OK, think of iconic guitar riffs and right up there next to "Smoke on the Water" and "Stairway to Heaven", you have to have "Hotel California". Don Felder was the man behind it and that's just one of the many tasty guitar parts he contributed to his many years with The Eagles.
His ex-compatriots in that band must be kicking themselves now to have let Don get away because they definitely could have used his songs for their latest record. Instead, late last year Don released a solo record that is one of the best sets of songs I've heard in recent memory. From rockers to ballads, every color of the rainbow is represented in this fantastic collection. Road to Forever works on every level and establishes Don as an excellent vocalist as well as a songwriter of considerable significance. Of course, his guitar-playing skills have not diminished one iota and he shows the kiddies how it's done on every track.
It was a real thrill to speak to Don recently about Road to Forever. I knew him previously to be an immensely talented musician. After the interview, I now know him as one of the nicest interviewees I've had the pleasure of speaking with. If you're an Eagles fan who hasn't got around to hearing Road to Forever, run, don't walk to pick up this record. Yes, it's that good. And if you already have it, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Now read on for my chat with Don Felder.
antiMusic: It's truly an honor and a pleasure to speak with you. I've been a fan since the first record. And I can't think of too many more important records in my collection than Hotel California. I'm pretty sure one of my first air guitar solos was for "One of These Nights" so thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.
Don: I'm glad to do it. You need to stop that, Morley, because none of my hats will fit if you keep doing that. (laughs)
antiMusic: Well, unfortunately I have to continue a little bit more because as an Eagles fan I liked Airborne. It was a pleasant record, but it didn't move me completely. Road to Forever, however, has completely and utterly left your past in the dust. It's simply exceptional. Just one of those rare records that every single knocks it clear out of the park.
Don: I feel the same way about Airborne. It was okay. I was a different place obviously than when I did this last record and a lot of years of maturity and learning and recording development went into the difference between the two. I'm really pleased and flattered that you like Road to Forever. It's mean a lot more to me than Airborne did, to tell you the truth.
antiMusic: Vocally it's a mystery why you didn't just carry on after "Visions" and do more singing because your voice is so great on here. I think you sound like Jackson Browne so much in different parts.
Don: (laughs) I appreciate that comparison. Some people have even said I sound like Henley and I don't sound anything like Don. Maybe it's just the raspiness in my voice on occasion. Don's a great singer but I prefer to be compared to Jackson to tell you the truth.
antiMusic: Considering this record is largely based on two monumental experiences, presumably the process must have been a cathartic affair for you?
Don: You know, it was very liberating to take a lot of the experiences and emotions and feelings that I had during that time and both sit down and write my autobiography Heaven and Hell. I was writing out those experiences and were recalling intimately the fresh pain that was involved in the separation from the Eagles and the separation and divorce from my wife. I found myself going into the studio and writing those kinds of emotional songs and feelings into that music that's on that record. It was a kind of dual cathartic process; one was done in text to do the book.
But the most fulfilling release for me was to be able to actually write them in songs. That's what I do best. That's my expression, the way to express my emotions and feelings. And so it was a great kind of liberating process for me to go though it, pour all of that out both in text and in song. So I really enjoyed the process. And I think it was quite healing for me to do that.
antiMusic: As a form of therapy as you were saying, the material came out first lyrically. How did you go about determining what would make up the record when you got to the music end of things? And did you want to say some sort of statement as a whole record.
Don: Well, yeah. I mean, a couple of things happened. There was a record producer called Greg Ladanyi, a really famous guy. He's produced tons of great records that I loved and admired and I worked with Greg on several other projects along the way. He was originally going to be the producer on this record. He and I had spent months playing golf and having lunch and listening to song ideas and deciding where we would record and who the players would be. And just kind of putting out the roadmap in advance of how we were going to go about making this record, song selection and all that other stuff.
Then about a week before we were scheduled to actually come into the studio, Greg got on a plane and flew to Greece to see one of his Greek Madonna artists, who isn't really known in the states but is huge in Greece. And he had an unfortunate accident where he fell off the back of this really huge stadium stage and passed away. So I was kind of left with this roadmap that Greg had laid out for me and really saddened by his not being able to be part of this record. But he had given me the plan to do it.
