Oh yeah, we knew we forgot something.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
We meant to post the extended version of last year’s interview with the Felice Brothers a long time ago. Sorry.
But now that they have a new album coming out April 7, Yonder Is The Clock, on Team Love (get a free download of the first single, “Run Chicken Run” here), this seems like as good a time as any.
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The roots-lovin’ Felice Brothers crawled out of the Catskills around the turn of this century. And everywhere they’ve played, from the subways of NY to the fairgrounds of Bonnaroo, they’ve killed it. We try to find out why with accordion player James Felice.
AS: How was your Bonnaroo?
JF: It was fun. I’d never been there before. It was hotter than hell, but it was really a great time.
AS: Did you get a good crowd response?
JF: I think so. I was pretty drunk, but I seem to remember that the crowd really enjoyed it.
AS: What’s going on with the band currently?
JF: Right now we’re getting ready to hunker down and start recording again.
All the songs are written, we just gotta put ‘em on tape.
AS: How do you think the Felice Brothers have been to get so much attention and success?
JF: Well, I don’t really know. I don’t know how this whole “media” thing works. We just play music and I guess people like it. Ultimately, quality goes with success, maybe. We’ve got people working for us – we’ve got a publicist and a manager and a record label now, and they all definitely do their part. But at the end of the day, hopefully it’s just the quality of the music.
AS: How is it being on the Team Love label, and are you a fan of (label founder) Conor Oberst?
JF: Absolutely I’m a fan of his. I think he’s doing great things in music, things that a lot people aren’t doing. He’s like a hero, in a way. I’m sure he’d hate to be called that. He’s really an amazing songwriter, and an amazing guy. And Team Love is a great label. They sign small, small, and smaller artists like us, and then they let us do what we want to do.
AS: How long have you and your brothers been playing together? Was it one brother’s idea to put the band together?
JF: We’ve been playing together for about over two years now, as a band. We all wanted to do it, it was sort of unspoken. I think Simone, the oldest brother, was the guy who was really like, “let’s just do this thing.” We sort of waited for him to speak, and then we were like, “yeah, of course, it’s obvious.”
That’s pretty much how it went down. Simone had the idea. It was a good idea.
AS: Who does the songwriting?
JF: We all do some songwriting in the band. Most of the songs are written by our brother Ian, but we all write some songs here and there, if we can. Depending on how many hours we want to spend, in front of the piano or on the guitar. We all pump ‘em out here and there.
AS: On the album The Felice Brothers, there’s 15 songs. Usually there’s 10 or 12.
JF: We recorded probably three times that number of songs during the session, and we picked out the ones we thought were the best. We figured, what the hell, if you get tired of listening to the thing, turn it off, you know? We had 15 good songs, and the album is better, not worse, for having that many songs. Plenty of great albums have more. I’ve never had a problem with an album being too long in my life. The more the better. Fuck it!
You get tired of it, listen to it later on.
AS: Are the songs on the album primarily Ian’s songs?
JF: I believe that most of them are Ian songs. Out of the 15, 11 are his. I think I wrote two and Simone wrote two. I wrote “Goddamn You, Jim” and “Whiskey in my Whiskey.”
AS: What attracted you to playing accordian?
JF: The accordion just kind of fell in my lap. We were playing in the street and all we had was guitars, and you can’t have a good band with everybody playing acoustic guitars. And a friend of mine had an accordion, he wasn’t really using it, so he let me borrow it. I just picked it up, and I really liked it, so I started playing it. I always loved the way accordion sounded. I never could get my hands on one because they were expensive, hard to find. But I got really lucky.
AS: Did the band change much musically from when you first started out?
JF: When we started out, musically, we had what we had. It was just a guitar, an accordion, a snare drum, a 150 dollar bass through a guitar amp, so once we made a little money, we were able to buy things – an electric guitar, and organ, and things like that. We’re just much, much better musicians when we started. We went from being a pretty questionable acoustic folk music group to a much tighter and better electrified rock music group.
AS: Did you have a concept of what you wanted the band to be like when you first started?
JF: All I knew is I didn’t want us to suck. That was all of us, we were like, “okay, we’re going to get together and do this thing, but let’s not suck.” So we put all our energy into not sucking. And we played music that came naturally to us. Music that we grew up listening to. When any one of us picks up a guitar or plays piano and starts playing a song, it’s usually in that vein. It’s like a natural thing – where we grew up, and the kind of people we are, it’s a natural thing.
AS: Do you feel as brothers there’s a commonality in how you play music and approach lyrics that you wouldn’t have with people you weren’t related to?
JF: Definitely. It’s because we all grew up listening to the same music and again, we lived together and the music that was playing, we all listened to it, so yeah – I think we can all relate to each other’s songs, because we know where we’re all coming from. We all grew up in the same way, so we all understand how we grew up and how it impacts our music, and like the lyrics and the songwriting and all that shit…so yeah, definitely, absolutely.
AS: Do you guys have any autobiographical songs?
JF: It depends. Some are, some aren’t. Some are stories we heard, some things actually happened to us, some are plain, made up bullshit. “Ruby Mae” was a story that our grandfather told us about his friend. He says it was his friend. Simone says that “Don’t Wake the Scarecrow” is very truthful. And uh, I believe him.
AS: How would you describe the songs you guys play?
JF: How would you describe it?
AS: Kind of folky and old-timey.
