On stage, the Felice Brothers are a rough-and-tumble bunch of characters. They kick things over. They curse, swill whiskey, and encourage the audience to join them.
“We just do whatever we feel at the moment,” says bassist Christmas Clapton, on the phone from their first day on a new tour. “There’s no acting. We just go up there and try to be honest to how we feel.”
Appearing on the national scene in 2008, the band initially came off like a rawer, less polished take on the high-energy acoustic wave being led by bands like the Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Fronted by brothers Ian (guitar) and James Felice (accordion, keys), the Catskill Mountains, N.Y.-bred quintet also includes fiddle player Greg Farley, drummer David Turbeville, and Clapton. They survived the 2009 departure of founding member, brother Simone Felice, Ian and James’ brother.
Although a growing public interest in authentically rootsy acoustic music contributed to their rise in popularity, the Felices were never a feel-good group with their eyes on corporate radio. Songs like “Run Chicken Run” (from 2009’s Yonder is the Clock), with its accordion-led groove, and “Whiskey in My Whiskey” (from 2008’s self-titled disc) sounded more like rural America’s answer to the Irish drinking song, recorded in a giant barn full of heavy imbibers.
Fans of that era may take issue with the Felice Brothers’ new album, Celebration, Florida, released in May on Fat Possum. Opener “Back in the Dancehalls” commences with fiddle over a slow, electronic drumbeat, before Ian sings, “The honeymoon is over.” Acoustic diehards may soon feel that way as the album progresses. “Container Ship” sounds like a trippy ballad written while watching 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Ponzi,” released as a single in March, even includes a dance beat breakdown fit for a Euro DJ playing an arena. “Honda Civic” retains the most classic Felice flavor, with its edgy accordion and harmonies (including the addition of a tasteful horn section).
“We change and evolve and stuff, and some people have an issue with it, but we never really thought of ourselves as an acoustic throwback act or anything like that,” says Clapton. “We’ve just always been interested in making honest music.”
According to Clapton, the addition of samples and electronic beats comes from fiddle player Farley incorporating an MPC sampler into the live show, making it possible to replicate the album’s songs on stage.
“I guess some people might not like it, but some people do like it. We can’t tell,” says Clapton. “We should do a voting next time, a poll that’s like, text message a certain number. Or we’ll have all sorts of questions. Do you like a song? Do you like this guitar sound? Stuff like that.”
The band has always been off-the-cuff. When they needed a bass player, they preferred to recruit a friend, so Clapton learned to play. Same with drummer Turbeville.
Of course, not all of the Felice folklore is accurate. Legend also has it that before joining the band, Clapton earned a living as a traveling dice player.
“I guess I have traveled, and I have played dice,” he laughs. “Say that I did it for 10 years or something. No, say 12 years.”
The band’s devil-may-care attitude permeates their live shows and recordings. The group may get rambunctious, but beneath the rowdy behavior there’s an astute frustration about the state of American life. On Celebration, Florida‘s closing tune, “River Jordan,” Ian inexplicably screams, “Fuck the news/Fuck the House of Blues/Fuck my whole career/You don’t want me here.” Even the album title is a social criticism, referring to a community that Disney created.
“It’s where they kind of have idyllic purposes. It’s bizarre,” says Clapton. “They have some strange kind of presentation of how American living should be, in a big way.”
Christmas has been reading Joseph Trento’s The Secret History of the CIA during his free time. He says the experience will probably find its way into his songwriting. He also cites social commentator and author Don DeLillo as a profound influence on both his and Ian’s songwriting for Celebration, Florida. “His way of storytelling and how he looks at things — I was very inspired by it,” says Clapton.
In the meantime, the Felice Brothers are focusing touring and recording. Before hitting the road in September, they took time to record five songs at their home in New York, releasing tracks weekly on their website as The Poughskeepsie Princess EP.
“I don’t really have that many friends, so we [the band] hang out a lot,” says Clapton. “We just kind of put the EP together. It was fun recording it, I guess.”