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Saturday December 16th 2017

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“Even on our worst night, it’s been great”

An interview with Earl’s Killer Squirrel—Pensacola’s longest-running punk band
By C. S. Satterwhite

Not long after I moved to Pensacola, I started writing a fanzine, and the very first band I interviewed was Earl’s Killer Squirrel (EKS). That was 1995. The fanzine covered a lot of subjects, but was always rooted in punk and mostly local punk. Of Pensacola’s many bands, I really loved EKS. I came to interview Earl Lyon, the namesake and leader of the band, after a friend gave me the band’s demo tape with Earl’s phone number scrawled on the side. As I was putting together my fourth issue, I got up the nerve to cold-call the number on the tape. That was my very first interview. As the years passed, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a number of bands and a few pseudo celebrities, but I always remembered how nervous I was calling Earl for that first interview. [Full disclosure: I'm hardly an objective fan. I even have an EKS tattoo, of which I think I'm only one of three others.]

At a recent show, asking Earl if he remembered that interview, he said it was his first interview too.

In the years since that interview, the band has gone through a number of line-up changes. EKS broke up and reunited more than most people have even had bands. Tragically, this last year, the former drummer for EKS, “Big Mike” Lyon, died suddenly. To Earl, Big Mike was more than a bandmate, he was his younger brother. After losing his older brother, Lance Corporal Paul Lyon, in the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, losing his younger brother and bandmate was especially harsh.

Nonetheless, the band continues and is probably at their tightest. The current line-up features Scott Lewis on bass, Jeffrey Rahn [formerly of The Unemployed] on drums, and Earl, of course, sings and plays his guitar. I spoke with the band over a beer at End of the Line Café.

In our interview, we talk about punk, changes the band has seen over the years and the loss of Big Mike.

Inweekly: Your band is about to turn 25. For a punk band, that’s huge. For any band, that’s a big deal. Just about every band that was around when you started, and most that started after you, have broken up, but you’re still at it. How does that feel?
Earl
: It has gotten kind of surreal to look around and see all the bands that started, bands that’ve gotten out and gone on tour, but are no longer around. Except for reunion shows, like Maggot Sandwich or Woodenhorse or This Bike is a Pipe Bomb or Blount, for example, it hasn’t really sunk in. I just like to go around and play music and don’t really think that much about it, but I guess everyone has a dream of sometimes going on tour.

Inweekly: As a band, when did EKS start?
Earl:
Pretty much, it started in April 1993 with my brother and me. Then Ted Helmick [later from This Bike is a Pipe Bomb] jumped on stage with us and started playing. He had no idea what we were going to be playing, so that was a fun night. That was April 6, 1993.

Inweekly: You remember the exact date? That’s impressive. How long had you been playing before you started EKS?
Earl:
I taught myself how to play guitar one month before the band started.

Inweekly: One month—really? That’s pretty punk. Speaking of, when did you all first get into punk?
Scott:
Oh gosh, I got into punk probably about 12 or 13. I think I bought a Ramones tape when I was in middle school, and that was it. Everyone else was listening to hair bands and that kind of stuff, but I just liked punk a lot better.
Jeffrey:
Yeah, back in the day what really changed me, when I first started to discover music was The Who. They were doing something with it, and that’s been my drive. Why play someone else’s music? Why play someone else’s crap when you can write your own stuff? You can put your heart and soul into that. Just like these guys, EKS. When Kent and I [Stanton] got together with The Unemployed, we were doing that. We discovered bands like The Descendants and Bad Brains, bands that didn’t sound like anyone else—bands that were doing their own thing. That’s been my drive. Earl plays his own music. If I can help him do that, that’s what keeps me going.

Inweekly: What about you, Earl? When did you first get into punk?
Earl:
Probably 1986 when I first started listening to it, but I didn’t go to my first show until April of 1987.

Inweekly: Who was it? What was your big first show?
Earl:
Flaming Lips and Stevie Stiletto at UNICO Hall.

Inweekly: That’s a good one to start off with.
Earl:
I’ll always remember this person in my science class. Before I finally got the nerve to go to my first show, this guy sitting next to me had [Sex Pistols] “Never Mind the Bullocks” tape sitting on his desk. I kept checking out the tape, and I finally went home and listened to the stuff. Then after that, I started going to shows and had a blast. I never looked back.
Jeffrey:
My first show was SNFU. I think that was at UNICO Hall, too. Shortly after that, I saw The Descendants and I was like “OH MY GAWD!” [laughter] “I’m not worthy!” [laughter]
Earl:
Yeah, I guess that was my first big show, The Descendants at DMZ.
Scott:
Mine was Dead Milkmen. That was in Memphis because I used to live there.

