Thursday, June 11, 2015

Pill Squad

Photo by Erik Iversen

     Vancouver’s Pill Squad just released their debut EP earlier this year and along with many of their Canadian counterparts helped set the bar pretty high for 2015 early on. Their EP has shadowy reflections of rock n’ roll bands from days gone by: The Jam, Velvet Underground, and Blondie all pop their heads up from out of the trenches at various times. That’s what makes it so difficult to pigeonhole a band like Pill Squad. They play what they actually like and are influenced by and they sing about what they know. Now today’s musical groups are being categorized and stereotyped from their conception, which makes it easier to package and market their music for quick and uncomplicated consumption. If only more artists across all mediums would just do what comes naturally, the landscape of pop culture would be far more exceptional and not the cringe worthy punch line to a flatulence joke that it’s become.     

Interview by J Castro

Who is in Pill Squad and what does everyone do in the band?
SCOTT: Tracy Brooks is the singer, Tim Chan is the guitarist, Gord Berry is the bassist, and Scott Beadle is the drummer.

How did you all meet and decide to play in a band together?
SCOTT: Tim and Scott were in a local band Full Leather Jacket; Gord used to be in Tim’s other band China Syndrome; and Tracy and Scott used to play together in the Hip Type (1986-88) and Infradig (2000-2001).

TIM: I loved the Hip Type back in the day. I played their demos and single a lot when I did a campus radio show at the University of Victoria and saw them when they played in town. It's so cool I ended up being in a band with two of the members. 

TRACY: I am only in bands when someone tells me “you are in this band.” I am far too unambitious to ever make a band by myself. Basically, Gord bullied me into it.

GORD: Love it, glad I’m in this band! C'mon we're happy.

The band is currently based in Vancouver, BC. With so much going on there musically, does it make it difficult to play shows there or get noticed?
SCOTT: I don’t think it’s too hard, you can find a niche or a “scene" based around some bands, or a couple of venues, and make your inroads that way. It certainly wasn’t hard for us to get shows, because we knew lots of people from different scenes and cliques (partly simply by virtue of being older). It’s probably harder for raw newcomers, but we’ve played with young bands, and we’ve seen local venues give youngsters a shot. I also think social media has made it easier, because it’s easier for venues and bookers to hear and access your stuff, in theory anyways.

TIM: We're fortunate that, as Scott says, it's not too hard for us to get a gig as we have a built-in "scene" through some long-term associations and social media. Our next goal is to be on a bill in a larger venue with a compatible touring band--for instance, we will be lobbying hard if Buzzcocks ever return to Vancouver! 

TRACY: Oddly, we are very noticed. People seem to like our persona.  

How would you describe Pill Squad’s sound to someone that’s never heard your band before?
SCOTT: That’s hard, because if I said we’re influenced by people like the Damned, Clash, Blondie, Cramps, the Kinks, T-Rex, David Bowie, Velvet Underground, etc., you might expect us to sound like them, but it’s much less obvious, and much more mixed up. The simple answer is that we’re a punk rock band, but that’s a problematic answer nowadays, because now “punk” refers to a much narrower scope of music, whereas “back in our day” (sorry) it was a much more musically-inclusive term, that embraced not just the “harder” punk bands, but also bands more influenced by sixties garage bands, and seventies glam-rock, and classic power-pop, and post-punk bands. Because we have a female singer, people will inevitably reference bands like Blondie, X, or the Avengers — although we hardly sound like those bands. Choice of cover songs always gives some clue: we’ve covered songs by the Sonics, Blondie, Buzzcocks, Undertones, Girls At Our Best, Big Audio Dynamite, Elton John, and the Bay City Rollers at various times in our sets.

TRACY: Don’t listen to what he said; we are punk rock.
GORD: Don't listen to what they said, we're strangers on the town

 Photo by Erik Iversen

You list old movies, books and comics as personal interests in your Facebook bio. Are these the sorts of things that you draw inspiration from in your lyrics? If so can you tell me about the most unusual book or movie that inspired one of your songs?
SCOTT: That’s Tracy’s department. She’s our lyricist and she’s a connoisseur of B-movies and so-called “trash” subculture.

