Five guys walk into a basement.
If this sounds like the setup to a joke, it’s one nobody can agree how to tell or remember the punch line to. The truth, if it ever existed, was lost long ago in the space between the fuzzy and the flat-out forgotten. One’s time is just as well spent looking for El Dorado.
There were five of them, that much we know for certain. They came from towns like Red Bank, Howell, Leonardo, Ocean Grove, places largely forgotten with the browning of the leaves by those who use the Jersey Shore as their idyllic escape from the pressures of adjacent metropoli like New York City and Philadelphia. For these men, life went on after summertime ended, and they had to live it until they couldn’t.
They had all left long ago, except for those who hadn’t, dispersing themselves across America, and if they couldn’t quite remember whether they were running toward something or away from something, that may be because they were usually doing both.
The trail they followed there was strewn with dashed hopes and abandoned dreams. Many who had walked the path with them were long gone, but these five were still standing, beneath the first floor of an unassuming rental house, somewhere in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The top floors of the house were occupied by Paul Finn and Chris Girard, boyhood friends from the Shore who had recently relocated to Chapel Hill. They chose this house because it had a basement, a rarity in an area known for an esoteric set of inflexible zoning ordinances. By the time they were able to pounce on the lease and swiftly configure its enviable subterranean bunker into a makeshift recording studio and rehearsal space, complete with rudimentary soundproofing, they had coaxed a third New Jersey expatriate, Rob DiPatri, to join them from Florida, where a hurricane had just destroyed his house, leaving his pockets burning with settlement money.
In addition to his modest nest egg, DiPatri also had a name for a band in his mind—Spider Bags. He thought he knew the man with whom he could finally bridge the yawning chasm between late-night shit talk and reality. Happily, he was only a phone call away.
One night in the summer of 2004, he reached out to his dearly missed friend, still living in Red Bank, a man named Dan McGee, who, as fate would have it, had just completed (or tried to complete) a particularly disastrous performance by his Brooklyn-based punk band DC Snipers, who were then becoming notorious for pushing the limits of civilized society past their breaking point, from their name on down. For every fan they made, they made three enemies, but their admirers delighted to discover, in songs such as “All Humans Are Garbage,” “(They All Want Me To) Die,” and “All Day Funeral,” as potent a facsimile of classic rock ’n’ roll danger as could be found in the elitist post-Strokes NYC nightlife wasteland.
“I got up on stage and I broke all the strings on my guitar on the first song,” McGee recalls of the fateful night at Brooklyn’s Trash Bar, where the Snipers were supporting then-prominent WFMU DJ Dave the Spazz, “and I tried to finish the show by just doing the guitar parts a cappella. Everybody that was there to see Dave the Spazz left the room and there was, like, three Snipers fans there, thinking about how awesome it was that we just totally fell apart on stage.”
“That night, Rob called me up and he was like, ‘I got a name for a band.’ I was like, ‘What is it?’ He was like, ‘Spider Bags.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got some songs for that.’”
He did have some songs for that, songs like “Bad Complexion,” “Waking Up Drunk,” and “My Oh My,” songs that would ultimately become the cornerstones of perhaps the greatest debut album from a rock band this century.
Miles away from the confrontational and abrasive (if often humorous) punk rock of the DC Snipers, McGee’s new music was a more sincere and earnest depiction of the ne’er-do-well narrator he’d been establishing in his punk songs, drawing on his early years of studying Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and diving into its many adjacent rabbit holes. As he began to discover the magic of music, the young McGee was “just buying folk blues records, then finding what label [they’re] on and trying to find other records on the same label, getting into jazz and just going through the list of the people that played on it, seeing if they had any records, trying to find stuff that way.” Marrying this reverence for the most enduring American musical traditions to the immediacy and do-it-yrself ethic of punk, McGee had found a powerful new sound.
By chance, McGee also had a new neighbor in one Gregg Levy. These two had played together in the short-lived band Curious George when they were both 13 years old, but the better part of a decade would pass before they were reunited at a New Brunswick house party, when both Levy and DiPatri were then attending Rutgers University. From there, they developed a sympatico musical understanding, which would form the basis of what would become the sound of Spider Bags. All three played in the instrumental group Manny Trillo, whose triple-guitar, melodic prog sound never made it to the stage, much less the studio. “We tried to get it together with a bass player and a drummer,” explains Levy, “but we were more preoccupied with getting fucked up.”
None of the Spider Bags members are eager to divulge many details of the “really dark years,” but you need not look much further than the name of the band, borrowed from a particularly potent brand of junk then popular from Newark to Baltimore and beyond, to make an educated guess. On the album they would eventually record, the narrator waits exactly 99 seconds before declaring, on the opening track, “thank the Lord for heroin.” If none of the players relish in dishing on this lost era, having long since left behind the false romanticism that led so many to early graves, each look back with a certain amount of gratitude that it did not become permanent.
