How COVID and New West Records helped reinvigorate a ten-year-old band.
The Wild Feathers are a band who have been playing americana infused rock’n’roll for ten years and are entering a new phase of maturity in their private lives with the arrival of children, but they have a renewed spring in their musical step following the recording of their self-financed and self-produced new album ‘Alvarado’ and a new commercial relationship with New West Records. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson met up with the Wild Feathers’ Joel King and Taylor Burns to discuss ‘Alvarado’ and its links to The Flying Burrito Brothers’ mythology, the sense of empowerment they have got through self-financing its recording and the hopes they have for their new relationship with New West Records and how COVID helped establish this new arrangement. Like most musicians they share their conflicted views on music streaming and explain how they can still play honest rock’n’roll as they reach a new maturity in their lives and outlook. They may be as American as you can be, but they are not afraid to share the influence The Beatles and The Stones have had on their own music, and they give a shout-out to the UK’s own Jade Bird.
How are you after COVID?
Joel King (JK) We did everything we could, and I’m protected, so everything is OK.
Before we talk about the new record, tell me the story behind your last release, ‘Medium Rarities’?
JK: It is a compilation kind of release, it is like all the B-sides and extra songs we had. We had done three songs by ourselves in the studio, and then when COVID hit we were like what can we do to get something out, and really we wouldn’t have put it out without COVID. All our favourite bands usually but out a B-sides record, it is the kind of thing bigger bands than us usually do, but we had the time and the songs. Also, it felt like a good thing to just get the songs out there because you think you record a couple extra for every record and you don’t think they will ever see the light of day unless it is like a weird rare 7 inch or something. It was nice to be able to put them to bed and get them out there, and they were like extras that were laying around and we just put them together and it sounded like a cohesive record. One of our friends was like just put it out as a new record, and we were like no, it needs to have something on it to explain why they all sound a little different and that it is one of those B-side rarities type records, haha.
Did you produce and finance ‘Medium Rarities’ yourselves?
JK: That is what we did with ‘Alvarado’ but different people owned different tracks on ‘Medium Rarities’, like the songs we recorded when we were on Warner Brothers I think they may have owned, or had some sort of deal with them, they were those songs that they had paid for. Then we had the songs we had done on our own and so it was a little bit of a mixed bag kind of stuff. Some of them were self-produced, and some of them were produced by J Joyce and some by Dave Cobb.
The first question about ‘Alvarado’ is where did the title come from?
JK: It is a song Ricky Young wrote, and I think the name came from the street name in LA. At Alvarado and Sunset there is a Burrito King, like where The Flying Burrito Brothers got their name. We used to hang out and eat around there and I think he was thinking about that for a while and just found that word, and there is a town in Texas called Alvarado and it just sounded so South Western that we thought it felt just right. It could just as well have been Colorado or something like that, but Alvarado was just the best, haha.
‘Alvarado’ is self-produced and self-financed, why the change to this business model?
JK: It is a big change yeah.
Taylor Burns (TB): Yeah, it is, and I think it was a choice from necessity because we kind of had to, because of the pandemic and because we had left our old label. We couldn’t even get into a lot of studios because everyone was so unsure with COVID, and no one knew how everything was going to operate, and so we just decided to take matters into our own hands and DIY it. We had been flirting with the idea for a couple of years now, and we felt like the time was now to try it and see if it would work. We set up in a pre-Civil War cabin and got our mics and a couple of friends to help us set everything up, and when we listened back to the first song it was like, OK goddamnit, I think this is going to work, it sounds good.
What was it like producing yourselves for the first time for a full album?
TB: I don’t know if we could have done it at any other time, we did a few songs on ‘Medium Rarities’, didn’t we Joel.
TB: Joel had a huge hand in it, he was like the engineer, producer, and everything, and it just felt like now we know our roles so well, and we trust each other implicitly, it felt like it wasn’t going to be too hard. There wasn’t going to be a lot of infighting like I think we should make this choice to go with this part on this song, or whatever. We are now all on the same page and together.
What are the dynamics in the band, because sometimes the producer is like the peacemaker or an extra band member?
JK: As a band we all jam really well together, and we all understand what has to be done to make this part or that part, and that is pretty easy, and I think the hardest thing is getting the vocal takes right. We try to be each other’s coaches, I will go I think you can do it better, and I think that is just a comfort level within us. We don’t want to do every record like this, but we also thought well OK, as long as we can get the band part down, and make all the arrangements pretty good, then it is just going to be coaching each other to get the best takes. Luckily, we weren’t on a time schedule because we had the cabin and we did overdubs at my house here, so we were like if we can’t get it, we will come back to it tomorrow. We had a little bit of that, and we thought if we failed, we would just call them demos, haha.
