Tuesday, January 10, 2012

10 Questions with Doug McKean (formerly of The GC5)

Doug McKean started out as the unbelievably energetic bass player and co-vocalist of Cleveland, OH’s The GC5 in the late 1990’s.  That band released two stellar full-length records, a slew of singles/EPs/splits, and a singles collection before calling it a day.  Since that time, McKean has released four solo records that mix elements of soul, folk, and college rock (among others).  His latest effort, the excellent Esperanto Sessions (read my review here), was released in December and is one of the records that everyone should get this year! 

What makes McKean stand out, besides the fact that he writes incredible music, is that he is a great guy. 

This interview was conducted via email 12/27/11 – 1/9/2012. 

For more information on Doug McKean check out his official website, MySpace, Facebook, Last.fm, Last.fm (with the Stuntmen), CD Baby, Yahoo Music, and AllMusic pages.

Dave:  You recently released your fourth solo album, Esperanto Session, digitally.  What's the story behind the new record?  Will there be a physical release?

Doug McKean:  I may press lps at some point. It depends. I've had a rough time keeping a band together the last couple years, so I've got to decide what I can do. 

The story with the record is that it's a bunch of songs I wrote as I decided to move away from Cleveland, moved to Austin for about 6 months, and then came back and got married. I wrote a ton of stuff in Texas, had a lot written beforehand, and just decided to compile it in a way that made sense. Bill Fox helped me with the demos and Ryan Foltz helped me with the final record. Really, except for a couple parts here and there, it's just me making a record with two ridiculously talented people helping the process along. The record deals with a lot of things. It's not thematic like records I've done before. I think it feels comfortable that way.

Dave:  From what I can tell at least, none of your three of your previous releases (Heels Up, Unquiet, and Concerto for Second Fiddle) were released by a record label (and if they were I can't find any label info on the CDs or in the liner notes).  Were all of these records independently/self-released?  Was Esperanto Sessions released this same way?  What made you decide to go this route for releasing your records? 

Doug:  Yeah, business relationships are not my best thing. People with the resources to put out a record seem to fall into two categories. 1) People I don't trust. 2) People I love, which would make me feel guilty about not touring like the GC5 did if I asked any of them for money.

Dave:  Your solo material is a fairly big departure musically from your previous band The GC5.  How do you describe your music for those who have never heard it?  Did your songwriting change over time naturally or was it a conscious decision? 

Doug:  It was an evolution. Really, working on the last, unreleased GC5 record in 2003 was the beginning of it. I was trying to stretch us out and not everyone was on the same page. Everyone was game, but we just didn't know what was going on. It led to the breakup of the band and Dave and I starting a new band called Motel Blonde. We were an artwork file error away from releasing that record, and then Dave and I joined another band that would become the Magpies, which was a roots rock band. Roger Hoover, the leader of that band, has written some stunningly good songs. It was a really fun band to be in.

As far as how any of this has influenced my style... I guess I got sick of people only relating to the most superficial aspects of what we were doing in The GC5, so all of this started with a conscious decision to do something that I enjoyed rather than fall into the trap of playing to our audience's expectations. Doing that might have been fun if we were the Rolling Stones or something, but I thought a lot of the people who came to see us could also get exactly what they wanted from someone who'd be happier giving it to them. I've always liked a lot of different stuff and I've always been curious as a musician, so I've grown into my interests a bit. The sound of it? I guess I'd say that it's a sound that makes sense given what I've done. I've just been bouncing around so much that it seems jarring at first. I've played a lot of folky gigs with some great pickers here in Ohio, done a Pogues cover band, The GC5 of course, The Magpies, played with some great Texas songwriters down there, so all of that just gets thrown into the pot.

Dave:  Speaking of The GC5, there was a short reunion a few years ago.  Is there a chance that we could get another reunion (and a show in OKC if a reunion does happen)?  Also, how have fans of The GC5 reacted to your solo material?  (Note:  As a HUGE GC5 fan I must say that I love the solo records.  Yes it is completely different but the songs are superb.) 

