To speak with Don Felder is to speak with a man who’s acutely aware of karma. As a young and hungry touring guitarist in Los Angeles during the early ’70s, Felder joined his friend Bernie Leadon’s band the Eagles – Glenn Frey was so impressed with Felder’s guitar chops that he nicknamed him Fingers – and for the next seven years, Felder experienced the rock and roll lifestyle in a way that only a handful of bands have ever known even today. His price for this, of course, was that he had to be in a band with Glenn Frey and Don Henley, which meant suffering two of the most insufferable people in music history. After his departure from the band in 2001, Felder wrote Heaven and Hell: My Life with the Eagles, where he chronicled his time in the band whose first greatest hits album was, at one point, the best selling album of all time. The book is equal parts hopeful and devastating.
Miraculously, Felder has come to terms with his turbulent past in a borderline monk-like manner (a fitting analogy, given the avenues he explored to rid himself of the poisonous feelings he carried with him for decades). We spoke to him about his new solo album (and first in almost 30 years) Road to Forever, and despite the fact that he had several opportunities to get even with his old mates, he chose higher ground at each and every opportunity. Well, he did throw a slight jab at Glenn once, but to be fair, dude had it coming. Anyone who names their album No Fun Aloud is just asking for someone to take a swing at him.
Let’s get the obvious question out of the way. This is your first album in almost 30 years. Why now?
I made a solo record when the Eagles hit the Hold button back in 1982, mainly because I wanted to stay at home and raise my kids. I had four kids that pretty much had an absentee dad the whole time they were growing up until the Eagles stopped working in ’82. So I wanted to do a project that would keep me at home. The Eagles resumed in 1994, and when that machine is up and running, it’s all-consuming. You eat, sleep, and breathe Eagles – there’s nothing else you can do during the day.
When I left the band in 2001, I spent about a year and a half doing this series of daily meditations, [which was] really a cathartic process to try and understand how I got from this impoverished condition in a little dirt road down in Gainesville, FL, and followed this music dream and wound up in the Eagles, what had happened to me and how I had changed from this upbringing that was very moralistic, dragged into church every Sunday, and now, in the ’70s, I was dragged into promiscuity and drugs and a whole different lifestyle that was completely contrary to everything I knew. So I really wanted to understand what had happened to me, how I had changed, and really get a handle on that, and release as much of that baggage as possible before I went forward in life. So I started doing these daily meditations on specific areas in my life, in a self-introspective search of trying to understand myself. I started writing these notes down, which eventually became a book, and as I was doing this self-introspection and writing this book, I was also going into the studio, with specific experiences that had happened in my life, and I’d write songs and music about it. So it was kind of a dual cathartic path I was on: one writing the text for this book Heaven and Hell: My Life with the Eagles, and secondly writing these songs. It was an emotional release for me.
After I published the book and went out and promoted it for a year and a half, at the same time I’ve had a band that I’ve been playing live shows with for about eight and a half years now. In between writing the book, writing the songs for the CD, promoting the book, and touring on the road with my band, it just took some time to set aside the amount of time to sit down with these 26 song ideas that I’d done thumbnail sketches on, sort through what I thought were the best 16, go into the studio, record and finish producing those, and then pare them down to the 12 that you hear on the record right now. And now, we’re out touring, promoting, and playing [Road to Forever]. That was the thing that I really missed most, was writing, recording, and playing new material live, so after the book, I finally focused on the songs that I could go into the studio and record, and go on to play live. It took a while, to make a short story long.
I really like the track “Heal Me.” I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from this album, but that beat-driven finale was a nice surprise.
That song started out as the process of what I was just describing. As we go through life, life winds up scarring us, leaving scars on our heart, be it through childhood experiences, loss of family, loss of love, betrayal of friends, whatever it is. Everyone wishes there was a way you could heal yourself, and wash that away, which is another song idea that came out of that concept. At the very end of that song, I wanted to write another song called “Healed,” a very rhythmic, joyous, upbeat celebration of both sides of life: the beautiful side of life, and the not-so-beautiful side of life. We actually wrote and produced this second ending, this second song, and it turned out the tempos merged together perfectly, but in two totally different musical genres. It seemed like it was the celebration of going through the process of healing yourself, and at the end, there is this tribal, primitive, joyous celebration of coming out the other side, and having been healed from the wounds of life.
Tommy Shaw sings on the record, and I can see where the two of you would bond, in a ‘Why yes, I also spent years of my life serving a megalomaniacal overlord’ kind of way.
