The Felice Brothers are not making this up.
It’s all true, or most of it, anyway. The Brothers really did record parts of their new, maybe-breakthrough album — a mournful, lo-fi countryish-folk self-titled disc due out March 4 on Team Love — in a chicken coop in the woods of upstate New York. They all really do live together in a school bus, except when it’s really cold, and then they all live together in a one-bedroom house. And they really do have a drummer who is a published novelist and a bassist named Christmas who is a wandering, semi-reformed dice player.
The Felice Brothers, rising stars in a genre whose adherents sometimes prize authenticity, or at least the appearance of authenticity, above almost anything, are Americana with a vengeance. Sweet, smart, vaguely demented, they’ll happily talk about books, hint at past Troubles With The Law, or tell you about the time they spotted a wild turkey outside their studio window, shot it and ate it for Thanksgiving dinner. Probably a conversation no one has ever had with, say, Ryan Adams.
It’s easy to imagine a crucial disconnect between the Felices and their suburban and hipster fans. It would seem there’s at least a small portion of the band’s audience, probably the ones who buy their Thanksgiving turkeys at Whole Foods, for whom the Felices are a novelty act of yokel savants.
“It’s not like our fans have to be our best friends,” says drummer Simone Felice, politely. “People can’t help the way they grew up. Whether they grew up in the suburbs or the city, it’s all good.”
Felice brothers James (vocals, accordion), Ian (vocals, guitar) and Simone (usually pronounced Simon; vocals and drums), part of a family of seven kids, grew up poor in tiny Palenville, a Catskill mountain town two hours — and many universes — outside New York City. They were raised on Blind Willie McTell and Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Hoagy Carmichael. Though Palenville is just a dozen miles from Woodstock, the brothers figure that a childhood spent in the woods, with books instead of iPods, proved more influential to their musical development than their proximity to one of the cradles of country-folk.
“It has this kind of mystique about it, but it’s not really like that anymore,” James says. “We played the music we love and I guess it just kind of happened that we grew up in that area.…I guess if we’d grown up in the city or something it would’ve been different. Maybe we’d be doing rap or something, I don’t know.”
After high school, and a stint working as a carpenter alongside his father, “I was a full-on hobo,” says James, 22. “I was searching…sort of trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life. It seemed like music was the right thing to do, because I was always pretty good at it. I guess it was the only thing I was good at. It was weird.”
The brothers would meet up at their father’s place on weekends and have impromptu jam sessions. In the spring of 2006 they decided to form a band, mostly because no one could think of a better idea. “James worked at a taco shack, Ian was living in a tent in the woods, and I was just kind of drifting around, writing poetry and writing songs,” Simone recalls. “And we were like, ‘Here we are hanging out at Dad’s every Sunday and singing songs to each other on the porch. Why don’t we just go and see if we can make a couple of bucks on the street, so we don’t have to do illegal things to make money or work at the Taco Shack or sell drugs?’”
They moved to New York City, rented a squat in Brooklyn, and began playing in farmers markets, where they would trade their demos for food. A year and a half after forming the Felice Brothers, after releasing two now hard-to-find-discs, Tonight At The Arizona and Adventures Of The Felice Brothers, Vol. 1, they were opening for Bright Eyes at Radio City Music Hall.
Their father, who had previously expressed doubts about the Brothers’ career choices, drove down for the show. “At first he was like, ‘What are you boys doing? Are you making any money? How are you gonna pay the bills? [You should] join the navy or work at the GE [plant],’” Simone recalls. “But now our dad wears a Felice Brothers T-shirt and rocks our music in his pickup truck. It’s really kind of sweet.”
Christmas, a childhood friend of James, joined the band fairly recently, though the Felices had all but adopted him long before. The brothers promised Christmas he could join the band if he ever learned how to play bass, so he did. He’s something of a mythical figure to the growing legion of Felice fans: Lonesome Rhodes, Neal Cassady and the sidekick from “Jackass” rolled into one. Everybody loves Christmas.
“He rolls with us. He’s aces,” says Simone, 31. “He’s just as important as anybody in the band. He was a troubled kid. He’s got some vices just like all of us. We’ve all got checkered pasts, but that doesn’t mean we’re not good kids.”
