Something Else! Interview: Former Eagles guitarist Don Felder

If Eagles fans felt a certain familiarity about the soaring guitar heard last Sunday on Showtime’s “Homeland” series, here’s why: The November 11, 2012 episode featured the lead single from former guitarist Don Felder’s new solo project, “Fall from the Grace of Love.”

Felder, a four-time Grammy winner, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, best-selling author and key contributor to classic rock staples like “Hotel California,” is in many ways starting all over again with Road to Forever. The new album debuted at No. 27 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, but its his first solo effort since 1983 and follows a period of tumult that saw Felder’s exit from the Eagles and the dissolution of his marriage — a pair of relationships he had been a part of for the better part of three decades.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Don Felder talks about a pair of pivotal moments with the Eagles, "Hotel California" and the difficult sessions for 'The Long Run,' then goes in-depth on his 2012 solo effort.]

In this, the first of a two-part SER Sitdown with Felder, the guitarist talks about his long road back, while promising that there won’t be another lengthy wait before his next solo project.

In December, Felder will appear at Alice Cooper’s 12th annual Christmas Pudding and then the 95.5 KLOS Christmas Show with the Beach Boys’ Al Jardine, Toto’s Steve Lukather and the Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz, among others. “Then, I’m going to push the hold button, and go back in the studio,” Felder tells us. “I already have 8 or 10 song ideas started. I want to see if I can get another album out.”

NICK DERISO: It’s difficult to believe that it’s been so long since your last solo project. What have you been up to?
DON FELDER: I made my last solo record in the early 1980s, but I had been on the road with the Eagles for, God, 6 or 7 years — and we were just non-stop work. We were either on the road, or in the studio for 10 and half, 11 months out of the year. When we finally stopped in ’81, everybody said: ‘Well, I’m going to make a solo record.’ ‘Well, me too.’ ‘If you’re going to make one, then I’m going to make one.’ I did not want to leave and go back on the road. I had four young kids, and had been an absentee parent for so many years of their lives. I said, ‘I’ll make this record, I’ll put it out, I’ll do the interviews. But I’m not going to tour.’ This time around, though, has been totally different. I’ve had the luxury of going through the process of writing a book, since I left the Eagles — Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles, which wound up on The New York Times’ bestsellers list. Who in the world would have ever thought that such a poor English student in high school would go on to be on that list? I guess stranger things have happened. (Laughs.)

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Even the Eagles had times when they didn't fly so high. Here are some notable stumbles, from "I Wish You Peace," to "Frail Grasp of the Big Picture," to (what the?) "Disco Strangler."]

NICK DERISO: When you finally started writing, it seems, you had just a torrent of ideas.
DON FELDER: In the course of writing the book, and really looking intimately at all of the areas of my life, and recalling the experience I had gone through, when I wasn’t writing the text, I would go into my studio, and write song ideas. It was very similar to the emotional release that I was able to put on those pages. I was able to write songs like the one about the breakup with my wife of 29 years, called “Fall from the Grace of Love.” That and other song ideas came out through the cathartic process of writing that book. We wound up with 26 songs that I had recorded rough demos on, and I sat down and picked out the 16 that I thought would be the best record. I went to a studio and recorded those songs, then pared it down to the best 12 and put it out.

NICK DERISO: After spending nearly 30 years with the Eagles, it had to be like starting over.
DON FELDER: The entire process was different than what I had experienced in the Eagles. The people that I invited in to play on this record were all really good friends of mine, people that I had known. Stephen Stills and I had a band when we were 15 years old together in Gainesville, Florida. Crosby and Nash were the first band I played with when I got to California. Really good people, with long relationships. Steve Lukather is one of the funniest guys that you can be in a room with. There was also Tommy Shaw from Styx, and Randy Jackson. Everybody knows him from “American Idol,” but in fact he’s one of the best bass players in the business. He’s just unbelievable. All of these people brought either really warm friendships or humor or an uplifting spirit to the project, which was completely the antithesis of how the Eagles went about making records. It was all about turmoil and struggle and conflict and control — what lyrics are going to be in, and what songs are going to be in. It was a fight just to deal with the recording process. So, with this, I took a completely different approach. I had not only the best players I could contact, but also the best people and friends. They brought another level of enjoyment.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The lead single from Don Felder's long-awaited 2012 solo release, a throw-back, easy-going country rocker, recalls his best days with the Eagles.]

