I had the chance to sit down with Jeff of Squad Five-O at their show in St. Louis at the Rocket Bar before their set, and this is our conversation:
JAMISON: Begin, please, by stating your name and what it is you do in Squad Five-O.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Fortson, I am the singer in Squad… Frontman… Star… Fill in the blank.
JAMISON: [Laughs] Great. If you will, please describe your band in your own words.
JEFF: Squad Five-O is a five-piece pseudo rock and roll punk outfit that is equal parts the Stones and the Clash.
JAMISON: Oh, baby.
JEFF: Yeah, somewhere in there.
JAMISON: Absolutely. And why is it that people should listen to your band as opposed to everything out there right now?
JEFF: Uhm… Why should people listen to us? Uhm, because… Well, we’re just great. [Laughs] I guess the reason I would listen to us if I wasn’t in the band is because I think we’re a band that has something to say as opposed to a lot of bands who are just making, uh, well, not to say that I have anything against, you know, good pop music, or lyrics that are just fun or songs that are just fun, but I think that a lot of the trend in music today is with a lot of the bands that are more popular right now is bands that, uh, you know, talk about their problems and, you know, how their girlfriend broke up with them in 8th grade and they haven’t gotten over it yet, or how their mom or dad doesn’t understand them… And, you know, kids relate to them because it’s what they’re going through, but I think that, to me at least, it’s all just surface stuff, and it doesn’t go any deeper than that.
JAMISON: Right, like an aesthetic kind of thing.
JEFF: Yeah, and what we’re trying to do and hopefully have done with the new album and our new material is we’ve dug deeper, and we’ve touched on issues that come from within the person, as opposed to just some of the surface issues of, you know, being misunderstood or, you know, being really mad or anything like that, but, see, what we’re talking about are things that touch all human beings, whether it be on a political or social or spiritual level… I mean, the thing that I love about the music that I love is that it’s from the soul whether it’s a song about a relationship, or a song about the government, or a song about a social situation it’s sung from the soul and it comes out of them and into me. So hopefully, that’s what we’ve tried to do and, if for no other reason, I think if people want to try to grab on to something that they can really chew on, then I think that the new album could probably do that for them, so I guess that’s why people should like us.
JAMISON: Alright… Well, yeah, we already kind of touched base on this, but what are some of the bigger influences that go into Squad Five-O?
JEFF: Uh, I think as a band as a whole, we kind of share a lot of the same influences like, uh, evidently, the Rolling Stones, the Clash, Bob Dylon, uh, you know, the Replacements, Paul Westerberg, and then like, just me individually as far as my performance goes, like, what I base the character of “Jeff On-Stage” around is, uh, I think, you know, like a lot of the over-the-top kind of frontmen like David Bowie, Mick Jager, David Johansen from the New York Dolls. So, you know, I kind of camp it up on stage, because to me, those guys are the most interesting frontmen, oh, and also, like, an Alice Cooper kind of vibe. It’s just that those guys are more into making it, like, a show, you know? But at the same time, I’m influenced by people like Joe Strummer or Kevin Seconds from 7 Seconds, so that whole punk aesthetic thing of like a singer that’s… there for the people, that’s not above the people, that’s not above the crowd, but it’s like, singers that are part of the crowd, like they’re in it together, kind of thing. And you know, a lot of the campier, over-the-top stuff I know is over-the-top and it’s meant to be fun, you know? I don’t take it seriously at all.
JAMISON: Alright, so are there any bands you’re into that we probably wouldn’t expect.
JEFF: Uhm, I’m a big Cure fan, I don’t know if that would be surprising, but Disintegration and Wish are two of my favorite albums ever, so… Oh, and Hilary Duff, I’m kind of into that because my daughter listens to it so much. [Laughter] I mean, it’s growing on me a bit. It’s better than, like, Kid Songs or something.
