Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Plow United

Guitarist and singer Brian McGee can recall the moment when his band Plow United finally found their sound—mere months before the band broke up.

In the mid-90s, the members of Plow United were listening to a lot of pop-punk—the sort of four-chord, Ramones-influenced taffy that came to epitomize a lot of punk-rock at the time. "[Bassist] Joel [Tannenbaum] bought Screeching Weasel's My Brain Hurts, and kind of introduced us to the Lookout Records sound of the 90s," McGee remembers. "We were listening to a lot of Mr. T Experience and Green Day and all that kind of stuff, which informed a lot of Plow United for a while. And I was way into rockabilly and '50s music and stuff, so there's some of that in the early stuff." Silly and political, Plow United found supportive scenes in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and up and down the East Coast.

But something happened—a gradual and aggressive evolution. "We started playing faster and faster and faster," McGee explains, "and, the faster we played, the more the writing started to evolve a little bit away from pop-punk. We started to get a little more yelly, and whatever drama that was happening started coming through the songs, and I started screaming a little more." In addition to a harsher sound, Plow United's mood became darker, deeper, more reckless and irreverent. 

Plow United officially broke up before the release of 1998's Narcolepsy, the ultimate outcome of this evolution. Musically, some moments bounce with that benign pop-punk  sensibility, but most lunge and swerve unpredictably, hit like a punch to the back of the head and stagger away. On "West Chester Nuclear Winter", the record's opening track, Sean Rule's drums stir the song into a frantic tantrum and release it into a sway from which McGee's crispy roar swings. Even comparatively stable songs, like "Is Wrestling Fixed?" and "Someday We'll Look Back and Laugh" see-saw between chaos and control. Collaboratively written by the band's three members, Narcolepsy is full of raucous pop and spontaneous combustion.

"When Narcolepsy came out, people were like, 'That's the dark Plow record,'" McGee remembers. "We kind of put everything out there right on that record. I guess it was pretty cathartic to just scream my head off about whatever was going on with me, or whatever was going on with Joel, or with Sean—just let it all out there.

"It just went that way," he adds. "There was never a decision, like, 'Let's scream more.' It just went there."

For years after their break up, promoters tried to reunite Plow United, but the time was never right; aside from the fact that the three members were in different parts of the country, McGee wasn't sure the band was ready for a full-fledged reunion until they were offered to play Riot Fest East in 2011. "Outside of the decadence of opening for the Descendents and X," he says, "there was sort of a general feeling of, 'Yeah, why not? That sounds fun.' I don't know. Maybe the timing was just right, maybe enough time had gone by. I don't know why 2011 and not 2005, but there was something that felt right."

When Rule flew in from Oregon the day before Riot Fest for the band's first rehearsal in almost fifteen years, McGee was surprised to find that the raucous pop that Plow United had finally found with Narcolepsy, with all its catchy aggression and guts, had returned with him. "It was a pretty amazing feeling, I'm not going to lie," McGee revealed. "Everything just fell into place. It was like riding a bike again. All the little nuances and stops and accents in each song were right there. We ran through the set twice, and it was like, woah." 

It took a year and a half for the newly reformed Plow United to release Marching Band on Jump Start Records. On it, the band further refines their combination of catchy and raw. McGee's guitar is cleaner but crispier, his voice more melodic and acidic; Tannenbaum's bass thumps with more precision and more power, and Rule's drums careen more carefully. On "Human 2000", this refinement is on full display. McGee's vocals veer across his hoarse guitar and ricochet off Rule's bobbing drumbeat, all while Tannenbaum's bass tumbles in the background with endless energy. Despite its length—a mere seventy-six seconds—"Human 2000" may be the catchiest song the band has ever written.

Thematically, Plow United's songs still exhibit a certain sort of darkness and are still drawn from personal places. In "Next Five Minutes", which rumbles more with frustration than ferocity, McGee growls, "It's been a week since we've both been home / we got used to being left alone." "That song was super personal to me and my wife," he says. "It hits home the most for me, being married and in a relationship where we're both super busy and don't get a lot of time together. We criss-cross and have very little time to actually spend with each other. That's a very now theme for me, a situation that I live with right now that I wouldn't have lived with when I was twenty-two."

In this way, Marching Band reveals more than a band that has found and perfected its sound; it reveals that the sound was never the source of Plow United's power—that, instead, their honest expression, regardless of time or place, has made their songs relevant and memorable. "I think all the things we had to say [on Marching Band] came from pretty honest and true places, the same places they came from back in the day," McGee concludes. "We're older versions of ourselves, and we're just singing about things that are happening to us now. They come through in the same way because we're still the same people; we're just not singing about being in our twenties."

And, of course, it's because of this honest songwriting that Plow United's raucous pop—and their reunion—makes so much sense. 

McGee recorded these songs from his friend Spencer's house in South Philly on a imitation 355 semi-hollowbody through a Vox amp. Spencer was not only willing to secure a landline specially for the recording, but also hosted a "monumental night" celebrating the session, which involved both grilling and Evil Dead.

"Next Five Minutes" appears on Plow United's 2013 record titled Marching Band. "Last Call" appears on the band's 1998 record titled Narcolepsy. "Ruin Creek" is set to appear on McGee's forthcoming solo record of the same name.

Visit the band's website for more music.

To download these tracks, click on the song titles and download them from the player at SoundCloud.com.

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