NICK DERISO: Yet, there are things about Road to Forever, certainly, that hearken back to your time with the Eagles — in particular, the layered guitar arrangements, which reminded me of the interplay you always had with Joe Walsh.
DON FELDER: I think part of any recording process is, you have to have a song. You have to realize what format you’re going to have it in, whether that’s with a band or with overdubs. And you have to have an arrangement. Some of the greatest songs have amazing arrangements. It’s not just the lyrics and the vocal. One serves the other. A great song can be enhanced by a great arrangement, whether it’s guitars or horns — and vice versa. To me, the art of writing a song and making a record has to entail all of those elements, especially when it is a solo record, by myself. I need to write lyrics, sing, arrange guitars, produce the whole thing — to give it my identifiable stamp, which people know from my work with the Eagles. A lot of those things that I love to do, writing multiple guitar tracks, and guitar interplay, looking for unique guitar sounds and the way it all fits together, those are all the areas of expertise that I brought to the Eagles, and you hear them on this project, as well. I had so much fun doing it. I promise you, I won’t wait another 30 years for the next one.

NICK DERISO: How did you separate what became a chapter in the book, and what became a new song?
DON FELDER: When I left, it took me a couple of years to get my feet underneath me. In the process, I started writing this book. I would write text of my life story, and then I would go into my home studio, and I would write songs about those experiences in my life. It was kind of a dual autobiography, one in print and one in song. The emotional part of it went into the songs, and the story went into the text. I felt that for people to see into me completely, it was important to put out the book and this record. There was a lot of time to put all of these ducks in a row, and get this out.

NICK DERISO: How do these new songs fit into your broader musical narrative? Are the setlists weighted more to your own material?
DON FELDER: I love to play the new songs live. In my live show, I play about 60 percent Eagles songs that I either co-wrote with the band, or played with the band, for the 27 years that I was on the road with them. I had some trepidation about putting these new songs in the set in the middle of these classic, historic songs. How would they be received? But there is such a familiarity within these new songs that they sound like my work with the Eagles. I did not try to make an Eagles sound-alike record. But if I work on an Eagles record, and then I work on a record of my own, I can’t change the way I am musically. I can’t be something else. It’s just who I am.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Faced with a possible lawsuit from Don Henley after shamelessly sampling "Hotel California," Frank Ocean responds: 'Ain't this guy rich as fuck?']

NICK DERISO: Certainly, I hear it on “Girls in Black” from the new album — a song with a solo turn that reminds me of your part in “One of These Nights,” a breakout early moment with the Eagles.
DON FELDER: It was indeed the same ’59 Les Paul that I used on “One of These Nights” and the solo on “Hotel California,” as well. It has a certain familiarity to it. To me that’s just a Les Paul, low-slung rock ‘n’ roll song — so I went to that guitar for that sound. It’s my go to on a lot of different things. I didn’t intend to make it sound like the Eagles. But the familiarity of a band, and certain guitar sounds — and the way its written, sung and played — that’s who I am. It’s what I sound like. I can’t change that. I wish I could, sometimes. (Laughs.)

NICK DERISO: About the book, I was struck by your brutal honesty — not just with regard to your bandmates and your tumultuous rise to superstardom, but also your own role in things. You didn’t spare your own image.
DON FELDER: First off, I didn’t start out to write a book. When I left the band, in that same 12-month period, I went through a separation and divorce with my wife. So, all of the images that I had adopted and had been wearing for almost 30 years — in a rock band, with a group of people that I considered my friends in the Eagles, being married, a father, family man — all of that was stripped away. So, I really wanted to figure out how I got from this little dirt road in Gainesville, Florida, where I was born and raised, through this whole process to where I joined the Eagles, what happened to me while I was in the Eagles and, now that I was no longer a part of that machine, who I was. What were the lessons I had learned from that experience, so I could go forward the rest of my life without carrying that unresolved baggage? My fiancee started reading my notes, and she said: ‘You know, this would make an amazing book.’ I had never written a book, of course. I had to take these stacks of notes in legal pads, and make something out of it. That took a lot of time and effort and energy. But I never really started out to write a book, but when I did, I wanted it to be as open and as honest as it could be about how I had experienced my life — not just hiding certain aspects of my character, and certain things I had done. That I was flawless, and it was everybody else’s fault? That was not the truth. I wanted to tell that story just as openly and honestly as I could. I hope that people receive it that way, rather than having this bitter, finger pointing, angry tone to it. That’s not who I am. That’s not what I wanted it to be. My wife of 29 years and I now are still really close friends. We talk on the phone, she comes to my house for Thanksgiving. We have hundreds of friends together, children and grandchildren. There’s no reason to sever that relationship, or just slam the door on it. I’m the type of person who wants to maintain those friendships for a lifetime — especially someone who I have loved so dearly and cared so much about. You don’t just wad them up like a Dixie cup and throw them away.

NICK DERISO: So, what about your former bandmates? Have you reached out?
DON FELDER: Unfortunately, that’s not the same attitude that I get from the Eagles, when I try to communicate with them. The only time that I hear back from them is through their attorneys. That’s just the way it is.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.