In the early-1980s, a group of Southern California musicians channeled their love of Kraftwerk and The Plastics into Q, a short-lived synthpop studio project that quickly morphed into SSQ. The band was a unique presence amidst LA's musical landscape, where, despite the popularity of new wave, there was little in the way of locally made electronic music. With songs like “Synthesized,” the band became college radio darlings across the country as their lead singer, Orange County native Stacey Swain, quickly became a breakout star.
Embarking on a solo career as Stacey Q, the singer continued collaborating with SSQ founder Jon St. James. Their new wave sound soon evolved into hi-NRG, as heavily electronic as their previous work, but with a sped-up disco feel. Stacey Q hit it big with “Two of Hearts,” a song now so embedded in pop culture that it is still regularly played by DJs (dance floor darling Annie covered it last year). Both Q and SSQ are considered seminal releases in American synthpop, the sound going on to heavily influence the electro-techno style that emerged earlier this decade.
Throughout the years, Stacey Q's output has been diverse, ranging from collaborations with trance DJs later in the '90s, to solo acoustic pieces. On her forthcoming album, Color Me Cinnamon (named for the fictional album released by her character on The Facts of Life), she continues her collaborations with Jon St. James while also working with songwriters from Hydra Productions. A teaser for the upcoming single “Trip” is available on her MySpace page. Stacey Q plays The Airliner on July 5. More local dates will be announced in the coming weeks.
Stylistically, what are you doing with the new album?
You might call them dance songs. In my opinion, three-quarters of it actually are dance remixes. There's a fair amount of stuff on there that are pop songs.
We worked for over a year on this record. There are several mixes of each song and so then we cherry picked which song would go on the album.
The majority of these songs started out as poems written by Shawn Winstian and Shane Condo. As I understand it, that's how they started out. Shane Condo, he lives in Australia, he wanted to put the poems into songs. When that wasn't enough for Shawn, he started to send some of the poems to Jon St. James, my producer, and we started to fill in the blanks, rewrite them and put those into songs. It was sort of half-and-half.
I guess you would call me an interpreter again, just like my first project, Q. I'm more just telling the stories. Jon and I had actually started an album before this album that we did with Shawn. That was all Jon's and my writing. This is mostly Shawn's. I'm telling stories, the interpreter and the singer.
How do you get into the mindset where you're able to interpret these songs that began as Shawn's poems?
You have to find something that works for you. You don't necessarily have to know what the song is about, what that person was writing. Sometimes, in my opinion, the worst offerings of songs are people that wrote them and it's about this and they are trying to convey it and it just sort of misses people.
Let's say for instance the first song “Trip,” some of the lyrics, I didn't really understand, I didn't know what he had written about. I had no clue. So, I had to find a way to sing it. I chose Joan of Arc and that seemed to allow me to sing it in a way that would complement the song. If you have any kind of theatrical experience at all, it should be simpler.
In the very beginning, with Q in 1981, my very first project, it was really difficult because I really didn't have any experience. At that point, a really good producer, somebody that you're working with in the studio is really helpful, somebody who knows how to get a performance from a singer.
When you were doing Q and SSQ, was it out of the ordinary to be doing something so heavily electronic?
It was very out of the ordinary. I think that there was only Kraftwerk and The Plastics from Japan. Nobody else was really doing computer-based, electronic rock. It was out of the ordinary. It's possibly why we got so much attention for the Q project, everybody else was doing other things.
New Wave was really great because it was the arena for any and every kind of music you wanted to do. Not too many musicians chose electronic-based music, but that's what we liked. We were really interested in it. We were just making a record that we liked. We weren't trying to get any attention and the next thing we knew, we were in the Top 10 of college radio playlists.
Just last week, when I was up in Oakland, I got invited to the radio station at the college station at Stanford and I did a two hour show from the college station. That was really fun…It was such a nice, big, warm welcome from once again, college radio, which had not been for eternity. For twenty years now, I hadn't been on college radio.
What kind of venues did you play in the early days?
Q was strictly a producer's project. We never played any shows at all. I think SSQ only played two or three. Then we left EMI America. The first two SSQ shows were in the warehouse of our label, Enigma Records and Greenworld Distribution. We actually played our first shows in the warehouse there. I remember the very first SSQ show, these people from Japan, a Japanese new wave video music station, came to the show and shot it.
We had one gig in San Diego and that was it.
When we started the Stacey Q project, that's when we started playing all of those huge dance parties in East LA. That's when we started getting our experience live because we were playing for tens of thousands of kids in East LA.
Stacey Q “Two of Hearts”
What were those parties like?
It was non-stop dancing. The gang violence, drive-bys had not gone on yet, so everybody was having a good time. The kids in the gangs weren't fighting, everybody was dancing and enjoying the music. It was great. We got shut down on that when [the gangs] got the green light and everybody started killing each other in the 'hoods. That was what, early-'90s?
We had a great time. Pico Rivera, they would totally fill the arena there. It was great, 17,000 people.
I'm from Orange County, so I'm just a surfed out beach bum and growing up, I was told you can't go to Watts, you can't go to East LA because something bad will happen and they were always very nice to me. We had a great time. That's where we broke our record.
When you began working as Stacey Q, you hit a pinnacle moment in LA dance music with hi-NRG.
Well, you know what they say, timing is everything. You can be wonderful, you can be all that and a bowl of cherries, but if it's not timed, really, a lot of circumstances have to come together. You would find yourself wondering, why is this or that song popular? Why do people like him or her? Sometimes, it's unexplainable. Timing is everything.