20 years after split, techno squid says we’re back
by The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | August 13, 2015
And it’s about time. The quartet’s self-titled debut was released when Bill Clinton was still in his first term as president, Sheryl Crow had a hit with “All I Wanna Do,” mock turtlenecks were a thing and Tonya Harding helped orchestrate a knee-whacking attack on her figure skating rival Nancy Kerrigan.
Ahhh, yes, the ’90s. It was actually 1994 when the Little Rock quartet of Clay Bell, vocals; Aaron Sarlo, guitar, vocals; Mark Pearrow, bass and Shayne Gray, drums, unleashed their first album of smart, catchy indie-pop via Memphis’ Ardent Records label. A relentless touring schedule and musical differences would take a toll on the band, though, and by 1995, Techno-Squid Eats Parliament was done.
“We needed a break,” says Sarlo, 43, from his Little Rock home on a recent afternoon. “When we parted ways in our 20s, it was just a different time for everybody. You don’t have the same perspective in your 20s as you do in your 40s. Friendships and music are much more important than ego any day of the week.”
Sarlo and childhood pal Bell started playing music together as students at Little Rock Central High School.
“I met Aaron when I first started playing guitar,” Bell says from his home in Petaluma, Calif. “I saw him playing songs and I wanted to learn how. Playing and singing all night long is all I wanted to do.”
The pair graduated in 1990 and Pearrow began jamming with them in 1991. They met Gray while attending the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and by 1992 the band was whole.
“That’s when it started to gain traction,” Bell, 43, says. “With Mark, things got better and then Shayne tied it all up. All the pieces came together.”
The group came in second at a battle of the bands competition sponsored by the now defunct Spectrum Weekly of Little Rock. The contest was judged by Memphis music luminaries Jody Stephens of Big Star, producer Jim Dickinson and Ardent Studios owner John Fry, who expressed interest in signing Techno-Squid to the Ardent Records label.
“These guys seemed legit,” Sarlo says, with just a hint of understatement.
The band’s eponymous debut, whose indie power pop still sounds right at home among contemporaries like School of Fish, Gin Blossoms and Toad the Wet Sprocket, hit the streets with help from Philips Multimedia/Polygram and was one of the first multimedia CDs, featuring videos and interviews with the band that could be played on a computer.
“It was a good technology,” Sarlo says, though one production addition caused a stir. The group and producer John Hampton put the sound of a needle being dropped on a scratchy record at the beginning of the first track, “Rhinestones.” The effect is common as mud now, but back then it was still pretty novel.
“People were thinking their speakers were blowing out,” Sarlo says.
Ron Shelton was a part-time Memphis concert promoter when he spied the band’s name in the Memphis Flyer in 1993 and became intrigued.
“With a name like that, it was definitely something I wanted to check out,” says Shelton, now living in Houston. He caught the band at a club called 616 in midtown Memphis.
“There might have been five people in the bar, but [Techno-Squid] was amazing. They played like the place was packed,” he says. “What impressed me the most was that they had stage presence. They played like they’d been together 10 or 15 years.”
To Shelton, the group sounded destined for a national breakout.
“They had great songs. You could walk out of a show singing a song you’d never even heard before. It was almost like listening to a cover band because you couldn’t believe they had written these songs.”
After the release of Techno-Squid Eats Parliament, the band toured incessantly, eventually playing with heroes like Cracker at Tipitina’s in New Orleans and, a few days later, Alex Chilton in New York.
By summer of 1995, Pearrow, Sarlo and Bell were in Boston, while Gray stayed behind in Little Rock. The seams of the band were beginning to unravel. Homesickness was eating at some members and Bell and Sarlo’s musical tastes were diverging.
Also, “it didn’t feel right without Shayne there,” Bell says. On July 29, 1995, Techno-Squid broke up.
Nowadays, Sarlo fronts Little Rock’s Dangerous Idiots, is a writer and also performs stand-up comedy. Bell sings and plays guitar with the ’80s cover band Pop Rocks around San Francisco and has a pair of solo EPs ready for release. Gray lives in Little Rock and plays in Glittercore, while Pearrow is in Boston and works in the computer lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The four have remained close over the years, even regrouping for a quick show at the 2008 Little Rock Film Festival. But about a year ago, Sarlo began having thoughts of a new Techno-Squid album and reached out to the other three.
“We’re all still friends and we all still love each other and we’re still making music, so why not do a new album?” he says. “Right away, everybody replied and said it sounds great.”
Recording each of their parts separately, the band went to work on the tracks for the eight-song We’re Back. What Did We Miss? It’s an excellent set of tunes, reminiscent of the first album and ’90s touchstones like the Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray and Teenage Fanclub’s “Bandwagonesque, which Sarlo says is the vibe he sought.
Of course the group is looking forward to Saturday’s show, and there may be even more gigs on the horizon.
“I wouldn’t put it past us,” Bell says of the idea of playing together after Saturday’s show.
Longtime fan Shelton is flying in from Houston to see his old pals play.
“I just hope it doesn’t take them 20 years to put out another album,” he says with a laugh.