Don Felder has certainly had his share of good luck. In 1974, a day after he guested on a track by California soft rockers The Eagles, he was invited to join the band as its new lead guitarist. That association would lead to playing for millions of Eagles fans around the world, platinum albums, and Felder composing what may be the most iconic Eagles song ever—“Hotel California.” This era also saw Felder indulge in the excesses of success. By 2001, Felder was an ex-Eagle. Following a period of personal upheaval, he embarked on a period of reflection and creativity that culminated in an acclaimed book about his life in and out of The Eagles, Heaven and Hell, as well as an excellent 2012 solo CD, Road to Forever. Now touring with his own band, Felder has lived in the fast lane, and survived, all the better for his experience.
In this exclusive interview for entertainmenttell.com and Tell Magazine, Felder opened up about his journey from The Eagles to independence, the process behind the making of Road to Forever, his favorite gear and axes, and how his song ended up accompanying a “South Park” sequence in which Kenny got stoned huffing cat pee.
(Note: An edited-for-space version of this interview appears in the April issue of Tell Magazine. The following is the complete, unedited interview with Don Felder.)
Don Felder: Where are you based?
EntertainmentTell: I’m in Philadelphia.
Felder: Oh great, fantastic. I was just there not long ago.
EntertainmentTell: Right. You played Atlantic City?
Felder: It was great. I like that place. It’s the first time I played there. I was expecting a great deal more devastation than what I saw in the streets. I thought the area where the boardwalk and casinos are were either cleaned up quickly or were spared from the devastation of Sandy. But it didn’t look as bad as I expected.
EntertainmentTell: I guess they cleaned up quickly, because that boardwalk got ripped up from what I can tell.
Felder: I think they wanted to get the casinos cleaned up and back open because they’re losing money by the minute, you know? (laughs)
EntertainmentTell: Absolutely (laughs).
Felder: I was surprised because I thought they would have canceled the show, and said “Hey, we’ve got to reschedule”, but no, they said “just go for it.”
EntertainmentTell: Because it was right around that time, wasn’t it?
Felder: Yeah, it was shortly thereafter, about two weeks, 10 days after, like that.
EntertainmentTell: OK, well, the show must go on, right?
Felder: I guess so, yeah.
EntertainmentTell: I’m sure it was a good way to lift the spirits of the folks out there to have a good show like yours.
Felder: Yeah, playing rock and roll and partying, getting people on their feet and dancing … no matter what’s going on, people want to have a good time.
EntertainmentTell: Right. … So, I did some research for this interview—I read your book.
Felder: Oh wow.
EntertainmentTell: And I loved it, I thought it was fantastic, just really honest and forthright and … not really a sour grapes thing, just telling it like it was.
Felder: There was no reason for sour grapes. It was a great ride. We made some amazing music together. There were some difficult times, like any relationship, any marriage … over 27 years, there’s good times and bad times so why focus on just the sour times, you know?
Felder: And I tried not to paint myself in any sort of light that was more flattering than I felt the truth of the whole situation was. So I just laid it out there as honestly as I could, for better or for worse.
EntertainmentTell: It was an amazing journey. The book left you off, I guess, about 10 years ago, with some upheaval in your personal life. So now, what’s the next chapter? What would the sequel to that be?
