Spider Bags has two bassists—well, at least in a theoretical, Schrödinger's cat way, not the Spinal Tap way. Steve Oliva is the newest and youngest member of the intricately bruising and famously debauched Chapel Hill band. A poster artist and former Local 506 employee who now works in circulation at the Chapel Hill Public Library, the 27-year-old Oliva is primarily a guitarist. But he plays bass for Spider Bags, as does founding member Gregg Levy, who continued to intermittently perform and record with the band even after moving back to New Jersey in October 2010.
Levy and Spider Bags frontman Dan McGee knew Oliva from sharing bills with his rock band, The Dry Heathens. They asked him to join them in December 2010; the idea was that Spider Bags would play locally as a trio and out-of-town as a quartet, with Levy finally getting to play guitar.
"They had really become a machine, so it was a little intimidating at first," Oliva recalls. "Playing bass for Spider Bags, it's an involved instrument: You've got to drive the song, really push it."
Still, during Oliva's first rehearsal, McGee invited him to travel with the band to Memphis for the raucous recording sessions that resulted in Shake My Head, the band's third LP, released this week on a label run by a former member. Though Levy played nearly all of the bass parts on the record, McGee was intent on making a little space for Oliva as well; you can hear him on the laidback psychedelic tune "Shape I Was In."
"It was an incredible few days. It really changed the way I look at a lot of things about rock 'n' roll," Oliva says of the Memphis trip. "It was important to Dan that the record have an old soul and rock feel, and I gained a new appreciation for the setting being a part of the process. On a break from recording, I went to the Stax museum—that's the kind of thing that really informs the work you're doing. We were up all night, meeting all these cool rock 'n' rollers from way back."
That sounds like a dream, doesn't it? Well, not to everyone in the band—at least not at first.
Rock Forbes is by far the most seasoned Spider Bag. Long-haired, stocky and youthfully countenanced, with a genteel Southern drawl and an archly solicitous manner, he prefers to let people guess his age—and wildly undershoot it. He grew up in Graham and then studied history and forestry at N.C. State. He works at Johnny's Coffee Shop in Carrboro and is a ranger at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham—"keeping the kids off the dinosaurs." A member of the long-running Bad Checks, Forbes is also an alumnus of Ghost of Rock, Fake Swedish and Joe Romeo & the Orange County Volunteers.
Spider Bags underwent some major shakeups during the long gestation of its second LP, 2009's Goodbye Cruel World, Hello Crueler World. The Jersey crew quit, leaving only the original duo of McGee and Levy. Chapel Hill guitarist Joe Romeo agreed to play bass on an imminent tour; he suggested Forbes, his own drummer, to join, too. Forbes didn't know McGee and Levy at all, but his reputation as a drummer who could pick up songs quickly and was usually ready to tour preceded him.
"I'd heard all the rumors about [Spider Bags]," Forbes says, "what crazy people they were, as far as their antics; that they were these big drinkers and partiers and played this noisy rock music. But I always develop a sort of love for the guys I play with, where it's more like a family than just being associates, and then lifestyle or age differences make very little difference. Besides, I'm no saint. I haven't completely gotten through my misspent youth, so we can all be partners in crime."
Forbes rehearsed with McGee and Levy for a couple weeks before heading out on a month-long tour, cementing his place in the band. By his own reckoning, Forbes is a "middle of the road" guy with music, meaning he thinks about it in clear-cut terms—straight-ahead meters, idealized structures, consistent delivery. That's quite different from McGee's circuitous vision.
"Dan is definitely the . . . quirkiest songwriter I've worked with," Forbes says, hesitating tactfully. "The first time I heard and played his music, I didn't really understand it because it came from such a different place than I do. This probably isn't the right word—and he'd kill me for saying it—but he's more avant-garde. Where to me it would make sense to keep plowing in a certain direction, he'll take hard turns."
