By Andrew Catania
Legendary singer-songwriter, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, best-selling author, and former guitarist of the Eagles, and true American rock and roll guitar hero Don Felder is bringing more of his timeless music to adoring fans not only in America, but worldwide with today’s release of his second solo album,American Rock ‘N’ Roll, on BMG. Fans can pick up the album on all digital formats here.
With this highly anticipated new album, he’s very much looking forward to building upon his rich legacy in 2019 as one of the most innovative riff-generating songwriters of the modern rock era while continuing his growth as a featured touring and recording solo artist.
The album boasts an impressive guest list of contributors who comprise a veritable who’s who of modern rock music, including Sammy Hagar (vocals on “Rock You”), Slash (a wicked guitar solo on the title track), Richie Sambora and Orianthi (dual guitar soloists on “Limelight”), Peter Frampton (Telecaster-blasting and background vocals on “The Way Things Have to Be”), Joe Satriani (a blistering, lightning-fast solo on “Rock You”), Mick Fleetwood and Chad Smith (trading off drumming duties on the title track), Bob Weir (background vocals on “Rock You”), David Paich (keyboards on “Hearts on Fire,” piano on “The Way Things Have to Be”), Steve Porcaro (keyboards on “Falling in Love”), Alex Lifeson (acoustic and electric guitar accents on “Charmed”), and many, many more.
We spoke to Don on a variety of topics recently.
How well do you feel your album came out?
DF: Well, I had a great time doing it. And I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised that everyone I reached out to either sing or play on this record agreed to do it wholeheartedly. They jumped to contribute. I had no one give me an excuse or decline. You know, like, “I’d like to, but I’m too busy” or “Can I get back to you?” and I never hear from them again. (Chuckling) Everybody was gracious and kind about doing this with me. I was flattered by having so many people, full of such incredible stature.
Sammy Hagar is on your album.
DF: Oh, yeah. I wrote that song called Rock You, and it’s a stadium anthem rock song. I kept thinking one of the perfect, big shows that we played was at Wembley Stadium; I think it was well over 100,000 people there, the Elton John show. I remember people jumping up and down going, and we were playing. If you watch baseball, and you see somebody hit the ball, and the farther you are from home plate, it takes a while to be able to hear the sound, so as I was standing on the stage, I was looking down at the ground at these people, looking like a big wave, going down across the field and into the stadium, at these overhanging, kind of cantilevered decks, above it, they were actually moving, and I was thinking, “Oh my god, you can literally see the speed of sound going across this stadium. I wanted to be able to write a song where people could still go out and party and jump up and down. But I also wanted to do a duet with it. So I wrote the song, Rock You, and it’s got this. I wanted this incredible rock voice, so I thought of Sammy. We had done some charity work together; I did his TV show on AXS, so we had done some stuff together and become friends. I called him up, and he said, “Yeah, how about you come up to my studio?”. I went up there, I had written out the lyrics, and he said, “This is the easiest thing I’ve ever done. Normally I have to write the song, I have to write the lyrics, and I have to sing it. This is easy. I walk in, and everything’s written. “
We set up a mike and, in less than an hour, he had done it. There were some little parts I had left open for him to fill in. He did a fantastic job. I love Sammy. Love his voice, and he was the appropriate choice for that song.
At this stage of your career, you have pretty much accomplished everything you’ve wanted. Is there anything else you want to do in your career?
DF: You know, I have to say, playing guitar in being in the music business, has so many fulfilling, rewarding things about it. Walk into a dark studio, throw the power button on, have no idea what you’re going to do, take an idea, breathe life into it and by the end, you hit play, and it goes. That’s good! That’s rocking. That was fun! I enjoyed that. That will never grow old. It will never become old to walk out on the stage and feel the love and the kindness and the appreciation for all decades of work that you’ve done over your lifetime. Having people know the lyrics to your songs and sing along with them, give you standing ovations in the middle of them and at the end of the show for specific pieces of music. That never gets old. So I don’t know if there is anything more valuable to me than having that sort of passion about what I’m doing. I don’t need to go out and tour, by the way, go out and do shows to make money. I have never done this for that. I started when I was ten years old, on a dirt road, in the deep South, in a white clapboard house with a tin roof. In destitute poverty. Or very dang gum close to it. Went to New York, starved on the streets for a few years, learning how to improvise and play jazz. Made my first album there with a producer named, Pete Taylor, who was one of the largest jazz producers.
Quincy Jones was on that label with me. Just unbelievable talent. I moved to Boston, worked in a recording studio six days a week. I made $50 a week. I was playing all of the tracks, engineering. I had access to the studio after it closed and had privacy. I could go in and write, make demos. The part that I played on was a demo idea I had back in ’69 I think, or ’70, working in that studio in Boston. So when we started playing, it was right in the same pocket. I played the part of what I played on Life in the Fast Lane; it was part of a demo I had done years before.
Its never been about the money. It’s never been about the fame and fortune. As a matter of fact, there is a song on this record, called Charmed, that talks about, you can have the big house in Beverly Hills and the brand new sports car, you can have a private jet, you can have all of this money, but it just doesn’t get you off. It’s the passion for music, that seems to have lost its charm. It means nothing. It’s like old toys that you don’t want to play with anymore. The thing that keeps me going, keeps me invigorated, is the passion about writing, and playing and recording that keeps me alive. It’s always been about that for me.
When you approached this album, did you approach writing and recording this as you naturally would any other album?
