Back in November 2017, Liner Notes featured “Vultures on Your Bones,” the new single by Bay-area ensemble Felsen. That track kicks off their new album, Blood Orange Moon, which was released last month. It’s great. (And that’s not damned faint-praise. I enjoyed TF outta this record. And everybody, especially my best friend, knows that I’m a music snob.) Listen for yourself. You’ll dig.
Felsen honcho Andrew Griffin and I grew up together in Valparaiso, Indiana. We’re old friends. We recently had a chance to Q&A via email about the new record. Here’s the result – the first-ever LN rock star interview. If you’re expecting Lester Bangs chatting with Joe Strummer, you will not be disappointed 😉
JF: Describe your life path from Valpo to Oakland. How did a Midwestern kid end up on the left coast leading a rock band?
AG: I moved from Valparaiso to Chicago in 1991 with my Loudflower bandmates after I graduated from VU. I worked shitty restaurant jobs, and we were really going for it for about another year until the band imploded. I started taking drum lessons soon thereafter, and that teacher encouraged me to further my education and go to Berklee College of Music. I moved to Boston in the fall of 1993 with my girlfriend, Norene. I started school in January 1994. Norene and I got married in ‘96 and then we moved to the SF East Bay in 1998. I started working playing drums and teaching lessons. I worked my way up the food chain of bay area drummers, toured the US with a few different bands, went to Europe a few times. Always working. I started teaching in schools, different music programs, daycare music, you name it, I did it. Plus…thousands of gigs…you’ve got to if you wanna eek out an income. I played lots of rock, singer songwriter stuff, cover bands, wedding bands, jazz, country, Zydeco, Blues, Salsa, Cumbia, musical theater gigs, Big Band…everything. I learned much along the way. I had a band when I first arrived in the bay area, where I was the songwriting drummer – that being my 3rd valiant attempt with this concept, the first being in Valparaiso with the aforementioned Loudflower. It never really seemed to work out though. Odd concept I guess – songwriting drummer with someone else singing and fronting the band. I set that notion aside around 2000 and just focused on drumming. I started to produce other people’s music. I was also a busy co-writer with a handful of really talented Bay Aarea songwriters. Mmost notably, I worked closely with Rich McCulley in the early 2000’s. I was Rich’s drummer, and we wrote a bunch of tunes together, played about 180 gigs from coast to coast putting 70,000 miles on his van (seriously). The drumming life was good to me.
JF: When did you form Felsen?
AG: I started to record what would become Felsen’s first album, Accidental Drowning, in the fall of 2007. I had no real plan at the time. I was in the middle of a long cancer ordeal, and I guess I was killing time, as I wasn’t working much due to my sickness. There was also some desire to commit to tape my songs as my health situation was rather grave and perhaps my time was short. I had a newborn son at home at the time, and I wanted to leave something behind just in case. I thought I would have other friends sing the tunes as I’d done in the past, but when I started to write about what I’d recently been dealing with (life and death and being a dad), I realized I had to sing. I’m still learning. I’m a work-in-progress. That album took about a year to record, and then a few months of mixing. I got a small record deal with an East Bay label, 9th Street Opus, and they encouraged me to put a band together and make a go of it. I was now the frontman, singer in a band–didn’t see that one coming. That was in the summer of 2009. I’ve been doing Felsen ever since.
JF: There have been various lineup changes. I think the last time that I saw the band at Valpo’s legendary Club Coolwood, you were a quartet. How has the band evolved since then?
AG: It’s really hard to keep a band together. I’ve done my best. People come and go over the years. Mainly, they run out of time (or money) or have moved from the area. I will say, though, that every time someone new comes into the band, the bar always gets raised higher. The level of musicianship is ever increasing as I’m able to attract better and better players as the band’s notoriety grows, we get better gigs, better money etc. I’m very, very grateful to all the folks who’ve helped me along the way. In my current lineup I’ve got two people who’ve been with me about four years each. I haven’t been touring as much, mainly playing around the bay area and Northern California, and have had the luxury of playing with a slightly larger ensemble – sometimes up to 7 musicians. When we tour again, it’ll most likely be a more compact unit, most likely a quartet. Touring is dreadfully expensive. Hey…can we sleep on your floor? Can you make us a vegan meal? Can I get your credit card number?
