Few guitarists can claim to have made a more immediate or profound impact than Don Felder. Growing up in Gainsville, Florida he played with Crosby, Stills and Nash and taught Tom Petty to play guitar, but Don left his inextricable mark on the music industry when he joined the Eagles in 1974. Charged with transitioning the band from country to rock’n’roll, Felder penned “Hotel California” and helped set the band on course for global domination.
Two rocky breakups and a tell-all autobiography later, Felder stands alone. Releasing music under his own name, new album Road To Forever explores new sounds as Don attempts to reconcile 40 tumultuous years in one of the iconic rock bands. Despite the lawsuits and ill feeling of the past, Felder is clearly in a great mood, excited to discuss a whole litany of contrasting collaborators (from Steve Lukather to American Idol’s Randy Jackson).
Don’t worry, he’s still a guitar nut, who owns over 300 guitars and has “floor-to-ceiling standing room only lockers full of guitars - going right back to my first guitar. I’ve never sold or traded any of them”. Due to fear of theft and catastrophe he’s forced to use replicas on the road, but luckily for us, he’s not afraid to broach any topic as we get inside Don’s approach to music making, past and present – starting with his legendary former band:
Here in Europe, when we think about the Eagles we tend to remember the band’s incredible popularity and the hit records, but we don’t seem to have found a historical place for the band in the way that we have for say The Beatles or Zeppelin.
And I was curious, where do you see the Eagles place in music history?
I think the Eagles had two periods where they were truly successful. In the 70s and in the 90s. When I joined the band in ‘74 we were playing small towns and college campuses, we were just starting to break out with the hits from On The Border, but the real worldwide success, and the true magnitude of our success came with Hotel California. It launched the Eagles into a stellar orbit around the world - playing stadiums instead of the much smaller halls and arenas we were used to.
How did you handle that change?
In ‘81 we had to hit hold on the band. When Glen (Frey) quit the band, and everyone just decided to run and make solo records, I had been on the road for almost the first 10 years of my kids life – I had four kids at home! I decided to build a studio at my house, so I would work at home making solo records, but I wouldn’t go on the road.
I would be Mr. Mum. I’d stay home, cook dinner, drive carpool, coach soccer, and go to swimming lessons like most parents do - because I felt so guilty for missing the first part of their lives. I also was free to explore myself: I did acting, film scores, and a solo album, but I missed playing live.
But you went back to the Eagles for what you consider the band’s second great period?
When we resumed in ’94, the scale was bigger than we’d ever known. When we put out “Hell Freezes Over” it exploded to a bigger level than we had enjoyed in the 70s. The real big place and event that put a bookmark in time for me, came in 1999 when RIAA presented the Eagles with the award for The Biggest Selling Record Of The 20th Century. Up until that point I knew we’d been selling records but I didn’t realize the magnitude in record sales we’d achieved worldwide.
We all came from very humble poor beginnings, and to achieve that level of success was beyond our wildest imagination. To have that little tap on the shoulder really cemented in my mind just how much our band had achieved.
You joined the band in 1974, followed by Joe Walsh a year later, and that period is often characterized as the time the Eagles went from the country sound you describe to a full on rock sound.
How much of a role did you have in changing the band’s sound or were you just going with the flow?
I came into the band as a rock’n’roll player, and I still am primarily. Bernie Leadon [the Eagles original lead guitarist] and I used to be in a band, but when he turned up in Gainesville, Florida, he didn’t even own an electric guitar. He played flat top bluegrass guitar, 5-string bango and mandolin. So I took him to the guitar shop where I was working, and he bought an electric Gretch Tennessean and I grabbed a flat top Martin acoustic guitar. Then we formed two bands, one would play roots music to small clubs and the other played rock’n’roll to frat boys.
So when I came to join the Eagles they knew what I did. I was brought in to add a rock edge to the band, to help transform the Eagles into a rock and roll band.
Why did they want to change?
