Plow United members Joel Tannenbaum and Brian McGee discuss their current projects
The tale is a common one: a couple of teenagers meet in high school, and bored in a suburban working-class town, decide to start a rock band. More than likely, they will play in a few talent shows, maybe record an EP on an older sibling’s gear in their parents’ garage, and eventually dissolve into the ether that is yellowing show fliers and forgotten websites. However, this worn-out story does not hold true to the legend of Plow United.
Founded in 1992, high school friends Brian McGee and Joel Tannenbaum began writing catchy two-minute punk songs that detail unrequited love, the trials of growing up, and being in the marching band. Later armed with drummer Sean Rule and West Chester based label Creep Records, the band released a couple of records with their sophomore effort, “Goodnight Sellout,” garnering them a decent amount of recognition and steady fan-base. Instead of fading away, Plow called it quits while they were ahead.
Plow United eventually re-united in 2011 to play Riot Fest East, and it seemed the decision to move further with the band was decided. While Plow is not as active as they once were, its members are still creating music. Both vocalist and guitarist Brian McGee and bassist Joel Tannenbaum are heavily involved in their own projects that rest just outside the realm of punk.
Tannenbaum has recently placed much of his focus on his latest project, The Rentiers, a stripped-down pop act that is billed as more of a collective between himself and whichever friends of his are available at the time.
“I was reading an interview with Jack Terricloth [Sticks And Stones] the other day,” Tannenbaum starts while nursing a cup of coffee. “When Sticks and Stones broke up it was kind of a bummer, so what he basically did was set it up so that he could make music and when people leave it’s not a tragedy. And I thought that was my idea, but apparently someone else had that idea a long time ago. So that was basically the idea with The Rentiers. I write songs and then I want to be able to record them a certain way and there are people that I would really like to work with, but I never assume that they are going to be around for more than one project, and that way if they are, then I am pleasantly surprised.”
And so far that has been the case with percussionist Mikey Erg of The Ergs! Fame and vocalist/instrumentalist Anika Pyle of Chumped, who both appear on The Rentiers’ debut “Here Is A List Of Things That Exist”.
“I’ve been in the studio twice with them since the first record. The second was in New York to record songs I have made with Seth Koffman from Floating Action. He’s a really awesome session musician out of North Carolina and a friend of Brian’s [McGee]. We had two songs, and then I went and tracked vocals with Erg and Pyle. That will come out on a 7” on Baldy Longhair Records in the fall.”
“Since then I’ve started arranging and tracking the songs with my friend Scotty who runs Death To False Hope Records in North Carolina. He’s sort of now permanently taken over the producer/ arranger role. I sent him the demos and he tracked all the songs in his studio in North Carolina. And then he sent them to me, I went back up to New York to a different studio. Erg did drums, Pyle did vocals. The newest additions this time were Dave Weston, who was the face of Weston for a long time. He played some really awesome guitar on it. And Heidi Vanderlee from The Chris Gethard Show sang a little bit, and of course McGee did some harmonica. That is going to come out on a split 12” next year with Crazy and The Brains.”
Tannenbaum cites The Rentiers as an outlet to create exactly what he wants to without having the public watch too closely and criticize.
“After Ex-Friends broke up I was at a point where the hype machine sort of passed me by. It had moved onto other nostalgic acts and people from the 90s. (editor note: I’m looking at you, emo revival.) I still liked making records, and I wanted to make pop music without going through the rigor of being in a pop band, and without having to go play at Kung Fu Necktie upstairs on a Tuesday night. Which frankly, I am just too old for. When we were making that Plow record in 2012 it was like “okay, people are watching” but now I don’t necessarily know that anyone is going to listen to this,” he says with a laugh, seeming to almost revel in the fact.
The lyrics of “Here Is A List Of Things That Exist”, almost appear to be, well, just that. They supply an information overload, throwing a constant stream of stimuli at the listener, similar to what is so commonly found in everyday life. It is comfortable relatable, and in just four songs the EP takes you from pop culture Nicki Minaj to the all-too familiar Huntingdon stop on the Market-Frankford Line, and west Philly’s Woodland Avenue. It most definitely reflects Tannenbaum’s headspace, and how he prefers to write.
