RALEIGH, N.C. – The Connells, one of North Carolina’s most successful and long-lived college-radio bands, are breaking a recording hiatus of nearly two decades. They have a new album set for release, “Steadman’s Wake,” which will emerge sometime in 2020.
The fact that “Steadman’s Wake” is the group’s first new release since 2001 is just one of the “firsts” this record represents. It’s the first Connells album to feature their two newest members, guitarist Mike Ayers and drummer Rob Ladd (who have been part of the lineup since 2001 and 2012, respectively). It’s also the first on which guitarist Mike Connell wrote every song solo, while also taking a newly prominent vocalist role.
Perhaps most momentously, the “Steadman’s Wake” title track is the first time The Connells have ventured into overt politics. Previously, the group tended to let actions and implications do the talking when it came to current events. But with references to the opioid crisis, life during wartime and the white-supremacist rioting that roiled Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, there is no mistaking the viewpoint of “Steadman’s Wake.”
“We’ve had some oblique socio-political bits here and there over the years,” says Mike Connell. “But never as direct as this. It seems like it’s time. It’s scary, where we still stand in this country with issues of race. Of the 11 songs here, that one had the most consensus around it as representing what we were trying to do with this record.”
The Connells have been no strangers to political activism over the years, going back to benefit shows they played for Harvey Gant when he was running against U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. Nevertheless, taking a musical step into current events was not a decision they made lightly. But as frontman Doug MacMillan concurs, the times are dire enough to demand a response.
“Even the least politically minded bands are saying things now because they need to be said,” MacMillan says. “Mike’s never been one for hitting anybody over the head with an agenda, and his lyrics tend to be pretty subtle. But I’m glad we did this. I’ll be interested to see what people think.”
Although it’s been 19 years since their last recording, The Connells never quit playing live, and Mike Connell never quit writing songs. Eventually enough material came together to suggest it was finally time to make another record. “Steadman’s Wake” features eight new songs that have never been released, while different version of three of the album’s songs previously appeared on 2001’s “Old-School Dropouts” – a collection of demos recorded at the group’s practice space.
This time, however, they decided to record in a proper studio for the first time since 1998’s “Still Life,” The Connells’ final album for TVT Records. “Steadman’s Wake” sessions took place at Durham’s Overdub Lane and The Fidelitorium, the Kernersville, N.C., studio run by North Carolina Music Hall of Famer Mitch Easter (famous for his work with R.E.M., Game Theory and his own band Let’s Active). John Plymale, whose studio credits include Meat Puppets, Superchunk and Squirrel Nut Zippers, produced the album, with cameo guests including former Ben Folds Five bassist Robert Sledge.
Except for Rob Ladd being sidelined for several months in the wake of a 2018 car accident, things went smoothly.
“Rob hit a dumptruck head-on at 60 miles an hour,” Mike Connell says. “The first responders could not believe he actually survived, but he’s a strong individual. That put things on hold for a while, but we kept working on it in fits and starts when we could. The impulse was to take one last crack at getting back in the studio to do one more proper record.”
“Steadman’s Wake” joins the catalog as The Connells’ ninth full-length album in a career going back to 1984. That was when the band first formed in Chapel Hill at the University of North Carolina, debuting a year later with “Darker Days.” Their 1987 Easter-produced album “Boylan Heights” established The Connells as college-radio favorites, and they went on to work with producers including Gary Smith, Hugh Jones and Lou Giordano on subsequent albums.
Three Connells albums made the Billboard 200 charts in America, but their biggest commercial success came overseas. “’74- ’75,” a pensive and moody ballad from 1993’s Giordano-produced album “Ring,” reached the top-10 in 11 different European countries in the mid-1990s (including No. 1 in Sweden and Norway). The song’s evocative time-traveling video, juxtaposing then-and-now photos of alumni from The Connells’ hometown Broughton High School, also earned a cult following with fans making their own video versions.
“We’ve been trying to figure out if there’s some kinda theme to this new record,” says MacMillan. “If anything, I’d say it’s 20 years older. The chord progressions and the way Mike puts songs together still give it dark undertones. But the lyrics seem a little more upbeat than before, even if it still has that longing aspect. It feels a little more grown-up than we used to be, more upbeat and not quite as cynical. Every record we’ve ever made, we’ve thought it was the last one. Maybe this really will be it. Then again, as long as we’re still playing, chances are that Mike will still be writing songs. We’ll see.”
Mike Ayers: guitar
David Connell: bass
Mike Connell: guitar, vocals
Rob Ladd: drums
Doug MacMillan: vocals
Steve Potak: keyboards