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Interview: Don Felder - Airborne Again

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Interview: Don Felder - Airborne Again


Photo: Myriam Santos

When Don Felder joined the Eagles in 1974, he was working in Los Angeles as a slide-wielding session guitarist. During the next two years, Felder’s singing solos, memorable guitar harmonies, and ringing arpeggios brought a new sound to the band and helped make “One of These Nights,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Victim of Love,” and “New Kid in Town” enduring classics. Felder also wrote the music for “Hotel California”—the mega-hit that epitomized the band’s transition from country rockers to arena stars and defined an entire era of SoCal music.

Felder left the Eagles in 2001—it was an acrimonious split—and became a New York Times bestselling author with his 2008 memoir, Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles. Now with Road to Forever (which, amazingly, is only his second solo album in nearly 30 years), Felder is back with his trademark guitar choirs and hooky riffs.

Recently, we asked Felder to take us behind the scenes of his new music, detail his favorite gear and recording techniques, and share what it was like to learn slide from Duane Allman when they were kids in Gainesville, Florida. Relaxed and charming, Felder was happy to reveal details from both his present and past musical adventures, and it quickly became apparent that his passion for all things guitar burns as brightly as ever.

Describe the genesis of Road to Forever.

It all started with what I call thumbnails—preliminary recordings I make in my Pro Tools home studio. Once I’d written a song, I’d develop an initial concept for an arrangement to see if it worked. I’d select a tempo, try different guitar parts, and sketch out the vocals.

When I’d finished eight or 10 of these thumbnails, I had my road band learn the songs. We then went into a bigger studio and tracked the songs live. I wanted to see how much life I could breathe into them with a band, as opposed to just overdubbing everything. It’s one thing to build a great record, it’s another thing to be able to play that record live and have it sound just as great. I was very pleased with the way the songs came out, but I didn’t use any of those tracks on the final release. It was more of an experiment—a way to see if I was on the right path in terms of writing.

After those sessions, I came back to my studio to continue to write lyrics and develop the music. I started looking at each track and refining the guitar arrangements in my studio. Eventually, I was contacted by Greg Ladanyi—a really famous record producer and great engineer. He produced albums for Jackson Browne, Don Henley, and Warren Zevon, among others. He and I spent five or six months playing golf, talking about music, listening to tracks, and putting together the whole strategy for making this record.

Greg had produced a female singer who he described as the “Greek Madonna” [Anna Vissi], but when he went over to one of her big stadium concerts in Cyprus, he unexpectedly passed away when he fell off the back of a large ramp that went up to her stage.

Whoa!

The ramp led over a moat surrounding a soccer field so the crowds couldn’t jump out of the stands and onto the field. The moat was filled with rocks and Greg fractured his skull on them when he fell. It was a real tragedy.

So how did you continue after his death?

Greg had introduced me to Robin DiMaggio [Paul Simon, Steve Vai, David Bowie]. Robin and I kept talking about the album and how we would go about picking up the pieces of this project and completing it in Greg’s absence. To get a feel for what it would be like to work together, we went into a couple of other studios and cut two or three tracks. I was delighted with what we developed together, so I decided to tackle the rest of these songs with Robin co-producing. We finished a total of 16 for this project—12 are on this CD. The four others will be bonus tracks or I’ll put them in films or commercials.

Once we’d finished the tracks, Ed Cherney [Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt] mixed the album for me. Ed is a good friend of mine who has mixed and recorded more hit records than just about anybody I know, and we spent a lot of time hanging out, playing golf, and listening to the tracks in the studio and tweaking things until we had the songs just where we wanted them. Once we’d finished mixing the tracks, we took them to Doug Sax—probably the best mastering engineer I’ve ever worked with—at The Mastering Lab.

Road to Forever is full of richly layered guitars. How do you approach arranging them?
It’s so easy with Pro Tools to just copy and paste, and I really don’t like to do that. Instead, I try to build an arrangement from the introduction to the end of the song. I want some unique elements that come in and go out—different sounds, textures, and musical ideas. For example, I want each chorus to be somewhat different from the others or develop through the course of the song.

During that thumbnail phase, I’d do a lot of experimenting. In a given song, I’d start with a basic track in which I’d play rhythm guitar and bass, and either program a drum part or have a drummer come over and play my Roland V-Drums. Essentially I’d create a basic rhythm section, but before I put a lot of elaborate guitars on it, I’d sing. That way I’d know where the vocals were not going to be. If you listen to most proper arrangements that feature guitars, violins, keyboards, or whatnot, the accompanying instruments complement the vocals by working around them. Believe me, my erase head has sent many, many ideas to digital heaven. [Laughs.]

What is it that makes a part work for you?

To me, it’s about function. Does this idea sound right? Does this idea work for the feeling and the concept of this song?

I was very excited that I had the option to try out a lot of new and different ideas in this project. When I wrote for the Eagles, I had a cast of characters to work with. It’s much like a sitcom—you know all the characters in it. You know this is the guy with all the wisecracks, this guy is going to be the troublemaker, and so on. You have to write each episode being mindful of these characters and their abilities. But I didn’t need to work in that context for this record, so I was free to try a lot of unique things.

Can you describe one of your guitar-arranging techniques?

A good part can support the melody, so you learn how to replicate or hint at part of that melody in a solo, or in the backing track, or in the harmony guitar parts. For example, on “Fall from the Grace of Love,” the first track on the album, I play slide on the introduction. If you listen, the line I play is very close to the vocal melody that starts on the first verse. So by stating that theme in the introduction, it sounds familiar when the vocals begin.

That illustrates my approach to writing and arranging guitar parts. For me, they have to be musical, not just hot licks. I want some sort of musical statement. I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said if you put an idea to music, people can learn it and remember it for the rest of their lives. It’s like the ABCs. [Sings the alphabet song.] You can remember that even when you’re only 2 or 3 years old because it’s set to a melody. So if you think that way, not only with setting lyrics to a melody, but guitar parts to a melody, you can create memorable musical statements. That’s what I try to do when I arrange guitars.

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