Felder: Well, like I said, it was probably one of the most juicy, salacious life stories I’ve ever lived so far, right? Who knows what’s around the corner? All I know is that after going through the journey I went through with The Eagles right up to 2001 when I left the band, at that point in my life within the same 12-month period I went through a separation and divorce with my wife and left the band, so every image that I had adopted of myself was just stripped away—husband, family man, rock band, the big group of friends in that organization—all of that was just gone. So I sat down and started doing a series of daily meditations, between 30 minutes and 45 minutes a day, going back into my early childhood and how I had been raised and taken into church every Sunday morning by my mother who was very religious, and the morals and ethics that were kind of pounded into me as a young uprising person, and discovering music at the age of 10 and getting my first guitar and so forth and so on. And, later in my life, being drugged into promiscuity and a completely different set of moral and ethical values in the wonderful world of rock ‘n’ roll—and how that had changed me. And I really wanted to get a good grasp on that transition in an effort that so, going forward in life, I wouldn’t be carrying all of this sort of hidden baggage. In the process of coming out of these meditations, I would sit down and write out these really vivid recollections and memories that I had on a legal pad. My fiancé read them and eventually she said “This would make a great book!” I was a horrible English student in high school. I spent a summer in summer school making up for an F in high school, and writing a book to me seemed like such a daunting task, it was out of the question. But then in about six months, I was on a plane to New York and came back with offers from five publishers to write this book. So I had to sit down and not just do it as a personal cathartic process, but as really putting the flesh on the skeleton of my life in way of recollections. And at the same time, I’ve had a studio in my home since ’82. As I was going through that process of sorting out all of the emotions and everything that eventually wound up in the book, I would go into the studio and write song ideas about those feelings, leaving my wife and being betrayed by friends and the corruption of greed and money and all of the stuff that I was kind of reliving. So I’d written 26 song ideas in my studio and then finally after I’d finished publishing the book, I went out and did a book tour in Europe promoting all of that. When I came back, although I’d started my own band about eight-and-a-half, nine years ago, we’d been out playing shows —casinos and festivals, that sort of stuff, I really wanted some new music to play in my live shows. So I sat down with these 26 song ideas and started culling through them and decided what the best 16 would be. I went in the studio with some of the closest friends that I knew in the business who were not only gifted musicians but also really fun people to work with. Part of my trepidation was, in the past, the days, weeks and months we had spent in the studio making Eagles records was bordering on torture. It was so intense and so contentious and not a lot of laughs. It was a … I wouldn’t say a dark place to be, but it was just really intense. And I could go into my studio and record anything I want, but going back into the studio with a bunch of other people—I didn’t want to do that. So I deliberately chose people that I thought were a lot of fun, like (Toto guitarist Steve) Lukather—probably one of the funniest guys you could be in the room with, you leave and your stomach hurts from laughing so much. Crosby, Stills and Nash—you probably read from my book that Stephen (Stills) and I were in a band as a child, and my first band I had in California was Crosby-Nash, but I knew that they had that same kind of contentious relationship, so I had Crosby and Nash come into the studio one day and sing, and Stephen come in to do it the other day (laughs).
Felder: Really. Just in an effort to avoid any kind of recurring nightmares that I’d seen in the past.
EntertainmentTell: But they still work together, right?
Felder: Oh yeah, they do.
EntertainmentTell: But they just don’t play together well.
Felder: I wouldn’t say that. I’d say that sometimes they do play together well and sometimes they don’t play together so well. I just didn’t want to see any of that. I just wanted no drama. And it was a pleasure to go into the studio and make this record.
EntertainmentTell: Sure! But you had them together on the same track, just at different times?
Felder: Correct. So I made a conscious decision just about how to go about making this record, making it fun, just no less intense musically, still paying all the attention to detail and perfection that I’ve developed over the years of making records, but at the same time, without all the drama. Robin DiMaggio, my co-producer on this record, is a hilarious guy, just a great, talented musician, he’s produced Paul Simon records and my record, but he walks in with a big smile on his face and you just have a great day working on music, so intense musically but just full of laughter and fun.
EntertainmentTell: You also collaborated with Tommy Shaw on this CD, correct?
Felder: Tommy Shaw from Styx and I have had a really good personal relationship for a long time, so when I was kind of bumping my head on the wall writing lyrics for a couple of songs, I called Tommy up and on a really rare occasion he happened to be in Los Angeles, because they spend so much time on the road with Styx. So he came over for two or three days and we wrote some lyrics, we wrote another song that isn’t on this record, he sang some choruses for me. There are the people that I enjoy working and hanging out with. Ed Cherney, the guy that finally mixed the record, ironically enough was the assistant engineer at The Record Plant when we were making Hotel California—he was literally setting up microphones and sweeping up the place, but there in the control room the whole time, and he has gone on to become just a phenomenal engineer, making Rolling Stones records, Bonnie Raitt records, a brilliant guy, but literally sitting in a room with him is full of jokes and laughter and great quality work, just a very lighthearted day. We play golf together, we make records together. So I surrounded myself and carefully chose a lot of people that I knew were not only brilliant artists and musicians who were gifted in many ways, but also artists who were very easygoing and fun to work with. So the whole process was a delightful experience for me.
EntertainmentTell: A big change from the old days.
