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Swim Herschel Swim and the Glory Days of Provo Ska

This Provo band used to draw thousands to their shows. Rumor has it that one show closed a venue due to structural damage to the building.

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By Rachel Helps

Utah once had a thriving ska scene in the 1990s. While 004 is considered the original Provo ska band, Swim Herschel Swim (SHS) was popular enough to attract attention from national bands. Founded in the fall of 1989, they recorded two albums and frequently performed to crowds of over 1,000 people. They broke up in 1993. 

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SHS’s audiences loved to mosh. SHS was frequently banned from performing at smaller, makeshift venues that weren’t equipped to deal with hundreds of jumping young people. When they performed in a sandwich shop, audience members danced up a storm and were only calmed by the band’s on-the-spot composing of “Kick Me (No Words).” During a set in the dance hall Jillymax, which was above Los Hermanos, bits of the ceiling started falling onto unsuspecting eaters below under the pressure of intense dancing. Rumor has it that Jillymax had to close because of structural damage from the concert.

Caption: Swim Herschel Swim’s first gig at a loft apartment. Left to right: Rick Anderson, Jon Armstrong, Rod Middleton, Rich Hillquist, Russ Cluff. (Photographer unknown)

One of the band’s most memorable songs, “FUZ”, discusses fuzzy butts. Jon Armstrong (keyboardist) explained its popularity on his blog: “Amongst the Mormons, I believe this song’s content allowed people to be mildly shocked as well as express a kind of micro-rebellion on their personal stereos. ‘He’s talking about butt hair! He said butt!”

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The “edgy-for-Mormons” lyrics contrasted with the upbeat and cheerful sound of punk-ska. Rod Middleton (lead singer) wrote lyrics protesting racism and hypocrisy. In “Baby Babaar,” Rod protested inauthenticity in politics: “you’re just another young politician / a tragic victim of self-suppression. / You rob yourself, not to mention your progenitors / be yourself, not some imitation senator.” The band composed most of its songs collaboratively.

SHS’s most frequent venue was an aerobics and dance studio called Center Stage. When SHS performed there, they regularly drew crowds of over 1,000 people. These big crowds attracted bands from other states, and SHS opened at other venues for national ska acts, including Skankin’ Pickle, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, No Doubt, The Special Beat, and The Blasters.

SHS made the cover of the May 1991 issue of SLUG Magazine. Article by JR Ruppel.
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Middleton and Armstrong were the two constants across both of the band’s albums. Their first album, I Wish I Had A Ray Gun, had Rich Hillquist on drums, Jeff Hubbard on bass, and Rick Anderson on guitar. In 1992, a lot of the members changed and by the time the band recorded Burn Swim Burn, the lineup was Pat Campbell (drums), Matt Corry (trombone), Kent Carter (bass), Andy Warr (saxophone), and Lou Eastman (guitar). The two albums have some overlap in songs, and there’s a big difference between the band’s sound on both, with I Wish I Had A Ray Gun having a peppy, clean sound and Burn Swim Burn having slower tempos and heavier distortion. Rod’s vocals on “FUZ” from I Wish I Had a Ray Gun have the slightly manic quality we appreciate from ska that builds up to melodic yelling. In the same song on Burn Swim Burn, Rod almost whispers to deliver the punch line of “everybody loves a fuzzy butt!” There’s a noticeable difference between Rick’s roots-inspired telecaster playing and Lou’s American Metal pedal and heavier playing style. RBUG has a clean guitar upbeat in I Wish I Had a Ray Gun, while in the Burn Swim Burn version, there’s an extended, distorted rock guitar intro, with the upbeats punctuated by the keyboard instead of the guitar. 

Merkley was the band’s manager, designer, and publicist. He envisioned the band signing with a label and making it big, but the other members were content for it to be a side hustle. After 14 weeks of over 22 shows in June 1993, on top of recording for the second album, Armstrong recalled that they were feeling burned out. Merkley and Lou produced Burn Swim Burn.

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On his blog, Armstrong wrote: “Merkley is a strongly opinionated personality and he asserted himself as producer very heavily. His ideas and influence were, then as now, hit or miss.” Merkley composed “Billion,” “Scourge,” and “Greed” for Burn Swim Burn. He tried to push the band towards a more metal sound to make them more marketable to record labels. The band had such difficulty getting Rod to compose lyrics for Burn Swim Burn that, according to Merkley, they fired him and auditioned for a new singer. Disillusioned with the band’s lack of motivation to become a more professional act, Merkley titled the album Burn Swim Burn.

Rachel Helps is currently the Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Brigham Young University Harold B. Lee Library, where she writes and edits articles pertaining to Utah and Latter-day Saint culture. You can see Anderson’s effects pedal at the Utah popular music exhibit in the BYU Library, which is on display until November 2022. Special thanks to Rick Anderson and Merkley for answering questions about the band.

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