So myself and one of the guys that I had been introduced to by Greg, Robin DiMaggio, decided we would pick this up, go into the studio, record three or four songs and kind of see how they turn out. See how we'd do. One of the songs that I wanted to do was a song called "Road to Forever", which I started writing as a really kind of acoustic guitar song when my father passed away. My father never really got to see and enjoy the celebration of my success. He passed away before I really went anywhere with the Eagles. I was in the band but we were just starting to tour and stuff.
So I wanted to record that song and we put together that group of people that Greg had talked about doing on that song. I wanted to make it tougher so I rewrote some of the song and took it in from a pretty acoustic song to this harder rock song. Brought in Steve Lukather and David Paich…a whole bunch of guys to play on it that we had talked about. And at the very end of the record I created this affect that sounds like what I would imagine the pool of souls sounding like. You stick your head up into heaven, you could hear the millions an millions of souls that's gone before us, just a swarming sound and you couldn't really understand what they were saying but you would hear all these millions of voices.
We simulated that in the studio by having a bunch of people speaking and saying prayers and saying stuff, women and all sorts of kids and everything to create that. And at the very end of that pool of souls, on the "Road to Forever" song, I found this thing online of Greg at a conference for recording engineers and producer. And he was speaking about the difference between digital recording and analog recording and he said at the very end of his speech, "and that's the difference between the two worlds." So I took Greg's voice and put it in the very end of the pool of souls. So as it fades down you can hear Greg say, "And that's the difference between the worlds." So Greg ended up on the record.
That song was kind of done in his honor and my father's honor, but it's the same pathway for us all, if you know what I mean. So kind of the theme of the record was, you may be living through all of these experiences, as fun and uplifting and tragic as they may be, and you may be living your life in the fast lane but we're all on the road to forever. So that kind of was the underlying theme of the record. And that's why I chose that title to be on the record.
All the other things are other experiences that I've gone through that were quite tragic. Like the separation and divorce from my wife produced the song "Fall from The Grace of Love". Living through those three or four years of really desperate bad economy, I wrote the song "Money", where I saw single moms who couldn't feed their kids and thieves on Wall Street just ripping off everybody. And Uncle Sam is raising taxes and guys working as hard as they could to just earn enough money to get by and how difficult that was. So I wrote songs about life experiences that I either observed or living through, and said that was part of the road to forever.
antiMusic: The title track you said started off acoustic and then kind of changed along the way. That's exactly what I was going to ask you. It sounds like one of these tracks that probably went through a few changes, a few variations before you hit on the way you wanted it. I mean there was an acoustic first verse before the awesome guitars kick in. Did you play around with it very much or did it come out close to as we hear it?
Don: I had made three or four different attempts at arranging that song and how to take it from the acoustic guitar introduction to something that would be more of a rock or a heavy powered statement and really had not come to 100 per cent fruition until we went in with the people that Greg had recommended. There was a spirit in the room that, in Greg's honor, raised that energy to different level. So we had done some other arrangements with it until the song really came to life.
antiMusic: The thoughtful lyrical matter of "Fall from the Grace of Love" seems almost at odds with the music which is upbeat in an almost Bob Seger/Jackson Browne-ish way. Is this song kind of the fallout from your divorce?
Don: Yeah, I mean, my separation and my divorce from my wife were really two of the most devastating things in my life. Two things that happened within the same 12 month period was I left the Eagles and then within that following 12 months I wound up separating and divorcing from my wife. So there were two huge blows, it was like an upper cut and then a left hook (laughs). And it just about knocked me off my feet.
So one of the songs on this record, called "Wash Away" and another song on this record called "Heal Me" are really about that experience of, as we go through life, starting with childhood scars and loss of loved ones and broken hearts. We wind up being battered by our life experiences. And at some point we all wish there was a way we could wash away that pain of life, or to be healed from those difficult experiences. So I wanted to write a couple of redeeming songs about that.
With the song "Heal Me", it starts out talking about that, being injured and wounded and all that sort of stuff, to try and find a special place that we can go to heal ourselves. And at the very end of the song I wanted to create a completely different musical track and have it a very uplifting, almost tribal, African, joyous celebration of having gone through life, incurred that damage and now being healed.