JF: I guess it is “folky and old-timey.” I’ve listened to a lot of folky and old-timey music growing up, and I wouldn’t necessarily associate the two. It certainly comes from folky, old-timey roots music, that’s definitely the basis for it. But folky, old-timey music, you’ll never hear an electric guitar, and you won’t hear certain rhythmical things that we do. It’s a combination of things. But I suppose at the root of it, it is old-timey music. And I think we’re okay with that, it’s fine.
AS: In that genre, would you say there’s room for innovation, or is it more about following and building on tradition?
JF: I believe there’s always room for innovation. I believe that all music, from when man started singing together and banging on rocks to make noise until now, music is an innovative thing. There’s no such thing as complete originality. But, unless you’re a tribute band, you’re always gonna add something to the music you play – your personality, the way you play music and write it, is going to be different from anybody else in the world. That’s just how it goes.
It’s been evolving, from like, traditional irish folk songs, in the 1800s, to the delta blues, and the country stars, of the early 1900s, to like Bob Dylan or the Band, to Bright Eyes, to us, or whatever, it’s constantly changing. Every song is different, and every song is an evolution from the song that came before it. Because you’re the sum of your influences, but you’re also the sum of your self. Those two things come together to create something unique. Every song is unique, even if it’s gonna have elements of other songs and songwriters in them.
Same thing with people. Everybody’s made of the same shit, the same cells, the same hopes and dreams, but everybody’s different. It’s the same sort of thing.
AS: Was there a song early in your career that you found really connected with people.
JF: When we first got the band together, Ian wrote this song called “The Ballad of Lou The Welterweight” that’s on our first CD, Tonight At The Arizona. We were sitting on our father’s porch when he played it, and we were all just blown away. I still think that song is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard. And then when we played it out live, and recorded it, people seemed to really connect with that song, in a big way. And it’s funny, too, because it’s a pretty long song, and chord-ally repetitive, but it’s just such a beautiful song, and the melody’s so beautiful, I think people really connect to that song. People come up to me and say they never cry, but they cry when they hear that song. Which is an amazing thing. That’s one of the first songs that really resonated with me, personally, and with other people too.
AS: You’ve played a lot of bars in front of a lot of rowdy crowds. Do you find the audience appreciates your ballads?
JF: Yeah, actually. I think they definitely do. Back in the day, if you try to play a song like that in a bar, you know, no one payed attention. We couldn’t hear ourselves over the chatter. But nowadays, people come to see us, and they’ll get rowdy when it’s time to get rowdy, but they’ll listen when it’s time to listen, and that’s a really cool thing to see. You know, sometimes, everybody’s fuckin’ wasted and drunk, and we won’t play a ballad, because no one wants to hear a fuckin’ ballad. It really depends on the audience.
AS: When you were playing on the street, did you find certain things helped connect you to the crowd?
JF: Absolutely. It’s gospel music. Singing about Jesus and singing about the Lord and singing about life, everybody can relate to that. Even if you’re not a religious person, when you break out a gospel song, everybody will listen, because there’s so much soul, and passion and love in the songs, it can’t be denied. Everybody will turn their head. Those are your eternal songs, “Glory Glory”, “Amazing Grace,” and “Two Hands” by Townes Van Zandt. We still play those songs. Those are the songs that have been around and will continue to inspire people, I think forever.
AS: You all have pretty wide tastes in music. I read you like the Wu-Tang Clan?
JF: We all love Wu Tang. Wu Tang, Ghostface. I’ve listened to a lot of 50 Cent lately. I listen to a lot of classical music and a lot of film scores. We’re all very into late, late Leonard Cohen, these days, like his 80’s stuff, like “10 Songs” and “The Future.” We just listen to a lot of music. In every form of music, there’s merit and things to learn. Whatever’s good. It doesn’t have to be old-timey, banjo and fiddle pickin’ shit for us to enjoy it, that’s for sure.
AS: Are there people who are up and coming who make similar music to you that you enjoy?
JF: We’re sort of still catching up on what’s going on today. There’s two amazing artists who I’ve worked with, one is Justin Townes Earle, who’s an amazing songwriter. He just kills me. And then there’s A.A. Bondy. Who’s actually related to us now, he just married our sister.
AS: You guys have been compared to the Band a lot, which must be an honor…
JF: It’s definitely an honor. I remember when I first read that, I was shocked. I was like really, you guys think this is true? A lot of people use that against us, but I don’t really understand how it could be a bad thing. We didn’t start out to sound like the band. I mean they’re amazing, one of the best bands ever.
And this whole “Basement Tapes” thing is crazy, us being compared to that, because I’ve never even listened to The Basement Tapes. Actually, none of the guys in the band have ever sat down and listened to them. So everybody says we sound like The Basement Tapes, and I really don’t even know what The Basement Tapes sound like. Which is ignorant on my part, but, you can’t listen to everything all the time, you know?
AS: One or two favorite songs by the Band?
JF: “The Weight” is the obvious song. That song is beautiful. It’s long as hell, it goes on forever, it’s got five versus, but you just want to keep on listening to it. When you’re sitting around the campfire with your friends, you break out that song and it brings everyone together. There’s also “King Harvest.” That’s an awesome song. And “The Shape I’m In.” That’s a fucking awesome song. That song blows me away. And “It Makes No Difference.” And…I’m terrible with names. All the songs are just brilliant.
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