Readers of this site know that I was thrilled to review the first-ever 'best of' from The Connells recently and now I'm equally excited to present my brief interview with Connells front-man Doug MacMillan. I won't bore you (again) with my story of how much the music of this band from North Carolina meant to me during my years working in record stores in College Park, Maryland, 1987 to 1990. That story is told in the introduction to my review of the compilation. For now, let's just hear from the man himself, the guy whose distinctive voice made the tunes of The Connells so memorable and so special to so many of us.
Glenn, kenixfan: How did the Connells come together?
Doug MacMillan, The Connells: The short version... Mike Connell, David Connell, and my childhood and (still) friend John Schultz (drummer at the time), were rehearsing, [just] working up songs Spring of 1984 -- they didn't have a singer -- a few people had tried out, but no one seemed to work. I was in school two hours away in Greenville, and for some reason I thought I could sing, and auditioned -- The first time not very successfully, the second time, after learning the songs, went much better. We spent that summer practicing...things did not work out with John as drummer. Peele joined as a drummer in September 1984. George joined A few months after that.
Glenn, kenixfan: When you look back now, do you feel like you achieved what you set out to do as a band? Opportunities missed or expectations exceeded?
Doug MacMillan, The Connells: Yes and no. We were very fortunate in that things started to move fairly quickly for us in the beginning -- especially when we begin to play out on a fairly regular basis. We were fortunate to have friends in other bands (UV Prom, The Bad Checks -- esp. Cliff Mann [of] Johnny Quest, for whom Peele was drumming, etc.) [since] they would let us open. Plus we took advantage of the opportunities afforded us and other local groups to play fraternity/sorority parties and other campus and university-sponsored events. Fortunately, they let us perform our original material (keep in mind that we were performing maybe 10 or 12 songs total, but contracted to play three sets).
I was still taking a few classes at NCSU and coaching swimming at the YMCA. Mike and our manager at the time -- Tom Carter -- were both in their final year of UNC Law school... I think David and George were finished -- were just about finished burning [through] their degrees (the band also doubled as a painting crew -- thank goodness for the music because the painting did not pan out). It was around this time that I thought to myself it would be really cool if playing in this band could be my job at least for a little while. That aspiration came to be and for much longer than I ever would have expected. We are still considered to be a group that should have been a lot bigger. I don't know - there are just so many other acts, songwriters, etc. whose lack of widespread notoriety and radio play is downright criminal.
Glenn, kenixfan: Did you feel part of any scene? Who did you see as your peers?
Doug MacMillan, The Connells: Yes. [Those] bands listed above [plus] Right Profile, Dillon Fence, 8 or 9 Feet, Satellite Boyfriend, etc.
Glenn, kenixfan: Why didn't you sign to a major label like Sire, for example?
Doug MacMillan, The Connells: The only real interest came from TVT. We definitely had our problems with them but I know of a lot of bands that got signed to a major label and then lost in the shuffle after their A&R person left for greener pastures, or was sacked.
Glenn, kenixfan: You came of age in a pre-grunge era, how did the success of Nirvana make things different for "alternative" bands like the Connells?
Doug MacMillan, The Connells: I feel like there has always been a place -- a slot or niche -- for bands like us who write and perform pop -- power-pop -- melody-driven songs. Personally, I never felt threatened or overwhelmed by grunge. Cobain had an uncanny melodic sense, and he was a wildly gifted lyricist. I hear Lennon on Nevermind and In Utero. But he wasn't really lifting [from Lennon]; he just seemed to have the same sensibilities. To me, part of that is a pop sensibility. However, in the same way that a band like Big Star's first record came out during a time when music was heavier, I could see how a movement like grunge could overshadow more poppy, melody-driven music of the same era.
Glenn, kenixfan: So, now the band is back together now and planning to tour?
Doug MacMillan, The Connells: Uhhhh... Yes -- sort of. Not really "touring", per se.
Glenn, kenixfan: How did you decide on the track selection on the new "best of" collection?
Doug MacMillan, The Connells: As I understand it, the criteria was songs that were released as singles.
Glenn, kenixfan: When you look back at those years touring as a college rock act, what are the memorable gigs, and favorite touring acts?
Doug MacMillan, The Connells: "College Rock" is one of the terms that seemed to stick when they (Radio? Record labels?) came up with ideas to identify Alternative or Modern Rock. When we started it was called "New Music". And there was a brief period of time when it was referred to as "Progressive".
We played Monday/Tuesday-night progressive/new music nights in the early days... One night in Little Rock, Arkansas, we were playing on a Tuesday new music night and all the sudden a guy jumps on the stage with a harmonica holster like an ammo belt, yelling out "What key? What key?" It turns out that Monday night is open mic night and he was confused.
We toured with 10,000 Maniacs, The Replacements.
Glenn, kenixfan: Was your late success in Europe a strange experience? How did it feel to have such a big hit there even if in the States you guys were still thought of as a college rock act?
Doug MacMillan, The Connells: That entire experience was bizarre... and a real shot in the arm. However, we lost a good deal of traction in the U.S. because we did spend a lot of time touring in Europe. Around that time, I was visiting friends in Charleston, and I saw an old friend and he said "I heard you guys broke up" [and] I think my response was, "Actually things are going better than ever, just not around here."
Glenn, kenixfan: What's next for the band?
Doug MacMillan, The Connells: Play some shows to promote the release of this "best of" -- A full-blown tour would be hard to pull off.
We started recording some new material in July at Mitch Easter's Fidelitorium studio -- hope to get back to you on that soon.
Many, many thanks to Doug MacMillan of The Connells for taking the time to answer these questions. Also thanks to Cary Baker at Conqueroo for arranging the whole thing.
Stone Cold Yesterday: Best Of The Connells is out now via Concord Music Group.
Follow The Connells via the band's official Facebook page.