Don Felder on His ‘Road To Forever’ and Life After the Eagles
Felder was lead guitarist for the classic California-based group from 1974 until his exit from the band in 2001. His guitar work became a signature element of the Eagles’ music and he helped to write a number of songs for the group which would become legendary, not the least of which was the epic title track for the 1976 album ‘Hotel California.’
Born in Gainesville, Fla., Felder grew up running around with future heavyweights like Stephen Stills (who he played in a band with early on) and Tom Petty (who he gave guitar lessons to) and he made some important friendships along the way, including one with Bernie Leadon who would later provide the introduction that opened the door for Felder to join the Eagles.
Since departing from the group in 2001, Felder has been busy, but it wasn’t in the musical sense. He dealt with the fallout that came as a result of leaving the Eagles (including some legal skirmishes to tie up loose ends regarding his departure from the group) and later wrote a bestselling book (‘Heaven & Hell: My Life In The Eagles’) about his experience being in the band.
Within the past few years, he got back to playing shows and eventually, making music. ‘Road To Forever’ represents the fruits of his long journey back and although its been nearly thirty years since his last solo release, when listening to the album, it feels like no time at all.
We spoke with Felder to discuss the new album (due in stores Oct. 9) and his colorful history in the music business.
We really enjoyed having the opportunity to premiere your first single, ‘Fall From the Grace of Love.' I have to say, you really pulled out the secret weapon by having Crosby, Stills and Nash back you up on that one.
[Laughs] Well, you know, I’ve known Stephen since we were about 14 or 15 and one of the first bands I played with when I got to California before I was in the Eagles was Crosby/Nash, so it was kind of a natural go-to to have those guys come down and sing on my stuff. I loved working with them and they’re really good people. Our lives have crossed multiple times through the course of both of our careers. Stephen lives about a mile and a half from me. Graham’s oldest son, Jackson, was my youngest son Cody’s “big brother” at school, so we’re kind of interwoven there and it was great to have everybody come out and help me out.
It’s always great hearing those guys as guests on someone else’s album. One of my favorite moments is hearing Crosby and Nash doing backing vocals on the title track to David Gilmour’s solo album ‘On an Island.’ They just elevate the impact of a song with their presence.
You’re exactly right. They just have such a golden touch when it comes to background vocals and singing in general. I remember seeing Graham, before I met Stephen, I was like 13 or 14 at the University of Florida, when he was in the Hollies. So he was impressive there live before I even knew anything about Crosby, Stills and Nash. I just really think he’s a spectacular human being and a great talent and a wonderful vocalist.
It’s such an obvious album opener and a great calling card to let the world know that Don Felder is back. How far along were you with the album process when you came up with that song?
You know, I had been writing those songs on and off for about two to three years in various stages. I have a studio in my house and I was assembling song ideas that I had been working on and writing tracks and then coming up with lyric ideas on top of it. So I’d had that song in a very raw, just acoustic guitar form and I was really looking at a way to treat it that would represent what the feeling of those lyrics are. And obviously, the chorus is just begging for nice big harmony vocals, so when we got to the point in the studio, I had sung all of the background vocals myself and I said “you know, this would just be perfect for David and Stephen and Graham - we’ve gotta get these guys in here.”
I reached out and literally within two weeks, they were on my calendar to come in and sing it. We went to the House of Blues studio here in Los Angeles and put them on it in I think like two little three hour sessions or something. It didn’t take very long at all - those guys are just gifted magicians when it comes to laying in and harmonizing and that sort of stuff. We used my demos as just a thumbnail sketch for it. They just blew my background vocals away.
What was the song for you, that you came up with, that really got the idea of an album going in your mind?
You know, it’s funny, because that song, which is not necessarily the title track, but the title of the album, which is ‘Road to Forever,’ was a song that I started writing back in the mid to late ‘70s. I had done it on this acoustic 12-string guitar and then I’d done it two or three times to kind of find its home and where it should fit. Should it be an acoustic piece, like something Jackson [Browne] would do, or should it be more of a rock band thing.
When we were getting together for the Eagles and I was writing stuff, I had an older demo of that idea and I submitted it. It didn’t really fit with that band for ‘Hell Freezes Over,’ so I decided I really liked the concept of the piece musically and I liked the concept of the content conceptually of everyone being on this path from the time you’re born onto the planet to the time that we pass on. [The idea] that you’re eventually going to wind up ... everybody knows where we go.
So I wanted that kind of concept and spiritualism in it and then we started working with a producer named Greg Ladanyi, who had produced a lot of really amazing records from Jackson Browne [and] some of Don Henley’s songs. Greg and I had been playing golf for about six months and talking about him producing this record. He was very excited about doing it. He went over to visit this Greek artist of his, that’s sort of like the Greek [version of] Madonna - nobody’s ever heard of her in the United States. But over in Greece, she’s huge - she fills up soccer stadiums and stuff. While he was over visiting her, he came to a very unexpected passing - he died. So we were literally about a month away from going into start working on this project.
He had introduced me to [album co-producer] Robin [DiMaggio] in the process as one of the people that would help musically bring players in and help with arrangements [since he was] a very talented guy with that stuff. So Robin kept contacting me to try to convince me to kind of get up and try something with him. So we went and did a couple of tracks together to just see how we would work together and we had fun. We did a song called ‘Sensuality’ and some other songs together that turned out really well.
I wanted to record ... I think I recorded 16 songs for this CD - there’s only 12 on the CD and there’s four bonus tracks that will be coming out either as giveaways or iTunes specials or Amazon specials - you know, that sort of stuff. I wanted to take that song and everybody that came in and played on that song was someone that Greg had talked to me about using, whether it was [Steve] Lukather or Robin or [David] Paich. All of those people that came in and worked on that record would have been the group that Greg Ladanyi would have assembled, so it was a little bit of a salute in his honor. It was such an unexpected passing like I said, so it was a nice touch for him [to be able to do that].
Hearing this record, one of the first thoughts that I had was that it reminded me in a pleasant way, of the sound of some of Lukather’s recent solo albums. I hadn’t seen the liner notes yet, so to find out he was actually on one of the songs was a real kick.
[Laughs] Well, the ending of that song was a lot longer than what’s on this record in concept. It was going to be another trading/dueling harmony kind of thing like ‘Hotel’ [California] was and then I thought, “Well, that’s sort of been done and I don’t want to do the exact same thing, but I’d like Luke to come in and let’s just throw some licks back and forth at each other on the very end of it.” So I asked him to come in and he’s just so much fun in the studio. Not only is he an amazing player, but he’s just as funny as could be. He just keeps everybody in stitches the whole time he’s in the room. I love the guy. He’s just a phenomenal man and a great spirit [with] great energy and [he’s] an amazing player. So I thought of all of the people around town that I’d ask to come in and play that other part on that record, it would have been him, as well as he was one of the key guys that Greg Ladanyi used to use all of the time, so it was appropriate.
So the one on this new album that really made me think of Lukather was the song ‘Wash Away,’ just the atmosphere of that one. Now, he’s not on that song, but Tommy Shaw is. How much have you worked with Tommy in the past?
Tommy and I have done some private dates together - some corporate things together and [we’ve been] in the studio together. We’ve gone to dinner, we’ve hung out and we’ve just been friends. There were a couple of songs on that, including ‘Wash Away,’ that I had built the track pretty much top to bottom and there was a couple of areas where I needed some lyrical help and I said, “I’ll just see if Tommy is in town. I’ll just have him come over and listen to this and see if anything bounces off of him.”
He listened to it and loved it and we sat and wrote lyrics together that day for that song. And then he came back the next day and I said, “Well, you’ve got to sing some of these parts while you’re here," because he was getting ready to go back out on the road with Styx. So we set up a mic in my studio and he sang some of the harmonies on a couple of songs, ‘Wash Away’ and ‘Heal Me’ and things like that. Tommy’s a really great guy and really fun. I like to work with people that are a lot of fun and positive energy [with] no ego and are really extremely talented at what they do and Tommy fits that bill so I was very delighted that he was available to come help me. I’m really pleased with what he did for me.
You’ve gotten back to touring in recent years and now this album. When did you get back to feeling like you were maybe ready to make music again. When you left the Eagles, was there still a fire at that moment to make music, or when did that come back in?
Well, it was rather devastating, that year of 2001, because I went through a separation and divorce from my wife and family and I also went through a separation and divorce from the Eagles and really all of the personal identities that I had accumulated over my life and career [and] who I was. You know, a rock and roll musician, a father, a husband, all of those images that we put on and wear through the course of the day to self-identify with who we are, were all stripped away.
So I really wanted to take some time and I started doing these daily meditations for between 30 and 40 minutes a day, where I’d sit down and look at parts of my life, going back to the early days in Gainesville where I grew up on a dirt road in very impoverished conditions to how I’d gotten from there to being in the situation with the Eagles. Now that it was over, I was trying to find a way to center myself and understand what had happened to me so I could collect myself in a grounded way to go forward.
As a result of doing that, I wrote some songs about that [and] I wrote a book about my experiences in the Eagles. Both of those were very cathartic processes, writing emotional music about my experiences and feelings and trying to get some of those emotions in songs and music as well as the story out about what had happened to me as an autobiography. So once I’d done that and I felt pretty sure footed, I realized that the one thing that had really been lacking for about the last year and a half during that time, the middle of 2002/2003, was that I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to. The one thing that had carried me from the time I was 10 until this kind of tragic series of events that took place in 2001 was music. That was the the thing I loved the most.
I loved playing, I loved writing, I loved being in the studio and once I had re-grounded myself, I realized that was what I really wanted to do. So I started going out and doing charity shows and raising money for the victims of Katrina and just playing music and working in my studio and trying to really find my individual footing musically, not so much in the context of the Eagles. Everything that I wrote for the Eagles and worked on with the Eagles had to fit a cast of characters. I had to write tracks that had pretty simple drum parts that Don could play and tracks that didn’t have too many chord progressions and complex inversions and that sort of stuff so that Glenn [Frey] and people could play them more simply. Things had to be written in kind of a vocal context more so than in a musical exploratory direction.
So once I was lifted out of those restrictions, I said, “Okay, now I can write some things that are just anything I want to write.” So that’s why if you listen to the record, there’s songs on there that go from hard hitting stuff [like] ‘You Don’t Have Me’ to ‘Heal Me’ to a lullaby, to a couple of ballads. There’s an acoustic song on there called ‘Over You’ that’s almost kind of a country/acoustic thing. I wrote a bunch of things in different directions and different forms of expressions that enabled me to write and record and play what I wanted to do.
Well, that opening section from ‘Over You,’ with the lyric “I’m sitting outside your window tonight / having a drink with the moon,” that’s just a killer lyric.
Oh thanks. Although I don’t drink anymore! I haven’t since the ‘80s.
You’ve got to put some irony in there ... and I guess, they don’t know what you’re drinking out there!
You’ve been playing quite a few Eagles numbers in your live set. Did any of those songs present you with an opportunity to rework your approach in comparison to how you had performed them previously with the Eagles?
Not really. There’s some very tricky things about Eagles music. If it’s not played like people have heard it on records for 30 or 40 years, they say, “Yeah, well that’s the song but it doesn’t sound quite right - what’s missing?” They may not be able to realize that that guitar park isn’t correct or that the chord changes are different or the drum fill is not the same, but they sense that something isn’t right about it. And since those songs have just been etched into classic rock radio at such a deep level, it’s hard to go in and change those. And then it was even difficult when I redid the arrangement of ‘Hotel California’ for the ‘Hell Freezes Over’ album, we had tried to work up some of these “unplugged” versions of some of the songs, which worked okay. Then we got down to where the last thing that we needed to address was how we do an acoustic version of ‘Hotel California.’