DF: I grew up listening to horn players. Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey and bands like that. My biggest idol was Miles Davis. I remember driving up from Gainesville, Florida to New York City to see Miles Davis when I was about 18, 17, maybe, and he had the most incredible band. Tony Williams who was 17 years old playing drums, Ron Carter playing bass, Herbie Hancock was his piano player. Wayne Shorter was his Sax player. Sitting there, listening to this band play.
Miles is sitting over on the side of this room, no dressing room, just sitting in a chair over there. He waited for about a minute and a half, for the band to get down. Herbie takes a solo and Ron takes a solo, and Wayne takes a short sax solo. Finally, he comes slowly walking up and stares at the side of the stage and walks with his back turned to the audience, trying to do the palpable, everyone is waiting with bated breath to hear what he is going to play. He plays three notes, and those three notes are probably the most well selected, melodic, just first impression coming out of him, only takes your breath away. If you think about the way horn players, play, no synthesizers, they play very melodic things. They play to the point where they have to take a breath. You know the play along, and then they have to stop and take a pause, put a comma in it, take a breath and then continue. It’s phrasing. I phrase like a horn player. My melodic senses, like even on the solo on One of These Nights, it should have been Junior Walker playing sax, and or so, like what I heard. Or Dave Sanborn playing a sax solo, so what I did was emulate a sax solo on a Les Paul. And so that’s kind of how I phrase, that’s my senses, melodically.
Are you open to collaborating with Joe Walsh again?
DF: Absolutely. I have no problem playing with Joe. I wish I had been able to contact him to play on this record. But I think the politics at the moment make that just prohibitive. I think he is a great player. I hope that one day before we get too old, or one of us pass, that we get actually to do that again. I think we were a great team. I have the ultimate respect for him. As a matter of fact, for all of the Eagles. The magic that we did together, between Henley’s voice which is spectacular, I could listen to him sing the New York phone book, to him writing lyrics, it’s unbelievably brilliant. He was an English Lit major. He writes these little picture postcards, line by line by line, that, you see these images in his lyrics so vividly. Ultimately I have the highest respect for him. He is an underrated drummer, his feel, his pocket, his tone, and sound, is so identifiable with the Eagles records. It’s just the way he feels it, and what he brings to the party. It’s pretty spectacular. I have the ultimate respect for all of those guys. Whatever difficulties we had, in my opinion, is way in the past. I’ve moved on, and I wish they would as well.
When you’re writing songs, do you do the music or the lyrics first?
DF: It all comes together differently. Sometimes I’m riding down the freeway and grab my cell phone and put it in dictation mode and I’ll sing a chorus that I hear: no music, just a melody, and lyrics. I’m sitting on a plane typing lyrics to a song, and there’s no melody or track or anything, it’s just a song idea. And I have a title, I make up verses, I write a chorus, and I put it away. Sometimes I pick up an electric guitar, go into my studio and open up a new loop and start playing into this loop and record it and, say wait a minute, those two or three bars are perfect, and I build something around that. And I go back until I just sort of come up with ideas. I let them come, whether they are vocals or lyrics thoughts or guitar ideas or groove ideas. Whatever it is, I just let that come through and try to make little dictation of it, much like a dream.
That’s my philosophy, and I accumulate lyric ideas, guitar ideas, vocal ideas, and then go into the studio and try to complete, Breathe life into them. I invest enough time to see if they are going to live or die. And if they die, I hit the erase head, and they go off to digital heaven. (Laughing)
Over your expanded year career, how do you feel you have evolved as a musician?
DF: I have gone through learning and developing a lot of different skills as a musician on the guitar. Whether it’s knowing how to play jazz and improvise or spending a lot of time sitting in a Holiday Inn in Harvard Square and playing nylon string guitar and playing movie themes or classics for people who were sitting in the restaurant ordering their food and eating their dinner and ordering wine from the waiter, they couldn’t care less about what I was playing, but it was paid practice to develop those skills. Or working that studio in Boston, as I said, and learning how to make records had broadened my ability and my skills so when I went into the Eagles, my friend, Bernie Leadon playing the five-string banjo, steel guitar, and mandolin. I inherited a lot of those instruments. So I had to sit down and learn how to play those instruments. The five-string banjo, which I was never any good at. I could fake my way through Midnight Flyer. Bernie was just on fire on that track. So, they wanted to keep doing those songs, so I had to learn the banjo, which is a vital part of that song. I’ve been through different situations and everything. I’ve been forced to learn Country, Jazz, nylon string guitar, pedals, steel, mandolins; I can play them on occasion if I have to. I just picked up this kind of arsenal of skills and talents that I can use on different records on the stage.
Is there anybody that you haven’t worked with that you want to?
DF: I would love to play with David Gilmore.My drummer, works and tours with David. And I, through the following channels, mentioned to Stevie, to get David to guest on a track. And he’s working right now. And when he’s not working, he doesn’t work. He doesn’t even touch guitars. Matter of fact, I think a lot of his collection is up for sale at Christie’s or somewhere that is going to be up for auction. It’s kind of like Neil Peart. Neil is a friend of mine, and he just absolutely stopped playing altogether. He put up his drumsticks. It’s a shame because he’s got such an incredible talent, style, and sound.
How was it to have Slash, Mick Fleetwood and Chad Smith on American Rock-n-Roll?
DF: It was unbelievably flattering. Those guys, when we reached out to them, they said, “Yeah, We’ll come to play on that.” Yeah, send me some files.”And Mick Fleetwood put some drums on it in his studio and Slash dropped in on my studio for a few hours and played guitar on it. Chad came over, and we had a drum kit set up for him just like he liked. He walked in and danced, God, he plays so unbelievably hard.
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