Control What You Can, Ignore the Bullshit:
Spider Bags’ Founder Holds Fast
“I just want to concentrate on doing things right in my immediate world,” says Spider Bags frontman Dan McGee. “I think sometimes that’s the best thing.”
To fairly contextualize that statement: We were talking politics a bit. But that just-doing-my-best mentality is one that, throughout the rest of our conversation, reveals itself as a core value for McGee, both personally and in music. It seems to provide some serenity throughout big changes in his life, and it’s no doubt helped his band continue to thrive despite massive lineup swaps that have left him as the only remaining founding member.
“The lineup has kind of shifted around me,” he says. “There’s been a lot of guys that have been in and out of the band. Now I’ve got Rock [Forbes on drums] and Steve [Oliva on bass]. We actually have a 13th member of the band now. Clarque Blomquist plays rhythm guitar. He’s been with us since August.”
Formed jointly with Gregg Levy, a high school pal from his native New Jersey, Spider Bags’ original setup also included two other longtime friends, both of whom were living in North Carolina. Beginning with inebriated musings like “Waking Up Drunk” and “The Bottle” on their 2007 debut, A Celebration of Hunger, McGee and company fermented a roughed-up rock ‘n’ roll sound fit for sloshed barflys in country-western watering holes. The players have changed a handful of times since, and they later began tossing in more tenacious stompers, particularly on their third outing, 2012’s Shake My Head. With help from newly enlisted drummer Rock Forbes and bassist Steve Oliva, they incorporated punk nods in the vein of McGee’s former three-chord-championing outfit DC Snipers.
But it’s on this fourth and latest full-length, Frozen Letter, that the experimentation is at its broadest. It’s their Merge Records debut, which could preclude risk-taking – but Spider Bags opted to try out an assortment of fresh nuances anyway. Spread among the eight tracks are touches of psych, wooly production, disorderly synth and some borderline jam-style bits of blues.
Cutting and pasting together so many disparate sonic devices could be considered a sign of McGee’s time-honed confidence. A more accurate, or at least supplemental way of seeing it: The mix is a result of a skilled musician who’s grown apathetic of potential naysayers. One such contrarian is a Pitchfork writer who suggested McGee’s once-exciting gusto has been diminished by settling down with his family, and that Frozen Letter was affected accordingly.
“Yeah, that’s bullshit. I think shit like that gets written by people that are younger. Like, oh, you’ve had kids, his life is over. And I felt that way before I got married, like, my life is gonna be over. But then you have kids and it just opens up all kinds of things. It’s like the beginning of a whole new life,” he says.
McGee, who’d also lived in New York, relocated to North Carolina eight years ago. He lives in Carrboro with wife and two young daughters.
“He talks about these assumptions about my life and I think that’s bullshit. I don’t think that’s real criticism. You know what I mean? I just think there’s lots of things you can say about me and my music, but when you talk about my art and my craft suffering because I have children, well, that’s just bullshit,” he snarls. “That’s something you don’t know and you can’t prove. And I think this is the best record I’ve ever made. I think I’m playing the best rock ‘n’ roll I ever have. So fuck that guy.”
Okay, so he’s not gone totally zen. But while he’s still susceptible to being irked by not-so-nice reviews, he’s impressively adept at rationalizing them. He chalks some of the writer’s comments up to taking lyrics too literally or not spending enough time with the album, and doesn’t rant for long before settling back into his self-assured stride.
Again, it really is that same MO – control what you can, don’t stress about the rest – that informs McGee’s mental state. Fatherhood might be a contributor to that but, considering the implications of using a slang term for heroin as the band name, it seems plausible that he embraced this philosophy years ago.
“I had a rough patch from about 13 to about 28,” he reveals. “And I’ve come out of it, and I was…proud of myself for making it to 28. A friend of mine was living in North Carolina and he was kind of feeling the same way, we were talking on the phone and he was like, ‘Oh, I have a name for a band. Spider Bags.’ And I just started cracking up. I thought it would be a good way to take those years and, instead of them being something that I’m ashamed about or is still controlling me, turning it into something that I control. I didn’t think that I would be in a band 12 years later called Spider Bags.”
McGee is sure enough in his triumph over that issue that he can even find a little humor in it from time to time, even if it’s a slightly dark kind.
“It’s funny, I was getting paid to play this festival in Louisville last month, and the guy gave me the form to fill out because he was paying me in cash, and it said “for Spider Bags,” like the amount I was getting paid for ‘spider bags.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m the only person in the world that knows what that’s for,’” he laughs. “It kind of took it back. It’s not a pretty thing to say. It kind of sticks in my craw a little bit now when I have to say Spider Bags when people ask the name of my band. But, you know, you can’t pick your name. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Bill. I told my parents I was going to change my name to Bill.”
McGee’s really too busy to dwell on any sort of past missteps or current negativity. He’s been juggling two jobs, parenting, Spider Bags and production work for other artists. And he balances it all quite well.
