June , 2013
By Vinny Cecolini
Balancing Passions On The Road To Forever
JAM Magazine Interviews Singer/Songwriter Don Felder
Photos Courtesy Don Felder Facebook
Known as "The Other Don" throughout his lengthy tenure with The Eagles, Don Felder played a vital role in the band's Hall of Fame-worthy success. Not only did he contribute guitar harmonies and solos to some of the band's biggest hits, he also composed music for "Victim of Love," "Those Shoes" and, arguably, The Eagles' most iconic song, "Hotel California."
Felder avoided the spotlight and remained in the background as Don Henley and Glenn Frey became the faces of the band. The guitarist emerged from the shadows soon after the band's early '80s split, contributing songs to two of the decade's most popular film soundtracks, Heavy Metal: The Motion Picture ('81) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). After releasing his solo debut, Airborne ('83), however, he transitioned into the role of "Mr. Mom," helping to raise his four young children. During the remainder of the '80s, he made sporadic musical appearances, contributing to albums by The Bee Gees, Stevie Nicks and Bob Seger, among others.
Although a part of The Eagles' mid-90s "Hell Freezes Over" reunion tour, he was unceremoniously fired in 2001. The same year, his marriage of 29 years came to an abrupt end. Devastated, he found solace in meditation. Through the practice, he began to focus on memories, both good and bad, which he jotted down and eventually turned into his 2008 memoir, Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001). A New York Times bestseller, the memoir also inspired the musician to create his first solo record in 30 years.
Released late last year through Rocket Science Ventures, the Road to Forever recording was a collection of songs that closed the decades-long gap between his solo efforts. Although lyrically introspective, the album is musically vibrant and features Felder's signature guitar sound. It also includes guest appearances by Styx's Tommy Shaw, Crosby, Still & Nash, Toto's David Paich, Steve Porcaro and Steve Lukather, and former American Idol judge Randy Jackson.
JAM: You're about to begin a tour?
Don Felder - Yes, I start next week. There are shows scheduled through the middle of November. The holes in the schedule are being filled as we speak.
JAM: Have you changed your mind about keeping touring to a minimum?
No. I will not stay out on the road for six weeks at a time. It's importance for me to have balance between what I love to do, which is play music, and those I love - my family. If you spend too much time in one area, the other will suffer. I love them both and I want to maintain a healthy balance between them.
JAM: During the last dozen years, haven't you concentrated on your family more than your music?
I've written and published a book; written and produced a record; and played between 50 and 60 shows a year with my band. We've performed at a lot of festivals and at a lot of corporate gigs. I'd say I've kept it very even keeled.
JAM: I've gotten frustrated standing in audiences at corporate gigs. I've been tempted to scream at those attending to stop talking to each other and listen. I've wanted to grab them and shout, "There's a great musical artist performing for you. Show a little respect."
The majority of the people who attend those events are there primarily to do business. When I do a private event my job is to entertain them. Most of the people in the room know the songs I play; they know the lyrics; and they get up and dance. It turns into a party. I have a great time at those events. You should have that type of attitude at a concert. Corporate events are creatures unto themselves. If you agree to do them, you really have to understand what the environment is; what the buyer wants; and what you need to provide to make everyone happy.
JAM: How does today's Don Felder contrast against the artist who recorded 1983's Airborne?
Anytime you look back at your history, or your body of work, you can see a dramatic change in the person, and the situation, you were in at the time. All of those changes as you go through life, your maturity, your development as an artist, what you want to write about, everything goes through a process. When we first pushed the stop button on The Eagles in 1980, everyone in the band went on to make solo records. I was pleased to be able to stay at home with my family. I had four kids at the time. I made a vow to myself that I wouldn't go on the road, since I was mostly on the road for the first 10 years of their lives. I would stay home and do a solo record. I did a lot of film and television work at the time in Los Angeles. But I was also "Mr. Mom." I'd get up in the morning, make the family breakfast, drive carpools, coach little league and soccer. I really wanted to be the father that they did not have while I was in The Eagles. So I kind of overcompensated for that lack of balance.
JAM: What was your most notable change while creating Road to Forever?
