Frontman Doug MacMillan talks about the deluxe edition of their classic 1993 LP
The Connells’ sound is joyously resonant, running the gamut over their 40-year-career from a jangle evocative of contemporaries like R.E.M. through a richer, rougher wall of noise in the age of grunge.
It fills out Mike Connell’s richly emotional songs, with the heartfelt riddles of his lyrics winsomely delivered by lead singer Doug MacMillan.
Still going strong – they released their first album in two decades two years ago, and are putting another together – The Connells are nevertheless one of the better-kept secrets in rock ‘n’ roll. That’s barring a fluke moment in Germany just about 30 years ago, when the bittersweet ballad “74/‘75” broke off new album Ring – one of their best – and became a surprise international hit.
On August 11th, The Connells released a deluxe reissue of the album that marked their jump to a higher tier of recognition. The new Ring package is generously padded with outtakes and demos, the latter of which offer a stripped-down glimpse at some of the prettiest music in the band’s catalog.
MacMillan graciously sat down with the Globe for a look back at that time. A loose delight, we were shooting the shit well before the conversation formally began.
“I could talk about other people’s bands for days,” he proclaims. “Somebody wanted all of us in the band to put together a playlist of stuff we were listening to back in like 1993, or before when we recorded [Ring]. I’ve been having to look up, “Was that before or after…?”
And how is the progress on that, may I ask?
So far – well, I’m gonna have to put Big Star down, that’s definitely always being played. I have a Dinosaur Jr. song, I have a Motorcaster song, and I have an old favorite, “The Look of Love,” the Dusty Springfield version. It’s a great version, it’s probably the best version, I think.
I think you’re right about that. I’m curious how these things informed what you were doing at the time – the Dinosaur Jr. choice is especially interesting, because you can hear the influence of groups like that creeping into your sound as you move into Ring. These more squalling, sustained guitars.
I think that happened to a lot of bands. I have a couple of friends in bands who started off doing something a little more folk-rock, for lack of a better term, and [then] the Marshall cabinet and the Les Paul showed up. It was more Neil Young & Crazy Horse, and that seemed very natural to me. With us, at one point, we had two 12-string Rickenbackers on stage. It’s kind of what was going on, with the Smiths and R.E.M., and Mike [Connell] was a big Fairport Convention fan.
I play a little guitar, but I don’t really play live. And if I did play guitar live, in 1985 and ’86 [when] we started touring, I can see how you would want to have beefier guitar sound, whether you’re playing rhythm or lead. I was also listening to bands like Big Dipper back then.
What was your collective mentality going into Ring? It was three years since the previous album.
I was just talking to a guy in a place called Hereford and Worcester in England. I was looking at a map and I realized it wasn’t that far from that Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, Wales, where we recorded One Simple Word. It was fun doing that record, but we had some problems with [TVT] afterward, and things had kind of stalled, because we wanted to get off that label. We wanted to get into some greener pastures. And that didn’t happen, so we renegotiated our contract so that we would be able to be left more to our own devices in the studio. So that what accounts for that gap between records.
Fun and Games was recorded in Fort Apache in Boston, where so many great bands had recorded, and where our guitar sound had kind of beefed up. And that’s how we connected with Lou Giordano. We recorded at Dreamland in West Hurley, NY. It was a beautiful old church. We were in there about a month, and it was snow on the ground the whole time. There wasn’t a lot of nightlife, it was kind of a hassle to get around. So one night David Connell and I went to this bar. We were shooting pool, and these two guys come in, a little older than us, just making small talk. One guy looks really familiar to me, I keep looking at him. He’s got like a tour jacket, could’ve been like a crew guy. It says “Rick.” Never fails, you go to the bathroom to take a leak, and it all comes to you – “That guy was Rick Danko! Oh shit!”
So we went back to the pool table, and I’m like [clenches teeth] “David, that’s Rick Danko” – and the other guy was Eric Andersen. And then he started playing on this piano that was really out of tune, and Rick Danko started singing, because he could really get to those high notes. It was too much – it made sense, because he lived there, but we didn’t know who we were talking to. It was mind-blowing.
What was Lou like as a producer?
Lou was great. We had met him in Boston, and we had mutual friends, and he came down to North Carolina to help make some demos. He used to run sound for Hüsker Dü live. And I’m like, “Dude, how are you still hearing after that?” There’s a story about him outside of the Cat’s Cradle at Chapel Hill, outside the front of the building with a noise meter, during sound check.
You were beginning to contribute more songs to the band at the time of this record.
George [Huntley] has always been writing songs, even before he got involved with the band, and it kind of fit what we were doing. And I started trying to play the guitar around the time I started trying to join the band, like, “I could figure this out.” And my goal was to eventually be able to write some songs on the guitar. At one point, making Fun and Games, and Mike was like, “the well has run dry!” So he was saying to us, “anybody got any songs?” But then he realized he had more songs than he thought.
I like “Any Day Now” a lot. The other ones [of mine on Ring] are OK. It would be nice to be able to figure out what you’re doing and what you like without other people being exposed to it [laughs].
What are your favorite songs on the record, or your impressions of it looking back?
I like “Running Mary,” I like “Slackjawed,” I like “74/‘75,” even though it seems like we’ve played it too many times. There’s some good songs on there, and we all liked it at the time. I don’t know if you know the story – so we went through all that business with our record company, and recorded Ring, and everybody seemed to be happy with it. Then we did our same thing where we toured. We’d get some airplay in Chicago, and up in the Northeast – college radio was always good; without college radio, I don’t know how we would’ve ever gone on tour. We’d book dates around sending stations our records. And we got 120 Minutes – this was back in the days when videos were very, very important.
