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The Connells

The Connells are an American band from Raleigh, North Carolina. They play a guitar-oriented, melodic, power pop style of rock music with introspective lyrics that reflect the American South. Despite many lineup changes, the band is still together.

Origins

Guitarist Mike Connell formed the band in 1984 along with his brother David Connell on bass, Doug MacMillan on vocals, and future filmmaker John Schultz on drums. This initial four-person line-up was quickly supplemented by the addition of George Huntley on second guitar, keyboards, and vocals. Around the same time, former Johnny Quest drummer Peele Wimberley replaced Schultz, finalizing the "classic" line-up of the band.

Influences/Sound

From the beginning of the group, Mike Connell wrote both the music and the lyrics of the majority of the band’s songs, although he was not the band's primary lead singer. Connell’s influences included the 1960s guitar pop of his childhood, including The Byrds and The Beatles; in an early interview, he stated that the first song he wrote as a teenager was titled “Psychedelic Butterfly."

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.”

History

An early version of “Darker Days,” recorded by the band’s initial four-piece lineup, appeared on the North Carolina indie compilation More Mondo in 1984. A re-recorded version of “Darker Days” provided the title track to the band’s debut album, which was produced by fellow North Carolinian Don Dixon and released in 1985 on Elvis Costello's Demon Records in the UK and the band’s own Black Park Records label in the U.S., with slightly different tracklistings for each country. In addition to the title track, one of the most notable songs on the album was “Hats Off,” an attack on then-President Ronald Reagan. After the release of the Darker Days album, the band re-recorded a more aggressive take of “Hats Off” for a 12” single, which was the second Connells release on Black Park, and the last until 2000. During this period, videos for the songs “Seven” and “Hats Off” were aired on MTV’s 120 Minutes program.

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.

European success

After a three-year recording hiatus, which included more legal jousting with TVT Records, a rejuvenated Connells released Ring in 1993. The lead single, "Slackjawed," was another college radio hit in America, but the follow-up single, "'74-'75," another Celtic-influenced ballad, took off in Europe, and became a top-20 hit across the continent, leading to the band touring extensively in Europe and opening stadium shows for the likes of Def Leppard. "'74-'75" won numerous European music awards in the mid-1990s, leading to greater financial and radio success than the band had known to that point. "'74-'75" also appeared in the 1995 film Heavy. However, while European music fans made Ring a platinum record outside the United States, such high level success in America remained elusive. Ring also marked the debut of David Connell stepping up as a songwriter by co-writing a song for the record, "Hey You." MacMillan also wrote additional songs for the record. The band also played "Slackjawed" on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

Weird times

1996's Weird Food and Devastation failed to build on the momentum established by its predecessor. Weird Food was a much starker record than the more melodic Ring. Weird Food and Devastation was produced by the band's longtime soundman, Tim Harper, later known for his production work for Whiskeytown. The title of the album reportedly alluded to the band's impressions of Europe during their seemingly endless tours there in support of "'74-'75," and Connell's songwriting took a quirkier turn, with the lyrics to "Adjective Song" beginning: "Bigger. Better. Smarter. Cleaner. Nicer. Younger. These are the words we use to describe." "Friendly Time" abandoned coded attacks on Ronald Reagan for coded attacks on rock critics such as Robert Christgau and J.D. Considine. Lead single "Maybe" showed that Connell hadn't lost his ability to compose anthemic pop songs, but his remaining songs on the album were often odd and dissonant compared to his previous work, and he contributed only six out of the fourteen songs on the album.

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.

Lineup changes

Since then, Peele Wimberley and George Huntley have left the band. Wimberley briefly played with another band called Parklife, and then moved to Los Angeles to pursue interests in Hollywood and in electronic music. He is currently a member of the Los Angeles band, The Lamps. David, who lost his first wife to cancer, subsequently remarried and has a side interest in painting and art shows, and brother Mike is practicing law in Raleigh. Huntley is now selling real estate and working part time at the University of North Carolina music department. Peele Wimberley was replaced on drums by Steve Ritter; after several years Ritter was soon replaced by Chris Stevenson on drums, and Mike Ayers took George's place on lead guitar. The new lineup recorded the album Old School Dropouts.

Current activities

The band is also in negotiations for a re-release of out-of-print albums, as well as a release of the band's first official compilation, which will likely come from Rykodisc or Rhino Records. Due to family and career commitments, the band currently plays only a handful of shows each year, normally in the southern part of the United States, usually at benefit concerts and music festivals.

Discography

  • Hats Off EP (1985)
  • Darker Days (1986)
  • Boylan Heights (1987)
  • Fun & Games (1989)
  • One Simple Word (1990)
  • Ring (1993)
  • New Boy EP (1994)
  • Weird Food & Devastation (1996)
  • Still Life (1998)
  • Old School Dropouts (2000)
  • Another Souvenir: The Connells Collection (Title tentative; release date TBA)

Music Videos

  • Hats Off (1986; directed by Grady Cooper and Dimitri Gionis)
  • Seven (1986; dir. by Frank Thompson)
  • Scotty's Lament (1988; dir. by John Schultz)
  • Over There (1988; dir. by Peyton Reed)
  • Something to Say (1989)
  • Stone Cold Yesterday (1990; dir. by Mark Pellington)
  • Get A Gun (1990; dir. by John Schultz)
  • Slackjawed (1993; dir. by Peyton Reed)
  • '74 - '75 (1993; dir. by Mark Pellington)
  • New Boy (1993; dir. by Peyton Reed)
  • Maybe (1996; dir. by Grady Cooper and Norwood Cheek)
  • Fifth Fret (1996; dir. by Phil Harder and Rick Fuller)

Side and solo projects

During the early days of the band, MacMillan often played with other area bands. He is also the voice of Captain Stickman in the Captain Stickman vs. Color Black videos.

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.

Trivia

  • First band to headline a concert at Raleigh's Walnut Creek amphitheater.
  • John Schultz's first film, Bandwagon (film), was based on experiences in the early days of The Connells' career. Doug MacMillan has acted in almost every John Schultz film. He played one of the main characters in Bandwagon where he was the Zen-like band manager, Linus Tate. MacMillan has also performed in several other Schultz films: he had the role of the science teacher in Drive Me Crazy, briefly played a valet in Like Mike, and had a role as a Health Inspector in the recent remake of The Honeymooners.
  • Recorded a cover of Cypress Hill's "Insane In the Brain" for When Pigs Fly: Songs You Never Thought You'd Hear.

External links

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