“Average” has pretty much been standard operating procedure for the Connells over the past 36 years. Average dudes in average clothes playing to average-sized crowds. Thankfully, the same doesn’t apply to the North Carolina outfit’s music. Decades later, Boylan Heights (1987), One Simple Word (1990) and Ring (1993) hold up as some of the finest, most cerebral jangle rock to emerge from the South. The band never approached the mass success of R.E.M. or achieved the cultish allure of the dB’s or Love Tractor, but its best music—playfully intricate, winsomely melodic, often thematically complex—stands the test of time.
Steadman’s Wake (out September 24 on the band’s Black Park label) is the Connells’ first new album in two decades, and it’s their most committed and cohesive work since Ring. It also reunited them with esteemed producer Mitch Easter, who oversaw the recording of Boylan Heights. And while the group has always toyed with melancholy, the overt darkness of the title track and “Red Fields” shows a willingness to take on the uglier truths of the South’s continuing identity crisis in our increasingly polarized country.
Core members Doug MacMillan and Mike and David Connell recently connected with MAGNET via Zoom. In between some good-natured bickering and other tangential nonsense, they discussed the Connells’ latest resurgence, the digital reissue of the band’s 1985 debut, Darker Days, and their recent reluctance to pose for a well-focused photo. A reasonably accurate transcript follows.
So why can I only see David? Or is that just a logical extension of your blurry publicity shots?
Mike Connell: Yeah. [Laughs]
Doug MacMillan: That’s how we roll.
What are your expectations for your first album in 20 years?
MC: To rip off the Stones, we’ve really got no expectations. We had these tunes, and we had the capacity to do it. We pilfered a few from an album that was never available for digital download (2001’s Old-School Dropouts).
DM: Yeah, the “no expectations” thing is a good way to go.
MC: We did it because we could, and nobody felt that good about the last few outings.
David Connell: What outings do you mean?
MC: I mean (1998’s) Still Life and Old-School Dropouts.
DC: I feel good about Still Life. I think it’s a good record.
MC: That’s your opinion. I have a different opinion. [Laughs]
What’s the origin of the music on Steadman’s Wake?
MC: While we were still on TVT, we started demoing songs in our practice space in Raleigh. We thought we were going to making an album, and then TVT called a couple of us up to New York and unceremoniously dumped us. We had these demos, and we didn’t know if we’d ever do anything again, so we just threw them out there of posterity. We took three songs from Old-School Dropouts—“Gladiator Heart,” “Rusted Fields” and “Hello Walter”—songs we liked that we thought would sound better if they were properly recorded.
DM: We wanted to reimagine some of the songs.
MC: A few of the others came a lot more recently, and there were parts of some that I finally sat down and pulled together enough so I could take them to the band. Two of the songs (“Hello Walter” and “Song For Duncan”) were written about my 17-year-old and 16-year-old sons.
DM: Those are two of the best songs on the record, I think.
You open the album with “Really Great,” which would seem to imply that everything is, well, great. But I don’t get a real sense optimism from this album.
MC: I kind of missed the target with “Really Great.” It’s supposed to be facetious, but I botched it. That first line should have been: “I’ve been through some never-ending, time-bending turnstile” … because that’s not a good state of affairs. I think what I was trying to say was, “Look for the good where you can find it—even when Donald Trump is sitting in the White House.”
A few songs also seem to address what it means to a more progressive Southerner.
MC: In “Rusted Fields,” it does say something about the “new Southern man” and trying to figure out what that is. As in any part of country, you have the full spectrum here. I don’t identity with a lot of the people I have to rub elbows with on a daily basis.
DM: That you have to deal with. [Laughs]
What was the recording process like?
DM: It’s taken us more than four years to make this album—first at Mitch Easter’s place over in Durham. Nobody was breathing down our necks, and we could do what we wanted in these short two- or three-day sessions.
MC: The first five tracks were basic tracks at Mitch’s, and the rest was done with John Plymale (Superchunk, Meet Puppets, Tift Merritt).
DC: July 2016 is when we did some of the basic tracking at Mitch’s.
DM: Really? Wow.
MC: Is that for real? I thought it was 2017. So it’s been five years since we started making this damn thing.
And Darker Days has now been reissued for digital download. I recently scored a vinyl copy.
DM: It’s really not an enjoyable listen, but I’m glad you have it.[Laughs]
MC: It puts my teeth on edge.
DM: It was horrifying recording that album. I remember singing the chorus to “Hats Off” like fuckin’ 30 times because there was some problem with the microphone. It was root canal, but you’ve got to get that first one out of the way.
MC: Unbelievably, there are some who do claim to like that friggin’ record. We just did “Hats Off” live for the first time in maybe 25 or 26 years.
DM: The songs are good.
MC: Why don’t you go ahead and generalize a little more—there are some shitty songs on that record.
DM: Well, I don’t listen to those. I don’t listen to any of them, for that matter.
How did you pace yourselves in those early days?
MC: We learned pretty early on that there was a point at which we all hit a wall. Five to six weeks, and we just couldn’t go anymore.
DM: The wheel started coming off the apple cart at around that time. Everything just went to shit. It was amazing. Touring overseas was when we learned our limit.
For Ring, right? The single “’74-’75” was a major hit over there.
DM: No one saw that coming. It was wild. We did a lot of touring and a lot of TV shows … even children’s shows. Every day was a new adventure.
Wasn’t that the era of the jumpsuit for Doug?
DM: I used to have a pair of coveralls that were very flattering. They really showed off the physique.