Ordinary Madness: An Interview with James Felice
“Hey, there’s an interview goin’ on in here, asshole!” James Felice calls out the door of the Winnebago in the direction of guitar music. His brother Ian is strumming outside with a wild-eyed, fu-manchu’ed man named Searcher, who is singing along in falsetto.
Searcher pokes his head through the passenger’s side window. “Hey, you don’t need to call people ‘asshole,’ douchebag!”
Ian’s nasal voice arrives with the crown of his head at the side door. “I had to get the secret cigarette I keep here.” He produces a cigarette from somewhere.
“There’s only one? Ah, fuck.” says James.
“Yeah, and you don’t get one, you know why?” says Searcher through the front window.
“There’s an interview goin’ on in here!”
These are the Felice Brothers at home. They’ve lived in the beat-up Winnebago for the duration of their summer tour opening for Old Crow Medicine Show—the two brothers, their bassist, their fiddle player, two drummers, and their tour manager. It’s a crowded little cavern, with every surface buried beneath clothes, books, and miscellaneous clutter. There’s a tub full of beer, wine, and ice on the floor inside the door. James has poured us Delirium Nocturnum ale in plastic cups.
“Even though I specifically asked him to get a cigarette for you and I, do you know why you don’t get one now?” says Searcher.
“No, I was calling Ian the asshole,” James explains, grinning.
“Let’s smoke a cigarette, then!”
“I’m doing an interview here!”
“Yeah? Maybe he wants to interview me too.” Searcher has climbed in and is now kneeling backwards on the front passenger’s seat. Ian, meanwhile, has begun smoking the cigarette. “I’m in the band, does he even know who I am?”
I know he’s the drummer, but only because James told me a few minutes earlier. (The third Felice brother, Simone, had been the drummer before he left the band in June to start a new project.) I feel I should speak.
“See!” Seacher says triumphantly. “Apparently some people know who I am. Who are you? James Felice? The fuck.”
On stage, the Felice Brothers aren’t much different. They drink, they smoke, they stumble into one another, they laugh and fuck around and improvise. They invite the audience in on the party; then sometimes they’re so preoccupied with their own shenanigans they seem to forget the audience is there. These moments of exclusivity are as seductive the band’s gregariousness. You want to be in on the joke.
In the beginning, the Felice Brothers were just playing for themselves. The sons of non-musical parents in upstate New York, the three oldest boys were a band—playing at their father’s cookouts—long before they had achieved any level of mastery on their instruments. “We were really the only ones listening to us,” says James, who ditched piano for the accordion when the brothers trekked south to busk in Manhattan subway stations. Now he plays both.
One of the more appealing aspects of the Felice Brothers’ music is its intimacy. Dancing and clowning around to their own music, they tend to look like jubilant (read: drunk) members of their own audience who happen to be holding instruments. Now, as they’ve started getting picked up to tour with acts like Conor Oberst and Old Crow, the audience has gotten bigger and farther away.
“The last two weeks, we’ve been playing these huge places with Old Crow and Gil and Dave [Gillian Welch and David Rawlings] and stuff,” he says. “The show changes a little bit, you know? It’s less—like, when you’re playing a little bar with a 150 people, they’re right there, and you can grab beers from them, or yell at them, and they can yell at you, or they come on stage and fuck around with you, and there’s no security or anything so it’s all very free-flowing, and the only reason you’re still playing is because they haven’t come on stage and fuckin’ stopped you yet, you know what I’m saying? So there’s like a push-and-pull with the audience when you’re right down there with ‘em. ‘Cause if they’re not having fun then they don’t fuckin’ care, they’ll leave, or they’ll throw beer at you, or trash the stage, you know? So when you’re playing these big places, and there’s all sorts of security and shit, it’s much more of a show. Much more of a theatrical thing, I guess. So the playing has to be better—you can’t get away with anything anymore, ‘cause not everyone’s drunk.”
“Do you have to drink less before the show?” I ask.
“Eeeee no,” James says, and laughs. “Yeah, kinda, you want to. And it’s more responsibility. Playing in small shows is probably funner. It’s definitely funner. But I think you can express yourself more with the big shows, ‘cause there’s lights and stuff, and the sound is usually like a hundred times better. You get to play rockstar”—he refills my beer, adding, “—kind of, in a weird, sad sort of way.”
He mutters these last few words under a grin. I don’t pursue it, but I think about it later while transcribing my tape of the interview. I can’t decide which he finds weird and sad: the idea that they could play rockstars, or the concept of ‘playing rockstar’ in general. It might have been the former—a token nod to the self-deprecation you’re supposed to exhibit in interviews. But then, the Felice Brothers’ entire act does seem to mock the rockstar pose. It’s messy, unglamorous, unadorned; there’s an overwhelming sense that hey, these are just regular folks. It’s no coincidence that their albums are relentlessly compared to The Basement Tapes—recordings made by Bob Dylan and The Band in the basement of a house about 20 miles from where the Felice Brothers grew up. One of the most critically acclaimed compilations when it was eventually released, The Basement Tapes were distinctly anti-rockstar: recorded desultorily and, at least originally, for the sole pleasure of the players.
James Felice claims that he and his bandmates have never listened to The Basement Tapes. “I don’t even really feel like it,” he says, chuckling. “First of all, I don’t know why we sound like that, ‘cause I never heard it. But you know I don’t really give a fuck. Who fuckin’ cares, you know, we play the kind of music that we want to play, and if people think it sounds like fuckin’ Bela Fleck, or Beethoven, or fuckin’ mystery jizz, I don’t really give a shit.”
When the Felice Brothers aren’t busy not listening to The Basement Tapes, they often listen to musicians they sound absolutely nothing like: hip-hop artists. This might seem surprising, but it makes more sense than you’d think. “The similarities between country and hip-hop are amazing,” James says. “Coming up in poor places, you sing about the same sort of things, like money, about girls, about guns, about your ride, your mother—the whole gamut’s the same. You know, Jimmie Rogers was, like, the father of modern country, you know, and he’s always singing about his ‘gat’—he used the word ‘gat,’ that’s where it came from!”
Outside of music, the Felice Brothers’ influences, James says, are largely literary. “We read a shitload,” he explains. “If we just wrote about how we live, our songs would be pretty boring. They’d all be about riding around in a Winnebago, or sitting around at home not knowing what to do, or going to a bar, feeling really awkward for an hour, and going home.” A quick survey of the Winnebago turns up a litter of dog-eared paperbacks—The Sun Also Rises, The Portable Nietszche, Tales of Ordinary Madness. “Faulkner, Hemingway, McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon. Russian literature… Just anything we can get our hands on.” One particularly influential muse has been Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country for Old Men, whom James says he has been reading since he was 15. He says he’s glad for McCarthy’s newfound fame, but can’t help but feel protective of what had been, until, recently, his own personal discovery. I begin to understand his frustration about being pegged as a derivative of The Basement Tapes.
“When we started, we didn’t even think about it,” he says. “We played that kind of music because we loved that kind of music—but also all we had was an acoustic guitar. You know, what other kind of music are we going to play?”
As for the next record, James says anything is game—synthesizers, orchestral arrangements, whatever. “It’s going places that are weird and scary, probably. Hopefully. You can’t play the same music your whole life.”