Felder: Yeah, and not only that, but a lot of the songs were very intimate, very personal. So I didn’t want to be laying my heart out in the studio on these songs and working with people who were, I guess, less than callous, that wouldn’t be empathetic or understand, and I found a great deal of empathy from those guys—they got it, which was great. So I was very happy to have so many people to help me.
EntertainmentTell: You were recording digitally this time, I would assume?
Felder: I’ve had a digital studio probably for 15 years, and I know Stills still records to 24-track tape, transfers it to Pro Tools—they like the sound of tape—and they do the editing and mixing in the digital format. But I have a lot of really class-A vintage microphones and class-A mic preamps that I use from the front end of my recording, so I kind of bypass the noise of tape hiss and wow and flutter and just go straight to disc.
EntertainmentTell: Do you think that would have saved a lot of time in the old days having Pro Tools instead of the old “slice with a razor” method?
Felder: No. I think what it did was enable people who are less talented to sound better than they really are. Because in the ’70s you had to be able to write, sing and play really well to make good records, especially in a band like The Eagles where we had five people in the band who were all A-plus personalities. Anybody in the band could have fronted the band, or did front their own band prior to and after as solo artists. And so it was an unusual combination of really high-caliber talent in that one band, and it was difficult enough. I was making Bee Gees records simultaneously when I was making Eagles records. The Bee Gees had 24 tracks, and then they had slaves where they would make a guitar slave where they would have 24 tracks and you could just do tons of guitars on it and then they had vocal slaves, you could do tons of vocals, keyboard slaves, you could make tons of keyboard tracks, and then they would mix all of these things down into their master track. (Eagles producer) Bill Szymczyk laid down the law and said—because he saw that nightmare with The Eagles—instead of one or two years to make that record, it would’ve taken four to six years to make a record if we’d had that kind of freedom. He said, “If you can’t make a record in 24 tracks, you’re in the wrong business.” And so we had to work within a constrained framework and obviously the slicing of tape and editing and all of that stuff was part of dealing in an analog world, but I think that it really captures a lot of unprocessed music. Today, with Autotune (pitch-fixing software) you can make anybody who sings sound great and in tune, you can correct guitar pitches and bends, you can make different playlists where you’ve got 25 guitar parts that you can comp and edit together. And in the process, you make perfection but you lose a lot of the fire and energy that’s in the performances. And if you go back and listen to the great bands of the ’60s and the ’70s, Hendrix and Clapton in those days, they could just blow you away with a live performance. So that’s my roots, being able to play something that’s full of fire and energy and emotion as opposed to trying to make it perfect. I think perfect is boring, to tell you the truth. (laughs)
EntertainmentTell: Your new recordings sound damn good to me. But you still have that old soul, and that feel of your previous work as well. So it’s not just digital perfection.
Felder: That means more to me than having it be digitally perfect. You listen to records today and they’re in perfect sync, they’re all quantized, they’re all Autotuned and very generic. They’re all processed to me. I have a difficult time. I can appreciate everything being in tune, because unfortunately I have fairly close to perfect pitch as far as being able to, if somebody hit a note, tell you what note that is. Even to the point that when we were making albums with (Bee Gee) Barry Gibb producing and Albhy Galuten was one of the producers, I’d be in a rhythm section in a studio, like Ocean Way out here, and it would be me playing guitar, Nathan East playing bass, Steve Gadd playing drums, Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, James Newtown Howard on keyboards. That was the band, right?
EntertainmentTell: The best of the best.
Felder: So in between song takes, somebody, and it would vary from person to person, would go (hums) “ba da da dum dum dum,” everybody would go “bam,” play that chord, you wouldn’t see it, you wouldn’t know what chord it was, and anybody that missed the chord, everybody would go “ah-ha!” and point at you if you got it wrong. It was just a little ear-training game that we played with each other and very, very rarely did anybody miss coming down on the right chord. The level of musicianship was just different than what I think it is today. Plus, like we were talking about in The Eagles—everybody in the band being able to write, sing and play—it was just a phenomenal group of talent, to have so much talent in one band. Anyway, OK, onwards and upwards.
EntertainmentTell: Now you’re up front, and you’re singing lead. How is it being the frontman?
