Once you’ve worked yourself into a tour bus, how hard is it to get back into a van?
It’s a question that could be asked of any musical act who saw a moment or two of mainstream success in their heyday before leveling back down to the status of working musicians. But when considered in the case of a band as beloved on the local level as The Connells, it feels almost personal.
From the time that the band was first founded at UNC-Chapel Hill by students David and Mike Connell in 1984, the quintet has held a place in the heart of many by performing endlessly in clubs throughout the Triangle for the next decade, and reeling off a catalog of jangle-rock anthems that were stunning in their soulfulness.
While the band enjoyed a significant run of success in the mid-’90s, achieving international fame when the 1995 ballad “’74-‘75” became a Top 20 hit in the UK, it was all too fleeting. To add insult to injury, it was only in recent years that their music has been commercially available, as former label TVT lost the rights to the Connells catalog after putting it up as collateral on a loan.
It’s been just over two years since the Bicycle Music label released the first collection from the band (“Stone Cold Yesterday: The Best of the Connells”) to store shelves in over a decade, and while more than a few of their longtime fans are sure to make up the crowd at Raleigh Little Theatre’s Stephenson Amphitheatre Sept. 29, there could be some new faces as well. (The show was originally scheduled Sept. 15 but was postponed due to Hurricane Florence.)
We talked to the Connells’ lead vocalist Doug MacMillan as he and his bandmates were loading up a cargo van for a couple of days of gigs. They were preparing to hit the road for one of the many weekend tours that make up the traveling side of life in the band these days.
Q: First off, thanks for making time for us today.
A: I’m lucky to be talking to you right now, because the guys are loading (equipment). I had to go pick up a passenger van and a cargo van. We’re back to the “renting a van’ part of our careers now. We had a van for a long time, baby, and would just call it home.
Q: How hard is that, anyway? To crawl back into a cramped van with a bunch of guys you’ve known for decades, after experiencing the highs that come with having hit videos played endlessly on MTV for a few years?
A: That was the least expected thing that anyone could have ever guessed would happen to the band. If anyone had asked me just before that what I thought would happen with the band, I would have just told them that we might make another record, or we might not. When we first started recording our own songs, we only had 10 or 12 (originals) and played wherever we could; we did our fair share of fraternity parties. We would play three or four sets, so that means we’d have had 12 to 15 songs that we’d just rearrange during each set. People liked it, because we were playing original music.
Q: How difficult is it for you guys to find time to tour now? With day jobs and families, I can’t imagine you can go out for more than a week or two at any one time.
A: Not even that. Maybe two shows in a weekend.
Q: So what drives you to continue loading up the van each weekend?
A: I’ve been thinking about that lately. It’s funny, because it’s like a full circle. When we first started playing, I remember one of the first interviews we ever did was with some friends who had created this fanzine here in Raleigh, and they asked basically the same question even back then. The answer remains pretty much the same as it was back then, where playing music acts as a distraction from all of the other stuff you’ve got going on in your life. It’s great to go into a weekend where you know you’ll be playing some shows, and right now we’re at the tail end of recording another record. For me, that’s a real motivation, just because it’s new music to play.
It’s weird, because we’ve had some interesting gigs over the years, and in just the last six to 10 months, we’ve played in a lot of places we haven’t in a while: Richmond; Athens; Atlanta. I couldn’t get over how many people showed up and were into it, and it was definitely people reliving something during that moment. We didn’t re-form or anything, we had still been playing all these years, so it was great to see that happen with so many people.
Q: As someone who has experienced the Triangle music scene for over three decades now, what’s the current climate feel like, especially when compared to the heady days of the ‘90s?
A: Oh man, back in the mid-’90s around Chapel Hill, with Merge Records and Superchunk and all of those bands? There was just so much going on back then. I mean, the scene is still really vital; a lot of the same people I knew back then are still involved in either performing or recording music. It doesn’t feel like there are as many bands around here as there were back then, but then again, this was the city that all of the music industry was sniffing around after Seattle blew up. A lot of the bands here were just staunchly independent, and just didn’t seem interested in record deals; even we were never on a major label. There are places to play here now that weren’t around 15 years ago, so someone must be playing.
Of course, I think the hard part for new bands these days is to actually go out on tour. With the record labels of old, at least you had a little (financial and promotional) support. What we used to do back in the day was send our records to college radio stations, book a tour and arrange interviews through that. Sometimes they’d know we were coming, and sometimes they didn’t know who in the hell we were.
And back then there were clubs everywhere that would host “New Music Night” on either Mondays or Tuesdays, and those were great, because they would (help fill) the worst days of the week to draw a crowd. For instance, when we did the (1993) album “Ring,” we went out with a tour and promotion the same way we’d ever done before. We’d start to see a little more traction, if we were in a town with a Modern Rock radio station, and it was promising.
Frankly, it’s hard for me to see myself ever not doing this. I mean, my wife could definitely see it, but I can’t.
Who: The Connells with Dillon Fence and The Mayflies USA, presented by the Cat’s Cradle
When: 1 p.m., Sept. 29
Where: Stephenson Amphitheater at Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh
Cost: $20 in advance, $25 day-of show. $15 for 16 and younger.
Info: 919-821-3111 or RaleighLittleTheatre.org
“’74-’75” — The Video