Simone Felice: 'Soul music is something you put your heart into'
The Observer Features Sun 24 Oct 2010 00:05 BST
The frontman for the Duke and the King tells Phil Hogan about kidnapped violinists, Indian spirits – and heart surgery
Simone Felice – former drummer with rough-assed mountain men the Felice Brothers and now fronting his own four-piece, the Duke and the King – has a lot to be thankful for. Last summer he had the critics drooling over the group's debut album, Nothing Gold Can Stay, a collection of soul-tinged folky anthems thrumming with heartfelt angst. Now, he's pushing on with a second, Long Live the Duke and the King, which has repeated the process.
We meet at the Observer's local, sitting out on the breezy canal bank in deference to Felice's love for the great outdoors, though King's Cross is hardly the Catskills, where he was raised – a bike ride, he says from "Big Pink", the house near Woodstock, where Bob Dylan and the Band made The Basement Tapes.
"So do you like the new record?" he asks. I tell him I like it more than the first and in fact have just been humming one of the songs in the lift – "Hudson River", a lovely bit of loping r'n'b that reminds me of Sam Cooke. "That's one of my favourites," he says.
Felice is rockstar skinny with a bandanna and the sort of gravelly voice one associates with nights on the razz. He tells me about the band – drummer and singer Nowell Haskins, who used to play with Funkadelic/Parliament, as his father did before him; then there's fiddler and singer Simi Stone, an old friend whom the pair tracked down working as a waitress in New York City. "We just heard her play the violin and said, 'Get in the van!' We went and told the restaurant boss: 'She's not coming back – just give us the money you owe her.' It was about 75 bucks."
The fourth member is Felice's co-writer and longtime buddy Robert Burke, also known as Bobby Bird. "Everybody calls him Bird," says Felice. "Or Chicken. He's got a whole bunch of names. Like the devil has." Bird works out the quartet's honeyed harmonies and rootsy vocal interpolations. "He's the tsar of that – I'm more of a tsar of the poetry."
I suggest the new album is more adventurous than the first – the same kind of songs about love, death and ruined promise, but with a broader sound palette. It seems more opened up. "Yes, well the first record – that was just Bird and I. We didn't know anyone would even hear it let alone give it such praise. We didn't expect to be touring with it. So we had to put a band together, find the right people. This new album is a celebration of that."
And how would he describe this music? "I think of it as soul. The people in this group have a love affair with soul music and 60s and 70s radio. We grew up listening to Sly and the Family Stone. I know I'm never going to sing like Otis Redding, but when I think of soul music I think of something you put your whole heart into. You have to believe in it, no matter what. I was born the year after the Vietnam war ended and my music was my father's music. We all loved that Vietnam music – Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Jackson Browne, Jimi Hendrix."
I ask why he made the break with his band of brothers (they're still going strong without him). Had he been frustrated, sitting behind a drum kit? Did he want to try his luck at crowd-surfing?
"I was writing a lot of songs and I wanted to do something new. It's such a treat with this group because I get to be part of a singing band, a sort of travelling carnival." He loves the theatre of it. He says the group is named after the two con artists in Huckleberry Finn, drifting down the Mississippi, setting up stage shows and getting run out of town.
Musically, it's a far cry from the raggedy glee of the Felice Brothers (sample track: "Whiskey in My Whiskey"). Is he perhaps mellowing? "I'm getting a little older – I'm the oldest brother and oldest of seven kids! But we're two different groups. You don't want to make the same thing again."
It's all going remarkably well, though it might have turned out less so. Three months ago Felice was taken into hospital complaining of breathing difficulties. "The doctors were flabbergasted," he says. "They looked at my heart on a big screen, and said: 'There's no medical explanation why you're still alive. If you don't have surgery tomorrow, you're going to die.' They cut me all the way down the middle and put a new valve in."
He unbuttons his shirt (he has an alarming scar) and has me put my ear to his chest. Sure enough it's like a clock ticking away in there. Like the crocodile in Peter Pan, I say.
I ask whether he feels lucky or cursed. "Well I feel better," he grins. "It was my main valve that wasn't working and I was living off only 12% of my blood flow. So now I feel alive. But I also feel blessed. Everybody should have a near-death experience."
I ask to what extent open-heart surgery interferes with a man's rock'n'roll lifestyle. "For me, not at all. I was a drug dealer from the age of 15 to 23. When I stopped that I stopped drinking as well. I don't smoke. I drink carrot juice and ginger tea. I wake up at 6.30 and walk in the woods. I eat roots and berries in the forest. I pray to the great spirit – like the Comanches." He raises his cup in salute. "I'm the squarest rock'n'roller you'll ever meet."
Maybe he has that to be thankful for too, I say. "For sure," he says.