Darkness in my heart: an interview with Dan McGee
Photo by April Novak
"Lost like it's the law," Dan McGee of the Spider Bags sings as if he knows all too well. And yet it's hard to pin down what he's going through to just one feeling. There's a despair there to be sure, but also a waywardness and maybe a wanderlust. He doesn't know where he'll wake up tomorrow, and while that's unnerving, there's a freedom in it too. That kind of renegade spirit can be found all through the band's debut album, A Celebration of Hunger. Switching between dark humor and sharp grief, first-round hopes and last-call truths, the album hits a range of moods with equal authority. The Spider Bags' sound is just as panoptic, incorporating everything from slow weepers to raucous rockers to reverent folk-country and even a boozy take on a German waltz. Since I discovered it last fall, A Celebration of Hunger has quickly become a daily listen. Won over by its honesty and authenticity, I also named it my eighth favorite album of 2007.
Here's my conversation with Dan McGee, the Spider Bags' lead singer and guitarist:
Nerd Litter: So tell me a little about the band. How would you describe it to someone who’s never heard your music?
Dan McGee: A rock ’n roll band. It’s got a bit of a country influence, I guess, but pretty much a rock ’n roll band. That record, A Celebration of Hunger, it’s got a whole bunch of different influences and styles on it. There’s some German folk music on there, there’s some stuff that’s like early American folk blues, a few more rock numbers on it, but I guess I’d describe it mostly as a rock ’n roll band.
NL: Did you consciously try to incorporate all those different styles or do you naturally write in different ways?
DM: Yeah, I think I write in a lot of different ways. I like a lot of different kinds of music, so that just kind of happens. I’ve always really loved folk blues. It was the first music I ever liked. I remember this Blind Lemon Jefferson song when I was like eleven, on this radio station called WKCR out of New York, and I was flipping through the dial. I heard this Blind Lemon Jefferson song and it just fuckin’ blew my mind. That was what authentic music was to me. That’s always been where my heart is. If your heart is in something that’s authentic, no matter where it comes from, you’re going to open to trying lots of different things.
NL: Where did “Swanson’s Waltz” come from? Where did that interest arise?
DM: That’s from this guy, Carl Swanson, who I play with in Jersey. He plays accordion. It’s a very loose take on this old German song, “Koster Valz.” Carl and I used to drink a lot. We’d always say that we’d get together to play music but we’d end up getting pretty drunk. Then at the end of the night, we’d play the “Koster Valz” together. One night, we were just playing it and I recorded it. You can hear Carl counting it out, the beginning. He calls out for Ruby, his cat, so that’s in the song—him looking for his cat. But Carl was this guy from Jersey—he lives in Santa Cruz now—he played accordion since he was eight years old. An old sailor taught him how to play. “Koster Valz” was one of the songs Carl loved. And I just really liked the recording so I put it on there. A couple of guys in Spider Bags weren’t into the idea of having “Koster Valz” on there, but I mean, it’s just like a freakout song, you know? This really weird and loose tune. I ended up recording the accordion that night, and then I did overdubs on it. It was one day playing these guitar solos over and over in my apartment, and my neighbors banging on the floor. Man, I love that song… He plays on the record too, he plays on “It’s You.” I wrote that one for Carl. I had an idea for Carl and me, we were going to have a band that played old folk songs, just me and him. “It’s You” was going to be one of those songs for that band, but we just could never get it together.
NL: You mentioned drinking while playing, and I noticed a lot of the songs are about drinking or bottles or being drunk. Was that a specific time in your life or…?
DM: Yeah, kind of a specific time. That’s what you try to do with a record, try to capture what’s going on. I’ve been making those kinds of records all my life. I used to walk around with a tape recorder and just record my observations. With music, you want to make it as close to what’s happening right then as possible and hopefully get that onto a record and hopefully people will want to listen to it. But yeah, there’s a lot of talk about drinking on that record. I was definitely drinking a lot back then. That was a dark period.
NL: And the other big theme of the album is blood and bleeding.
