Squares Pegged

Profiling St. Louis' most ethical band, the Red Squares, sparks an ethical dilemma

Oct 4, 2000 at 4:00 am
We might as well call this week's music section "The Red Squares Journal," because not only are we profiling them in "Radar Station" but -- it must be stated right here at the top -- two of its members are featured in this issue as authors as well. That would be Jason Toon, guitarist/vocalist/Supergrass freak, and Matthew Shultz, bassist/vocalist/comic artist. Hell, we figured if we're going to dabble in the treacherous waters of conflict of interest, we might as well be blatant about it. But it must also be stated that in the interest of full disclosure, the Red Squares would have been highlighted much sooner had they not been RFT contributors; standing perched on the marble statue of ethics, we mused for months on ways to address the issue of the Squares without cracking, and along the way we had an epiphany: Ethics, shmethics. Rock & roll ain't about ethics, it's about unethics.

The Red Squares, though, are one of the most ethical bands you'll ever hear, which isn't necessarily a good thing. It's hard to let loose and lose the inhibition if, while you're belting out the chorus to the anthem, you're feeling all guilty about snogging your best friend's girl last night. The Sex Pistols, the Stooges, the Ramones -- most of the great punk bands -- weren't known first as upstanding members of society; you couldn't imagine any band member running for state representative (as Toon is doing, in the 68th District, as a member of the Green Party), nor can you imagine Rotten or Ramone hitting a deadline (as both Shultz and Toon do often -- the former is much more prompt than the latter). Iggy, Johnny and Joey seemed handpicked for punk-rock stardom (alas, an oxymoron no more) not because they were the chosen but because they were aimlessly unethical and downright nasty.

The other side of the punk world, circa late '70s/early '80s (the era from which the Squares draw most of their inspiration), though, is filled with upstanding, menace-free citizens. Pete Shelley and his Buzzcocks wrote about love with an unequaled sentimentality; during their heyday, he probably phoned his mum from the road. The Clash's Joe Strummer truly believed in change. Paul Weller of the Jam believed in the transcendence of soul and the mod lifestyle. You never imagined any of them nicking guitars from the local shop or getting kicked in the head during a brawl.

In this latter camp the Red Squares surely reside. They play punk rock funneled through '60s AM radio, all hooky and melodic and romantic. It's no surprise, then -- other than the cojones it takes to align yourself with countless frat-boy losers -- that they cover the Violent Femmes: "I Held Her in My Arms." They're not afraid to care, it seems, and you can find out all about this and pick up many other useless but hilarious tidbits on the backs of the official Red Squares trading cards, issued a few months back and available at their shows. You'll learn, among other things, that guitarist Josh Boelter is, in the world of Dungeons and Dragons, a "sixth-level Elven Mage/Thief" and sports a +2 short sword for protection; you'll learn from drummer Duane Perry's stats that "No matter what he says, Duane doesn't like you very much"; that among personal traits, Shultz scores "Face: 6. Body: 5. Personality: 2"; that Jason Toon scored a 31 on his ACT and a 1470 on his SAT.

The band revels in contradictions; they write love songs, but they write them for strippers: "Dollar by dollar my money does your dance/You get naked on the table, and I get sweaty hands." When Toon decries the state of his city -- "Trash in the alleys, boards across the doors" -- he's obviously miffed but goes on to reveal, "I won't take the highway west" because "if you've got a home you can't let it dry up and blow away."

The Red Squares are tight as hell, and they ought to be: Three of the four have played together, as part of the Meat Sisters and the Volatiles, since the mid-'90s. Drummer Perry has the steadiest, quickest high-hat tap in the city -- no small feat -- and lead guitarist Boelter creates weird, unpredictable lead lines that work inside the songs.

But the band won't get a free ride just because we have to deal with them professionally; at times they lack the grunt that the best punk and rock & roll bands, even those infused with pop, must have. Both Toon and Shultz have thin voices, and you feel, when they hit the hard emotions, that their vocal cords just might snap. Both need to swallow some sandpaper or start smoking Newports -- or, somehow, throw open the gate at the back of the throat that keeps their voices somewhat tentative when their lyrics are screaming for passion. And though the band obviously uses more than three chords, sometimes they use them in semiclumsy ways; changes and hooks seem to collide when they should be merging. And, finally, considering that the Red Squares often sound like the Jam, it's not a good idea to use "All Around the ..." in a chorus and song title; the Jam's "All Around the World" is one of the gems of the punk era, and the Red Squares' "All Around the City" sits too close for comfort. All tiny complaints, but complaints nonetheless.

But when they hit it, they can spit out a melody and a hook with the ferocity of the greats -- something they've yet to capture in the studio (we've only heard their recently released three-song single, "Oh! Girlie Girl!"). Live, they're as tight as they should be: On shitty sound systems, their work ethic shows, and on good sound systems, they're so good that they deserve thousands of diehard fans. They're playing all over in the month of October; check their Web site -- www.theredsquares.com -- for updates.

QUICKIES: Those feeling like they've missed the boat on the jam-band movement and clueless with regard to that vibrant scene's active participants (including, ahem, at least one member of the "Radar Station" staff) should know that the second annual Battle of the Jam Bands kicks off this week at the home for Bands That Freakin' Jam in St. Louis, Cicero's in the Loop. If you're truly committed to unearthing the scene's gems, the competition is a great way to do it: On each Thursday for the next month, three bands per night will compete to make it to the finals on Oct. 26. The first installment, Oct. 5, features Jive Turkey (which we wouldn't peg as a "jam band" per se), CPB and Illtet. This evening is a nice initiation; closed-minded losers (like at least one member of the "Radar Station" staff) have been known to be surprised by some bands billing themselves as in the "jam" vein, and clueless attendees (including at least one member of the "Radar Station" staff) have stood corrected and even, yes, impressed.... News is that the Side Door/Hot Locust space has been leased by the kings of cover-band schmaltz, Dr. Zhivegas. The band will be operating the front of the room as a restaurant and the back Side Door space as a club, one in which they'll be the house band. They plan to augment the venue's offerings with two turntables and DJs. Those expecting a snide, dismissive comment will get none; we're encouraged by the band's ingenuity and think it's a pretty good idea. That they probably won't be hiring the bands that used to play the old Side Door, though a drag, is expected and inevitable; after all, that club's booking policies, which earned them worthless street-cred points, obviously didn't pay the bills.

Related Link:
Jason Toon's Green Party Ballot