Rock ‘n’ roll can save your soul. If it’s not a religion, it’s at least a viable organizing principle or a mode of being. Dan McGee, the singer and songwriter and frontman behind Chapel Hill’s Spider Bags, embraces a kind of rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. But it’s not exactly one of total rebellion and destruction. Sometimes simply doing your thing is a radical position.
Spider Bags get called a garage rock band, which signals that they’ve retained a raw, explosive energy and an unpolished, thrusting force. Listen to Spider Bags, though, and you’re just as likely to hear a connection to Buddy Holly and Hank Williams as you are to the Electric Prunes and The Seeds.
I spoke to McGee by phone last week while he was driving to his day job, which is, in fact, rock-related. He’s an instructor in a school that teaches kids how to rock, basically. They pair up young players, assembling a practice band sometimes, to help students tackle some suitably attitudinal tunes and master the rudiments, with guidance from a seasoned pro. A recent exercise involved some vintage Bon Scott-era AC/DC riffage. McGee was a bartender for a long time, which is something, he said, you can’t do forever. When I suggest that playing in a rock band might be similar, McGee disagrees.
“I think you can do that forever,” he said.
But, in order to do it, one has to be able to tap into something vital and real about making music.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is very much a living thing,” McGee said.
Spider Bags have been recording a new record in Memphis, home of Elvis and a town that takes its rocking seriously. It will be their sixth full-length album. Over the years, the band has gone from a sometimes five-piece down to a trio. McGee turns 42 in November and he’s got two kids, so he’s passed through the playing rock ‘n’ roll might be just a phase that he needs to move past. He’s basically a lifer now, and with that realization comes an unabashed commitment to making the music. The band’s last record, 2014’s Frozen Letter, has a brittle reverby quality, bringing to mind the Stooges, the Cramps, the Dead Kennedys and the Flamin’ Groovies at times. All bands that were, despite their seeming indifference to tradition, steeped in the electric twang and scuzzy punch of rock and blues.
The layers of youthful rebellion and nostalgia that are built into rock ‘n’ roll now can make it seem like something a responsible adult with a family should consider abandoning. But, as McGee sees it, the willingness to pursue whatever selfish pleasures there might be at the core of rock ‘n’ roll, without getting trapped in some effort to make a wax replica of the past — that’s what’s so powerful.
McGee talks about the jolting force of seeing artists in their 50s and 60s whose commitment to emotional expression and relentless, jubilantly amateurish productivity serve as an inspiration.
“I said to myself ‘These people love rock ‘n’ roll as much as I do, and it’s kind of blowing my mind that they’re not ashamed of it. Maybe I shouldn’t be either?’” he said. “[Artists like that] fell in love with rock ’n’ roll, and that was what they were going to do to express themselves, and at that time it was a really a radical thing. I feel like it is still.”
You might hear a summation of the sentiment in “I’ll Go Crazy” from the band’s 2012 record Shake My Head, when McGee sings, “You got to live for yourself, for yourself and nobody else.”
But living for yourself and nobody else sometimes still means paying your respects to a history that goes back before you, tipping the hat to the people who were bold enough to carve out a life through simple, maybe even crude, expression. McGee and Spider Bags do an impressive job of sometimes summoning the music of the past with a blues-boogie stomp that might connect Howlin’ Wolf and ZZ Top, for instance, rendered in a slurring and abrasive punk-rock fashion.
“There was a lot of time when I was younger, before I think I got better, when I used to think you really need to break with tradition,” McGee said. “But now in my heart I’m always going back to John Lee Hooker and Captain Beefheart. Those natural inclinations, you want to express them, and not shy away from them or present them as a thing that needs to be in a museum.”
Rather than abandoning tradition, McGee is a serious student of classic rock, among other things. He can talk with passion about the artistry involved in sequencing iconic albums from the early 1970s, the ways that bands built a sense of tension and release into the arrangement of tracks on a side.
His lyrics often possess the straight-forward simplicity of country music, and if they were stripped of the scalding splashes of sonic battery acid, many Spider Bags songs would work in a Bakersfield or Nashville setting. A line like “Waking up drunk makes me happy, but you just bring me down,” could probably pass as a bit of Kris Kristofferson.
Like Bob Dylan and blues singers of Chicago and the Mississippi Delta, but with a punk-rock worldview, McGee dips into the long-flowing folk tradition by scooping up an old lyrical line and repurposing it for one of his songs. On “Swimmer On a String,” for instance, from Spider Bags’ 2009 release Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World, McGee lifts a scrap from the timeless “I Wish A Was A Mole in the Ground,” made famous in a 1928 recording by North Carolina’s Bascom Lamar Lunsford, singing “I wish I were a lizard in the spring, so I could hear my sweetheart sing.”
For their forthcoming album, McGee said Spider Bags recorded a version of the Charlie Rich song “Rolling With the Flow,” which is about an aging rocker who hasn’t changed his hell-raising ways, who’s “still out there having fun.” It’s an old bit of mellow countrypolitan pop. While it might capture something of McGee’s perspective on the world, it’s also a particular type of song, about the stubborn refusal to grow up, that McGee thinks represents a wistfully defiant sentimentality that is central to the music he loves.
So, rock ‘n’ roll, for McGee, is about youthful rebellion, of course, but it’s also about seeing a through line, about how doing what you want as an adult is a grown-up expression of that same spirit.
“This is a continuation,” McGee said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
Spider Bags play the Pine State Holiday music festival along with Washed Out, Ducktails, Reese McHenry, Floating Action, Saccharine Dream, Moon Racer, Ezra Noble, Foxture, Yes the Raven and I, Anomaly on the grounds of SECCA, 750 Marguerite Drive, Winston-Salem, on Saturday, Oct. 14, 1 p.m. – 10 p.m., $35.