Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Interview: James Felice of The Felice Brothers

The Felice Brothers will perform at Drumstrong
Rhythm & Arts Festival outside of Charlotte, N.C.
on Saturday, May 17.
In advance of the Drumstrong Rhythm and Arts Festival, taking place in Weddington, N.C. this weekend, we've spoken with a handful of artists that we're particularly excited about playing the upcoming festival. Drumstrong highlights a wide array of local and nationally touring artists, ranging from traditional leaning folk and bluegrass to post-punk and electronic, so naturally there's a lot to love about their lineup. Yesterday we highlighted Marley Carroll, an Asheville-based producer that headlines Friday night's festivities. Today we're sharing contributor Kyle Bement's conversation with James Felice of The Felice Brothers, one of the festival's marquee headliners. Be on the lookout for one last artist highlight with Dom Flemons within the next few days!

When did it become apparent that it was going to be music that you guys did?
I guess it was one of the only options left on the table for me, personally. I'd spent a lot
of my life playing it and not doing much else, like going to school or developing any other skills, a trade. I think by the time I was like 20, I knew that I couldn't really do anything else with my life and I had to play music.

That's cool, by that time, how long had you been- I mean, you must've been jamming....
They were older than me, and they were my cool older brothers, so I definitely absorbed a lot of that. I definitely looked up to them and I thought that was cool.
I was a teenager, so I started playin. They started playing music and I thought that was really cool. I was a kid, a teenager, and so I started playing.

What would say if you had to sum up the theory behind the Felice Brothers, what would you say in a word or a phrase?
A word or a phrase? I would say... That's a tough one, because I feel like when you try to condense your whole life down to a single word or phrase. We've never been very good at that, we've never been very concise or able to explain ourselves and that may be part of who we are and what we are. I think it's just "Family band plays good music." We're a good band. Not the best at selling ourselves, obviously, as you can probably tell.

I mean, that's how I explain it, they're these brothers and they're a good band.
Yeah! There you go. That should be enough, right? Nothing more sexy and compelling than that. I don't know, probably? But, we're hard-working, self made, and self taught and this is what we do for a living, our livelihoods.

I know you have a new album coming out, is it an evolution thing or more of a conscious decision that, "Hey, this is going to be different."?
This record is definitely more of like a synthesis between Yonder and Celebration. It's definitely more raw and natural sounding. More like a live band feel, I think.

If you had to describe Favorite Waitress succinctly, how would you do it?
Exciting. Vibrant. And just more natural, more relaxed and a more down and relaxed record, definitely more better. How's that going to look in fucking print? "More better?" It's more AND better. It's a more confident record for us. I feel like this our first real studio record, we recorded most of the tracks live and we got more out of it than we have in anything else we've done.

The first album was in a chicken coop and the next in a high school, is this record any different?
This album was recorded in an actual studio, for the first time in our lives playing in a real studio, in Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis' place, actually. It was a really nice opportunity to do that and not have to record in chicken coop or a high school, or any of those places that we've built, it gave us the opportunity to be able to focus on just recording an album and not anything else. It was a nice change of pace.

I've seen that you went on tour with Conor... was it Conor Oberst or Bright Eyes?
It was both, actually. First we went on tour with Bright Eyes, but we've toured with the Mystic Valley Band and also just with Conor Oberst as his backing band.

How did the Conor Oberst thing come about, did he seek you out?
Yeah, basically. We started working with some of the same people and we just got lucky. He had heard some of our music, and...he's really good about that. He's a really generous performer, and he takes smaller bands with him on the road. We just became friends, and we respect each other's music and sensibilities. He's honestly one of the best people I've met in my short career. He's a generous, kind human being.

I saw that Ian painted the cover of his latest album, Upside Down Mountain.
Yeah, yeah, he painted the cover of our record, Favorite Waitress and also Conor's record.

So you're going to be at Drumstrong outside of Charlotte? I know it's a cancer benefit, is there anything that particularly drew you to that event?
I mean, the way these come along is that they ask us if we want to play. For all intents and purposes, I guess we were hired to play. They seem like really great people and we've been in contact with them a bit. We're really excited to play the festival, can't wait to be down in Charlotte, it's beautiful down there. We're really pysched about it. They seem like they know what they're doing and it's going to be for a great cause. It's going to be a lot of fun.

