If all you know about Don Felder
is that he was the guitar player in the Eagles who came up with the music to “Hotel California”, then you’ve obviously been hiding under a 1970’s-era rock. Publishing his autobiography, Heaven & Hell: My Life In The Eagles,
in 2008, it not only opened the doors into one of the most influential and timeless bands of the peaceful easy feeling era but showed his own personal highs and lows in brutal honesty. Since leaving the band in 2000, he has continually played sold out solo shows and shared his memories of growing up poor in the musically fertile Gainesville, Florida. He is a scrapper with an eloquent tongue.
Playing a sold out show at the Hard Rock Live in Biloxi, Mississippi, last month, his set was heavy with Eagles classics such as “One Of These Nights”, “Those Shoes”, “Take It Easy”, “Heartache Tonight”, “Victim Of Love” and “Tequila Sunrise”, as well as a nod to Stevie Ray Vaughan with “Pride & Joy”, which showcased an excellent guitar solo and some hardy drum beats. Felder is loving this time in his life and before the show he sat down with me to talk about why.Who is Don Felder today?
Well, you know, I think everyone goes through a transformation from childhood through adolescence through teenage years to early manhood and all of that growth that takes place is part of the shedding of the skin every year like a snake does to finally get to a point where every year you’re a slightly different person through your lifelong experiences. So I think today, the lessons that I’ve learned from my childhood through the travels that I’ve done, through the Eagles and all that, is to try and balance the parts of my life that are most important to me. I love playing music but I also love having a real life outside of the music business with my fiance’, good friends, playing golf, traveling and trying to balance the amount of work and the amount of pleasure in life that I can. I really kind of put that really high on my priority list although this fall with a new record coming out I’m afraid I’m going to be dragged back into more work and less personal (laughs). But I really want to try and balance the two so it’s very important to me to try and have a well-rounded day, life and week to keep myself happy or else I’d just get unhappy doing too much of one or too much of the other.What took you so long between solo albums?
Well, one of the things that when I was in the Eagles, all the time that it took to be in that machine, you really didn’t have a lot of time to write and produce and be free to do other music other than what the Eagles demanded, between the touring, writing and studio work in that band it was pretty much all encompassing. When I left the Eagles in 2000, I finally decided that one of the things that was missing in my life was being able to write and record and play my own music. So I very carefully, after I wrote my book and put that out about three or four years ago, I really just started setting aside as a goal writing 15, 16, 18, 20 songs and putting together – I have my own studio – in a pre-production mode to be able to record these songs in a real studio with real players and overdubs and drums and all that stuff, to make a record. Whether I was going to release it or not, I didn’t know. I just wanted to go back through that creative process that I’d done so often before the Eagles, during the Eagles and now after the Eagles because I felt that was a part of my creative music life that was missing.
I love live performance but there’s another aspect of writing and producing in the studio that’s a whole different world than going out on stage and playing. So I focused on that as a goal and wound up finding some really exciting people to work with.
My co-producer on this record is a guy named Robin DiMaggio, who was Paul Simon’s drummer for about two or three years, he’s worked and produced a lot of other acts. Very inspirational player. He pulled in some of the greatest musicians that I know and he knew and put together these rhythm sections and tracks that were just really exciting. I got very inspired by it, going to the studio to hear this new thing unfold and so I was delighted when it was finally done and finished. Then you have to deal with all the business part of it: distribution, labels and promotion and PR and interviews and all that other stuff, which is another realistic part of the business that is something that is kind of a necessary evil. To put out a record you have to get it out in magazines, television, radio and all that stuff so that’s what we’re doing right now.Did you write all the songs on the new CD Road to Forever?
I wrote all or parts of every song on the record. A lot of them are my germanic idea to be able to start with a small germ of an idea and develop it lyrically or musically; all of that came from me cause that’s what I wanted to do myself. I didn’t want to just go record a bunch of someone else’s songs. I wanted to take my own inspiration and turn them into songs. There were some other people that came in to help me on some of the writing. Crosby, Stills & Nash sang on a track with me. Tommy Shaw from Styx came in and wrote some stuff with me. Some of the other players, two of the guys from my band, co-wrote some music for a couple of the songs. A really great lyricist, Simon Wilcox, came in and wrote a couple of verses. A Nashville writer came in.
