James Felice was unsure if his band would ever make another record. It was 2017, and Felice, a multi-instrumentalist, secondary vocalist and founding member of the Hudson Valley roots-rock collective the Felice Brothers, had spent much of the year touring in Conor Oberst’s band alongside other members of the Felice Brothers. Meanwhile, James’ older brother Ian, the Felice Brothers’ primary singer, songwriter and guitarist, was focusing on a solo album. And by the end of the year, two longtime band members, fiddle player Greg Farley and bassist Josh “Christmas Clapton” Rawson, announced they’d be leaving the band “to pursue other interests.”
It wasn’t the first time James Felice questioned the permanence of his band, which, in its mid- Aughts early days, was once hailed as the second coming of Bob Dylan and the Band. “I wonder it every day,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It feels so ephemeral. Bands don’t last, they fall apart every day. So it can feel like the more days that we’re a band, the more likely we are to disintegrate. Over the years, there have been many times where I’ve thought, ‘Yeah, this is probably it.’”
But in the early months of 2018, Ian Felice began writing songs for a new project. Ian, like James, lives in the Hudson Valley, and in recent years he’s made a habit of spending five or six hours each day reading or writing at his studio down the road from the home he shares with his wife and two-year-old son.
Those 2018 writing sessions would eventually become Undress, their first album in three years and their first in some time that feels like a fully fleshed-out statement. The collection marks a restart of sorts for the folk-rock collective — it’s Ian and James’ first record to feature the group’s newly trimmed-down four-person lineup, featuring drummer Will Lawrence and bassist Jesske Humme.
“Ian and I are renewed in our love of playing music, of being in this band,” says James. “Over the last couple years, I had wondered, ‘Maybe we had nothing else to say or do together.’ We weren’t sure. But coming together with Jesske and Will, now it feels like we’re back and we have new and exciting things to say and do.”
More so than perhaps anything the band has released this decade, new Undress originals like “Jack Reminiscing,” “Special Announcement” and “TV Mama” bridge the group’s early sense of sing-along scrappiness with a newfound sense of grown-up gravity.
The 12 originals on Undress reflect, more specifically, Ian’s interest in writing about greed and capitalism. With a few notable exceptions, the band’s music has seldom been overtly political, but in recent years Ian has made wealth and class his central thematic focus. Undress is littered with tales of diseased American capitalism: one song mentions “corporate goons” and speaks of “burning down the Stock Exchange”; another derisively namedrops “Caesars of Wall Street” and “Bank of America.”
“Why should I have some,” Ian sings on the folk-rock noir “Holy Weight Champ,” “when so many have none?”
“Ian writes about these things from the outside looking in,” says James. “We grew up a whole other world away from the world of money and finance and markets. Anything with lots of money has nothing to do with me and Ian and our family. We see that whole word almost as like this crazy, carnival-esque other world. I don’t own any stock. I don’t own a house. I don’t own a damn thing.”
Ian vaguely refers to “the climate of what’s happening” as one reason for the group’s shift toward the sociopolitical on the last few albums. But it’s hard not to also see the Felice Brothers’ recent music as a commentary on a mainstream music industry from which the band has increasingly retreated.
The Felice Brothers, who began as New York City buskers, came to prominence during the late-Aughts folk-Americana boom ushered in by groups like the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. But unlike many of their contemporaries, the band has, from its inception, prioritized self-definition over success, intentionally steering their career away from big-time opportunities.
The group’s early breakthroughs, like 2008’s The Felice Brothers and 2009’s Yonder Is the Clock, shared enough ragtag harmony and rootsy exuberance to exist on the outer fringes of that era’s banjo-fiddle renaissance. But on their decidedly non-commercial follow-ups, the band proclaimed its wholesale rejection of commercial sonic trends or sounds that could have introduced them to larger audiences. Instead, the group slowly grew into their role as musician’s musicians. “All your favorite bands want to be in the Felice Brothers,” Deer Tick guitarist Ian O’Neil recently wrote. “It’s time that the band get the credit that they and their music deserves.”
“We’ve said a lot of ‘no’s,’” Ian says with a half-grin. “We’ve always all shared a similar ideology about how musicians should operate.”