TRACY: He’ll look better (when he’s dead) was partly influenced by a huge crush I had on someone but also by a very trashy book I bought called “The life of the Jaguar Princess.”  The cover was priceless; it was a very buxom woman in a tiger skin bikini wrestling a jaguar. Apparently, it was the true story of a girl who had been deserted in the jungle by her parents and raised by a tribe of Jaguar worshippers, almost well written. Illumination is about my cat. I am also a long-term psychotronic film junkie which, as you know, changes the way you look at everything.

And speaking of Facebook, you posted a pretty heartfelt tribute to Partridge Family’s Suzanne Crough. Why do you think so many people are still into and are still getting into pop groups from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s? What elements do you think pop songs had back then that today’s lack?
SCOTT: Oh gosh; simplicity, straight-forward-ness, brevity, actual pop craftsmanship. People sometimes laugh or cringe at bubble-gum or pop music from that era, but to me it’s way more honest and sincere than so many of the new bands that I read hype about, and then I hear them and I feel like I’m being pranked. Breathy, whispering navel gazing folksingers or pompous histrionic “affected” vocal stylizations; I hate that stuff. Bubblegum is like an antidote to pretentious self-absorbed fake-intellectual bullshit artists. It’s no coincidence that so many classic late-seventies punk bands covered bubblegum songs (as well as neglected sixties garage rock nuggets).
TIM: All members of our band are (ahem) a certain age, and that's the music we lived and breathed when we were growing up. A lot of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s stuff continues to be appealing because it still sounds good today -- the songs are timeless. But I still try to keep up with some of the current stuff; we especially have some very fine local bands. But will new bands stick with us as long as the old bands have? Time will tell.  

TRACY: To be perfectly honest, I basically stopped listening to music in 1981, which makes me old. I used to sit in the back of my parents’ Ford Falcon and listen to AM radio, I kind of learned about life through those songs. 
 You list Blondie, The Velvet Underground, The Clash and The Cramps as influences on your music. All of these bands have very charismatic and captivating front men and women. What in your opinion makes an outstanding front person and in your opinion have there been any in the last 10 – 20 years that you would put into the same category as Debbie Harry, Lou Reed or Joe Strummer?
SCOTT: Hmm, my snap reaction is no. The problem is, everyone I see or read hype about is so obviously copying someone that I listened to when I was younger. That’s one of the problems of being older, ha, ha. There’s a real “been there, seen that” reaction to a lot of the media darlings that are offered to us as music fans. And not good copies, either, like real shitty ones! I’m trying not to sound like a cranky grandpa, but sometimes it’s difficult. I like other local Vancouver bands more than most new international acts I hear about. 

TIM: To me, an outstanding front person is one that gives their all night after night. It doesn't matter if there are 10 people in the audience or thousands of people. They connect and engage with the audience, but sometimes they can be detached too, that really works for some performers. Natural charisma certainly plays a part, too, which unfortunately is something you either have or don't have. One of the most unique front people I've seen recently is Samuel T Herring of Future Islands; this might sound weird but he's kind of a combination of Marlon Brando and Roland Gift of the Fine Young Cannibals. His performance on the David Letterman show last year was just incredible. Locally, I always love seeing Paul Leahy of Polly; he's David Bowie and Mick Ronson rolled into one person, an amazing performer!

SCOTT: Oh I agree about Paul Leahy, he’s great. I also like Jeffrey of Fashionism and Marc from the Vampire Bats; they’d probably be rock stars if they were in a major media centre market.

TRACY: Outstanding front people have to be honest. I don’t mean they can’t lie, because I lie onstage at all times, but they have to be true to themselves. Lou Reed, Lux Interior, they were just being themselves. Nowadays I think there is a lot more copying. I don’t want to be like anybody else, I like myself just fine.