JAMISON: So Squad Five-O gets to go out on tour with four other bands. Who are they? Time and mortality aren’t issues.
JEFF: Oh, wow, four bands… The Kick, from Orlando, FL… The Gadgets... Uh, the Clash. Uhm, and maybe, like, Johnny Cash—he’d probably have a lot of good stories to tell. Oh, and the Ramones. They’re the surprise set.
JAMISON: Your new album, Late News Breaking is coming out on June 29th.
JEFF: Yeah, I wrote it. [Laughter]
JAMISON: Can you explain how you guys as a band changed or evolved since the last record and how has the sound as a whole evolved from album to album?
JEFF: Uhm, well, you know, since the last record I think the biggest change is that we’ve learned to work more as a team, uh, it used to be real competitive between the songwriters, uh, before Dave joined the band I used to write a bulk of the material and when Dave joined, he happens to be one of the most prolific and, like, you know, greatest songwriters I’ve ever met, and you know, on this album we’re a lot more open, and we decided that on this album everyone’s going to get credit for all of the songs, even if it’s not a song that you necessarily brought to the table, you’re going to add their part to it whether it be a vocal idea from me or a bass idea from John. So everyone gets their percentage of the song so that cut out a lot of the competition and I think we’ve started sharing everything. So I think that what’s changed the most is that we’ve really learned to work as a unit, and it really has become a democracy and no one person is really calling the shots and it’s kind of dissolved a lot of the camps that used to develop during recording, the power struggle.
JAMISON: Yeah, I mean, that kind of leads into my next question… I know the line-up has changed over the last few years with Chris, Adam, and Dave coming on, so is it easier or harder to write songs as a band with more members and does creative tension ever get you at odds with each other.
JEFF: Uh, it’s easier because there’s more songs brought to the table, but it’s harder because you have to cut more songs. And so, uh, even for this album went to the studio with 20+ songs that we, you know, put together in a month and Dave had his songs, and I had my songs, and Adam had his songs, and Chris and John had parts and we hacked it out for a month in May and we came to the studio in September or in August with over 20 songs and we had to hack that down to 14 and then only 12 made the album and we did a cover as well to go on a B-side or something. So yeah, it’s easier because there’s a surplus of material or but it’s also harder because you have to vote on what material should make it and what material shouldn’t. And hopefully some of the songs that got cut aren’t lost forever, especially the ones we’ve already recorded, hopefully they’ll live on as b-sides or come up on another album down the road. But, uh, there used to be a lot of creative tension in the band but it’s now a lot more smoothed out. You know, every once in a while someone’s ego gets bruised, but that’s about it…
JAMISON: Alright, cool… This is kind of a silly question, but what is the ebst song that you feel that you’ve written as a band to date and are there any favorite to play live, or what.
JEFF: Uh, speaking from a personal standpoint, I think the best song I’ve ever written and that we’ve put down on tape in my opinion is “2 Grand and a lot of Hassle.” It’s on the new album, the third track, and when I sit back and listen to it and listen to the lyrics it says more than I had initially thought it said when I first wrote it. So to me that’s my favorite, and it’s been a live staple since we finished the album, oh, and I’ve always thought that “Always Talkin’, Never On the Run” is a really strong song.
JAMISON: So one thing Squad is known for is that, it’s, you know, kind of a lighthearted take on rock music, and I mean, not that it doesn’t take issues seriously, but it’s more carefree and less self-pitying as a whole.
JAMISON: So is this purposeful, like, do you intentionally shoot to do that or is it just kind of the end result of everyone in the band’s personalities as a whole, like, that’s what it comes out to be?
JEFF: Uh, I think that lyrically, on the new album and new material, I think there’s some very heavy issues that we tackle on the political, spiritual, personal, relationship…ional level, whatever. [Laughs] But yeah, the live aspect of the band is definitely, you know, like a party, it’s like a release. It’s like, if you come to a show, regardless of what you’re into or who you’re into, and you’re able to let your ego go or let your hang-ups go, then you’re going to have a good time at a Squad Five-O show.
