Jeff Calder’s got big plans again for his long running band. But first, the Atlanta new wave heroes want to show us some snapshots from their early years…
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“We came out of a very ultra-modern tendency on the periphery of pop music. All of our friends – Pylon, B-52s, all these groups — had ultra-modern ideas,” says Jeff Calder, the singer, main songwriter and one of two guitarists for the Atlanta phenomenon known as the Swimming Pool Q’s. “But at the same time, we were exploring an old world of regional concerns and southern concerns. There’s kind of a contradiction there and a tension that happens because of that. It’s one of the things that makes these records unique.”
Calder is speaking of the Q’s’ long out-of-print second and third records, The Swimming Pool Q’s and Blue Tomorrow. After a long struggle, both have been reissued in an expanded, remastered, meticulously documented compendium called 1984-1986: The A&M Years (Bar/None), available as a 2CD set or a limited edition 3CD+DVD box. He and keyboardist/singer Anne Richmond Boston talked to BLURT about the Swimming Pool Q’s’ early years in an Atlanta-and-Athens-based post punk scene, their arduous path to a major label signing with A&M and the even more obstacle-strewn effort to bring these records back out of limbo. (Below: Live performance on Atlanta public access TV 1980)
A writer turns rocker
The Swimming Pool Q’s took shape in Atlanta in the late 1970s, when rock writer Jeff Calder moved north from Florida to start a band with his friend Glenn Phillips, the founder songwriter and guitarist in an avant rock outfit called the Hampton Grease Band. Through Phillips he connected with Bob Elsey, then a teen-aged guitar phenomenon. Anne Boston had known Elsey since high school. She was singing with a band called Mississippi Law. Around them, a vibrant scent was emerging as punk rock gave way to a more melodic playful new wave.
Calder says that the Swimming Pool Q’s initially borrowed some of punk rock’s energy and attitude, but they never really bought into its insistence on amateurism. From the start, Elsey was a near virtuoso on the guitar and Boston sang with heart, considerable skill and affection for older traditions. “As a child I started singing in church choir which was full of traditional hymns with beautiful harmonies,” says Boston. “Then along came Dylan and Baez, Judy Collins, and my fave, Sandy Denny whose voice and delivery really touched me. But I liked pretty much all music. Country, rock, whatever happened to be on the radio or the stereo in my sisters’ or brother’s room.”
“I had come from a world where even the far out musicians wanted to be as good as they could be on their instruments — people like Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band and Roxy Music in England,” says Calder. “I should add that because I didn’t have a lot of confidence on the guitar, I was the guy who didn’t have the technique. I was smart enough to know that I should surround myself with people who could really play but who had a different outlook at the same time from what had been going on in American rock for most of the 1970s.”
New wave meets Atlanta
The Atlanta and Athens scenes were intertwined, with most of the Athens bands recording at Atlanta’s DB Studio, and bands from both towns playing in each other’s clubs. Because of the success of R.E.M. and the B-52s, most people focus on Athens now, but Calder says that Atlanta had a much bigger, more diverse musical community. Plus the bigger bands all stopped in Atlanta, then as now the largest city in the south.
“We’d only been together for six months, when we were tapped to open for DEVO,” Calder recalls.
“We had to play two sets I believe,” adds Boston. “People were chanting ‘DEVO! DEVO!’ and were fed up with the likes of us! I think Mark Mothersbaugh was watching from the audience, which was intimidating too.
“I really didn’t know much about them but it didn’t take long for me to see how brilliant they were. They showed one of their films before they played and it was amazing. I was in the dressing room when Mark came in there to change into the Booji Boy costume midway through their set. It blew my mind. Right up my alley. He gave me his cardboard sunglasses [the kind you get at the eye doctor] and I treasured those for years!”
DEVO, in some ways, opened the door for B-52s and a sci-fi-influenced, eccentrically positive brand of new wave. “What the B-52s reflected, and all of the bands that eventually came out of Athens by 1980, all of us were influenced by a certain tendency, a colorfulness, quirkiness, a new attitude.”
Calder and the other Q’s became friendly with these bands, particularly Pylon, but he says that their overall approach was very different. “We had the two guitars and were much denser as a group. We weren’t that easy to make sound good in the studio,” he said. “[Pylon was] more Spartan in their approach. They went in and recorded Gyrate in about three days, and it sounded like gangbusters. But it was because it was so simple.”
