This is the story of a short-lived, local band that broke up 20 years ago. You’re probably wondering why you should care. On the surface, their story is like so many other bands: they got together, wrote some great songs, released a couple of tapes, had a strong following and then hit the ceiling, the point where there just wasn’t anywhere else for them to go.
Sound familiar? Sure, but where the Quitters’ story gets interesting is in the details. There’s a journey here that makes for a story worth telling. It takes us through some of the highlights – and maybe also lowlights – of the first 15 years of Calgary’s punk music scene.
Chapter 1: Punk Rock Virgins
Joe McCaffery, one of the Quitters’ two lead singer/guitarists, is quick to make a correction to my usage when we talk about the history of the band. “Christopher [Truch, the band’s other lead singer/guitarist] likes to refer to it as underground and I think that is a better description because, for all the things we were, punk wasn’t one of them,” he says. “Both of us were too fully formed by the time we heard punk to consider ourselves punk.”
That’s maybe what made the Quitters so compelling for those of us that heard them when they hit the scene in 1990. Their psych-influenced, garage rock sound was out of step with a lot of their contemporaries. The five-person band – McCaffery and Truch along with bassist Pete Charuk, keyboardist Cheryl Lancastle and drummer Ted Latimer – not only played music that sounded different from the prevailing trends (1990 was dominated by local bands like Ninth Configuration, Skin Barn and Big Bang Theory) but looked different as well. I mean, two front men?!
In the early ‘90s, the Quitters were “consciously outta step with the funk metal scene,” Truch half-jokes. “Pete could not and would not slap!”
McCaffery is more serious about their sound and influences. “When Chris and I started writing songs, there wasn’t really a particular genre that any of it sounded like – it sounded a little bit like a lot of things. We didn’t really buy into punk, but we took what we could from it.”
Truch agrees and admits a fairly late connection to punk. “Being a dyed-in-the-wool Led Zeppelin Catholic, I scoffed at punk. It didn’t connect — and then I met DJewel Davidson.”
Part of that lack of a connection to punk is where the two came from. The two met at Bishop Grandin High School in the late ‘70s, after McCaffery spent a disastrous but interesting year at Bishop Carroll, getting to know Allen Baekeland and the Social Blemishes crew that would go on to help kick start the city’s punk scene. But at the time, growing up, there was no blueprint for forming a punk rock band – or even an original band.
“When we started playing in bands, we didn’t know that you could form a band and play your own music,” McCaffery explains. “You could be in a cover band or don’t be in a band. And I knew right away that I didn’t want to be in a cover band, even though I didn’t know there was an option – because I didn’t like them. Until I started going to 10 Foot Henry’s, I thought I was just going to be an English Lit graduate. It always amazes me that Al Charlton was starting punk bands in the late ‘70s in Calgary as a high school student. He was way ahead of the curve.”
Chapter 2: Life of Disillusion
However, Truch did take the cover band path, playing smaller cities in a band. And even McCaffery’s first foray into playing live was a cover band with Gregg Baekeland, called the G Notes. From there, McCaffery joined the Will after Brent Cooper departed the band, playing alongside DJewel Davidson. Following that, McCaffery joined the Now Feeling for an ill-fated move to Toronto. Meanwhile, Truch joined the Ted Clark Five.
“I came back to Calgary and the intention was for Chris and I to start a band,” McCaffery says. “We struggled for a year, writing these songs and thinking, ‘These are awful, we’re never going to do this.’ Gregg Baekeland picked up on that, that we had low self-confidence and said he should be the singer – that became Joe 90. Gregg loved the idea of being in a band, he talked about what the name was going to be, what the visual was going to be… everything but write good songs. I got fed up with that and there was a big blow up between Gregg and I quit, but Chris stayed with Gregg.”
That split led McCaffery to start the first iteration of the Quitters, writing and singing songs with Ted Latimer and Pete Charuk, whom he knew from high school. However, things didn’t go well. “The band sat me down,” McCaffery recounts, “and they said my songwriting was getting better but [my] singing is awful and [they] want Ron Burke to be the singer. I got really mad, I stormed out and then I had second thoughts and I relented to it. That was the first Quitters and we started doing gigs and people liked it. But Ron and I started headbutting… he wasn’t a bad guy, but we weren’t on the same wavelength.”
Chapter 3: Levitation
Burke left the band and McCaffery called Truch with an invitation. “I had a bunch of gigs booked and said, ‘You should join this band. You and I will split songwriting and we’ll sing the songs,’ and that’s when it really came together for us.” McCaffery also brought in his girlfriend, Cheryl Lancastle, to play keyboards and the band was complete.
That keyboard sound helped to pull out the ’60s influence in the band. “There weren’t any [Calgary] bands that were going right back to the British Invasion,” McCaffery states. “I was into melodic music, but tough sounding, and there wasn’t a lot of that combination. The melodic stuff was fey, Smiths-sound stuff. And the tough stuff was hardcore and had a heavy metal influence.”
