One of North Carolina’s most successful indie rock bands, The Connells carved out a niche for themselves in the early ’90s alt-rock scene with their brand of introspective jangle pop. Formed in Raleigh in the mid -1980s by brothers Mike and David Connell, the duo soon expanded to include Doug MacMillan (vocals), Peele Wimberley (percussion) and George Huntley (guitar, vocals). Breaking through in Europe, they scored a huge hit with '74-'75', a track they're still best remembered for. Celebrating 30 years of its parent album 'Ring', we sat down with Doug for a chat about the reissue, and those heady days. Slackjawed; Eamon O'Neill.
Hi Doug, how are you doing today?
I'm good. Thank you so much for having me. You know, I looked up your name and I saw that you're a musician, so I was glad to see that. That's great.
What have you been up to today?
God, I haven't really done much. Actually, I am constantly fighting. I should probably just stop fighting. I guess I was born nocturnal, which is kind of why I got in to music. I'm trying to get my stuff situated with everybody else. My kids are at their college age and older, but yeah, I'm the odd man out.
The Connells hail from North Carolina, the home of eonmusic favourites Corrosion of Conformity.
Yeah, they're from Raleigh. As a matter of fact, I talked to some guys yesterday's from Worcester, and I looked at the map and I noticed that they weren't very far from Rockfield [studio in Wales]. We did our fourth record ['One Simple Word', 1990] at Rockfield, which was like, in mountain near Monmouth. I didn't realize what was going on until I got there; it's like; "holy crap!", because so many people recorded there. Anyways, we spent some time in London, doing pre-production, and I was looking at either the NME or Sounds or whenever - one of the magazines - and they listed live music alphabetically by the band, and I saw COC, Connells; we were right next to each other! Fuckin' Raleigh! Yeah, that's funny.
We're here to talk about thirty years of 'Ring', and that must seem unbelievable to you that that much time has passed since its release.
It seems very strange, yeah. We did a show a few years ago to celebrate, I guess, our band having been together for like, 35 years, and I was like; "come on, really?!" It doesn't add up, but it's true. But it's great because like, I like talking about it, and this is the first time I can think of where we've done some kind of reissue that has extra demos and stuff on it. It has been interesting because I haven't had the nerve to listen to those yet!
For you, 'Ring' must feel like it's the line in the sand; you worked really hard for a decade, had four albums out, and then all of a sudden, it was an explosion.
Oh, yeah, that's a good question, and there most certainly was a line. We had recorded this record before 'Ring' called 'One Simple Word' at Rockfield, and that did pretty well. We were kind of coming along, at least in the States, I could see. We were very lucky, and like so many bands, we had a lot of support from college radio stations, you know? I mean, we couldn't have toured without that network. That's how it was in 1980s; you release your own record, you send it out to college radio stations, and we got a lot of response. It helped us to actually put together dates. So, things were kind of moving along kind of gradually, but at realistic sort of pace. There was no rocket, you know?
Until 'Ring', that is!
When we recorded 'Ring', we did the same thing we always do, which is go on. We did a tour of most of the States a couple of times, and then I noticed that there were some radio stations like in Chicago, and maybe some larger cities picking up the album, but there was nothing like stirred up; it seemed like just kind of spotty. I thought, you know what? Keep your expectations low. I was just hoping a little bit, you know; gradual, and be ready for this.
So you always had a hope the record would blow up?
Before we recorded 'Ring', we had been through kind of a tussle with our record company, and then we got things straightened out and we were able to really negotiate things so they would let us record and not bother us. So that was good, but anyways, but we were getting to a point after touring the bulk for that record, and I guess we were trying to figure out what we were going to do next, like; are we gonna make another record, or whatever? And we started getting these faxes from a record label called Intercord in Stuttgart saying; "the song '74-'75' is in the top 10 in certain markets in Germany". And it was totally out of nowhere; "like, what the hell's going on?!" I thought it was a joke! I really did; I was like; "come on, you're kidding me!"
Was it a big shock when '74-'75' started charting in Europe?
They kept sending faxes telling us, and the song kept going up, and, man, it just took off. Next thing I know, we're over there, all the time! We spent a lot of time in Germany and Italy and the Netherlands, and eventually came and played in Dublin in London. Yeah, it was a very bizarre thing, and it did nothing in the States! Honestly, I wouldn't have released that song as a single either. That's what I thought, you know? Now I know.
In a way it was an unlikely hit, because it's really melancholic, and it's really slow.
Yeah, yeah, it's a ballad, you know? I know that feeling, and I can think of a couple of songs like that, that show how much older I am than you! I think it's that feeling from '(Don't Fear) The Reaper'; for some reason it really, really flipped in my head a little bit. But yeah, I know what you mean.
How did that song come to be the big single?
We found out later - and this doesn't really clear things up, it's just a story of what happened - those two guys who worked for that company in Stuttgart, they had heard 'Ring' and they had especially like '74-'75', and they both decided; "this is something we could hear on the radio"; they thought it was gonna be a hit. So they licensed the record, and the song, from our record label here.
As a band, you were happy for the European label to put it out?
No problems with that, because the guys at the label here didn't see whatever those guys saw. They were like; "if anything by an American band takes off, it'll take off in the U.K. first, and then later in Europe" That's what they said, and we kind of did the exact opposite. But those guys were right, man. I don't know if it was because they thought maybe there's the numbers in the lyrics; it's almost like a chanting, like, maybe during a football game. I don't know what people would say during a football game, but that was the only thing we could think of.
It started off in Germany, and then Europe and the U.K. took it to its heart too.
Then it went all over the place, and we went over to play, and we were playing festivals and playing clubs. I remember playing this festival one time, and we'd got a 30 minutes set, and I was like; "these people are just indifferent", and then we played that song, and there was a reaction. They started watching us, and I was like; "oh, wait, that's weird!" It's like a one hit wonder kind of thing, but that's okay.
I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the composition; I love the acoustic guitar riffing.
That's Mike [Connell]. He's got a real knack for writing some cool little electives on the E and A strings, the little licks. Yeah, I love that stuff too.
There's also that dreamy electric guitar solo as well.
That's George [Huntley]. That's cool because it's almost like a juxtaposition sort of a part. It's a cool part, and then there's the outro part that Mike wrote. You're just refreshing my memories! We played it pretty recently, but anyways!
And then there's your vocal performance, which is so beautiful; do you remember recording that?
I do. I remember thinking that I liked song. I remember thinking; "oh, that's a good one", and we demoed it. I had forgotten in the interim, and I still haven't gone back and listened to it yet, because that demo is on this new version of the record. We had demoed it in a higher key, in standard tuning, and it was just a little too high. It was like a little bit much, and those guys I think in the past, had tuned, I think, a half step down - like that Beatles move, you know? - and so that's how we recorded it. It's better for me, and it probably sounds better in that key too.
What about the recording of the actual album version? It's so low key, it's impressive.
I remember singing like, the song 'Slackjawed' because I guess we all kind of thought; "well, they'll want to release this as a single", and I remember, like, kind of feeling a little... you're supposed to relax when you sing, and sometimes it's hard. So when we did '74-'75', I wasn't thinking about it being something that people would focus on, as like the song that would, you know, represent the album, so it just kind of was more singing for enjoyment. And maybe that's why it's kind of kickback. I remember thinking to myself; "this has almost got that kind of feel of like 'Wild Horses' [The Rolling Stones], or a Neil Young song or something", you know what I mean? And I love that! But I appreciate that you like it as a musician. That that means a lot. But nobody ever saw it coming. I mean, I'm still kind of amazed by it.
The song is rooted in nostalgia, looking back almost 20 years at the time it was recorded, and now, from this vantage point we're looking back 30 years to the song's release!
I know! I hadn't really thought about that yet. Is that 50? But yeah, you're right. I think that you know, it's the song writing 101 thing; the melody comes out, but you're not really sure what the words are, and he was singing those words; "seventy-four, seventy-five", and he didn't have a grand plan to write about those years. But that's the way it came out. Yeah, it still is 20 years ago, then 30. That's really funny.
The video for the song was quite evocative, especially when it was revisited in 2015.
The reinvention, the reimagining. The guy who directed '74-'75' is a guy named Mark Pellington, and he was an old friend. He actually went to the same school, and I think he played lacrosse with our band manager, up in India. Mark's a big dude, and his father played NFL football. If you saw Mark walk in the room, you wouldn't think; "there's a film director"!
So he was chosen to direct because you knew him from way back?
We had done stuff with him before, so he was very, like, you know; "I want to make sure school's correct", and I remember Mike was saying; "well, it's not really about my high school graduation class, but this will work fine". I mean, we couldn't come up with anything, that's for sure. So it wasn't like we were being sort of forced at anything because it was a guy who we're friends with, and a guy whose stuff that we liked and admired, and he's a good director, and he's a film director as well. But you know, it's just funny because the high school that they shot that at is in Raleigh, and I don't know if you got the the feel of it, of the yearbook photos and the before and after, and man, there is some pretty moving stuff in there; like, there was a guy who was in a wheelchair, you know?
What do you remember about filming the video?
I've got some funnies. I probably don't have time at this juncture, but I have funny stories of the day we shot that. People were just popping up, you know?
That song really takes me back. At the time, I couldn't get the album, so I borrowed a compilation from the library, and I tapped the song off that, so I probably owe you like, 10 bucks or something.
A compilation album? Was it just hit songs of the summer, kind of?
I think it was one of the 'Now That's What I Call Music' albums [Nb; the song appears on Now That's What I Call Music 33].
Oh, that's really cool. Yeah, once we went over and started playing these shows, it started hitting me like, these guys aren't bugging us to come play every year because they want us to to work; this is really happening! Like, I could see we didn't come over and ruin it [laughing].
What do you remember about those European shows around that time?
Somewhere early on in those touring days, I remember going into a hotel room and sitting down and turning on the TV and there was our video, and I thought; "okay, now this is this is definitely for real". Like, it just happens that the video comes on, because they played it a lot over there. So it was all very strange; if it hadn't been for those two guys at Intercord records, this probably wouldn't have happened. I just thought it was a crazy fluke that somebody started playing it, but it was not; it was a little more thought out. But that's okay.
You mentioned that you played in Dublin back then.
I have to get back over there. We we spent 24 hours in Dublin, at the end of our longest tour we ever played. We did a TV show we played at this theater there, the Olympia, in the same night, and I mean, it was literally twenty-four hours in Dublin. It was my first and only trip there, so we'll have to go back.
Well, hopefully you'll make it again over with 'Ring's 30th anniversary celebrations.
Yeah, I'd love to do that, man. We'll figure it out.
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'Ring' 30th Anniversary Edition is available to order now, here.