JF: You played drums in high school, right? And you were in bands back then. I can’t remember the names.
AG: You are correct, sir. I’m a proud alum of the very fertile Valpo music scene. My first band was with Chad Clifford, who’s still going strong in Valpo. Here’s a few band names: Merge, The Happy Bunch, Blue Elvis, Astral Zombies, Buddha’s Belly, Loudflower. Anybody remember these bands?
JF: I remember the Happy Bunch, and maybe Astral Zombies, haha. When did you start playing guitar? When did you start writing songs?
AG: My parents were kind enough/wise enough to allow my bands to practice in their house when I was in junior high and high school. The guitars and amps, etc., lived in the house, and I guess I got curious about guitar around 9th grade and started fooling around then. Maybe around 11th grade I could play a little bit. My freshman roomie at Valparaiso University had a guitar and an amp that I was constantly playing. By my sophomore year, I had acquired a guitar (the borrow-to-own program thankyouverymuch) and basically started writing tunes the same way I continue to. I was writing lyrics in highschool for my bandmates to sing and started writing poetry and short stories in college. I guess that all melded together. I’ve always mainly enjoyed creating original music. I’ve never been a very good or dedicated cover band guy.
JF: Do you still play drums? With Felsen? I know you’ve gigged with other bands, too. Camper Van Beethoven? Cake?
AG: Yup, still quite busy playing a lot of drums and teaching tons of lessons. If you know of anyone who needs a drummer…let ‘em know…I’ll do my homework…but I’m very, very expensive. OK JK. I’m really fortunate to have lots of opportunities to play great original music here in the bay area (and beyond). I love it very much. The new Felsen album is all me on the drums. We were going through some personnel changes at the time. Super fun experience for me. And, yes, a few big name gigs along the way.
JF: Describe your process with respect to songwriting. Are you a notebook guy, scribbling lyrics in coffee shops when inspiration hits? Or a device guy, recording snippets on your phone? Or are you more structured? Which comes first, chords or words?
AG: I’m pretty disciplined about recording new song snippets on my phone or computer. Also, I keep folders in my google drive. There’s a random lyric folder where I dump words, phrases, stuff I hear in passing, or on TV, or Netflix or read on the internet or in a copy of the New Yorker (my doctor’s office magazine of choice) or just bizarre stuff my kid says. I then begin to sort through that stuff, sifting it out into more specific files – like a file all about technology or Trump or nature or death or love or sadness. I play guitar and stare at the screen, and, eventually, the words start to coalesce around the music (or vice versa). I also keep a file of good opening lines and a file of song titles. Metallica starts with titles, and I wouldn’t argue with those dudes. That’s an interesting way of going about business, IMHO. Too many songs have shitty boring titles. I like song titles that could be movies, or novels. Good movies and interesting novels. “The Telepathic Kind.” That’s a good title. Or “The Secret Life of Guns.” “Blood Orange Moon.” “White Denim Jeans.” Yummy titles. I’d read those books.
JF: I’m a New Yorker fan, too. I regularly snag passages and dump them into a notebook app. Such good writing, particularly about music. (Amanda Petrusich is a god among manboys.) Speaking of words, is there an aerial theme? Airplane, Airline, Moon?
AG: I just saw Up In the Air again the other day. Amazing movie. I guess that one really hit me years ago. It takes years for me to wrap my brain around something. Re: air travel, etc. It’s a lonely world of airports and shitty motels. I’ve spent a lot of time on the road. i guess I really saved up some of that sadness. I move at a glacial pace processing life events and churning them into songs.
JF: Are the songs on the new record all new? Have you played any of them live before going into the studio?
AG: There was really only one tune that Felsen had been playing on stage before recording the new album: “Poor in a Wealthy City.” I wrote much of that tune in a motel room in the Midwest when Felsen was on tour in the fall of 2013. I wrote very deliberately for this new album. I did perform a handful of the tunes, as I was writing them. I wrote for two years, and then spent two years recording.
JF: Describe your process with respect to recording/production. Were you involved on the production end of BOM? If so, what were your goals? Do you have an idea of what you want a song or an album to sound like when you press record? I’m thinking of something like Ansel Adams’ concept of previsualization. Maybe preaudialization?