Inweekly: So how do you define punk?
Earl
: It used to be anything that wasn’t the norm, you know? Whether it’s your appearance or a rebellion against authority. But I was thinking about that the other day. What is punk now? Everyone has purple hair. Everyone has green hair.
Jeffrey: Everyone’s got tattoos. Everyone’s got a nose ring.
Scott:
As a music, punk nowadays has all of these genres, but back then we didn’t have all of these genres. If you could play an instrument, and you could find three or four other people who could play an instrument, whatever that came out of that was punk. As long as it was aggressive and had a certain attitude, that was punk. No matter what type of music you played, it was more of the experience with those people together.

Inweekly: So where’s the defining line now? It’s definitely not solely with the music, but it is. You can have a punk band with acoustic guitars and banjos, or all sorts of things, and still be pretty punk. So what’s punk now?
Earl:
Well, there’s not as much snarl as there used to be. Definitely not appearance wise either, you know. Most of the bands that have that very punk appearance either don’t have jobs or they don’t…I don’t know how they do it.
Jeffrey:
We weren’t trying to be punk. We were just different. So I’d say to be different than the norm is punk. You don’t want to be Johnny-go-work-at-the-mall. Put on your tie. If you want to do your own thing, wear your own clothes, wear your hair up. If you want to dye your hair purple, that’s cool. I think punk has gone the norm now.
Earl:
Yeah.
Jeffrey:
When we were growing up, there was no punk. Iggy Pop was punk. He did shit that made people think, “Oh my God! He’s the spawn of Satan!”
Earl:
Yeah, now everyone wears black.
Jeffrey:
Yeah, but he was doing his own thing, and that’s what it boils down to. You don’t want to fit in with normal society. You can set a trend or create one.

Inweekly: You’ve been around for quite a while now, nearly 25 years. [Everyone at the table instinctively raises a glass to note the moment]
Earl:
I know. Pretty soon we’ll be eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Inweekly: Seriously, that’s a long time. What are some of the changes that you’ve seen?
Earl:
The crowds nowadays just don’t seem to care about the music as much as they used to. You used to go and search for bands. Now they just look on their phone, and stay at home and listen. They don’t go out and discover bands or discover music. They just want to hear what everyone else is listening to already.

Inweekly: What’s lost in that experience?
Earl:
They’re missing out on a lot of good, original music. Music that comes from the heart. Not music that was written for you that you’re going to hear on the radio or YouTube. If that’s what you’re listening to, you’re lacking originality.
Jeffrey:
When you go to a show, you could have the best time of your life, and not even expect it. Or you can go to a show and see the greatest band, and have the worst time. But you’ve got to get out there. I’ve got stories to tell, but I probably can’t tell it here.
Earl:
Yeah, you can keep saving money to see that big touring band, but how long are they going to play before they pass on? How many bands are you missing out on that are good and original?
Scott:
For me, going out was the experience. It was an experience to go out and see bands, no matter if they were big or small. But also part of that experience was the community of musicians who appreciated music together. We don’t have that too much anymore.

Inweekly: Do you think that’s locally or all over?
Scott:
That’s all over.
Jeffrey:
That’s why I have to give a shout-out to Chizuko. Every time I go there, I have a great time.
Earl:
It’s nice to go to a venue and not have to worry about getting robbed by the promoter or the door guy. Most of the times when we go there, we don’t even charge a cover. If we do, we just say to make a donation at the door.

Inweekly: I know this is a sensitive subject, but can I ask about Big Mike?
Earl:
Yeah, that’s ok.

Inweekly: I know that Mike was an on-again/off-again member of EKS. As your brother, Earl, I know you two had a good relationship that translated to the band, even when he wasn’t a part of the band. I remember that, even from that time when I interviewed you for my zine in 1995. But even when we wasn’t in the band, he was still part of the scene, still your friend, and still your brother. So how has losing Mike affected the band?
Earl:
I’m still dealing with it myself, to tell you the truth. I’ve been busy with either dealing with my friend’s baby, or with the band, so I haven’t had time to take a break and focus on it. It’s sad to me to look up and see the posters at the house, and knowing that…you know, I feel guilty, like maybe I was a part of this. I know how much he enjoyed the band and wanted to play in the band. Now I feel, sometimes, that I helped kill him. I saw him a week before he passed away, and everything seemed perfectly fine, and then you hear a call in the middle of the night, coming home from a bar on top of that, and you find out your brother’s dead. What the hell are you supposed to do now?
Scott:
On my birthday.
Earl:
Yeah, right after Scott’s party.
Jeffrey:
I got a text.
Earl:
He could either be playing with us or not play with us, but he was always a part of us. Always.
Jeffrey:
Nothing will change that. I mean, he affected my life. Him being in the band or not, that was his choice actually.
Earl:
He always showed up to play at the right time, for some legendary shows too. One of the best shows was the Surfer’s Memorial. Jeff couldn’t play that day, so we went out to play it. Scott and I went out there, and my brother in the back seat. First time playing drums in like 15 years.
Scott:
He could barely fit behind the drum set. [laughter]
Earl: Yeah, they had a house drum set. Now that was an incredible show. That was one of the most awesome shows. Another was this show when we played at the Handlebar for like two hours. I think me, Mike and Scott and we had been drinking. Mike was the only sober one.
Scott:
My fingers were wore down to nubs…blood was all over my bass.
Jeffrey:
I think that all three of us are the reason we keep doing this. We’ve got a good brotherhood. We’ve all experienced loss and death in our lives. We take it with a grain of salt. I’m honored, at 52 years old, to be playing this music at my age. Back in the ‘80s, I was scared I was going to be dead by now. We were all going to be dead by a nuclear weapon. To still be here, and play, and have fun—I mean, it’s never been about money. It’s never been about that. I mean, if anyone gets some enjoyment, peace, anything like that, then we’ve done our job. Earl’s done a good job. He’s a great songwriter. My job is to accompany him to make the songs come together. It’s always been great. Even on our worst night, it’s been great.
Scott:
When we’re not doing well, that’s when we’re laughing the hardest. Laughing at yourself is the greatest thing about punk rock music. You already know that you’re not part of the norm. You’re just playing songs.

