So often it begins on a whim: As an antidote to otherwise soporific college life in Gainesville, For Squirrels bassist Bill White recalls, he and fellow UF student Travis Tooke bought guitars at a pawnshop and taught themselves to play. Less than two years later, hard work and good luck have pushed the band (Jack Vigliatura on vocals and Jack Greigo on drums round out the quartet) to the top of the Gainesville heap. With only about 30 professional gigs on their resume, they've paved a path to Miami, where they'll perform with a host of local and national notables this Monday at America's Birthday Bash in Bayfront Park.
The Miami connection traces to Y&T Records's Richard Ulloa, the group's manager. Last fall For Squirrels took part in an AIDS benefit concert staged by Y&T's short-lived Gainesville outlet. Befriending store manager Scott Williams, they slipped him a copy of their self-produced CD Baypath Rd. When Williams returned to Miami this spring, he passed along the CD to Ulloa, who, after listening to nothing else for four days, invited the band down to play with Mary Karlzen at the Stephen Talkhouse in April.
"When they came down, I wasn't interested in managing or working with another band," says Ulloa, who also manages Karlzen. "But for such a young band, they showed so much talent and promise." The union has yielded a Y&T agreement to remaster and re-release five songs from Baypath Rd on a new EP, Plymouth, due out July 16 in Florida and a month later nationwide.
Trekking to Miami to play for Ulloa was no big deal for For Squirrels; they're not unaccustomed to driving all day to play a 40- or 50-minute set in Georgia and then packing up and driving back in time for work or class the next day. Still, their recent gigs are a far cry from the time they played a club in Tallahassee the same night as a sorority's male revue. "We were playing outside in 30-degree weather for about ten kids, and when we stopped playing, you could hear the boom-chicka-boom and see these big guys gyrating in little white underwear," Vigliatura recalls, adding that they never did get paid for that job.
Baypath Rd opens with a blaring harmonica intro to the moody "Flagboy," a song about a young man who joins the Union Army during the Civil War. Balladry gives way to a flood of Tooke's quick-change chords and Greigo's double-time drumming in the songs that follow -- the nostalgic "Kaberet" and the rapid-fire "Go on Up." With White laying a solid bass foundation for Tooke's fast-paced and quirkily melodic guitar, Vigliatura's vocals soar from a tender, boyish lilt to crackling screams of joy and pain. Several softer, if less focused, tunes -- "Unicycle" and "3" come to mind -- seem almost like stream-of-consciousness reveries. Finally the tempo picks up again with "Plymouth," a bopping guitar-and-bass explosion with a single lyric: "Free."
And that's just on disc. In performance For Squirrels piles on an entirely new dimension, the toothy-grinned White cracking jokes and Vigliatura flailing at his clothes (which have included accessories such as a Paul Revere-style tricorner hat and giant white sunglasses), busting mikes, and squirming on the ground like an overturned beetle.
Though their sound often inspires comparisons to R.E.M., the members of For Squirrels cite a number of disparate influences. Vigliatura calls himself a product of the Eighties, having grown up on everything from Bruce Springsteen to Guadalcanal Diary to Cyndi Lauper. White sticks to more mellow stuff A Simon and Garfunkel and Cowboy Junkies. Tooke's pluckings draw from extreme guitar-based bands such as Sonic Youth, the Pixies, and Smashing Pumpkins, while Greigo's taste for hard-edged, speed-metal and hardcore bands is evident in his vigorous thumpings.
"Between all of us, we come up with this mish-mosh of stuff," concludes Greigo. "Pop is the only common ground we have, and we put our differences into that."
Another obvious influence is the Beatles, whose "A Hard Day's Night" and "I Saw Her Standing There" For Squirrels frequently perform in concert. The driving force behind the band's lyrics, though, is the members' small-town New England upbringings. "It's a historic place that has a subtle, underlying sadness," offers Vigliatura, who grew up in Spencer, Massachusetts, and who met up with White and Tooke during high school in Palm Harbor (near Clearwater). "What's happening on the album is that we came down here and were taken out of that element. Everything in Florida, especially in growing areas like Clearwater-Tampa, is shiny and new and surface. There's no real history, so we felt kind of a lacking there. We needed to get that out of our systems."
The album is rife with historical references, both obvious and veiled -- from "Flagboy" and "Plymouth" (named for the famous rock) to the cover painting of Paul Revere's ride, and even the font used for the titles. "We're all history buffs," affirms White, a Connecticut native. "It's interesting to us that there are certain stories that are timeless, like there were kids growing up there 200 years ago that felt the same way we do."
But don't expect to find find such references in the booklet that accompanies the CD; adamant that the meaning come from the visceral impact of an entire song, For Squirrels refuses to print their lyrics. "A song is the whole song, and we don't like to separate the lyrics from the music," explains Vigliatura. "People could draw a different meaning from reading it than from listening to it. Also, I've experienced that when you don't know [the lyrics], you go and look, and it's not always as good as what you thought he was saying. You come up with the coolest thing and you're like, 'That's so bad!' and then it's something else. I hate that. Let everybody just fill in the blanks."
(At a loss when it comes to words, fans might be even more puzzled about the band's rodenty name. Regarding those roots, however, the group is a little more forthcoming. They say that after kicking around hundreds of possibilities -- including Fidel Castro and his Magic Peanuts, Battlestar Giaspanktica, and the Road Apples -- to no avail, they found themselves having to settle on something in a hurry when Y&T printed a T-shirt for the AIDS benefit last fall. They went with "the Squirrels," only to learn that the name was already taken. Thus the prepositional phrase and the four-ple entendre.)
On Sunday For Squirrels takes the stage at the Stephen Talkhouse. Then comes America's Birthday Bash, where they share the Fourth of July bill with the Smithereens, Brother Kane, Mary Karlzen, and Natural Causes, among others. According to manager Ulloa, WSHE-FM (103.5) plans to have "Flagboy" on the playlist all weekend. Also during this South Florida swing, the group will record a B-side for a promotional seven-inch single of "Go on Up."
The members admit they've been surprised and impressed by local audiences' openness and enthusiasm, a welcome respite from up north. "Gainesville is a tough crowd," notes White. "Everyone and their brother is in a band. It's very hard to break through because people are playing every night. It's not like in Miami, where there's maybe ten to fifteen bands whose names you hear again and again. In Gainesville there are probably 50 or 60."
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Adds Vigliatura: "Miami has been a nice surprise; it validates what we're doing. We have a confidence in the band, and we have fun, but a lot of times when we have fun, it doesn't necessarily mean that everyone else is having fun."
Next up for the band is a fall club tour to coincide with the release of the EP and its national distribution to college and commercial stations. The trip will take For Squirrels to the northeast, then to Texas, Louisiana, and throughout the South, and perhaps west to Los Angeles. In the winter they'll head to the studio to record new material -- if the labels aren't interested, they say, they'll produce it themselves.
"But even getting on a label isn't the final answer," says Vigliatura. "Having a successful [music] career is like playing in the NBA: If you hit, you hit big. But you have a better chance of being struck by lightning. You could always end up being on, say, Polygram, and ending up in the three-dollar rack six weeks later."
Doubt it, Jack.
For Squirrels performs with the Goods, Milk Can, and Fuel on Sunday at 10:00 p.m. at the Stephen Talkhouse (616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557; tickets are $5) and on Monday at America's Birthday Bash Fourth of July celebration beginning at noon at the South End Amphitheater at Bayfront Park (301 Biscayne Blvd, 358-7550; admission is free).