Back then AM Radio in the US had a very specific format. The tracks had to be three minutes and thirty seconds long, you had to have a 30 second introduction, you had to either be able to dance to it or rock to it, or it had to be some drippy ballad. And if you didn’t match the format, you didn’t get played on the radio. Some of the stuff on Desperado was critically acclaimed but wouldn’t get played on the radio, and they brought me in to play electric slide guitar and to get them on the radio.
Did you have to learn an entire new style of playing to adapt to the band’s existing material?
When Bernie left the band, I had to learn the banjo, peddle steel, all that country stuff that he had carried on his shoulders. Joe wasn’t going to be able to do it, so I had to do all the rock’n’roll guitar and all the country instruments as well. I wasn’t really given an option; I was the only one in the band who could do it.
You must have answered this before, but I’ve got to ask: it’s been 29 years since your last solo album and a decade since you parted ways with the Eagles.
Road To Forever doesn’t sound like a tortured album that’s been stewing for 30 years – so why such a long gap and what inspired you to put a new record out there?
Honestly, when you’re in the Eagles you can’t do anything but the Eagles. You eat, sleep and breathe the Eagles. You write Eagles’ tracks, you rehearse, you tour, and even if you’re off the road you are doing band business. That machine consumes every minute of every day. When I left the band in 2001. I went through a divorce from my wife and left the Eagles in the same 12-month period.
All those things that had defined me: being in a rock band and having a wife and family were stripped away from me. So I wanted to sit down and take some time to understand what had happened to me. From sitting on a dirt road in Gainesville, Florida in relative poverty and being dragged into church by my mother to being thrown into the Eagles and promiscuity and how it had changed me, and why.
So I started to do meditation, and I started to explore my past. I would write everything down on these legal pads in a self-exploratory effort, and my fiancé would read them and say; “This would make a great book”.
I ended up with five offers for a book, and I really wanted to get it out there; to show people what these experiences were really like. Because being in a whirlwind success like the Eagles makes you very malleable, and you do all change. It took me seven years to write that book, and as all these feelings were coming out, I’d go into the studio and write songs, tackling these experiences. So while I was touring the book and doing charity events I was writing this set of songs.
By the time I was done with the promotional tour, I had 26 tracks, and I decided to go into the studio and record and finish them. Finally, I took the best twelve and put them on the record.
The record doesn’t feel like a dark cathartic outpouring, but it came from your reflections on a series of traumatic and life changing events – why is that?
All the scars and all the wounds that we suffer from childhood experiences through love relationships and the betrayal of friends – they only make us stronger. They are gifts to us, lessons for learning what life is really all about. So the joyous part comes from going through those experiences and emotionally understanding what they really are – so you can take a deep breath and walk forward with a smile on your face. If you can’t release those negative energies, or those sorrows, you’ll end up spending your life as an unhappy soul.
And I choose not to spend my life as an unhappy soul. I love playing music, I love rock’n’roll, I love writing, singing and playing guitar. I get to go on stage and make people happy, and that’s what started me on this journey when I was 10 years old – it was this love of music. I try to take those experiences, especially the one’s that have a common human thread, and share them through music and song. So I feel as an artist that I’m producing things that are valid.
True art, whether it’s literature, painting, photography or music, really captures common experiences among people that we can all relate to. My task was to take my experiences, and relay them to people so they can relate to it in turn. We all want to cleanse ourselves and heal our wounds, and on “Heal Me” I try by going from rock to this joyous tribal African feeling musically. I wanted it to represent the wish to be healed, and then the feeling of having been healed. Capturing the idea of starting in one place and coming out the other side of the track somewhere completely different – from a rough beginning to a position of optimism.
It’s great to hear you talk about songwriting because we always like to get to know how different guitarists go about writing tracks. It seems from what you’re saying that you like to start with a mood or feeling and structure the guitar parts and sound around it?
Much like a woman giving birth there are multiple ways: face up, face down, breach, they come out all different ways. I still do a lot of meditation; so I write down lots of ideas, but sometimes I’m just playing guitar watching TV and a lick will come out, and I’m like oh wait! I’ve got to get in the studio. The song “Sensuality” started with a guitar lick, I loved it so much it just ended up turning it into a song. Sometimes I’m inspired by a true-life emotion, and I think: “I’ve got to turn this into song”.
They all start at different stages of birth. I have an iPhone that’s full of me singing song and lyric ideas while I’m driving in my car. I’ll hear something in my head and I’ve got to scribble this down. And believe me, the eraser head on my pro tools rig has sent many an idea to digital heaven - like boom, long gone. You have an idea that you think is full of inspiration and is really exciting and three or four weeks later you listen and you’re like: “What were you thinking!”
To give you an example of how different it can be, back in the Eagles when we were writing The Long Run, I had a track called “You’re Really High, Aren’t You”. But just trying to make that album was nightmarish, it nearly finished us, and even though the lyrics and the music weren’t finished, we just had to say: “it’s done, leave it”. But later when I saw the animated movie Heavy Metal I was inspired by the sound and the ideas of that film to go back to my track, and finish it in a way I could never have foreseen when I started. It started as one thing, and became sometime else entirely.
So tying the past to the present, when it came to the Eagles it seemed like you had a lot of cooks in the kitchen. With multiple guitars to fit in and solos to dish out, whereas now you have total freedom – how did the experiences differ?
Writing for The Eagles was like writing for a sitcom. I knew the characters. I knew how each guy played in the band. I knew the extent that Don Henley could play drums and the vocal ranges of all the guys, so I’d write songs for that cast of characters, for that band. If I wrote something that was too complicated, too musically sophisticated, well then the band couldn’t play it.
As a matter of fact, on “Hotel California” it took Joe and I a long time to sort out the track, especially the harmony at the ending. Joe wasn’t used to playing all those fast licks, so we had to record almost measure by measure, all of those endings to get them smooth and tight.
So if it was too complex, it just wouldn’t work for the Eagles – on this record the handcuffs are off. Depending on the music I wanted, I could get the players in to perform it. Steve Lukather came in and played a track. He’s an amazing guitar player, and one of the funniest guys in the world. You have a great time from the moment he walks in, to the moment he walks out. No drama, no intense conversations, much unlike what was going on with the Eagles. This album was a lot of laughter, great fun, and good playing.
I would have Crosby, Stills and Nash come in and sing when I needed background vocals, or when I needed an amazing bassline, I called Randy Jackson. Everyone knows Randy as the judge on American Idol but he is an absolute monster bass player. On “Wash Away” I gave Tommy Shaw from Styx a ring and he helped me to write songs. I could never have had this breadth and flexibility with the musicianship that was within the Eagles. I wouldn’t say limited, but it was very special to each player.
So it’s safe to say you enjoy being your own man – playing your own songs?
The studio’s fine, recordings fine, travelling is not so fine, but playing live seeing people really delight, jumping up and down without any of the drama of my old band is a real treat for me
Music should be fun. It’s called playing music. Like you play golf. It should be fun and full of childish enthusiasm, not all that intense dark drama. I choose to have an uplifting time, and it’s contagious.
Finally, every album has a great story, what’s the story of Road To Forever?
There’s a really famous record producer named Greg Ladanyi. We’d been working together on this record for three months, when he flew out to Greece to produce an album by Greece’s answer to Madonna [Anna Vissi], and unfortunately met with his untimely passing. So I was left wondering how I was going to finish this record. I was with Robin DiMaggio, who drummed on the record, and he said “we’ve got to finish this”.
I went into the studio and we turned out to be a perfect pairing, we finished the last two or three tracks, and I was really happy with how it came out. But when we did this song called “Road To Forever” we used everyone who Greg had suggested on that one record. At the very end of that track, when the song rings out, we tried to create this effect that would be like sticking your head up in the heavens and hearing all the souls that have gone before us swirling around, and speaking in your ear. At the very end of that “pool of souls” you can hear Greg.
We found this speech he gave at a record producer’s conference, and he says “and that’s the difference between two worlds”. So at the end of the pool of souls we have him saying those words, and if you turn it up real loud, you can hear Greg floating on the record.
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