 Photo by Erik Iversen

Do you think the popularity of downloads and MP3’s have made music more disposable to people? Have you ever felt like kids don’t emotionally invest in music like they use to when you had to physically go and hold a record in your hand, buy it, bring it home and stare at the liner notes, cover art and band pictures?
SCOTT: In some cases, yes, it’s inevitable that’s the case, when you’re talking about digital music, etc. However, fetishism always tends to find its way no matter what especially in music-based subcultures. So, despite the widespread “disposability” of culture, young people are investing in and cherishing 7-inch singles and vinyl albums again. I mean new ones, not old records. That’s something I never thought I’d see happen; and it’s still not exactly “mainstream” but it’s a fairly significant subcultural practice. It’s very interesting to watch that happen, over recent years.

TIM: I think it's fantastic that kids continue to listen to and be interested in the music we grew up on. I've heard the re-emergence of vinyl is partly related to listening and sharing music amongst small groups in-person; it's a social activity. It's like an antidote to MP3’s, which is usually an individualized experience via ear buds or headphones on your smart phone or iPod.

TRACY: It’s weird, I have a 17-year-old son and he is just as invested in the music he likes as I was. He has found his own way with music. He knows more about Lou Reed than I do. He doesn’t love him as much as I do, but that is surely a good thing. You have to be some messed up to love Lou Reed the way I do. As far as the old time buying a record, reading the liner notes, etc. I mostly loved singles. I still love singles. I’m not a completist or a collector; I just want to hear the best three minutes a band has.

I was reading an interview with Nick Cave and he said that out of all the art forms, music has the power to change a person’s disposition the fastest. Do you agree with this? Do you have a particular song or album that you can put on that can usually lift you up from a bad day?
SCOTT: In terms of immediacy of effect, I agree, music is the most powerful and immersive of art forms. Personally speaking, that is. See, this is one of the reasons I love bubblegum and pop music. You put that shit on; I dare you to remain in your self-pitying goth state of loathing. But lots of “comfort” music from our youth (or the nice parts of our youth, anyways) has that power. People have there “go to” Velvet Underground songs or Rolling Stones songs, or the Beatles of the Kinks. These songs or albums trigger us, transport us, and remind of how we felt when we first heard or embraced these tunes. Music seems to be able to do this in a more immediate way than other art forms.

TIM: I agree with Scott. I also think "comfort" is why a lot of people our age listen to music. There comes a certain point where it can be overwhelming to get into new stuff and you tend to fall back on old favorites. There's nothing wrong with that, and I still try to do my best to be open to new bands. I have my sweet spots in terms of my "comfort music" (usually power pop-related or anything by the Replacements/Paul Westerberg!) but I also try to listen to music with open and critical ears. 

TRACY: Well, mostly I want to listen to music that sounds like the noise in my head, so The Birthday Party will always trump solo Nick Cave. I find listening to music a very active thing; I can’t put something on “in the background” I have to actively be listening, probably why I like singles so much. That said, The Cure can always cheer me up, even when they are at their goth-est. Conversely, music can make me feel sadder than anything else.

Where can people go to listen to or to buy your music?
SCOTT: Easiest is our Bandcamp page ( Downloads are by donation, so you can just enter $0.00 if that’s your budget. The same 4-song EP that’s available there is also available on CD at some local Vancouver stores.

TRACY: Come see us play. It’s an experience.

What lies ahead in 2015 for Pill Squad?
SCOTT: Well we want to do some more recording. Recording the EP was so much fun. We might record songs in dribs and drabs, like one or two at a time, and just post them online or something. I wish we had the budget to make a 7-inch record, that would be wonderful. But we’re all working stiffs, just scraping by. Maybe some small label or entrepreneur would like to fund something like that for us! Other than that, the plan is just to play shows about once a month, meet more cool like-minded bands to play with, hopefully get some gigs at larger venues with touring bands, but whatever. We didn’t get together to make a career or anything like that, we did it to have fun playing music together, and on those terms, Pill Squad has been a massive success.

TRACY: Lots of fun. I have a movie trivia contest for our next show, great prizes. At the food bank benefit in summer, I am going to auction off a Quebec Nordiques t-shirt. Also, there will always be gum for everyone. Can you ask for more than that?

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