By Ray Chelstowski
Over the winter break,I played the acoustic version of “Hotel California” for my 19-year-old son. He hadn’t heard the Hell Freezes Over track before. His reaction to it was so strong that it inspired him to assemble an acoustic playlist of popular rock songs for his college radio show the following week. What is remarkable about this song in particular is its versatility. It can bend and move about effortlessly, quietly establishing itself as a power to be reckoned with while doing so without fanfare or theatrics. In a way, it’s very much like its creator, Don Felder.
Don Felder is among the most amiable of rock legends. He is quick to throw credit and praise to his peers and continues to exude a genuine sense of wonder about rock and the life it has afforded him. Don is one of the good guys, armed with a talent that could afford him to operate with much more ego. But music is something that he holds in too high a regard to do something so self-involved. His career is defined by collaboration, sharing the spotlight and the praise with those who share his stage. Maybe that’s why when he decided to record a new solo album (his first in seven years) that so many bold-faced names rushed to help. The result is a record that really rocks. American Rock ‘N’ Roll isn’t about peaceful easy feelings. With Slash, Joe Satriani, Chad Smith, Sammy Hagar, Peter Frampton and others, Don Felder has recorded a real modern-day rock record. The album moves along like a great ride on a fast motor bike.
We caught up with him in New York City where he was promoting the album and his inclusion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Play It Loud” exhibit. Along the way we discussed the importance of Woodstock, his early exchanges with Tom Petty and Duane Allman, and the creative process behind this new material.
GOLDMINE: First off, you’re an amazing voice. We are a bit surprised that we haven’t heard more of you over the years.
DON FELDER: (laughs) I am too! But being in a band with four amazing singers like Henley and Frey, either Randy Meisner or Timothy B. Schmit, and Joe Walsh—those are very recognizable voices. When you have a new song go to radio you want it to have an established identity. So I was very happy to just play guitar and write songs. Now it would be good for everyone to hear what I sound like.
GM: This record REALLY rocks. It feels modern and of-the-moment. What’s the songwriting process like for you?’
DF: Influences comes to me from a variety of places. I’ll hear a lyric and I’ll have to write it down before it goes away. Or I’ll be watching a movie and there’ll be an orchestral progression that will make me grab an acoustic guitar to find out what the chord changes are. It just might make a really great bridge pattern. Or I’ll be driving down the freeway on the 405 (in California) singing some chords into my iPhone. I’m constantly saving these bits and pieces of fresh ideas. I’ll accumulate about 50 or 60 of them and when it’s time to head into the studio I go back and give them a listen. It’s when I’m on airplanes that I write lyrics. I can then go back and put them on top of those recorded guitar licks, and there it is.
GM: So if you put a timetable against this new record, how long did it take to make?
DF: It’s really funny. The guitar part on the song called “Sun” is a song idea that I wrote for Don Henley and Glenn Frey for the One of These Nights record. They thought it was okay but we didn’t have the lyrics and the vocal harmonies all orchestrated. I had some of it but not all so they passed on the song. I went back to it because I always really liked that idea. But most of the material on the record is new and fresh because you always want to look forward creatively. That one song just always stuck in my mind and it now has a harmony arrangement that I thought would be nice to have on the record.
GM: On the first track “American Rock ‘n’Roll” you name check a whole host of rockers. How did you decide who made the cut?
DF: I was at Woodstock in 1969. Those performers there had such a profound impact on me. In fact, I would say that that one event really propelled rock globally and influenced just about everyone in the decades that would follow. So I went back to that event and started citing people who had not only had an affect on me but impacted artists who grew up after that. Slash told me that he loved Jimi Hendrix growing up and that he could play just about every one of his licks. So I thought it was appropriate to include people who had risen to the top in the time that followed, from Aerosmith or Guns N’ Roses to the grunge movement. In fact,there was a lyric in “Hotel California” that says “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.” That’s what it’s talking about, Woodstock.
GM: The lineup of guest stars is very impressive. How did they come to be involved in the project?
DF: Just about everyone who is on the record is a good friend of mine. When I was trying to figure out who should play on what song, like on “American Rock’n’Roll” which is organically very ’60s, ’70s, a guy like Mick Fleetwood just fits right in that pocket. Then Chad Smith comes in from the (Red Hot) Chili Peppers and steps up the intensity a few levels on music that feels more like material from the ’80s and ’90s. Slash lives right down the road from me so I called him up because one of the lyrics in that song mentions “Slash and Rose.” So I thought that if nothing else he could throw a couple of licks at it. But when he came in we had so much fun that he ended playing on the entire record.
There’s a big stadium rocker on the record called “Rock You.” I wanted to do a duet with a singer who had one of those great rock and roll voices. So I called Sammy Hagar and told him that I had this great power rock song and that I would love for him to do a duet with me. We went to his studio in Sausalito and as we are singing Joe Satriani comes walking down the hall. The next thing you know Joe is sitting there playing guitar with me much like Joe Walsh and I did on “Hotel Calirfornia.” We were trading off solos and writing harmony parts together, just having fun creating stuff on the spot. It all just sort of naturally fell together.
GM: You crossed paths early in your career with Tom Petty and Duane Allman. What was most memorable about those experiences?
DF: With Tommy, I was working at a music store teaching guitar students. One day this buck-toothed, scrawny blonde kid came in and it was Tom Petty. He wanted to take guitar lessons and was playing bass in this band called The Epics. So I began teaching him guitar. I went over to his house a couple of times and started working with his band. They had two guitar players, Ricky and Rodney Rucker and they were both just thrashers. So I tried to help them get organized a little bit and went to a few of their shows. Even though Tom was playing bass when he came on stage he had such a confidence, such a convincing charisma about him that while he wasn’t the greatest singer in the business he sold everyone in the room on what he was doing.
The Allman Brothers were always around Gainesville. We were always in the local battle of the bands together and I have never been happier to say that I lost every one of them to the Allman Brothers. They were the best band, Duane by far was the best guitar player, and Gregg was such a cool singer with a great voice. I had seen Duane play slide all summer long that year up and down Daytona Beach. So one night when we got off work at one o’clock, we went to have breakfast with Gregg and Duane. We later ended up at their mother’s house with Duane on the floor playing slide guitar. I said, “You gotta show me how to do that!” So he showed me the tuning, showed me how to pull down from the 5th to the 4, to bend the 3rd really slowly up to a note, drag down to the seventh just kinda the basic way that slide works. Ironically, the first track I recorded with the Eagles was a song called “Good Day in Hell.” If Duane hadn’t taught me how to do that none of this probably would have happened.
GM: Your infamous double-neck Gibson is on display at Met Museum of Art in the “Play It Loud” exhibit. Were there any other guitars there that you just wanted to pick up and begin paying?
DF: I would say just about every one that’s hanging there! The most intimidating thing was... at the Met there were about 200 people from the press in attendance and I had to get up and play “Hotel California” by myself—but with Jimmy Page sitting right in front of me. I had never been more frightened in my life. I just didn’t want to make a mistake in front of Jimmy Page! I had never met him until that day but had always loved and respected him and we just really hit it off.
GM: What is “success” for you when it comes to this new album?
DF: It’s not ultimately about how it’s received or by how many units you sell. I literally have an award from the RIAA for the largest selling album of the 20th century, one of the biggest selling albums in the history of recorded music. It’s not about that to me. It’s about how successful I feel as an artist. It’s already a success in my opinion because of how many great friends were able to come in and play on it.