There are all sorts of ways to cover a song. But from the much missed Little Guitar Army turning up the knobs on their rethinking of the Blue Oyster Cult’s “Godzilla,” to China Syndrome’s more faithful interpretations of pop gems like the Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” the vast majority of cover tunes you encounter are songs you ALREADY KNOW.
That’s almost the point: to break up a set of originals with something familiar, to reward the audience for their hard work in listening to your less familiar tunes, and to pay respects to your forbears. And if your band gets some extra love for playing a particularly well-chosen tune—as when the SLIP~ons cranked out the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” at a recent show and everyone in the Princeton got up to dance—it’s, shall we say, a bonus. Who doesn’t like love?
Pill Squad is a bit craftier than that, however. The Vancouver four piece—including the Hip Type’s Tracy Brooks Carroll, punk historian (and former Hip Type drummer) Scott Beadle, Tim Chan of China Syndrome, and Ed Hurrell of Stab’Em in the Abdomen—tends to cover songs that you don’t already know. I mean, be honest: who amongst us knew Big Audio Dynamite’s “I Turned Out a Punk” before Pill Squad rearranged it and claimed it for their own? (Hell, not only didn't I know it, the first time I saw it credited on their debut EP, I read the credits wrong and thought it was “Nick Jones,” not “Mick Jones,” and figured it was some previously unheard Pointed Sticks tune).
In fact, the song fits Pill Squad perfectly. Singer Tracy Brooks Carroll tells the Straight that she “didn't have a choice about being a punk,” since she was “an unruly young child who turned into a horrifically angry and loud teen. My family were uninterested in me. They were all talented and the only thing I was good at was fighting. So when punk happened, I felt like there were other angry, ugly, violent people. The women of punk did not give any fucks. I'd always wanted to be part of a family and now I found one.”
If “I Turned Out a Punk” hadn’t been written by Big Audio Dynamite, Pill Squad would have had to invent it.
Or take “Envy” off Pill Squad’s new 2017 CD EP Pharmacopoeia. That song, which sees Carroll drily observing of her more successful peers that “It should have been me/ and nobody fucking else,” is actually by Norwegian band Time Lodgers, but it perfectly suits the honeyed bitterness of Pill Squad’s self-deprecating between-song stage banter.
You’d never guess it wasn’t an original.
And if you knew who Time Lodgers were before reading this article, I take my hat off to you, because I sure didn’t, before writing it. (I did know that John Cale’s “Perfect,” also on Pharmacopoeia, was a cover, but my guess is that that late-phase piece of popcraft is unfamiliar even to many professed Cale fans.
Digging that deep for covers, while it makes for a fun game of “spot the originals”, almost loses the point of covering songs in the first place, since no one goes, “Ohh, I know this!” and gets on the dance floor. On the other hand, Pill Squad, thanks to their well-chosen mix of covers and originals, end up sounding like even better songwriters than they already are (and they’re pretty great in their own right, mind you).
“There’s no particular strategy for choosing covers,” guitarist Tim Chan tells the Straight. (Chan, subject of a Local Motion on China Syndrome, is a modest, unassuming guy and a superb guitarist). “We all throw in ideas, but usually Tracy has veto power, since she’s the singer.”
“Mr. Sad,” on Pharmacopoeia, is a cover of an unreleased song by Chan’s former band Sorry, a 1990’s Victoria power pop unit that also featured Chan’s 64 Funnycars collaborator (and current VanRays and Swank member) Eric Lowe. It’s an autobiographical song Chan wrote about a cat rescue, who was the “saddest creature ever,” whom the Chans used to serenade with Smiths songs. “He always seemed kind of miserable," Chan recalls. "But we loved him dearly.”
Two of the songs on the new EP, meanwhile, revisit songs by the Hip Type, including the high point, “Illumination,” which you might be forgiven for mistaking for a cover of a song by a much more famous band (I was guessing maybe the 13th Floor Elevators).
Tracy Brooks Carroll explains that the song “was written way before I was in a band. I wrote it when I lived in London,” which she assures readers sounds much fancier than it was.
“I was watching the news, and seeing footage of the IRA and the Cold War and such, and I realized that society really likes living with lots of scary shit and conflict. The sweet, wonderful Commie utopia I wanted would never happen because of this human penchant for drama. So basically I was illuminated to my own unimportance.”
Sorry, what was that about Communism?
“Politically, I am now and will always be, a large-C Communist,” Carroll says. That’s something she shares with partner Scott Beadle; it’s unsurprising to note that she and Beadle have a trajectory that crosses paths with that of famed Vancouver radical group the Squamish Five (aka Direct Action) and its feminist contingent, the Wimmin’s Fire Brigade, both of which included No Exit member Julie Belmas. The Wimmin's Fire Brigade famously firebombed locations of notorious pornmeisters Red Hot Video back in the early 1980s (though “when I knew Julie, she was into 1960’s fashion, so I can’t comment on that,” Carroll adds.)
