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Interview: The Connells

The Connells
11 September 2021

Photo by Bryan Regan

After releasing their critically acclaimed debut album Darker Days in 1985, Raleigh, North Carolina-based jangle rock band The Connells became mainstays on U.S. college radio stations. They went on to earn international fame with their song “’74-’75” (from their fifth album, 1993’s Ring), which became a surprise hit in several European countries, including topping the charts in Norway and Sweden and reaching the Top 20 in the U.K. Despite that success, the band mostly went on hiatus after releasing their 2001 album Old School Dropouts, only venturing out occasionally in recent years to do shows. This long absence from recording has finally come to an end, however: on September 24, the band will release a new studio album, Steadman’s Wake (via Black Park/Missing Piece Records). Calling from their North Carolina homes, guitarist Mike Connell and singer Doug MacMillan discuss what prompted them to resurrect the band’s recording career – and also delve deep into the band’s history.

How did you know that it was finally the right time to do another studio album now?

MIKE CONNELL: I don’t think any of us did know that. Like most things in this band’s career, it’s just haphazard and with no design, necessarily. Gradually over time, the impulse to pick up the guitar and see if you can come up with something does present itself. Not the way it did as a 22-year-old, where you come in every night from the bar or whatever and you just want to get your hands on the guitar and see what, if anything, might happen. But now, every couple of months, maybe that feeling will come back. And so over all those years, gradually pieces of ideas, the germ of a song, you take the time to flesh it out. Then we ended up with the requisite number of tunes for an album. We had that number of songs and the capacity to get into a studio and record them, so that’s how it happened.

Connells cover art

Starting on September 17, you’re going to play a few shows to support this album – what do you think that will be like for you?

MIKE CONNELL: I think it’s going to be a little scarier than it was when we were young. We’re certainly a lot uglier than we were when we were a lot younger! It’s going to be that added element.

DOUG MACMILLAN: We have a whole new lighting thing planned for that. A lot of darkness!

MIKE CONNELL: The good news is, we don’t jump around like idiots like we did when we were younger.

DOUG MACMILLAN: We pretty much can’t!

MIKE CONNELL: We played in Durham [North Carolina] about a month and a half ago. Having not played in front of people for a year and a half, it was pretty scary, but it ended up being a blast. It was a lot of fun and people were very responsive and nice to us. We’ve been really, really fortunate that we’ve been received that way, generally, over the years.

What made you decide to start this band in the first place?

MIKE CONNELL: A few of us were in school in Chapel Hill [at the University of North Carolina], and it was just, “Let’s get together one day a week and play our respective instruments.” My younger brother David [Connell] – who is still the bass guitar player in the band – and a friend of Doug’s from childhood named John Schultz got together every Friday afternoon – John played drums, David played bass. And then one day David says, “John, my brother happens to play guitar. Can he start playing with us?” So I start joining them. Then I got the bright idea of starting to bring in my own songs, and so we started working on those. And then it became evident that none of the three of us could sing. One day John says, “I’ve got a buddy who can’t sing, either, like the rest of us, but let’s still invite him.” And that was Doug. He was at another college in North Carolina. He came to Chapel Hill and auditioned, and sure enough, he couldn’t sing. [laughs] But that didn’t matter.

DOUG MACMILLAN: I didn’t know that he had written songs. I thought they were making stuff up, so I started making things up. It didn’t go over well. And then my friend John gave me a cassette tape and I learned [the songs] and I came back.

What made you decide to stick with the band?

DOUG MACMILLAN: Because my friend was in it. It was as simple as that. And I was at an age where I was trying to figure out, “What am I going to do? – I’ll just postpone the inevitable for a while and see if I can try things out with this band.” It’s hard to believe that we’re here talking to you about it right now.

MIKE CONNELL: So this is 1984. We’re all swept up in everything that’s coming out of England: The Clash, The Sex Pistols. And then out of the South, of all places, with R.E.M. and The dB’s and Let’s Active and bands like that. R.E.M., of course, especially leading the charge. So you’re Southern guys and you’re going, “Damn, these guys out of Athens, Georgia are amazing!” And two of those guys, Mike Mills and Bill Berry, went up to Athens from Macon [Georgia], so they were a year ahead of me in high school in Macon. So I’d been hearing about them, and then when I finally saw them it was, “Oh, my God!” So there was incentive: if these guys can do it, then why don’t we see what we can do?

You’ve gone on to do quite well, especially in Europe – why do you think your music connects so strongly with listeners there, in particular?

MIKE CONNELL: I’ve got no explanation for why anything would connect with anyone, there or here or anywhere. But yeah, that song “’74-‘75,” there is something in that song that connected initially in Germany, and then spread throughout the better part of Western Europe. It was crazy. So there is no rhyme or reason. I feel enormously grateful, and I think all the guys do. We’re lucky that there are some people that like us. Whatever success we have had, we’re really grateful for that.

The Connells – Tour Dates:

September 17 – Athens, GA – Georgia Theater
September 18 – Atlanta, GA – The Eastern
September 24 – Asheville, NC – The Grey Eagle
September 29 – Brooklyn, NY – Brooklyn Bowl
October 15 – Carrboro, NC – Cat’s Cradle