“We had all grown up together at a time when there was not a lot of guidance,” remembers McGee. “A lot of my friends died between 1997 and 2002. I went to a lot of funerals. I would say somewhere around 20, people that were my age that didn’t live to see 25. It was a lot, and I’m not exaggerating. It might even be more than that. It was rough. It was a pretty intense time and we all survived it and we were trying to just figure out what it means. That was kind of what the band name was about.”
McGee began pouring these feelings into demonstration tapes, which he would record on four-track cassette machines at both his own house in Red Bank and around the corner at Levy’s. Immediately, it became apparent that this new material was unlike any of their previous aborted collaborations. McGee “plays a song that he’s written and I just know right away. I got my part. [I’m] right there on the same page,” gushes Levy. “There’s only been a handful of those guys and, with Dan, it was just the most. Over time, we just got really good at reading each other. We also went through some shit together, and that’s all in there. It all helps inform it and shape it and give it meaning and depth.”
Levy was not the only one taken aback by McGee’s sudden quantum leap in songwriting ability. In the early autumn of 2004, Finn had passed through Red Bank with his then-active band the Kingsbury Manx, and when McGee offered up his house to the road-weary rockers, he also offered a glimpse at some of the music on which he and Levy had been working. “Literally, my response was, ‘Dan writes songs?’” Finn recalls with a hearty chuckle. “I never thought of Dan as a songwriter. I thought of him more as a shredding lead guitar player. I’d never heard him ever sing or write a song, so I was like, ‘How did all of a sudden he just pop out all of these fantastic songs?’”
It was then that a strategy began to congeal. When Finn and DiPatri discovered they had both been independently awestruck by McGee’s new work, they decided that McGee and Levy would travel to North Carolina for a long weekend in February 2005 to connect with DiPatri, Finn, and Girard in the latter two’s aforementioned basement to craft what would become A Celebration of Hunger.
They had tried this before. Some four or five years earlier, McGee, Levy, and DiPatri had been summoned to Chicago by Finn, who was then fulfilling mail orders for local record label Drag City. There, the well-acquainted quartet teamed up with Damon Che of regional prog giants Don Caballero, who wouldn’t be the last accomplished drummer to fall under the charming spell of the gregarious Finn. Within Finn’s second-floor apartment, they recorded an album under the name of the Buzz Buzzers. Naturally, these recordings were never finished, and the whereabouts of the master tapes are now unknown. Regardless, a template had been set by which the childhood chums could steal the odd few days of increasingly rare quality time under the pretense of “productivity.”
Undaunted, the five musketeers decided that history would not be repeated. McGee makes it sound simple enough when he explains, “I just always loved those guys. We had always tried to do things creative together, but it just never worked out. I had all of this energy now from the Snipers and then I had all these other songs. Those guys seemed to be into it, so I was like, ‘Why don’t we just do this together?’”
They would do it together, but they could not do it alone. If they were to avoid the same old traps, there was a vacancy to be filled upon the throne. Luckily, Finn and Girard had been playing in a North Carolina band called the Evening Pines with a drummer by the name of John Jaquiss. “Basically, we had one day to teach John the songs, and there were a lot of songs for him to learn,” McGee recalls. “A lot of [the material] is really straightforward, but some of it really isn’t. A lot of that stuff on there that he’s playing, those country beats, that’s not stuff that he would usually play, but he hung in there and he was incredible. It’s pretty amazing that he was able to just pick up all that material in a day.” He adds, with a wistful laugh, “I don’t think he really knew what he was getting himself in for.”
A single day may not seem like much time for a six-piece band to put together arrangements of more than a dozen songs, but they needed to hustle if they were to be prepared for the arrival of another of Finn’s local acquaintances, himself a fairly recent North Carolina transplant, noted record producer and engineer Brian Paulson. Paulson had begun his career in the Twin Cities, running live sound for bands no less esteemed than Hüsker Dü and Big Black, as well as producing early records by Rifle Sport, Man Sized Action (in which he also played), and others on the Reflex Records roster, a label administrated by the aforementioned Dü. Having cut his teeth in the most inhospitable of circumstances, both on rickety stages and ramshackle recording rigs, Paulson was particularly well-equipped to turn his basement into a passable “studio” and the fledging Spider Bags into a proper rock ensemble.
“Paul had gotten to know Brian Paulson just from being around town, and of course I had heard of Brian Paulson,” explains McGee. “I was a fan of the stuff that he had done and Paul said, ‘I think I can get him for an affordable price.’ Once that happened, it was just a matter of time, sending recordings back and forth to Paul and Rob and Chris, them learning the songs.”
“We set up pretty quick,” Finn says. “I remember being like, ‘Whoa, we’re already recording—what the fuck? I thought this would take a few hours.’ We didn’t have much time with Dan, but he seemed pretty happy with the energy of it. He wasn’t like nitpicking parts [or] how polished anything was, per se. It was more [of] a feeling he was going for. I think the main thing was he just wanted to have the right energy.”
