Myrtle Beach Music: David Koon points to fans during a Sqwearl performance at Suck Bang Blow.
Anyone who’s been around Myrtle Beach music for any length of time has surely heard them. The stories that paint longtime local rock group Sqwearl as a larger-than-life phenomenon, as something akin to the Redneck Riveria’s own little version of mid-90s Beatlemania.
If you talk to enough people that were around during their heyday, you’ll hear that the band packed nearly any venue they visited to the rafters with fans, that they often started sets at 2 a.m. and that they indulged in more on-stage and backstage antics than you can shake a stick at. They’ll also tell you the group independently sold 20,000 copies of its “Eightball of Confusion” album and used to pull in $4,000-5,000 a night.
Beyond all the stories — as potentially inflated or spot-on accurate as they may be — there’s the bigger picture of a band that came from nothing to lift up the scene, build a tremendous buzz around its straightforward grunge rock, catch the eye of superproducer Rick Rubin and nearly made it all the way to the top.
And then there’s also the tales of substance abuse and the tragedies of fallen members Wes Long and Chris Frye that serve as a sobering reminder of the downside of the rollercoaster ride that is rock ‘n’ roll.
But as proof that it’s never over until it’s over in music, Sqwearl has persevered through all the hype, the happenstance and the heartbreak and will once again come alive Friday night as the group headlines ListenUp March Mayhem, its first show at the House of Blues in more than a decade.
With original members David Koon (vocals), Brian McKenzie (guitar) and Langdon Gunter (drums) leading the way and longtime local musician Robbie Frye (Flick-It) filling in for his brother on bass, the group has been building toward a moment like this since re-forming to play a benefit in Chris Frye’s name just over a year ago.
ListenUp sat down with Koon at his Socastee home recently to help us sort through the band’s storied past, talk about where Sqwearl is headed and get his take on what it’s like to be back at HOB after all these years. During the interview, we were joined by Robbie Frye who also lent his perspective as the band’s newest member and shared how hard it’s been to try and fill his brother’s shoes. Here’s what they had to say:
A lot of people have heard about the heyday of Sqwearl, how you guys drew huge crowds and just how big you got locally and beyond. But before any success, what was it like in the early days of the band when no one was really paying attention?
Koon: Me and Chris Frye and Langdon Gunter pretty much as kids we all live around one another and were always into something together whether it was surfing, skating or whatever.
Our parents just made sure we were always together because we were such a tight knit clique and they wanted us to keep from steering off the right path. Well, maybe in some ways in their eyes we did, but they’d rather let us jam together then be out on the road causing havoc or trouble.
It just gradually built to where we learned to write songs. We were never much into cover or playing other bands songs. We were all into the vinyl and listening to punk stuff — punk life, that was our deal back then.
We just all started to take this thing and run with it, learning how to play and putting it together. We’re all self taught. Someone would learn something teach it to the other and eventually it started to become something.
We got a song, then another song, another song and eventually the neighborhood started coming to Langdon’s house to listen to us practice and his dad would get perturbed or whatever, but that’s when we just said “We gottta get another member. If we’ve got our surf and skate buddies wanting to listen, then maybe there’s something going on here.”
Sqwearl in the early days with Koon laying in front. What was the first “real” Sqwearl show like?
Koon: We actually played our first show Dagwood’s when it was just first opening. The word just spread that we were playing and everyone that was into surfing or skating or music ended up showing up.
There were tourists passing in front of those glass windows watching what was going on inside and when we got done with that there was just something magical that we knew that we needed to just keep driving this thing and see if anything comes out of it.
What were some of the other local bands or acts around the way that you guys played with or maybe looked up to when you were first getting started?
Koon: Isabell’s Gift from Columbia. They were playing around about the same time as us and they were a little bit higher on the food chain at that time. And their manager was Art Burt, which owned Rockefeller’s in Columbia. He brought us in on their word and they really started steering us on the right path and so we really looked up to those guys and thanked them for doing that for us.
As well as — I kinda hate to say it — but a band like Hootie and The Blowfish. We were good friends with them and I came about with Darius and Brian in Columbia. They were going to USC at the same time I was living in Columbia and doing the same.
Before they were big and everything, we’d go out there to play and they seen us and said ‘you guys really need to take this thing to another level.’ Little did we know that they would take that thing to a WHOLE other level. And I’m not gonna knock those guys, because they did what they did and they looked out for us.
But as far as other local acts they just came and went so fast. But there’s a few like Bazooka Joe, Mass Confusion … Daryl Cook, Dale Watts and those guys are still at it themselves. And not to say that they’ve lost the love or anything, but it’s just that the scene’s not here like it was then and for whatever reason we just can’t let go of it.
It’s not the fortune or the fame or any of that, it’s just the heartfelt Rock ‘n’ Roll and a chance to still do that.
You say the scene’s not what it was, and as someone who’s been there during a high point I understand that, but what do you see as the potential of this place currently?
Koon: I just, I don’t see it. I see a bunch of talent out there that’s just kinda wasted.
Without mentioning any names or getting into that political part of it, there’s so many clubs and bars that bring in these talented guys who I’ve worked with on playing or writing music. And the deal is they’re just getting suckered in so hard playing nightly gigs at whatever bar and becoming the house band somewhere, getting stuck with the same monotonous cover songs every night over and over.
In that way, I don’t see the scene being as rounded as if those folks were out using their talent to write and produce music on their own instead of just deciding to bow out and say ‘Well, this guy’s offering me X’ or just trying to make the rent and live week to week.
I’d rather, just me myself see the scene blow up like it has in the past, once, twice or three times. There’s people like Michael Wood, who’s worked his ass off to make stuff happen or Brian McKenzie working his ass off, or us trying to get back into it and do what we can, but it seems like stuff just gets to a certain point and right when you think something’s going to happen it falls off or the clubs get closed down or someone steps in and manages to snatch the potential away.
