Brian McGee – Ruin Creek (Album Review and Interview)
Brian McGee is set to release his latest solo record Ruin Creek on June 3, 2014 on both Square Of Opposition Records and Creep Records–the former handling the vinyl side of things stateside. It’s been well over a year that McGee has been waiting to get these ten songs on vinyl, CD, and digitized due to a dispute over album art work with his former label. The result is well worth the wait. It’s a collection of raw folk-punk with a tinge of country and blues, and even a courageous, very personal a capella gem. McGee comes off effortlessly in this more stripped-down solo setup, a definite different direction than with former band Plow United, who dominated the East Coast pop-punk scene since their inception in the early 1990s in Wilmington, Del. After the band broke up, McGee headed to Asheville, N.C., to further immerse himself in traditional folk and roots music. That change of scenery and soul cleansing is largely evident within the songwriting of Ruin Creek; all without losing that punk sneer and delivery. The album was recorded and produced at Little Eden Studios in Asbury Park, N.J., by none other than Pete Steinkopf of the legendary Bouncing Souls. A testament to the raw feel of the record and the minimalist attitude it takes is largely due in part to Steinkopf’s production coupled with McGee’s prolific songwriting.
The record opens with the title track, which tells the story of Ruin Creek through McGee’s voice, an acoustic guitar, and some backing vocals…how’s that for stripped down? It then quickly moves into the distorted rocker “Born In The Morning” and transcends to a beautiful country folk song ,“It’s Alright,” with backing vocals by Mary Ellen Davis of the Swayback Sisters. Aside from some help with backing vocals the entire record is McGee and a guitar, with a little harp here and there.
McGee is truly a talented songwriter who writes emotional, sometimes autobiographical sad songs but can easily turn the amp up, hit some pedals, and melt your face if need be. I listen to an absorbent amount of music from all different genres and parts of the world, for that matter. It’s very rare to come across an emotional a capella song these days, especially in the middle of a record. “Are You Gonna Wait For Someone To Die” is just that, and it’s equal parts moving as courageous genius.
I had the chance to catch up with Brian McGee to ask about the back story on that song, his new life journey as a Dad, the similarity in the DIY ethos of both punk and folk music, and some other interesting topics. Check out the interview below and make sure you grab a copy of Ruin Creek on June 3, 2014, you’ll be glad you did.
Sad Songs Keep the Devil Away: First off, congratulations on the birth of your new baby boy. How’s fatherhood and how are you adjusting to the balance of father and musician, especially releasing your 3rd solo record Ruin Creek?
Brian McGee: Thanks! Fatherhood is pretty amazing and I’m grateful and lucky to be a parent alongside my amazing wife Celia. The balance between dad and musician tips more on the dad side. Right now, it’s more important for me to focus on being a good dad and husband over being an active musician. I’ve never really reached full time musician status, so to back off from booking shows right now is no big deal. Thankfully, the folks who have put out Ruin Creek understand that. I try and get things done for the album when I’m not at work and when Jesse (my son) is sleeping.
I know you’re originally from Philly and that’s where Plow United was born, and then, after the hiatus/split, you moved on to Asheville, N.C. Was that a conscious desire to immerse yourself into American folk and roots music and just kind of re-inspire yourself due to the sudden interest and over-saturation of the pop-punk scene of the early/mid 2000s?
My move wasn’t exactly inspired by pop-punk over-saturation. I picked up the banjo in 1996 and started getting into bluegrass and old time music, just to fill my ears with something other than punk rock. I made a couple trips down to Western North Carolina to learn how to build banjos and furniture at a school called the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. Without realizing it at the time, that school and that area of North Carolina was a serious hot bed of the traditional folk music I was listening to in Pennsylvania. So, by 1999, Plow United was long gone, I was single, and I was ready for something new. And I found that new-to-me thing in WNC. And, I immersed myself so deeply that I started playing guitar at local square dances. I had a blast!
What other instruments besides guitar and harp did you take up while living in Asheville?
I didn’t really pick up anything new. I learned more about banjo playing styles, and got real into clawhammer banjo. There was a year or so where I tried to learn how to play the fiddle. But I realized how much time and energy that was going to take and decided to focus on writing. Plus, there were loads of good fiddlers around.
Why the move to Asbury Park?