The Felices recently signed a record deal with the indie label Team Love, which will issue their self-titled disc in early March. It’s a stitched-together offering of old favorites and new tracks meant more as a calling card than a grand, cohesive work. Its self-conscious old-timey-ness and clammy, ethereal, guns-and-sex-and-Dust-Bowl-metaphors-infused semi-greatness cannot be understated. Nor can its debt to Basement Tapes-era Dylan and Ghost Of Tom Joad-era Springsteen. “I think every person in the English-speaking world is influenced by Bob Dylan,” says James, who has heard this comparison before. “And you can’t write music and not be influenced by Bruce Springsteen. Nebraska is one of our favorite albums.”
The Felice Brothers’ album is talky and grim and overstuffed with wheezy accordions and organs and the Brothers’ shuffly, somebody-done-wrong ballads. Many of its best songs (such as “Ruby Rae”, about an ill-fated cabaret dancer, or “Frankie’s Gun!”, about a deal gone bad) end with somebody getting killed. Everything sounds poetic and dreamlike and vague, like it was written by people who read a lot of books, which it was: Simone published a novella/poetry collection, Goodbye, Amelia, in 2004 (it’s available on Amazon.com), and he and James used to have their own informal book club.
That the Felices live in the woods with nothing to do but read and ramble around vastly helps the songwriting process, Simone figures. “A lot of our writing comes from being in a solitary kind of place and listening to silence and taking long walks,” he says. “When [a song is] fleshed out a little bit we bring it to the brothers, and everyone helps to dress it up, to put a hat on it and a handkerchief in its pocket.…It’s like you bring your children to the firing line. You just gotta trust that the guys doing the shooting know what they’re doing.”
Because they couldn’t afford to do it any other way, and because this is a band that really treasures its hobo outlaw metaphors, the album was partly recorded in a chicken coop, except the parts that were recorded in an abandoned train under a bridge. Yes, really. “It was an old chicken coop, and the chickens hadn’t been there for many years, so it wasn’t smelly,” reasons James. “It was definitely rainy. Because it didn’t have a roof. We also recorded a lot of vocals and overdubs in the bus.
“Our first album we recorded in an abandoned Shakespeare camp. We’ve been to a couple of studios here and there and it was awesome, but there’s a lot to be said for having your own space, and not feeling like you’re on the clock.”
Except for Simone, everyone in the band lives in a vehicle, of which there are three: a Special Ed bus, a white school bus, and a Winnebago, which the band plans to take on the road during their upcoming tour with the Drive-By Truckers. “It’s really sweet,” James marvels. “It has heat and a bathroom.”
During the winter, everyone in the band except Simone lives in a 400-square-foot bungalow outside New Paltz. “It gets kind of crazy, especially when there’s three or four of us playing different instruments and different songs in different rooms,” says James. “It can get crazy. We walk around a lot and go outside and stuff.
“We love being together. I dig it. Sometimes a guy wants to be alone, you know? If a girl comes over, the rest of us will try to get the hell out of there for a little while.”
To live and work in close proximity under deplorable conditions seems to be part of some unstated Felice Brothers code. They can’t afford to live separately, or to record somewhere that has heat, or a roof (James phones in from outside an upstate coffee shop, where he can’t afford a cup of coffee), though they might not want to even if they could. For the Felices, there’s romance in brotherhood. “We’re just a bunch of pirates,” says Simone. “Hopefully we’re good pirates.…Really, we love each other.”
If the Brothers have given any thought to how the inevitable pull of real life, of the halfway decent money that their upcoming tour will bring, of future wives and girlfriends, will affect the Felice Brothers, they’re not saying. Whether they can make an extraordinary album under ordinary circumstances is something they’re not in any hurry to find out.
Simone says the band is hoping to move into a house in the Catskills in May to record their next album (any resemblance to The Band is probably intentional). “We’ll make barbecues every day and stay up all night and howl at the moon and put a bunch of stuff on tape, and hopefully there’ll be some real magic there,” says Simon.
If the band ever does wind up making any money, James already has plans for it. “I’m looking forward to buying a television sooner or later. I just want HBO. I want to be able to watch ‘The Wire’.”