Lord, Deliver Me from Penn Station
Lord, Deliver Me from Penn Station
A Q&A with James Felice
Of the Felice Brothers
By Geoff Gehman
James Felice answered the questions below while taking a break from chipping wood chopped to make way for a friend’s orchard. It’s the sort of quirky crossroads often found in songs created by the Felice Brothers, the band he created with siblings Ian and Simone. Over seven years the Felices and their comrades have performed stories starring the likes of Mike Tyson, Doris Day and a dying bum in Penn Station who cheers himself by thinking: “And I know on track number seven/There’s a train to take me to heaven, Lord.”
These yarns are sewn into a crazy-quilt career. The two Felices—brother Simone left the band in 2009–have performed their gentle, rowdy brands of Americana in studios ranging from a derailed train to under a bridge and venues ranging from New York subway stations to the Newport Folk Festival. They’ve earned a sterling reputation for concerts that are smartly raw, dangerously delicious, roadhouse/opera house. Their last record, “God Bless You, Amigo,” a collection of originals (“Lincoln Continental”) and covers (Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Jack of Diamonds”), is a pretty-much-pay-what-you-want online special that raised money to replace the group’s dead Winnebago. The instruments were acoustic because the Brothers’ amps were broken.
James Felice–accordionist, keyboardist, woodchipper—recently discussed this patchwork-quilt life from his pal’s 35-acre property in the Catskills, where he grew up and lives. Many of the topics concerned natural paradoxes: the strength of mistakes; the power of communal isolation; the any man’s land between real and surreal.
Q: Do you have a favorite story about performing in subway stations, a valuable lesson about being quick of feet, fingers and mouth?
A: I can’t remember a specific story. I will say that it was always a hustle down in the subway. If you’re lucky enough to have a congregation of 10 to 15 people standing around you in a semi-circle, that’s when you have to be ready to really let loose. That’s when you have to be real quick on your feet and mouth.
Q: What was the fallout from selling “God Bless You, Amigo” online at pay-your-own prices starting at $5?
A: It worked out well. We cut and mixed the record in two weeks and it came out a couple of weeks after that. We made it for a very small amount of money. Some people gave us $5; many other people gave more. Some people even gave us 100 bucks. We were going to thank them by mailing them a poster; I don’t know if we did. It proved that you can make a little bit of money without having to go through the record-deal rigmarole. Although next time we might raise the minimum payment to $7.
It was my producing and mixing debut. I recorded it with my rudimentary understanding of recording, so we didn’t put a lot of thought into it, obviously. I don’t care. I was happy. It was fun. I would love to do it again. Although next time I’d like to sink my teeth a bit deeper.
Q: I don’t like to compare bands with other bands, especially when the other band in question is The Band. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one The Band and only one Felice Brothers. I am curious, though, about your musical role models. What are the wells you dip into when you need a burst of inspiration?
A: If I need music to speak to my soul I will almost always go to John Prine. All of his records are beautiful and enlightening. I also go to Randy Newman, although he’s a bit more complicated, with more intricate arrangements. I love both of them. As a band we have very eclectic tastes. We listen to the Beatles or Zeppelin or Vampire Weekend.
Q: Do you have any musical mentors?
A: I would have to say my older brothers. Simone was a cool musician when I was a young teenager. I learned a lot from watching him play. He’s a very natural performer; it comes easier to him than it comes to me or Ian. Simone was also the one who introduced me to some of my main musical influences: Prine and The Band and Neil Young and Dylan and Blind Willie McTell.
Any tips I picked up from Simone have to do with not being nervous onstage. That, and embracing the mistake. When we began the band, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing; we were beyond our abilities. We weren’t good at all; we just had a lot of energy and spirit. But we just went with it. Right from the start we just knew that if it’s a live show, particularly in the subway, and you make a mistake, it doesn’t matter. If you fuck up, it’s just part of the deal.
Q: How are you different from and similar to Ian, as a musician and a person?
A: I’d say I’m probably more of a natural performer. To be totally honest, Ian is an incredible performer but he is very critical of himself and sometimes has difficulty letting go. He’s a very sweet man, a beautiful guy, and also very shy. I can go out each night and have a good time. I’m just more gregarious I guess.
Q: Is Ian the more mature songwriter of the two of you?
A: I think he’s the best songwriter living. I think that’s the reason we started the band. I remember hearing “Ballad of Lou [the Welterweight]” and it was just different than anything I had heard and so evocative. A lot of his songwriting comes naturally but I know he also works hours and hours. I just don’t have that concentration, that truly creative and critical mind.
Q: I’m a big baseball fan, so it makes sense that one of my favorite Felice Brothers songs is “Cooperstown.” I like the way that Ian moves from baseball to life, from landscape to mental landscape. And I love the line “Oh Ty Cobb you’re dead and gone/You had a game like a war machine.”
A: I love that Ian wrote something so beautiful about an all-around ugly person who was also an essential part of baseball. I mean, Ty Cobb really did have a game like a war machine. That’s such an inspiring song, even though the mythology is very painful. Again, it’s so evocative. It feels like watching a baseball game with my grandparents; the first chords just feel like summer baseball.
