The biggest thing out of the Catskills since vaudeville, accordionist James Felice of The Felice Brothers took a second to talk to QRO.In the conversation, he discussed their upcoming tours with The Drive-By Truckers, Justin Earle, and McCarthy Trenching, their last tour with Bright Eyes, why they signed with Bright Eyes’ Team Love Records, their upcoming self-titled Team Love debut, being in a band with his brothers, how the ‘non-Felice’ members fare in The Felice Brothers, being compared to Bob Dylan and The Band, playing in subway stations, recording in a chicken coop, getting hit by lightning, and more…
QRO: How do you feel about having your first New York City headlining gig (QRO Calendar listing)?
James Felice: I feel great about it. We’ve played New York City before, but we’ve definitely never sold out, anything, never even came close, I don’t think. It’s pretty cool; it’s pretty exciting.
QRO: You guys are from the Catskills, in upstate New York. Is playing New York City particularly special, or is there another big city you gravitate more towards?
JF: New York City is… We’ve been to most of the cities in the country, and there’s nothing like New York City. Nothing comes close.
Even though we grew up in the Catskills, we never grew up that far from New York City. We spent a lot of time there. It’s like our second home.
QRO: Which do you prefer playing: indoor shows like what’s coming up at Mercury Lounge (QRO venue review), or outdoor festivals?
JF: We used to play outside in the street all the time, as a band. There’s advantages to both of them. I like playing in a nice venue, with a cool bar, that’s always fun too…
QRO: You’re going to be touring the West and Mid-West, opening for The Drive-By Truckers, and then you’re going to be doing the East Coast as headliners. Which tour are you looking forward to more?
JF: I would think both of them. I really look forward to meeting and playing with The Truckers; they’re an awesome band, I’ve heard a lot of really good things about them. I think it will be a lot of fun, big, cool, venues.
And then, after that, when we headline our shows with Justin Earle and McCarthy Trenching, that’s gonna to be fun, too. And we’re going back out west, too, all over the country again, we’ll be everywhere, headlining little shows.
They’ll be fun in different ways. They’re all playing music, so it’s all good.
QRO: You’ve also played in the U.K. How do U.K. and U.S. touring compare?
JF: Oh, wow… There’s actually a surprising amount of difference, even though we speak the same language. It’s a lot different. London and New York City are compared a lot, but I think they’re very different cities. One’s not necessarily better than the other, but it’s strange…
We played in London two months ago, we played a pretty big show there, there was a few hundred people there in the audience; it was great. It still blows my mind that people, three thousand miles away, across the Atlantic Ocean, listening to and enjoying our music.
QRO: Do you think you’ll be heading back to Great Britain any time soon?
JF: Yeah, I think we might go back there in May, late May, play a couple shows.
QRO: There’s such an ‘Americana’ feel to your music, yet the only label that you’ve ever released anything on was English. Why is that?
JF: That was more serendipity than anything else. We were playing in a farmer’s market in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and a writer just happened to walk by and hear us play, and he happened to know some guys from England who knew Tom Bridgewater, who owns and runs Loose Music, and they flew out and saw us play. We didn’t really didn’t expect that to happen. It sort of just fell in our laps.
QRO: You toured with Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst) last year. How did you meet him?
JF: We just met him through our booking agent. They said that we would be a good match with Conor, so they played Conor some of our songs, he dug it, and then, that was it. A couple weeks later, we were on tour.
QRO: And how was the tour?
JF: It was really amazing. A gigantic leap for us; we went from two or three hundred people, if we were lucky, to two or three thousand. It was crazy.
It was great times, Conor and the Bright Eyes crew, great people. It was really fun.
QRO: Was that why you signed with his label, Team Love?
JF: Part of it definitely was Conor’s reputation in the music business. He’s just a man of great integrity, and we respect that a lot. That’s definitely one of the big reasons why we signed.
QRO: Your self-titled label debut comes out in March. Is it all new material, or is there stuff on it from earlier works?
JF: There’s five songs on it from an album that we released that was a tour-only CD, The Adventures of The Felice Brothers. There’s five songs from that, and then there’s ten other songs that are brand-new, never put out.
QRO: What are the songs from The Adventures of The Felice Brothers?
JF: Uh, let’s see… There’s “Frankie’s Gun”, there’s “Ruby Mae”, “Helen Fry”, “Whiskey [In My Whiskey]” and… fuck… “Radio Song”!
QRO: What was making The Felice Brothers like?
JF: It was cool. We recorded the whole thing in a chicken coop.
QRO: You did that for The Adventures of the Felice Brothers…
JF: And for the new one, too. We recorded that shit at the same time.
QRO: Why in a chicken coop?
JF: That was the only space we had. It didn’t have a roof, really, but it had walls. We could put tarps over things when it rained. It was the only space we had.
QRO: When you did Tonight At the Arizona, wasn’t there a lightning strike?
JF: Yeah, that was at this abandoned camp, in the mountains. Yeah, yeah, we got struck by lightning. Nobody got hurt, luckily. There was a lot of rain. I think that building is now uninhabitable, by the courts…
QRO: Did you feel under particular pressure, this being your first recording for a label?
JF: No, not at all. The label that we signed to is great, ‘cause they’re gonna let us do what we wanna do, gonna help us do what we want to do.
But, we’re just gonna do our best, like we always try, doesn’t matter, label, no label.
QRO: Do you have any material that you’ve written since those sessions?
JF: Oh yeah, hell yeah, hell yeah. We’re gonna record a new album, probably in the spring.
QRO: Will it be indoors?
JF: Who knows where the hell it’s gonna be? We don’t know yet. We’ll find some place nice. Probably indoors…
QRO: What’s it like, being in a band with your two brothers?
