Seventeen days remain before Churchkey Records takes over the Tir Na Nog during Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival. Keeping up with our weekly interview series, today we had Kevin Lincoln from Recess, the weekly arts and entertainment section of Duke’s Chronicle newspaper, sit down with Dan McGee, lead singer of Chapel Hill’s garage-rocking Spider Bags. Check out the section and also keep up with the section’s Playground blog. Enjoy the interview and check back next week for the next entry.
Recess: So, you guys released your first few records on Birdman, which is based out of San Francisco. Now you’re on Churchkey, which is obviously a Durham label, and home to some of the area’s most interesting bands, like Hammer No More the Fingers and the Dry Heathens. What led to the change in labels?
Dan McGee: Oh, I didn’t change labels. The way the record world works these days is, it’s not like it used to be where you’d be an artist for Columbia or something like that—there’s a lot of different niche labels, what do they call them, boutique labels, and what’s good and interesting about the music industry these days is that you can release on a variety of different labels. I was looking to do some singles this summer, and it just so happens that there are, in this area, a bunch of really great lables starting up: we did one with Odessa, out of Chapel Hill, and we did one with Chaz at Bull City Records, and I was talking to Kyle, it was like a year ago I was talking to Kyle, and I was telling him that this year I wanted to do a bunch of singles, and he was like, yeah, you know, whenever you want. I see Kyle and Steve around town a lot, we have similar taste in music and go to shows a lot. I just like the idea of doing singles with different labels, and I also like the idea of doing releases with local labels. So I haven’t changed labels—I’ll probably do another full-length with Birdman eventually—but I just like making music, and spreading it around is a little easier than waiting for one person to put something out, you know.
Recess: That makes sense. Ok, next question: I’ve seen you guys referred to as North Carolina natives, which I know is not true, because I’ve also seen writers mention you guys as New Jersey natives transplanted to the Triangle, the Churchkey site talks about you being down here and then you were working a truck-driving job and then you weren’t working it so you started living down here. So, North Carolina, New Jersey, both obviously play a role, but what do you guys think of yourselves in terms of the North Carolina-New Jersey connections, and how do you think this affects your music?
DM: Well, I don‘t know, it’s not something I really think about. I grew up in New Jersey, and I think I was shaped more by New Jersey than I have been—I’ve only lived in North Carolina for three years. I feel like a New Jersey person; when people ask me where I’m from I say New Jersey. As far as how it changes my music, I couldn’t tell you, I don’t know what the environmental factors are that go into the music I make. I don‘t think I’m shaped all that much by the state that I live in: it changes as you get older, and your music changes, and your environment changes. I don’t write about the same things I wrote about three years ago. It’s not something that I feel, you know?
Recess: Yeah, I couldn’t believe when I read this thing and it said you were North Carolina natives. You guys do have an identity as a band from the Triangle, though.
DM: Yeah, the band was born here. Even though I was living in New Jersey when we recorded the first record, we recorded it here—it doesn’t bother me if somebody says that.
Recess: With the New Jersey thing comes the Titus Andronicus connection—when I saw them play live Patrick Stickles called you his favorite band. How did you end up on The Monitor, which I thought was a pretty cool cameo?
DM: Patrick and I go back pretty far. He and a couple other guys—there’s this guy Sam who played drums on the “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah” single—those guys I knew in New York. I was in a band called the DC Snipers and they used to come to our shows and hang out. I liked all those kids, they’re really genuine, you know? And they obviously have a real genuine like of music, and I enjoyed talking to them. When they started the band Titus Andronicus and I got that single, it really blew my mind, and I was really happy. They liked Spider Bags from the beginning: they came through here and played “Waking Up Drunk” at one of their concerts, some people were telling me about it. Patrick sent me an e-mail when they were getting ready to record the record, and he was like, I really want you to be a part of this record, and I was kind of flattered. I thought he was gonna want me to play guitar or something on it. I ended up driving up to New York, and I didn’t know what I was going to do on the record until I got there. I got there at like, midnight. I don’t like to drive alone, especially in the dark, so I was drinking tequila (laughs). I got there about midnight, and he was like, I want you to sing this part. There are a lot of words in his songs, and the cadences are a lot different than what I’m used to, so I stayed up to until like two or so, and did this thing, and I finally got it right. Then I woke up the next morning and drove back to North Carolina.
Recess: (Laughs) That’s a really appropriate birth story for that song.