[Laughs] Tommy’s a good friend, we’ve been friends for years. I was in the middle of working on a couple of songs, one called “Wash Away” and the other was “Heal Me,” and I struggled coming up with the lyrics that I thought were descriptive but not preachy in any way. So I called Tommy, and on a rare occasion, he happened to be in town, because Styx works kind of nonstop. He came over for two or three days, brought a guitar, we actually wrote another song together that was going to be on his last acoustic record, kind of a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song. And then we started writing lyrics for [the songs on my album], and while he was here, we set up a mic in my studio and had him sing some background harmonies with me. It was a pleasure, and very helpful hand that he loaned to me in the process of putting those songs together. Great guy.
The liner notes I have do not reveal where this album was recorded. I should have known it was in your studio.
The whole record wasn’t recorded in my studio. We recorded in different rooms here in L.A., we recorded some at my place, at a studio in Thousand Oaks, some at the Village…actually, Ed Cherney, a longtime friend of mine who was the assistant or second engineer on the Hotel California record at the Record Plant – he was setting up mics, and sweeping the floor, and looking over the shoulder of the engineer, Bill Scymczyk, but went on to become a phenomenal engineer of his own, doing the Rolling Stones, and Bonnie Raitt, and a bunch of other acts. When it came time to mix this record, a lot of the people involved were very close to me, as far as friends. [Guest vocalist] Stephen Stills and I go back to when we were 15 years old. Tommy Shaw and I have been friends for years, so it was important for me to have people involved in this project that not only were really good friends but a lot of fun to work with. As you might imagine, I’ve spent more time in the studio with more drama than any of us would want to envision, and I didn’t want that on this project. I really wanted uplifting, fun, positive energy. Steve Lukather played guitar on a track with me, and he’s one of the funniest guys you can have in the room. It was a totally different approach to making serious records, but with a smile on your face, so all of the people that I recruited for this project were, first, fabulous musicians, gifted players and writers, and secondly, really good people and fun to hang out with in the studio, and made the project a delightful experience. I was somewhat reticent about going into the studio when the experiences that I had had in the past were long, grueling, tedious, contentious days in the studio – I just didn’t want to do that. So I speciifically chose people that I knew personally and got along with well, and were also brilliantly talented, so it was a great experience for me.
You look at the list of people on the album, and it couldn’t be more L.A. David Crosby, Stephen Stills, half of Toto, and Greg Liesz, whom I believe is required by law to appear on anything recorded in the greater Los Angeles area.
[Laughs] You know, Greg is spectacular. I did a series of shows up in northwest Canada a couple of years ago, and he was actually playing in the opening act. He and I became great friends, and I just love the way he plays pedal steel. He’s just a very gifted player, so when it was time to do steel on a couple of these songs, I can play steel, but I went beyond what my ego would allow me to do and I reached to somebody who I thought not only was a great guy but a phenomenal player, and could do as good a job if not far better than I could have done, in probably a tenth of the time. It was my pleasure to have Greg come in and play on that with me.
Did you pay for this album yourself?
I’d like to get your take on something. I was listening to an album recently by someone who makes her own albums, and the album didn’t sound terribly good compared to her other records, and I couldn’t help but think that she made a decision somewhere along the way that, “Look, I’m only going to sell a certain number of copies of this record in the current climate, so if I spend any more money on the production, I may as well be throwing it in a hole in the ground.” Managing the budget versus sales expectations: did that thought go through your head when you were making this record?
No, not really. I had the luxury where I could have recorded the entire thing in my studio, which is paid for and wouldn’t cost me a dime. But there are certain rooms that have a great sound to them for drums. Ed [Cherney]‘s room, for mixing, is just a phenomenal, acoustically, set up room. Based on the standards that I set up for that, after all of the records I had made in the business, including Eagles records, I had set a quality and standard for myself that I would not release a record if it were below those standards, no matter what it cost. If it just didn’t turn out to my level of expectation and quality, I wouldn’t put it out. I would be disappointed in myself had I done so. The financial aspect of it was really not a consideration nearly as much as the artistic and sonic quality. Does that make sense?
I didn’t do it to make money: I did it because I love writing, recording, and playing music. I had several opportunities to do it with a record label, and I turned them down, for a couple of reasons. Number one, I didn’t want time constraints or budget constraints, or A&R constraints of someone else controlling this project – I wanted to do it the way I wanted to do it, and there is only one way to do that, and that is to pay for it yourself.
Did you ever think that the landscape would look like it does right now?
Well, I think there are good aspects of the landscape and negative aspects of the landscape. Are you talking about the record companies, or music business in general?
Well, both. From my perspective, just how youth-driven the market is, that was obviously always the golden goose, but you could still make money selling records to people over the age of 30, and now it seems that [people over 30] don’t even exist.
