Interview with Todd Congelliere of Recess Records, Toys That Kill
Underground Railroad To Candyland, and Stoned At Heart
By Mike Faloon Monday, February 04 2013
I first discovered the Vince Clarke Effect when I went through a synth pop phase. I was in my early twenties. I was curious. I explored. I found a bunch of tunes that I liked and realized that a guy named Vince Clarke wrote many of them. He founded Depeche Mode and wrote their one good song (“Just Can’t Get Enough”). Then he bailed and started Yaz. Then he moved on and co-founded Erasure.
Regardless of what you think about English dudes and their keyboard-centric dance pop, it’s the rare musician who’s had his or her hands on the steering wheel of three different active, visible bands—people who have been there from the ground up playing a pivotal role. To do so defies the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote about there being no second acts in American lives.
Todd Congelliere is one of the rare ones. He takes the Vince Clarke Effect and goes one more. He has four bands to his credit: FYP, Toys That Kill, Underground Railroad To Candyland, and Stoned At Heart. He also runs the finest record label in the land, Recess Records.
I interviewed Todd at the Empty Bottle in Chicago in May 2011.We spoke just after the release of the second Underground Railroad To Candyland album (Knows Your Sins) and shortly before Toys That Kill embarked upon their latest album (Fambly 42). We talked about Recess releases, long songs, and what it means to be Omaha’d.
Mike: My goal tonight is to interview three bands, so however long this goes is cool. Five minutes or whatever, it doesn’t have to be epic.
Todd: I’m going to go for my Pink Floyd “Echoes” then. Eighteen minutes.
Mike: Not many people start off by saying they want something to be like “Echoes.” That’s an unlikely destination. Todd: I’m sure there’s a dude out there in his room going, I want it to be “Echoes.” Mike: There’s probably a lot of dudes out there. There’s not enough dudes saying they want it to be like Syd Barrett. Todd: I think now maybe there is.
Other dude who overheard us: Nobody says they want to be Nick Mason.
Mike: But he’s dead now, right? Todd: So maybe that’s why. But Syd’s dead, too. [Pause] This is starting off bad. Mike: No, I like conversations like this. I like that first Pink Floyd record (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn) so much I recently went back and listened to some of their other early records, the stuff after Syd left. I didn’t get into any of them. Todd: I like Meddle. I love that “Echoes” song. I really want this to be like “Echoes.” Mike: Other than duration what would make this like “Echoes”? Todd: Me going che-ha-ha-ha. I could go into sounds like that one. Maybe some echoey piano. There’s a piano upstairs. We could move up there. Such a weird place to put a piano, right by the bar. Mike: Sounds like another side project brewing. Todd: Tonight it’s going to be born, for sure. Mike: Is that something that holds any appeal for you, writing really long, weird songs? Todd: No, not for me. I’d never want to do that, but I love, like, “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground. I always used to put that one before I would go out—by the time this song’s done I have to be ready to go. I love “Echoes.” There’s some Melvins songs, like that Lysol record, they had to change the name of it. It’s self-titled now. That first song (“Hung Bunny”), the intro is like eight minutes. For some reason I love it.
Mike: I was talking to friends about that today—what is it that makes those few good long songs good? There’s some Crazy Horse songs like that. Todd: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know. There’s some long, repetitive thing. There’s actually a Toys That Kill song, the last song on the second album (“No One”). It’s funny we’re talking about this because I’m just remembering this right now. That was going to be a really long song but the tape ran out. You can hear the tape running out, but it sounds cool. Mike: How much longer would it have been? Todd: I was telling everyone let’s just jam this out and we’ll edit it out later, just play it until we get sick of it, just in case. If it felt like it went on unnecessarily long we would have just cut it out. We were probably eight minutes into it when we saw Mike Vasquez, our engineer, standing at the door like, “Guys!” He didn’t want to stop us but at the same time you could tell something bad happened. He’s like, “I ran out of tape. I didn’t know you were going to do it that long.” We’re like, “That’s cool.” We listened to it and it’s so cool. The way the tape ran out, that’s not a digital edit. I think it ended up being perfect, that length. Mike: How long was the song before that when you rehearsed it? Todd: That was one of those songs that we did different every time. I don’t think we ever did a version that short. I even had it in my head that maybe this could cover the whole second side, like fifteen minutes. Thinking in hindsight, it would have been a bad idea. I think, on average, we played it for like eight minutes. That’s the closest we’ll ever get to something like that. Mike: You walked to the edge of that cliff and that was enough. Todd: Seriously, there’s a tape machine out there that was like, “No, man, don’t think about this; come on, I’m stopping this.” Mike: One good thing about tape is having those boundaries. Todd: Well, I’m not saying it was divine intervention or anything like that, but if it was going to happen, it was going to happen. It would have happened digitally, too. Something out there saying, “No, bad idea, guys. Don’t want to embarrass you.”
Mike: Do you have any recording plans (Toys That Kill)? Todd: Yes, it’s funny that we’re talking about this. We have about ten new songs that we’re going to do an album with when we get back. We tried to record a couple of the songs for a 7” to sell on this tour—limited, press up three hundred and sell them only on this tour. No MP3s, no nothing, just that. And while we were recording, there was some problem with the interface that I have—that everything channels through—and it kept freezing up and we couldn’t finish the recording. I had to get a new interface. We’re just going to take our time. The songs we were recording, we definitely wanted them on the album. Mike: Did you write all those songs together, songs that should stick together as one record? Todd:The way I felt was like, there was one Sean (Cole) song and one or two of mine, and I definitely want them on the next album because I like the way we play them. They feel pretty strong. It’s easy to justify if something goes wrong. Like if we did that (release the 7”), it would spoil the album. People would feel ripped off. We’d rather just say, “Here, here’s the whole album.” That’s just me justifying something that didn’t work out as planned. Mike: That’s what hindsight’s all about.
Todd: I’m the best at justifying things like that.
Mike: I’m psyched that there’s a new record coming out. Todd: Yeah, me too. It seems like we’ve taken a break. We really haven’t, but as far as recording, it’s turning out good. The Sean songs are awesome. It’s going to be good. I’m excited. I think we’re going to end up doing it in our garage (Clown Sounds). The sounds that we got to try to do that 7” were awesome. Everybody was happy with it. And we didn’t really try hard. We just set up mics and we got a really good guitar sound.
Mike: The same place where you practice?
Todd: Yep. We did the new (Underground Railroad To) Candyland record (Knows Your Sins) there. We did the Stoned At Heart record (Party Tracks Vol. 1) there. We love the way those came out. But Toys That Kill’s different. We’ve been recording at Sweatbox in Austin. We kind of feel like Mike (Vasquez) is a member of the band in a weird way. With the other bands it’s like, “Great, whatever.” But with this one (TTK) we don’t want it to pale in comparison to the other ones. He’s talking about driving out and helping us because he wants to be a part of it. He has some really good mics and he could bring some stuff and help us out. We’re going to start when we get back, so I don’t know if that’s going to happen. The best thing that’s happening now is that we can have a regular Tuesday night practice and we can track a song. Mike has a way better studio, by far, but if we did it there we have to take off work, we have to do it really fast. So we don’t know if that’s going to sound better (Sweatbox) compared to something that’s energetic because we’re not being rushed. Probably do multiple takes. There’s a lot more room to breathe if we do it in the garage. So far, we’ve like what we’ve done. Mike: I love those records—there’s a continuum of those bands. I’m trying to convert my brother-in-law to the world of Recess. I gave him a copy of the second Candyland record and said, “This is in the middle of the Recess continuum. If you want something mellower, then there’s Stoned At Heart. If you want something harder, then there’s Toys That Kill. But there’s a strong thread that runs through them all.” Todd: It’s good to hear that. That’s what’s great about the position we’re in now—there isn’t any pressure. If it doesn’t sound sonically as good as the last ones, well, we saved all this money and risking losing jobs and maybe we can go out and do a tour for a week instead of going out there (Austin) for a week. There’s nothing to fear in that aspect. And what we’ve got so far is surprisingly good for people like us who aren’t recording engineers at all. If this isn’t up to par, we can do something mixing-wise. You can always send it to someone else to mix it. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that, but there’s possibilities.
Mike: There’s a safety net. Todd: Yeah, it’s an awesome feeling to walk ten feet in the backyard and be like, “Okay, here we go, let’s try it out. Love it.” Mike: About a week ago, I got the new Candyland record. Recess on a roll lately. Todd: Thanks. That Arrivals record (Volatile Molotov) and Lenguas Largas (Lenguas Largas). I’m really fortunate. Mike: I expected it to take awhile for the new Candyland record to sink because I’ve listened to the first one so many times, but it’s not taken very long. My son wants to air guitar every time he hears “That I Dunno.” He grabs a couple of tennis rackets or a Wiffle ball bats—one for him, one for me. Todd: That’s cool. It took us awhile to do that one. The record was a hamster’s ass hair away from being done two years ago then we had these problems. The whole thing was scrapped for about two years. I was just thinking, “This is not going to happen.” Essentially, this could have been the third album in a weird way. The first song (“That I Dunno”) wasn’t going to be on it. That was last minute. There are a ton of songs that weren’t going to be on it (the scrapped version of the album) that I love. I’m not too into “everything happens for a reason,” especially with punk rock, but… Mike: You keep saying that. Todd: I think I am now! Because of this record. I feel like I would have loved it the way it would have come out before, but now there’s something where I’m so glad we didn’t do it that way. There’s some happy accidents. There’s definitely, like, to a certain person, it’s like, “Fuck you, we beat you.” Everything about it. There’s revenge. Mike: Funny, I don’t hear it as a revenge record. Todd: No, it could have been songs about how much I love my girlfriend. It came out differently than what we were doing before. There’s definitely satisfaction, victory. I don’t even want to go into it, and everyone feels that. We’re all really happy how it came out, especially doing everything from buying a piece of recording gear to putting it out ourselves. Not like, “We’re DIY!” But we didn’t need too much outside help beside mastering, distribution. And even mastering and distribution, it’s all people we know. It’s all people we’re friends with. Rarely a dickhead had their hand in that record. That was really satisfying.
Mike: That’s how I felt the first time I saw Candyland. My friend Frank said, “You’re going to love these guys.” It was at The Fest. I didn’t even have the record. It was awesome watching people respond to those songs and it felt like there wasn’t a dickhead in the room—anyone who’s here can’t be a total jerk. Todd: Even when we tour—when that band tours—and we show up and there’s fifteen people in the room, sometimes. We make those shows funner than a show with a ton of people. There’s something about those songs. Mike: Nights like that either splinter bands or unify them. Todd: I think I’m used to it. We make jokes of it, “Oh, we got Omaha’d!” Toys That Kill and Rivethead were touring and showed up to Omaha and the promoter said, “You guys don’t have to play. No one’s here.” So we call that getting Omaha’d. And if we’re on tour with the Arrivals, then no matter what, every show is going to be fine. But that doesn’t happen that much anymore: bummer shows. You get conditioned. Being with good friends and a good band. It’s hard to get like, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t know why I’m doing this.”
Mike: So what’d you do that night in Omaha? Play the show? Press on to the next town?
Todd: We pressed, really fucking hard, to the next town.
Mike: Have you played out with Stoned At Heart? Todd: Yeah, we’ve played a lot locally. We’ve talked about doing a new record too, but one thing at a time. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the same amount of space. Candyland came out last month. Then next month we’re going to start (Toys That Kill). With Toys, we’ve been talking about it (recording) but nobody mentioned an LP—“Let’s just record some songs and see what happens.” We’ve been talking about it for a few years now. Finally started getting comfortable to do it. Now people aren’t busy. I hope it works out like that. I don’t like doing too much at a time because it’s defeating the purpose. It’s not like, “We’ve got to crank this out now or the money’s not coming in!” I see it as I want us to not lose money yet. I want to wait a little longer. I think it’ll work out. Both bands have enough songs. Stoned has ten that we could do, but some of them are covers. Just learning new songs is fun. Mike: I like how you included demo versions of the songs with the Stoned At Heart record. Todd: I wanted to do that with every release. I started talking about that with everyone who was going to do a record with us and everyone was like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” Then they’d turn in the record and it’s like, “Where’s the demos?” “Oh, we don’t have any demos.”
Mike: It’s like extras on the DVD of a movie. Todd: What gave me the idea was just to show how the band started. I had songs that I recorded by myself and Jessica had songs that she recorded by herself. Mike: Kind of like trading tapes. Todd: We just know each other’s music. Every time she records something she emails it to me that night—just showing the maturity, just showing the steps—and it’s just cool to have. Every time I love someone’s album and I heard the demos, I like the demos. I remember with that band Gorilla Biscuits—getting the demo versions before that album (Start Today). I remember hating the album when it first came out. Mike: Because you knew those demo versions. Todd: Yeah, it was really slick. The demos were so much more raw and sincere, even the way Civ was singing. It was just cooler. I haven’t listened to that stuff in a long time but I was looking, recently, online to see if someone had that stuff, but I can’t find the same ones that I had. Mike: How did you find those early versions? Todd: I used to be friends with people who knew people in the New York hardcore scene and somehow tapes were passed around. Do you know Hal? Mike: No. Todd: Me and him were friends and he knew this guy who roadied for Youth Of Today. Every time a band would have a demo, they’d pass it around and it’d be like, “You’re going to get a baseball bat to the head.” They were talking like they were from New York but they were from Torrance. The whole thing is, too, that the degradation of the tape was so bad so it was even worse. Mike: Any solo stuff in the works? Todd: Yeah, I always do, but I don’t have any plans. I never have plans. If somebody asks me to do something, I’ll see what I have. Mike: Is that what happened with the full length (Clown Sounds)? Todd: Yeah, and I had a lot of stuff around. Once Burger (Records) wanted to do the vinyl, that kind of solidified it and I recorded some new stuff. I hate releasing something that I’ve had the songs forever. That’s boring to me. I won’t think it’s good. Doing something new gives me the façade that I did something good. I get sick of it. The test pressing comes and it’s like, “Oh man, I have this new song.” I probably have a hundred songs. Most of them aren’t close to good, but there’s ideas and stuff. Mike: You’ve got a sketchbook, right? Todd: Oh yeah, like five of them. I’ve been procrastinating recording that stuff. I’ll always think of a reason not to do it. I’ll be like, “Oh, I can’t find the lyrics,” and if I try to find the lyrics it’ll take me an hour and I’ve got to do some Recess stuff. But if someone asks, I’d get the wheels cranking.
Mike: What’s on deck for Recess?
Todd: Do you know that band Landlord? They’re from Bloomington. The dude from Defiance, Ohio. Their new album (Beneath the Wheel) is really awesome. It’s like a more punk version of Built To Spill. That’s coming out next month. This band Big Kitty. It’s folky stuff that the guys from Future Virgins are in. Doesn’t sound anything like Future Virgins. It sounds like Blood on the Tracks Bob Dylan. The O’Brother soundtrack. Will from Landlord sent me this tape, “Here’s the stuff. Let me know if you want to do it. Also, on the other side, there’s this Chattanooga band, Big Kitty, for your listening pleasure. And I kept listening to both sides of the tape thinking the Big Kitty stuff was this old band. I had no idea. I was like, “This is so good. I’m going to try to track down this record on eBay.” Before I did that, Billie from Big Kitty emailed me and asked if I wanted to do it and I was like, “Dude, I’ve already heard it.” That was cool.
Mike: Is it all four guys from Future Virgins? Todd: No, it’s just two of them, Cole and Willy. And I’m still doing the Bananas third album (Nautical RocknRoll) on vinyl and new Toys That Kill. I hope that’s it for the rest of the year. I want to do less and concentrate on each one as it comes out. Mike: Does it seem like too many releases? Todd: There was a point last year when I felt really overwhelmed with shit. There were a few months where I couldn’t even press records at the pressing plant I was using. All this shit got clogged up. Now I’m trying to streamline it. I’m trying to get to that point, but it’s hard to say no to certain things. Mike: Especially if you get excited about it.
Todd: If I like it, I don’t want to miss out on having something to do with it. That’s my problem. That’s my dilemma. Like, trying to find the line—all right, chill out or do it.
Mike: One last question. You’ve got four bands to your credit. To what extent have you thought about other people who have started multiple successful bands? And if you have, which people come to mind?
Todd: I haven’t thought about it at all, as far as I know. Sometimes I think I might get embarrassed by it. In like a “Who does this guy think he is?!?!” way. And that’s me talking about myself. But now that I'm thinking about it, Mike Watt is in tons of bands. The dude right around the corner!
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