While writing this record, I had other areas and other topics I wanted to deal with. I felt I was more musically refined. I was able to bring in artists I wanted to play with. I wanted to dial down the drama and dial up the fun. It made the experience much more enjoyable. When it came time to find the best vocal-harmony group to sing "Fall from the Grace of Love," the sound I heard in my head was Crosby Stills & Nash. So I called them, they came down and related to what I was going through at the time I wrote the song. I've known Stephen (Stills) since I was 15. We were together in our first band in Gainesville, Florida called The Continentals. Crosby & Nash was the first band I played in when I arrived in California. So I've known those guys for a very long time. I remain in touch with Stephen, who lives just down the road from me.
JAM: It's ironic given your session-musician background that you ended up working with three of the best-known session musicians today on your album, in Toto's Steve Lukather, David Paich and Steve Porcaro.
That's not why they were invited to play on "Road to Forever." The individual who was supposed to produce this record, a very famous record producer named Greg Ladanyi, had been playing golf with me for about six months. He had been meeting with me, listening to my demos and talking about who we would have on the record; where we would record; and which of the 26 songs I had written would be recorded. We were putting this musical roadmap together in the process of losing golf balls and having laughs. Well, Greg had to get on a plane and fly to Cyprus. He was going to meet up with one of the artists his company was managing named Anna Vissi. He described her to me as the "Greek Madonna." She was performing in a soccer stadium. Greg was walking up a ramp, at night, toward the stage just before her show began. He stepped off the side of the ramp and fell to his perilous death in this moat of boulders that separated soccer fans from the field.
JAM: Is it true you actually started writing that song during the '70s?
I had started penning "Road to Forever" right after my father passed in 1975. Although he had been one of my main supporters, he never really got to see my success in music. So, I started writing this pretty acoustic ballad, but I wanted it to grow into something, I wanted it to be bigger than what it was. When Greg passed, I took that roadmap we had talked about and thought, "I have this song. I want to bring in everyone we had spoken about to play on it, as a way of honoring both Greg and my dad." I called up the guys from Toto and everyone said "Absolutely!" The guys came in and rearranged it from a mellow acoustic song into something that would encompass the entire band. The mood was lightened somewhat by Steve Lukather's presence. He's one of the funniest guys in the business. It's a delightful experience, both musically and personally, to be around him. He's not only a great guitar player, but you just begin laughing the moment he walks into the room and don't stop until he leaves.
JAM: Tell me about the unique piece of music that closes out the record.
"The Pool of Souls" is an effect where I tried to simulate what it would sound like if you stuck your head above the clouds and heard millions of souls swarming around. For the very end of "The Pool of Souls," I went online and found Ladanyi speaking at a producers and engineers' conference. He was talking about the difference between digital recording and analogue recording. At the end of his speech, he said, "And that's the difference between the two worlds." I took that clip of Greg's audio and I put it at the very end of "Pool of Souls" so he could be a part of both the song and the record.
JAM: I became aware of your solo work in 1981 when I attended a screening of the adult animated-classic Heavy Metal: The Motion Picture. I stayed for the closing credits to see who wrote and performed the song "Heavy Metal (Takin' a Ride)."
[Laughing] Were you high when you saw the movie?
JAM: No. I was a fan of the comic magazine it was based on and wanted to be clear-headed when I viewed it. Also, I attended the screening with my father. I cannot say I was always sober during my subsequent viewings. What did you think of South Park's 2008 parody "Major Boobage" and the cartoon's clever use of your song?
When the show's producers contacted me to use the song I was delighted. I am a big South Park fan. Creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker are hysterical. I told them they could only use the song in a really funny scene. They did. I was just delighted they found the song appropriate for the episode.
JAM: Although it's been 30 years since your solo debut, haven't you been working on musical ideas for Road to Forever since the late '70s?
Yes and no. When I left The Eagles in 2001, there were a couple of years where I felt devastated. Not only did I go through the separation with the band, but I also went through a divorce from my wife of 29 years. It all happened within a 12-month period. I then started a series of daily meditations. I needed to find out how Don Felder went from a very religious upbringing as a Southern Baptist, under impoverished circumstances in Florida mind you, to New York City and Boston and then onto The Eagles. I needed to rediscover myself and figure out what had happened to me.