Perhaps it's this tension of opposed sensibilities that gives the current incarnation of Spider Bags part of its power, as its members push themselves and each other. Forbes admits that McGee's wide-eyed, wild-haired vision makes him try new approaches, to reckon the sound McGee hears in his head with what the band is able to put on tape. It's paradoxically more controlled and chaotic.
"He wants it a certain way [in the studio]," Forbes explains. "But then live, all of us in the band are free to take it anywhere we want, almost like improv. If anybody feels it, go for it, and we'll chase you down. That makes it fun and almost dangerous in a way that I think the audience recognizes, when they can tell we're just hanging on, skating on thin ice."
Still, Forbes had qualms about recording in a big party house in Memphis. McGee invited a who's who of garage rock—the madman Jack Oblivian of The Oblivians, John Wesley Coleman III of The Golden Boys, Jose Boyer of Harlem and, as Forbes puts it, many hangers-on.
"It was this huge raucous party atmosphere the whole time we were recording, with 50 people sitting around us on the floor or singing drunken backups," he says. "To me it seemed like total chaos; I was used to recording in more sterile ways. It was about to drive me crazy and I stressed that a number of times with the guys."
McGee responded by saying that Forbes just didn't understand yet, that they were aiming to capture a party vibe and that it would take concessions. Forbes agreed—he didn't understand. But then he started hearing the results while the band added overdubs. Suddenly, he got it. That's how things go with McGee.
"More times than not, when Dan comes forward with something I don't get, I see it by the end," Forbes reckons. "People use the word 'genius' too frequently, but if he isn't a genius, he has genius streaks in him."
On July 17, Dan McGee, the 37-year-old frontman and songwriter of Spider Bags, walked into the Kraken, a little country roadhouse outside of Chapel Hill on Highway 54. Very tall and slender, wearing a tight white T-shirt depicting tiers of organ keys scaled like mountains, he clutched the just-pressed vinyl edition of his new record under a long, pale arm.
He had a rooster's comb of dark hair, shorn on the sides, and a slightly abstracted gaze that would sometimes slip through his glasses into the unseen middle distance. It wasn't hard to understand why the musicians he works with often talk about him hearing the music very specifically in his mind; in conversation, it often seemed as though he might be hearing it all the time.
Indeed, McGee was at the Kraken killing time before a studio session with Reese McHenry of Dirty Little Heaters. Based on McGee's production work on the album Sunny Down Snuff by local garage-rockers Last Year's Men, the soulful singer tapped Spider Bags as her backing band.
"Dan McGee is the master of the perfect song," McHenry later explained. "He thinks I can do things with my voice, and then I find out that most of it, I can actually do. He hears the song in his head and he gets it out of all of us."
McGee added a few songs to the mix, too: "I always have songs I wish I had a female singer for because they don't seem right for my voice or perspective," McGee said at the Kraken, stirring a gin and tonic.
When it comes to Spider Bags albums, McGee doesn't so much set out to write one as he pulls the right songs from his large backlog, aligning them with the right people, time and place. For Shake My Head, the right people were Forbes, Levy and Oliva. The right time was shortly before the birth of McGee's daughter, Dell, now almost one year old. The right place was Memphis, a city where Spider Bags had strong ties.
Shake My Head resulted from a call from McGee's friend Andrew McCalla, a musician and audio engineer who ran sound at one of Memphis' larger clubs, the Hi-Tone. His girlfriend moved out and took everything except the recording gear, making it the perfect time to record an album there. McGee, married and expecting, knew his life was about to change. He jumped at the chance, choosing rock and soul and country songs with Memphis in mind. Oriented by the legacies of Sun Studio, Stax Records and Booker T. & the M.G.'s, and bolstered by the musicianship of members of contemporary Memphis garage rock bands, Spider Bags were ready to make a new kind of record.
While McGee is known for rock and punk bands, his influences have never been that restricted. As a young teen, he rode the train into New York City to see jazz greats such as Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor.
