Author: Karl Galloway
All photos courtesy of Jeffrey Delannoy
For fans of southern university rock, Comboland, and DIY, there’s good news. The Connells have released a new album, Steadman’s Wake. Citizen Vinyl, of Asheville, is pressing the Made in NC album and the release is prompting fans and band members alike to look back at the group’s trajectory. Recently I sat down with Connells singer Doug MacMillan to talk about the band’s history, his many pursuits, and some rock n’ roll stories from road trips gone by.
Doug represented the group well. “Your guest tonight is THE Connell,” he quipped. He was genial and warm, to say the least. We discussed the Athens, Georgia music scene; my family lived there in the early 90s (incidentally across from Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who admired my Halloween costume one year), and Doug was quick to ask about our experience. He’s a man who likes stories and has a startling memory for details, particularly related to dive bars.
During our interview, he pondered The Connells musical growth, from their first album to their latest. On a tangent, he waxed rhapsodic on North Carolina musicians.
“I just keep discovering even more fantastic musicians that were born in North Carolina. One of the all-time top guys, Link Wray, I mean oh boy. What a singular original-sounding guitar. I need to read up on old Link ‘cuz everything I hear about people who have seen him play over the years.”
We returned to Doug’s origin story, one that might explain his own zest for travel.
“I was born in Chevy Chase Maryland. My dad was one of those guys who came back from Korea and had grand plans to go to college, would have been the first of his generation to do that. But those recruiters from IBM showed up and that was that. I guess at that time it would have been hard to pass up that money. But because of IBM my mom and dad and 2 older brothers lived all over; New York, Germany, and I think North Carolina was the stop in 1966 when my dad put his foot down and said we’re not going anywhere else. I remember there was kind of an intense evening at home when they made that decision. But good for him, because if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have met the Connell brothers, that’s for sure.”
The Connells latest album, Steadman’s Wake, is their first in 20 years and is being celebrated as a true North Carolina album. Citizen Vinyl, an innovative creative space and record press, is producing the physical album. Besides making records, the space houses quite a library of music.
The Connell’s had been tasked with selecting an LP from the collection to play at the associated album release party. Doug was having fun with the challenge, and he rattled off a few options. The group “Boards of Canada,” an instrumental 2-piece electronic set from Scotland caught his attention. Thin Lizzy was also an option.
Suffice to say, Doug likes to dig into genres and interact with music communities. He’d know something about that, having come of musical age during a triangle scene that is relatively unknown to those who weren’t there.
I asked him about Comboland, the somewhat nebulous DIY rock scene that existed in Raleigh and the triad from around 1981-’84. Referred to as a golden age of NC rock music, this DIY scene never quite made it to stadiums. But North Carolina artists such as Arrogance, The dB's, The Fabulous Knobs, Glass Moon, The Spongetones, and others would directly influence the multi-million-dollar sales of R.E.M., Hootie, and the Blowfish, the Georgia Satellites, and others. And the Connells were there. The Othermothers and The Bad Checks might ring some bells for Comboland fans. It was the bass player of The Bad Checks that worked something out for the Connells, who were chosen for an album feature. That, Doug says, “was when you realize how good the other bands are. Nothing more frightening than a recording studio for someone like me who hadn’t done a lot of recording in 1985/86.”
“You roll with what’s happening.”
Every group gets its start somewhere.
“I remember our infamous first gig outside of the triangle, at the Daniel Boone Inn in Burlington. BARELY outside the triangle. I can’t paint a rosy picture, it was really more of a sorority or fraternity barbecue, literally a stage with long tables perpendicular to it and a bunch of college students eating barbecue and looking at us. That was a big moment for us. I think at that early time I’d get uptight if they weren’t dancing but then you learn that you roll with what’s happening.”
“A guy named Elvis Costello.”
Much later the band would tour in Europe. “We did have a connection to England because our EP Darker Days was released by Demon Records, now Demon Music Group. Our current and longtime manager had spent some time there and told us he had a deal with the label. Which I wasn’t familiar with, but we were aware that they had a silent partner, whose name happened to be Elvis Costello. So that kinda got our interest up. I remember running around Mike and David’s house, and it was like a movie. It was exciting for us.”
"Even my vocals on Darker Days couldn't ruin how good Mike's songs were."
Darker Days was the group’s first album. “Someone said it was a surprise for your fans that when you were releasing your new record, Steadman’s Wake, you also released Darker Days on the streaming platform. And no one was more surprised than me! I was a little rough on that album, and I walk out of the room when that record comes on. But the songs are good. I think people picked up on that. I hadn’t found my voice yet; I wasn’t even a singer. I was a guy taking some of the punk and post-punk ethic of anyone can do this, which isn’t necessarily true. Our songs were in very low keys, as we had yet to discover the magic of the capo, and it was almost gothic. But there’s a song called “Hats Off” that I like a lot, and the song “Seven."
Steadman’s Wake is the group’s latest product, and Doug compared the bookends of the Connell’s decades of music.