This elusive energy was harnessed with the help of some of rock’s oldest allies. “Lots of beer, lots of whiskey, cigarettes,” McGee confesses. Though the bloom of spring was still weeks away, the seven men sweated through their shirts in their unventilated underground lair. This combination of close quarters and generous lubrication led to some fiery moments far from any microphone.
“There were a couple of near fist fights,” Finn fondly reminisces, “but it ended in laughter. We were such good friends. We acted like brothers. We were all pretty real with each other but we always had each other’s back.”
Beneath a 40-watt bulb and a canopy of exposed pipes, Jaquiss pummeled his drums with intent and authority, shattering the binary of power and precision. Atop this sturdy foundation did ring the weeping steel of DiPatri, the fiery licks of Levy, the weathered and warm harmony vocals of Girard, and the melodic but economic bass lines of all three, glued together by the swelling organ of Finn. In the center of this maelstrom, McGee poured out his battered but resilient heart, turning the physical and psychic poison he had imbibed and endured into medicine for future generations of heads thirsty for Real Life Rock.
After two days of the valiant Paulson wrangling this madness and feeding it into his humble traveling console, it was done. Paulson “is a fucking genius,” Levy exclaims, “and he not only finished it, he made it a work of art.” McGee and Levy began the long drive back to Red Bank, while their North Carolina comrades carried on with the slow and simple Southern lifestyle to which they were growing accustomed, and there, our story ends … or so it seemed.
“The thing with the Spider Bags was that it was not going to be anything other than a document for us,” McGee humbly concedes. “That was really all that we were thinking about. We were thinking about maybe seeing if somebody wanted to put it out, but pretty much I just wanted to do this thing with these guys that I loved, exorcise some demons and make something positive with these guys that had all been through a lot together.”
Fate had other plans. Somebody did want to put it out, a certain David Katznelson, who had recently left his cushy A&R position at Warner Bros., where he had signed such luminaries as Shane MacGowan and the Flaming Lips, to begin his own boutique label, Birdman Records. His ear still sharp, Katznelson knew a vital, essential rock band when he heard one, and the best record of 2007 had just fallen into his lap. Though the basement tapes had collected some dust after two years on the shelf, the sounds contained therein remained as fresh and exhilarating as the day they were recorded (in fact, they still do). Before long, Levy and McGee had followed their friends to Chapel Hill, this time to put down roots of their own, and Spider Bags set on the long and perilous road to legitimacy in the rapidly changing music industry.
“I was like, ‘This is a big industry dude and he likes the band. Man, maybe there’s something in this, let’s do it,’” McGee explains. “We started going on the road a lot and getting ready for him to release the record. It was like, ‘OK, this makes sense. We’ll just be based here [Chapel Hill] and see what happens.’”
“There was one four-month period where we were in Fargo [North Dakota] four times,” McGee continues, detailing punishing itineraries that would startle peak-era Black Flag. “It was pretty intense, man. We’d be on the road and I would be in the back of the van, calling people, booking the next trip. From 2007 until 2011, we were pretty much playing a hundred and some odd shows a year, easy.”
Success eluded the ever-struggling Spider Bags. By winning the hearts of sympathetic bartenders and forging connections with like-minded bands across the country, they kept the calendar full, just not their pockets.
“It wasn’t like we were some kind of like media darling or anything like that, but we were doing well on the road,” McGee explains. “I wanted to see how far I could go with it and what I could do. By that point, though, we’d been doing so much traveling that we just burned everybody out.”
By the early months of 2008, less than a year after the release of their classic debut, the original lineup of Spider Bags had effectively dissolved, with only Levy and McGee remaining from the original New Jersey contingent. They would put out one more record on Birdman, a third on Finn’s own imprint, Odessa Records, and, most recently, two on the pride of Chapel Hill, Merge Records. Now a father of two, making a decent enough living as a music educator, McGee doesn’t make it out to Fargo as much as he used to, but he continues to lead the Spider Bags into the studio to crank out one great record after another. Still, he recognizes that what happened in that basement that fateful February was something truly special, something precious, perhaps even something sacred.
“You know, I kinda remember having this thought when I was really little,” McGee remembers. “Like 3 or 4 [years old]. I was in a McDonald’s playground—you know how they have those at some McDonald’s, the little gym set? I was having a fucking blast, but I remember going down this slide and thinking, ‘This is fun, but this is never going to ever be this much fun again. This is just happening right now and I’m not always gonna think that this little shitty fucking playground is a blast.’”
This essay is an edited version of the liner notes for the 2019 reissue of Spider Bags’ A Celebration of Hunger.
Patrick Stickles is the singer-songwriter behind the rock band Titus Andronicus and the president-for-life of Titus Andronicus LLC, with previous bylines at Spin, The Talkhouse, and some of the most celebrated press releases from Merge Records.