Together with bands like Pylon, B-52 and, at the larger end of the scale, R.E.M., the Swimming Pool Q’s forged a southern circuit of clubs that punk and new wave bands could play. They started from scratch in many cases, often playing venues more attuned to Lynyrd Skynyrd than the Human League. “Most bands didn’t see any value at all in playing in South Carolina or Florida or places in the region,” says Calder. “It was always, you played here [in Atlanta] then you dashed up to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and then you came back.”
“For us, we did those things, but we also saw value in playing in the region in places that weren’t necessarily hospitable to what we were doing,” he adds. “At that time in the South, there weren’t any punk or new wave clubs. There was nothing. We kind of had to make up a circuit. We’d find ourselves in places that were very open to us, and in places that were Southern rock places. Because we had some technical ability, we were able to fake it…and survive. But it took a long time before there was anything like a new wave and punk club circuit in the south.”
Even in the late 1970s, though, Calder saw a small but vital new wave community emerging. “The interesting thing was that everywhere we went – if you went to Tampa, if you went to Miami, if you went to Columbia, SC, there were always about 250 people who were there for you,” he says. “There was definitely an audience developing, but I think that audience didn’t really explode until maybe 1983 when R.E.M. begins to get national attention.”
The Swimming Pool Q’s toured relentlessly, building a following in the South. By 1981, they were ready to record their first full-length album, The Deep End. This was also, coincidentally, the year that R.E.M. signed with IRS and released Chronic Town. As interest in Athens (and nearby Atlanta) heated up, Calder decided not to wait around to be discovered. He headed to New York City to try to find his band a major label deal. Calder spent much of 1982 and 1983 crashing with his friend Glen Morrow in Hoboken. Morrow was in a band called the Individuals, but he also worked in A&R at RCA Records and edited New York Rocker (he’s now a partner at Bar/None, which is releasing the reissues). With his apartment as a base, Calder began going from label to label trying to drum up interest for the Q’s.
The major label debut
However it was not until Calder had recorded a demo with Glenn Phillips – four songs that would later appear on Swimming Pool Q’s, including the breakout “The Bells Ring” – that he began to get some traction. Calder also shifted his attention from New York to Los Angeles, borrowing his dad’s Amex card to make the trip west. He connected with a friend, Mark Williams, who had signed as an A&R rep with A&M’s New Music Department, a division specifically dedicated to establishing the label’s presence in college rock. After Calder flew to Hollywood to meet with A&M and Slash records, industry types began flying out to Atlanta to see the Q’s play. The Swimming Pool Q’s signed with A&M early in 1983 and began recording what would become their self-titled album.
“I remember it being a really hopeful time,” says Boston. “We were excited to be signed to a label that would help us get our music to a bigger audience. We had already toured on our own quite a bit and I imagined that now we could really hit the road.”
The band worked with producer David Anderle, who had recorded one of Boston’s favorite singers, Sandy Denny. Ed Stasium, who had engineered albums for the Ramones and the Talking Heads, sat behind the boards. “We went into the biggest studio in Atlanta and they really knew how to make that work,” Calder remembers. “We adapted very quickly and were able, for the first time, to really orchestrate the guitars the way we wanted to, to make these interlocking patterns. Everyone really stepped up.”
Anderle, who had worked not just with Denny, but with Nico and Rita Coolidge, brought out the richness and complexity of Anne Boston’s singing and the Swimming Pool Q’s distinctive sound began to take shape.
“When we started the group, Anne was a good singer, and we knew that, but she was an artist and a character and we wanted her in the group. Over that five year period, before the first record, as a songwriter and as a band, we had to figure out how to make that work. Because it was so different and so good that… she was so good that I didn’t know how to deal with that as a songwriter,” says Calder. “I was not a melodic songwriter. So all of the strengths that she had, I had none of those skills. As a singer and a writer, I had to figure out how to make that work. And it took a long time. And when it started to happen, that’s when the more focused sound that she has, we began to create that, and the songs became vehicles for that.”
The studio album: Blue Tomorrow
The eponymous album documented the Swimming Pool Q’s’ live sound, albeit in a clearer, more nuanced way than ever before. But for the follow-up, Blue Tomorrow, the band wanted to go beyond what they could do in performance and use all the technical capabilities of the studio.
