This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
20 years between albums
Cris Cohen: Of course, I want to talk about “Steadman's Wake.” Everyone is making a big deal out of the fact that it has been 20 years since your last album. What I'm wondering, though, is what were the advantages of that? What was the benefit that you found from having that much of a gap between recordings?
Doug MacMillan: It's a good question because there were some benefits. We recorded a record in the year 2000 called “Old School Dropouts.” (I almost forgot the name of it.) And it's a good collection of songs. Basically, it was a collection of well-made demos, because we were getting ready to make what would have been our last record for our record label at the time, TVT Records.
And they dropped us, [laughter], which was fine for a number of reasons. We did not have the best relationship with them. That happens. You know. I mean, you've talked to bands. Every band has those problems. As a friend of mine in advertising told me once, "It's the crucial juncture where art meets commerce". [laughter]
It's like a really bad intersection, you know. [laughter] A lot of wrecks.
So anyways... we basically made a record from four-track cassette demos.
We hadn't made the (previous) records. We had no idea what we were doing as far as selling something on the internet in the year 2000. We could have used you. [laughter]
Back then, we just couldn't really get it out there. So things kind of slowed down. We didn't break up. We didn't stop playing. We just didn't play nearly as often. And plus, it seemed kind of clear that the demand wasn't there for us to do a month-long tour. Just the way it goes.
So I guess it was maybe five or six years ago, and I was talking to David Connell. He was talking about some of the songs on that previous record. He was like, "These are good songs and they need a proper treatment, proper recording." So that's what got that started.
Then Mike Connell had some songs he'd been working on. So we had enough material. We recorded the album.
So that was one of the benefits (of the 20-year gap).
The first thing we did is we went to Mitch Easter's studio in Kernersville called Fidelitorium. It was good to go there for a number of reasons, but mainly because we recorded our second album with him in 1987, at the Drive-In (Studio). It was his parent's garage that was converted into a studio, where all those famous REM Records were made.
So, all these years later, we went to his state-of-the-art, acoustically-engineered studio. So that was kind of cool, to go right back into it with him.
Those were mostly basic tracks. Then we went to a studio in Durham called Overdub Lane.
Mike said, "You know, we don't have a record label. We don't have anybody breathing down our necks. We don't have a deadline. We don't have a specific timeframe.”
Because we had a lot of records where several songs just didn't come out anywhere near what we wanted (for) them, I think we wanted to make sure this time that we all were good with everything that we recorded and mixed and mastered. So that's what we did. And everybody seems to be happy with it. So that was really kind of important. 'Cause you don't always get to do that. There's always some kind of rush. That's that business / commerce conversation.
Changing as a singer
Cris Cohen: And then, how have you changed as a singer?
Doug MacMillan: Oh, that's another good question. I think we messed around with the keys of the songs, so that I might not necessarily be singing in as high of a register as I did on a song like “'74-'75,” which is almost falsetto. So we played around with that.
If I was a guitar player, I could sit at home and play guitar and practice. I know that a lot of real singers... I'll give you an example. Where Mike and David grew up, their across-the-street neighbor was Willis Casey, the NC State University Athletic Director.
This is leading some place. I promise…
His wife, Mrs. Casey, was a former... I don't know if she was an opera singer, but she would sing in New York on Broadway. She was a singer singer. And every morning, they'd hear her out on the back stoop doing her scales.
I'm not going to be doing any scales...
It's not my thing. So I was trying to do other things with people musically, where I'd sing back up or sing lead. That was good for me to do because I was singing a high harmony over... Are you familiar with the band The Veldt?
Cris Cohen: No.
Doug MacMillan: They are a really good band. Just two twin brothers. One of the twins, is the lead singer. He's got a great voice. So I found myself singing a high harmony over him, which was like, “What am I doing? I can't... This is too much.” So that helped me to do different things and to try to push it.
And even though I hadn't done a lot of live singing in the last 20 years, I feel more confident. I don't know, maybe it's just being older.