It was really interesting for me to have an idea for a lyric for a song and then have someone come in and for me to sit and explain to them in real minute detail what the concept was, then let them come up with another verse or a bridge lyrically, and see where it went. A couple of times I was really pleasantly delighted with what other people brought to the table. I thought it really took it several rungs up the ladder lyrically as opposed to me just going, “Oh I have to use MY lyrics”. So it was really kind of a little bit like when I was working in the Eagles. Everybody brought their strong suit to each song – music, voice, lyrics – and the combination of a lot of talents made great records and that’s what I was really looking for and trying to be able to do on the writing of some of these songs. And it worked out well for the most part.When you started touring on your own, whereas in the Eagles you were doing primarily harmony, now you’re doing full-on lead vocals. Was that a strange transition or something quite natural to be the spotlight for that and not guitar?
I never really wanted to be the spotlight, per se. I was very comfortable letting Don Henley or Glenn Frey be the lead vocal of the band and bringing my strong suit, which is guitar and writing and arrangement and production, to the party. But just out of sheer being forced into that position either I had to hire another singer, which I didn’t really want to do, or I just started singing a lot of the stuff for myself. I also started years ago, even before I left the Eagles, doing a lot of charity work where I would go with my guitar, sit in with other bands, sing three or four songs to help raise money for St Jude’s Children’s Hospital or cancer research or Autism Speaks or other really worthwhile charities that I believed in. So I got really accustomed to standing on stage ten years before I left the Eagles to trying to front a band. It was just a really smooth transition to where now I don’t even think about going out and singing all the songs in the show.I really hate to ask you about “Hotel California since everyone always asks you about that song but what is something special you could share about it?
It’s funny, because everybody has different questions about that song. Some people want to know, “How did you come about writing that song?” Some people want to know what the lyrics mean in certain verses. There are a lot of interesting stories that go along with the lyrics to that song that most people don’t know and I’ll tell you a little about it. Like the very last line in that song, “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave."
Jackson Browne in the early days was a very close associate with the band. He wrote “Take It Easy” with Glenn so we were very close friends with him. And he had a beautiful young wife that wanted to be a successful actress in Hollywood. She tried as hard as she could to break in and after so many years of rejection for parts, you get somewhat defeated, deflated and depressed and she wound up committing suicide. And so that tip of the hat to her, about her situation of trying to come into Hollywood and LA and being successful, not being the new kid in town, not living life in the fast lane, was a great opportunity to show that some people can’t handle it. So that was a line that was put in that song for Jackson’s wife. Very few people know that.Did you know Gram Parsons?
I did, yeah. I’d only met him a couple of times. Bernie Leadon, who was an original member of the band, was very close with Gram and spent a lot of time playing country and bluegrass music with him. I met him a couple of times just in passing with Bernie when I first got to LA. But I didn’t really know him personally enough to be able to comment on what kind of person he was other than being delightful when I met him and a great talent.What about Duane Allman?
Well, when I grew up in Gainesville, there seemed to be an unusual number of people that grew up in that town that went on to become platinum selling Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame artists. Stephen Stills and I were in a band when we were like fourteen or fifteen years old and I think Stephen is playing in a casino down the street tonight. I got to call him and say, “Hey, drop by after the show.” (laughs) I saw Graham when I was thirteen and he was in The Hollies, he sang at the University of Florida, and then I wound up playing with Crosby Nash, the first band I worked with in LA when I got to LA. Jackson Nash, Graham’s son, and my son Cody were at the same school together. Graham just sang on my record. Our paths have crossed throughout our lives numerous times and I love all three of those guys dearly.