Scott Beadle, meantime—who has been in more bands than I ever realized, starting with the “fake band” Bingo Chickees in 1980—actually drummed with No Exit for a time. “Me and my Richmond suburban punk pals used to hang out with the North Van punks every weekend,” he explains, and that scene “was centered on the band No Exit. After their album was released the band splintered and reformed with a different lineup, that included me on drums and Julie Belmas on bass, but despite rehearsing for months, this lineup never played live, and then Julie and I left the band for some reason.” (Two of the songs on the Vancouver Independence compilation LP are co-credited to Belmas).
After leaving No Exit, Beadle went on to play in the 1980’s punk band Contraband, who opened for Personality Crisis and Discharge.
“Then around late 1985 got a call from Tracy Brooks and her then-partner Patrick Findler. They were both part of that North Van scene I mentioned, although Tracy was from Vancouver proper. They had a band called the Hip Type, who already had a demo tape on CiTR radio, and needed a drummer for live shows, so I joined them, first with Bruce Walthier on bass, and then Erica Leiren. We opened for local bands like Brilliant Orange, Go Four 3, Oversoul 7, and for visiting bands such as the Meat Puppets and Green River.”
I remember posters for that show—Green River, the Hip Type, and Slow. They featured Slow vocalist Tom Anselmi standing in his boxer shorts, presumably from a shot taken at their notorious Expo 86 gig.
“That was undoubtedly the most decadent show I ever played,” Carroll recalls. “Although the Meat Puppets had better food. We knew Slow, so were used to their shenanigans, but the actual real rock star sexiness of Green River was intoxicating. Even writing this takes me right back. It's not entirely my story to tell, but I will say that it's the closest I'll ever come to being sucked into a vortex I would never leave.”
Despite having “the best posters, songs and style,” Carroll recalls, the Hip Type was “fundamentally unable to be nice.”
“We knew that there was no way we could be famous with our bad attitudes, and that was fine,” Carroll admits. “We were oddly popular playing out of town. At a show in Calgary a young gent threw a very lovely piece of vintage lingerie on stage. I still have it.”
After parting ways with the Hip Type, Beadle took a break from music until the late 1990s,
“Out of the blue,” he says, “I got a call from Tracy Brooks and Erica Leiren who had a fascinating musical project, Infradig, and wanted to go from studio to live work. We rehearsed constantly but only played a handful of shows. Anyways, it was during this period that Tracy and I really started gravitating towards each other, and we ended up in this relationship we’re still in today, nearly 20 years later. We’d been friends for so long, and I’d always admired her and felt a connection with her, so this unfolding relationship felt quite natural, and yet totally weird at the same time.”
Beadle and Carroll both took a break from music for a time.
“Then in 2010 I got a call from Ron Reyes, who was putting together a band to celebrate his 50th birthday, and wanted me to drum for some reason. The band that night—which also saw Greg Ginn reunited with Reyes, long before the ill-fated Black Flag reunion—was a bit of an all-star affair in terms of local musicians, Beadle explains. It included Jon Doe of the Scramblers and Rabid, Tony Walker of the Actionauts and Bludgeoned Pigs, and North Van’s Kevin Rose, of the Butchers and Crash Bang Crunch Pop.
“Tracy sang backup vocals at that show too,” Beadle says. “This event, along with my sideline of making gig posters for various local musicians I knew, kind of re-introduced to the local music scene, and I began to feel the performance bug again. I joined a band called Full Leather Jacket around 2013 with Darryl and Craig Stapleton, who had trouble finding a full-time guitarist before landing Tim Chan. After Full Leather Jacket splintered in 2014, I was finally able to cajole Tracy into performing live again in our own band, and miraculously we roped Tim into joining Pill Squad with us.”
The whole band—also now including Ed Hurrell, last seen by me yelling drunkenly about Buddhism in my face at a Doug Andrew gig—has an easy charisma and charm, despite sometimes contentious personalities. They’re really easy to listen to: pop punk with wit and wicked guitar solos.
But they still get cranky at times, as when Carroll and Beadle, in a Facebook discussion for a Rickshaw Bowie tribute that Pill Squad participated in, got very opinionated about burlesque, which goes against the grain of their feminist tendencies.
The discussion got heated enough—even referencing the old-school extremism of the Wimmin's Fire Brigade—that it was eventually moved off Facebook, and not brought up at all at the Rickshaw, where Pill Squad peacefully shared the stage with the likes of horror-burlesque queen “Bloody” Betty Bathory.
Carroll sticks to her guns, however. “Until women and men are equal, a naked woman in front of a room full of dudes is problematic,” she opines. ”On a lighter note, it was funny how that whole argument turned into people telling me ‘no-one will ever mistake you for a stripper.’ Which will always make me laugh. I throw it at my family sometimes.”
A final question: the name of the band can be taken in a couple of ways, including as a reference to people—rare these days, it seems—with a recreational proclivity towards popping pills. That’s not where it comes from, though, is it?
Scott Beadle fields the question, telling me my instincts are right. In part, he explains, it’s “an inside-joke reference to some pals of ours band from the late 1990s, a post-Go Four 3 band called Thrill Squad.”
But mostly, alas, “it’s a not-so-joking reference to our, and our friends’ and fans’, advancing age and/or health issues, and how most of us rely on pills of some sort, just to get by on a day-to-day basis. Hence, we are the Pill Squad.”