Back in November 2010, Mermaids were abuzz with excitement. In the wake of Atlanta's deflated garage rock scene, Matt McCalvin (guitar/vocals), Josh Hughes (guitar/vocals), Noah Adams (bass), Sam Wagstaff (keys) and Ryan Fetter (drums) had just released Tropsicle (Pretty Ambitious), a refreshingly clean and concise first album with sun-bleached harmonies wrapped in doo-wop and oldies rock.
When I met McCalvin, Adams and Wagstaff at Eats on Ponce de Leon Avenue, where McCalvin works as a cook, they were a reserved bunch. As they sipped on Cokes, they expressed their discontent with the "lo-fi beach-party band" label they'd been tagged with after only eight months of playing together. Though they seemed inexperienced — neither Adams nor Wagstaff had ever been in a touring band — frontman and songwriter McCalvin's years spent with his former band, Gringo Star, had accelerated the group's gestation. Even then, Fetter — who couldn't escape work for the interview — seemed like the odd man out. Unlike the rest of the group, he was the rambunctious type. Fun-loving and unpredictable, he was sort of reminiscent of Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Despite their personality differences, there were no obvious signs of the tension that would soon come to a head.
Crammed into a van with a broken heater, the group headed out on a tour of the East Coast later that month. As their patience with each other grew thin, a fight broke out one night after a show in Brooklyn. Fetter started taunting Hughes to punch him in the face, according to McCalvin. Eventually, Hughes obliged. The fight spilled out onto the street where Hughes and Adams admittedly beat Fetter to a pulp. Now done with the band for good, Fetter prefers not to dwell on the past. "The whole thing is so silly that I'd rather not talk about it," he says. "The bottom line is that I play music to have fun, and I wasn't having fun in that group anymore."
Band members have been getting into ridiculous fights since the beginning of time (see the Beatles, Dinosaur Jr., N.W.A.). But the ultimate test for any group's worth is how it carries on after the first big scrap. The remaining members of Mermaids insist that the band is not done, but things are certainly going to be different. Three months ago, their future was as bright as their sunny pop sound. The group gelled on record and pushed the played-out aesthetics of Atlanta's garage punk scene into a vibrant new direction. But now, everything's up in the air.
The fight was the culmination of months of swelling resentment between Fetter and the rest of the group, according to Adams. Fetter had become increasingly distant, playing with other groups, such as GG King, Wymyns Prysyn, and Fixed Focus, a new group fronted by Ian St. Pe of Black Lips.
"He didn't like us as people and didn't like us as a band," Adams says. "Instead of telling us, he bottled it up and exploded. We did the same thing."
A passer-by who witnessed the fight that night called police, and as though the scene had been scripted for an episode of "Cops," McCalvin found himself in the driver's seat with no license. Luckily, no one was pressing charges, so the cop gave them a break, telling them to "pack it up and take it back to Georgia," says McCalvin.
Mermaids finished the tour with McCalvin singing and filling in on drums, while Fetter hitched a ride home with fellow Atlanta band Abby Gogo.
Back at home, Mermaids played a New Year's Eve show with a stand-in drummer. Soon after, Hughes quit the band as well. While Hughes refuses to talk about the fight, he stresses that it wasn't the reason for his departure. Rather, Mermaids' heavy tour schedule was taking time away from his own noisy, psych-punk group, the Clap.
For now, Mermaids carry on as a three-piece with John Kang (Customers, Gaye Blades) sitting in on drums. During a recent practice, songs from Tropsicle, such as "Whirlpool," "Everybody's Acting Like an Animal" and "Holiday," came off slightly faster, sharper and more concise than they sound on record, mostly because Kang plays them faster and McCalvin is compensating for the loss of Hughes. In the meantime, Mermaids have an EP and 7-inch due by March. "It's just us now and the changes will be reflected in the sound," Wagstaff says.
The future of the radiant pop sound that once seemed so clear is now a bit cloudy. And as the retooled Mermaids work to get back on track, new songs are coming together slowly, minus Fetter's loose, California punk stride.