DM: Yeah. After I listened to the record, I wanted the album cover to be a heart, but I thought that would be clichéd. But there is a lot about blood and bleeding. (Laughs.) There’s a lot about hearts on there. I had been dating a girl, living with a girl, for seven years and it was definitely a rocky relationship. Right when I was doing that record, it was coming to an end. And I’m an Irish guy, we get pretty sentimental. A lot of it came out there in the blood and bleeding and hearts.
NL: And where does A Celebration of Hunger tie in?
DM: A Celebration of Hunger, I stole from a Max Ernst collage. I was walking through the Museum of Modern Art and it was part of his showing. I was already finishing the record and I was knocking around a lot of titles. And there’s this one title on one of these collages, A Celebration of Hunger, and it just seemed to be what the record is about.
"I thought it might be a good idea for me to get out of the city for a while, because I was hitting some dark spots there."
NL: Okay, one more explanation to get out of the way. What’s a spider bag? Is that a reference to The Wire, because that’s the only place I’ve heard it.
DM: Well, I knew about spider bags before The Wire.
NL: But it is the drug reference?
DM: It is, yeah. But here’s the thing, man. The name of the band was kind of a joke. We didn’t think anybody was going to ever know. Like, one percent of the population would ever know what a spider bag was. And then that television show. At one point, one of the kids shouts, “Spider bag,” and people I work with are suddenly like, “So... spider bag, huh?”
NL: Well, your other band’s called the DC Snipers so it’s not like you’re exactly shying away from controversial titles.
DM: (Laughs.) True. The DC Snipers, by the way, are a great band. We’re almost done with the next record. It should be out pretty soon.
NL: Yeah, I was just listening to some of it on MySpace. Do you see a connection between the two bands? Do they influence each other?
DM: Oh yeah, man, totally. It’s the same kind of music really. Earnest rock ’n roll. The Snipers are a real collaboration with all the guys, same thing with the Spider Bags. The music you make is the people you make it with. Because even if I write a song or a chorus, it doesn’t take shape till I put it in front of the musicians I’m playing with. With the Snipers, there’s a little more collaboration than there is with the Spider Bags. But yeah, they work off each other. I love playing music with the DC Snipers. I’m hoping we can do some live shows when this record gets finished. We’ve been on hiatus for a while.
NL: Is there more Spider Bags stuff on the way as well?
DM: Yeah, hopefully in September. I’m finishing up a record now. We’ve still got three or four more songs to record, then overdubs. But it’s basically done, just a little bit of recording. We’ve been so busy touring, we’ve been doing a lot of stuff on the road. Then when we get back, it’s hard to get into the studio, because it’s expensive. When we get back, it takes a lot of time to catch up. We’re going out for South By, and then we’ll be home for April, and then in May, we’re going on the road with this great band from Texas called the Golden Boys. They’re fucking awesome, really great stuff. But I’m hoping in April, we can get some recording done, so we can get it out by September.
NL: What’s music in Chapel Hill like?
DM: It’s interesting. A little more diversified than I thought it was going to be. There are a lot of really great musicians, a lot of great bands. But it’s weird, because it’s not like you’re living in a city. In a city, there are pockets of genres of music that get together, because there’s so much music and so many people, that eventually, everybody that’s similar finds each other and a scene happens. But when you’re living somewhere small, it’s hard for pockets to happen. If you want to book a show, you just book a show. It’s good though. There are a lot of really great bands—Gondoliers, Transportation, Work Clothes. It’s not this tight-knit scene though. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. I don’t want to make anybody mad. (Laughs.)
NL: What prompted you to move there?
DM: Well, I had some friends down here that moved down here from Jersey. And I came down and made the record with them and I was still living up in Jersey. Going on the road with the Snipers, traveling a lot. And I thought it might be a good idea for me to get out of the city for a while, because I was hitting some dark spots there. So I came down and I met this girl who’s pretty awesome. Beautiful girl. We just kind of fell in love. Six months later, I realized I hadn’t been back to Jersey in a while. (Laughs.) All my stuff was in her apartment, and all of a sudden, I lived here. Now I live here and I’m fixing wheelchairs. That’s how it happened.
"It’s beautiful too because you identify with that unhappiness and it makes you feel like it’s human to be that unhappy. Those are feelings people have."
NL: What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t making music?
