Rock 'N Roll Case Study: Squirrel Bait
By Sean Koepenick
Squirrel Bait was a pop punk band that came out of nowhere in 1983 from of all places, Louisville, Kentucky. At first, the Squirrel Bait record released in 1985 by small indie label Homestead, did not cause much of a stir in the music world. But after receiving raving reviews from Bob Mould (then of Husker Du) and Evan Dando (of The Lemonheads) among others in the music press, people began to take notice. Spin Magazine quickly hopped on the bandwagon and proclaimed that lead singer Peter Searcy had “the best voice in rock and roll next to Paul Westerberg”. Even with all of these accolades, the band was able to only stay afloat until 1988 and release one more record, 1986’s Skag Heaven. By then it seemed to be a case of “too much too soon” for the members of Squirrel Bait, considering that the average age of the band members at this time were an amazing 17. What follows is a brief history of this group and why their music is as vital today as it was in the late 1980’s.
“I’m going to beat you up at the end of this.”
The start of Squirrel Bait seems to begin with guitarist David Grubbs. Growing up in Louisville, David’s first band was a “teenage new wave” group called The Happy Cadavers. At this point he was roughly 13 years old. After this band’s quick exit from the Louisville scene, the rough kernels of Squirrel Bait began to form. What was originally a straight hardcore band with Clark Johnson on bass began to change with the addition of Peter Searcy on vocals. Now there was a melodic rasp added to the overall mix. Adding Brian McMahon on second guitar created a broad sonic landscape and finally their was the addition of the drummer: Ben Daughtrey. This added a whole new dimension to the band, producing complex rhythm changes and subtle textures ( and probably the first use of a Vibra-slap by a “punk” band) that would help the band rise above the pop thrash din in Louisville. As David Grubbs describes Louisville, it paints a picture of a time where kids were just trying to make sense of it all-“ It’s the largest city in Kentucky, it’s what’s happening in the area, and it’s somewhat inward-turned, proud and vain. Not cosmopolitan, but self-sufficient and self- sustaining.”
But Louisville was ripe for a “big-take-over” in the music scene. By late 1982 local punk legends like No Fun, The Endtables, and The Babylon Dance Band were long gone. Only Malignant Growth was creating anything that resembled punk rock. But Squirrel Bait was about to light it up and did by first gaining some local press in The Louisville Times. Local writer Laurice Niemtus had a column called “Tune In” and readers could pick their favorite local band. By bribing all their friends to write in, Squirrel Bait won two months in a row. Word spread, and a record with a California label was discussed. Recordings were done, but never released. (This could have been the SST label, but this has not been confirmed.) But the band began to play live in Louisville and also across the country, opening for bigger bands like Husker Du (Squirrel Bait’s idols), Big Black and The Meat Puppets. By this time (1985) the pressure was on to “walk the talk” and Squirrel Bait was up to the challenge with their first release-the Squirrel Bait EP.
“This is definitely the best $400 I’ve ever heard.”
No matter how much it cost at the time, the 17 minute Squirrel Bait EP drops on the listener like a hurricane. Searcy’s tortured howl careens over the jumpy (but always precise) drum fills of Daughtrey on “Hammering So Hard”. Searcy brings us in “sixteen years of a sixteen year life…” and away we go. Sounding like Paul Westerberg amped up on coffee and cigs after an all night study session, it is still amazing to listen and think that these were high school kids. The music and lyrics are too accomplished to betray this fact. “Sun God” is the EP’s highlight. Starting with a slow, muted guitar riff, and the tight rhythm section of Johnson/Daughtrey kicks in capably. Searcy screams to “take it away” as the song shifts between slow and more up-tempo. This song is really the missing link between The Replacements and the later song styling of Nirvana (especially “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). Brian McMahon’s guitar playing blends perfectly with Grubbs’ attack and the result is always impressive. But if this isn’t all enough, the drums really push Squirrel Bait above the fray. The only way I can describe them if you have not heard them is-Keith Moon on speed. The record ends with “Perfect” and by the end you usually feel like the life has been drained out of your body.
The record quickly gained a reputation and people began to take notice of this underground band from Louisville. Bob Mould of Husker Du, who was about to have his band signed to Warner Bros., told Spin that “it is as good as anything my band has done.” Evan Dando continually praised it in print, even sporting a Squirrel Bait t-shirt live. (Drummer Ben Daughtrey would go on to briefly become a member of The Lemondheads, playing on Lovey).