But an unusual number of people grew up in Gainesville – Stephen, Tommy Petty was there in town with me and I taught him guitar when he was a young kid. The Allman Brothers, their mother lived in Daytona Beach and before they became the Allman Brothers they were either called the Allman Joys or the Spotlights. They would come over to Gainesville and that was one of the main areas where all the fraternities were and we would play fraternity parties on Friday and Saturday night. All of those bands – Tommy and me and Bernie or me and Stills before Bernie, and the Allman Joys and the Spotlights. We were all kind of working that same thing so we all knew each other. In the summer when the University was out of session, everybody would go over and work Daytona Beach. We’d work the pier, we’d work dance clubs, or we’d lie about our age and work bars and go-go clubs, that sort of stuff.
The first time I went over and really met Duane, in Daytona Beach where I spent some time with him there, we both got off work, my band and Bernie, and Duane and Gregg, and we went over to have breakfast at this coffee shop at like two in the morning or something. Then we went over to their mother’s house and Duane was sitting down on the floor playing slide guitar and I’d never seen anybody play electric slide guitar like he did. I said, “You have to show me how to do that.” So over the course of a couple of hours, he sat and showed me really the fundamentals and basically what I know about slide today and how that started my slide career. We all stole from each other there. Petty from me and me from Duane. Everybody in that area would just hear somebody do something and copy it and learn how to do it. I think that’s why so much of that music isn’t necessarily southern rock but it’s all very kind of incestuous in sound because we all came from the same area.What is one of your personal favorite memories from being in the Eagles?
There were a lot of great memories that go along with the years that I spent with those guys and going from driving little rent-a-cars with Radio Shack walkie talkies, we’d rent four or five rental cars and we’d drive from one little county fair to a college campus to another little gig in a club and being able to fly coach was a luxury. So we had these walkie talkies and we’d stay at what’s called steel door Holiday Inns, which are the Holiday Inns that are two story and usually right by a freeway and have a steel door that when you open them they have an automatic closure on them. So they’d start slamming at about 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, just about the time we’d been asleep for an hour or two (laughs).
A lot of great memories but I think one of the most fun times was after we finished One Of These Nights
and I heard “One Of These Nights” on the radio for the first time and the solo that I played in that song. It was a kick in the pants for me that something we had just gotten together in the studio and recorded had gone on to be such a big radio success and now it was all over the radio. Everywhere you went you could turn on the radio in a rent-a-car or a plane and you could hear that song. It was really a nice time to have that.And now your daughter is a singer
She is doing really well. She’s married to Brandon Jenner and they have a record of their own with a couple of videos out, a couple of singles out, and they’re releasing their record I think within a month or so of me releasing mine. So it’s a real pleasure to have my daughter and myself coming out with new records the same year. She actually sang on this record, background vocals. She didn’t want to sing lead on it but she used to play in my band for I think three years or something, till she got to the point where she wanted to make her own band with Brandon and she said, “Dad, I can’t play with you anymore.” Hey, that’s both good news and bad news (laughs).She has a really beautiful voice
She does, it’s dynamite. And she writes all of her stuff too so she’s a really talented girl. I couldn’t be more proud of her.Do you ever regret writing your book or any regrets putting as much in there that you did?
No. And I’ve been asked similar questions about it before and here’s the honest truth of it: When I left the Eagles, I also went through a divorce from my first wife after being married for twenty-nine years. We were high school sweethearts and got married and had kids and all that just took place without any kind of family planning or anything. In that same twelve month period, I got a divorce from my wife and left the Eagles. My whole life just completely changed. I found myself with all the normal identities that people develop like father, husband, head of household, rock star, all of those things you kind of wear as part of your identity, all taken away. So I really needed to find out how I got from being raised on a little dirt road in a very impoverished circumstance in Gainesville through moving to New York, spending my time in bars and fraternity parties and doing all the wrong stuff most parents want their kids to do (laughs) to winding up in the Eagles and having this huge success and how that had affected me and what I had become through the process.