DM: Oh man, I don’t know. I don’t know… I don’t get paid for making music, I’m just making music. So if I wasn’t making music—Man, I would just always be making music.
NL: What’s your background with it?
DM: I started playing guitar when I was really little because of Blind Lemon Jefferson. I just wanted to know what that sound was. I started playing guitar and that was about it. I wasn’t always a model citizen, but I always played music. I don’t have any kind of training. I didn’t go to school for music. I didn’t really even start playing shows for a long time, just here and there. I didn’t start playing shows until I was in my late twenties, with the Snipers and then it was every week. That’s pretty much where my public musical background starts.
NL: Who were some of your favorite lyricists when you were learning to write songs?
DM: Ah, man. Lou Reed, Robert Johnson, guys who just talk about dark things… It always amazes me, like, Robert Johnson walking down the street with the devil by his side, gonna beat a woman till he’s satisfied. I mean, how dark is that? Those are the things that people don’t usually say out loud. And you can hear in his voice, he doesn’t even know what the fuck he’s saying. Those are the kind of lyricists I love. It’s like, I don’t even know why I’m telling you but I feel like I really have to. This is just something I have to say out loud. It’s guys like that I’ve always been a big fan of. Tom Waits, all the obvious stuff, Shane MacGowan. My main influences when I first started were like Skip James, people like that. What is “Crow Jane” really about? All we really know is this phantom figure that poisons this woman. You don’t even know if it’s a woman he poisons. “Crow Jane” could just be this weird ghost! But this mood he creates, he’s not even really thinking about murder, he’s thinking about what it’s like to be fucking sad. And that’s what I immediately tuned into, the way people like Skip James and Robert Johnson and Tommy Johnson were able to tie into something without ever giving it a name. You just listen to this song, and you’re like, I don’t know what this song is fucking about, but that guy is not happy. It’s beautiful too because you identify with that unhappiness and it makes you feel like it’s human to be that unhappy. Those are feelings people have. It’s like that guy Jim Jackson said, you write about something you know and everybody will know what you’re talking about. I love that song he did, it’s called “Old Dog Blue.” It starts out with these lines about how he’s going back to his hometown because his wife died and he hasn’t seen her in a long time, and then the next twenty stanzas are about his dog! The whole rest of the song is about his dog. Because the idea of his wife being dead and him not seeing her in a while is too much for him. I just love shit like that.
NL: Well, I’d definitely say your album flows in a similar vein. It reminds me of some of the people you mentioned.
DM: Thanks, man. I made that record in like two days and I didn’t think much of it.
DM: In time, it’s gained momentum. But yeah, we made that record in two days. Those guys came up to New Jersey one weekend and we were tossing around playing in a band. Rob [Dipatri] came up with the band name. And everybody had a good time, and then a couple of weeks later, Paul [Finn] called and he said he ran into Brian Paulson at the bar and he was willing to do some recording. So I just started writing a bunch of songs and went down and recorded them. I just thought it would be another way of documenting things. Because we’ve known each other for a long time, forever, and we’ve played in a bunch of bands over the years and we’ve just kind of recorded it. The idea was never to put out an album or anything like that.
NL: Now that you do have an album, do you have a favorite song on there?
DM: One of the reasons why I liked your writeup was because I really like “Alphabet City Blues.” I think that’s one of the better songs I’ve ever written.
NL: I was just listening to it today and I think what especially strikes me about it is the instrumentation at the end. It sounds like someone trying to be beautiful after ten drinks or twelve drinks. He’s just trying to make it work somehow. And it’s a little wobbly, but you can hear the beauty creeping through.
DM: Thanks, man. I recorded the base track on an eight-track. I just started playing the piano one night and I kept it. I was listening to a lot of Memphis Goons at the time; maybe that had something to do with it.
NL: Did you spend a lot of time in New York when you were living in Jersey?
DM: Yeah, a lot of time. I went to college at Montclair University, which is right across the river. I never rented there though. I lived on a lot of couches.
NL: What were you studying?
DM: Literature and Philosophy.
NL: What was your process for writing something like “Alphabet City Blues”? What did that require?
