There’s a feeling of disconnect that ripples through Cool Change (Trouble in Mind), the latest full-length from Columbus rock stalwarts Connections.
On “In Space,” the song’s narrator finds themselves living at a distance from a person with whom they once shared the same orbit; “Vacationland” paints a portrait of a cynic surrounded by crowds yet completely alone; while “Slow Ride” finds its protagonist setting off solo for the horizon, determined “to find love another time.”
While this sense of detachment feels particularly resonant three years into the COVID era, the songs were all written and recorded prior to the coronavirus reaching Ohio. “I think the last recording session was literally at the end of February or in early March of 2020,” said guitarist and songwriter Andy Hampel, who will join bandmates Kevin Elliott (vocals), Phil Kim (bass), Dave Capaldi (guitar), J.P. Herrmann (guitar/keys) and Michael O’Shaughnessy (drums) for on Saturday, March 25, supported by and Laughing Chimes. (Full Disclosure: Kim is a Matter News board member and Elliott is a contributing writer.) “It was weird. I remember washing my hands the whole time we were practicing because we didn’t know what the hell was happening yet.”
Hampel instead traced the disconnected vibes in the music to the uncontrollable nature of the songwriting process, which this time around surfaced a series of “hypothetical relationships gone wrong.”
“And then occasionally a couple of other things creep in,” he added.
With Cool Change, those “other things” included the growing sense of unease that coincided with the 2016 election (“Bird Has Flown,” with its references to crumbling retail and persistent, chest-tightening anxiety) and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from being in a band where the aims don’t need to extend beyond getting together with friends and making music with enough skill that you’re able to keep it going. “Never wanted to blow up, just contend” Elliott sings on “Steppin’ Out,” a line Hampel said was probably more directly about Connections.
“I think that’s exactly where we’re at. None of us have any delusions we’re going to be rock stars. But we can still do things, and we have a label putting us out, and that’s great,” Hampel said. “And that perspective comes with getting older, too. It’s fucked up if you’re in your 40s and you’re still battling, I think. We’re thankful for the fact that we’re still able to get together and do this, and I don’t know why we wouldn’t be doing it for years to come.”
And yet, prior to forming Connections, there were a couple of years when Hampel thought the music had left him altogether. At the time, he had just come off a whirlwind late-90s run alongside Elliott and Herrmann in 84 Nash, which signed with Robert Pollard’s Rockathon Records and was briefly courted by major labels. “We had all of these cool things happen, but … the lack of discipline I had in my life back then, I wouldn’t have made it. Trying to handle a weekend was bad, so trying to tour regularly would have been…” Hampel said, briefly trailing off. “I think what happened was for the best, basically.”
When the band eventually broke up, Hampel said he stopped talking to Elliott and Herrmann and hung up his guitar, content in the belief that part of his life was over. “And it wasn’t depressing either,” Hampel said. “It just stopped. And it wasn’t like I missed it. It was more like, well, that’s something I don’t do anymore.”
Then, Hampel said, he received a phone call from Elliott and the two hung out, which led him to again pick up his guitar, “and all of a sudden a million songs started coming out.”
The guitar has remained a steady presence for Hampel in the years since, and even in those times when he sets it aside for longer stretches, he said he returns to the instrument with a belief that there are still songs in there ready to be discovered.
“It’s that stream-of-consciousness cliche – that’s why you do it alone, because it’s embarrassing – but you pick the guitar up and you start singing and playing. And if something comes out, cool, and if it doesn’t, you put it back down,” said Hampel, who quickly found a home for this consistent outpouring in Connections.
From the onset, the new band felt more cohesive than those trying later years in 84 Nash, when youthful egos caused relationships to erode. “Back when we were younger, it didn’t always feel like a group of friends having fun, which is crazy, because we’ve been friends for 30-plus years,” Hampel said. “I love those guys. We just needed that break to grow up, I guess.”