“It’s how I talk, and that’s how I’ve been since I was a kid. I have always had my head in a book,” he explains while carefully patting the novel he was reading before our conversation began. “I’ve literally had people making fun of me how much I talk my entire life. This is the first record where I just wasn’t trying to edit it anymore.” That rings true in the songs. Even though Tannenbaum has a back catalog of music that spans over two decades, the words of the Rentiers appear the most natural for him.
McGee also took a hiatus from punk rock and released a solo album last year that draws heavily from his appreciation of American folk music. Ruin Creek is barebones, but shows the beautiful simplicity with an acoustic guitar and vocals. The album incorporates the energy that is unique to his punk traditions, yet fits in neatly among the work of Steve Earles and Hank Williams.
“I was focused on what they refer to as pre-war country and pre-war blues, which essentially is a lot of the stuff you hear on those scratchy old 78 records that got reissued. Specifically the Anthology of American Folk Music was a big one,” he says carefully, recalling his time living in North Carolina where he spent a majority of his time studying folk and country music. This shapes the sounds behind Ruin Creek, but there is not a singular artist McGee can cite as a major influence for the record.
“Folk music is one of those things where you discover someone you like and then find out who that person was influenced by and you go check that out. And then you check out who influenced those people, and you go back a little further. You find one person and then if you want to investigate what lead up to the other person, and you discover this whole world. You can do the same thing with any punk band. You could be like “I’m really influenced by Lifetime” and then you’re like “who influenced Lifetime?” It’s fun for me to backtrack and see who inspired the next, inspired the next person, inspired the next person.”
He draws the parallels between the two genres which he is known for playing, and it makes sense. It seems that the rich histories and similar ethos are what connects the two together, and fuels the phenomena of punk rock frontmen finding them on stage with an acoustic guitar and their whiskey-drenched lyrics. But for McGee at least, it does not seem like it will stay that way for long. His upcoming shows will feature a full band, filled out by Howie Cohen and Wills Weller on drums. “I’ve played with Howie [Cohen] in the past and it should be a lot of fun. I’m excited to play with a full band. It makes me realize that there are some songs that I sort of wish that I had full band recordings of. Maybe I can talk someone into re-releasing Ruin Creek…” he muses.
With that being said, it doesn’t seem like Plow United will be going away anytime soon.
“We will be recording at Little Eden with Pete Steinkopf (The Bouncing Souls), and part of it will be recorded with him at Lakehouse Recording Studios. We’ve known him for years, so it is great working with him. This will be the first time we will have be bringing someone in to act as a producer on a record, and I think it will be great. Sometimes you need someone to tell you a song is not quite right yet and help push it in the right direction. I worked with him to produce “Ruin Creek” and I think that worked out really well. I had sent him a bunch of demos so he kind of had an idea of what I wanted to do and I went into it knowing that it would just be guitar, and not a full band. But we agreed that it would be fun to make it not just an acoustic album. There was some stuff that we just did live and there was some stuff that we multi-tracked. One of the things that I noticed working with Pete is that he is good at bringing out the best of the takes and just doing it over and over again until it’s right. He’s real tuned in to the slightest variation on how you might sing a line and he kind of pushed you until you find that sweet spot. I’m excited to work with him again” McGee says.
“We have known Pete since we were kids and Pete recorded Brian’s last solo album. He did a really good job. Obviously Brian writes great songs but you can really hear Pete’s contribution on the record. He definitely steps back to see the big picture as a producer. Everything added up. Everyone’s schedules added up, and the kind of studio we needed and the time that we needed, it all came together. We’re fans of Pete so it’s exciting to be in the studio with him” Tannenbaum further explains.
With no album title solidified, the band will celebrate the completion of recording their fifth full-length by playing what they say will be their last show of the year next month at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, New Jersey. However, both The Rentiers and Brian McGee will be playing Philadelphia’s Ortlieb’s June 19th, and tickets can be purchased here.