DM: Man, if I could tell you that, I’d be a happy man. I have no idea. Sometimes, there’s just a song. I wish I could figure it out, because I’d do it all the freakin’ time. Sometimes you get songs that are really good and you’re happy about it and then sometimes you get songs that are just fucking terrible. I wrote a song a little while ago called “Your Sister.” It was about a guy who wants to have sex with his girlfriend’s sister, so he does after his girlfriend dies. A really weird song. I had it up on MySpace for a while but it got some weird reactions from people. I’m just glad that my girlfriend doesn’t have a sister. She got home and I played her the song and she was like, what the fuck is that about? (Laughs.) I’m just glad she doesn’t have a sister.
NL: Yeah. “Waking Up Drunk” is kind of like that too, tinged with dark humor. Half-funny, half-horrible. Who would some of your ideal tourmates be?
DM: I’m pretty psyched up to be going out with the Golden Boys. They’re amazing. You have to listen to their records, they have two out on Hook or Crook. When I was in Texas, they were playing me mixes from their third record and it is mind-blowing. They are going to blow people’s minds with this record.
NL: What kind of music is it?
DM: It’s the same stuff we do. Countryish rock and roll, with a big foot in roots. An obvious appreciation for American music. They’re firing on all cylinders right now. They’re just incredible. We played two shows with them in Austin and it’s amazing. I was pretty blown away. They got the keyboard player on trombone at some point, but it’s still punk rock, it’s still rock ’n roll. It’s not practiced, it’s still raw. I’m pretty excited to be going out with them.
"I just want to make one really fucking great record."
NL: What are you like live?
DM: We’re really raw live too. We’ve been changing lineups for a little while now. Sometimes we have six members, we’ve had eight members on stage at times, right now we’re at a solid five and we’re pretty raw. We’re playing songs fast and I think we’re a really good live band at this point. We’ve been traveling so much and changing the lineup so much, we’ve kind of gotten into this rut lately with the same songs. But it’s not so bad to play the same songs. It’s only a bad thing if you’re playing the same songs in front of the same audience. I love playing the same songs actually, because there’s so much you can do. The more you play them, the more you understand them. All those guys played the same songs all their lives. Mississippi John Hurt played “Salty Dog” until he was seventy-something and every time it was fucking beautiful.
NL: Is the next record a pretty natural progression from the first one?
DM: I hope so, man. The first one was kind of done on a weekend, and this one, we have a label [Birdman] expecting something and there are some people who are expecting something. So it’s kind of weird to have that kind of expectation, I’ve never had that. Even if it’s so miniscule, the expectation, it’s still there. I still feel it. So I feel it’s a natural progression. I think it’s a good record.
NL: Will it be as dark?
DM: Yeah, it’s got some dark stuff on there. I do find myself shying away from explicitly personal stuff on the next one though. There was a point after the last one came out, where I thought maybe I should do songs that are less about people and more about ideas. And there are a couple of songs on the next one that are more like pop songs.
NL: Pop songs?
DM: Yeah. Totally fictitious people, being happy and eating gumdrops.
NL: For some reason, I don’t believe you, but we’ll see.
NL: What was the logic of doing a song called “Blood For You” and another called “Bleed For You”?
DM: Actually, that was Rob. Rob had been up in Jersey and we were talking about making music. After he left, I had written a song that was about... whatever that was song was about. And I had remembered this chorus Rob was telling me about, so I just plugged it in there. Then I called Rob and played it for him and he was like, oh, you’re a fucking asshole, I already have a song with that in there. And I was like, well, we could both have a song with that, and he was like, oh yeah, I guess you’re right. So yeah, I stole it from him and they were both good songs, so we put both on there.
NL: Nice. So now what would you like to happen next with all this? What are you looking for? What would you like to see happen with the band ideally?
DM: Ideally? We would make the kind of record that some kid would listen to like I listened to a fucking George Jones record. Just one record, one fucking record that people don’t take off their shelves fifty years from now. I just want to make one really fucking great record.
NL: I think you might’ve already done it.
DM: (Laughs.) Well, then I guess I can just give up.
* MP3: "Alphabet City Blues" - Spider Bags from A Celebration of Hunger
* MP3: "Waking Up Drunk" - Spider Bags from A Celebration of Hunger [Buy it]
* MySpace: The Spider Bags