Oh, I was just looking at your tour schedule and you're playing Charlotte, Charleston, and then hopping the pond to the UK. Is it a different crowd you play to over there despite what you do being so... American?
Yeah, the crowds are great in the UK. English people, historically, tend to have really great taste in music. They've always liked us over there. Our first really big shows were in London, and it continues to be that way to this day, where we probably do better over there than we do here in the states. They have good taste, not necessarily in food, but definitely in music.

You pack some hot dogs and stuff to bring with you?
No, you just need to know where to eat. You need to get Indian food in the UK. Ethnic food is always great in London. Bear that in mind when you're over there.

Speaking of great music, what have you been listening to lately?
I have been listening to this songwriter named Marissa Nadler. Have you heard of her?

I have not.
She is really, really amazing, I hadn't heard of her until she played a local show near where I live in the middle of  nowhere and I missed it because I'm dumb. People told me it was great, so I started listening to her. She's really great, she's got an album out July. It's beautiful, she sings beautifully, her songs are awesome and sort of strange sounding, a lot of them, but really very good. Very, very good.

On the subject of songwriting, how would you say a typical Felice Brothers song comes about? Do you lock yourselves in a basement and say, "Alright, let's figure this out"?
Yeah. A lot of the time. Y'know, it depends. We have all different ways of doing it. My brother Ian probably writes the bulk of the songs, no, he definitely does. Sometimes he comes to the table with a song that's done and we just do what we can not to fuck it up. A lot of the time, too, he'll come up with an idea or come up with a riff, a couple of lines, and we'll just hunker down and just spend DAYS locked in a room trying to figure it out.

Do you see the songwriting thing as... the way Nick Cave does, I heard an interview with him where he said, "I'm writing an album" and for the next few weeks, 8-4 mon-fri, he's writing an album or is it more natural than that?
I think it is like that, especially when you're busy. You're not writing a lot of songs on the road, so... it really is like you have to make time, carve out a piece of time to make an album and song writing is definitely a part of that. So, we'll set aside a month, or how ever long, to write an album because we have to make an album. And things come up, sometimes songs you write don't even get recorded for a year, or ever, or old songs come back up which happens sometimes and stuff like that, or sometimes you write a few songs in the studio, that also happens. We work so many different ways.

Cool, so it sounds like it's more organic with a schedule than it is rigidly scheduled.
Yeah. We're not the most scheduled people. It's good to have a deadline and good it's to know what you're doing because we don't like to just not do anything. It's good to be working. This is all we do. If we're not on the road or recording a record, we're working on a record.

How do you feel about festivals in general? I read an interview awhile back with Ian where it was obvious he was not a festival fan.
No one in the band is like a festival goer. I guess, you could say. We wouldn't go to Bonnaroo, or to most festivals if we weren't playing. I've never been to a festival in my life except to play it. That's just because we're pretty... not isolated... but we're not partiers. We don't go out often. It's not really our thing. And festivals can be poorly run, or they can have over busy schedules that can be sort of trying. You're rarely able to put your best foot forward in a festival setting because you don't get a really great sound check, the situation is not ideal. If you're headlining a festival, it's different, but for us, usually it's you get there, you run on stage, you plug in, you hope everything works, and you start playing. You're playing for a half hour or forty five minutes and that's it. It's not necessarily the most ideal, usually, but there's also an element there that's really fun because you have to play for people that wouldn't normally see you and also just like people who are in a totally different headspace. Maybe that has to do with drugs, but maybe that has to do with attitudes, as well.

Would you say you have a festival set list vs. a club set list?
FOR SURE. Usually, we do. We trim down the festival so it's basically more whatever acceptable tracks, or maybe more high energy tracks. I guess we're making a bigger splash in a shorter amount of time to try to get people into the band. Some of our tracks can be a little strange and I know there are hardcore fans that love them, but we there's also sometimes where we don't care and we just do whatever.

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