Doug:  That did, I guess, meet all the literal definitions of reunion, but it was very informal. I did a gig in Little Rock a few years back with Dave playing drums. Paul came along to see old friends and hang with us. Pete was living there. Everyone kept asking us to play a few songs and none of us were opposed to it, so we did. It was fun. We'd have benefited from rehearsing, but I think it made the people there happy. Sounded pretty good too, all things considered. It would be worth trying again. I'd just want to do it right at this point if we decided to do it. We've always been really good friends, and I think those guys will always be close to me in a way that no one else will ever be able to be. Short of literally fighting a war together, I don't know what could bring people closer than doing what we did.

As far as the reaction to the records... it's a mixed bag. The music industry is so different than it was even when The GC5 was together. I haven't worked with labels so the records haven't made it beyond the people that are interested enough to follow me. Most of those people are into what I'm doing and get it, and the response from them has been very good. Some people don't get it and wish I was still doing really fast punk rock, which I understand. I assure them and you that I haven't "sold out" or anything. Based on the sales of my solo records vs. sales of GC5 records, I'd have reassessed that strategy by now if that was my objective!

Dave:  Your latest record has elements of folk, soul, college rock (ala The Replacements and Paul Westerberg), and Celtic music (ala The Pogues).  What went into writing this record and the creation of these songs?  Was there anything that you were listening to or experiencing during the writing of the record that shaped the music?

Doug:  I love all the stuff you just mentioned, so it's no surprise. Elvis Costello's shadow is always looming. I'm always listening to something different. My iPod has actually kept me from obsessing about specific things as much as I used to, so it's hard to say there are one or two main influences. I think for everything through Heels Up, that was probably the case. There are noticeable homages going on throughout everything I do, but I think it's hard to pin the last couple records to too specific an influence.

Dave:  Many of your lyrics deal with political issues.  What are thoughts on the current political climate and the upcoming presidential election? 

Doug:  Well, it doesn't take a long memory for a sensible person to be afraid of the Republicans taking the White House. Beyond that... I don't know. Do any of us little people really understand that game? The one thing that really scares me is that the veil of politics being about how society decides how to distribute power, wealth, what have you, is being lifted, and the ugly tribalism beneath is showing. Probably not that unusual, but it does seem like an exceptionally ugly time right now. It makes me wonder if we're capable of dealing with the problems we have.

There is a much sharper political edge to this record than anything I've done in a long time. I've been touching on those themes sort of obliquely on the last couple records, but I brought it to the fore on a few of these songs. It's easier when a Democrat is in the White House. The country goes crazy in a way that doesn't happen when it has its daddy figure for a President. Those times are just disheartening.

Dave:  Are there any specific songwriters that have influenced you, your music, and how you write?

Doug:  Sure... Besides the ones you and I have mentioned already, Townes Van Zandt, Nick Lowe, Robyn Hitchcock... I guess this is a name dropping sort of answer... I was lucky enough to play with Owen Temple and Colin Gilmore in Texas. Met Adam Carroll and saw him play several times too. I learned a lot from all three of those guys.

Dave:  This is a High Fidelity inspired question.  What are your top 5 favorite bands/artists, albums, movies, television shows, books/authors? 

Doug:  Bands:  Faces, Sly and the Family Stone, Replacements, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Parliament

TV Shows:  (probably a pretty stock list on this one...) The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sanford and Son, The Sopranos, Get a Life

Books:  East of Eden, Cat's Cradle, The Brothers Karamazov, Wise Blood, Libra

Dave:   What's next for you?

Doug:  I'm laying pretty low at the moment. I want to get out and do some shows behind this record, but like I said, the band thing is always a challenge. I've got a lot of bits of tunes sitting around that seem like they want to get together on a really rocking power pop record. No frills. That may be next.

Dave:  Any final thoughts? 

Doug:  Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Anyone reading this who hasn't heard of the people I mentioned at some point in this interview, they're all worth at least looking up. More than anything, I'm glad to have had so many talented people come through my life. I hope to see everyone soon.


antidarling said...

Listening to The GC5 today (that's how i came across this - looking for artwork for iDtags on Google images) still great 10 years on. Saw them a few of times in SF and raved about them in MRR for years... Doug is a talent, Devin from Cobra Skulls reminds me of him...

Dave said...

Now I'm really going to have to check out Cobra Skulls.