This Saturday, The Connells
celebrate 30 years of music. For a band to last that long is, in a word, “bizarre,” says singer Doug McMillan. Started in 1984 by two brothers, Mike and David Connell, the band found early success with their jangle-pop, college rock sound. They released material on Elvis Costello’s Demon Records, recorded with Mitch Easter and nabbed a Top 20 hit in the UK with the 1995 single, "’74-75." Comparisons to REM were abundant at points and so were tour dates.
In recent years, the band has slowed down. Family life and steady jobs have taken precedence on how they spend their time, but the music’s been a constant even so.
spoke with McMillan about the years past, the accomplishments along the way and the next steps for such a storied band.
INDY: How does it feel to have played together for 30 years?
: It’s really hard to believe. I hope we accomplished something in that time [laughs]. It’s cool that it’s not just one guy, one band member and the rest are new. Mike and David and I were there from the beginning. It’s pretty unusual for a band to stay together, period. I was really thinking about it one day and I thought, “Good God, we’ve been together a long time.” Saturday’s going to be interesting. People should be coming out of the woodwork.
Looking back to the beginning, what was the motivation to start the band?
Before I even knew Mike, he was writing songs. I think at that time he was in law school and he actually either owned a bass or had a bass and he grabbed his brother and said, “Here. Play this.” I remember Mike saying, “The main reason I’m trying to do this is that it’s a great distraction," and it really was. Their mom was pretty ill at the time, this was 1984, and the music provided a great way to get away from the bad stuff. So yeah, we just kept doing it.
Photo courtesy Raleigh Little Theatre
The Connells, 30 years and counting.
I was at ECU. I wasn’t in Chapel Hill at the time. I was in Greenville. I had heard the songs on a cassette. I thought they were good songs and I’d never sang or anything before, but I figured I would go see what was going on in person. It’s a great story and it’s a true story that I drove from Greenville to Chapel Hill in the pouring rain and I didn’t have windshield wipers. They didn’t work. I was using a towel to wipe the windshield. I was so determined to get there to join the band. Pretty dangerous thing to do, actually, but that’s what I remember. Mike had these songs and before long we had enough that we thought we could play in front of other people.
What do you think it was that kept you together? As you said, 30 years is a long time and bands don’t often stick together more than five.
There was definitely a glass ceiling thing going on after four or five records. We would tour and we always thought these songs are pretty cool and of course the people at our record label would say, “This is the one that’s going to take you to the next level.” At that point, we were like an indie college band and everybody was talking about the next level. It didn’t really happen. We kept making records and it wasn’t awful, but we’d get a little frustrated.
We were making the record we made after Ring and I think we were all kind of thinking, “Yeah, this is probably going to be it. We’re going to have fun doing it. If anybody has any songs, this is the last one.” All of a sudden, we started getting these faxes from our manager Ed that were showing chart positions for radio in Germany for a song called “’74-’75.” That had a lot to do with why we’re still playing. That was a pretty definitive moment, like a shot in the arm. It was that song taking off in Europe, for sure.
I found out later that there were two guys from a record label in Stuttgart who had gone to New York during the CMJ convention. They had heard “’74-‘75” and a few other songs on Ring and they went to the head of our record label and said, “We want to license this. We think this will do well.” When you peel away the layers, you realize, these guys really know what they’re doing. They actually heard the song and thought this could do well. In a way, it’s nice to know there are people out there that know how to do this stuff. The guy from our illustrious record label said, “Yeah, you can do that, but it won’t do well at all in any other place in Europe until it takes off in England,” and of course that’s where it did the worst.
So yeah, it is a question: why are we still together? It’s one of those things where Mike keeps writing songs and I’ve got to do something besides go to work. [laughs]
Well, looking back—and that album’s success may be it—but what accomplishment are you proudest of?
Maybe just being able to do it without actually killing each other. [laughs] I shouldn’t say that. Probably thinking about it, you know people set little goals? I do, at least. It’s a subconscious thing like, “I just want to make it out as far west as Kansas.” I remember thinking that would be cool if I could play as far west as Kansas. George Huntley and I used to laugh about that. After we achieved the Kansas goal, I remember thinking, “Man, if this band or playing music could be my job for a little while—whatever that means, a few months or a year—that would be great.” That happened too.
[I’m proud to have made] that many records and be able to tour and be able to go overseas and not blow it and do all kinds of interesting performances—we did typical tour dates in clubs and then we’d be at a festival show and then we’d go to a TV station and play for a children’s show.
What’s next? Will the band keep playing? What’s the plan?
As long as there’s somebody who’s out there and wants us to play in their town or club and people come, I’m willing to go. So yeah, we’re going to keep playing. There are people who write songs and then there are actual songwriters who produce a lot of songs and Mike’s one of those guys. I can’t imagine him not writing songs. We’re going to keep going.
The Connells play Saturday, Sept. 27, at Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue Street, Raleigh, with The Backsliders and Chris Hendricks. $15–$20. Gates open at 3:30 p.m., show starts at 4 p.m.