Imagine being a band in a tiny college town called Houghton in northernmost Michigan. The nearest "big" city is Green Bay, Wisconsin. And next to Cheesetown, the only other "cities," Madison, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, are both seven hours away by car.
You'd probably bolt for Louisiana, too.
For pop quartet Squint, the geographical isolation of a semi-frozen shoreline of a mostly frozen Lake Superior led to some practical difficulties when it came time for the band to build a following. Most bands get big somewhere, then start spreading their influence outward. This becomes difficult when you live next door to nowhere.
Yet, the lonely terrain probably made Squint lyricist Dane Adrian the deadly accurate portrait artist of broken relationships and tormented souls that he is.
About six years ago, not long after forming Squint while in high school, Adrian and guitarist Matt Fredrickson took a road trip "under the guise of looking for a college" to attend. The two traveled down the east coast to Florida, then along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans before turning north for the drive back to Michigan. A childhood friend of Adrian's recommended a stop at Louisiana Tech in Ruston. "We went in there, and the place stuck in our heads," says Adrian. "I don't know why."
A year and a half later when the band was ready to move, Ruston was still on the mind. The city ultimately became the band's new home. "The reason we picked a small town is because we're from a small town," Adrian says. "We know how to work a small town. In a place like Austin or Nashville, you can't throw a rock without hitting a rock star, and you get lost in the shuffle. Plus, it's dirt cheap to live there, and we're on the road usually four days a week."
The town is smack dab in the middle of all the places Squint figured it needed to play: Austin, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, Birmingham, New Orleans and Atlanta. "We've now toured over 50 percent of the country on our own, without any help from anybody," says Adrian, reflecting matter-of-factly on exactly how good the move looks four years later.
The road has included prior gigs in Houston. But the band's primary, albeit confined, familiarity with Bayou City came over a four-day marathon studio session at Aztlan Recording and Production on Richmond in early 1998. The result was Squint's "first major independent album," beeker.
The CD is refreshing in that it is both a quality recording and exactly one layer deep. Guitars were plugged straight into Marshall amps, and the resulting air vibrations were fed directly into microphones and onto tape, no signal processing applied. With reverb-free drums, effects-free vocals and a bass tone provided by an actual human (as opposed to a drum machine), the ears actually have a hard time adjusting to the first song or two. There aren't 74,000 needless layers, so popular among bands Squint's age, to add cushion and comfort or make everything spooky or whatever the desired effect might be.
What makes this stripped-down approach something more than just cheap, however, are the songs. The vast majority have a sticky pop hook, and the lyrics are general enough for broad appeal and clever enough to set Squint apart. Then again, when a band writes almost completely about rapidly eroding or already failed relationships, it's going to strike chords with a lot of people. Squint's take on this faded-romantic tradition is neither sappy nor particularly defensive; this is not the stuff of vendettas or self-indulgent pity.
"It wasn't supposed to be that way," says Adrian regarding the somewhat uniform theme of beeker. Adrian writes the lyrics, while he, Fredrickson and Kelly Matson (guitar) all contribute songs. "People just reacted to the relationship songs because that's what people do," says Adrian. "You identify with them because it's something you've been through. But as far as the feelings go, that's a whole 'nother story. You don't want to say that a whole CD is about a particular individual or two or three individuals. But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't." Adrian laughs.
"Most of the songs I write are written around a line. Like 'Love vs. the University of Anywhere' was obviously written around that line," Adrian continues. "I came up with that line and just thought, 'You know, that's a statement about everybody.' I think everybody's experienced somebody, girlfriend, best friend, brother, whatever, going to school or moving away and the relationship gets strange and you lose touch or whatever."
Deliver these real-life musings in a package that isn't so much punk or garage as just plain ol' indie rock, and something good will emerge. "We don't know a song's good until we've played it in front of people a lot," says Adrian. "And the ten songs that are on the CD are the ones that when we played them in front of people, they seemed to like. They're not the ones we necessarily felt were the best ourselves."
After two years, Squint is again ready to record. As Adrian tells it, Squint's ongoing road show has made rehearsal both difficult and redundant; the stage, he adds, is not an environment in which new ideas can come forward and be developed. Still, over the past year or so, the band members have dusted off and revised old, half-written pieces and developed enough new ones to have "about half of the songs" ready for a new CD.
Sometime between August and November, the band will re-enter the studio. This time around, the guys plan to use whatever combination of locations and equipment necessary to "take it two or three steps up from beeker. We're just working hard, touring as much as we can and trying to get some attention," says Adrian. "beeker's done everything it can for us. It got us in front of the Goo Goo Dolls. It got us on the Mentos tour [with Stroke 9 and Sumack]. But it's time to record again. Do what we did with beeker. Do it on another level. And try to get attention that way. We're ready for some help. Whether that be the right manager, the right booking agent, the right record label, we'll know it when it comes along. We've been together so long now, seven years, that we either need to keep moving up, or it's not gonna work for that long."
In the meantime, Squint's life on the road continues, only adding further grist to the songwriting mill. As Adrian sings on "Whore": "Some say I should settle down / But then with who? / I meet the right girl every night / But in the morning I cut her loose." The theme is a reprise of the love-lost lament on "Michigan," the opening track of beeker. Seems there are some things even a cross-country relocation and 50,000 miles on the road can't shake.
Squint performs Saturday, May 27, at the Oven, 403 Westheimer. For more information, call (713)874-1100.
With miles to go before they sleep, the guys from Squint keep churning out power pop.
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