"At most of our shows on the East Coast, Jen [Smith, the band's guitarist] and I were the only women on the bill," says Quails drummer/vocalist Julianna Bright. "Our first show back was at the Eagle, where Seth [Lorinczi, the group's bassist] was the only boy out of four bands. It's fine to go out and be who we are, but the idea of not being a novelty is very pleasant."
The interview with the Quails takes place old-school punk style, in the band's station wagon before another gig at the Eagle, a SOMA gay bar. Like the actual birds, this trio of Quails is a gregarious bunch. Just as the members democratically trade off vocals onstage, they eagerly finish each other's thoughts in conversation. And while they're all outspoken about gender issues, discrimination, mental health advocacy, tenant rights, and other topics, they don't hamstring their politics with uptight rhetoric. The Quails may believe the world is a fucked-up place -- but that doesn't mean you can't have fun shouting about it.
With everything from unflattering costumes to "We shall overcome"-style sing-alongs, the Quails do what they can to liven up bland rock clubs. Occasionally the trio will pick a random audience member to play bass on a song, and at most shows, listeners who start out comatose end up dancing like idiots by the end of the set. You might see a Quail hamming it up during a performance and later hanging an anti-war poster on the door of the club. The feeling the band captures is true to the punk ethos: Anyone can do it and everyone should.
It's no surprise that the members of the Quails are a tightknit crew, considering that Lorinczi and Smith grew up together in Washington, D.C., and Lorinczi and Bright are housemates. In fact, the three early-thirtysomethings first converged over food, not music. Back in 1999 Lorinczi was studying to be a chef; he'd cook for the other two at his apartment, where they'd trade ideas and spin old punk and new wave records. "One night we just decided to put musical instruments in front of us instead of plates of food," Bright says.
After quickly writing a batch of songs, the band recorded its debut album, We Are the Quails, in April 2000, and played its first show that November at S.F. State with queer-rockers the Butchies. The early Quails sound married garage-rock guitar to the danceable post-punk rhythms of late-'70s and early-'80s English acts like Gang of Four, the Fall, and the Slits -- the same bands that had had a big influence on D.C.'s Dischord Records in the early '90s. Prior to the Quails, Lorinczi had been bassist for Dischord's Circus Lupus as well as its offshoot Antimony. Meanwhile, Bright played with garage/new wave duo the Electrolettes, a group that toured with Smith's Olympia punk variety show Cha Cha Cabaret in 1997.
"For Cha Cha Cabaret I just made a lot of costumes and asked my friends to do silly things," says Smith. The resulting performances ranged from costumed skits and tap dancing to fake game shows and poetic recitations.
Some of that anarchic spirit has carried over to the Quails' performances. At a recent Bottom of the Hill show, the band members dressed in polyester PE uniforms and did calisthenics between numbers. An androgynous coach appeared midset to blow a whistle and play trumpet. At one point, Smith abandoned her guitar to cavort about, demanding that the best dancers come to the front of the stage. The set-closer was a near-a-cappella protest song that had the crowd clapping along as if at some 1950s hootenanny, rallying around lines like, "The men and their money/ They're building mountains downtown/ She said if I were a mole I'd dig the mountain down." But even when the Quails are protesting, their humor shines through: After the show, a friend of the band passed out homemade calendars titled What Is the Best Way to Participate in Revolution in the Year 2002? that advocated sharing your doughnut with a pigeon.
For another show at a Mission art space, the band called itself the Shapes, appearing in brightly colored outfits and jumpsuits with a huge triangle, circle, or square drawn on each member's head. As at the Bottom of the Hill show, the event included a dance contest, and some in the crowd obliged with goofy freakouts.
Interest in non-rock forms of expression also inspired the Quails to create Bon Soir, a comic book and mini-opera. Credited to the Marzipan Ponce, the CD re-envisions the French student revolt of the '60s as a fight for the freedom to wear one's genitals outside one's pants. The three Quails take turns telling the story in song, while Lorinczi, listed as "Spurs Le Puff," picks out cabaret melodies on the Casio. As the Marzipan Ponce, the group is able to express some of its zanier ideas -- the ones that don't quite fit into its regular set of songs.
The trio has also made a point of finding places to play other than rock clubs. They've performed at numerous protests and unofficial venues, including a rally at 16th and Mission powered by a portable generator. In April 2001, the group played one of its most inspired shows at an underground art space downtown. (The punk community had commandeered the empty office building for use as a music venue, art space, and free cafe.)
In between all the offbeat performances, the threesome released its 16-song debut on Inconvenient Records, the S.F. label of Sara Jaffe, guitarist of like-minded art-punks Erase Errata. Described by the band as an examination of "personal, sexual, and gender politics in the context of a crowded and stressed urban landscape," We Are the Quails overcomes such formal language through a jagged sound that throws stand-up bass, '60s pop, folk, and soul music into its punk mix. The record also showcases the Quails' egalitarian singing style, with Bright's soulful bellow, Smith's angry shrieks, and Lorinczi's sarcastic croon all featured. The songs' lyrics get personal about relationships and life in the big city, but snatches of the Quails' rallying cries can still be heard. On "Brighter," Lorinczi declares, "It's not getting any brighter," to which he adds the jangling, Kinks-quoting chorus, "I'm so tired/ Tired of waiting."
A cassette of freshly recorded Quails tracks, however, reveals a more driving sound. The guitar is thornier, the rhythm section tighter and heavier, the voices more indignant. And while lyrics like "What door does privilege open?" have a didacticism that some might find off-putting, the new music has a propulsive groove that's far more inclusive.
"It's so satisfying to get the folks dancing," Bright says. "When we made that first record, everyone was recovering from everything being so fucked up in S.F., with all the clubs closing down. People were starting to surface, and the bands we were playing with, like Erase Errata and Numbers, were these bands that inspired people to dance."
"There are a bunch of bands in S.F. right now making this sort of jagged fucked-up dance-y music, but the Quails also engage the audience on an emotional level," Erase Errata's Jaffe writes via e-mail. "The greatest thing about seeing them play is the total celebratory energy they bring to their music. They are talking about a lot of things in the world that are fucked up, but they maintain a level of joyousness about our ability to come together and rally around those issues."
Maybe the revolution isn't imminent, but Quails shows are still an exuberant kick in the pants to apathetic rock. As the musicians would say: Now go start your own band.