AG: On Blood Orange Moon, I had a pretty clear idea of what I was going for. I started a branch of the Felsen family tree, playing with a few new faces and a few old ones, referring to that unit as the Felsen Symphonette. Incorporating cello, glockenspiel, synth, acoustic guitars and hand percussion – a bit of a departure from the electric guitar-heavy music of previous of Felsen albums. The Symphonette started to perform house concerts and backyards – low volume, lo-fi, and low tech. Why not write an album of that lower volume stuff? I was inspired by a Rolling Stone review of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass that described that album as “music for mountaintops.” I liked that idea alot. I was also greatly under the musical narcosis of Beck’s twin albums Sea Change and Morning Phase, as well as Songs for a Blue Guitar by Red House Painters. I also heard Serge Gainsbourg’s tune, “Bonnie & Clyde” in an episode of Mad Men and eventually found Serge’s Historie de Melody Nelson. I recruited Allen Clapp of the Orange Peels to mix the album. This album needed tons of reverb, and Allen has a special understanding of reverb. He and his studio live on a mountain – music for mountaintops, indeed. Blood Orange Moon’s tempos are slower, volumes often quieter, and I’m often singing in a lower register. The tunes kinda sprawl out more and take more time to unfold. They’re kinda cinematic in scope. The overall pace of the album is much slower. That’s a good reminder for all of us to just slow down. Life is way too chaotic and insane right now. Chill out America.
JF: The production on “The Telepathic Kind” is lush in a ’70s way. (Not a criticism. I love ’70s music.) Intentional?
AG: Yes and no. It kinda seeps out of me. I love the early 70’s Pink Floyd – Meddle and Dark Side of the Moon era. I wanted that tune to be really dreamy and kinda narcotic sounding. That one also owes much to Sun Kil Moon’s “Ghost of the Great Highway” as well. Mark Kozelek really knows how to take his time and let a tune slowly unfold. I love that. It takes courage to do that, too. On previous Felsen albums, I guess I was holding onto the idea that we would someday, somehow, get a song on the radio, and I had been making what I believed were radio-friendly albums (to the best of my ability). I guess I’ve officially abandoned that idea entirely this time around and just made an album that I enjoy listening to. So…lots of 6 minute tunes this time ‘round.
JF: Guitar solos are pretty prominent on the new record. Was that intentional? Did you do those?
AG: There’s a few. I’m OK with it – I’m old fashioned. Seems like they’re being abandoned, but I’m all for it. The guitar solos were all done by Dylan Brock. I love Dylan’s playing. He toured and recorded with Felsen for about four years. He’s got a real unique sound. I hear Johnny Greenwood and Johnny Maar in his playing. Also a hint of George Harrison. There’s some pedal steel, and that was done by Gawain Matthews, who also engineered a goodly bit of the album.
JF: Talk about the instrumental interludes. I think of you as a wordy guy, and it was fun to hear a few purely musical tracks.
AG: They’re like incidental music in a movie. Again, going for kind of a cinematic thing. I put a lot of thought into the sequencing of the album – I always do, but this one feels really special in that regard. The album flows from start to finish, and it’s meant to be listened to as an LP, as well. I know that’s a tall order for our overly-stressed-out and frantically-paced society, BUT if you can just slow down and listen to this, you’ll really see it as an album. I think it holds up. The three, short instrumental interludes really help tie it all together and make it feel more album-like.
JF: “Spanish Jam Sandwich” is like psych-rock Felsen.
AG: Yup. Felsen is a cult. That’s our theme song.
JF: What has been the local response to BOM? I know you played a record release show recently.
AG: Excellent response locally. We got lots of great press nationwide, and then we had a team of local friends write their own reviews. My fav review so far has been from one of the bay area’s finest songwriters, Mr. Maurice Tani. My new, all time fav quote re: Blood Orange Moon: “It sounds expensive – back in the day of album rock, an album like this would have cost a mountain of corporate cash and a cigarette boat full of drugs.” Nailed it.
JF: Any plans to make it back to the Midwest?
AG: We hope to be back in 2018. Maybe play the Popcorn Festival? Contact your local congressman and demand Felsen. Also, contact Von Tobels and see if they’ll underwrite our tour. You never know.
Fwiw, Von Tobels is a local hardware store. For years, the business called itself the “Do-It Center.” I’m sure no teenagers ever had sex in their parking lot just because. Anyway, thanks, AG. I’ll have an influences playlist from him in the next week or so.