So I started doing these daily meditations for between thirty minutes to an hour and I’d sit down and would literally meditate about early parts of my early childhood and my life to get a clear understanding and recall who I was years ago. I’d come out of these meditations and I’d sit down and make these really extensive notes on legal pads at first about my recollections and feelings and thoughts and the things I recalled about my life. And I filled up probably fifteen or twenty legal pads full of notes because I was doing it every day and Kathrin, my fiance’, came in and started reading those things and she said, “You know, this would make a really great book.” I said, “I’m a terrible English student and I couldn’t write a book if I had to (laughs).” So she introduced me to a guy named Michael Ovitz, who is kind of a really big figure in Hollywood, a movie producer, television producer; really a great guy. He had put together this new company called AMG that had a television division, a film division, a director and artist/actor management, Leo Di Caprio and a bunch of people that he was managing and they had a literary department. So we went and met him and Kathrin and I just told him what we were doing and he said, “Go in and meet with such and such who is head of my literary department tomorrow and we’ll hear what you’ve got to say.”
So I went in and talked to this guy and literally a week later I was on a plane going to New York with him and we met with five of the largest publishers in Manhattan. At the end of two days, I was on a plane coming back to LA with a book deal. And I’d never written a book before so I had to really sit down and detail and recollect in a chronological way and a chronological timeline all of the missing sections of my life and really fill those out through meditation. And coming out of meditation, instead of a legal pad, I’d sit at a word processor and do the same thing until I had really accumulated a lot of stories and steps from childhood through my life up until and then after my departure from the Eagles. It was a very cathartic process for me to go through. It gave me a really good solid understanding of myself and where I’d come from and how I’d gotten to where I was and what I needed to do to re-center myself.
I don’t know if you’d ever done pottery but when you make a pot or bowl, you take a large blob of clay and you throw it on this wheel and it starts spinning around and very slowly with the right pressure you find the exact center of that mass so it’s not spinning around out of center. You finally push everything into the center and then from that point you can make a perfect circle or a cup or a bowl and everything out of that. And that’s what that process of writing that book did for me. It pushed all of my life into a center where I could really look at it and then from that point forward I could go on building a new life with a really clear understanding of what had happened to me and where I was and where I wanted to go forward and how I wanted to go forward.
I had some really great realizations, like from the time I was two years old, old enough to still be in diapers, my mother would drag me into the Southern Baptist Church every Sunday and I would be in Sunday School. And I think for like fifteen years or something, every year I’d get this little church pin, so I had a really solid foundation of religious upbringing with my mother. My father wouldn’t go anywhere near a church. He just could care less about it. My mother was just convinced that I needed and my brother needed to go to church and we did. So I went from that kind of foundation until I got in the Eagles with all the abuses that were going on with alcohol and drugs and promiscuity, where I got drugged into a lifestyle. I was dragged into a church but in the Eagles I was drugged into a lifestyle that really was completely a dichotomy of everything I knew and my morals and ethics and everything in my life to the point where I really had to look at how I had allowed that to happen and where and how all that took place and really what I felt all about that. So going through that reconciliation was all part of that book and to me, I didn’t want to hide any certain part of it or edit things out cause that’s not really the true story of who I am and what happened to me. So I just laid everything out on the table for better or for worse because that’s human nature for everybody to see everyone else’s flaws and not make myself seem too perfect or carve out anything I didn’t want people to know cause I am who I am and that’s my life story and that’s the truth. So I felt really good about doing it. I don’t regret anything I put in that book.Tell us about the musicians you have playing with you in your band.
I have some really great people in my band. Aside from being great musicians and all having sterling pedigrees of who they’ve worked with, recorded with, toured with, their whole pedigree in each case is really astounding. But one of the more important parts to me is having people in my life that I really enjoy being with. I mean, you go out and play music for an hour and a half, two hours, with a soundcheck maybe it’s three hours a day, then you have to live with these people for twenty-one hours the rest of the day (laughs), on planes and in cars and in stressful situations and all sorts of stuff. So I’ve found a really good combination of people that are great players, good friends and really people I enjoy spending my time with. I have spent too many years in different situations where excuses were made for people’s personalities or dysfunctions because you couldn’t make a change. But with this, in this situation, I have the luxury to be able to select people that I really like that also play well.
