Sunday, June 10, 2012

Interview with Dan McGee from Spider Bags

Dan McGee in a John Wesley Coleman shirt

The first time I heard of the Spider Bags was in 2010 when I met Patrick Stickles at a Titus Andronicus show.  He mentioned something about the amazing scene in the triangle area and slipped the name Spider Bags to me.  I listened to them and then got to see them at the Last Year's Men record release show soon after the Titus Andronicus show.  It was then that I picked up a copy of Spider Bags' record "Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World" as well as a copy of their newest single at the time, which was "Take it Easy Tonite."  I had already picked up a bunch of their other 7"s at Bull City Records and got a big kick out of them.  I thought they were good, but I didn't go crazy.

Then I saw them open for the Golden Boys, sandwiched between their set and John Wesley Coleman's and oh my god, they blew my mind.  They came back with new songs with a lot more energy and rock n roll than I had seen before.  I couldn't believe how good they sounded and were.  Between Dan McGee's wine guzzling, Steve Oliva's rad bass, and some tight drumming from Ross Forbes, I was hooked.  I saw them three times within the next month.  And each time, I got to know Dan a little bit better.

The thing about Dan is that he's ultimately one of the friendliest people you'll ever meet.  He loves meeting new people and connecting and making people happy with the music that he makes.  He really welcomed me to the scene and was one of the first people, along with the girls in Midtown Dickens and Chaz from Bull City Records, to make me feel really at home in the Triangle scene in North Carolina.  Dan & I hung out a bunch and stayed in contact.  The thing is that Dan doesn't have a computer.  He has to borrow his wife's, so when I e-mailed him a couple months ago with questions, he took a while.  He told me later that computers give him a sort of weird anxiety, which I can understand.  I prefer phone interviews anyway and it was great to hear his beautiful voice on the other side.

A few months ago, he gave me a master copy of their newest album, "Shake My Head," which will be out in August on Odessa records.  I think it's my favorite album of 2012 so far.  I've listened to it so many times.  I listen to it on the way to work, while I bike, while I run, while I read.  I can't believe how good it is.  And it manages to sound like a Spider Bags record while also moving the band in a rock n' roll direction, which is awesome.  I think it's also their most cohesive album - all of the songs sound like they're in the right place and it shows so easily.

Here's what he said about the fun-times:

Jordan:  So what is a Spider Bag?
Dan:  I don’t know, when you’re a kid and people ask your name, you want to be anything but what your name is.  I remember when I was four or five, I couldn’t wait to change my name to Bill.  I was like, man, when I’m 18, I’m going to change my name to Bill.  I never did that though.  I didn’t really think about it much.  There’s always names floating around my head for bands.  It’s not like I had a plan for it  My friend just came up with it and we rolled with it.
Jordan:  Has the band always had the same members or does it change?
Dan:  It’s changed a lot.  The first record “Celebration of Hunger,” we did in North Carolina over a weekend while touring with a different band and that was with a group of guys that had moved here to North Carolina from New Jersey that I had grown up with.  None of those guys are in the band at this point.  The main member who has mostly stayed with everything is Greg Levi, but he just recently moved back to New Jersey, so now the band is myself, Steve Oliva, and Ross Forbes.  Ross has been with me for two or three years and he’s awesome.  The band is pretty much me, Ross, and Steve at this point.  But yeah, it’s changed.  I don’t even know how many have played in the band at this point - probably at least ten.  We did a lot of touring before my baby was born.  It’s not like people left for personality reasons, but when you’re touring a lot, sometimes you have no choice because it’s not a lot of money.  It’s not how it was in the 70s when people were getting a living out of it.  It ends up being a question of priorities.  I personally love being on the road and I couldn’t give it up.  When another person says that they can’t do the next tour, I just ask another friend if they want to play the position that needs filling.  That’s how it’s been for a while, but now that I’m not on the road as much, this line up is pretty solid.  I’ll be touring in the fall, but nothing as heavy as I’ve done in the last 10 years.
Jordan:  The first Spider Bags record came out five or six years ago?
Dan:  Yeah, I’m pretty sure “A Celebration of Hunger” came out in 2007 or 2008.
Jordan:  So you played in other bands before that?
The Take it Easy Tonite 7"
Dan:  Yeah, just one other band.  I didn’t start playing in bands until my late 20s.  I always played guitar and wrote music, but I didn’t have the itch to perform in bands until I was in my late 20s.  I was in a band in New York City and we were called the D.C. Snipers and we put out a couple records and did a lot of touring.  That’s actually how I met my wife - I came through Chapel Hill and met here and ended up moving down here and that put an end to the band I had up North.  At that point, the first record with Spider Bags was already done and about to be released, so I ended up moving down here and focusing on that band.
Jordan:  How has having a family and settling down impacted what you’re doing with the band?
Dan:  Well, like I said, it’s different.  I can’t travel as much, but I’m getting a lot of recording done.  It’s really hard to tour and make records.  It’s difficult, especially with a rotating cast of characters - you have people that need to be taught songs and then you go on the road and hope you can record with the same band, but that inevitably breaks up, so you have to find another group and teach them songs and try to record, but it’s been good to be in town and not be traveling as much.  I can rock.  Steve and I can hang around and record and my friend Wes is a really good engineer and we’ve done a bunch of recording with him.  The focus shifts.  Even before I was in bands, I traveled for long periods of time, but now that I have a family, I have to.  It was a little scary at first, but she keeps me busy.  It’s also really cool to have this other focus.  When you’re younger and think about having kids, it’s really scary, but when it actually happens, you find out it’s just another thing, which is an incredible responsibility - it’s the center of my life right now, but it’s not so heavy that you’re asking “oh my god, when do I get to play my guitar?”  You have to shuffle things around.  So I’ve been concentrating on recording and I have a huge backlog of songs that I’ve either recorded or have demos for and I’m going through that.  I have plans for about three or four albums.  If I stay focused, I can probably get them out within a year or so.
Jordan:  Wow.
Dan:  Yeah.  I’ve got a shitload of stuff and I’ve never had the time to record it.  It’s like I said with the computer, I just can’t sit still for very long.  Now that I have the baby it forces me to stay put and concentrate.
Jordan:  Definitely puts a hold on touring and stuff I imagine.
Dan:  Yeah, well, we’re going to do small runs and tours when the record comes out.  We’re going to the major cities.  I mostly miss seeing my buddies in different cities.
Jordan:  Any plans to come to Chicago?
Dan:  Sure, for sure.  We’ll be up in Chicago.  I’d like to get to Chicago some time in September and do Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Louisville.
Jordan:  Weather should still be nice then.
Dan: Oh yeah, and we could do that in like a week.
Jordan:  It’s a nice drive anyway, too.
Steve Oliva's Screenprint for the Show with Golden Boys
Dan:  It is, man.  It is.  I love that part of the country.  I have a bunch of friends in Cleveland and Columbus and friends in Milwaukee, Detroit and Chicago.  Should be fun.
Jordan:  It was funny I just saw Double Negative. [Dan: Oh, yeah?] Yeah, I saw them at this house show and I was reading because the space wasn’t open yet and I was bored and I look up and there are four punks and Daniel Lupton walking.  And I was like, “Daniel” and it was really funny, but it’s awesome when people from North Carolina come through here.  At least it was then.
Dan:  Yeah, of course.  It’s one of the great things about music and traveling.  It’s so fun to see your friends in different settings and it makes you realize how awesome it is to be alive.
Jordan:  That’s a good way of putting it.  So why did you end up moving to Chapel Hill?
Dan:  My wife, man.  I was on unemployment in New Jersey because I had gotten fired from driving a truck and delivering janitorial supplies - toilet paper and stuff like that.  I got in too many accidents and they fired me, which was fine because it was hard to juggle that with touring and stuff, so I was collecting unemployment in Jersey and touring with a band and basically living out of a duffle bag, which I had done for about a year and my wife was friends with my friend Paul who runs Odessa Records and was in the Spider Bags for the original line up and toured with us for a while.  He introduced me to her and we just hit it off.  I wasn’t really planning on staying here.  I was planning on making it out to the West coast or stopping in Austin.  I wasn’t planning on staying anywhere, really.  I realized though that I had been living here after about a year [laughs].  It was like, oh shit, I guess I live in Chapel Hill.  Here I am.  I never would have thought I’d settle down in North Carolina, but it’s been good.  It’s been a really healthy experience.  I feel good and positive.  And if I’d never met my wife, I wouldn’t have had this little baby.  A lot to think about.
Jordan:  So is your wife supportive of you having the rock band?
