Dan McGee, of Chapel Hill garage rock band Spider Bags, does not have time to grow orchids or build model ships. He works triple duty these days, with a family, a job, and a brand new record, Frozen Letter, due to come out on August 5th via Merge Records. When I called McGee last week, though, he didn’t seem to mind the stress. In fact, being busy suits him: in the early stages of recording Frozen Letter, McGee realized that his wife was pregnant and that he had nine months to get the record finished, but the focus that pressure gave him–and the rest of the group, with Rock Forbes on drums and Greg Levy and Steve Oliva switching off on bass and guitar–led to the Bags’ most cohesive album to date. Here at AudioFemme, we got our paws on “Back With You Again In The World,” the first single off that album, a couple of weeks back, and we were psyched to hear that the Bags haven’t abandoned the sloppy and earnest feistiness that’s always made their music so much fun to listen to. But the musical ESP between the four Spider Bags is no accident, and it’s more apparent than ever on the new record that even when the music is at its noisiest and dirtiest, there’s a complex dialogue going on beneath the surface.
AudioFemme: Congrats on the new record coming out, we’re so excited! What has it been like recording Frozen Letter?
Dan McGee: We started recording in late June-early July last year, with the same engineer I’ve been working with for a while now, Wes Wolfe. I had a lot of ideas for this record and I went into the studio just wanting to see which songs worked together and which didn’t. I wanted to get four or five done. Then, while we were doing them, my wife came to visit with my daughter, and she was smiling a lot, and I was like ‘Oh man, you’re pregnant, aren’t you?’ And she was. So then I realized that I had to think about this record a little bit differently, because I had to get it done in nine months. Instead of doing five songs that weekend we ended up sleeping in the studio and doing eleven. There are eight songs on the record, but we tried three more just to see how they would fit. Actually, this is the closest I’ve ever come to making the record I started out thinking I wanted to make.
AF: So recording it all at once actually had a positive influence on the finished product?
DM: Yeah! It had that external focus, you know? Made me narrow my choices down. Sometimes I think I can get a little too spread out, so it helped that there was a really strict time limit. It was actually the record that I really wanted to make, that I’ve been wanting to make for a while.
AF: That’s fantastic. So what about it makes it the record that you had envisioned?
DM: I had an idea for a cycle of songs. I really wanted to make a record that sounded like a classic rock record, that was mixed like the old AC/DC records, or like Dark Side Of The Moon. I wanted to have songs on the record that would lend themselves to that. There’s only eight songs on the record, you know, and I wanted them to be in kind of a cycle that would have a theme, though that theme wouldn’t be real specific. And I wanted it to sound like a seventies rock record. That was kind of the concept I had going into it, and we got pretty close. I’m stoked.
AF: When you start writing individual songs, are you thinking about the general sound you want to aim for? Do you start with a riff or a chord, or just an aesthetic you want to produce?
DM: Recording songs and writing them is different for me, but most of the time when I’m writing songs I’ll have a pretty good idea–before I actually strum the guitar–what the chorus is, or the melody for the verse. When I start picking through the song on guitar it starts taking on its own life. I don’t ever really go into any specific song with any kind of concept. It’s not the same as a record, where you have to really try to have an idea of what the record is, as a collection. I’ve made a few records now, and some of them are better than others, but I think the better ones are the ones where I’ve had a really clear concept of how the songs relate to each other and how they sound together. I think that’s really important, because the songs that relate to each other are the ones that people identify with, and the other songs fall through the cracks. If I don’t have a concept for a record, I’m not doing all the songs justice. You can’t just put all your best songs on a record, because it just doesn’t work that way. People don’t hear it that way.
AF: Where did you get the idea for the title of the record, Frozen Letter?
DM: It’s from a song on the record called “Coffin Car.” That song starts with an image that I had of walking in the snow and picking up–out of the snow–a big…you know those oversized kids’ magnets that you keep on the fridge? Just the tip of one of those sticking out of the snow, except it’s giant. It’s a pretty ambiguous image. Whenever two words are together, it gives you a feeling, but it could mean anything. It could mean nothing.
AF: What’s the music scene like where you live, in Chapel Hill? Are you a big part of it?
DM: Yeah, I’m definitely a big part of it. When I first moved here eight years ago, it seemed like the musical heyday was kind of in the past–some of the older clubs were closing down, you know, not as many people were involved in the scene–but there’s been an upsurge, and a big part of that has been independent record stores opening again. When I first moved here, Bull City Records in Durham had just opened and that was huge, because it really gave a focal point for musicians and people who like music to hang out. Since then, there’s another record store that’s opened in Chapel Hill called All Day Records. It’s a pretty varied scene. There’s way more rock and roll