Fortunately, that’s one of my largest audiences, is people over 30. Not only at my shows, but the corporations that I work for. The people that still buy CDs are over 30. They buy the whole CD, as opposed to most people under the age of the 30 who go to iTunes and download a single. So for me, being a baby boomer, and having my audience being baby boomers, is a good thing. That’s the largest age bracket in the United States. I’m very happy to have those people as my audience. They’re actually people that buy CDs.
That’s true. What I remember growing up was that you would have a lot of younger bands scoring Top 40 hits, but Don Henley would score some hit singles, Peter Gabriel, guys who were considerably older than everyone else still had a shot at scoring some chart success. That balance doesn’t exist anymore.
I also think radio has changed dramatically. It used to be, back in the ’70s and ’80s, all the radio stations were mom and pop-owned. You know, maybe if you were really wealthy, you’d own three or four radio stations. You could program anything you wanted, you could have any advertisers that you wanted, or not wanted. But with the advent of ClearChannel – which in one aspect is really good because it’s a national chain, like a Walmart or something – but it does really limit the local bands being able to go down and get airplay at their local station. Unless you’re on the national program list of ClearChannel, then you just don’t make it on the radio. I think that whole shift in radio programming and ownership has dramatically impacted the music business for young artists, although AAA radio is still extremely valid for young artists to break through on, so there’s still a good shot. It’s more limited for veteran artists like myself, in that airplay is generally aimed at 30 and under; unless it’s classic rock stations, you don’t really have the opportunity to break through on those channels.
Did you see the South Park episode that used your song “Heavy Metal”?
[Laughs] I did, yeah.
What did you think of it?
I’ve been a fan of South Park for years, it’s hysterical and it’s written with a serious tongue in cheek on everything. So when they contacted me about it, I said, “First of all, I’m really flattered that you want to use the song, and secondly, you can only use it in an episode that’s really, really funny.” So it was one of my requirements that it be in a funny, silly episode. I was delighted with the way it turned out. I thought it was great. Did you see the Homeland episode that my single off this new album was featured in?
They used one of the songs from the CD, “Fall from Grace,” in an episode of Homeland which, again, was flattering.
That’s fantastic. That’s the modern-day equivalent of getting a Top 40 hit. “I got a song in Grey’s Anatomy!”
[Laughs] Well, I love the show, I watch it religiously. Since 24 has gone off the air, Homeland is my new addiction. When I got the call that they wanted to use it, I said, “Absolutely, you bet.”
I used to do a blog on 24, and we created a drinking game for it. Every time Jack Bauer said, “Damn it,” drink. Every time he said, “We’re running out of time!”, drink two.
[Laughs] I have a couple of friends who were on that show who played the presidents, and I play golf with these guys. It’s fun to be able to hang out with them and get some of the inside scoop on how all that took place.
Wait, which presidents? Dennis Haysbert?
Yeah, Dennis and the evil president.
Gregory Itzin, yeah. Greg and I play golf together, and Dennis and I play either at the Hope (note: Felder’s referring to the tournament formerly known as the Bob Hope Classic, now known as the Humana Challenge) or different charity events together.
I used to do an album cover quiz for the site, where I would show a small piece of an album cover and the readers would have to guess what the cover was. Sometimes I would make an acrostic, where the first letter in the artists’ names of all the covers would spell something which served as a clue for the final, super-hard album cover image. For one of my quizzes, the acrostic was “November spawned a monster.” Any guesses as to whom I was referring?
[Laughs, knowing exactly where this is going] No, why don’t you tell me?
It was No Fun Aloud, by Glenn Frey.
[Laughs] Okay. Well, that was a very appropriate album title for him.
I read your book, and I was absolutely furious when I finished it. I wanted to drive to California and punch the other Eagles in the face.
And the worst part is, you were actually pretty easy on them, in my mind.
When I wrote that book, I really just wanted to tell my story. I didn’t want to hang any dirty laundry out, I didn’t want to point the finger any anybody or describe them in unflattering terms, because as a group, we did some amazing stuff together. We made great records, we toured the world numerous times. There were some great times involved in all that, and there’s nothing to be gained in attacking people in a book like that – it’s a small human being that does that, and I didn’t want to do that.
There’s this strange Forrest Gump vibe to the beginning of your book. You’re getting guitar lessons from Duane Allman, you’re giving guitar lessons to Tom Petty, and you’re forming your first band with Stephen Stills. You realize that no one’s life is like that, right?
Well, mine was.
Yes, but my point is it’s uncanny.
That story is probably one of the juiciest, most salacious life stories I’ve ever lived. [Chuckles]
Compared to the other lives you’ve been living in parallel?