JAMISON: Absolutely, man.
JEFF: Yeah, and it’s more or less like the lyrics are still, like, very socially aware but at the same time it can still be fun and a good time. I mean, if you look at like, Bruce Springstein or something and his songs, like “Born in the USA” is like, one of the most heavy songs, lyrically, but if you see him play it live, then it’s like a party. You’re celebrating life even though you’re talking about something very heavy. You’re celebrating the fact that you’re still alive, the fact that we, as Americans, can get together and commune in this way… So yeah, I think definitely we aim for people to have a good time and see a good show and feel like they’re part of the show.
JAMISON: So you’re from Savannah, GA, right?
JEFF: Yeah, uh, John and I are originally from there. I’m still there, John’s in Orlando, FL and Dave, Adam, and Chris are all in Philadelphia.
JAMISON: Right on. How’re the crowds there in the way they receive the band as opposed to other places around the nation?
JEFF: Oh, man, Savannah’s great. The last couple times we’ve played there have been really great, really fun, really over-the-top and, you know, just a blast. Uh, Philadelphia is pretty much the same way. And in Florida, down in Orlando, we do really great down there too, so I guess all three home bases are really strong, but I mean, there’s also other places around the country that we’ve really done well for ourselves in. Minneapolis, Omaha, Nebraska, Kansas City, uh, St. Louis is getting better for us. You know, it’s just different spots and different places.
JAMISON: So do you have any, like, specific goals for Squad Five-O? Are you looking to go anywhere, see anything, sell a specific amount of records?
JEFF: Uh, I think we’re just looking to sell enough records to create a large enough fan base to do it full-time so we don’t have to go back home and wash windows. And so, uh, that’s the first goal, you know, and the second goal is to make enough money for my wife not to have to work, also. Yah know, I’m not trying to increase my standard of living, it’d just be nice if she could quit her job and we’d still maintain what we have, but other than that… But yeah, I mean, that’s the goal. I’m not looking to play arenas or anything, you know, but I would love to be able to play like, 300 or 500 capacity venues and know that people were coming. You know, to get to that level would be great. To be playing a show and you know that kids are showing up… Because right now, after, like however many years we’ve been doing this, like six or seven years, there’re still nights were it’s like, man, I hope someone shows up.
JAMISON: How long have you guys been on Capitol?
JEFF: Uh, we signed last March.
JAMISON: How’s the relationship with them? Is there tension?
JEFF: Uh, it’s great for the most part. I mean, there are things you have to deal with when dealing with a large corporation where their boss usually gets the final say because it’s their money they’re spending to make your album. And, uh, so there’s a lot of give and take. We’ve won them over on a lot of issues and we’ve had to give into a lot of their issues and demands, but uh, overall, I think that the integrity of the band and the integrity of the album and the artwork have held up, and they’re good to us, you know? I can’t complain. The way that the label is set up is that they don’t sign a lot of talent, you know? They sign less bands than pretty much every other major label and they’re more devoted and get behind their bands on, well, maybe not so much on like a big marketing level, but on a grassroots, kind of ground level, like they have street teams all over the nation that go out and promote bands, they have an internet support team… They have bands that have sold, like, less than 100,000 records that are on, like, their third or fourth album, because they believe in the band and they really want to develop the band and they don’t want to say, like, well hey nothing happened this time around, so you’re gone. And that’s what a lot of labels do, you know? Like, if you’re first album doesn’t hit, then you’re out the door.
JAMISON: Well, hey man, thanks for doing this. Any parting comments?
JEFF: Uh, nothin’ much. If we’re in your town, come see us. Head to www.squadfive-o.com and check us out, and thanks for the interview!
Thanks so much to Jeff for handling this and being so hospitable, as well as for putting on such a booty shaking show. Thanks a million.