So that piece of music at the end of "Heal Me" was originally going to be another song called "Healed" but when we made the two tracks it turned out that they were in the exact same tempo and we melded them together so that it's like a transformation of the healing process and the celebration after that. So those are all things you wish could happen and we all strive to happen on the road to forever.
antiMusic: Hooking up with Tommy Shaw proved to be beneficial because "Wash Away" is an excellent song. I mean, when that solo hits, it's just magic. Once he got involved, did he contribute to the music as well or was it strictly lyrics?
Don: No. I had pretty much written it with another friend of mine, a guy named Timothy Drury, who was a keyboard player that was with us during the Hell Freezes Over tour. He was with Whitesnake for two or three years and he and I are great friends. He and I and wrote all the music tracks for that song. I had started…I came up with the melody, and started writing lyrics for it and I was just somewhat unhappy with my lyrics that I had.
So on a long shot I called Tommy, because he's usually on the road with Styx, 150 shows a year or something---to see if he was in town. And fortunately he was in town, and I said, "Look I've got this song. I really would like some lyric help on this." So Tommy came over and we worked in my studio for three days and we wrote three songs. We wrote the lyrics to "Heal Me". We wrote the lyrics to "Wash Away" and then we also wrote a whole other song that was like an acoustic Crosby, Stills and Nash song, that didn't really fit on this record.
And he was doing a country record at the time and it didn't really fit on his country record. But we have it on the shelf. We may go back for this next project. And I may get Crosby, Stills and Nash to help sing it with me. It's so appropriate for them. But working with Tommy was just a delight. He had gone through a divorce. He had gone through difficult times, the whole break up of Styx, and changing that had happened in that band --- very similar experiences.
So I felt he was very appropriate to relate to that subject matter, if he had to write lyrics with me for that song. And he did. He did a great job and we always have fun when we get together. Like I said, we wrote three songs in three days. And then while he was in my studio we set up a vocal mike and we sang all the choruses together and ah, it was just a delightful experience. Tommy's a really great guy and a great friend. And I appreciate him reaching out to help.
antiMusic: Considering you're on good terms with your ex-wife now, are the pointed lyrics in "Someday" kind of directed to Mr. Henley and Mr. Frey?
Don: No, nothing is specifically directed to them. In general when you have any relationship, whether it's a love relationship or a friendship and there's difficulty in being open and honest with each other about your feelings about your life experiences, and not a lot of empathy there, there's like a wall between people. And that song is about trying to break through that wall.
If you listen to that chorus, it's "hopefully someday you'll be able to lay down your weapons and show me your naked heart". In other words, open up to each other. People have interpreted that and that song, "You Don't Have Me" as a direct comment back to my old partners but that' really not the case. It's a broader perspective than trying to write something specifically for them.
antiMusic: "Life's Lullaby" is absolutely beautiful and one of the most emotional songs I've ever heard. What prompted this song?
Don: Well I have five children and there's a time in a woman's life when she's in her final trimester, her last few months of her first child and the glow and anticipation and beauty that surrounds that, I wanted to capture that in a pretty lullaby. So I set out trying to talk about a mother standing there waiting for this child to come unto the earth to be there to cradle him in her arms. In the meantime, while they're still in the womb, their spirit is flying above us all and waiting to be greeted here on earth. So I wanted to try and encapsulate that snapshot and those feelings that go along with that by witnessing it so many times that I felt like it was a really lovely subject, it was worthy of putting in song.
antiMusic: You obviously didn't skimp on the supporting cast. Besides the big names that everybody knows, it continues down the line with professionals like Lenny Castro and Leland Sklar. How did you go about deciding who you wanted on each cut or was it a matter of just the best person available at the time of recording?
Don: Well I was pretty particular about who played on which tracks and like I said, some of the people had been suggested by Greg Ladayani. And then when we got to that song, "Someday", it had originally been a keyboard-bass track. The keyboard synth bass was okay but it wasn't great. So I didn't feel it wasn't the big kind of bass part that I wanted from Leland or some other bass players that had played on the record.
And I kept thinking who would be great and really one the greatest bass players in Los Angeles is a guy called Randy Jackson who's more currently known as the Dawg Dude on American Idol. But he's not just that. He's really a brilliant bass player, producer, arranger; he's just got a great musical history. So we talked to Randy and I said, "Hey Randy, I've got this track I'd like you to just chill on it." And he's just an amazing bass layer and if you listen to the parts and phrasing he did, it's so crucial to bringing that song to life and he was the perfect person to play that part on that song. So on all the tracks, I was very cautious of who I brought in to play on what songs. I felt, knowing them and their musical expertise and abilities and style that they would be the perfect person. And fortunately most of it worked out.
antiMusic: Actually now that you tell me that, was Randy with you on the track "Heavy Metal" from the soundtrack because it kind of sounds like him on there?
