A funny thing happened to Michael Connell on his way to a law degree: the North Carolinian decided to start a rock 'n' roll band.
"I figured there were enough bad lawyers," Connell said recently in a telephone interview from an Albuquerque tour stop. "I guess there are enough bad musicians as well, so I don't know where that leaves me."
Where that leaves him is the principal songwriter and rhythm guitarist of the Connells (accent on the second syllable), one of the latest exciting bands to emerge from the fertile Southeast.
"I wasn't too thrilled with the prospect of practicing law even when I was in law school," said the 28-year-old University of North Carolina alumnus. But he added that the band was never supposed to become a full-time venture either.
"I had no intention of taking this thing this far," he said. "It was just for fun, but it got carried a little too far."
Originally, the Connells (who play today at the Cooperage at UCLA and Saturday at Club Lingerie) were formed merely to work up the songs Connell had started writing in college after being inspired by the English punk bands the Jam and the Clash.
"It became apparent that you didn't have to be a virtuoso to concoct songs," he recalled. "I realize the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were the first, but the Jam and the Clash were the first that really shook me up."
In the context of the band, which also includes his bass-playing younger brother David and three friends from the Raleigh area, Connell started to develop his own songwriting style in a way that differed from many contemporary American bands.
"Until recently I wasn't too enamored of American bands, though that's changed," he said. "When I was growing up virtually every band I listened to was British."
Connell even acknowledged influence from one of the progressive-rock dinosaurs that the post-punk wave of American rock was supposedly a rebellion against.
"I was picking out Jethro Tull songs back in the ninth grade," he said. "A few years ago I didn't admit that, but I've come back around. I'm not at all ashamed to admit that I was a Tull fanatic."
Nonetheless, the band's Southern collegiate roots and aggressive yet sometimes wistful guitar-based sound have made comparisons to R. E. M. inevitable. It doesn't help that the Connells' first album, "Darker Days," was in part produced by Don Dixon while the latest album, "Boylan Heights," was produced by Mitch Easter, both of whom have worked with R. E. M.
"I listen to our record and I don't think we sound like R. E. M.," Connell said. "But obviously our music's going to fall into the genre that they happen to be kings of right now."
In the past year, Connell said, comparisons to the English band the Smiths have become even more common than those to R. E. M., though those, too, he finds hard to understand.
In any case, the Connells' sound is distinct enough that when a friend of the band dropped a demo tape off in the London office of Demon Records head Andrew Lauder in 1986, he offered to release the debut album. In the United States, the band issued the LP on its own label, Black Park. On the strength of that record, the band was then signed to TVT Records, the label that was launched a couple of years ago with a hit compilation of television show themes.
With support from the growing label, the rock press and college radio, the Connells seem to have a promising future. But Michael Connell admitted to doubts.
"I'm still a little incredulous about how things have gone so far," he said. "Things have come a little easier for us than I would imagine they have for some other bands."
Accordingly, he has trouble looking at being in a rock band as a lifetime career.
"I'm trying not to think about it too much at this point and see how it goes," he said. "I set my expectations not too high and as long as there seems to be some progression I'll stick with it. We're the sort of guys who will know when it's time to hang it up. At this point I couldn't say when that will be."
When the time does come, though, he knows there's one thing he will not do: put his law degree to work.
"I think I might have burned my bridges as far as that goes," he said.