In 1978, while attending Mercer University in Macon, GA, Mike Connell met fellow students Clark Eason and Wade Stooksberry. According to Stooksberry in an interview on March 6, 2008, in 1979, Eason, Connell, Stooksberry and Sammy Deet (drums) started playing publicly in a band called Clark Eason and the Greaseguns at nightclubs and parties in Macon. Connell and Eason were on guitar, while Eason and Stooksberry shared vocals. They wore suits and skinny ties tucked into their dress shirts, as was the style at the time. They mostly performed 50's music and Beatles songs. After a year, Mike Connell transferred to college in North Carolina. Tripp Crumbley took over Connell's guitar roll in the band. Connell then occasionally made guest appearances with Clark Eason and the Greaseguns while visiting his father in Macon. Clark Eason and the Greaseguns disbanded in 1980. The Connells and Stooksberry continue to keep in touch to this date.
Connell and other members of the Connells band were also influenced by then-contemporary British bands such as The Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen. Another, more idiosyncratic, influence was the British progressive rock band Jethro Tull, whose song “Living in the Past” was covered by the Connells on 1995's New Boy EP. Like Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Connell and Huntley played Rickenbacker guitars for the first several years of the band’s career, creating a jangly, folk-rock sound reminiscent of The Byrds and other Southern U.S. and North Carolina bands of the era, such as the dB's and Let's Active.
Although the Connells were frequently dismissed as R.E.M. imitators due to the Athens, Georgia band’s overwhelming popularity relative to that of its contemporaries, there were significant differences between the two bands. First of all, the Connells' influences occurred at the same time that R.E.M.'s influences occurred. Connell and Huntley both played twelve-string Rickenbackers, as opposed to the six-string models favored by R.E.M.’s Buck; this gave the Connells an even janglier sound. Whereas Buck’s guitar style featured heavy use of arpeggios, Connell’s style was primarily based on strummed open chords in the keys of G and D, with a strong Celtic feel to songs such as “Scotty’s Lament” and “’74 – ’75.” Likewise, Connell’s lyrics were clearer and more direct than the often-unintelligible, stream-of-consciousness lyrics of Michael Stipe. The melancholy lyrics of early songs such as “Darker Days” drew comparisons to The Smiths, and an early feature on the band in the local Spectator music weekly dubbed them “Raleigh’s local depressants.”
After touring heavily behind Darker Days, the Connells re-entered the studio in 1986 with Dixon and R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter to record their second album, Boylan Heights. The decision to work with Easter continued to perpetuate the comparisons to R.E.M. According to some music critics, Mike Connell’s songwriting reached a peak on Boylan Heights, as the songs from this album would provide most of the foundation for the band’s live show for the remainder of their career. The opener, “Scotty’s Lament,” featured the most explicit Celtic influence in the band’s songbook, while the chorus lyric “I delight in my despair” satirized the band’s early image as doom and gloom merchants a la Morrissey and The Smiths. Although notable is that the lyrics for that song originally included the sardonic twist, "I delight in your despair."
“Choose a Side” incorporated synths (played by Huntley), and “Over There” featuring an ironic military trumpet counter-melody. Closing ballad “I Suppose” was a haunting tribute to the Raleigh inner-city neighborhood of Boylan Heights. Although the band shopped Boylan Heights to various labels, the major record companies, including Columbia Records, which expressed some mild interest, passed on it; the record was ultimately released in 1987 on mid-major TVT Records, which had made its name releasing a series of "Tee Vee Toons" television theme song compilation CDs. TVT would prove to be no commercial match for R.E.M.'s own mid-major label, I.R.S. Records, and over the next decade, The Connells would engage in a series of disputes with the label, on at least one occasion suing, unsuccessfully, to break their recording contract.
