Taking the Underground Railroad to Candyland with Toys That Kill: An Interview with Todd Congelliere

Stream the new Underground Railroad to Candyland record 'The People are Home' too!

May 19 2015, 4:25pm

Starting in 1989 with the release of his band F.Y.P.’s Extra Credit EP, Todd Congelliere has been steadily releasing records of his own and of similarly minded individuals via his Recess Records imprint. Todd C’s releases may be the highlight though; between F.Y.P.’s early bratty punk, to the more mature melodicism of The Underground Railroad to Candyland, Toys that Kill, his own solo project, and others, Congelliere’s pop sensibility has only blossomed with age, churning out more and more memorable records as the years have rolled on.

His latest release is the new The Underground Railroad to Candyland LP, due on May 28 via Recess Records. The People Are Home is a sweet, melodic punk effort where most songs seem like a single and every track is an exercise in perfect marriage of melody and jangly punk riffs. Stream it in full below and order yours via the label.

We talked to Todd C about Recess Records, Toys that Kill, The Underground Railroad to Candyland and more in a recent phone interview, the results of which are below.

NOISEY: As far as the new Underground Railroad record is concerned, it’s been a little while since your last album though you did release the Toys That Kill LP and your solo record in the years following. How do you thematically break these bands up?
Todd Congelliere:
There’s no science behind it at all, it’s kind of just whatever songs I have. Having the recording studio twenty feet away in my garage is probably what dictates all of it. Whenever we had a situation where we had more than eight songs, we’ll just pretty much focus on that. So that’s what we did for the Toys That Kill record, and then my solo record came out the year after that and had songs ready. I don't ever set time outs for those solo records. It’s kinda like, those are demos and I give ‘em to the band and if they don’t seem interested or they say, “Let’s do this song first!” then they’re just up for grabs. Then somebody mentioned doing an album, so I was like, cool. There’s no method behind the solo records. But the band, especially Toys That Kill, that will get down and focus and we’ll take our time. It’s our studio and we’re not paying per hour or anything. There’s definitely more of a focus with that. Candyland is a little bit more lax, it’s all different sessions.

So I assume it’s personnel-based as well. It’s like, well I wrote these songs but this is what I’m doing with these guys. I assume that’s what it is?
Yeah, but it’s hard. Candyland is pretty much everybody that’s in Toys That Kill, like Sean from TTK. He was never in the band until recently. We filled him in for some live shows. He wasn’t really on the record. He played some slide guitar, but wasn’t fully on the record. The actual rhythm section was the dudes from TTK. Most of it is all in the demos, we have like a high tail account where I'll send material to see what they think. Mostly I just talk to Jimmy, our drummer, and I say, “What do you think of this song? TTK or Candyland song?” and he’ll give me his opinion and then I might have my mind set on something and just say this is gonna be a Candyland song. But a lot of times if it’s on the fence then I’ll ask him and he usually has a little bit more objectivity to it, because it’s hard for me to be objective with it, it’s coming out of my brain. I don’t know where it came from, either, so I’m kinda like, “Well, this is what I was thinking when I wrote it…” It’s just really hard for me. There’s no method to it is basically what I’m saying. I’m surprised we actually get shit out, to tell you the truth.

As far as the new record, The People Are Home, I guess you said that this was recorded over several sessions? Was this a long period of time?
Well this is kind of strange. I would say even up to ten, eleven months ago, one of the songs that’s on there as a tracked version, we were trying to get something going but our bass player lives up in San Fran. We wanted to do the record with him but it was hard for him to get to and fro. We basically set a session for a weekend in August, recorded all the songs, and had twelve songs that we counted as demos. We gave them to him, he came down for a weekend and we tracked them all, and when I was mixing the week after that, I noticed the bass was out of tune. I was just like, holy shit. It was really hard for him to get down, it was almost like, a “here we go again, fuck this, I’m gonna take two weeks off of this so I don’t think about this,” then I went back to it and I figured, okay, these songs work. There’s some songs where his bass is still in there, and it’s still out of tune but for some reason it worked. It sounds a little more haunting, which is fine with me. It doesn’t sound out of tune, it just sounds like there’s something weird going on that hopefully no music scientist is gonna listen to. I’m not really worried about that.

I ended up using about six songs from that session, and the other songs, there’s about five songs on there that were supposed to be demos. We didn’t get the best drum sounds in the world, but the energy was there. I mean, the two songs that start off the record are from those sessions. The first song, the drummer was just like, “When did we do that?” I’m said that it was just the two of us on our first take. For some reason it came out OK, but I tried to mix it to the drum sound and it sounded halfway decent. It definitely wasn’t supposed to be on the record, let alone the opening track to it. It was kind of just like a “Fuck it. This makes me feel something good.” So that’s all that matters. There’s a lot of biting the bullet and swallowing of pride, once you get over that, the fact that it doesn't sound as good as you could possibly make it, then it’s all good. It’s a good feeling after that.

So I’m interested in how the split with Joyce Manor came about, because Joyce Manor is kind of doing big things now and it’s on your label which is pretty amazing. How did that come together?
Well they’ve been asking us to tour with them for probably a couple of years now. We just never were able to line up our schedules. We finally did, and we nailed down the tour that we did last December. Before that, I was just talking to Barry and he thought it might be a good idea to do a split for the tour. We recorded all that in the garage, too, so that was kind of cool because it was one of those things where we decided to do it then it felt like the next day we were recording for it. It was probably one of the fastest turn arounds, now you can’t do that because the pressing plant is so busy. It was pretty cool the way it turned out.

So what’s the deal with FYP?
I don’t know if it’s “we” or “me,” but I kind of didn’t feel like – basically it had slowed down doing shows again, just because we definitely have way more fun with our newer bands. It almost feels like now if we do shows, it attracts more people with newer bands. So it’s like this scratching on the head, like, “Why are we doing this?” It’s hard to say, but it doesn’t benefit us as much as some random people that never saw us. It’s one of those things where we’re kind of selfish when it comes to that. We have some fun, we don’t really care, but I don’t think FYP is at a point where we demand a lot of money, so there’s really not money involved. It’s just kind of one of those things where when we first did a show back together, our friend had a part in Awesome Fest in San Diego, she kept asking us and I was like nah, I don't want to. Then in this one email, she said, “You know, a lot of people just have fun here.” I was like, that’s all you need to say, I guess. It ended up being fun, we’d do it a couple of times throughout the year and then they just stopped being fun. It’s not going to the dentist or anything, it's just that we have so many bands. We’re kind of just over it and we just feel like it’s a joke to us.

Makes sense, you must put out at least one record a year under one of your various monikers.
Yeah, it seems like that lately for sure. I always thought that was lame when bands did that, but somehow we kind of loop holed that. I always thought the bands that just toured nonstop and did an album that was lackluster just because their label was telling them to do another album because the time was right. The records never came out as good as the last one. It was a rushed situation. With this, it’s like we have to scratch that itch, but it’s different stuff and keeps me interested. I get excited every time we do a record.

Do you feel creatively stifled because of the record pressing plants and how indie labels are treated?
I don’t know if I feel stifled only because that’s the point where the creativity part is out of our hands and into our manufacturers. At the same time, I have to tell people, I hear bands all the time and they write and ask me. The other day I heard two bands that rode in and they sent me links and I actually really liked it, to the point where I was like, “I can imagine this on Recess. This would be really good.” Then I came to my senses and was like, “Nope. They probably want this out this year and that’s not gonna happen.” So in that sense yes, for sure. But it’s more of like, I mean, a couple of weeks ago I pretty much had a freak out and was just thinking I was gonna take the whole year off. I talked to my pressing plant and they just told me they can’t come up with these records by the time that I needed them. I already made the schedule last year, and this is gonna be the first year where I actually kept to it and got the records out in time, weirdly enough. They didn’t really tell me about this until it was kinda too late, I had already made the schedule. It’s more stifling in the business part of it.

…But as an artist, too, they’re your records, too. You’re putting out your own records. I guess that’s also my question.
Yeah. I mean, that’s definitely the case. If this was two years ago, I would have had the records in hand for the release date a month and a half ahead of time. You know? So now it’s like, well I’m not gonna have the vinyl, I’ll have a CD, we’re actually doing CDs again just because I need some sort of format. To me it’s like, nobody buys CDs, I’m in a place where I can do a hundred of ‘em. It’s just like, I just want something to offer. I just have to change my frame of mind right now until the bubble bursts. This can’t be my main format right now, and it always has been. When I put out a 7”, that was Recess to me. In 1989 there was no downloads, and I hadn’t thought of doing CDs yet. Basically, once that came out, that was the release date. I haven’t changed my mind in twenty five years about that, it’s always been when an LP comes out, that’s when it’s out. You can buy it on iTunes, but fuck that, who cares.

READ: Repressed: How Independent Artists and Labels are Getting Squeezed Out By the "Vinyl Revival"

At the end of the day, I just want people to hear the music. I don’t care what format they prefer. There’s so much more stuff you can do instantly now, videos and media online just to get people to hear the music. That’s like, my main concern but it’s kind of heartbreaking. Right when you get to LPs, it’s this kind of excitement. It’s out! It’s out! But now it’s like, well okay, on the 26th it’s out. Here ya go. It’s really lackluster to me, you know? We’re doing a tour and I don’t even think we’re gonna have them for that. It’s definitely disheartening. We’ll get through it. I’m trying to think of it as no big deal. I can’t help but just hate this whole vinyl craze. I know I get some trickle down from it, but I had labels make fun of me for doing vinyl eight years ago. Now that’s all they’re doing. They’re independent labels so I’m cool with that, but now it’s like the majors are back in. They’re pressing out the worst shit ever, just clogging and constipating the present path. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t know who’s gonna be around once the bubble bursts with these pressing plants. There’s a divide. I feel like a lot of labels are gonna go under because of this, that’s their bread and butter. And they’re the ones supporting it the whole time, all throughout the 90s. It’s kind of sad in a weird way.

That’s an interesting point, I’d never thought of it like that.
Well my friends agree with that. They’re like, kind of scared. And I’m like, well you’re doing great right now. I kind of feel like, I don’t know how they would have a priority for labels that were around during the ten years. I don’t think they would ever do that. I think it’s on a first come first serve. When a major dumps 90,000 copies of something, everyone’s fucked.

One thing that I was interested in, with respect to all that, is the finite number of presses that also exist. The fact that these things are dying…
There’s none to buy.

There’s none to buy, and there’s none being made!
Weirdly enough, I think the only people that can actually get that going is the majors, and they’re kind of thinking, “How long is this gonna last?” I don’t know. I just know that somebody recently bought the last presses, and I think I heard the presses were so fucked that a ton of money was put into them. I don’t really know if it’s someone with a million dollars that gets somebody to build some more. I don’t know that much about it. Ironically, they’re the ones that could do it out of anybody. They’re sitting there thinking this isn’t gonna last that long. But I think it will. It never goes away, it gets thin and then thick again from there.

So you’re sitting on some records right now. Are you sitting on any material of your own as well? Maybe you have a TTK record in the bag…
Oh, well yeah, it’s not in the bag, but we’ve been definitely demoing and we have more than ten songs. If we weren’t going on tour, we’d be working on it a lot more right now. I think we started probably earlier this year, but we definitely have a flow caboose going on. That’s the way we like it. We’ll work on songs and then if we have time over the weekend then we’ll try to record something. I like to tell everyone that we’re just doing demos, but sometimes we actually get good takes from that because people are more relaxed. So we’re in that process right now, and our plans are when we get back from tour to just try to go right into the garage and do them because we’ll be tour tight. We’ll play a few of them on the road. Definitely our next thing for sure. We like the songs a lot.

For a newbie, what do you think is remarkable about this record versus another Candyland record? Were there any goals that you had when you went to record this?
I can’t really think of anything. I can’t think of it as remarkable at all. [Laughs] I would love for somebody to call it that, but I’m not gonna do that. But yeah, I really hated the way the last one sounded. Like, as far as, there were a lot of problems we had and we pretty much tried to record it three times. When I finally turned it in, it was almost hasty, like, “I hate these songs already, here ya go.” You know? Plus, we transferred four of the songs that were supposed to be on the second TTK record. So it was almost like a gutted album, everything about it.

This one was kind of like, I want to take my time so that it’s not just sonically superior, even though that was really preferred, I just wanted to make sure the energy was there. It was something where, if we were to play it live, it would sound like that. There’s some people that see us live and think, “The records don’t sound like that at all!” But I never really thought Candyland on record should sound big or like you would see us at a rock club or anything like that. I always wanted it to sound like an old surf-y record. Yeah, there wasn’t really any goals besides that, to make sure the songs had energy. Even if it was sonically inferior, if it made me feel good, then that was the end result. That was it.

You have a set of tour dates out, but do you plan on doing any other more extensive touring later on? Or is this just to promo the record?
Yeah, we’re doing something in August, that’s gonna be less than two weeks. Probably up to Seattle where our friend’s doing a festival called Roadchella, then Total Fest is having their last fest and I think we’re gonna be doing that. That’s just pretty much a little over a week. The tour that we’re doing in June is the longest tour, it’s pretty much just a month. That’s the longest tour we’ve done in a few years. We haven’t really gone out for a long stretch of time. Like a week or two here and there. Well, Europe was almost a month, that was last year. So we’re doing that, then nothing planned after that. We might do something in October, something small. We don’t really plan tours anymore. We’ve never done a proper record tour, if we did a Candyland record tour that killed it, we’d go on tour right after that record came out. And vice versa, when Family came out, Underground went on tour right after that. So it’s stupid and if any business major saw what I was doing they would laugh at me and not get it. It’s never designed like that, it’s basically like, there’s this opportunity for us to do this band on this tour. That’s what we took. The record is almost meaningless compared to the tour. I guess Mike always said the record is a flyer for your shows. That’s pretty much a good thing to go by. Except for when we put out the wrong band on the flyer.

Which I guess is a possibility for you. [Laughs] So yeah, is there anything else you wanna say about the new record? Otherwise I’m sewn up.
Go listen to it. Any format. I don’t care. Whatever format you like. Just go check it out.

Fred Pessaro has been mobbed by the 3’s and they got him down on his knees. Catch him on Twitter.

6/10 Austin, TX @ Scoot Inn (URTC)
6/11 Denton, TX @ J&J’s Pizza (TTK)
6/12 Columbia, MO @ PDM (TTK)
6/13 Springfield, IL @ Dumb Fest (TTK) *
6/14 Chicago, IL @ Fizz (TTK) *
6/15 Detroit, MI @ Sanctuary (TTK) *
6/16 Bloomington, IN @ Back Door Bar (TTK) *
6/17 Cincinnati, OH @ Frankl Church (TTK) * ^
6/18 Cleveland, OH @ Happy Dog West (TTK) * ^
6/19 Ottawa, ON @ Ottawa Explosion (TTK) *
6/20 Ottawa, ON @ Ottawa Explosion (URTC)
6/21 Allston, MA @ O’Brien’s (URTC)
6/22 Allston, MA @ O’Brien’s (TTK)
6/23 Brooklyn, NY @ Acheron (TTK) *
6/24 New Brunswick, NJ @ The West (URTC) *
6/25 Trenton, NJ @ Mill Hill Basement (TTK) *
6/26 Baltimore, MD @ Barclays House (TTK) *
6/27 Philadelphia, PA @ TBA (URTC)*
6/28 Philadelphia, PA @ The Fire (TTK)
6/29 Columbus, OH @ Ace of Cups (TTK and URTC) ^
6/30 Ft Wayne, IN @ Brass Rail (TTK)
7/1 Chicago, IL @ Fizz (URTC)
7/2 Milwaukee, WI @ Cocoon Room (TTK- EARLY ALL AGES SHOW)
7/2 Milwaukee, WI @ Bremen Café (URTC)
7/4 Minneapolis, MN @ D4th of July at Triple Rock (TTK and URTC)
7/6 Omaha, NE @ the Hideout (TTK)
7/7 Denver, CO @ Hi-Five (TTK and URTC)
* with Benny The Jet Rodriguez
^ with Vacation