“Seeing the Quitters, they didn’t sound like anybody,” agrees Lorrie Matheson, noting their influence on his own formation as a musician. “They sounded like ’60s garage revivalists, but they just sounded like them doing their own thing. It wasn’t a photocopy of some other band. They cared about what they did, but when they went on stage, it was like, ‘We’re going to play this music,’ not, ‘Please love us.’ And I sort of went, ‘Okay, this is how you do it, this is how you conduct yourself.’ I really admired them.”
In 1991, the band released their first tape, recorded live off the stage at the Westward Club. They toured to Toronto and had a surprisingly good reaction. “We stayed there for two weekend and did four gigs, and our last show we filled the Railway Club,” McCaffery says.
The Quitters’ live show was a display not just of their songwriting but also their sometimes self-destructive energy. “I think Chris fell over once and broke his guitar,” McCaffery says. “I would abuse my stuff. I liked smashing gear – I’m very much influenced by the Pete Townsend school of guitar playing, leave nothing on the table. I like songwriting, but for me if there’s no guitar freakout involved… that’s important to me, that’s where I get my jollies.”
But then, things got bogged down with
personality issues in the band. There was conflict between Charuk and Latimer and when the recording of their second tape, Fuzzball, dragged on, tensions between McCaffery and Truch grew as well. Although Truch puts the recording of Fuzzball as one of his personal highlights in the band (“Ronnie Champagne had the most beautiful auburn chest hair,” he claims), it did signal the beginning of the end.
“By the time we finished that tape, Chris and I were a bit sick of each other,” remembers McCaffery. “The band was fighting, we had some gigs that were pretty hollow experiences. We’d hit that point where we weren’t getting more popular. The tape release for Fuzzball, we booked two nights at the Westward but between the two nights we maybe had enough to fill it once.”
Shortly after that point and with little fanfare, as Lorrie Mattheson recounted in “Black Day,” his ode to the band, “the Quitters quit and no one cared.” Well, perhaps that last part isn’t entirely true.
Chapter 4: Good Thing
Okay, so there is an ulterior motive here. Part of why I’m recounting the story of the Quitters is because this fall McCaffery and Truch released Bidding War, a remixed and restored version of the band’s recordings, lovingly produced at Arch Audio by Lorrie Matheson.
“The CD was mostly my idea,” McCaffery admits.” Lorrie and I had talked about when and if he ever built a studio, he would like to have a go at remastering the cassette. When we did the Now Feeling [re-recording last year], we talked about it again. Chris started sending the files and it couldn’t be fixed with remastering. We made too many mistakes when we mixed it, so I was bummed. So, we got the idea to digitize the original 8-tracks.”
“Talking to Chris, he didn’t take the best care of those tapes, like they were in some basement in Brooklyn,” says Matheson. “If you see on the tape box, it says, ‘Store in a cool, dry place’ – essentially, anywhere on the east coast is not a good idea.”
“Eventually we figured out you can revive tapes by baking them a low temperature,” explains McCaffery. “You take a cardboard box, a hairdryer and a meat thermometer. You poke a hole in the box and you put in the hairdryer and use the meat thermometer – whenever it gets too hot you back it off. It takes a long time, you have to do it for an hour and a half. And Chris did it.”
Once Matheson got the digitized tapes, he says he was surprised at what he heard. “Having not heard the tapes for a while, I was like, ‘Man this sounds really crappy,’” he laughs. “In my mind, it was this golden thing, and so I was kind of shocked at how primitive the whole thing was, which kind of made me love it all the more.”
With the restored tracks in Matheson’s hands, the project wasn’t clear of the woods yet. The sound quality – which wasn’t great to begin with – had worsened with age. Matheson was left to make up for poorly-mixed drum tracks, inconsistent highs and lows across tracks — everything shy of re-recording. “We didn’t record anything new, although it was tempting,” McCaffery notes.
But Matheson says they did take some liberties with mixing. “There are things, like on ‘Washing Machine,’ we put some crazy delays. We affected the guitar quite drastically from what it was.” Also, the mix restored some of the unheard elements of the band. On tracks like “Good Thing,” Lancastle’s keyboard noodling is now audible, adding new depth to the song. “It was really exciting to me, just to hear that stuff – it wasn’t that present before,” says Matheson.
“I didn’t want to be part of the mixing, because I liked the songs again and, if I had to hear them again for five days, I wouldn’t like them,” McCaffery admits. “I didn’t want to be the guy who didn’t like the songs when they were done, so Lorrie had to be that guy. His reward for really liking us was that he got to be really sick of us.”
The members of the Quitters continued to be active in the years after the band split. McCaffery and Lancastle embraced indie rock and formed Straight, while Truch formed increasingly introspective bands starting with Little Canada, then moved to New York.
Last year, McCaffery participated in a reunion of the Now Feeling that ultimately led to them re-recording that band’s songs. But unlike that project, he says the Quitters’ Bidding War wasn’t about getting back together (don’t expect a reunion show, in other words), it was more about setting the record straight. McCaffery says the CD is a better representation of the band than the tapes ever were. “When the tapes were dubbed, they got sped up a little. It wasn’t by much, but it was enough to make us sound more like a pop band than a rock band. When you slowed it down to the right speed, we became a rock band again.” And a great rock band they were.
For more information, visit thequittersnow.bandcamp.com. Have a listen to the track “Good Thing” below.
By Arif Ansari