Felder: Well, I have fronted bands before The Eagles, and when I got into The Eagles they had already established a vocal sound, meaning a harmony blend, the two people that sang most of the previous songs were Don Henley and Glenn Frey. (Glenn) had a very recognizable voice. And it’s like bringing in a new band when there’s a new voice on it. That’s why Joe Walsh doesn’t sing a lot of The Eagles songs right now. Everybody knows Joe and recognizes him as Joe. Timothy (Schmidt), I think, sang a couple of songs, one of them was “Love Will Keep Us Alive.” I actually produced that song with (former Mike + The Mechanics vocalist) Paul Carrack, for the band that was me, Paul, Timothy Schmidt and Max Carl (ex-.38 Special). We put together a band in between The Eagles and recorded all this stuff.
EntertainmentTell: That was The Malibu Men’s Choir?
Felder: That’s right—you did read the book! Paul did an amazing on singing that song. So Timothy, when we went to do Hell Freezes Over, we were only going to record four new songs and Timothy said “Aw, I want to sing this song” and Paul had just killed it to me, I thought he’d done a brilliant job. Timothy wound up singing that, which went on to be a crossover hit in some markets. But for the most part, the recognizable voices were Don Henley and Glenn Frey. So in that group of talent, we selected everyone’s strongest suit to bring to the table. In other words, mine was guitar—writing guitar tracks, producing, arranging all the guitar stuff. Don and Glenn were like Lennon and McCartney—brilliant lyricists, Henley’s voice is just spectacular. He could sing The New York Times, the phone book, and I’d buy it. When Joe (Walsh) joined the band it was my task to write stuff that we could play together on and work together. We’d actually been together and played together on several shows and a TV show called “Joe Walsh and Friends” that we’d done before he officially joined the band. So when he joined the band, I wanted to really focus on Joe and I being featured on a lot of tracks like “Hotel California” and “Victim of Love” and “Those Shoes” and those kind of songs that feature guitar parts more than just lyrics and vocals.
EntertainmentTell: Your music was featured in one of my favorite movies, Heavy Metal. And I know there’s a cult out there for this movie. How did it feel when the “South Park” guys did a tribute to that movie and used your song?
Felder: First of all, that song “Heavy Metal” was a song track that I had written for The Long Run record. About 90 percent of those guitar parts were on a track that was just nicknamed in the studio “You’re Really High, Aren’t You?” The basis of that became “Heavy Metal.” So it was a cast-off that we didn’t finish because we were under such time constraints to finish the record and get it out and get back on the road. We probably had a half dozen songs that never got completed. So when I got invited to do to that soundtrack, a couple of songs for the soundtrack to Heavy Metal, I said “God, I really like those guitar parts. Maybe there’s a way I can write a track that features those guitar ideas and I could put it in this movie,” and it just came together really quickly. But the reason I was asked originally to be part of that film was because (Eagles manager) Irving Azoff was the executive producer of the soundtrack of that motion picture. So you look at that record, and there’s a bunch of Azoff acts that are on that soundtrack. So they asked me if I wanted to do something and I did a couple of songs for them, I wound up doing it. Then I got a call—I guess it two to three years ago—from my publishing administrator, who said “South Park” wanted to use it in one of their episodes. Personally, I’ve been a huge fan of “South Park” for a long time. Love their humor. And I said, “Well, let me talk to one of their producers.” So I got on the phone with a producer, I said “Tell me a little bit about how you want to use it,” and so they told me a bit of the story and I was just cracking up laughing. I said, “Look, if it’s going to be that funny, you can definitely use it” (laughs). And it was a really cute treat, and for some reason that song has a really kind of stoner metal crowd that follows it. They wanted to use that track to identify with them in “South Park,” try to keep that feel. It was fine with me. I was flattered to tell you the truth.
EntertainmentTell: That’s awesome. Do you do that song in your shows now?
Felder: Yes I do, and it goes over really well. It’s a rocking song and people like to see it live. I didn’t know, after I made a solo record (Airborne) in, I think, 1982 and then did a bunch of soundtrack stuff like Heavy Metal, I never went on the road and played any of that stuff live, so it’s a treat for people who know me from that soundtrack record to see it live. So yeah, it’s a fun song to play.
EntertainmentTell: Excellent. Are you going to be doing any more shows on this tour?
Felder: Yeah, they are putting together the 2013 schedule right now. Obviously, we’ll do the east coast from Florida to Boston, always that route over there, so we’ll be coming back through there again shortly some time next year.
