Analogue Music | The Felice Brothers

The Felice Brothers

By Matt Conner

James Felice has the guys in Deer Tick to thank for his emotional readiness.

As The Felice Brothers were preparing to release a brand new album and re-enter the near-consistent touring machine that has defined their last 15 years as band, James says the emotions were a bit unsteady. That's what a global pandemic will do to someone so used to interacting with a room full of strangers from one city to the next. Fortunately a recent live show reminded him just how good road life can be.

From Dreams to Dust is the latest album from Ian and James Felice and company, an album whose beauty stems from its disconnection from demands. In the midst of an industry-wide shutdown, the Felice Brothers faced their professional fears but found a sense of personal freedom. Music was made out of a love for the craft, independent of the typical demands that affect the creativity process.

We recently sat down with James to hear more about how he weathered a global pandemic and the creative intentions of a band always looking forward.

Analogue: As you guys are gearing back up for the road and re-entering the machine again, what’s the morale like for you?

James Felice: I think as it gets closer, we’re getting more excited. I haven’t been to a show in so long, but the other day, I went to a Deer Tick show. It was just so fun and it was the first time we’d been around live music in a while. It was like, ‘Oh, yeah. This is fun. This is great. This is what we love to do.’ So I can credit those boys for making me feel more excited about the next couple months.

"We all just felt so disconnected from touring. It’s amazing how quickly those muscles seem to atrophy. You suddenly get used to becoming a homebody."

Analogue: Before that, were you a bit more apprehensive?

James: I think so. We’d toured many months out of every year for last 15 years, y’know, so this was our longest break by far. We all just felt so disconnected from touring. It’s amazing how quickly those muscles seem to atrophy. You suddenly get used to becoming a homebody. [Laughs] The idea of going from city to city playing shows in front of strangers seems ridiculous. But like I said, it’s starting to feel more realistic and potentially very fun.

Analogue: You said the muscles atrophy, but as you start to practice, do you find yourself going, ‘We’ve been doing this for 15 years, so yeah we know what we’re doing.’?

James: Yeah, we’ve still got it. I’m sure the first few shows will be a little loosey-goosey, but yeah, we know what we’re doing.

Analogue: What did this time away do for you creatively? Or have you handled things as you look back?

James: When it first happened, I was like, ‘Oh no! My life is over. Everything’s gonna change and I’m fucked.’ That was basically my first thought. [Laughs] But amazingly, this unemployment thing came through. For so many musicians that I know, it saved our lives. A lot of us had to get jobs—and I did, too—but between jobs and unemployment from the government, it saved us. So I have to give a big shout-out to the federal government for taking what could have been a complete and utter nightmare and turned it into something less awful.

As for being a musician, I got to sit in my little room and play piano and write songs and that was really nice for me, not having to write for anyone but myself. I think my brother Ian feels the same way. When we finally were able to get together to record last fall, we got to tinker in a way and make music independent of the idea of having to play it live.

Analogue: Do all the songs on From Dreams to Dust come from this time?

James: I think most of them were. I think some were written before it. I think “Jazz on the Autobahn” was written before the pandemic. I remember actually playing that song or trying to get it up for our Australian tour which was in October before the pandemic. So that song and a few others were from earlier.

Analogue: I’m glad you brought up that song because that’s a personal favorite. Is there a good origin story there?

James: I don’t know how Ian wrote that song. [Laughs] I remember he played it for us in the band like a year before we were able to record it. We were like, ‘Holy crap, this is incredible.’ We tried playing it live, but it just didn’t work. We didn’t have the energy or something, but it got shelved. Then we brought it back out when we were making the record.

We had a few days with the whole band where we all got tested. It was 3-4 days where we could actually play music together as a band. That was one of the songs and we only played it like twice and it felt so right. I think we used the first or second take of that particular tune because it just happened like that.

Ian is such an incredible songwriter and the bass player and drummer have such a great feel together. They just made that song work.

Analogue: Since that was early, is it safe to assume it was a cornerstone sort of track that gave way to the others? Do you even work that way?

James: We can work that way, but in this case, it was one of the last songs we recorded, believe it or not. We always knew it was a special tune and it was always on our list, but I think we were afraid to mess with it. We didn’t want to mess it up. When we recorded it, we thought it was great. In a weird, it retroactively makes the record make a lot more sense. It would’t make a lot of sense without that song.

Analogue: I also want to ask about “Silverfish” because the videography is so cool with these up-close shots of insects and the animal kingdom, etc. Those are all your shots, right?

James: Yeah I’ve been doing that for years, just photographing and videotaping insects just around where I live. Over the pandemic that was one of the few things I could do is be a weirdo and go take pictures of bugs in my backyard and around the corner. I have this backlog of thousands of videos and photos, so I thought, ‘Oh, I could make a video of that stuff.’

Analogue: Did you have a goal for all the footage before?

James: No, it’s never been about that. I have an Instagram where I post things every few days, like a cool bug, but there was never a purpose to it beyond the pleasure of it that it gives me. It always helped me with my perspective in life. It always grounded me and reminded me what a fantastic world we live on. It’s helpful if you’re stressed out or distracted that you can stop and look down or look at the grass or a tree and you’ll almost always see some sort of beautiful drama of life playing out among insects. It’s an incredible thing.

Analogue: I love that as a heartening notion. Have you ever written out of that?

James: The song “Silverfish” is sort of like that, just from my experience of interacting with the natural world. I wrote that song through that lens, though it’s a bit more cynical than I’d normally be about it. But these days, I’m writing a lot of music trying to be informed by that perspective.

Analogue: Is that a greater goal for the music?

James: [Pause] I think so, at least for me. When people listen to our music, I think I want them to have an emotional reaction. It’s all subtext in that sense. I’m not trying to change anybody’s perspective with the music. That’s not our goal. I think it’s to elicit a reaction—an emotional or even intellectual reaction.

VISIT: The Felice Brothers

*Photo: Shervin Lainez