Dan:  Yeah, she keeps me realistic because I have other responsibilities and all that traveling did a number on my health.  She’s realistic about that too.  If it were up to me, I would have done it until I couldn’t and would have ended up with really bad health.  She’s a positive force on my life, so I take her advice and there are times when I wish I could be twenty-two, free and easy.  But she reminds me there are other aspects of life.  I love her and she supports me.  She loves my records and my music and she helps me remember my songs.  If I ever write a new song, she videotapes me so I don’t forget it, because I always forget them.  She’ll show them to me on a video and I’ll say “oh, that’s pretty good!”  She’s really supportive.  She’s my wife.
Jordan:  It seems to me that your newest album is less twangy - it seems like it’s straight-up rock n roll.
Dan:  You know, I don’t know.  The D.C. Snipers were a straight-up rock n roll punk band.  Like Cajun style rock n roll band.  I just write a bunch of different songs and the twangy songs ended up on the first couple of Spider Bags records.  I still have a bunch of twangy songs, but this record is really a rock n roll record because we made it in Memphis.  Where you make the record ends up defining what you bring to the process.  We were in Memphis, TN and had all my rock n roll friends with me, so I just decided on using the rock n roll songs that I had.  
"Goodbye Cruel World" Cover
I don’t know if you know this, but music totally sounds different in different places and has different feels to it - Memphis is the place where you want to hear fast, loud, sloppy and raw rock n roll.  Good times.  That was it.  We made the record last March and knew it was going to be the last week long trip I would take before Belle was born so we were trying to figure out where we would go to make a record.  We talked about New York, Louisville, Austin, but my friend Andrew who engineered the record suggested we go down to Memphis.  His girlfriend had just moved out and all she left behind was the recording equipment.  He was like, “I have this big house and recording equipment, so we can just party and make a record,” which kind of cinched the deal.  But if we had ended up in one of those other towns, it would have been a very different records.  Plus, all my friends in Memphis ended up recording with us and partying with us and I’ve always liked the Memphis nightlife where you go out to bars and meet other musicians.  That ended up being a rock n roll record.  We haven’t really been playing more of the country stuff, but that also happens because of the guys in the band.  Ross is an amazing drummer, but he’s also a rock n roll drummer.  He can do anything on the drums, but you feel the energy from him saying that he just wants to rock, and Steve’s the same way.  It’s rock n roll so that’s how it happens.  Unplanned, but just the mood that you’re in.
Jordan:  So what have the changes been in recording your 3 LPs and shit-ton of 7”s?
Dan:  Like I said, the first record was recorded over a weekend and it was with my buddies in North Carolina, so that made it the record that it was.  The next record “Goodbye, Cruel World,” if you look at the liner notes, has about twenty different musicians on it and that’s because it was over the period of a year while we were touring.  It was a difficult record to make because it was dictated by being on the road so it was different.  We had to put the guys together, go on the road, record the songs, and cycle that.  With that record, I think maybe I didn’t pick all the right songs to put on it, and that was hard.  When you spread it out over time like that, you lose a bit of focus it becomes really loose.  This record was done in a week so it’s a compact thing and just gets done.  In terms of singles, after I did “Goodbye, Cruel World,” having it all spread out ended up making me scrap a bunch of songs because I didn’t want to hear them anymore, so I just wanted to do two songs at a time.  If we were going to be touring all the time, I didn’t want to tackle an album.  It was easier to do two songs at a time.  Whenever it seemed like I had two songs that matched, we would just go to the studio and record them.  That was really easy for a while.  Now that I’m back home again, I can focus on doing Long Players again.
Jordan:  So what kinds of bands, ideologies and stuff influence the music that you’re making or the shows you play?
Dan:  Well, I don’t really know, to tell you the truth.  I listen to a lot of music, but I don’t know.  I just write songs and I never know why.  I don’t ever really know what’s influencing it.  Sometimes I can look back and see where I got something.  To tell you the truth, I don’t know the answer to that question.
Jordan:  Do you have any favorite bands?
Dan:  Oh yeah, sure.  The smiths.  My favorite record from recently was probably that Apache Dropout record.  The Rolling Stones are my all-time favorite.
The Gang
Jordan:  So what do you try and doing with the music you make and perform?  Is there an end purpose?
Dan:  That was the thing - when I was younger, I thought that there had to be.  The only reason to do it is for an end purpose, but there isn’t.  The reason to do it is just to do it for whatever reason.  I’ve thought a lot about why I still play shows and put out record.  I think I’m just compelled to.  Beyond that, I’m not doing it to make a million dollars.  If I were, I’d be making a different kind of music.  I’m not doing it to be cool because I have a wife and a kid and I don’t have to worry about being cool.  I’m not doing it to impress people because I already have a family.  So I have to ask “Why am I doing it?”  At the end, I think I just enjoy it and I always will.  An audience is great and it’s awesome when it gets bigger, but then I have to think, “would it really be great for the audience to get bigger and bigger?  What would be great about that?”  You can only know so many people and a lot of why I like making music is meeting people with similar interests and it makes me feel connected to the world, but in the end, does it actually matter if the audience gets bigger?  I don’t think so.  That’s the only thing is that I need people to help me organize the production of a record.  Once I finish recording a record and doing the artwork, I don’t have any interest in pressing the record or getting the sleeves done and shit.  I don’t like talking to record stores and stuff.  I don’t have the energy for that, but as long as I have people who want to help put records out, then I guess I’ll always put them out.
Jordan:  So what’s the name of the new album?
Dan:  It’s called “Shake my Head.”  I just got the CDs yesterday at the plant.  I’ll mail you one if you give me your address.
Jordan:  Sure, should I e-mail you or just tell you now?
Dan:  Just text me.
Jordan:  Sounds good, I’d love one.
Dan:  Yeah it should be great.  The artwork is amazing.  My friend Mikey from Louisville did the artwork.  The CD looks awesome and the vinyl copy is going to be a gatefold.  It’s a really good package.
Jordan:  I’m geeking out already, man.
Dan:  [laughs] We should get the vinyl by the end of the month and I’ll mail you one of those too.
Jordan:  Yeah, I listen to it so much, especially when I’m biking.  It’s an awesome summer album, to be honest.
Dan:  That’s awesome.  It’s a party.  It was a party making it and hopefully that translates.
Jordan:  Well, I think that’s about all I have for interview stuff.
Dan:  Cool, I’m walking over to my neighbor’s house to play some chess.

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