EntertainmentTell: My magazine, Tell, is primarily about technology. What (besides Pro Tools and the recording end) kind of tech do you embrace in your personal life?
Felder: Well, my father wanted to be a radio repairman. He was a mechanic and he just loved and was just fascinated with radio repair. In junior high school, in the first two years of high school, one of my strongest suits other than music was math. So I wanted to become a “double e”—electrical engineer—and design electronics. I’ve always had my curiosity about state-of-the-art tech items, so I’m constantly fidgeting with both old electronics, especially in the studio, because the tube stuff sounds so much better than the transistor stuff in the studio. It just sounds warmer and more realistic, but outside of that, pretty much everything is tech. I’m a huge Apple fan, although I’ve had and run businesses on PCs and Apple machines. I use Apple computers—Apple laptops, iPads, many iPads. I have an iPhone 5. We use Apple laptops in my show, just all sorts of the latest and greatest. I’m a gadget geek.
EntertainmentTell: Great! You’d love Tell magazine. What kind of guitars are you playing? Are you still mainly a Fender Strat guy?
Felder: No, I play a variety of guitars. I have a collection of nearly 300. A lot of them are older pieces from the ’50s. Some of them made in pre-war years, Martins, some newer reissues. I actually build some guitars where I buy the pieces. Seymour Duncan, he’s got a pickup building room where they build custom pickups and I go up with Seymour and this gal that works in his custom room and we wrap our own pickups using different gauges and strengths of magnets and different sizes of wire, always in hopes of trying to develop a new tonality in electric guitar. So I build not only electric sides of it, but I build body sides as well. I’ll take different bodies and attach different necks and put in preamps, or I’ll put a pickup in it called the Sustaniac up by the bridge so you can hold a note and it will sustain for as long as you hold the note down, almost like a synthesizer keyboard. I’ll toggle that into another preamp that’s built into the body of the guitar, kind of like what a Clapton Strat electronics would have in it. Just constantly experimenting. As a matter of fact, that white double-neck guitar that I play on “Hotel California” that you’ve seen from the ’70s up until today—when we made that record I’d say there are 17 guitar tracks on that song.
Felder: And different configurations of acoustic and rhythm and power chords and background harmony stuff and solos. So when we got on the soundstage to try to figure out how we were going to do that song live, I had played so many different guitars, I had to figure out a way where at least I could cover the introduction, the picking arpeggio part, and then play the electronic part of the song. So I decided to get a Gibson double neck, a 1275, and my father had taught me how to solder when I was 12 because when I got my first electric guitar I kept stepping on the cord and breaking the cord, and like I said, he wanted to be a radio repairman. So he had a soldering iron and a workbench. He said “If you’re going to keep breaking this chord, I’m going to show you how to fix it. I’m tired of doing this.” So it was a blessing that he taught me how to solder. And so when I got on the soundstage, I realized that if I rewired the inside of this double-necked guitar, which had a toggle switch that went between the 12-string neck and the six-string neck, then both necks came out of the same output. So I literally took a drill and drilled another hole on the top of this guitar, wired in another quarter-inch phono jack, and rewired the switch so that when the switch was in the 12-string position, the output went out of one of those jacks into a Leslie that was miked. If you switched down to the other neck, it switched over and went out of a different output, which went into a pedal system and an electric guitar amp. So it was literally two guitars completely separated. And it was just the only way I could figure out to use all those parts at the same time. And I stole the idea from Chet Atkins. You probably read in my book that I saw Chet Atkins in the Daytona Civic Auditorium, I think I was about 14. My first stereo guitar that I’d ever seen, he was playing a Gretsch stereo guitar that the lower three strings went out of one jack into one amplifier, and the top three strings, the other three strings, went out of another jack to another amplifier. They had amplifiers on the left and the right sides of the stage, and they played two songs at the same time. They played “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Dixie” together and it sounded like two guys playing out of two different amps at the same time. So I reflected on how I could make this double-necked guitar so segregated like that. I basically rewired it to be able to do that on “Hotel California.” But I’ve always tinkered around with stuff. I’ve got everything from Line 6 guitars to Fender guitars, Gibson guitars, you name it, about anything that you can get your hands on today, new and or old, I’ve tinkered with or played with. Part of the joy of being a musician is always looking for new sounds and new innovative tones.