Despite the problems with TVT, Boylan Heights was a substantial college radio hit, and The Connells continued to tour relentlessly. During this period, both Connell and Huntley began to move away from their twelve-string Rickenbackers towards six-string Fender and Gibson guitars, leading to a heavier, less folky sound, although elements of the band's patented jangle were still audible on "Hey Wow," the lead single from Fun and Games, the 1989 follow-up album. Other songs, such as "Something to Say" and "Upside Down" were heavier, featuring power chords, as well as the most self-lacerating lyrics to date from Connell. Fun and Games also saw Huntley's role as a songwriter grow; after contributing one song each to Darker Days and Boylan Heights, Huntley wrote or co-wrote four tracks on Fun and Games, with the anthemic "Sal" quickly becoming one of the most popular songs in the band's live set. CD pressings of Fun and Games included a bonus track, "Fine Tuning."
Fun and Games was quickly followed in 1990 by One Simple Word, which was recorded in Wales with U.K. producer Hugh Jones. Jones had previously produced various British bands that the band had admired. Despite the high quality of the songs and improved playing by the band, notably on the Connell-MacMillan collaboration "Stone Cold Yesterday" and Connell's own "Get a Gun" which were both college radio hits with videos, the band struggled to reach a higher level of success. This album saw the band stretch their sound and playing further, as on Connell's debut as a lead vocalist, the plaintive ballad "Waiting My Turn," which featured a cor anglais, but also saw the reworking of two songs that dated back to the Darker Days era, "Too Gone" and "Take a Bow." Some critics have contended that the album/tour/album cycle was by this point outstripping Connell's ability to compose new material. This is why the increasing contribution of other songwriters in the band becomes important as lead vocalist, Doug MacMillan also contributed a song, "Another Souvenir," that he had written on his own.
The band recorded music videos for "Maybe" (a parody of the Burt Reynolds film Deliverance) and "Fifth Fret" (which was a parody of Psycho). The band was invited to perform for a second time on Late Night with Conan O'Brien where they performed "Maybe."
In 1998, the band released Still Life, which marked their final album for TVT. Still Life marked a departure from the harder sound of Weird Food and Devastation with an overall softer feeling. Mike Connell's contributions to the record included a long-standing song with the band that was originally known as "Brown," which was re-titled "Dull, Brown, and Grey." The album included contributions from Peele Wimberley "It's Gonna Take a Lie" and "Bruise."
The band released Old School Dropouts on the revived Black Park Records label in 2000. The band recorded the record themselves and promoted it sparingly in the American South. The song "Washington" received some airplay on alternative radio.
In 1996, George Huntley released a solo record of additional material that he had written over the years he spent with The Connells, titled Brain Junk. The record was released on The Connells' record label, TVT. Brain Junk featured Huntley's honesty and the trademark jangly guitar work which was evident on early Connells recordings. This effort was quite different from Huntley's contributions to The Connells (such as "Sal," "Doin' You," and "Motel"), and featured a more stripped-down sound as well as some songs which sound as if they could have come a Connells release. On this record, Huntley explored various styles that did not fit in with The Connells' sound. "Ever Want Me To" was the first single from the record and TVT Records had a video made of the song starring Huntley. The second single, "Catch Fire," was used in the Sandra Bullock/ Dennis Leary film, Two If By Sea.
Doug MacMillan's side project is the band Mommy, which records lyrics and music written by MacMillan and his children. The most notable song is "Dumptruck," which has been played live by The Connells. Prior to that MacMillan was involved in a project called The Clifmen. This group, comprised of musicians from various Raleigh independent bands, made one record.
Mike graduated from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with a bachelors degree in 1981, and received his Juris Doctor (Law) degree also from UNC Chapel Hill in 1985. He was admitted to the North Carolina Bar in 1986. Mike currently practices law at a firm in North Carolina, specializing in workers' compensation law.
David Connell is a successful painter in the Raleigh art community. His works have been on display in galleries in Raleigh, New York, and elsewhere.
Steve Potak has played keyboards with numerous Raleigh bands, most notably the band Stream.
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