THROW A DOLLAR IN THE BOX Felice Brothers

For the Felice
Brothers, it’s all about reflecting the energy of the crowd.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

 

43 years after Dylan plugged in, a relatively unknown group
from the Catskill Mountains electrified the
hallowed Newport Folk Festival with an impromptu unplugged set, standing ankle
deep in mud in front of the stage where Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger and Howlin’
Wolf once stood.

 

 

“I’ll probably never forget it,” James Felice says. “It was
pouring rain, and all our shit got soaked sitting on the side stage while we
waited to play. The band before us played their last song without power, ‘cause
the storm had knocked it out. The organizers wanted us to wait to see if the
power would come back on, but we just said fuck it, let’s play.”

 

 

Hopping down off the front of the stage, the Felice Brothers
could have played right into music critics’ hands by covering “Like A Rolling
Stone,” the defiant anthem Dylan sang during his set in ’65 backed by the
Butterfield Blues Band. It would have been apropos, given the circumstances,
but would have just further fanned the flames of Dylanphiles looking to dub
them the next Rolling Thunder Revue.

 

 

Instead, the three brothers- Ian, Simone and James – and
their friends Christmas and Farley rolled up their pants and launched into
“Lonesome Valley,” an old traditional gospel folk song that’s been sung by everyone
from the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie to Elvis Presley and Mississippi John
Hurt.

 

 

“For us, the music comes from guys like Mississippi John
Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Skip James and Jimmie Rodgers,” James says. “That’s
the music that we love.”

On Yonder Is the Clock,
the Felices’ fifth studio album and follow-up to their acclaimed 2008
self-titled release, the band explores murder ballads and tales of lost love
and desperation through a combination of brilliant songwriting and incredible
musicianship that thrillingly straddles the line between pure Americana genius and drunken campfire
dissonance. Charley Patton would be proud.

 

 

***

 

Tell me about how you
guys got started.

 

The origins of the band are pretty simple. It was me and Ian
and Simone in the beginning, playing songs we had written. We started out
playing at our father’s house at backyard barbecues in upstate New York, and then we
took it to the streets, playing on street corners and subway stations.

 

 

What was the
strangest thing you saw when you were playing in the streets?

 

Nothing that scarred me for life. The last time we were in New York City, we had just
gotten off tour and were fuckin’ broke. I think we had like $7 or $8 between
all of us. So we went down to the subway to try and make some money so we could
get some dinner. We found a spot that was pretty good, and we started playing.
There was a big cardboard box next to us, and this homeless guy came out and
yelled at us, told us we were bothering his sleep and kicked us out of
there. 

 

 

How much money can
somebody make playing on the street on a good night?

 

I’ve heard of people raking in a grand a night. Gill Landry,
who plays with Old Crow Medicine Show now, used to be in a band called the Kitchen
Syncopators. They used to play in the streets of New Orleans, and he’s told me stories about
making a grand a day playing to tourists. We never did that. Our best was 300,
maybe 400 bucks a day.

 

 

Let’s talking about
your new record, Yonder is the Clock.
I read somewhere that it was recorded in a chicken coop at your home in upstate
New York?

 

The last one was recorded in the coop, too. This time, the
coop was in a little better condition. We put a roof on it, framed it out and
put a wood stove in it, so it was a lot nicer as opposed to the first record,
which was sort of tortuous.

 

 

Tortuous how?

 

Just really long sessions. Our neighbors were always
screaming at us. When it rained, we couldn’t play anymore ‘cause the coop
didn’t have a roof. We were basically recording outside. You can hear cars
going by on the record, ‘cause we recorded right by this back road. There was a
bird’s nest in the rafters, so every song has birds on it. Looking back on it,
it was cool, but at the time, it was really a struggle.

 

 

You’ve been quoted as
saying that the new album is more complete than the last. How?

 

Besides being a difficult affair, the last album was also
sort of made piecemeal. We recorded a few songs here, a few songs there. We
weren’t really recording a record; we were just sort of recording songs when we
had time, because we knew we wanted to put something together, but we didn’t
know what we wanted to do. We had many, many, many songs to choose from, maybe
30 or so. We’d demo them and think them over, and then just pare them down. So
it wasn’t really an album, but more collecting songs over time. Just kinda
slipshod.

 

 

 

The new album deals a
lot with the idea of mortality. Did that come together as the recording process
went on, or did you go in with the idea of making an album around a theme?

 

We just sort of realized that most of the songs that we were
coming to the table with were about death, in one way or another. Once we all
recognized that, we definitely steered in that direction. It made sense,
because we lost people who were close to us.

 

 

Yeah, I read the open
letter from your brother Simone about the loss of his child and subsequent
departure from the band. Did that influence the theme of this album?

 

Absolutely. Simone’s loss was a big part of it, and there
were other things that just showed us that life is short. In that one instance,
it’s really, really, really short.

 

 

Simone has left the
band, and I know you’ve got another drummer working with you now. Is this a
permanent move? I know he’s working on his own record now.

 

JF: That’s what he wanted. When we started, it was just the
three of us – me, Ian and Simone – and then Christmas [Clapton, bassist] and
[fiddle player Chris] Farley joined. Ian has always been the songwriter, first
and foremost. This band has always been about Ian’s songs. I mean, I write a
couple songs, and Simone’s written a few songs, and Christmas and Farley have
written stuff, but it’s always been about Ian’s songwriting. I think Simone
just felt he had a lot to say with his music, and he wanted to express it.
We’re really excited for him, because he’s an amazing songwriter. I’m really
happy that he gets to do what he wants to do and make the music he wants to
make. I love his music, and I think it’s great. Everyone gets a double dose,
you know?

 

 

What makes Ian such a
compelling songwriter?

 

Two things: the stories that he tells are so intricate and
beautiful. They’re funny, they’re sad, and the characters are interesting and
dynamic and memorable. I love characters. I love Randy Newman and John Prine,
‘cause you just feel like you can relate to the people in their songs. Ian does
that with an amazing, uncanny ability. And then he’s got these beautiful
melodies. The kid just has a knack for it. He does things I’ve never really
heard anybody do before.

 

 

You guys generate an
incredible amount of energy onstage during your live shows. What’s the secret?
Is it the whiskey?

 

You know what, man? It’s actually not the whiskey. I thought
it was whiskey for a while. A lot of us did. But whiskey is actually the enemy.
Whiskey can help if you only have one or two shows, but if you have four or
five or six, whiskey’s not gonna help you do anything but collapse into a pile
of shit on the floor.

 

Most of us – myself, Ian and Christmas, especially – are not
really terribly outgoing people, but for some reason, when we get on that
stage, we turn into different people. In the end, it’s really all about reflecting
the energy from the crowd. We need the crowd to be into it, or else we’re
fucked. It’s really important to us.

 

I think it comes from playing in the streets coming up. When
you’re playing on the streets, or in the subway, you have to be energetic, or
no one’s gonna pay any attention to you. No one gives a fuck about the guy
sitting on a crate playing the acoustic guitar in the subway. They could care
less. You have to be loud, a little bit obnoxious, and you have to have a lot
of energy, or else no one’s gonna care. No one’s gonna throw a dollar in your
box unless you’re really putting it out there. That’s how we started playing
together, so that’s all we really know.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Mentor
Noci]

 

 

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