Ian’s songs tend to take place in a specific time and place. Anybody can relate to the emotions or the images or the ideas. It’s that specificity that draws you in, but it’s that nebulous quality, that surreal quality, that helps you stay there. Once you’re inside the song you never want to leave.
Q: Can you think of any Felice Brothers songs with the biggest reach, the most surprising afterlife?
A: We sort of threw “Whiskey in My Whiskey” on [“The Felice Brothers,” their 2008 CD debut] as a joke, while we were just sitting there the last day, before we mastered the record, when there was no turning back. It’s very playful, but I didn’t think much about it at the time. It’s become a very entertaining song. People love to drink and sing along and get rowdy to it. It’s covered all the time on YouTube. It has a life of its own in a funny way, which is fine by me.
Q: Can you remember a truly memorable crowd reaction during a concert, one that really changed the atmosphere, the temperature, of a gig?
A: I think of heckling and fights in the crowd, which can bring down a show. Sometimes people, particularly women, jump onstage and flash the audience. Sometimes drunk kids jump onstage, grab the mic from your hand, and sing. That can be really fun, and really annoying. I can’t imagine being that bold.
Q: What offstage roles do you play in the band? Driver? Peacemaker? Song sequencer?
A: [Fiddler] Greg [Farley] is the set-list maker; we make him do that. We all take turns driving, except for [bassist] Josh [“Christmas” Clapton]; he’s the gas pumper. We all try to be the most positive person in the room. Being positive is very important, especially if you’re stuck in the van or backstage every night. Things can get tense if you’re sick or no one shows up at a show or it’s a bad show. We always joke around and make each other laugh. We’re very lucky in that regard.
Q: How would you like to improve as a musician?
A: I’d like to improve vastly, in every direction. I’m very much an amateur on accordion and piano; I never had any formal training. I feel like I’m a good performer with a decent stage presence. But other pianists are so much better than me it’s almost hilarious.
Q: What goals do you have, within reason, within the next few years?
A: To be successful financially. To do things like buy a car. Own some land. Go out to dinner. We’re all in our late 20s to early 30s and we’re at that stage where we’re all thinking about our lives outside music, about dealing with our parents when they’re older. I just turned 28 and I personally have a desire to be upwardly mobile.
We make a living playing music, and that’s incredible. Playing music we want to make on our terms, without having a boss, is an amazing thing. But being your own boss, it’s a lot of responsibility. We need to move forward; we need to turn this band into a sustainable entity. That just means becoming better musicians.
Q: Does that mean being better financiers and marketeers, too? Maybe you should charge a minimum of $7 for the next online record and remind folks that $100 donations are most gratefully accepted
A: Exactly. Paying attention to little details like that will go a long way. We’re not trying to be rich. We just want to make our way and be useful human beings to our friends and family.
Q: How have the Catskills shaped the sounds and subjects of your songs? I grew up on the eastern end of Long Island and I think those wide-open beaches, potato fields and meadows really opened my senses and expanded my peripheral version, as a writer and a person.
A: I grew up in the woods, with no neighbors. We had little interaction with the outside world. We didn’t have much money. We never went on vacation. We were very much at home, a lot. I think that’s why I hate neighbors. I hate the concept of living in an apartment building, sharing a space with someone I don’t know.
We’re all isolationists in this band. We’ve all lived in the city for a year or two, but we all prefer solitude and silence to the hustle and bustle of the city. Yet our music is very dynamic and very communal. Some of our songs are very quiet and some are very aggressive, very in your face. Our music is very strange; it is not for everybody. I guess we try to create a crowd of people we would theoretically like to be around our music.
We love this music and we love traveling, but we also have a fierce pride about our home. No one in this band wants to live anywhere else but home. When we’re home we’re not having parties, we’re not doing coke. We’re just living our lives.
It’s a huge, startling difference between being home and working on a record and being out on tour. I mean, we have a show two or three days from now and I couldn’t feel more distant from that. My worlds are so different, sometimes I forget what I do for a living
James Felice: The Scoop
His first favorite song was Bob Dylan’s “God Gave Names to All the Animals,” which he first heard as an elementary schooler swinging on a swing.
He and his brothers Simone and Ian cut their teeth as public performers by playing Sunday barbeques hosted by their carpenter father at the family home in Palenville, N.Y.
A history buff, he’s fascinated by western Europe during World War I.
He and his Felice Brothers mates have opened for the Dave Matthews Band and toured separately with Conor Oberst and Oberst’s band Bright Eyes.
He appears with the brothers Felice in a documentary about the late Levon Helm, playing Ray Charles’ “Stand by Me” during a “Midnight Ramble” at Helm’s Woodstock venue.
His Felice Brothers compositions include “Indian Massacre” and “Sailor Song,” which includes the lines: “No grave for the swallowed sailor/For fishermen and slaves//No grave for the swallowed whalers/Who whisper in the waves.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares the Felice brothers’ belief that Ty Cobb’s game resembled “a war machine.” He can be reached at email@example.com.