The Felice Brothers have seen a period of rapid ascendancy and virtual universal praise heaped upon them by those in the know, in the music press. Currently on a sell out US tour, the band will play to packed houses wherever they appear, such is the fever they imbue. It comes as some surprise therefore, to find that one of their key song writers and band members should pick this time to pursue a personal project and take a hiatus from touring with the band. Americana UK’s Alan Taylor spoke to Simone Felice – poet, author, drummer, wild-eyed guitarist and now front man for the newly formed The Duke & The King. Quietly sipping tea in true rock n’ roll style, with band members Rob ‘Chicken’ Burke and Nowell Haskins in a café in Shepherds Bush, Felice elaborated on his sabbatical from the Brothers and his plans for the near future.
Leaving his Brothers was clearly an emotional wrench, but after a winter of personal tragedy, detailed on his Myspace ‘open letter’ which culminated in the loss of his unborn child, it seemed that Simone (pronounced without the ‘e’) needed to break free and find his own personal artistic outlet. So, with long time friend and collaborator Rob, who had suffered his own personal upheavals, they took to the tranquil creeks in the woods (literally – as is the method these days – witness Bon Iver et al) and spent time in a little wooden cabin, in their beloved Catskill Mountains. With little more than a copy of ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and a small wood stove to scratch the lyrics and the harmonies onto (or so the legend goes . . .) they produced, NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY (due for release in July on Loose Records) which simply has to be the must have album of the year so far – simple, guitar and drum based country-soul, imperfect, yet incredibly catchy and with a beat that just stays in your head forever. The songs are timeless yet have so much to say. Brothers Felice and Ian in particular with his scratchy voice, have already been compared to Dylan by many writers – to the point where the ‘D’ word is banned from interviews these days, but the writing is so real, so basic, yet so poetic that the songs fascinate and resonate at every level.
Levon’s Midnight Rambles
Growing up in the Catskills with their Mother after their Dad “split”, Felice recalled that Blue by Joni Mitchell, was perhaps the song he learnt by osmosis, his mother played it so much. So with musical influences therefore, ranging from Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills Nash and Young through to Prince, Jackson Five, Sly and The Family Stone and the Beatles, this is an altogether more relaxed, soulful and personal affair than the Felice Brothers’ output. An author of some repute himself, with one collection of poetry and two books – ‘Goodbye Amelia’ and ‘Hail Mary Full of Holes’ – to his name. He cites various influences, from Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner and Walt Whitman, but massively instrumental it seems, was the book that Simone just reads and reads, Mark Twain’s – Huckleberry Finn – which contains the characters, from whom the band took their name. Simone generously crowning ‘Chicken’ with the lofty position of King, but qualifying that decision by explaining that the King was the “older and crazier of the two in the book, whilst the Duke was the young, handsome one”. It is clear that these two from the land of Rip Van Winkle, consider themselves poetic, adventuring renegade troubadours, who like to experience life to the full and “feel the magic and the magnetic fields that guide us”, putting all that energy into the songs. The area they hail from – Palenville – is an area of legend for many reasons and the proximity of Woodstock and the likes of Levon Helm (of ‘Band’ fame) who recently invited the boys to his ‘midnight ramble’ music event, illustrates the level of recognition they have received. Finding himself in demand outside of his Duke & The King/Felice Brothers work, Simone has recently worked with the award winning Avett Brothers, playing a little of his trademark “nasty drum” on a couple of tracks from their new album, following a random phone call from Rick Rubin. He has also had the pleasure of working with AA Bondy a close family friend who “made his record in Grandfather’s garage”, he elaborates – “yes, we are special friends and when he comes over I always ask him to play the song American Hearts so that I can sing along, it’s just so much fun.”