Inweekly: Going back to Mike, does his death make it harder to keep playing, or does it give you more determination?
Earl:
There’s at least one song during each set that’s specifically for him. Whether it’s “Spot” or “Back in Time,” he’s definitely never forgotten. One of the guitars I got from him for my birthday a couple of years ago, it’s just badass to play. I’ll never forget where I got that from. When I sit in my bedroom, I’ve got posters on my wall that are reminders. It keeps you humble. You remember where you came from. We definitely feel him around us every time we play. He keeps us humble.
Scott:
I first saw Earl play when I moved here in ’94. I saw him play for years. For me, being a part of the band, it’s like a legacy. With Mike, he’s a part of that legacy and always will be. So when we play on the stage, we play for him, for Mike, to keep that legacy alive. I mean, he’s probably standing there on stage, looking over my shoulder saying, “Oh, you fucked that one up, Scott!” [laughter]
Earl:
He always told me, even when he wasn’t in the band, “You’ve got to keep it going. You’ve got to keep it going.” And they’ve been down with it.
Jeffrey:
If I quit the band, I’d have his ghost come up and say, “What? You’ve quit the band?”
Earl:
Yeah, Jeff had a rough couple of years, but I always had faith that he’d come back to the band. And Scott joined the band about the same time. Ever since then, it’s been way better. Way more practices than ever in the history of the band. It was just a matter of time.
Jeffrey: When you’ve got a group of guys here who are on the same page, like my brothers here, it’s certainly easier. We’re all in the same boat.
Earl:
We still play within our boundaries. We don’t try to do too much. I mean, every now and then, we play a cover song, maybe once a year here and there.

Inweekly: After nearly 25 years of being a band, you must have some good stories. What sticks out to you as some of the best moments of being in this band?
Earl:
My favorite story of EKS was in the ‘90s. I got left in charge of handling the all-ages shows at Sluggo’s, and the two headlining bands were having car trouble. They were an hour and a half away. We weren’t scheduled to play, but someone had to stall everybody until they got there. It was 88 Fingers Louie and Fury 66 playing, and they were stuck. One of the band members showed up and got there on time, but he said there was no way the others were going to get there on time. So my brother is already in the club, he’s always hanging out, and one of our ex-members. We had our equipment in the mezzanine in Sluggo’s. So all three of us jumped up on stage and held the show together for 45 minutes until the bands showed up. The crowd didn’t miss anything. The bands came in right at the end of our set. Me and the Fury 66 guys, after that, we were so cool. The cool thing about 88 Fingers Louie was that we were really good friends for years after that. The bass player for 88 Fingers Louie turned out to be the bass player for Rise Against. After that show, he never forgot us. Every time he’d come to Pensacola, and they were playing, he’d yell ‘This one is for Earl’s Killer Squirrel!’ I get goose bumps knowing how big they are now, and they haven’t forgotten. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Jeffrey:
I forgot the question.

InWeekly: What’s your best EKS story?
Jeffrey:
They’re all good. That one time we played Vinyl, and it was for Big Mike. That’s my favorite story. It was the first show we did for Big Mike, and I felt his spirit. It started out that we were just killing it. I took my drum stick, and I hit it as hard as I could on the tom, and it bounced like 30 feet in the air and almost hit the rafters. When I did that, I was so emotionally drawn into that moment that I closed my eyes, and I just held my hand out. I caught the stick. That was my high time moment. I mean, I’ve never done that. Ever. I’ve tried to do it again, but…
Earl:
Don’t put your eye out!

Inweekly: So how about the next 25 years. What’s next?
Earl:
I know I’ve been saying this like a broken record, but the biggest thing for me is to record. Leave some kind of footprint, some kind of beer coaster.
Jeffrey:
Every band has recorded something, but I want something that says “Yeah, we did that. We did that.”

EARL’S KILLER SQUIRREL
WHAT: Earl’s Killer Squirrel with Rushmore
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 24
WHERE: Chizuko, 506 W. Belmont St.
COST: $5
DETAILS: facebook.com/earlskillersquirrel