Yes, exactly. We just all grew up in the same town, and a lot of us went to the same high school. We were in the Battle of the Bands together…we were just kids in town. No one knew what was around the corner, that we would all go on to become platinum-selling, Hall of Fame inductees. We were just a bunch of kids in a garage band having fun, and we happened to all go on to be successful.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but from my perspective, in reading your book, the biggest betrayal was when Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit threw you under the bus after you fought for equal rights within the band.
I don’t think they threw me under the bus at all. I understand the way that organization works, and it’s one of those things where you’re either with them, or you’re an enemy. So they had to make a decision one way or another on what camp they were in, and they chose to stay in the band, and they’re still in the band. I don’t hold anything against them. I love Joe, he’s a great guy, great player. He and I were probably the closest in that band of all the people that were in that band. And Timothy’s a really nice guy, a great singer, great player. I don’t have any hard feelings against anyone in that band, to tell you the truth.
That’s good to hear. From reading the book, I felt betrayed on your behalf, because you’re standing up for Joe and Timothy, and it seemed tragic that they chose the meal ticket over what I consider to be the right thing.
Well, what they chose was the right thing for them, so I was happy for them. That year-and-a-half, cathartic process I went through was so I would not carry that baggage forward, so I wouldn’t carry that anger or frustration or sense of betrayal. I wanted to be free of that, and released from all that, and enjoy the rest of my life, play other music and have a good time. There is life after the Eagles. [Chuckles]
No, there’s not!
[Laughs] Why not enjoy it?
I didn’t have the perspective at the time, but after reading your book and listening to the singles from The Long Run now, I can actually hear how hard you guys were trying to make that album sound like effortless, West Coast, laid back So-Cal rock.
It was by far the most difficult record we made. Coming off of the success of Hotel California, it was a very daunting task to sit down and write more songs equal to or superior to the songs and recordings that were on that record. There was a lot of pressure, and it was all self-inflicted. Every record we made, we kept raising the bar, trying to outdo ourselves – everything we did, we wanted it to be the best that we could be. Glenn coined a phrase that I thought was really appropriate, he said it was the hardening of the artistry. The more successful you are, the more difficult it is to surpass yourself. When we got to The Long Run, we were all stricken with that dreaded disease, the hardening of the artistry, and we really felt the pressure and the angst of trying to supercede Hotel California. We created this monster, and it nearly ate us. So we finished [The Long Run], but it nearly finished us in the process.
Is it true that the writing credit to “Hotel California” has Don and Glenn’s names ahead of yours? (Note: the original writing credit listed Felder’s name first, but after he left the band, Henley and Frey had the names rearranged.)
That’s one of the pettiest things I’ve ever heard.
And that’s saying something when you’re talking about the music business.
Uh-huh. I know.
I have to think that just before the play the song live now, they pause for a second to whisper to themselves, “Man, we really hosed this guy. Sorry, Fingers.”
No, I doubt that runs through their mind, to tell you the truth. I think they bask in the light of their work, and rightly so. We all made those records together, we all wrote together, and we were all in the studio every day working on things, so it was a group effort, and it’ll be a long time before any of us does something that surpasses “Hotel California.”
So what do you have going on for the next few months?
I’m out doing shows, I think my last show is December 15. I have a couple of offers for New Year’s Eve, but I don’t know if I want to play on New Year’s Eve.
That’s a huge paycheck, not like you need the money.
I know, but I need to take some time off, and spend some time during the holidays with my friends and family here in LA, and catch up on that, as well has half a dozen song ideas that are thumbnailed out and I want to start working on in my studio. I don’t really have a lot of time off. I may be off the road, but I’m still on, either writing or in the studio, business, promotion, or something. We’ll start back up in early February. My booking agent and manager talked about me working into next fall 2013, so I’ll be out playing a great deal next year.
I’m always amused by New Year’s Eve gigs, how a band who normally charges $10 can charge $100 on New Year’s Eve, and get it.
I don’t necessarily think the value of the dollar equates with the particular moment in time. I love to play. That’s what started me when I was 10 years old and has propelled me on that long, dusty road from Gainesville to where I am now, and it’s why I still do it. There are a couple of things that I’ve been fortunate enough to adopt that you can do your whole life. One is you can play music your whole life. I think Les Paul played until shortly before he passed away. The other is playing golf, so with what free time I have when I am off the road and out of the studio, I get to get in a few rounds here and there. I plan on writing and singing and producing and playing for as long as I can do it. I think the only thing that will stop me is arthritis.
Is that an issue?
No, no, no. That would just be the one thing that could cripple my career. I have no afflictions at the moment.
Well, thank you again for taking the time to talk with us. I really appreciate it.
Feel free to edit this and truncate it any way you like to make me sound articulate.