Don: No that was Abe Laboriel. When I was living in Boston, Abe was going to the Berkeley College of music. I was working in a recording studio six days a week as a guitar session guy, producer, engineer, just learning how to make records, and Abe came in and played on this one session. He was really young, in college. And he and I just kind of clicked and so I had the studio booking him on every session.
He was just phenomenal. And we've remained friends since then. I guess that back in '71 or '72 when we first met. And so when I went in to do "Heavy Metal", I thought of my favourite bass player and Abe was in town. I said, "Would you please do me the honor of coming and playing on this record with me?" And he was delighted to do so. He played on that and the flip side of that song which is another one of the songs that we did when we were in the studio together. But great vibe, amazing player.
He just played on my daughter's new record. Leah Felder has a new record out. And his son as you probably know plays drums with McCartney. So it's kind of keeping it in the family is I guess the way to put it. (laughs)
antiMusic: There's a pretty good mix of guitar tracks like "You Don't Have Me" and "Girls in Black" along with the more tranquil material. Did you have a checks and balance system to keep order within the record or did you just go with the strongest songs?
Don: What I did was I had written about 25 song ideas in my studio and I went through and pared down what I thought were the best 16 songs so that it wouldn't be over weighted --- too much rock and roll , too much light stuff or too many ballads. So it was a pretty good mix of those 16 songs. We went into the studio, recorded and produced those 16 songs and I sat down and selected what I thought would be the best 12 songs to put on a cd.
The other four songs went on to being bonus tracks that you could download from iTtunes or Amazon or different places where you could hear those other four songs. If I had used all of them it would have been a little lopsided. I kind of really like having the balance of diversity in a CD where it's not all hard rock, not all kind of mid-tempo kind of stuff, or it's not all lullabies and ballads. I thought it was important to balance things out that way.
antiMusic: Especially with extremely personal material, it must feel funny to share that experience with other people. How do the songs translate live now that you've had a chance to play them for a bit now?
Don: You know, that's a great question. One of my biggest fears when I go out and do my shows, I put a lot of the songs that I co-wrote and recording and made with the Eagles as well as I play "Heavy Metal", a Stevie Ray Vaughn song "Pride and Joy", and some other songs. But in the middle of all of those kinds of legendary hits I was apprehensive of putting in a couple of new songs, about how they would be received, even before they had any radio air play.
But I was really very pleasantly surprised when we played those songs live, like "Fall From Grace", "Girls in Black", "Wash Away", "Over You". I kept mixing them up to find out which ones fit best in the set. They were received very well. The songs have a very kind of familiar sound to them. It's like talking to a familiar voice you know. And they fit very well in the other catalogue that I recorded with The Eagles. But they've been very well received. I've been delighted with being able to play them live, having some new music in my show and the people actually get up and dance and have a great time to it.
antiMusic: You are doing a couple of short runs with the Peter Frampton show in a few weeks. How does it work? Is it like the Ringo Starr setup where everybody does a mini-set and you all play on everybody else's songs or do you just come out for your songs?
Don: I'm going to come out and sit in with Peter and his band and do probably three to four songs. I'll do a couple of Eagle songs like "Hotel". Peter will play guitar with me on "Hotel" and we'll do the harmonies. We'll do "Life in the Fast Lane" and he'll play guitar with me. We'll do Stevie Ray Vaughn's song, "Pride and Joy" so that he and I can trade off on vocals and we can trade off on guitar solos and you know, just have fun playing.
And we'll probably do "Wash Away" as well. It's been on the U.S. Classic Rock radio stations chart in the Top 10 for the last five weeks now so it's getting a lot of airplay and recognition here in the States so we're going to do that song as well. And then somewhere later in the show, I'll come out for the finale and I think he wants to do "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". So we'll trade off on that as well at the end of the show.
antiMusic: Well, I appreciate you taking the time today and I wish you all the best with the record. It's one of the best I've heard in I don't know how long. And this has been a real thrill to get to speak with you.
Don: I'm going to have to buy all new hats now Morley. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
Morley and antiMusic thank Don for doing this interview.
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