“My first daughter was born when I was finishing up Shake My Head, and it just sat and sat in my living room for like four or five months. It was torture to be close to a record and not be able to finish it. Usually with albums you set goals, you know, and you kind of say, ‘I’m going to get here right at this point, that’d be great, but there’s also this possibility…It was crazy, it all worked out. [on Frozen Letter]. That doesn’t usually happen,” he notes.
The group’s recording session with Wesley Wolfe, the engineer at the helm of their last platter who took the production reins this go ’round, was squeezed into an incredibly short period. And they weren’t only working on Spider Bags material, either. The trio was also trying to fit in tracks for a local blues vocalist, Reese McHenry.
“[The two projects] did bleed into each other, because it’s the same lineup and we’re doing the same thing, basically. It was pretty easy to do them together,” he says. “While I was there the first day, my wife came out with my daughter and she was all smiley, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re pregnant.’ And she was like, ‘Yeah.’ We were going to see what we could do for Reese’s record, and I had like 11 songs for Frozen Letter that in my head I thought would match as a record, and four for sure that I knew would be on the record. I just wanted to get those four recorded – then I could hear how they worked together then build the record from that. But then when my wife said she was pregnant I was like, ‘Oh, shit. We gotta get a lot done and we just need to do this.’ I told the guys that we needed to get 11 songs tracked and we just fucking slept in the studio and did it all in three days.”
The overlap between the two is subtle, and best heard on “We Got Problems.” The penultimate song broods like a sauntering blues tune, but there’s plenty of swirling effects pedals and a gauzy alteration to McGee’s vocals to add a sense of restrained shoegaze. Then, of course, there’s their signature twang-rock, like on the exuberant opener, “Back Again With You in the World,” and the dreary “Coffin Car” and “Walking Bubble.”
“Eyes of Death” and “Chem Trails,” though, stand out as the murkiest and most rock ‘n’ roll of the bunch, served by McGee as if with a mouthful of gravel. The latter isn’t exactly confirmation of a belief in conspiracy theories, though.
“The night before I was playing the guitar before I went to bed and the whole verse was kind of there,” he recalls. “Then I woke up the next morning then…in my front yard on the horizon there’s planes that fly over and they’re flying on the horizon. So, you can see their trails, and I always think of chem trails. Because, you know, I read a lot, and I think it’s definitely possible that the government would do stuff like that. They do all kinds of crazy shit. I thought it would just be a good, like, kind of paranoid song. It doesn’t really say anything about anything – it’s like an image, an idea. It wasn’t aimed at anything political, it just kind of is an observational thought that you might have. Am I being controlled by chem trails and radio waves? Is that happening? I don’t know. And I probably never will. (Laughs) But it’s possible. I wouldn’t doubt it.”
In light of McGee’s side-eye toward the government, it’s surprising to know he performed at Obama benefits during the last election at the request of Merge Records co-founder Mac McCaughan.
“I don’t necessarily think that any one party or one person is better. That kind of whole sports team mentality of politics doesn’t really appeal to me. But in North Carolina, there’s a lot of old money. And a lot of old money is Republican. And they make decisions based on the luxury of their lives. I was at the ER not too long ago waiting for somebody and it’s just poor people in and out of there all day long. Poor people with bad diets, poor people who make bad decisions. If a senator or a congressman had to work in an ER in the town or county he’s from, if he had to work there for a couple months instead of living the same life they live, there would be a different opinion about things,” he says.
At best, McGee subscribes to the “lesser of two evils” school of thought.
“I just feel like in this state especially there’s definitely a difference between Democrats and Republicans,” he adds. “And I just felt like if there’s something I can do that makes a couple people feel like they can vote Democrat, then more power to it. But I was never under the assumption that Obama was going to close down Guantanamo, you know? I was never under the assumption that suddenly everyone’s going to have great health care. Because that’s just not how things work.”
It was during those fundraising events that McGee developed a rapport with McCaughan. He started going to Spider Bags shows on the heels of their third LP, then asked the band to join the benefits. He later invited them on tour with his own band, Superchunk, and they began working out a plan to release Frozen Letter with Merge.
“I worked really hard on it. My [second] daughter was born March 5, and I got the OK that they were gong to do the record like Feb. 17. So I was just pushing and pushing to get it done and to see if they were going to do it,” he says. “And I remember when we had our first daughter I was like, ‘I’m going to shut down for two months.’ I felt like with two it’s going to be even crazier.”
Naturally, McGee was right. With Spider Bags’ upcoming tour and all his other endeavors, each day is, presumably, a tornado of a to-do list. If he maintains his current attitude, though, it’s fair to assume he’ll be OK through all the hullabaloo, “bullshit” reviews, government deception or anything else he might encounter.
“The world is fucked up,” he says bluntly. “But I think operating with integrity and honesty in my own world, that’s about as much as I can do.”
Photo by Jeremy M. Lange.