JAM: Do you come from a strict religious household?
From the time I was able to walk, my mother used to drag me by the ear into church every Sunday and then into Sunday school. I still have the scars on my ears to prove it [Laughs]. Yes, when I got into the '70s, I was into drugs, promiscuity and immoral behavior. Those changes I experienced I would have never ever envisioned myself going through. When I left that whole scene, I wanted to sort all of that out. I didn't want to go forward in life carrying all of the baggage. So, I started doing these daily meditations about specific parts of my life. As I came out of these sessions, I'd write these memories down, much like recounting a dream. My fiancé read them and said, "These would make a great book." The next thing I knew, I had a contract with a publisher to write my biography.
JAM: How did writing your memoir inspire you to record your second solo record?
During the process of being on the road and playing shows, I started compiling this book. As I was putting the flesh on the bones of my life in chronological order, I started recalling a lot of feelings and a lot of experiences. I would write things out in text, then I'd go into my studio and I write the feelings out in music, like "Fall from the Grace of Love."
JAM: You simultaneously authored a book and composed an album?
Some of the other ideas I had while writing the book translated into songs. "Road to Forever" was the beginning of a scratch from the '70s, but that was the only idea that went back that far. It only came back because of Greg's passing. I was just stirring the coals of my life and translating them both into text and into song. When I finished the book, I went out for a year and a half to promote it. What I really wanted to do, however, was get into the studio to finish up the songs; add some new music to my shows, which is what I eventually did.
JAM: Have the book and the album provided a catharsis?
I really wanted to sort out my life. I was and still am, on occasion, a potter. Before you throw anything on a wheel, you have to take this big mound of clay and center it, so it's in the perfect spot and spinning in your hands without wobbling around. If it's out of center and you're trying to make something out of that mass of clay, whatever it is will be out of round. If you're throwing a pot, the taller it gets, the more oblong it becomes. That's where I wanted to go in my life. I wanted to re-center myself. By looking back over the years and understanding how I got to where I was, and what I was going to do going forward, I wouldn't have to drag that old luggage and baggage with me.
JAM: You will always have to drag the baggage of being associated with The Eagles.
I understand that. I can't erase that history and I don't particularly want to. I just wanted to understand how and what had happened to me, both the good and the bad experiences and get a good firm grasp on them. Even now when I hear Eagles songs on the radio, I am proud of our work together. I try to look back on those years and find the joy and the goodness in it as opposed to the ugliness, the fighting and all of that tension that was going on. I chose to look at the positive side of my Eagles experience because the end result was we made beautiful babies together. It's like an ex-wife. I will never say anything bad about her to my children or anyone else. We had so many great years together; we made beautiful children and we have hundreds, if not thousands, of great friends. We see each other at parties. She comes to my house for Thanksgiving dinner with her boyfriend. We're close friends. We shared a big part of our lives together and we should celebrate that; not carry forward all of the difficult and ugly things that broke us up.
JAM: It's unfortunate you don't maintain such a relationship with The Eagles.
I've reached out to The Eagles on numerous occasions to arrive at that place of co-existence; engage in a handshake. They've been nonresponsive. The only time I hear back from them is through their lawyers.
JAM: What betrayed The Eagles' brotherhood? Was it money or ego?
JAM: During the recent documentary The History of The Eagles: Part Two, it was revealed that the band's communication was conducted through "people." A band cannot function that way.
JAM: That is not what music is about.
Music, for me, has always been a very joyous experience. When I see young kids at play, whether it is in a playground or a sandbox, they are having a joyous time. That word "play" carries with it a joyous connotation. When I play music it is a wonderful experience. It is difficult to do that in an environment where there is hostility, judgment and ill feelings. It is hard to play music with some sort of joyous expression in the wrong environment. Some people start out loving to play music and then become jaded by the trappings of the world, whether it is fame, fortune, drugs, women or whatever. And they shift their focus on why they are doing this from the love of music to some other reason. I discovered music at age 10 and started loving it to death. Music has been the driving force that propelled me through all of the years of starvation, of working in a studio six days a week for $50, because I loved doing what I do. It doesn't really matter how famous you are, or how much success you've achieved, or how much money you make. If you don't love what you are doing, you shouldn't be doing it. Do something else. Life is too short.