The band hired Mike Howlett, a UK producer who had gotten his start playing bass in the avant garde band Gong. Howlett’s credits were glossy and commercial. He had worked for Flock of Seagulls, OMD and Joan Armatrading, in addition to post-punkers like Gang of Four and the Comsat Angels.
“That was kind of a daring move for us,” Calder confides. “We operated in a world that had very conservative views about how records should be made. The band plays it live without too much overproduction and so on and so forth. Well, that got thrown out the window.”
Howlett locked together two 24-track recorders to give the band a more expansive sound – for a total of 48 tracks. He encouraged them to use click tracks as they recorded. He edited intensively. As a bass player, he helped them bring out the low end. “When I was doing this reissue, it was just astonishing to me how good the bass playing is and how great the sound it,” says Calder. “But I don’t think that that record loses any energy because of the way we made it. But those were all things that were unprecedented for us.”
The band toured with Lou Reed in support of Blue Tomorrow, but the album didn’t meet A&M’s expectations. They were dropped from the label in 1986, and Anne Boston dropped out of the group. “The reasons I left the band are a bit personal for me to go into,” Boston explains, “but I will say that one factor was just the huge disappointment of the A&M experience. It really opened my naive eyes to the ‘business’ of music.”
The Olive Garden
Swimming Pool Q’s continued, however, releasing World War Two Point Five in 1989 as a quartet and then the more experimental Royal Academy of Reality in 2003. (Boston sang on Royal Academy.) Calder worked in the music business in a variety of ways, producing, engineering and doing A&R, and, in the late 1998s, began working on reissuing the Swimming Pool Q’s catalogue. The first album, The Deep End was relatively straightforward, since the band owned all the masters. It was re-released in 2001. But the two A&M records were more difficult, and Calder was to spend more than a decade in pursuit of them.
Because they were originally released on A&M, the albums became part of a label catalogue that has been sold three times, first to Polygram in 1989, then to Universal in 1998. In February 2007, the A&M label was relaunched by Interscope/Geffen. Never big sellers, the albums weren’t obvious candidates for reissue by the label itself, which, after all, had the entire Motown catalogue to repackage. But Calder kept working on the project and made intermittent progress.
“I came so close to making these records happen…in 2005, in 2007, in 2009,” says Calder. “But every time I got close, the person I was dealing with vanished, got fired. It was one of these crazy things.”
Finally he began remastering the two A&M releases himself, the self-titled Swimming Pool Q’s from 1984 and Blue Tomorrow from 1986. “I decided that – I have the masters – I’m just going to master these records myself. I’m going to start working on these bonus tracks,” he recalled. “When I did that, the person I was dealing with became very interested. I was doing all the work on a project that they technically owned and couldn’t just give away. We came very close. We had a running order with additional material for both records. And then he reneged. So I had everything ready to go, what do I do? How do I deal with it?”
Enter Calder’s old friend Mark Williams, the same guy who walked the tape for the Swimming Pool Q’s across the lot in 1984 and got the Q’s a contract with A&M. Thirty years on, he had become an A&R exec with Interscope, the company that now owned the A&M catalogue. Calder rang him up and, once again, Williams came through for him. “He made the call. He got the right guy. And after that, everything went smoothly,” says Calder. “It was a two-page contract. “
Under the terms of the deal, Calder had to pay to license the albums – and he did it with a financing option that was not available the last time he made an album. The Swimming Pool Q’s raised $15,000 with a Kickstarter campaign. Calder says it took some serious handholding from his label, Bar/None, and its social media gurus before he was comfortable with the concept, but it worked out well.
“We gave away conventional things: back catalogue, a collection of old posters, buttons, tee-shirts, pictures, autographed things,” he says. “And then, we offered some of the higher donors a trip to the Olive Garden. It was a gag, and then we had a handful of people and then we had to go to the Olive Garden. Oh fuck. The Olive Garden. That was the crisis.”
Meanwhile, the Swimming Pool Q’s continue. “The only thing that I want to set the record straight about is that we’ve never broken up. We’ve been active as a band for 35 years and we still rehearse,” says Calder. “We have two-thirds of an album done and a bunch of songs waiting to be finished. And of course, I’ve got big plans.”
Below: watch clips of the band live at the Atlanta Arts Festival in 1983 and appearing on the public access program “Dance-O-Rama” in Atlanta. Photos courtesy the band’s website: http://www.swimmingpoolqs.com/