DM: Yeah, I thought it was pretty funny too when he told me the lyrics, when I was reading the lyrics. I was like, “Oh, is this about me Patrick? (laughs) Are you making fun of me right now?” (laughs) He’s a great guy, man. I love those guys, I think they’re awesome. The single came out, the “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah” single I really thought was amazing. And The Airing of Grievances, I got an early copy of that and thought it was great. When they just started getting more and more popular, I was—‘cause I know a lot of talented people, and I’m always like, why isn’t this popular, why doesn’t everybody listen to this. It’s really great to know some people that are talented and are actually getting some kind of popular success.
Recess: Agreed. Alright, back to you guys. A lot of the writing about your band makes a big deal about the role of alcohol in your music. Do you think this gets overplayed when people talk about Spider Bags?
DM: Well, everybody needs an angle. When you write a song on your first record called “Waking Up Drunk,” I guess you’re kind of asking for it…. Yeah, I think it probably gets played out. It would be cool if people talked about something else in regards to my band. You could say that you met me in a bar, and I was laying face-down in a pool of booze. It does freak my wife out, you know? She’ll start reading a review and she’ll be like, again with the booze (laughs)…. A lot of times you’re writing songs about stuff that you’re going through at a time, and you’re hoping that people agree with them, because they’re universal things. You write about personal things because, you know, everybody’s depressed, or everybody’s happy, or sometimes everybody breaks up with a girl and they’d rather drink all night then talk to them about it. You hope they’re universal, but you don’t really want them to spell your character forever, you know? But whatever, it’s rock and roll, a lot of times it’s about drinking and drugs.
Recess: Right. Moving back into the music: on Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World, you guys alternate between the blister-paced rockers and the more lingering acoustic stuff. What keeps you writing songs in both of those registers and not just giving yourself over to one or the other?
DM: I don’t know, I’ve always just liked—what I’m doing now is I’m releasing these singles that are just rock and roll singles, and I’m finishing up a record that’s more psychedelic, blues, laid-back. Now Spider Bags is my only output, so, I just love rock and roll, but a lot of times I’ll write a real slow song and I’ll think it should be on the record too, you know? That record bounced around a bit and I think it confused people as to what kind of band we were. I tried to make a record that you could listen to from the beginning to end and really have an experience with and feel like you were part of a story or part of a mood. I pulled from probably twenty or twenty-five songs for that record, and even after the recording was done, it took me a really long time to sequence that record, to decide which ones to put on and which ones not to. My intent was to create a fifty-minute kind of mood, you know. I could do twenty-five minute rock and roll records, and I think that in the future I might do more of that. But I felt like I had something to say with the Goodbye Cruel World record, and I just wanted to evoke all those different things.
Recess: This is kind of an off-beat question, but Spider Bags has a lot of different aspects of America in it, Northeast meets South. If you had to describe your band’s relationship to the word America, however you want to take the idea of America, what would you say? It’s like word association.
DM: (Laughs) That’s a big question. We have an antithetical relationship to America, in a lot of respects. It depends on what kind of America you’re talking about. I love what America stands for, but I feel like a lot of the time we don’t really fit in with modern America. I feel like maybe I would’ve been happy being born in the early part of the twentieth century—maybe if I was born in 1875 instead of 1975, that would’ve been good, it would’ve been better for me (laughs). But yeah, I don’t know. I like American music, that’s what I was raised on, that’s what I identify with. The true American art forms are jazz, folk, blues, and I really identify with that, I try to write in that style. And I love the possibilities here.
Recess: Cool, that question actually went as well as I could’ve hoped for, I think (laughs). Alright, so last one: you guys are playing Hopscotch, along with pretty much every other band I’ve ever heard of. You guys excited for that show?
DM: I’m stoked, man. Grayson (Currin, Hopscotch curator)told me about his plans for it about this time last year, that he really wanted to start putting together a festival, and I’m really stoked. From what I hear from those guys, it’s already successful. I think it’s great. I think it’s great to get a bunch of national bands in the area for three days. I think it’s great for Raleigh, I think it’s great for the whole Triangle area. I’m hoping that it becomes a cultural kind of reference for this area, there’s really not much around here like that. It would be great to have something that happens every year that brings people in from all over the country, it would be amazing. We’re playing with the Golden Boys, who are our good friends from Texas, and Harlem, who are our friends from Texas, and there’s a shitload of great bands that I want to see for the whole festival.