JF: They’re great, they’re really cool guys. We get along great; it’s always a great time.
QRO: Are you the oldest, or the youngest, or…
JF: Of the three brothers, I’m the youngest.
QRO: You don’t get picked on by your older brothers or anything?
JF: I’m way bigger than them…
QRO: Do you have any other siblings?
JF: Oh, yeah – there’s seven of us, all together.
QRO: How does the rest of your family feel about you having a band?
JF: Oh, they’re psyched. I think, maybe at the beginning, they were sort of doubtful that anything would get done, but nowadays, they’re pretty happy for us, getting on our feet.
QRO: How does [bassist] Christmas handle being the only non-Felice?
JF: Oh, he’s like a Felice brother. We don’t differentiate, or anything like that, just because his last name is different. He’s just as much as any one of us, family, you know. He’s adopted.
QRO: Is he from the same town and all?
JF: Yeah, same town, he was my best friend for years.
QRO: Who’s that blond guy that plays washboard?
JF: That’s Greg Farley, who’s now a member of the band. He plays fiddle, and washboard.
QRO: When you guys played The Living Room, Simon had a leg in a cast. What had happened, and how is he now?
JF: He’s fine now, what happened was, we were playing this festival, this street festival, and the last song of the set, Simon just jumped off the stage. It was five feet up, he just fell wrong, and broke his calcaneus, heel bone. He was fucked up for like, I don’t know, three or four months, but he’s almost totally better know. He doesn’t wear the boot, he walks, talks – I think he’ll pull through.
QRO: You get compared to Bob Dylan and The Band a lot. Would you be happier if you were compared to more recent acts?
JF: At the beginning, it was sort of weird, getting compared to Bob Dylan or The Band all the time, but nowadays, we just take it as a huge fuckin’ compliment. Who’s better than Bob Dylan or The Band? They’re not comparing us to, what’s a crappy band?… My Chemical Romance…
QRO: How much of “Ballad Of Lou The Welterweight” is true?
JF: All of it. It’s all true. I’m sure there’s some embellishment, shit gets changed over the years, but it’s a story Grandpa used to tell us, a good friend of his, Lou, Evil Louie, out of Queens. It’s all true, as far as I know.
QRO: Is there a Frankie of “Frankie’s Gun”?
JF: Not that I know of. I’m sure there’s some poor bastard out there that it’s a lot like, but I think that’s a fabrication.
QRO: What about “Ruby Mae” and/or “Helen Fry”?
JF: “Ruby Mae” is a true story about a dancer that was killed and then buried in Times Square. “Helen Fry”… Ian [Felice] wrote that song; I think that’s from a spy novel he read.
QRO: Are there any songs you particularly like playing live?
JF: I like playing most of the songs live. I like playing the spiritual ones, the gospel stuff live; that’s always really fun. I don’t think anyone’s playing songs they don’t like playing live. There’s no point in doing that.
QRO: Are there any that you can’t play, because of the arrangement or something?
JF: There’s a couple that we definitely can’t play, or just don’t wanna play, because we hate the songs now or…
QRO: What songs are those?
JF: Oh, I’m not gonna say which songs are those. I think there are a couple of songs coming out on this new album that we probably could never play live. Although, who knows?… You can pull ‘em off.
We write a lot of songs. A very few number of those songs get picked to go on out and play live.
QRO: You guys started off playing subway stations?
JF: Yeah, subway, and on the streets. 42nd Street, Port Authority over there, also Union Square.
QRO: Was that hard, doing that?
JF: Yeah. Sometimes it wasn’t. It depends. It depended on whether the cops would’ve kicked us out or not. Sometimes it was amazing; sometimes you’d play there, and there’d be fifty people there, standing around you, singing along, clapping, they’re laughing, and whatever. Then they all throw a dollar in the box and get on their respective trains. It was a really awesome experience, sometimes.
QRO: Were there a lot of rules and regulations?
JF: Yeah, there’s all kinds of rules. It’s always illegal to do it, unless you have a permit, I guess, but a lot of times, most cops don’t really care. Some do. It all depends. The MTA guys’ll kick you out… There’s all kinds of things.
QRO: You guys tour on a short bus?
JF: Now we got a Winnebago. We toured in a short bus for a while, but we upgraded recently to a Winnebago. It’s really cool.
QRO: What cities or venues have you really liked playing at?
JF: Austin was great, Nashville, L.A…. I actually can’t think of a city that I didn’t enjoy playing in, off the top of my head. Every place down South was awesome. Birmingham was really fun; Birmingham might have been one of my favorite times.
But it’s always a good time. So far, there’s always been something special about each place.
QRO: Are there any new places that you’re going to on the upcoming tours that you’re really looking forward too?
JF: Yeah, we’re going to Seattle – I’ve never been to Seattle – Oregon… Boise, Idaho – I’ve never been there. Aspen, Salt Lake City – there’s tons of places.
QRO: Do you have a favorite tour story?
JF: We met Gillian Welch on tour. That’s probably my favorite tour story. We hung with her; that was awesome.
As for ruckus things, where people get hurt and property gets destroyed? We try not to have too many stories like that on tour; we try to keep it a little bit professional. We don’t want to blow this, somebody get killed, arrested…
One time on tour, we were sleeping out on this cliff, out by the ocean. We picked all these mussels; they were just growing everywhere. So we had all these mussels, we were driving down the road to San Francisco, and we had this serious blowout. We were stuck in this place for six hours, so we cooked mussels. That was fun.
The Felice Brothers playing “I’m Saved” live @ Mercury Lounge, New York, NY, on February 2, 2008: