Don Felder: This Eagle has landed
|Don Felder is on tour this summer with Styx and Foreigner on the “Soundtrack of Summer” tour.|
I suppose one could talk with former Eagles guitarist Don Felder and not bring up his role in creating one of the most iconic songs in rock history. But why would you want to miss out on that?
“Hotel California” holds a special place in my own personal memory as it was the very first song that I ever saw the Eagles perform live. I was a relatively new Eagles fan when I saw them on Oct. 22, 1976, as part of a three-night stand at the Forum in Los Angeles. So when I heard the cool opening song — I could tell from the chorus, and a neon sign blinking behind the stage, that it was called “Hotel California” — I simply assumed it was an album cut I was unfamiliar with. It wasn’t until a month and a half later, when the “Hotel California” album was officially released, that I recognized my error.
What was not in error during my first introduction to that song, however, was the impression that it was indeed something special. It remains a classic concert-opening song to this day. As Felder said during our interview, ” It’s like walking out on stage and just punching somebody right in the chin. ‘Boooom!’ You know?”
Felder is no longer in the Eagles, of course, following a well-publicized acrimonious split in 2001. But the guitarist is fronting his own band now and touring behind his 2012 solo album “Road to Forever.”
This summer Felder is playing the opening slot on the “Soundtrack of Summer” tour with Styx and Foreigner, which comes to USANA Amphitheatre on Wednesday. For this tour, “Hotel California” is getting some extra love and attention — as Felder is joined by Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw in a rousing set-closing rendition of the classic tune.
This interview took place in March, before the start of the tour. After a few minutes of chit-chat — in which Felder mentioned how he was blessed with the “gift of gab,” an assessment which definitely proved true in the course of our discussion — we got down to business.
DOUG FOX: I’ve got to say, it’s an honor to talk to the guitarist who wrote one of the greatest concert-opening songs of all time. And who knew that “Mexican Bolero” would become such a hit?
DON FELDER: (laughs) Certainly not me!
FOX: The first time that I saw the Eagles, I was living in L.A. at the time in October of ’76, and it was only my third concert ever, and of course you came out and opened with “Hotel California” — looking back, I think one of the things I find most interesting about that is that was before the album came out, before the song was released, and nobody had heard that, but just the fact that you played it at that point, and especially since you opened the show with it and it went over so well, to me looking back at it now, I’m like, “Man, that showed a tremendous amount of confidence in that song.” Did you guys know what you had when you first wrote it?
FELDER: You know, I don’t think any artist ever really knows. I mean, you can write a song, you can record it in the studio, you can put it out, distribute it, promote it — you just don’t know what’s going to resonate with audiences until you see the results of your work. I think my studio wall is covered with ideas that I’ve splattered up to see what’s going to stick to the wall, you know? And to me, I think I wrote 16 or 17 song ideas for what was going to become the “Hotel California” record, and one of them became “Victim of Love” and another one became “Hotel California.” And at the time it was just on the cassette of, like, 16 or 17 other song ideas. Don (Henley) heard it and said, “I like that thing that sounds kind of like a Mexican reggae or bolero, you know. That was the only thing that was on that reel that sounded like that. Imagine the difference between hearing the track to “Hotel California” and the track to “Victim of Love,” it’s opposite ends of the spectrum really. So we started working on the lyrics, and he and Glenn kind of ran off into their own world. Mostly I think Don came up with a large part of those lyrics, he’s a brilliant lyricist and an English-lit major and has the way of writing lyrics as little flashcards, or postcards, that show you a little picture, and another little picture and another little picture until you finally hit the chorus and you go, “Oh, I see what the story’s about!” And he’s just a genius lyricist, in my opinion. So he came in with the lyrics pretty much finished, with a few corrections here and there they made as were going through it. When we finished recording it in the studio, the record company had been pounding on our door to get this record — they wanted to put it out and follow up “One of These Nights,” which was the biggest success that the Eagles had had to that time for an album. And so, finally, when we finished it, we had it all mixed and sequenced on two-track, we invited them over, played the record for them and after “Hotel California,” Henley stopped, turned around and said, “That’s going to be our single.” And I don’t know if you know, I don’t know how old you are, but the format for AM radio in the ’70s, was that it had to be 3 minutes and 30 seconds long or less. You had to either have it be a rock song, a dance song or a drippy ballad. The introduction had to be under 30 seconds so the disc jockey didn’t have to talk so long before the singing started. And “Hotel California” was exactly wrong on all formats. It was six and a half minutes long, the introduction was a minute, you couldn’t dance to it, it stops in the middle, it breaks down with no drums and it’s got this two-minute guitar solo on the end of it. It’s completely wrong for AM radio. So when Don said, “That’s going to be our next single,” I said, “You know, I think that’s wrong. That’s like an FM track, I don’t think that should be on AM radio. I think that’s not the right call.” And he said, “Nope, that’s what we’re going to do.” And I went, “OK, but I told you so.” And I’ve never been so happy to have been so wrong in my life. He was right. He heard something in that that he believed in, so good for him.
FOX: That’s another thing that made it interesting for me because you were playing it in shows before it was ever released on radio. Like you said, you never really know how something will be received by the public until you put it out there. So when you started playing it in the shows, that was essentially your first reactions to the songs publicly.
FELDER: It was. It truly was. Yeah, we had actually, I think … was that the “Hotel California” show at the Forum?
FOX: Yes, there were three of them.
FELDER: Yeah. We had done that that whole tour. In fact, some of the video that was in “The History of the Eagles” was shot on the road …
FOX: In Washington?
FELDER: Washington or Philadelphia or somewhere back East.
FOX: I think it was Washington.
FELDER: Yeah, thank you. And we had made that into a video that was pre-MTV and sent it to Japan, and sent it to Europe and Australia so they could run that on television as kind of a commercial for the record, so it could sponsor and promote record sales because we weren’t going to get there for like a year, year and a half by the time we toured the United States and Canada, finally you go to Europe and finally you go to Japan and finally you go to Australia, you know, we wanted them to be able to kind of see what it was. So that’s where that footage came from. So, you know, we were kind of on board with that song once we started doing it live and seeing how well people responded to it. It was really a good opener. It’s like walking out on stage and just punching somebody right in the chin. “Boooom!” You know?
FOX: Exactly! As somebody who has gone to a ton of concerts, I’m a big fan of how bands open their shows. It’s really an art, and it’s got to be an art to come up with a song that fits that moment so perfectly.
FELDER: Well, I don’t know that it was ever written with the intent that it be an opening song in the show. Usually people save their biggest hits for the last song in the set or an encore or something later. But we just said, “We broke the rules on AM radio, let’s break the rules for this song, let’s just go out and do it first.” Even now, when I go out and do my live show, I usually start with “Hotel California.” Everybody gets up and stands up and applauds it, and it just gets a really great reaction. As a matter of fact, I think one of the nicest things that really struck me, I did this show a couple years ago for the United Nations in New York. There were about 450 people there, either presidents or dignitaries, secretaries of state from all over the world at this show — and about half of them didn’t even speak English. I went out and did “Hotel California” and got a standing ovation for that song from literally representatives from the whole world, and it kind of dawned on me the global impact that song has had. You know, you go, “OK, write this song, we make a record, we put it out, we go on tour” and you hear people say, “Oh, I was down in Mexico at this bar and I heard them playing ‘Hotel California’ ” — but until that moment I didn’t really realize how widespread that song had become. And, you know, it was a really pleasant surprise.
FOX: Well, I’ve got to ask, do you still have that cassette, the original copy?
FELDER: I do. As a matter of fact, I transferred it to digital about six, seven months ago. I was digging back through a bunch of my old cassettes, ’cause like I said, I’d written all these tracks … like the song “Heavy Metal” was actually a song I wrote for “The Long Run” record that never got finished. And so when I got invited to look at the movie of “Heavy Metal,” I went, “Oh, I’ve got this great guitar track, it all these harmony guitars on it and stuff, and I said, “I bet if I just re-wrote the lyrics for “Heavy Metal” on top of this track, it would work. I went in the studio, re-recorded the whole thing, and put it out, and it was, like, one of those kind of appropriate tracks that goes with the video and it did really well. So I was just looking back through and listening to a bunch of my cassettes before they completely degenerate, and at the same time I was transferring them into Pro-Tools in a digital format, but there it was. It was the original demo for “Hotel California,” and it was remarkably similar to the final end product.
FOX: That’s amazing.
FOX: Now how did your involvement with Styx and Foreigner come about for the “Soundtrack of Summer” tour?
FELDER: You know, I had worked with Styx, I guess one of the first times was an Alice Cooper benefit in Phoenix. Every year he had a thing thing called Christmas Pudding where he raises money for this foundation where they built an after-school educational program to keep kids off the streets and they teach them music and dance and help with their homework, all that stuff. Alice is an amazing guy when it comes to that kind of work. So every year he has this fundraiser and I got invited over to sit in and play a couple of songs at the Dodge Theater there in Phoenix, I guess it’s like a 5,000-seat hall or something. Styx was on the bill, and I said “Well, I don’t have a band.” Alice said, “I bet these guys would work with you.” So I sat down with (Styx guitarist) Tommy (Shaw) and showed him the harmony on “Hotel California,” and we did a quick soundcheck rehearsal, and that night we did like, “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Hotel California,” two or three songs with Styx backing me up — which was just unbelievable. It was like, “You know, you guys are really good! If you ever need a gig let me know.” (laughs) And Tommy and I became fast friends after that. I put together a benefit show here in L.A. for the Soweto Center for the Performing Arts, which was for the victims of Katrina. I guess that was about eight or nine years ago. I called Tommy who was doing the Shaw/Blades thing, had those guys come, Alice came over and sang with his band. Gilby Clarke was on the show. Dennis Quaid and his band were on the show. David Foster and some of his people were on the show. Just put together a really great show of different rock and roll bands, and raised a bunch of money for the victims of Katrina, and then, “Hey, Tommy, that was kind of fun, let’s go grab a dinner.” And the next thing I know, when he’s in town we’re going out and doing stuff, and seeing them play and going to dinner. And then when I was writing for the “Road to Forever,” I had two songs that I’d written lyrics for that were OK, I just wasn’t really knocked out by the lyrics that I’d written, and so I called Tommy just on the wild chance that he may be off the road with Styx, because they do like 150 shows a year, they’re just nonstop, and he just happened to be in town. I said, “Hey, would you just come over and listen to these lyrics that I’ve written and give me your opinion, just kind of put a different ear on it.” He said, “Oh, those are great, that’s fine.” I said, “What would you do with some of these lyrics?” So he and I sat down and we started re-writing some of the lyrics and we set up a mike and sang the choruses for them. It sounded great, and the next thing I know those lyrics are going on the record and Tommy’s vocals are going on the record. You know, we actually wrote, in three days, we wrote three songs. We wrote another song, “Heal Me,” together, and we wrote “Wash Away” and the third song, which sounded remarkably like Crosby, Stills and Nash — and Tommy was writing it for “The Great Divide” and it was too kind of Southern California instead of country for his record, he wanted more honest country-bluegrass stuff on his record. Anyway, I may use that with his blessing on my next record. It’s a great song, and maybe I’ll get Crosby, Stills and Nash to sing it with me, so we’ll see.
FOX: So do you have plans for a new record right away?
FELDER: I am constantly in the process when I’m driving down the freeway in L.A. singing into my iPhone or sitting on an airplane flying somewhere writing lyrics with headphones on listening to a track with this great lyric program, a songwriter’s program called MasterWriter, where you can put a track, an mp3, into this program, you can play it and write lyrics on top of it, back it up, you know, it’s kind of all controlled from one little thing. It’s created by a guy named Barry DeVorzon, up in Santa Barbara, who’s a great string composer and songwriter himself — and he wanted to be able to get audio and text and rhyming dictionaries into one program, so it’s a blessing really for a songwriter to be able to have that program. There’s Gary DeVorzon’s ad. (laughs) Anyway, I’m constantly working, whether it’s on the road, even if I’m watching television, I’ll sit with an electric guitar and just kind of tinker around as I’m watching it. But if I hear a score in the background, if I hear something going on in the background, whether it’s an orchestral part, I’ll rewind it on my DVR and I’ll sit and try to figure it out and work it out. So, I’m constantly working, I have all these odds and ends in bits and pieces of lyrics and guitar licks and tracks and stuff. In August I plan on trying to take a couple of weeks and sit down with that task, sort through them and start building the demos for these song ideas. Last record, “Road to Forever,” I had 27 song ideas pretty much finished. I culled it down to 16, went into the studio and recorded those 16 songs, finished them and produced them, and then just before we went to final mastering of the manufacturing the CDs and the artwork, I get a call from the management company and they say, “Well, iTunes wants an exclusive single. Oh, and Amazon needs an exclusive song, and, oh wait, Japan wants an exclusive song, and Europe and Australia want an exclusive song, too.” So I had to pull four songs off the original release of “Road to Forever” and only put out 12 songs. And so I said, “Here’s four great songs that no one ever heard.” So this spring I decided that we should repackage that, put all the songs back on that are no longer exclusive songs and then release it again. So we re-released that, and that was the reasoning in doing that. And the lesson I’ve learned from that is instead of doing 16, I need to record 20 or 25 songs for all these exclusive, promotional things as well. I think you want to have at least 16 songs on a CD, you know?
FOX: That’s something you never had to worry about back in the old days.
FELDER: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, I think my first solo record had eight songs on it. Yeah, if they’d have pulled four off for exclusive promotions, there’d only be four songs on it.
FOX: You’d have an EP.
FOX: So, I’ve been wearing out your new album for the past week and a half, and it is the extended version so I have all those songs on there …
FELDER: Oh, good.
FOX: And I’ve got to say, and maybe you’ll shake your head at this a bit, but I don’t know what I expected going in, but I was amazed at how much it reminded me of the Eagles. I think because a few members of your former band are so prominently recognized, you know, as the main songwriters and get the credit for that, but as I was listening to this, it kind of became clear to me that your “Fingers” print was all over those main Eagles records, even if it’s not credited in the songwriting per se.
FELDER: Well, you know, typically songwriting credits go lyrics and music. And that’s typically the way I worked with those guys in the past. I would write music beds. I would write complete introductions, a couple verses, chorus, bridge, you know, the song structure — give them these music beds to write and in some instances, like “Victim of Love,” actually the melody. I had different lyrics on it, but I had written the melody, you can even hear the melody in the guitar introduction that’s on the track, right? And those two guys were primarily known for lyrics and vocals. Don Henley can’t really play piano, can’t really play guitar, he needs somebody to provide him the music bed. (former Eagles guitarist) Bernie (Leadon) told me that as soon as I joined the band. He said, “You want to write with these guys, provide the music beds to sing on top of.” That’s how “Witchy Woman” happened, that was a Bernie Leadon track, and Henley liked it and wrote the lyrics on it and sang it. So I went, “OK, that’s my job. I’ll just keep feeding music beds to these guys.” Although I had my own melodies and lyrics, I withheld those until I was asked, “You have a melody for this?” And I’d sing ’em or show ’em the melody. And I think the songs I didn’t actually write the musical changes for, I didn’t get writers credit, but you’re right, there’s a heavy footprint, a ‘Fingers’ print as you called it, on a lot of those records that were partially my sound and my guitar arrangement — that sort of stamp or signature stuff that was really so obviously missing from their last record that was put out. It changed, pretty much entirely, the sound of that band — except for the lead vocals. I mean, you still recognize Don Henley’s voice. He’s got an incredible vocal in my opinion. He’s got probably one of the best rock and roll voices alive today. And very recognizable harmonies and that sort of stuff. But, you know, it shifted into something else, which is fine with me. Many people have told me that about ‘Road to Forever,’ that it sounds like an Eagles record, and I did not go out intending to make a record that sounded like an Eagles record — it’s just what I sound like. (laughs)
FOX: Yeah, that was the point I was trying to get to. (laughs) And it’s my bad for maybe not realizing that before, but hearing this work for the first time, that’s the overwhelming thought I got was, “Oh, yeah, this makes sense.”
FELDER: Well, yeah, I mean Joe has got such a unique fingerprint, sound and style and way of playing and writing, you recognize Joe Walsh solo stuff more so than you recognize Joe Walsh in the Eagles stuff. You know what I mean? “Life in the Fast Lane” is probably the most successful Joe Walsh kind of Eagles song that he had a big footprint in. Other than that, you don’t hear a lot of Joe Walsh sound in the Eagles, you know what I mean?
FELDER: Sadly. To me I think it’s their loss ’cause Joe is such a talented guitarist and can do so much with their records, but for some reason he doesn’t.
FOX: So many songs on “Road to Forever” seem personal in nature, how cathartic was it to work through all that writing and get the whole project done?
FELDER: Well, a lot of the ideas and original concepts for those songs came out of the period that I was writing my autobiography — when I was going back and reflecting on my entire life and experiences. Breaking up and divorcing from my wife of 29 years, and falling in love with her in the first place and breaking up and going through the trauma with the Eagles, just all of my life experiences. As a matter of fact, I think as an artist, most good art comes from real-life experiences that are reflected either in film, music, songwriting, art, painting, sculpture — some way that people, other humans that have shared that same experience can see, recognize and resonate with. To me, that’s what an artist’s task is, to share those thoughts and insights in life and life’s experiences. So when I was writing this book — I’m not a great writer, you know, I can write text and lay it out pretty well, I’m fairly literate that way, but emotionally it was a better release for me to go into the studio and write music. It’s just what I do. So I take all of those ideas and feelings and thoughts and express them in the initial songwriting and try to capture those feelings that I was dealing with and going through and recalling. So then you’ve got to make the decision, well, how personal of a record, how personal of a book do you want to publish. And for me, I’ve got nothing to hide. I’ve been who I am and experienced what I have in this world, and it should be for anyone that cares to take a look at it or hear it or read it or what not. I don’t pull any punches. I just lay it out there as I see it, and as I felt it. I think there’s a certain amount of bravery for an artist to do that, but, you know, if you’re timid and shy, you’re in the wrong business. (laughs) It’s not for the weak of heart or the faint of heart. I just laid it all out there, both in my book and in songwriting. It’s what I do now. I have no fear when it comes to being judged or ridiculed for something I’ve experienced. How can you fear that — because it’s the truth of what happened?
FOX: Concerts, of course, are great anytime … but do you find there’s a different vibe or a little different energy to be playing outside in the summertime as opposed to an indoor show at a different time of year?
FELDER: Well, to preface this answer, I’ve done a lot of outdoor summer festivals over the last 10 years. It’s not like my first rodeo whether it’s with the Eagles or with my solo band myself. I think there’s a difference in the scale or magnitude of the setting. Personally, I think those outdoor venues are great if you want to go and just have a party. If you want to go and sit and listen to stuff in a more acoustically tuned, higher-controlled environment, you need to be indoors. Indoors doesn’t mean in a hockey rink. It doesn’t mean a place that is primarily set up for sports or basketball or something. Most of those buildings don’t sound good. Some of them have addressed those issues lately, but they build them so they’re loud and stuff for the fans so they get a lot of energy and noise during the game, but it’s the wrong environment for music. So I think it depends on what you want to do. I love the outdoor festivals because they’re always like a big party. Everybody’s dancing, rocking and having a great time and just having fun. I like the indoor venues as well because everybody’s more comfortable, there’s usually seats — and a lawn if you’re doing a shed or something like that — and the acoustics are usually much better because the facility has been designed for audio live performances (rather) than a hockey rink or something like that. So I think they both have their pros and cons. If you want to see an act in an intimate setting then you should go to an indoor venue. If you want to go and rock ‘n’ roll and have fun and be outside, then you should go to an outdoor festival.
FOX: I know we’re running out of time, but just one more question. So, in summary, what was it like, as you look back, being in one of the greatest bands ever? I’m just wondering, did you ever really enjoy it or were you kind of always looking over your shoulder?
FELDER: From the day I started playing music when I was 10, till today, I’ve loved playing music. Absolutely, it’s the most fulfilling, rewarding thing in my life. I’ve put up with starving on the streets of New York, literally not able to have more than 60 cents in my pockets to get on the train to go down and get a plate of yellow rice and black beans to fill my belly for a couple of days so that I could continue playing. I wound up moving from Boston to California in a beat-up old Volvo car with a U-Haul trailer on the back and I managed to save $600 working in the studios, playing music on the holidays and during dinner hour, and then playing in a live cover band at night until 2 in the morning and back in the studio at 9 o’clock, to get the money together to move out here. It’s not about the success, it’s about how much you love what you do. And I think whatever the conditions I would have to put up with, whether it’s the difficult times in a huge band or difficult times in a small band, starving, or driving across country with the whole world ahead of me, you know, kind of on that wing-and-a-prayer kind of lifestyle — it’s all done because I love playing music. And to this day, I still feel that way. I’ll put up with the best and the worst to be able to do it. Does that answer your question?
FOX: Perfectly! Thank you so much for your time.
FELDER: All right, Doug. Take care.
To read the newspaper story that came from this interview, which includes quotes by Tommy Shaw regarding the thrill of playing “Hotel California” with Felder every night on the “Soundtrack of Summer” tour, click