“I can tell you that this is 1984 or ’85, and I had lost my dad, and Mike and David’s mom had passed. And the three of us had experienced this closely. Even still I think that a good number of these songs are about going through that process. If you look it up, there’s a lot of actors and musicians who have lost loved ones at an early age. Maybe there is something about that that leads people to music or the creative process. So that’s what was going on there, not completely of course but largely. The idea is that you would get through it. Steadman’s Wake deals with similar issues, bad times happening, the pandemic, political, you name it.” He chuckled, “So I guess we just write about bad times! And Mike’s chord changes and the lyrics that he writes, that’s kind of what he does. But I’m excited about this because now we have new songs.”
“This is like Memphis in ’86 at the Antenna Club!”
“Nobody could go out and play this past year, but we were able to do some streaming gigs, two at the Cat’s Cradle. We’ve done a few virtual events, which is weird because no one is there. We had to pretend it was one of those nights on tour, like a Tuesday night when nobody showed up. It reminded me of Memphis and the Antenna Club. A great club, I’d love to go back there. It’s probably gone. I remember that night sitting at the bar, drinking beer, and watching wrestling with the bartender. And then it was time to play, and I think the only people who had shown up were some young ladies we met at the gift shop at Graceland. I think the two of them showed up, and 10 bucks we made that night we gave to the sound man. Those are the nights that I almost remember the best, something about that. But despite the pandemic, the DIY thing is alive and well in the Triangle from what I can tell.”
“Peanut butter looms large in the van.”
“Back in the early days when we first started going on tour, we’d been renting vans and finally bought a newer one. And we had a cooler, with various food items, tuna, peanut butter. We slept in the van, or wherever we could. One night we played in Iowa City, at Gabe’s Oasis. I’m the singer, the guy who doesn’t have any gear so I always just slip away when the guys are packing up, and go to the bar and start talking to people. Someone will always say to you, where are you guys staying? Then you luck into a floor. That was in my 20’s, not anymore of course. Sometimes it was fun. Sometimes it sucked.”
“One time we got kicked out of town for vagrancy.”
“Literally, once we got ran out of town for vagrancy. In Ann Arbor, and I guess what was happening is that once you start to get to the Midwest and the plains there are a lot less towns, and you have less days of playing and more of just waiting for the Friday that you will play. You have to fill up the middle of the week. We had parked the van in a church parking lot and were taking shifts sleeping. George and I were night owls, and we’d do stuff at night while the other guys slept and then we’d shift out and sleep in the van during the day. We did this for about 3 nights, and there was a big ball game that weekend, so no one noticed us. But on Sunday someone called the sheriff, saying this van is still parked here. I remember thinking, maybe I can get some money out of the ATM. If I have 5 dollars or so I can get 5 bucks out and go have a couple of beers. I probably had $4.89. So, I didn’t have enough and we just kept walking and all of a sudden we see our van come barreling up the street and it opens up and they shout “get in!” Literally, the cop had knocked on the glass, seen people sleeping, and ran them out. We took that pretty seriously. Luckily, they could find us. If I’d had 5 dollars I might have been at the bar.”
“The thing that allowed us to tour was the existence of college radio.”
Without those stations, we had nowhere to send our records. And we really didn’t have promotion. We’d go do an interview and that would bring people in. And those really helped us get through the week. I have a lot of strong memories from then, and some awful ones of fairly dingy nights.
"You gotta play live. I’m hopeful for the scene."
“It seems like since we started playing there’s been an abundance of artists and individuals playing. We’ll see once this ends, what places are still standing. My son has become a songwriter and I see him as the next thing. All my friends are still woodshedding and writing. I have a lot of faith in songwriters and what they can get over. I have a feeling that people are gonna come out of it. People who wanna play and perform, nothings gonna stop them. That's why there’s such a rich heritage in North Carolina.”
NC folk music is important to Doug and has been a guiding light in his art. He hears echoes of North Carolina mountain ballads and Anglo-Saxon music traditions in Mike’s music. It’s one of the first things that drew him to the sound. Richard Thompson is one of their inspirational pillars, adding to a Connell’s sound that Doug describes as “plugged-in folk music.”
A “Career” in Movies
The first drummer in The Connells was Doug’s childhood best friend. John Schultz was something of a linchpin in the line-up. He met Mike Connell first and helped get Doug in as the singer. Much of the summer of 1984 was spent in Schultz’s parents’ basement working on the sound. Doug describes it as a hard summer for the group, and John wound up leaving. For a while, Doug thought he was out too. John would go on to become a film director, and while the Connells kept touring he went to L.A. to find his place in Hollywood. In ’96 he made the independent film “Bandwagon,” which made it to Sundance film Festival. Doug was in “Bandwagon,” as the tour manager, and in every subsequent film that John made, Doug had a small role. He’s played chemistry teachers and done voiceovers for animated features and faced the hot lights of a movie set. Doug’s happy with his path, and it comes through in his voice. He signed off our interview with supportive words, and a few more memories about towns in Alabama they played; the Tip Top Café (winner of the smallest stage in his memory) in Huntsville, Alabama, more than one dive bar in Mobile, and the Niche in Birmingham. Those places might be gone, but Doug’s enthusiasm and warmth for the haunts that hosted The Connells haven’t waned one bit.
"All the stuff I ever wanted to do, be in a band, and be in a movie, I did it! I didn’t get rich, but I got to do it. And I have some bizarre stories, that’s for sure."