"My thing was like, man, nobody makes music like Eric Dolphy made," McGee said in the Kraken. Memphis would play a key role in his eventual conversion. "When I finally found an avenue into current punk and rock in my 20s, it was through The Oblivians. I realized that all of this was just authentic expression."
Lately, McGee has also been listening to another fixation of his 20s, Krautrock, and noticing by comparison that punk music has no groove. "When I was a kid," he says, "even though I loved music that had grooves, the music I made was explicitly no-grooves. With the people I grew up with, it was definitely more important to be aggressive than laid-back. I let myself go a little more to that point with this record."
Even in a freewheeling situation such as Memphis, McGee likes to take Spider Bags into the studio fully rehearsed. Except for his collaboration with Mike Nigro in DC Snipers, McGee has never been able to work in a band with another songwriter.
"I want everybody to be confident that they know what the songs are, which is mostly stuff that is bouncing around in my head," he says. "I know where the drum fills should be, when the bass player should play on the neck. I've tried it other ways. If you work with musicians who know where you're coming from, it's not a control thing."
McGee had plenty of control with every aspect of Shake My Head; the band had the latitude to work on it over a period of about 18 months, thanks to their reduced touring schedule and a friendly engineer, local songwriter and producer Wesley Wolfe. He gave McGee a digital 8-track loaded with the tracks from Memphis. McGee sat in his living room for six months, recording overdubs by himself or with musician friends who were passing through. It was the first time he'd had the freedom to spend so much time on a record.
"Before, it was always like, get in the studio, do as many songs as possible and get back on the road," McGee says. "But with Wes, it was very open. If I wanted to come by and mix for five hours or if I only wanted to do one thing for an hour, it was fine with him. Usually I'm paying somebody by the day, but there was no monetary restriction."
Then he paused, perhaps considering the nature of restrictions.
"You'd think that coming off the road and starting a family makes restrictions," he continued, "but I realized it was just opening up this whole other area of my life. You get trapped in a certain perspective: everything's about being on the road, meeting all these people. When I couldn't do that anymore, all that energy went in another direction. I think it's the best record we've done."
"We were doing less and less," offers Gregg Levy, the 36-year-old Spider Bags co-founder, by phone from New Jersey. "Dan had just gotten married and was focusing on his family, and I found myself like, 'What am I doing?'"
When Levy got a good job offer in the digital media industry in New Jersey, with a daughter in Florida to support, McGee gave him his blessing to do what he needed to do. Soon enough, Levy found himself back in the place and work he had left to pursue Spider Bags. For him, the trip to Memphis to record Shake My Head was surreal.
"I moved back to Jersey," he says, "and then five months later, I'm flying to Memphis and making a record. It was easy to forget that I had even moved to Jersey. But when it was time to leave, my friends got in a van while I got on a plane. I had cut all my hair off. When I saw the pictures, I was like, 'Wait, who's that guy?'"
Levy feels that Spider Bags' new album is the first one that truly represents them. Previous outings suffered several shortcomings, he says, whether it was the way the mastering and vinyl pressing was done on the first or simply how long it took to finish and release the second. "This third record," he says, "finally captures the way we want to sound, is mastered well, looks and feels right, and matches exactly who we are right now."
You have to wonder, then, how it feels for Levy to be off in New Jersey when the record he's so proud of is finally coming out.
"It is tough, hearing that they're playing shows with our old friends," he says. "These are my guys, these are my songs, this is my band. It's funny: For two years, we couldn't find a bass player, so I filled in on bass, and finally when I left, we found the fourth Spider Bag, Steve. So now there is the opportunity to get back on guitar and play the songs the way I want to play them, and I'm not there for it.
"I don't know if it's because the record is coming out or I've been here for two years, but I'm definitely feeling that pull again. Who knows? In six months, I wouldn't be surprised to find myself still in Jersey. But I also wouldn't be surprised to find myself back in Chapel Hill, playing music with my good friends Dan and Rock and Steve."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Eight legs and all."