People are telling me, when we play live, I sound like I did all those years ago. And that's all I can expect.
Cris Cohen: Yeah, well, even with stuff like “'74-'75,” you never went ultra-high.
Doug MacMillan: Right, right.
Cris Cohen: You don't have those Elton John “Tiny Dancer” moments where he's...
Doug MacMillan: Oh my god no.
Cris Cohen: But at the same time, just hearing you talk right now, you've got a much deeper, more resonant bottom and bass thing going on too...
Doug Macmillan: Yeah. I'm a baritone. That's what a woman told me. I had surgery -- again, everything is 20 some odd years ago of course -- got through that and went to band practice. I went up to the microphone and nothing came out. The collection of muscles and the diaphragm and stuff that had been cut through had not healed properly. This was before they had the laparoscopic stuff...
So I went to Meredith College and worked with this woman who was amazing. She had performed on Broadway, was a great singer. She said, "You're a baritone".
I was like, “I figured I was, but they got me on these songs...”
Another perfect example is Tony Bennett. He's a tenor, naturally, but when he was starting out, he was a singing waiter… imagine that gig. [laughter]
Cris Cohen: No...
Doug MacMillan: That's multi-tasking. I can't do that. [laughter]
Because of the popularity of Bing Crosby, (Bennett) was always singing in a lower register, which wasn't natural for him. But that probably made him a better singer, because he's got such a crazy range.
Singer but not the songwriter
Cris Cohen: And then, being the lead singer, but a lot of the songs have been written by other members of the band, have there ever been points when, let's say, Mike or whoever gives you a song and then you have conflicting ideas over how something should be phrased or how it should be sung...
Doug MacMillan: A good question because, yes, [laughter] that's going to come up. But not that often because he'd have the vocal melody pretty much set. It seems like he usually writes the chord progression. It comes with a vocal melody and then he writes the lyrics to fit the melody.
He'd send me a cassette of him singing. Before I was even in the band and I was sort of trying to get in the band, I was like, "Why isn't he singing? He can sing." [laughter]
But he didn't want to sing. He just wants to play guitar. I can dig that.
I went through a little period (probably a longer period than I'd like to admit) of like, “Get out of here! I know the song.”
But then I wrote a few songs and recorded some. And then I understood the process from the point of view of a songwriter. You have it in your head. And a lot of times, for whatever reason, whatever's in your head, doesn't translate to the tape. And that can be frustrating. So, after I went through that process of learning how to do that and seeing what happens... I'm even more cooperative is what I'm trying to say.
He probably remembers some situations that I might have blocked out. But that's a good question.
But sometimes there's nothing wrong with tension. Tension, I think, can help a performance or the creative process. People wouldn't think so, but there's something to it. You know what I mean? I wouldn't recommend it daily… [laughter]
A Carolina band
Cris Cohen: And then, I've only lived in the Triangle area (Raleigh – Durham – Chapel Hill) for like 14 years.
Doug MacMillan: That's pretty long.
Cris Cohen: Yeah, yeah. But I didn't grow up here. I grew up in California. There's been an infinite number of bands from Los Angeles and San Francisco and New York, etc. You don't often hear about bands from this area, with notable exceptions. Did living, growing up, forming a band in this area… how did it influence you guys?
Doug MacMillan: That's a great question. Well, first of all, in the early 80s, Mike and David and George Huntley and our former manager all went to UNC (University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill). Meanwhile, I was at East Carolina University. I was getting into all this new music that was coming out and started hearing about these bands from North Carolina, like The dB's.
Cris Cohen: Yeah, I interviewed...
Doug MacMillan: Peter Holsapple?
Cris Cohen: Yeah, I interviewed him in 2019.
Doug MacMillan: Oh, he's great. Those guys are great. They're amazing. Peter has opened for us a couple of times in the last five or six months. He's great, he's incredibly talented, and he's one of the funniest guys I know.