My wife and I left Asheville initially for the New Brunswick area of New Jersey so she could attend grad school at Rutgers University. I ended up commuting to Russo (guitar shop) in Asbury Park to work as a guitar tech five days a week. So the deal between us was that when she was done school, we would move over to Asbury Park and live by the beach.
Was this your first time working with Pete Steinkopf of the Bouncing Souls as an engineer/producer? How did your friendship begin?
Ruin Creek is the first time I worked with Pete. We got reacquainted at Russo, when he was bringing in guitars for repair and when the Bouncing Souls would gear up for tour. That’s really when our friendship began. During the ’90s, when Plow United would open up for the Bouncing Souls from time to time, we all knew each other, but didn’t really hang out beyond a show here and there. It’s kind of a thing where we go way back, but didn’t really know each other personally until a couple years ago. And, by the way, Pete is a blast to work with and really drew out the best in me for this record.
“Are You Gonna Wait For Someone To Die” is a completely a capella song on Ruin Creek. How did this come to fruition? Was it originally written that way, or did you feel the lyrics themselves are powerful enough to get your point across sans any accompaniment, instrument-wise?
This is one of the more personal songs on the record. It has that “things have to get worse before they get better” feeling that is universal. I wrote the chorus of this song the day before Gabby Giffords was shot in Arizona. After that horrible incident I contemplated steering the song that direction, but quickly decided against it because writing political based/topical songs are not in my wheelhouse. So I turned the song towards my extended family, where there are grown men holding grudges with each other and no one will talk about their issues and/or agree to disagree and move on. And now one of my uncles is gone and there were conflicts that never got settled. The whole thing made me question how much is holding a grudge worth? And a grudge is worth Jack-shit to me. When I finished the song, I tried it several different ways with musical backup. But I decided that singing it in a traditional a capella ballad style would give the feeling that I was singing it right at the listener, almost making it personal.
I saw a show of yours back in Feb and you mentioned Kris Kristofferson as your favorite songwriter of all-time as evident to me on “My Wheels Are True.” It sounds as if it could almost be a Kristofferson cover. Who else did you draw from, as far as influences, for the songwriting on this record?
That’s a huge compliment on that song, thanks. I know the show you’re speaking of and I think I said he was one of my favorites of all time. I don’t think I could pick just one favorite all time songwriter. But on Ruin Creek I could safely say that I pulled on the influences of a pretty standard list of people: Townes, Springsteen, Paul Westerberg, Kristofferson, Dylan, Johnny Cash. Other influences came from punk and indie sources like AA Bondy, the now defunct band the Duchess and the Duke. Being thrust back into the punk scene definitely had an effect as well.
Are there plans for a Plow United tour after a tour to support Ruin Creek?
No immediate plans for touring. Plow United did a lot of sporadic touring last year to support Marching Band. Since we are a band with members on two coasts, it makes doing anything rather difficult and expensive. And, with Ruin Creek, I plan to support it as much as I can, being a new parent and maintaining a full time job. I’ll do some weekend warrior trips and a few festivals, but other than that my time at home is priority.
You have a side project with Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem, bass player Cat Popper, and Randy Schrager on drums called Molly and the Zombies, and you recently did a Red Bull Session together. I also saw a few shows scheduled in the near future. Are there plans for a full album and/or tour for this side project?
There are no plans made for a record or a tour. But, we’ve definitely kicked around ideas for recording and playing more shows. It’s a fun band so, of course, we’d like to do more things. But everyone has other/bigger projects that require a larger time commitment. We’ll see what happens.
What are your thoughts on the influx of punk and hard core influenced musicians/artists and their seemingly natural progression towards the Americana and folk scene?
I think it’s a logical one in a lot of different ways. Americana’s rise in popularity has influenced lots of genres, and the punk/hard core scene is one of them. You’d think that by having punk rockers gain some success with acoustic-based projects that the Americana establishment would pull some of them in. But it’s still two separate scenes. When you’ve made your mark in one scene, it’s hard to jump over into another and expect to have an audience. There are a few who have done it, but they are rare.
Another thing is that it’s getting to the point where people might be getting a little tired of the “another-punk-rock-dude-has-gone-acoustic” thing because it is everywhere. But, it is kind of an inevitable wave to ignore. Punk rock is known for being raw, honest and minimal–just like folk/acoustic based acts–and I think that’s part of the appeal. At the end of the day, good songs are what matter the most.
+Words By Scott Zuppardo+