"After the accident, like the next day, we made a conscious decision that if there was any kind of passion in our music, any kind of legacy we wanted to create, we had to keep doing this."
For Squirrels guitarist Travis Tooke is ruminating on the aftermath of the September 1995 automobile accident in which the Gainesville group's vocalist Jack Vigliatura, bassist Bill White, and road manager Tim Bender were killed. Tooke sustained a broken elbow and several minor injuries, while drummer Jack Griego suffered a neck fracture. The group's van flipped over three times after a tire blowout on a stretch of I-95 in Midway, Georgia, about a month before their major-label debut, Example, was set for release on 550 Music, a division of Epic Records.
The album was issued as scheduled while Tooke and Griego recovered. Now, six months after the accident, For Squirrels are back on the road for a two-month tour that will take them to Austin's South By Southwest Music Conference for a Friday, March 15, performance at Emo's. They've already played a few unannounced dates in Florida, including a February performance at Rose's Bar & Music Lounge under the nom de plume Rev Lover (revolver spelled backward), and made their official return earlier this month with a gig in Gainesville. Tooke has assumed vocal duties, and Andy Lord -- a long-time friend of the band's -- has joined as bassist.
"It's been hard," says Tooke of the Squirrels' return to the road. "The response from people so far has been awesome, but it's not easy. On the one hand it hurts because they're seeing us play, and even though half of them don't know about the accident, they still love the band and the music. It makes me wish they could've seen us with Jack and Bill. At the same time, though, I think we're doing a good job of standing up for the guys."
In addition to his new role as lead vocalist, Tooke is now the group's lyricist. "The way we used to work, the music would start with me, then Bill would make changes to it and Jack would write the lyrics," he explains. "Now I'm doing the lyrics, the melodies, and playing guitar. I've read that most of the time you only use a small percentage of your brain, but now I feel like I'm using it all."
The band has added five of Tooke's compositions to their current set list, including "World's Greatest Lover," "The Critic's Razor," "pleH," "Madness Is Genius by Design," and "Never the Best." For Squirrels manager Rich Ulloa has heard the new songs and suggests they reflect the group's new personality and chemistry. "The new songs are definitely different than what came before," notes Ulloa, who released the For Squirrels EP Plymouth in 1994 on his Y&T label. "It's very exciting, how Travis has emerged as such a creative force. You knew he had it in him, but the degree to which he has emerged is just astounding. And Jack has worked his butt off to get to where he is."
There's a sixth Tooke-penned song that For Squirrels has worked up, but the guitarist is reluctant to add it to the band's live shows just yet, and not because the title has not yet been determined. "Pretend," or "Pretend You're Alive," is the nascent wordsmith's attempt to confront the tragedy that is still fresh in his mind. "It sounds corny, but I really can't sing it live," Tooke admits. "It's kind of slow, sort of like [John Lennon's] 'Imagine,' and it's pretty sad. When I sing it, I can't help but think about everything and I get choked up."
After they wrap up their current tour, For Squirrels will open some dates for Echobelly and the Nixons, then headline some more club gigs. Tooke expects the band to go back into the studio sometime in November to record the followup to Example, which may be released by spring 1997. "The label's been very supportive and excited about what we're doing," he exclaims. "Actually, everyone's been great. Fans have been very supportive and hopefully we're getting better and better. Maybe some people won't like us, or will say they like the old band better, and that's fine. I mean, I like the old band better, too."
The Miami radio duo of Steve Alvin and Greg Baker will be making an appearance at this year's South By Southwest shebang. The hosts of The Beast & Baker Show, which airs every Saturday from midnight to 2:00 a.m. on WAXY-AM (790), are emceeing a surf-rock bonanza on Friday, March 15, at Scholz Garten that will feature some of the heavyweights of the twang-and-reverb community, including the Mermen, Satan's Pilgrims, the Minstrels, Huevos Rancheros, and Teisco Del Ray, all regulars on the B&B Show.
"We just arranged it," Alvin states matter-of-factly of the duo's upcoming emcee gig. "I assume the entire surf scene will be there, and hopefully we can get a lot of those groups from up there to come down here from time to time, instead of them ending their tours in Tampa."
Already, Alvin and Baker have been instrumental in bringing nuevo surf groups such as the Mermen and iconic string-bender Dick Dale to Miami. They've also lined up Nashville's wrestling-masked combo Los Straitjackets for a March 28 show at Churchill's Hideaway, and are expecting to bring Alabama's Man or Astro-Man? into town this spring. In addition, The Beast & Baker Show was featured last month in a Billboard magazine roundup of surf-intensive radio shows across the U.S. They were also featured in a recent issue of XS, a weekly Fort Lauderdale paper.
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"People can really relate to surf music," Alvin says, explaining the popularity of the show. "It's a kind of music that serves a dual purpose: You can listen to it through your feet and dance to it, or listen through your heart. There's a lot of music out there that you can dance to, but there's not much out there that's made for your heart. Surf music does both. That's what attracted me to it."
If you're Austin bound, you can also catch Miami singer/songwriter Gigi DeNisco at South By Southwest during the Seventh Annual Regional Roundup at Maggie Mae's on Saturday, March 16.
DeNisco's show there will kick off a seven-state tour that will take her throughout the South and Southeast, from Texas to South Carolina. DeNisco, a regular on the local club circuit, is touring in support of her recently released indie album On My Way. She'll be back in the area in late March for performances at Tobacco Road (March 24) and Chili Pepper (March 25).