Cris Cohen: To explore the history of "The Connells" is to constantly hear the term “college radio” mentioned again and again and again.
And that was a thing growing up in LA, it's was like, “Really? There are colleges with radio stations?” Because even when I got to college in Los Angeles, we had a radio station, but if you were more than five feet away, you weren't going to get it...
Doug MacMillan: Like it had a four-foot radio tower.
Cris Cohen: Right, yeah, exactly. It might have just been cups connected with string at that point.
Doug MacMillan: That's not an unusual scenario for a college radio station. [laughter] Thank God for the internet on that end.
Cris Cohen: Yeah, I guess. In Los Angeles at the time there were over 80 radio stations -- professional stations -- on the dial.
Doug MacMillan: 80 commercial stations. That's crazy. Wow.
But I see what you're saying. I think I used to get a little grumpy about the college radio tag. I was like, wait a second, if it wasn't for college radio stations, we couldn't have toured. There's no way.
I've told this story before, but we used to get a lot of crap for playing fraternity parties. Our friends were like, "What are you doing?"
I'm like, "Man, we do this party, we can pay for a week of gas."
And we played a show at Salem College in Winston-Salem. It was fun. We had a great time, and they gave us a cooler. It was part of our pay. [chuckle]
Cris Cohen: Nice.
Doug MacMillan: It had "With the Connells" written in magic markers. It was awesome. Maybe a few days later, we were on our way West somewhere and we started getting hungry. We had the cooler filled with cans of tuna and peanut butter...
Cris Cohen: Staples.
Doug MacMillan: Yeah, the basics. And there was an argument. (I stayed out of the argument. I just wanted to eat.) It was, “We're going to put relish in the tuna?! What?! You’re going to do what?!” Screaming. And I was like, what have I gotten myself into?
But that's the way it is. You're together all the time, eight hours sometimes in a van. So people are going to get freaky.
The unstable nature of radio stations
Doug MacMillan: Here, I'll tell you a quick little story. We went to New Mexico or Arizona. I forget. I just remember it was out in the desert. We did sound check, I got in a cab, and I went to the radio station to do an interview. They just changed their format to modern rock. I was sitting in the waiting area, and I could see behind this filing cabinet an REO Speedwagon poster. I was like, "Oh, they just changed their format.”
I saw that happen a lot. We booked a gig at this club somewhere in Colorado. By the time we got there, just two weeks later, the local radio station had changed their format to country.
What are you gonna do?
Cris Cohen: I know. Because I worked at a radio station in Santa Barbara and...
Doug MacMillan: Oh, you did?
Cris Cohen: Yeah.
Doug MacMillan: Cool. I like Santa Barbara. That's a nice town as I recall.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. Eventually the station was sold. But we had one week before the sale went through. They said, “Alright, as long as you don't mention the sale, you can play anything you want.”
Doug MacMillan: Oh, that must have been a blast.
Cris Cohen: We were bringing in stuff from home.
Doug MacMillan: You were bringing in records from home. That’s beautiful. [laughter]
Cris Cohen: And people were calling in, "You guys have never sounded better."
Doug MacMillan: Of course. [laughter] Isn't that the way it goes? I love that. Don't cuss and play whatever you want for a week.
Cris Cohen: Yeah.
Doug MacMillan: It's kind a bummer though, too, but I'm glad you got to do that. You had a week of freedom. That's nice.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. And just knowing, okay, it'll never get better than this, but at least I got a taste that some people never, ever, ever get a taste of.
Gaps of time
Doug MacMillan: On those first tours out west, you start realizing there are not as many cities around (as in the east). [laughter] There's a lot of open space. Don't have many dates booked. So we'd have to find stuff to do.
I remember we went to Santa Barbara and found a winery. Spent the morning walking around drinking free wine. You’ve got to be creative with these things. [laughter]
Because we had a couple days before we had to go to San Francisco. There's all of these gaps of time. And that's kind of fun. But you want to be a little busier than that.
Otherwise you're bleeding money.