kids who grew up in the digital age will probably be blown away and become addicted to listening to vinyl once they hear it.”
There also is the sheer pleasure of holding a vinyl LP in your hands and getting the full impact of the cover, the artwork, and the liner notes. Anybody who remembers the CD format of “eight ball” will immediately notice the different impact of the black and white cover blown up to LP size. Smith demonstrates the difference by pulling out new vinyl versions of releases by Band of Horses and Dinosaur Jr. that he recently bought in Atlanta. For this writer, who grew up with LPs but, like everybody else these days, has become used to CDs and iTunes downloads, holding those releases, examining the detailed artwork and reading liner notes brought back a retro thrill.
“You get bigger artwork with the album, and with vinyl you get to interact with the music more,” Smith said. “You can’t just hit fast forward like you did with cassettes, or skip entire songs or just listen to one. With vinyl, you have to move the needle, turn the vinyl over. It motivates you to listen to the whole album all the way through.”
Putting Sqwearl on vinyl is also Smith’s way of paying homage to a band and an era that shaped his formative years and his whole outlook on music itself. Richardson, who moved to Conway from Charlotte, N.C. in 1996, also counts the band as one of his main influences, both as a musician and an artist.
Both men, who are working on their own musical project, saw Sqwearl live more times than they can count, and Smith also recalls being blown away by another Myrtle Beach band, one that flirted with major-label fame, which issued one album while signed to Island Records.
“The main two bands I wanted to work with were Sqwearl and The Drag,” he said. “Their shows were unbelievable. I was maybe 15 or 16 when I first saw The Drag play at Players, and I remember (lead singer) Chance Walls climbing the rafters there. Watching Sqwearl and The Drag made you want to be part of the local scene, made you want to be in a band and see live music. I don’t know what’s changed, if people got lazy with the changes in the music scene or if that was just a time when people liked to go see live local music, but that was an era when the local scene in Myrtle Beach was just full of a lot of people with a lot to offer.”
Smith is also happy to announce that Turnip Farm has also snagged The Drag. By mid-November, Turnip Farm should also be releasing a seven-inch disc featuring two previously unreleased tracks by the band.
Rewind, then fast forward
Turnip Farm, of course, is not ignoring other Myrtle Beach artists. Smith and Richardson have put out cassettes by hard rock/punk unit Shark Legs (a cassette release of the band’s CD “Iron Born), punk rockers Grave Intentions, indie rock project Wish Me Monsters, and a split cassette featuring Octopus Jones and M is We.
While many people might be able to understand the retro and sound appeal of vinyl, not as many might get the appeal of a cassette. The format is nearly impossible to find for sale these days unless you scour the shelves at Goodwill, rely on Internet sales or find the rare store that actually carries cassettes (Charleston’s Monster Music has a limited selection). And for many people who grew up with them, the cassette might have some appeal as a memory (remember the mix tape of hair metal your boyfriend/girlfriend made you in sophomore year back in oh, 1987?) but not so much as a durable music format. Those things stretched, melted in the heat of your car, unraveled and broke, remember? Why even bother?
Smith and Richardson say the cassette offers a double whammy to promote new music: it’s quirky and low cost. Cassettes are much cheaper for the label to produce, and also less expensive for the customer. All of Turnip Farm’s tapes can be had for a mere $5. By producing cassettes, the label is also jumping on a bandwagon that’s being used by more and more artists these days as a quick, inexpensive way to get their music to the masses.
Like every release by Turnip Farm, cassettes come with a download card that enables you to go online, punch in a one-of-a-kind code, and then download the release to a computer or mp3 player. Cassettes include a paper card, while the Sqwearl LP features a plastic credit-card sized card.
The download card is just part of Turnip Farm’s multifaceted marketing concept. Many of the releases also come with limited-edition plastic buttons similar to the kinds people used to collect and display on their jackets and bags back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Smith says shirts and trucker hats are next.
Cassettes, Smith said, also provide a good fallback if and when Turnip Farm funds ever run low. Vinyl demands more time and money, and Smith, who manages a drug store, knows how tough the economy can be. He juggles a full-time job and is working to buy a house in Longs while also getting Turnip Farm off the ground.