It’s so ironically and permanently etched into the minds of people that have heard that song for so long that it’s really hard to come up with a new version of it. When I first started writing that song, musically, it was on a 12-string. But I had spent years playing in Holiday Inns and dining rooms with these nylon string guitars, playing movie themes and stuff. So I said, “You know, let me try working up something on a gut string guitar.” It’s kind of a more Spanish flavor anyway. So I had to sit down with a gut string guitar, which Joe [Walsh], really I don’t even think owns a nylon string guitar, [So I don’t think he] was very familiar with it. I had to do an arrangement that would work with that song, but in a completely different treatment. And as a matter of fact, I was so pleasantly surprised with it, that it turned out to be the only song that I know of, that the same song, recorded by the same artist, was nominated both times for [a] Grammy [award].
So it’s a difficult challenge to take something like that, that’s kind of a classic piece of music and really change it dramatically. That was probably one of the only times that I’ve really tried to do that and it turned out okay. But at the same time, you start looking at some of the other songs and tracks and you’ve got to play them pretty much as they were recorded. The parts that I wrote and came up with for the records and just the way those records were made.
When I spoke with Joe earlier this year, he had great memories of tracking the guitars for that song with you. At that time, did you have any sense that you had really achieved something special?
When I wrote that music - as a matter of fact, I just came across the original cassette that was the demo for that song - I envisioned Joe and I sitting down at the end of this record and trading licks. Trading fours or trading eights or whatever you want to call it. And as a matter of fact, it was so ingrained in Don Henley’s mind, he’d been listening to that cassette and writing lyrics for it for about a year. When we got into the studio in Miami, I thought that Joe and I would just set up and “you play something and I’ll smoke behind it, you play something and we’ll just have fun.” So that’s how we started and Don came in and went, “No, no - stop, stop - that’s not it,” and we went, “What do you mean that’s not it?” He said, “That’s not like the demo” and I said, “Well, I don’t know what I played on the demo,” because I played both parts on the demo - my part and then Joe’s answer part, just to kind of sketch it out and see what it would sound like.
Don said, “Look, we gotta do it like the demo,” so I had to call my housekeeper in Malibu, who found the original cassette and put it in a blaster. We were in the studio in Miami and she held the phone up to the blaster and we recorded it in Miami and we had to learn what I had written on the original demo. Except for some of the parts where Joe played his own little answer licks - not verbatim what I had done, but kind of in that genre and direction. And then the ending of it, where all of the harmony stuff happens on the end - I don’t know if was Joe or me or Henley, but somebody said, “Let’s do something that goes [Felder imitates the classic ending of the song], you know, like a bunch of notes in harmony."
So I sat down and figured out with Joe, those harmony pull-off guitar parts on the ending. We sat and pieced them together almost bar by bar, because we had to learn it. Originally it was pretty complicated to do, so we just learned them bar by bar until we could play the whole section pretty smoothly and then we started recording it. So I don’t know that we really had the sense that we had created something magical at the time.
When we were at the playback party for that record, ‘Hotel California,’ which the record company had been pounding on the door for months. “We need this record, we want to put this record out - give it to us.” Because we wouldn’t even let them hear it. So finally we let them come down and we played this thing and after ‘Hotel California’ played, Don Henley said, “That’s going to be one of our singles,” and I went, “Don, that’s completely the wrong format.”
AM radio, you had to be three minutes and thirty seconds or less [and] you had thirty seconds or less before the singer started. It had to be a dance track or a drippy ballad and that song is like six minutes long, it’s got a one-minute intro, it breaks down and stops in the middle and a two minute guitar solo at the end - it’s just the wrong format for AM radio. He said, “Nope - that’s going to be one of the singles,” and I went, “Alright, I told you.”
I’ve never been so happy to be so wrong in my life. We put it out as a single and it went on to be so successful. I thought it was a nice piece of music but I never had the sense that it was going to be some legendary classic piece of music.
Looking at the institution of the Eagles, which is celebrating 40 years this year, what comes to mind?
Well, I have a lot of fond memories musically about what we created together. As hard and as grueling and as taxing as the process was, there’s a great sense of pride, to look back at what we managed to accomplish together. I try to not remember a lot of the negative things that took place, the fights and the arguments and the long [stretches] on the road for 10 and 11 months at a time. I was the only one in the band that was married and missing my kids. So I try to look at all of those sacrifices that were made, were all done in order to have made great music and great records that seem to continue to go on forward in today’s market.