(Robbie Frye stops by on way to Flick-It practice. Decides to sit in for the conversation.)
Frye performs with Sqwearl at Suck Bang Blow.
So, since you’re here, tell me something about “Koon Dog” that people don’t know?
Frye: I was in third grade and my dad was at work with my Grandma watching me. He had just gotten a Dodge Omni. I had a green mohawk.
I went and told my Grandma we were going to Columbia and so he kidnaps my ass and we went and stayed with his grandma in Columbia and just went and found places to skate. I think we ended up cleaning up half the city just to find a couple concrete ditches we could skate.
His grandmother — a good old country woman — called me “Rooster” because they didn’t know what to think about a kid like that with a mohawk.
At one point he and I actually wrote a song, when he was in Mass Confusion. How old was I then?
Koon: Eight or nine maybe.
Frye: I got up and did a song with them and everyone freaked out. I had just gotten hit in the nose by a skinhead in the slam pit and I had toilet paper pushed up in my nose to stop the bleeding. But, man … I was a kid and they always watched out for me. David’s family. We go way back.
Koon: Yeah man, I took his ass to see Jim Jones and the Kool-Ade Kids when he was 9 years old.
Do you you feel like you would be back doing Sqwearl again right now if it wasn’t for Robbie?
Koon: Man, I don’t know...
Frye: He really wanted to do it, but maybe I gave him a kick in the ass.
Koon: I would have been doing something. And I was working on something before to fill that void, but the void wasn’t really being filled as far a what I wanted to feel. But once we got this thing up and going again, that feeling came back like with the butterflies in your stomach like what you get riding a rollercoaster.
Frye: It’s like the beach. It’s like that feeling you get with the sand in your toes. They say that once you get that sand in your shoes if you’ve ever lived at the beach you’ll come back to it.
Robbie, do you feel like you do things differently in this band trying to live up to what Chris did?
Frye: I’m honored to play with these guys, but I’ve got big shoes to fill. I mean this is my dead brother’s spot and I don’t want to disrespect him by making mistakes or whatever because I’m a professional too.
Plus, I hadn’t played bass ever since Ten Gauge broke up, because I became a front man.
Where do you think Sqwearl fits in the current state of the Myrtle Beach music scene?
Frye: I think Sqwearl really still has the capacity to be able to do anything they want to do.
So, are you happy playing the music you’ve made thus far or do you plan to make new music?
Koon: We ‘re ready to write and do a new album. We’ve got a bunch of old stuff that we’ve never put down on CD and take some new stuff and put it down. Luckily enough, we’ve got Brian there to take the helm and run with it.
Plus we’ve still got friends from N.Y., L.A. and from back then who have stuck by us to help us out with things like that.
When we were doing it, it was all word of mouth and touring to get the msic out, but now with this Internet thing people are just clamoring for new music and want to hear what you got and so we want to put something out there for them.
Frye: I think “Eightball of Confusion” was selling on eBay for $55 at one point.
Do you ever think about taking that old stuff and re-releasing it on iTunes or anything like that?
Koon: Absolutely. That’s in the works. It’s just that everyone is so busy balancing jobs and whatnot. That will happen for sure.
I’ve got fans coming to me just begging for CDs still. They tell me that they’ve lost their old stuff because it was either stolen out of my vehicle by a friend took it. Or the big thing now is ‘My kids took it.’
Now these are the ones coming to the shows. Believe it or not it’s been that long that their kids are coming out and I’m talking to these kids 15, 16, 17 years old.
What do you think it is that makes the music stay with people after all these years?
Koon: For me and his brother what we were always talking about when we were writing was “reality rock.” This was before all the reality shows and junk.
We just tried to write what was real and click into what the fans could feel as well as what we felt and see what came out. And it worked for whatever reason.
I read where you said that you played the first show at the House of Blues and that you used to play there for $5,000 a night. With that kind of history with this venue, what does it mean to you to be able to come back this far down the line and headline there again?
Koon: It means a bunch to me man. Everything seems to be coming full circle.
[My wife] Crucilla is all over the Internet trying to get us back out there as she’s always telling me ‘You gotta come see what these people said’ or ‘This person wants you to come play here,” and really it’s just overwhelming to me to see that kind of response.
Frye: The beauty of it is that I’m glad to see Sqwearl back at House of Blues. They’ve deserved to be back there for a long time, but life happens and a lot of things get in the way.
It’s just scary for me because, I haven’t really been at it that long and I’ve got big shoes to fill. I just don’t want to let my brother down.
Last question: If you got up there Friday night and meteor crashes down on the stage and wipes out all of you for good how would you want people to remember what Sqwearl has done?
Koon: Well, first off. We are the fucking meteor. (laughs)
Frye: When you’re a musician your a court appointed jester. You have to provide the people with some entertainment and either they love you or they hate you. It’s their choice. They take from it what they want.
Both he and I write very vague and whatever you get out of it is what it is. The words might have meant something different to David when he wrote them, but if it helps a kid get through a troubled time and it wasn’t even about that then that’s great and let him have that memory.
Koon: I just want to give back what everybody’s given to us for fighting this long to get there. It was them who made it happen in the first place.
They’ve all stuck in there and all been there when we needed them and through all the phone calls and the support and everything else, I just want everybody to enjoy what we’ve done.
Sqwearl will headline ListenUp March Mayhem Friday night at House of Blues. The show will also feature performances by Confliction, Flick-It, The IZM and Doctrine of Ethos. Tickets are $7 at the door and the show is all ages. Doors open at 7 p.m. Click here for details or keep up with Sqwearl on Facebook.