A swing at Reagan
A previous foray into fronting a band with the ‘Big Empty’, who famously used John Lennon’s old piano, revealed a political side to Simone’s thinking and writing which comes out in both the book and the new material on the album. He leaves no stone unturned in his broadside against the lost idealism of the Great American State – on the beautifully sad, One More American Song – which details the downward spiral of American mores in a most picaresque and tragic style. On Union Street a story of stoned teenagers growing up in a cruel city, the lines “meet me there in the parking lot // In that part of town that Jesus forgot // and bring those pills y’ stole from y’ma // We’ll be here, we’ll be here, and we’ll be gone, we’ll be long gone,” paint a picture that lives on in the mind long after the melody has faded away. Simone himself makes no secret of his political rambling, which is clearly apparent in the book Hail Mary Full Of Holes, which portrays with incredible imagery, a particularly harsh and sordid side of American society during the Ronald Reagan era. However, the musical output is not protest singing in the Dylan style, rather just a painting of pastel images for the listener to muse on – poetry set to music. “We were all (the Felice Brothers) pretty much just poets in the first instance” explained Simone. “Then we had to learn to play our instruments and sing and harmonise together in the subways in New York, then gradually we got a gig or two and things moved on from there”.
The kids aren’t alright
So just why do these timeless, almost old-fashioned, cracked, painful songs seem to be resonating with the youth of today? At this point the fairly relaxed, people watching George Clinton collaborator ‘Chicken’ Burke, was galvanised into action, “Well we want to make this musical poetry, we want to roll down the river, we want to work outside the boxes, we may get ostracised, we may get tarred and feathered (like the characters in the book) but we’re gonna work outside the system, we’re gonna dream, take a chance, take a beautiful chance” In producer mode now and animated, Burke was on a roll, “the kids today they’re starting to realise they’ve been conned, we started building this material together in the post 9/11 era, when Imagine by John Lennon was banned in the US. We decided we would rather be poor and sing songs by the river, than enter into a life of conformity.” Elaborating further and animated at last, “this work has hardly been cleaned up at all, no pitch corrections and most of it recorded on 2 inch tape (you can almost hear the tape rolling on I’ve Been Bad – which features Burke on lead vocal), perhaps that is why the kids are beginning to realise that this is real – not some sort of perfect world MTV garbage and I really think that is beginning to happen. The identity crisis amongst the youth in the US has reached epidemic proportions, it’s heart breaking, they need something real, they’ve spent so much time on ‘Twitter’ and watching cable, surfing the internet – but they’ve never jumped in a creek, floated on a raft, felt the wind; they’re lost – living in a disinfected world with a condom on – and we’ve come to save them.” Smiling, with a sense of satisfaction he sat back, sipped his tea and returned to his compulsive people-watching mode. Burke and Felice are both great lovers of spring time; the smells the sounds, the sights. Burke was literally drinking in the spring time in London, like he needed it as oxygen, he claimed that “this spring time is just so amazing, man” we debated whether he was really just seeing a little more during a period of intense creativity . . . he closed his eyes under the shadow of his baseball cap for a moment, mused and just simply smiled.
Hail the King
Felice Brothers’ live shows would see Simone standing on the drum kit and clambering over the monitors, as if trying to get closer to, or perhaps become part of the audience and picking up a guitar to deliver a wild eyed demonic rendition of The Devil Is Real, so scary and so close to the edge (literally), that you could feel the tension. It comes as no surprise to find this natural showman becoming the front man of his own ensemble. Did he feel the need for more artistic control and expression? The answer was a clear and unequivocal “yes . . . all of those life changing events left me with so much to say” he explained, “ I just needed to get it all out and that’s where Rob and the time by the creeks and the cabin came in”. With just four shows in total so far and only two in Europe, one at the Bush Hall (after a night on their tour manager’s floor) and the other in Madrid, the boys go back to rehearsals prior to a bigger tour in the UK later in the year incorporating the ‘End Of The Road Festival’. “We wanted to get ourselves over here to get a little pre-tour publicity and then hit the ground running with a full on Tour in the fall”. If the Bush Hall event is anything to go by, this will be a must see event for those of that particular persuasion, and by that I mean real music lovers with passion in their souls, who like to see the cracks and imperfections in a song delivered with full on emotion. The rendition of Your Belly In My Arms for obvious reasons left barely a dry eye in the audience of hardened media hacks. His entry into the audience during a frenzied Lose Myself – was simply a matter of time, this is a man who needs to connect with the people and for him drumming and writing just isn’t enough. This will be simply, a ‘don’t miss’ tour! Hail The King, and may the poetry continue to rise forth “magnetically” from the Duke. As Neil McCormick music writer for the Telegraph so rightly said, “these songs are good enough to be sung by the whole world – spread the word.” Take a listen for yourself, this is brave, this is real, these boys shine like a light!