By Brent Thompson
With few exceptions, lineup changes are inevitable if a band exists for any length of time. In a three-year span between album releases, The Felice Brothers – a timeless-sounding folk quartet led by New York natives Ian and James Felice – revamped its rhythm section by adding drummer Will Lawrence and bassist Jesske Hume. In May, the band released Undress [Yep Roc Records], a collection of 14 songs cut live-to-tape with minimal overdubbing. On Sunday, June 9, The Felice Brothers will perform at Avondale Brewing Co. Recently, James spoke us with us by phone from his New York home during a tour break.
Birmingham Stages: James, thanks for your time. When did the current tour begin?
James Felice: We started at the end of April. We’re having a really good time.
Birmingham Stages: If you will, talk about the creation of Undress.
Felice: Most of [the songs] are pretty much songs that were written for the record. The only older song is “Jack Reminiscing” – that one has been in rotation for years, but the rest of them were mostly written by my brother, Ian, or in sessions the winter before we recorded the record.
Birmingham Stages: What prompted you to release “Jack Reminiscing” on this album?
Felice: We had a bunch of these older songs that had been sticking around for forever and we decided to record a bunch of them without even really practicing them. That was the one that sounded the best, so we put it on the record.
Birmingham Stages: It has been three years since your last release [2016’s Country Ham]. How did you and Ian decide that 2019 was the right time for a new record?
Felice: A couple of different things, but if there are no songs then there’s no record. The first thing that has to happen is you have to have some stuff that’s worth recording – that takes time and energy for sure. I was out on the road with Conor Oberst for most of 2017 and Ian was doing a solo record, so neither of us really had time to focus on the band, writing songs and making the record that we wanted. We realized that, when we had time, we needed to make another record. It’s been too long – three years is too much time.
Birmingham Stages: Your band has always been known for a timeless sound while maintaining a current, relevant take on politics and society. How would you describe the band’s songwriting approach?
Felice: Ian does a lot of the songwriting and he is a more politically-minded man than I am. Our music is observational and is in the tradition of folk music – he and I are both really inspired by the work of Pete Seeger. There’s a political bend to good, powerful folk music that I think is really important and is sometimes overlooked. A lot of times, folk music is hokey or played for nostalgia when it was actually really timely when it was being made, especially in the ’30s and ’60s. It’s music made by the people for the people on the ground level. It gets a bad rap when the event of the day passes us by.
Birmingham Stages: Do songs continue to evolve even after you take them into the recording studio?
Felice: Oh yeah, for sure – a lot of songs change. The title track – when we started recording it, it was much more of a guitar-driven folk song. We started hacking away it and now it has a cool, funky vibe to it that we had no idea would happen when we brought the song to the studio but we’re happy that it did.
Birmingham Stages: It seems that the addition of Will and Jesske have given your band a shot in the arm. If you will, talk about their contributions.
Felice: They’re fantastic people to play music with – they’re hard-working and they’re both extraordinary musicians and both great singers. They’re the whole package and we’re so lucky to have them.
The Felice Brothers will perform at Avondale Brewing Co. on Sunday, June 9. Johnathan Rice will open the 7 p.m. show. Advance tickets are $12 ($19 if under age 21) and can be purchased at www.avondalebrewing.com.