The keyboard player is a guy named Timothy Drury and probably one of the nicest and most artistic, sensitive guys I’ve come across in the business. He does unbelievable compositions, he can write full orchestra charts, he can play amazing piano and keyboards, he sings like an angel, he’s an amazing photographer, he’s very talented in multiple categories artistically. He was with me on Hell Freezes Over, the Eagles tour, through all of that and then when I left he left. He and I had bonded through that tour and he and I started writing together and doing these shows and we’ve been dear friends for twenty-something years.
The guitar player in this band is a guy named Frank Simes. Frank is currently the musical director for The Who. He just finished the Roger Daltrey tour. He’s worked with Elton John. He’s worked with everybody in town. A really brilliant man. If you set his guitar in another room, he could sit and fascinate you with just his intellectual abilities. He speaks fluent Japanese, he reads just everything that he comes across, can discuss everything from the development of the brain, physics, mathematics, just a brilliant guy and I really like people that have another part to their character that is just not the costume of being a rock artist; there is more substance there that I really appreciate and enjoy.
Scott Devers also worked with Roger Daltrey on his last tour and he’s done a lot of roadwork touring, recording, whatnot. He’s one of the newest members of this band. Before that, for six years I had a guy named Stevie D [DiStanislao], and I won’t spell his last name because it’s difficult enough to pronounce much less how to spell (laughs). But he had worked with David Gilmour. He’s now currently with Crosby, Stills & Nash right down the street and I was mad at Stephen for taking Stevie D away from me but they finish in October so he’ll be coming back at the end of October. So Scott is kind of subbing for Stevie D, who is a lovely guy, they both are lovely guys.
I have two bass players. The bass player that is with me now is a guy named Wade Beiry. Wade’s played with a lot of people as well in and around Los Angeles. He’s played with Christopher Cross. He’s done a lot of roadwork and just did some stuff on Glenn Frey’s last little promotional tour that he did. He’s worked with Dwight Yoakam. A lot of these guys have really substantial pedigrees. They’re not just guys that just pulled up and went, “I got a bass, can I have a gig?” (laughs). So they all have great pedigrees and they’re delightful.
The other bass player that I have is a guy named Shem Schroeck, who is my first chair bass player. He’s an operatically trained singer, he sings tenor – and I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a tenor, they sing really high – he actually sings opera in Germany for about two weeks every year and he’s played with myself for about six or seven years; Kenny Loggins, who was with Loggins & Messina before that; he’s in a band called Ambrosia, he goes out and sings lead for Ambrosia; really talented guy, great bass player, a composer as well. When Kenny Loggins goes out, he goes out and does these symphony shows for like the Boston Pops. He writes all the charts for the Boston Pops Symphony, and then goes with Kenny and conducts and plays bass behind it while he’s conducting. Unbelievably talented guy. And he is another one of those talented people much like Frank that has a great level of intelligence, very articulate when he speaks and just fascinating to be around, other than just being an amazing musician.
Are you going to sing any new songs tonight?
I’ll do two new songs tonight. I think without the record being out and released it’s difficult for an audience to sit through a new song unless they’ve heard it on the radio or they know something about it. So to push more than two songs on a new audience is a little warring on their patience. So we’ll do two new songs. We’re going to do a song called “Fall From The Grace Of Love” and we’re going to do a song called “Wash Away”.
There’s two songs from the new CD, one’s called “Heal Me” and one’s called “Wash Away” and they’re both about as we are born into this world we go through parts and experiences that we get partially damaged, emotionally hurt, we get scars on our heart and a lot of people become very protective. So both of those songs are about the healing process and what I have had to go through, like I was talking about, leaving the Eagles; what you have to go through in order to heal yourself and “Wash Away” is sort of that same thing of washing away those scars and healing yourself. They’re rockers, not lightweight pretty ballads, but the message underneath them is about how to help heal yourself of the damage that life has done to you.
And you’re ready for the next part of your life
You got it (laughs)
Chris Traynor speaks about his guitar as if it were a piece of art, lovingly cared for and appreciated by it’s owner. But there is more to this musician than his six-string. Join us next week to see another side of Bush’s guitar zen master.