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Spotlight: The Felice Brothers

by Justin Jacobs on November 16, 2016

It's late summer in Upstate New York, a hazy day when life moves slower than usual. At his home in the Hudson Valley, Ian Felice has just written a new song. The currently untitled number spins a tale of Donald Trump ordering the songwriter’s execution, on high charges of illegal poetry.

That song will almost certainly never see the light of day. But it’s not such a far shot from the storytelling that people have come to expect from The Felice Brothers, which has been Ian’s vehicle for his hardscrabble American tales of woe and wandering for the past decade.

On June 24, the outfit, which also includes Ian’s brother James on keys and accordion, fiddler Greg Farley, bassist Josh Rawson and new drummer Will Lawrence, released Life in the Dark on Yep Roc. The album is The Felice Brothers’ 10th full-length release, and the fir t they’ve self-produced. In nine tunes, The Felice Brothers lay out loose, smoking folk-rock and roots music, barroom rave-up tunes, and stomp-and-spit songs, in which Ian writes of an Old West bandit shooting a judge, a family’s tearful dissolution and dancing with “the doll of St. Paul.”

Though many modern folk acts sing of dusty roads and small-town balls, most haven’t lived it quite like The Felice Brothers. Ian, James and their older half-brother Simone were raised a few exits away from Woodstock, N.Y., “very working class house in the woods. Our father was a carpenter,” says James. “I didn’t meet a person from a different country until I was an adult. But we were lucky to have grown up broke in a beautiful place.”

As young men, the three brothers began busking in New York City subway stations. Crowds gradually formed, and the Felices realized that they might be on to something. By 2006, they’d released a sparse collection of lo-fi tunes called Iantown, which was essentially an Ian solo album, and made their more official debut with Through These Reins and Gone. Three more albums followed in rapid succession before their self-titled breakthrough in 2008. But the working-class family stayed grounded as a blue-collar band, recording with money on their minds—a decision that came to influence their music. 

“We didn’t have enough money to record our first album in a studio. A friend had some equipment, and we found an old, abandoned, beautiful Shakespeare camp upstate. It was leaking. We had to run extension cables 150 yards to the nearest building with electricity. There were no working bathrooms,” says James. “That was our first experience recording music. We got addicted to that feeling.”

The self-made recording spaces helped foster a living, breathing energy in the music, and the band refused to give it up. “A lot of these studios are pretty stale—no windows, no feeling,” says Ian. “I like things that are homemade, records that sound rough. I don’t like pristine-sounding records.”

They recorded albums in a forgotten high-school gym and a converted chicken coop. But the band remains dedicated to their work—and not the artistic kind. Before The Felice Brothers hit the road for a fall Life in the Dark tour, James hopes to find some construction work. “Odd jobs for money,” he says. “Moving stuff around— I love it, and I’m good at it.”

In 2011, The Felice Brothers—minus Simone, who is pursuing a solo career and working in the studio with acts like The Lumineers—released Celebration, Florida. The album found the band adding thick layers of howling synthesizers and drum-machine beats into their dark rock-and-roll. Though he calls it their “oft-maligned, misunderstood” album, James and the band loved the experimental, foreboding atmosphere they’d created. Yet, on the road, the songs didn’t translate.

“We tried to recreate the vibe of the album—all the synthesizers. But we couldn’t get it across. So we started pulling back from that edge,” says James. “We learned that we want to make music we can represent live. That’s such a huge part of who we are as a band.”

If 2014’s Favorite Waitress was a familiar stylistic retreat, then Life in the Dark brings the grit of The Felice Brothers to a gorgeous new place. While Ian had written a handful of new songs in 2014, it wasn’t until spring 2015 that the band reassembled in their garage to begin rehearsing. But the demo sessions sounded good; the energy was right. Quickly, practicing turned into recording, with James at the helm as producer.

“I learned how to record music over a weekend, bought a book and got some gear, trying to figure out Pro Tools,” he laughs. “I think I got it.”

In less than two months, they finished up Life in the Dark—an unexpected surprise. Recorded live, the set is as tuneful and organic as The Felice Brothers have ever sounded, perfect jukebox picks for a whiskey bar or a barn. Ian’s bloodied lyrics are disarmingly wrapped, like a gift, in accordion and fiddle-led party music. With “Jack at the Asylum,” Ian explores a modern view of America— sometimes beautiful, other times grotesque—singing, “I’ve seen your pastures of green/the crack whores, the wars on the silver screen/ Hiroshima and the lynching tree/ it’s a wonder my eyes still can see.” The whole band joins together, shouting “America! America!” to the rafters, before Ian takes over again with, “You give me nightmares.”

For The Felice Brothers, it’s all part of one big, exhilarating experiment that keeps on moving—much like the band themselves.

“Our band could only exist today,” says James. “We began as complete novices, inexcusably undertrained on our instruments. We could only make music because of how easy and cheap it is now. We may be very folky, but we’re a thoroughly modern band.”

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