“It was hard at first,” Dan McGee says of trading life in the Northeast for a new one in North Carolina. “I grew up near a big city and near the ocean, and I took that sort of thing for granted. All of a sudden, I was in the South, in a small town, and there was nowhere to go.”
McGeee spent most of his first 30 years in the twin antitheses of Southern living – New York and New Jersey – but in 2007, he found himself a resident of Carrboro, a sleepy enclave nestled beside Triangle cornerstone Chapel Hill. His wife was in grad school at UNC, and he was making a run at Spider Bags, the project he started with bassist Greg Levy and three Jersey friends who had settled in the Tar Heel State. Spider Bags had followed in the dissolution of McGee’s DC Snipers, and the music it was making sounded little like its predecessor’s parochial three-chord punk. It was all-inclusive rock ‘n’ roll, fucked up and fuzzy, with a country twang and a bleeding heart.
After seven years, four Spider Bags records, and two children, McGee sounds at peace with his surroundings. “I’ve realized this is a great place to live,” he told me a few weeks ago, killing time before a bartending shift. “I have a good group of friends here. And things are easy, you know? I can walk down to the co-op grocery store, and see music on Sunday, and have a picnic with my family, and walk home. In New York, that would cost, like, 120 bucks.”
Much of Spider Bags story as of late has been one of settling down. The bands latest record, Frozen Letter, is its second since as a trio with Steve Olivia on bass and Rock Forbes on drums, a line-up that solidified after years of flux and rotation. It’s also Spider Bags first for locally based indie heavy Merge Records. And while Levy contributed guitar to a handful of tracks and Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan shows up on the penultimate “We Got Problems”, the recording sessions were hardly the sprawling and loose affair behind 2012’s Shake My Head.
“It starts with a kiss,” McGee tells Forbes at the start of “Chemtrails”, and while the Frozen Letter’s genesis was more complicated than that, the singer’s relationship with his wife, Cordon, did play a crucial part in bringing the band to this point.
Frozen Letter starts with “Back With You Again in the World” – with that ringing distortion kicking into probably the record’s catchiest melody.
When we were recording the record last July, I was finishing up another record with singer Reese McHenry. She’s amazing. That record is all Spider Bags with her singing, and it was almost done when my wife came to the studio. She was all smiling, and I realized it right away: I was like, “You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” She was like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “Shit, this might be the only chance I get to finish the Spider Bags record, too.”
We ended up sleeping in the studio for a couple of days, and “Back With You Again in the World” was a song that the guys just learned on the spot, and we recorded. I wrote it after a friend’s wedding. I liked the idea of it. It’s got real simple Buddy Holly lyrics – classic rock ‘n’ roll.
I wanted to start the record and end the record with that feedback. It’s the same feedback. At the end of [closer]“Eyes of Death”, it’s the same feedback as in the beginning, but played backwards.
The whole record is like a snake eating its tail. If you listen at the end of “Eyes of Death”, we took one of Rock’s percussion rattles and put a bunch of delay on it, and it kind of sounds like a rattlesnake tail. If you put the CD on repeat, it gets swallowed up by the feedback at the beginning of “Back With You Again in the World.” Even the song titles -“Back With You Again in the World” and “Eyes of Death” – are a Mobius strip.
You hadn’t been planning to make the whole record until you were literally already in the studio.
Yeah, that was something that materialized. We realized, “We’ve got to get this done.”
We had been talking to Mac [McCaughan] at Merge a little bit before that, and I could sense that there was interest in what we were doing next. Going into the studio, I had thought, “Let me take my time with this. I’ll do four songs.” I had a bunch of songs that were in the mix and the feeling was: “Let’s just do the four songs that I’m pretty positive about, and we’ll see what other songs work with them.” And when Cordon said she was pregnant, I was like, “Well, I don’t have time to pussyfoot around. I need to get this record done.”
We did eleven songs, and eight of them ended up on the record. “Eyes of Death” was another one that the guys had never played before. That song was recorded entirely live – vocals and everything. Same with “Chemtrails” and “Coffin Car” – those are totally live. And those are all songs that the guys didn’t know before we recorded them. They’re the third or fourth take of those songs.
Do you usually perform songs and live with them for a bit before recording them?
It’s always been more productive to perform songs live and then record them. But, it’s interesting playing with these guys – we’ve played together so much as a trio, and that really gets you tight. I had never done vocals live before this record, but we can rehearse a song a couple of times, and it feels like we’re ready to go with it.
We didn’t play any of the songs on rest of the record live beforehand, but we were rehearing them. We got to the point with the material that we had been playing live where we don’t really need to rehearse it anymore. If we have a show, we can just play the songs at the show. We’re good with those songs. So, rehearsals are generally are about developing new material. The four songs that we had planned to record were rehearsed and ready to go. Those got done pretty quickly. Then it was just a matter of everyone being in the right mood and getting on the same page. We just banged it out. It was crazy. We all slept on the floor, on the drum riser.
When you come in with songs that the other guys don’t know, how clearly are they defined in your head?
I have a pretty good of what the dynamic of a song is. And playing with Steve and Rock as long as I have – five years now – I have pretty good idea of what Steve brings to the table. I have a good shape in my head of things that Rock will bite onto and ways that he plays. We’ll spend a lot of time not really learning the song, but going over the dynamic of it. The dynamic is a big thing. It’ not a matter of just knowing what the parts are and playing the beat, it’s about having the groove. We’ll work on that. Guys will pick up on the patterns of the song pretty quickly, and then we’ll just sit there and try to figures about where the grooves and pockets are, and make it sound like it’s alive.
Have you always had an interest in country music?
The first stuff that turned me on when I was a kid was folk blues and country blues. That was the stuff that I was really drawn to – folks song and Woody Guthrie. I always had an affinity for that. It’s continued to develop over time. When I first started playing music, I wanted to be as good as Charlie Patton or else it seemed like it’d be a waste of time. As I played more and more, I realized that Charlie Patton was a fucking genius and I’ll never be as good as him. But I realized that I play rock ‘n’ roll and I play country music, and that’s what I’m good at. I fell into those genres and really tried to explore them.
That’s what’s important about genre music: If you’re a country band or a rock band, you’re using that form. It’s like if you’re writing a crime novel: You’re using that genre, but you’re not telling the same story as everyone else. You’re telling a similar story, and what people enjoy is that at some point the detective is going to confront the murderer, but it’s all about getting there, and the things that you draw out people along the way. It’s the same thing with country music and rock ‘n’ roll.
When I first started writing songs, they were kind of twangy and I was living in New Jersey. I don’t know why that is.
Did you have friends around you that were into the same thing?
It’s cool – where I grew up in New Jersey, there are two really great radio stations, WKCR and WFMU. KCR is Columbia [University] radio, and they play jazz and folk blues. It’s real extensive. The DJs will all sit there and talk about the records that they’re playing for, like, 15 minutes, and give you the history. I learned a lot about jazz and folk blues from that station. WFMU is amazing – obviously it’s totally free form, and there all kind of great shows you could listen to. They’d have DJs that just played country music. For me and my friends, that was stuff that we really attached ourselves to. Everybody that I hung out with growing up was way into music. I have friends that still are – they work at record stores and have giant record collections of really varied stuff.
I wasn’t playing country music with anybody, though. I didn’t really start making songs with people until I was in my late 20s. I started with the DC Snipers, and that was just straight up punk music, which I’ve always had an affinity for as well.
How did you come to cover John Wesley Coleman’s “Summer of ‘79”?
He’s my buddy. I love John Wesley Coleman. I was going through records one day, and I always liked that song. I felt like it got lost in John’s real extensive catalog. The Golden Boys have a lot of records. But I always loved that song. I put it on one day for my daughter, and she was maybe two, and as soon I put it on, she started running around the room. It went right into her. And so, I started messing around with it with the guys. It was just fun to play. And it’s a great song. I love the lyrics – they’re so simple, but they make so much sense.
Wes covered one of my songs on a Golden Boys record. He recorded the song and the Golden Boys released it before I even had a chance to myself. I wanted to get him back. [Laughs]
Have you had a chance to play it for him?
Nah, not yet. We’ll have a chance to in November [at Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest].
But it’s pretty funny – he sings on it. When we were finishing up the overdubs, and he was in town, playing with his band. I was going into the studio the next day, and that was a song that we were finishing up, and he called me up while we were finishing it, like, “I left my jacket in your car.” So, he drove over to us, and we had the song, and I was like, “Why don’t you sing backing vocals.” He was in a rush, because they had to be in Louisville by, like, 7:00 and it was 4:00. [Laughs] So he just walked in, picked up the mic, and started going, “Woo-hooooo-hooo. Woo-hooooo-hoo.” He didn’t even put headphones on or anything. Wes Wolfe, who was doing the engineering, was like, “Don’t you want headphones?” And he was like, “Nah, nah. Just record it. Record it. Record it. Woo-hooooo-hooo.” It was like, “Ok, that’s all you need.” [Laughs] It works.
“Coffin Car” feels like the record’s centerpiece – not only given where it is in the tracklist, but the way it segues the record into more sprawling, psychedelic territory.
Yeah, man, for sure. It is. I wanted to make a record with an A-side and a B-side, and I wanted the B-side to be the mirror image of the A-side. I really thought about the balance of this record. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to producing a record that’s true to the idea that I had.
Did you ever Roger Corman’s “Buckets of Blood”? It’s about this guy who wants to be a beatnik sculptor. He’s hanging out with all of these beatniks, and it’s pretty funny, because the beatniks are all these pretentious people, but none of them are really artists – they’re just stroking each other’s egos. This guy wants to be a sculptor, but nobody likes him, so nobody likes his art. There’s this one scene where he’s in his studio, trying to make a face out of clay, and he’s like, “Be a nose! Be a nose! Be a nose!” And he starts punching the clay. He ends up murdering all of the beatniks and turning them into sculptures, and he becomes really famous, and it’s really funny.