“Is there money in what I’m doing? No,” he said. “Will there be some money in the future? Maybe. All I can do is hope people still enjoy good music and want to buy it, like I do. Turnip Farm will always be around, even if I all can afford to put out are cassettes.”
The new vinyl generation
Turnip Farm is one of the newest, but not the only Myrtle Beach area indie label working with the magic black discs, and there were plenty dotting the local landscape before the digital revolution rocked the industry.
Paul McKinney is 19-years-old, not old enough to remember the heyday of vinyl or even the banner years of the cassette. People his age have barely known what it was like to have to journey to the mall or to local music stores such as Sounds Familiar to prowl through racks of cassettes, vinyl LPS and 45s to get their music. People his age, for the most part, never labored for hours to create the perfect mix-tape for a girlfriend or to play on a long road trip. For most of his life, music has taken the form of shiny CDs or come phantom-like, instantly, over the Internet. He is a definite product of the mp3 and digital download generation. Why then, is the Socastee resident working with a label, Say I Won’t Records, that is releasing music on vinyl?
Say I Won’t is an independent label started in 2011 by McKinney and Zander Aycock, who lives in the Rock Hill/Charlotte area. It features a variety of local and regional bands, including Myrtle Beach’s indie/punk band Bamboo Forest and Beaufort indie band Big Awesome. While Aycock pursues a variety of projects in the Charlotte area, McKinney has recently teamed with Columbia’s Baby Moon Records, another indie label, to promote shows and record. The label’s next upcoming release is a seven-inch vinyl EP, “Birdfeeder,” by Big Awesome.
While Say I Won’t’s earlier releases were standard CDs, McKinney said vinyl offers him a chance to share a format he cherishes with a new generation of listeners.
“I grew up with vinyl because my dad always had it,” he said. “I remember sitting with him in the garage on Saturdays listening to Credence Clearwater Revival, Jim Croce, all of these acts on vinyl. I always thought those albums were cool and grew to love the format. It offers a different experience. You listen to an album and just get a completely different sound than you do from anything else.”
How will these small labels do in the Myrtle Beach market, especially with their new ventures into vinyl?
Michael Wood, a well-known figure on the beach scene since the ‘90s, can offer some perspective. Wood, who has played in several Myrtle Beach bands and formerly ran The Basement bar and live music venue, had his own label, Kosher Kitten, for about four years in the mid-late 2000s. The label put out digital and CD releases by The Wet Teens, Shark Legs, Planet Cock, No I’m Sorry He’s Not and the Hall Monitors. In fact, the Shark Legs cassette “Iron Born” that Turnip Farm has issued is a re-release of the Shark Legs CD that first appeared on Kosher Kitten. The label is also issuing a split cassette of one of Wood’s own projects, M is We.
Wood, who has relocated to Carrboro, N.C., said running a label on the Grand Strand can be a challenge, both from a financial standpoint and in just trying to get people in a busy, transient community to focus on good local music.
“In a place like Myrtle Beach where it’s hard enough to be in a band, sometimes having a label is what you need to do to get the band that added bit of attention,” he said. “When you’re sending your CDs out to magazines to get reviews, it looks better to have them on a record label.”
While Kosher Kitten is no longer a functioning entity, Wood is still playing in some bands on the side and paying attention to the regional music scene. What he saw at the recent Hopscotch Festival in North Carolina might prove to be a welcome bit of good news for Turnip Farm, Say I Won’t and others who are using vinyl and cassettes to spread the gospel of Grand Strand music.
“Over three days with tons of awesome bands, I did not see one CD,” Wood said. “All I saw being distributed were cassettes and vinyl. I was especially surprised how many cassettes I saw. Smaller bands just had the cassettes, bigger ones were doing cassettes and vinyl.”
What’s the appeal?
“These are new ways of getting the band attention, hip with the indie music crowd, and it’s become a collector’s thing because the format is ‘new’ even though it’s not new at all,” Wood said. “Everybody has tons of CDs in their collection, and it’s just cool to get something new.”