JAM: This line from your song "Money" says, "It makes your best friend your foe." I'm assuming this is a reference to your former band mates?
Yes and no. A dear friend of mine, who is an extremely wealthy man, called me and said, "You know, we were talking about money and the way it taints everything, whether it is politics, friendships or families arguing over an inheritance. If you lend your best friend $5,000 and he doesn't pay you back, you start to wonder if he is your best friend." Money negatively affects relationships. I've lent family members, my ex in-laws, money and I've gotten screwed in the process. They were hiding out, not calling and not even sending Christmas cards because they owed me money. There are many good things you can do with it and there are many bad things about it. That line you singled out basically states that money can taint any situation you're involved with and turn a good thing into a bad one
JAM: When you talk about the good money can do, you are pretty involved in some charitable endeavors, including your long-time friend Stephen Stills' Autism Speaks initiative.
I do at least two shows a month for some charity or I lose golf balls playing for one. Whatever I can do with my time, and talent, I'll help people that desperately need a helping hand. I am more than glad to do it. Music and golf are the two things I've chosen in life I really love to do. I'm hoping to do both well into my 80s or 90s, until I can no longer hobble around on a golf course or climb on a stage. With those gifts or talents I have, I've always been compelled to use them to help people, whether it is autism or children's charity events for cancer research. I am a sucker for charity events and causes.
JAM: Do you believe that music can still change the world?
Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky wrote a book called In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. He did a study on the effect of music on the human oscillation. He played different types of tonal music - Chinese music, Egyptian music, traditional Western music, classical music - and tried to access how the human body resonated with different frequency and tonalities. We are all vibrations oscillating at different frequencies. We react to vibrations of music. We identify with it. At this point in the archaic development of music, it is still too early to say if it can actually change the world. I love to believe in the ideology of being able to change the world through music, but at the same time there is a great deal of naivety that goes along with that concept, especially when you're standing with a guitar and the North Koreans have rockets and a million troops. Which one has the more lethal force to change the situation? I'd like to think that music can change the world, but it has yet to be seen.
JAM: I don't know about North Korea, but I do know that some other "enemies of the state" are fans of "Hotel California" and other Western rock songs.
[Laughs] I did a show last year in New York City for the United Nations. And there were about 450 heads of state from all over the world at this appearance. When I played "Hotel California," half of the people in the audience did not speak English, but I got a standing ovation from the entire room, because they all knew that song. Fifty years ago, that would have not been the case. It would not have affected anyone outside of those who could have heard it performed live. But with new technology, especially the Internet, you can reach people in all sorts of ways. I was really taken back by everyone in that room knowing that song.
JAM: It might be one of the most played songs of all time.
I don't know. I'll have to check my royalty statement [laughs].
JAM: I've always separated Southern Rock from Southern California rock, assuming the two were completely different. Graham Parsons was always credited with pioneering the California sound. Upon closer inspection, however, the two music genres share similar DNA. Bernie Leadon, Stephen Stills, you and a few others migrated west from Gainesville, Florida, which is regarded as the home of Southern Rock.
Myself, Bernie, Stephen and Tom Petty all made the move.
JAM: The Flying Burrito Brothers was not all Graham Parsons. Bernie Leadon had more of a creative impact that people give him credit for.
Bernie was a key element in that whole development. I think it goes back to The Byrds. That was the home base for the California sound. A lot of the vocal harmonies came from The Beach Boys. A lot of it is a co-mingling of cultures and styles, whether it is Southern Rock meets the West Coast, which it became with me joining The Eagles. The thing is, Glenn was from Detroit, Don was from Texas and Randy Meisner was from Scottsbluff, Nebraska. No one was a California native.
JAM: Southern Rock was bred in Central and Northern Florida.
South Florida music was always more Cuban, Latin and New York influenced. A lot of Northerners settled in Miami, so there taste in music down there was Jazz. The Miami Beach Strip was Sinatra and all of that stuff. North Florida, especially Gainesville, Daytona, and Jacksonville, was home to the Florida rock scene of the '60s and '70s. I thank God I grew up in a university town where I met a lot of people from Chicago, New York and California through playing fraternities. I met Bernie in high school and his family had travelled quite a bit. He really opened my eyes, at a very early age, to the fact that there was a bigger better world outside of Gainesville.
JAM: Why haven't you formed a trio with fellow ex-Eagles Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner?
Randy recorded a solo record and then joined a band called World Classic Rockers. Bernie moved to Nashville and put together a Country/Rap record, which was an odd combination. Bernie always explored musical parameters. When he hit the wall on something, he would push through until he had gone to another place. He is a brilliant guy and I love him to death. I've known him since high school. He actually replaced Stephen Stills in my childhood band, The Continentals. I stay in touch with him, but he semi-retired from music about eight years ago. He is no longer out on the road playing. His first love, since I've met him, has been Bluegrass: banjo, flattop guitar and mandolin. That's not my primary love of music. I learned what I know about playing bluegrass music from Bernie. When he arrived in Gainesville, he didn't own an electric guitar. I didn't own an acoustic guitar. So I took him down to the music store, got him a Gretsch guitar, Chet Atkins model, and I also bought a flattop Martin guitar. He started teaching me Bluegrass and I started showing him rock and roll. We formed this band, The Continentals, which later became the Maundy Quintet. We started playing fraternity parties and recorded an album. During the week, when everyone was in class, we had a bluegrass group that would perform on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. It was an education for me to play with Bernie and vice-versa.
JAM: And that gave you the chance to widen your musical acumen?
Every time I bumped my toe on a new form of music, whether it was Jazz or Latin, I would dive in head first. Right now, I am learning slat key guitar, which is Hawaiian-style guitar playing. It is a totally different tuning. As far as music goes, you never stop learning.
JAM: As the world's worst guitarist, I try to learn something different every day.
It keeps the brain alive. As far being the worst guitarist, if you love tinkering around with the instrument that is all that matters. I'm not a great golfer, but I love to go out on the course and hit that stupid little white ball around while getting some sun on my face. When you hit that little ball, all of your troubles go away for the moment. It also gives you a great place to use profanity where no one else can hear you.
JAM: Since Don Henley and Glenn Frey commissioned the History of The Eagles documentary, were you ever concerned how you would be portrayed?
I was not concerned that it would be too slanted. I figured it was their opportunity to tell whatever story they wanted to tell; how they wanted to tell it. I believe Don and Glenn also funded the project. I participated because I felt after 27 years of being part of that organization, I should be represented. I tried to be as honest, respectful and courteous as I could on camera. I just don't find any need to continue to stir the pot. It does no one any good. Life is too short to carry that anger and frustration from something that happened 10 or 12 years ago. I just wanted to look back favorably at the things that happened and recall as many positive things we did together as I could. We made great records. It was difficult, but the end result was worth the agony. Anytime you put five people together in a band where everyone sings, everyone writes and everyone plays, it is going to be a struggle. Everyone argues which songs are going to go on the album; whose lyrics are better and who is going to sing on which songs. Situations can get out of hand when it's not one person in charge. Yes we had difficult times, but like I said earlier, we made great babies.
JAM: It was quite touching near the end of the documentary when you walked off camera. My wife was nearly moved to tears.
JAM: Did you expect that moment to be left in?
I had no idea of what they were going to put in or take out. I had been sitting in that chair for almost three hours and I had just one bathroom break. After a while, I was thinking, "Okay, that's enough." When they started asking those questions, I was obviously touched by the comments and wanted to be honest. Then I said, "This is enough. Let me out of here."
JAM: As a long-time Eagles fan, I felt somewhat empty inside by what has transpired with the band over the years.
All of our fans do. And if there was a way that we could all go to therapy, I would certainly do that. Like I said in the documentary, I loved playing music with those guys. We had our disagreements and differences, but I still love those guys. Unfortunately, at this time it is a one-way street. There is no reciprocation, so I keep moving forward playing music and building on my career.