We sat down with accordionist James to chat about gentrification, what folk music really means, and being — and staying — a local.
When we met at Uptown Kingston’s Outdated Cafe back in March, James Felice had just come in from landscaping. Along with his brothers Ian and Simone, keyboardist and accordionist James founded the Felice Brothers over 13 years ago, and since then the group has put out seven albums, toured the world, and backed Conor Oberst on his last record.
Their eighth, Undress, finds the band in a festive mood, with horns blaring all over the title track and their new rhythm section (Jesske Hume on bass, Will Lawrence on drums) bouncing through plenty of strummy rave-ups. And yet this is also a pointedly political record, full of songs about tyrants and inequality, as well as some of Ian’s most acidic lyrics.
As a born local and current Kingston resident, James has watched as the area has changed again and again from the early days of his band. “I’ve never actually lived anywhere other than Ulster County for my whole life,” he says with a laugh. “I’m a local guy.” We talked about gentrification, what folk music really means, and being — and staying — a local.
HVM: What kind of tree work were you doing?
James Felice: Cutting down trees, chopping em up. Some people I know bought some property off Saw Kill Road, a beautiful 16 acres, so I was cutting down trees on a site for them to build their house. It’s been fun.
You’re always doing that sort of work?
Yeah, that’s the type of stuff I like to do. I bought a chainsaw, so I gotta make the money back on this fuckin chainsaw I bought. It’s like the only thing I own that’s not an instrument, so I gotta use it. Growing up, my dad was a carpenter, so I was always on job sites as a little kid, doing stuff like that. I have no talent for the actual carpentry, but I’m good at moving the wood, cutting down the trees, stuff like that.
Did you ever live on the band, or have you always worked while you were playing music?
I could live on the band, but I like to work, I like to have a little extra money. The band provides, especially these days. It didn’t always, but we’ve always been pretty good at living within our means, so you can always just barely survive, if you don’t have anything, and you’re lucky. Nothing bad happens, you don’t have to go to the doctor, God forbid. I’ve always done other stuff on the side. I never had a real job, a 9-5. I just labored when I needed the money or when I had the opportunity to work.
So you grew up around here?
I grew up in the Shawangunk Mountains, on the western side, against the Minnewaska Preserve. I hung out in New Paltz a lot as a kid, and then sort of came up here to Kingston, on and off for about ten years.
The Felice Brothers are typically associated with the Hudson Valley. How do you feel about that association?
I love it. I love where I come from. I grew up in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, happy, a joyful person. I’m proud of where I came from. My parents still live in the house I grew up in. A lot of people try to escape where they grew up, but not me. I still live the same sort of way, a lower-middle-class, blue collar sort of life. Woodsy, with a dash of white trash in there.
When you started the band, the Hudson Valley had very different connotations.
Right. A lot of the Hudson Valley is like New York City, Disneyland, vacation destinations. Ian has a line [from “Days of the Years”] on the album, “Leisure classes in the mountain passes.” But it’s always been that way, right? Even before the ‘60s, there was the Hudson River School of Art, and there would be no culture here except for the City.
The Hudson River, I always think of it as an arm of culture, in some way, all the money and culture and the interesting things about New York City get to reach up here to Kingston, and Poughkeepsie, and New Paltz are like tributaries of that money. It’s basically money, right? Billions and billions of dollars that funnel up here, and it’s awesome because you get places like this: good food, good coffee. But it’s also horrible, because you get priced out. There are places I can’t live anymore, like New Paltz, I can barely afford to live in Kingston. And that’s true for many people that grew up here, and that’s a bummer.
How do you think you fit into the local music scene today?
I don’t hang out with a lot of musicians, and neither does Ian. We’re insular and isolated in some ways. We’ve always been isolated from the larger national scene. When we go play with cool bands who live in the city or wherever, they’re all friends with each other and they hang out all the time, but we’re up here. I know a lot of people in town, but I don’t really gravitate toward musicians or artists as much. I like to hang out with farmers, or people who own cafes. The way we grew up was very working class. My father was a carpenter, my mom stayed at home most of my life but then she became a school bus driver after I moved out. Art wasn’t really worth your time. That’s not totally true: they loved music, but it wasn’t a job you could do. It wasn’t the people we hung out with. All our friends were people from around.
Then how did you get into playing music for a living?
My brothers got me into it. They grew up separate from me — Ian and Simone are my half brothers, they grew up in Palenville. Simone was eight years older than me, and he was the super cool older brother, he was into the local music scene, and was always doing poetry and all kinds of different shit. So that’s how I got into it. Mostly what Simone and I would talk about growing up was Lord of the Rings, the books, we were just nerds. But also we liked rock & roll music, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, he would make me tapes, so I got into that. But it was insular — the family. It was me, Simone, and Ian, playing music together, and the people we brought in were never musicians, they were just people we liked — here, learn how to play bass. So we didn’t draft actual musicians — we definitely were not. We didn’t go to school for it, didn’t know what we were doing. Still don’t know what we’re doing. We never came from that world.
Can you explain how the songwriting process works for the band?
Ian writes all the songs. He’s one of the great songwriters, he comes with songs that are mostly done, in terms of lyrical content and melodies. He wrote like 30-something songs for this record, made little demos and sent them to me and Will and Jess, and then we get together in this garage up by Hudson and play these songs and see how they feel. See if they’re good. And then usually half of them don’t make it past the first day. Before this record we did a couple weeks on the road honing them, making them feel good, see if people actually like them. And then we went in the studio a couple weeks after that.
