Though they may be a prime example of an underrated, underappreciated act, Spider Bags still get their fair share of love. Titus Andronicus’ Patrick Stickles has touted the North Carolina garage-rock group as one of his favorite bands to anyone who’s listening. Press coverage has been flattering as well, especially here at PopMatters: We rated Spider Bags’ last album Shake My Head as the top “overlooked” album of 2012, which also happens to be another way of saying that it was one of the year’s flat-out best. Indeed, Matthew Fiander hailed Shake My Head as “the most unpredictable, rollicking, and purely brilliant rock album of 2012.” You definitely get strong doses of those qualities on the career-spanning collection Singles, from the garage-y outburst of “Teenage Eyes” to the dense, sax-laced workout “Take It Easy Tonite”. PopMatters checked in with mainman Dan McGee to see how Singles traces the history of Spider Bags and the difference between making singles and albums. PopMatters is proud to premiere Spider Bags’ Singles, out June 25 via Churchkey Records.
Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
PopMatters: Singles covers a lot of time between records—2009’s Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World and 2012’s Shake My Head—and, to my ears, seems to create a link between those seemingly disparate albums. What kind of story do you think the collection tells of the band’s progression?
Dan McGee: After we released our first record Celebration of Hunger in 2007, we toured a lot. We were on the road all through the recording of Goodbye Cruel World through the recording of these singles, right up to Shake My Head. I had a core group of guys for the recording of Celebration, guys I’d grown up with in NJ and it was our shared experience that informed that record. By the time we got to Goodbye Cruel World, just because of the nature of touring, we had a lot of different guys in and out of the band. If you look at the liner notes of that one, there’s a different band on almost every track from sessions all over the country. I had a really ambitious idea for that record, too ambitious I think given the circumstances. I would go out on the road for three weeks, come back, book a recording session and then someone would have to bow out of the next trip. I’d put another band together, rehearse some new songs, go out on the road for a month, come back to town, hurry up and book a recording session before someone else left the band, and then do the whole thing over again.
That went on for about two years or so. It was pretty exhausting and it was all because I had this grand idea for a full-length that could kind of represent the sprawling nature of our lives at the time. And I kept trying to accomplish that even though it was obvious that the universe was trying to tell me to slow down and simplify.
After that record was finished and I could see what worked and what didn’t, I realized that I needed to scale things down, find two songs that work together, get them recorded the way I wanted them to sound and then move on. That was the plan for sure going into recording the songs on this compilation. Also, during this time, even though we were still touring a lot, Gregg [Levy] and I got lucky and met our drummer Rock Forbes. As we toured, the band slowly became the three of us and the first song we recorded together was “Teenage Eyes”. This compilation is the sound of three guys figuring out how to be band. By the time you get to Shake My Head, we were really focused on not only what we wanted to do, but also what we were capable of.
PopMatters: The set of singles also seems to tell a story outside of the music itself. It represents several labels from the Triangle in North Carolina, as well as labels like Daggerman and Sophomore Lounge from outside the area, and gives off this sense of independent music as a community. What draws the band to work with different labels for different singles? What benefits are there to having this many musical homes?
Dan McGee: I traveled a lot even before I was in a band, I guess because I’ve always felt like an outsider. Music has always been an easy way for me to meet people. You’re in a rock club in San Francisco on a Tuesday night, getting your mind blown by some obscure rock band you never thought you’d have the chance to see and there’s only five other people in the club with you, you’re gonna start a conversation. After I met a lot of people that way and saw that there was a big community of those people all over the country, I slowly became a touring musician. Going from being a spectator to a performer was a way for me to put it all out on the line, to test myself, to really see what kind of I person was, and also to see if I could really connect with other people. I’ve met so many great people through rock ‘n’ roll. The people who put out these different records, I’m proud to say that they’re my friends.
PopMatters: Singles is a mosaic, but still surprisingly cohesive. You can draw lines between, say, the psych-density of “Dog in the Snow”, the speedy grit of “Papa Was a Shithead”, and the twangy fuzz of “I Wish I Never Had Fed You”. Do you see these releases—before Singles—as linked, as a series, or do you see them as separate entities? What sets them apart, or ties them together, in your mind?
Dan McGee: After Shake My Head, Gregg had to leave the band and we got lucky again when Steve Oliva joined up. It says a lot about how great Steve is that the transition was pretty seamless. I burned some songs for Steve to learn and a few of them were these singles. Hearing some of these songs together for the first time, it was actually Rocko who pointed out they could make a pretty good record. Before he said that, I had no desire to put them on a single record, wasn’t even on my mind. Afterwards I started to realize that these songs documented a period of growth for us as musicians and as people. I think that that’s what makes them cohesive. When I started thinking about it that way, it became important for me to put this record out.
PopMatters: How is the process of recording singles different from writing and recording for an album? Did making these singles influence the creation of Shake My Head?
Dan McGee: Like I said earlier, only worrying about doing two songs at a time was a lot less overwhelming. When you’re only doing two songs in a ten-hour session as opposed to six or whatever, there’s a lot more time to get the performances right, to overdub, to mix. We went into Shake My Head with that mentality. I was starting to think about how I wanted to record the next single, which was going to be “Friday Night” b/w “Simona La Romana” when we got lucky again in a couple different ways. First, Andrew McCalla, who recorded our “Dog in the Snow” single in Memphis, called me out of the blue and said his girlfriend had just moved out of the house and taken everything but the recording equipment, so if we wanted to make a full-length with him, it’d be a good time to do it. All the songs that I thought would be our next string of singles became Shake My Head.
The second stroke of luck was meeting Wes Wolfe, who engineered the overdubs and mixing of the record. He was real patient and generous with his time and he gave me the space to do what I wanted with the album. Doing the singles gave me the confidence and patience to see things all the way through to the end in a way I hadn’t done with the previous LPs.
PopMatters: The version of Jay Reatard’s “Out of My Head, Into My Bed” at the end of this collection feels particularly bittersweet and yet energized by the memory of Reatard. Are there other influences that helped shape these singles that maybe weren’t apparent on your earlier records?
Dan McGee: Hard to say. I think because of all the freedoms I mentioned earlier, I was able to express a lot of my musical interests in ways that might not have been apparent on the first two full-lengths.
PopMatters: The “Papa Was a Shithead” 7-inch and the Jay Reatard split (with the Love Language) both came after Shake My Head. Do you see any new hints at where the band could be headed in those recordings? What’s up next for Spider Bags?
Dan McGee: I think we’re playing really well together on those recordings, we’re at a real good place right now as a band. We’re headed into the studio this weekend to start tracking songs for the next full-length. I have a whole bunch of songs that I’m excited about, songs that are longer and more psychedelic, some of them I’ve had for a while, but haven’t recorded because I was focused on singles and the constrictions of that format. Gregg’s coming down from Jersey, and he and Rock and Steve and I are gonna lock ourselves in a room together for three days and see what happens. There’s no telling.