“It was almost like a sport for us in the beginning,” adds James. “You have this feeling of invincibility where you can do anything when you’re young. We turned down all kinds of things.”
Ian talks about the concept of working with a big-name producer, the type of person who’d suggest the band direct their sound toward mainstream viability, with the vocabulary and virtue of a stubborn Greenwich Village folksinger from the Sixties. “We have consciously never chosen a producer or a record label that would try to put that trip on us,” he says. “There’s no outside influence.”
“We had a couple years … where we weren’t at our best.” – James Felice
Right around the time Rick Rubin began working with the Avett Brothers, the legendary producer expressed interest in producing what would become the Felices’ now-classic 2008 self-titled proper debut. “He wanted us to go to L.A. to make it at his house, which didn’t feel right to us,” says James. “So we made the record in our chicken coop instead.”
Then there was the time in 2011 when the band were offered an “absolute shitload” of money from Dow Chemical to use the group’s 2008 song “Take This Bread” for a gluten-free bread commercial.
“Everybody was like, ‘We’ve got to turn that down, we’re not going to take money from Dow Chemical,'” James says. “Then, two weeks later, Hurricane Irene happened, and my house flooded. All my things were destroyed. Our entire studio was underwater. I was completely broke and destroyed, so I went to Ian and I was like, ‘Bro, maybe we should take that money.’ And he was like, ‘No.’ I was really humbled by that, that even in the face of this thing that could really have set our lives up, he was so principled.”
These types of decisions haven’t always been as easy or clear-cut as the members have gotten older. Two years after turning down the Dow Chemical spot, James, recognizing that the band’s finances had become utterly dire, finagled a way to get Ian to let him record a cover of the Drifters’ “This Magic Moment” for a Dell commercial under the Felice Brothers moniker, so long as Ian didn’t have to actually sing on the song himself. “Sometimes you have to take the money,” says James. “We made more money in that commercial that we made for the entire year combined.”
After the Felice Brothers rose to prominence with ramshackle modern-folk pastorals like “Frankie’s Gun,” “Love Me Tenderly” and “Penn Station,” they embarked on the ambitious left-turn project of 2011’s Celebration, Florida, a high-concept electro-folk experiment that fused drum pads, synths and children’s choirs with off-kilter murder ballads and twisted folk-gothics with titles like “Honda Civic” and “Oliver Stone.”
Onstage, the band struggled to recreate their newly expansive sound. “We didn’t really live up to the idea of the record live,” says James, who says that Celebration ushered in an extended lost period for the band’s live show. “We had a couple years … where we weren’t at our best. We weren’t focused on the right thing. We got confused for a while about what we were doing and who we were: Were we trying to please ourselves? Are we trying to scare the audience? What do we owe them? What do we owe ourselves? Those types of questions.”
James chalks up the brief period of live “artistic failure” to a number of factors, including the Hurricane Irene flood that destroyed all the band’s gear. To make matters worse, their longtime RV died right around the same time. But he also says personal problems were getting in the way of his own music. “It was my fault too. I was drinking too much, taking things for granted, and feeling entitled,” he says. “I definitely, probably was an alcoholic for a while there. Alcohol was a pretty big fucking part of my life for a few years, it was fucked. I know that I could have done a better job in every respect, for our fans, for our audience, and just for the world of human beings in general, but I was drunk and stupid.”
After a decade on the road together, the band was in need of a shakeup when Rawson and Farley decided to leave the group in 2017, a decision, say both James and Ian, that can mostly be chalked up to creative differences. “At a certain point they wanted to do their own thing,” James says.
With the revitalizing Undress and two new members, today James and Ian feel like they’re embarking on a second chapter with their longtime group. “I feel like we’re just getting started,” says Ian, who has never quite shared his brother’s concern about the band’s longevity. “I prefer to make music with other people. I feel like that’s really what music is all about: making harmonies with each other, being in tune with each other, making something work together. It’s just that I write a lot, so sometimes I put out stuff by myself…I just want to keep writing more and better, and just do it until I’m an old man.”
“It just feels so fragile every time I think about it,” James says of the Felice Brothers. “But it still exists, somehow.”