So it seemed like our records kept kind of stalling before they got a little further. Plus it was the days of grunge, and we were promoting a pop record. And we started getting these faxes from Germany, from a record label called Interchord in Stuttgart, and the top ten radio stations throughout Germany are all playing “74/‘75.” And it’s like, “Nah, somebody’s playing a trick on us.” It didn’t seem to make any sense. And next thing you know it’s, “they want you guys to go tour over there.” So we did. And people kind of knew who we were, or were kind of indifferent to us, but they really knew that song.
We found out later that two guys from that record label in Stuttgart heard Ring and really liked it, and came to America to license the album, because they saw hit potential in the song. They were told, “The only way that song is going to take off is if it’s a hit in the UK first.” And of course, that wasn’t right. But there was something about that song, the numbers, or the chanted chorus. Like something you could sing at a soccer game, but it’s still very much a ballad. We never thought of it as a single. Luckily, the guy at our label agreed, and didn’t try to charge the German guys an arm and a leg for licensing.
I remember walking into a hotel room somewhere, and turned on MTV, and our video was on, and I said, “OK, this is really happening.” When that happens, you know something’s up. It was a shot in the arm.
VIDEO: The Connells perform “74/’75” on 2 Meter Sessions, 1995
Right, that had to be the moment that it felt like things were really opening up for the band.
We weren’t thinking about Europe at all. We had recorded there, but that was the extent of our thoughts about “across the pond.” The whole thing was just bizarre. It still seems weird.
In what way did that newfound success affect the group going forward?
I think we weren’t sure what we were going to do – we still had records to make for the contract. We had one of those seven-record deals. That was Nine Inch Nails’ label, TVT, and the record label head famously called his first album “an abortion” when he turned it in. So I remember going in, I was hearing all this stuff and going “oh no…” It’s the music business, I’ve seen every documentary, read every damn book, just because I love it. And it’s like, everybody got screwed. Really good bands in the ‘60s, where they’re like, “We need an attorney to look at this,” and they’re like, “Well, there’s one right down the hall!”
We did our last record for TVT, and they dropped us. And we’d made demos for what was going to be our next record – a friend of ours John Heames, he produced these demos on four-track, and they sounded really cool, because he’s a real ‘60s guy. And then Lou came to do pre-production, which we did, and then it was decided that it wouldn’t go forward. Which was like, “Fine, I’m tired of this.” So we just released Old School Dropouts on our own. And right around that time, people were getting married and having kids, only playing shows here and there. And then we decided 20 years later to make another record.
I’m always curious about how artists who’ve done it over the years perceive the industry now.
My son is in this very scenario, where he’s writing songs and being able to record them. He has this setup in his room, and he’s been doing it for a number of years. He has about an album’s worth of material, and there’s a variety of things he can do about releasing it. We’re still figuring it out. But one thing – I feel that, no matter what, you’ve still kind of gotta get in the van, and drive around and play. If we had never toured like we did, I wouldn’t have figured out this singing thing as well as I think I have. There’s something about getting up in front of eight people or 80 and trying to put on a show confidently.
It’s interesting you mentioning figuring out your voice. You play that first album…
Oh, it’s horrible.
But you have that document of what it sounded like before you figured it out.
Like I was saying about writing songs – there’s a couple songs I wrote but I wish hadn’t been recorded! [laughs]. Oh well. But yeah, the first thing was, I’m a baritone, but there’s a lot of stuff I sing really high, because they’re pop songs. We didn’t know any of that stuff for the first record, and I was really into Joy Division, and there’s definitely, The Smiths are in there…
Echo and the Bunnymen…
Thank you! Because I loved that. But I also say, Robert Goulet [laughs]. Not intentionally! But the thing was, before we made the second record, Mike was like, “We’ve gotta figure out the right key…” I don’t even know if any of us had any capos for the guitars for the first record.
If you listen to the demo for “74/‘75” is actually at standard tuning, in a higher key. It’s a little too high. So we did the Beatles thing where you tune a half step down, E to Eb, etc. But that’s what we’d learned. So I always say that, if we’d done more touring before the first record, it would’ve sounded different. It’s one thing to record a song in a studio, it’s another thing to go sing an hour-plus set.
Why did you call the record Ring?
I have to ask Mike about this, because there’s a couple of different reasons… there was some marriage talk in his life, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do that. And then you have that picture on the album cover of the eclipse. I’ll let you take it from there…
You could also say, hey, the way the guitars on the record resound…
Yeah, yeah! Go with that. But there are a couple of songs on the album that mention rings, and like a lot of his songs, I think it’s pretty open to interpretation. It’s probably true of any real songwriter that, you catch a guy after a breakup, it tends to generate more songs. Mike has a way of stringing chords together that evoke something, that evoke a certain emotion. Not always super uplifting, but that’s OK.
It’s a sweeter, slower album than some of the previous ones.
A friend of mine from Minneapolis was giving me shit about it. “It’s not as perky!” “Yeah? Well good!”
I’ve gotta ask about the Jethro Tull cover.
Mike and his brother John, his twin brother John, were into Jethro Tull, growing up in Macon, GA. A lot of music came out of that town. This is before Jethro Tull started getting a lot of shit – before people started harping on them for the codpiece on the flute. It always comes back to, “I don’t care, that’s a good song.” “Thick as a Brick” is a good song, and “Living in the Past” is a great song. But it’s also one of those things where you play it and somebody always gets a little pissed off, and that’s good [laughs].