With a lot of the records we’ve made, I’ve felt like that dude, staring at something and yelling at it to be a record, you know? With this one, I wanted it to have a real flow and movement to it. “Coffin Car” and “Walking Bubble” – that’s the fulcrum right there. That’s the axis.
“Walking Bubble” is such a release after “Coffin Car”. It’s so pristine at the start, almost like a Jim O’Rourke record. I thought it might be an instrumental the first time I heard it.
On the record, when you flip over side A, that nice, happy, good-natured guitar line starts the second side. But the second side is even darker than the first, you know? As you go through that song, you realize that the narrator is not having a good time in the modern world.
The idea was definitely to have the rock ‘n’ roll numbers lead up to “Coffin Car”, and then have some release with “Walking Bubble”, and then the two big psychedelic numbers finish the record out.
I listened to a lot of my favorite classic records after we recorded the eleven songs and I was trying to figure out which one were going to be on the record. I listened to a lot of my favorite records. I mean, it’s same tracklisting as Neil Young’s On the Beach: five on side A, three on side B. It’s funny – you forget that a lot of those classic records are seven or eight songs, maybe nine. When you think about those records, you think about the depth that they have. It just surprises me every time that I pick one up and I’m like, “Holy shit, there are only seven songs on this record. I feel like there were a million songs on it.”
Did revisiting those records push you to trim Frozen Letter to eight songs?
Well, for an LP, there are real physical limitations. Each side can’t be more than 18 minutes long, and because it’s spinning and moving faster as it gets closer to the center, you have to place the songs that you want the most fidelity on the outside. You really have to think about how that format works, and where songs can fit, and what songs will go where. It’s good to have more than you can use. There are a couple of songs that would have sounded great opening side B, but they couldn’t fit with the other ones.
You work in a genre and that helps create limitations, and you work with the format and that helps create limitations, and hopefully those limitations give you a structure to make something real.
I don’t know if I’ve ever spoken with a musician who explicitly singled out the limitations of vinyl as a determining factor in how a record turned out.
Well, it always was, especially when the bigger rock musicians like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were making records. That’s what they were thinking about. They were thinking about, “What songs can we fit on here that will sound the best?” Led Zeppelin 4 has four songs on each side. Dark Side of the Moon is the same thing. Dark Side of the Moon was 40 years-old last year, but you put it on, and it sounds fucking timeless, and that’s because they really had the concept of the format that they were working with. It can’t be a nose if you’re not using the right clay.
You mentioned that when you were recording Frozen Letter that you thought Merge might be interested in releasing it. After so many years of making music, was there a sense hanging in the back of your mind – given the label’s distribution and pedigree – that this was a big opportunity for you?
Oh yeah, of course. Without a doubt. Mac really liked Shake My Head, and asked us to play some benefit shows with him in support of Obama. Then he kinda started asking, you know, “When are you working on a record?” And then he invited us to tour with Superchunk when their record came out – we did an east coast trip with them, which was a fucking blast. You kind of got the sense that, “Holy shit, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I have a good network, but this is a next level. This is a bigger audience, and it would be great to be a part of that. Let’s just make a record that we’re really happy with, and if we do become part of that, that’s awesome. If we don’t, then we make the best record that we can make.” That was in my mind the whole time.
We recorded in July, and my second daughter was born in March. We did all of the basic tracks in those three days in July, and then we worked on the record for four months – overdubbing and mixing and doing the vocals and sequencing. That whole thing takes time after you do the basic tracks. I’ve done records – like Shake My Head – where we were there for a week and it was basically entirely finished in that week. But with two real days to do a record, you can’t get everything done. It’s impossible. So, we got all of the basic tracks done, and then we worked on it for a couple of months. We finished it in December. I was trying to finish it before Faye was born.
Every time you do a project, you set goals. You’re like, “Alright, I can get this to this point at this time, and hopefully that next thing will happen, and if it doesn’t, then there’s a possibility that this other thing will happen.” Especially now that I have a two-child family, I really have to project goals into the future, which , like, was never really a strong point in my life at all. [Laughs] This was really the first time where I met all of the goals that I set for myself. We got the record into Mac by December, and then in February, like, three weeks before my daughter, we got the news that they were going to be releasing the record.
And we were stoked. Being involved with a company that has the reach that they do is great, but I know all of those people. We all live in the same town. We have the same friends. We shop at the same grocery store. Working with a company of that magnitude, but also one that’s filled with real people that have integrity and you respect – that doesn’t happen. It seems, like, too good to be true. [Laughs] But it worked out.
Photographs courtesy of Jeremy M. Lange.