Interviewing Jeff Calder–songwriter, musician, journalist, acrobatic thinker and, for 20-odd years now, the leader of Atlanta’s Swimming Pool Q’s–is a dream assignment. You ask a few questions and then just stay out of the way. Case in point: I’ve seen the term “art rock” used to describe The Swimming Pool Q’s in various write-ups over the years (including in Living by Night in the Land of Opportunity: Observations on Life in a Rock & Roll Band, a penetrating essay/survival guide penned by Calder), so I inquired about the validity of such a description. The result was a fluid meditation on art and rock and where The Swimming Pool Q’s fit: somewhere in between.
“I’m sure that I meant ‘art rock’ in the broadest possible sense,” Calder begins. “That is to say, there was an evolving artistic intention behind the original concept of The Swimming Pool Q’s just as there was with many of the New Wave-era bands that fell into the ‘visionary line’–the opalescent Let’s Active, for instance. It was a shared desire to manufacture an object for the pure pleasure of it. If others liked it, all the better, though it was hardly essential. At least, that’s what we thought at the time.”
The Q’s rejected the notion of “rock royalty” epitomized by such bands as Led Zeppelin (“Yes, I know, the drummer was good and some of the riffs were OK,” Calder quips). “It was important for us that we not separate ourselves from the audience through phony mysterioso posturing, no matter how ‘weird’ our music may have seemed when The Deep End was released,” he says.
“Just as America’s intellectual character, such as it is, lies somewhere between Daniel Boone and Henry Adams, The Swimming Pool Q’s fall somewhere between the rough hewn and the prissy,” he says, going on to describe The Q’s as a “populist” art-rock band (the Daniel Boone camp). “If we fail, why give it second thought?” (This led to more philosophizing, including an anti-grunge tirade in miniature; it hurts to not be able to include it all.)
The central Florida-based Calder launched his musical career fronting Johnnie T. and the Fruit Jockeys, an outfit known to don enormous, orange papier-mâch&233; heads. He’d also been co-writing with virtuoso ex-Hampton Grease Band guitarist Glenn Phillips, and it was through Phillips that Calder met precocious Atlanta guitar player Bob Elsey. The pair began writing and cutting songs together. Their first collaboration was “Rat Bait,” a riffy, ruthless character sketch about a fella “as ugly as homemade sin.”
Although Calder shrugs at his journalistic background (his byline has appeared in everything from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution to NPR), instead describing himself as “just someone with a high tolerance level for bad behavior,” he does acknowledge its benefits, as showcased in “Rat Bait.” “It helped, in being able to observe the traits of certain hick-ish ‘character-types,’ which were then committed to song with a schoolboy condescension for which I have some nostalgia,” he admits.
Calder moved to Atlanta in ’78, and he and Elsey began recording under the name The Swimming Pool Q’s. Gradually, the Q’s added members to became a five-piece, and resurrected “Rat Bait” as the band’s first single. With a solidified lineup that featured vocalist/organist Anne Richmond Boston, bassist Pete Jarkunas, and drummer Robert Schmid, The Q’s released their debut record, The Deep End, in 1981 on DB Records, with, yep, another version of “Rat Bait” centerstage. Even before the album’s release, The Q’s had opened for The B-52s, Devo and The Police. For their album release party at Atlanta’s 688 club, it was The Q’s turn to top the bill. The opener was an up-and-coming band that Calder had seen put on a “disastrous mid-week show” a half-year earlier, R.E.M.
“When we ended up sharing the bill with R.E.M. at our album release,” Calder recalls, “they had become, in a six-month period, one of the best groups that we ever heard in the club, demonstrating their command over the small gesture.”
Calder says that The Q’s shared an outlook with R.E.M., The B-52s and Pylon (the great lost Athens band), one “that combined a sense of fun with the idea of artistic purpose and originality.” This put the band at odds with “the prevailing regional mentality of 1970s Southern Rock,” but it also gave the band a connection to “the emerging international system of New Wave and Punk,” which added to the band’s sense of mission. “Of course, we protested repeatedly and with great indignation that we really weren’t ‘New Wave.’ Looking around at the situation as it stands today, we were fortunate to have been called anything at all,” he says.
The Q’s put out three more full-length albums, releasing a pair for A&M in the mid ’80s (Ira Robbins, in The Trouser Press Record Guide, raved about Boston’s vocals on 1986’s Blue Tomorrow, calling them “exquisite–Linda Ronstadt meets Wanda Jackson and Sandy Denny”). They then closed out the decade with the ambitious, underrated World War Two Point Five. Calder describes their later work as “more melodic and interior.” You can add to that, especially with an ear turned toward World War Two Point Five, a sound that’s a bit more muscular, perhaps a result of the band continuing to get in touch with their inner Daniel Boones.
“The Q’s never disbanded or broke up,” Calder says, when asked about the comparatively quiet ’90s. “We did, however, keep a low profile, playing dates sporadically and–like Muhammad Ali at Manila–refusing to submit.” You can, however, expect to see more of The Swimming Pool Q’s, thanks to the recent reissue of The Deep End, complete with 13 bonus tracks–ranging from the unreleased four-track demo, “Walk Like a Chicken” to the Calder/Phillips co-write “Stingray,” a “Hot Rod Lincoln” for those surfing the new wave–and a lengthy band history written by Calder.
There’s also the upcoming release of The Royal Academy of Reality, an album that’s been waiting in the wings since being conceived in ’92 and completed in ’98. “It has become an elaborate disc that is a little dense, possibly ‘baroque,’ as rock critics would say,” offers Calder. “I would like to think of it as simultaneously homemade and sophisticated.”
And what can the crowd expect from a 21st-century show from The Swimming Pool Q’s? “We perform songs from our entire 23-year repertoire, from The Deep End through our A&M and Capitol albums to our forthcoming release,” Calder says. The lineup is essentially the same as it was in 1982–Anne Richmond Boston, vocals; Bill Burton, drums; Jeff Calder, guitar, vocals; Bob Elsey, lead guitar, with Tim DeLaney (from Atlanta’s Sightseers) on bass.
After their new album is released, Calder says The Q’s plan to reissue the rest of their back catalog, giving each disc The Deep End treatment by including bonus tracks and extensive historical notes. “At the end of the day, when taken as a whole, they should come to resemble one long story with a happy ending,” Calder says.
“I read yesterday that Chubby Checker thinks that he should receive the Nobel Prize for his celebrated trilogy of ‘The Pony,’ ‘The Twist,’ and ‘The Fly,’” Calder says, then adds, “and which of us would deny Checker his due?”
If Checker gets his Nobel prize, Calder hopes (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) that “perhaps he’ll open the door with our Swedish friends for The Swimming Pool Q’s project.”
If that day does come, Calder is ready: “One day we’ll be waving a statue, knocking back the schnapps, and driving real slow down Franklin Street with our fat, white New Wave asses sticking three feet out the window.”