So then you’re more involved in all the arrangements?
Arrangements, structural stuff, writing our own parts. Ian’s songs are mostly done. He’s a fastidious, intense, excellent writer of lyrics and music. On this record, a lot of the songs were all pretty much there, though they changed a lot. The title track, “Undress,” the feel and the vibe was totally different in the garage. And that can happen a lot. He writes them all on guitar, but then we’ve had enough of the folk thing, time to move into a more interesting direction, which is what he wants. We want to make it sound good on stage.
In what ways is this more of a ‘political’ album?
Ian has always pushed the band in a political direction. A lot of our songs are that way. He has very specific political beliefs, and he pays a lot of attention to that sort of thing. He cares about people, how they interact and how he interacts with them. I guess it’s gotten more pronounced in his lyrics. The political landscape has changed, everything is more charged, things are more excited in political ideas, so he’s responding to that.
It seems that they specifically focus on the Hudson Valley, too.
Because we grew up here, because this is our whole lives, our families live here, everything is written through that lens. It has to be. Any music we write is from the perspective of someone who grew up here. This is our home. Sometimes he’ll explicitly say “Cairo” or wherever, but it’s all from the minds of people who grew up here and never lived anywhere else. It’s one of the things that makes us unique. Many of the people who live in New York are transplants, of course, from everywhere and anywhere, but we’re not. Born and crazed.
What sort of perspective do you think that gives you about the area?
One thing you get if you grew up in a small town or in a local area is seeing how it changes. Here it’s very obvious. A town like Kingston is becoming wealthy, but at the same time pushing the neighbors out into the boonies and truly gentrifying huge parts of the city. There are good things about that and bad things about that. At the same time, in the area where I grew up, the change is the heroin epidemic coming through like a wildfire, ripping people apart in a way that hasn’t happened before.
Another interesting change: Ulster county has always been a liberal bubble — what do they call it, the blueberry in the tomato soup? But now you see it even more so in Kingston and Woodstock, but where I grew up it’s still very red, and you can see that demarcation even more clearly, which is very interesting. There’s almost this adversarial nature between Kingston and whoever lives outside of it, which is very strange. Maybe there’s less of a sense of Hudson Valley community, maybe it’s because most of the people here are from the city, so they don’t have any patience for idiots like us. Which I totally understand. Forests turn into developments. A lot of my friends grew up in Highland, which was full of apple orchards, but they cut down all the trees and replaced them with developments. And now all the orchards are making cider again, and all the city people go up there to drink fun ciders.
So there’s all these cool opportunities to take what is beautiful and interesting about the Hudson Valley and sell it to people. It’s sad, in a way, but that’s how the world works, right? Because there are places in this country where no one wants what they’re selling, and they’re fucked. So at least we have something to sell to the city. And that’s true for me: I sell my music. You take this homegrown Hudson Valley shit and sell it to cities all over the country. And that’s beautiful.
How do you feel about being called a folk band?
I never really liked the folk music label. It’s hokey. The idea of being a ‘folk band’ never interested us at all. The aesthetic is lame, but the idea of folk music is beautiful. Music played by and for folks, who don’t know what they’re doing, who are confused, and I love being a part of that. There’s something to being uneducated, which is a weird thing to say. I never went to college, I barely even graduated from high school. I was homeschooled for a long time. I’m uneducated, and that doesn’t make me special, and it makes me dumb in a lot of ways that other people aren’t dumb. But there’s something to be said for playing music the way I play music, it has to be unique. If it’s good or not, that’s something else entirely. But Ian and I never went through that system that teaches you how to play or what to play or what’s cool or what’s good. And to our credit and maybe to our detriment in a lot of ways, we only ever played and wrote what we wanted to, and what felt right. And people responded to that. So it’s this down-home thing, but it comes from a genuine place. There’s something to that, coming from a dumbass, uneducated white man like me. [laughs]
So you’ve been in the band for 13 years now. Does it mean something different to you than it did 5 or 10 years ago?
I appreciate it so much more than I did then. Maybe because I’ve changed a lot. I’m a completely different person. I took it for granted, I was 20 when we started playing, I didn’t know anything else. We had this hustling mentality, doing whatever it took, trying to build something while being too cool for school. Being silly, drinking a lot. And now, the thing that’s most important to me is appreciating the job and appreciating the people that go to the shows. Putting on a show for a person. Making the record is important and artistically fulfilling, but there’s no cost to that anymore, right? Back in the day, you wanted to make a good record because someone would spend 10 or 20 dollars on it. But nowadays it’s all on Spotify so it’s free, essentially. But the shows cost money, the shows are a huge cost — you have to hire the babysitter, get to the venue, instead of sitting and watching Netflix you actually go out — and I feel this burden of actually putting on a show for people. The whole thing costs more, and I want it to be good. Doing things like not getting drunk before I go on, not sucking at my job, and going to the merch table after every show. We have this incredible community of fans all over the world, all over American anyway, and I’m so thankful that all these people pay my rent and buy expensive coffee.
And buy you a chainsaw.
All those t-shirts they bought really paid for this sick Husqvarna chainsaw.