Interview: James Felice
Released in early May, The Felice Brothers’ new album Undress marks a major step forward for the Hudson Valley band. Known for raucous folk rock anthems like “Frankie’s Gun” and “Cherry Licorice,” the quartet dials back its famed raw energy on the new 12-song collection — especially Ian Felice’s pleasantly raspy lead vocals — in favor of sonic clarity and elevated musicianship, resulting in their most mature record to date.
Prior to embarking upon a tour that will bring him to The Grey Eagle on Thursday, June 6, James Felice (keys/accordion/vocals) spoke with Asheville Stages from his Kingston, New York, home about the band’s personnel and sonic changes, sharing politically-charged lyrics with audiences, and the importance of breaking bread.
…on picking between two of Asheville’s premier music venues.
Honestly, everything about The Grey Eagle stands out to me. I love the people that work there — they’re really nice. The room feels good — it’s not too big, it’s not too small. The sound system is good. I like how close [the stage] is to the people. The Orange Peel is awesome, but it’s too big of a room for us and there’s a huge distance [with] the high stage. I like having people in my face.
…on his activities since Life in the Dark came out in 2016.
I’ve been making music. I’m trying to write some scores for TV shows — nothing that’s out yet, but I’m working on it. [And] living my life. It’s funny, there’s touring, and then when I’m not touring I’m home, working. I do a lot of chainsaw work, too. I cut down trees as well — tree work, I guess you’d call it. And I ride a bike around a lot — a bicycle — and that’s kind of it. I’m pretty simple.
…on new bassist Jesske Hume joining the group.
Two years ago, we were out touring with Conor Oberst — I was out with Will [Lawrence], who’s our drummer, playing shows as [Conor’s] band — and he got her to play bass. We met her and just immediately fell in love with her and realized what an amazing musician she is, and asked her to join the band pretty much right away. She showed up and has been with us for over a year now and is just absolutely killing it.
She’s a bass player’s bass player. That’s her job and life, playing bass. And she’s also a really good singer. She sings great harmonies with us and she’s such a wonderful person to be around, easy to get along [with]. She’s a trooper. We tour kind of hard. We do everything ourselves and she’s totally down with it, and that’s awesome because not everybody can handle the rigors of the road. But she’s a pro.
…on Undress’ more sonically mellow and musically refined vibe.
“Mellow” is a good way to put it, but we’re also maybe just a little better at music. In a certain way, at least for myself, I think overplaying is a symptom of not being that good. [Laughs] It’s something I’ve done most of my career, and I think once you get a little confidence and have been doing it long enough, you just sit back and realize that between the notes is as important as the notes. I love a record that has a lot of space, and I think that’s what we do. And also, we wanted to leave a lot of room for Ian’s lyrics and singing, and also for the harmonies that are featured on most of the songs. Those are the things I want to hear on a record: a few people singing and some harmonies, and some damn restraint for once.
The band’s about a lot of things, but one of the main things — probably the main thing — is Ian’s lyrics. I think the lyrics are profoundly good. I think my brother is one of the best songwriters around. Alive. I’m not afraid to say that. I think I can say that without being hyperbolic. So, let the man speak and try not to get in his way and just do what we can to support and enhance his songwriting where we can and where it warrants.
…on the mature studio album’s impact on the band’s live show.
We still let loose a lot on stage. The live show is all about hitting a dynamic and there’s still a lot of energy, and some of it’s frenetic, which I also love to see. But also, there is opportunity for some more musicality — particularly for harmonies. I think that we’re getting pretty good at those. We have some fun three-part harmonies that we love to sing. We have this really great rhythm section, so Ian and and I can sort of lay back in the cut and let those guys do most of the work and enjoy ourselves.
…on the kind of crowd reactions the band is getting from Undress’ more overtly political songs.
So far, it’s always been positive. Anybody that’s had a problem with it, they haven’t come to me. And I go out after every show and basically talk to everybody at the show. I guess in a certain way we’re preaching to the choir, but also, we’re not trying to be confrontational, necessarily. One of the most important things to me at a show is inclusivity and making people feel welcome and comfortable. We’re grateful that they’re there. It’s not easy to get people to come to shows anymore, so I want to create that space where people feel appreciated. And so even thought the lyrics are political and have a perspective that’s very strong, we’re all brothers and sisters in America here, so it’s all good. Come as you are. We love you.
…on the sorts of action he’d these songs to inspire in listeners.
I think that is for the listener to decide. I don’t think there’s anything compelling in the sense of of being compelled to do something. We’re not calling people to do a certain thing. There are bands who do that, and they do that effectively, like Rage Against the Machine. I think our music’s more observational. It’s just the way we see the world and if that helps solidify something you believe or helps you change your mind in some way, which is hard to do, great! I always encourage people to be civically minded — and at the very least, vote. At the very least, stop complaining and go vote.
…on whether the Undress tour feels different from past ones.
Not necessarily. We’re really proud of this record and focused on playing the best shows we can. We’re also a smaller outfit now. It’s four of us and we do everything — all the driving, all the tour managing, the merch selling. Every little thing, we do ourselves. It’s very much a DIY situation over here in Felice Brothers Land. And that’s been interesting for me because it’s a lot of work, but it’s awesome. I like a busy day and playing a show has become even more of a joy in a way. But yeah, we’re just trying to put on the best shows we can and respect our audience — the people that take the time and money to come out to the show.
…on the steps he and his bandmates take to sustain a healthy life on the road after touring for over a decade.
I really want to make sure that we have enough sleep. For me, after doing this for 13 years, that is my #1 priority, if it’s possible. And we try to have breakfast together every morning, which is another big thing. We’ll have a family breakfast — at least. Usually we have dinner together, too, if we have time. Breaking bread together is an essential component of maintaining relationships and building them — and it’s one of the most ancient things in the world, so that’s something that’s really important to us.
IF YOU GO
Who: The Felice Brothers with Johnathan Rice
When: Thursday, June 6, 9 p.m.
Where: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
Tickets: $15 advance/$18 day of show
(Photos by Lawrence Braun)