This initial success would actually help to keep the band going for a little while longer. Even though Grubbs and Johnson had ventured out of the Louisville area to go to college (Grubbs attended Georgetown University), Squirrel Bait continued to gain momentum. But tensions were building musically, Grubbs later stating that he felt that Daughtrey was straying too far from their punk rock roots. But looking back he tends to agree that this is exactly what was the key to their music sounding so different and mind blowing. But there was also a jock vs. nerds battle that would rear its head from time to time, and may have been one of the reasons for the band’s demise. Daughtrey and Searcy were the “jock” side, with everyone else in the “nerd” category. But Squirrel Bait soldiered on, aware that they were causing a stir in the indie rock community. “And it (the first record) was received remarkably well. It was crazy; all of a sudden we were being written about in the Village Voice and being interviewed by The New York Times” Grubbs reflected in the late 1990’s.
“I don’t need no pig stomping on my buzz.”
1986 saw the release of Squirrel Bait’s second record, the 10 song Skag Heaven. Some fans immediately cried sell-out, noting that they had even included a lyric sheet this time (a sure sign of big-headedness in rock). But I have to disagree since Skag includes all the ferocity of the first record, but with a new-found maturity tempering the onslaught. The lyrics actually seem to create characters and stories that are more chilling now that they can be understood. The record starts off with “Kid Dynamite” about a street scene gone bad and never lets up from there. “Virgil’s Return” and “Black Light Poster Child” also describe similar “down on their luck” subjects. The sonic assault is still as tight as ever over the new lyrical content. “Choose Yr Poison” showcases Daughtrey’s skills while “Kick The Cat” feature a truly insane double guitar solo courtesy of McMahon/Grubbs. Johnson’s bass continues to be the fluid that holds it all together, especially on “Rose Island Road”. And Searcy shows that he can tackle other worldly issues when the band covers folk singer Phil Ochs “Tape From California” to close out Skag Heaven.
But strain was beginning to show even as Skag Heaven was also getting widespread recognition. Dissension about the new sound that seemed to feature Daughtrey’s jazzy side mixed with machine gun fills over the vocals of Searcy and the guitar storm that overpowered everything on the first EP grew. The band continued to tour and recorded one more single-a 7” inch on Ajax Records called “Motorola Cloudburst” b/w Spoken Word (a Bob Mould tribute) that didn’t see the light of day until 1989. But by 1988, Squirrel Bait was finished.
“Squirrel Bait, like Ronald Reagan, represents an era of unlimited possibilities.”
By why a look back, why now? There are a couple of good reasons. First, in late 1997, both Squirrel Bait releases were put out by Dexter’s Cigar, an imprint Of Chicago’s Drag City Records. Both were hailed as a “road-map” from hard-core punk of the day, like Minor Threat and Husker Du, to the alternative rock scene of the 1990’s specifically Nirvana, Bush, etc. Without Squirrel Bait Silverchair simply would not have happened. (Some people may jump for joy at this, but I’ll leave that one alone.) But it’s important to look back that in an era that featured the “greed is good” Reagan rantings, and the chill of the Cold War still upon the US, that a group of teenage musicians could still break through to the mainstream and shout out to the world that there is more than one way to “Kick The Cat”!
Finally, it is worth noting that this was only the first step for these fledgling musicians in the indie music scene. All of the members would go on to varying degrees of success up until the present day. Brian McMahon would form Slint and is now in The For Carnation. Peter Searcy would release a number of alternative CD’s with Big Wheel, and most recently put out a solo CD in 2000. Ben Daughtrey would later join the LA lounge act Love Jones. But it is guitarist David Grubbs who has been the most prolific. A short list of his projects, post Bait include Bastro (with Clark Johnson), Bitch Magnet. Gastr Del Sol, and he is now a solo artist. Could there ever be a reunion? I’m sure it would be very satisfying to some of their latter day fans, who never got to see them live during their all-too-brief lifespan. David Grubbs has shied away from any type of Squirrel Bait reunions in recent interviews, but anything is possible. For the music of Squirrel Bait to still resonate with so many people, over 15 years past its release, surely should tell the band members that a reunion would certainly hold a lot of promise. Besides, if The Sex Pistols and the original Black Sabbath can pull it off, why not Squirrel Bait?
For more information on Squirrel Bait
(including a Family Tree) please go to: