Interview: Todd Congelliere of Underground Railroad to Candyland

words by Shahab Zargari | photo courtesy of Recess Records
| Monday, April 18th, 2011

Meats are cured. Wines and cheeses are aged. And Underground Railroad to Candyland has undergone a similar process to get to where they are today. This specific fermentation has been in process for over two decades and it makes the new album all the tastier.

Todd Congelliere (front man for URTC) founded his label, Recess Records, in 1989 with the release of his band’s first seven-inch record, FYP’s 11-song Extra Credit. As documented in a brand new mini-doc,  Todd originally created the label as a vehicle to release FYP’s material, and he did this by going to skateboard contests and selling what he had out of his backpack. He quickly sold his initial pressing of 500 copies. In between touring the US, Europe, and Japan, Congelliere began releasing records for fellow punk rock and DIY bands, and his label now has more than a mere cult following.

FYP began in 1989 as a one-man band with a cheap Fisher Price drum machine providing the beats. Fast-forward through the ’90s, fast-forward through the first decade of the 2000s and past FYP’s rebirth as Toys That Kill, and you arrive at URTC.

Now, what do the URTC guys have going on in the new album, you ask? Synchronized whistling, superb backing vocals, twangy guitars, and mesmerizing drum and bass. The songs are heartfelt, and the tempo keeps your head bobbing.

There’s some stuff on this new album you won’t find on any of their other albums, like the melancholy “2010,” an instrumental ditty that reeks of weed and surf rock and seems to echo the economic crisis residue we felt last year. And what’s this? “2010 Reprise” showcases lyrics for the song previously mentioned. And then there’s “The Wicked Shakes,” which puts the entire Strokes discography to shame. This is true rock n’ roll, suckas. This.

And live, it’s even better. These guys tour all the time. Make sure to keep your ear to the wire and go out next time they hit your town. In the meantime, check out the quick interview we did with the lead singer, Todd Congelliere, to get a better understanding of his bands and his label, Recess Records.

You, Baby J., Chachi, and Jimmy recorded some songs for your Stoned at Heart side project in the midst of recording the new Underground Railroad to Candyland album. The legend goes on to relate that you were all so happy with the Stoned at Heart sounds that you “scrapped the current URTC session.” What exactly does that mean? That this new URTC album on my stereo was recorded once, all the songs were trashed, and then re-recorded to what I hear now?
Yes, we were very happy with the Stoned at Heart session. Just the way we mic’d it all and the gear we used for specific instruments. But, also, there was some turmoil going on with the Underground Railroad to Candyland sessions. The record that is done now is actually [a result of] the third time we tried to record it!

Third? Wow!

Yeah, and we’re not the pickiest set of Axl Roses here either! It was just one giant curse for a while. Like a real curse! Not one of those imaginary curses.

How would you say this new album differs from past URTC output?
It’s hard for me to judge that, because I was under the microscope with the new one so much. Mixing, changing opinions and feelings, etc. But it doesn’t differ by much. There is definitely a formula. I dig it. Maybe the lyrics are a little — can I say — “deeper?” That sounds weird, but that’s the only [aspect] I can think of right now that might be different. Not that “No way, Miss USA!” ain’t deep. (laughter)

And, what does the crystal ball say about URTC’s future?

I dunno. I don’t like crystal balls.

Fair enough. When did you start calling your garage studio “Clown Sounds”?
I don’t know — maybe two years ago. I used to call everything I recorded “Cub Sound.” But that was my Tascam four-track I bought in the ’80s. I ended up selling it, so…enough of that. I’ve had a pretty big clown collection — dolls, paintings, etc. — for many years. Barely spent anything on it. Word got around, and people would just send and bring me these great gifts with clowns on them! Pretty soon it became massive, and when I moved into my new house I put most of it in the garage, which is the studio. Hence, “Clown Sound.”

Other than being bestowed funky gifts from friends, what does that mean to you? Clown Sounds?
Well besides just rolling off the tongue nicely, it might be a response to “real musicians” who think we’re clowns.

What kind of sweet equipment you got in there, dude?

My favorite stuff is the Meek compressor and preamps, AKG 414, and Neumann mics. I think we’re getting sounds that we love without putting a hefty fortune. That’s the most satisfying thing. I mean, there’s still a gear search, and that won’t ever end, I assume, but attitude and spirit go a long way! Especially recording in these times.

While every band member of URTC has been in 50 or more bands when tallied all into one lump sum, a vague outline leading to this album kind of goes like this: FYP, to Toys That Kill, to Underground Railroad to Candyland, to Stoned at Heart. But I want to go back to your first great success of a band, FYP, for a second. I know you hate the subject but it’s important. Is that okay?

FYP’s last official show was in the summer of 2000. There was an MRR interview my wife [Heela Naqshband] did with you guys directly after that show while you were still glowing with the ether (or stinky sweat), and I want to revisit some of those questions and answers. Heela asked you guys why you were breaking up FYP and resurrecting as Toys That Kill. Sean said, “We figured that maybe we should hang in the towel and start fresh…everyone’s got their little projects they’re doing and they’re all going well, and you kind of gotta shed old skin sometime.” What do you think about that statement as it related to that last show?
That’s pretty much perfect.

How do you think Sean’s statement relates to you now that it’s more than a decade later and you all still have projects going on and the label is still alive and kicking?
Still the same, but it’s just more clearer and less vague now. Back then, FYP and then Toys That Kill were the only bands we were in at the time. So when someone couldn’t do something, like a show or tour, it would be pretty upsetting. Nowadays, not so much. Everyone having different stuff relieves a lot of pressure, making every project a little more loose and fun. My recent mindset is that I feel super lucky to be able to play with these people. They are really, really close friends, pretty much siblings, and they also are super-duper at their instruments. Most people don’t have that. Usually it’s pretty much one or the other.

The label still being around is totally unbelievable! So many labels hit the dust from 2000 to 2010 that it’s insane to think about! There was about three months in 2010 where I thought Recess might get swallowed up by a shitty circumstance, and it really made me appreciate it so much more when the smoke finally cleared. I can honestly say that there is not one millisecond where I take it for granted.

In the MRR interview, you called Toys That Kill’s musical style “sideways poppiness. It’s a lot looser.” Is that what you would call the last Toys That Kill recording? Or even the new URTC album?
I don’t remember saying that. I said that? I never read interviews we do, but maybe I said that. Hmm, I like it. Sideways pop! Let’s do this!

During the same interview, you denounced an FYP reunion, even though Sean said he’d love to be playing maracas at 40. So then, why the change of heart in 2010, especially with Stoned at Heart, URTC, and Toys That Kill doing so well?
Well, yeah, we just broke up that day, so denouncing is natural. Christina Z asked us to do an FYP [reunion] at Awesome Fest and I said no a few times, or was really wishy-washy and back-and-forth about it. There was a ton of pride weighing down on me where I just kept asking, “Why?” Her reasoning was, “All my friends will have a fun time.” That made sense to me! I thought we’d have a good time too, and we did. It pretty much boiled down to that. There was no hefty bonus cash or anything special. Just a good show.

It’s funny because I was just talking to Jimmy the other day, and I said, “If I ever come up to you and say, ‘Hey, lets do a new FYP album,’ knock my teeth down my throat, please!” He laughed and then said, “Hey, that might be good.” Ha! I’m totally denouncing that right now! It will “never” happen.

Sean chimed in at one point in the MRR interview where talks of Recess Records came up about most of the bands you work with rarely touring. He said, “It’s hard when a lot of the bands you deal with are side projects.” Are most Recess bands still side projects, and if so, do you still find it hard to sell as many records if the bands aren’t touring?
I don’t remember too many side projects. I think back then, Recess bands barely toured due to jobs, etc. Now they do a little more. But I’ve never forced a band to tour, nor even said, “If we do this, can you tour?” I know that’s stupid because it’s the best way for bands like us to get exposure, but it just never came up too strongly when talking about a record. I think putting out a record that I feel is great is more important than whether it will sell or not. I want it to sell — like, really badly — but the focus is to put out great current albums by great people. It took me all the way to 2010 to realize that I shouldn’t work with shitty prima-donnas who don’t give a fuck about that.

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