Quite a few musicians have commented on the benefit of the extra time COVID provided for certain things. Did it make things easier or worse for you because sometimes you can overcook things?
TB: I think the actual recording part went really fast, like the main tracks, and while we had more time, I don’t think we toiled over anything, and we did leave mistakes in there on purpose because hey, that feels more live, and we certainly didn’t fix every little part. So, while we had a bunch of extra time, we didn’t necessarily use it, and in the back of our heads, we were if this sucks, we can fix it, haha.
JK: The whole vibe was to get a take when it was fresh and fun and hadn’t been demoed too many times. We did all that when we got it back to the house and we made all the harmonies good, and did the vocals right and all that. It was trying to get the best of both worlds, the super spontaneous fun recording while we were in the cabin for four or five days doing all the instruments, and then going in making sure the singing is right on or the tambourine is right on and stuff like that.
Who made the call to stop working on a song?
JK: It is just the deadline, Quincy Jones said you never finish a song you just stop working on it. We were like that’s good, haha, but this is the first time we made a planned record, to make a record on our own and then see if we can sell it to somebody, and we actually executed the plan perfectly. I couldn’t believe it, we finished it and the whole thing worked out, nothing has ever really worked out for us before, haha.
How did you sign with New West Records?
TB: They were great, and it all came about after the record was all done. I think John Allen, the President of New West Records, had been a fan of us for some time and we loved their roster of artists and it seemed like a natural fit. We were honoured to go there coming from a big corporate major label it seemed like a really good landing spot, and they didn’t interfere at all with the record. It was already done, and they didn’t say why don’t you do this or whatever, it was like we dig it, let’s go and put it out and roll.
Are you happier with them than with Warner Brothers?
JK: Yeah, time will tell but right now it has been great so far.
TB: You know, Warner Brothers were great as well in their own way, we don’t have any ill-will towards them and it was six of one, and half a dozen of another, it is just different things.
You’ve delivered your plan, but is there anything you would do differently if you could go back, what have learnt in other words?
JK: I think we have done everything wrong that anybody could ever do in the music business, haha. We signed every bit of paper anybody put in front of us, haha. I don’t know what we could have really done differently because any misfortune we may have had was outside our control. We write the songs, and we play the shows, so I don’t know if we could have played better or written better songs, that is probably all we could have done differently.
TB: And all these missteps or misfortunes, they all led us to where we are now and that is making some of the best music we have made in our career, and we are playing some of the best shows we have ever played. So whatever broken road has led us here is alright by me, and us.
What do you think has re-energised the band, because you have been together for something like ten years, I think?
JK: Yeah, it is ten years. I think there is energy in just driving our own ship a little bit. There were bits of stuff in the past when we tried to get over a hump, particularly with Warner Brothers, and I think in the last three years with having kids or maybe we are just growing up a little bit, and I think we are now just trying to live the lives we want to live at the moment, right now. We want to make records, we want to play shows, and of course, we want to make better records and play better shows, but we are trying to be exactly who we want to be, we want to stop that thinking we are not quite there yet, we are now just living our lives, and this is just what we do.
How does songwriting work within the band?
TB: Every which way but loose, haha.
JK: We all write together and separately. It just seems to work naturally.
TB: The cream always rises to the top.
JK: And there are always songs that linger around for a long time before getting done, and some songs have been around for four or five years, and then there are some songs that just pop out and they need to be done right away. We try not to think about it until we are compiling a record, and then we are like, OK, what do we have, and which sounds go together and stuff like that.
You mentioned a couple of names, but who are your real go-to influences, who made you want to play music in the first place?
TB: For me, my father was a guitarist and some of my first memories are of him having band practice in the living room and him strapping his flying V guitar around my neck and I could barely hold it, haha, so I would have to say my dad is the first person who made me think what is this, why are people downstairs and why do people look at him and cheer after he plays. I think I got the bug early, The Beatles is one I can’t deny even though I know it is a cliché, and I just saw The Stones last night in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl and they are have been on heavy rotation in my house since I was born, all the cliché bands are cliché for a reason, they are just fucking awesome, and they inspired a lot of people.
JK: I’m going to say The Beatles just from day one, they are the bible for bands, you know. You play with your buddies in the garage, you write songs, and then you try to play shows and make records, haha.
COVID is moving to a new phase, are you touring again, or is that for next year?
TB: We started back up in early July.
JK: We’ve just done the first leg of our headlining fall tour all across the North East, South East, and over to Red Rocks with Blackberry Smoke, and we are about to do the second leg of New York and Philly and all those places. So, it is good, but it is weird, in some places you have got to have a mask on while you are loading in, and people have to have proof of vaccination to get in, but it just feels good to be on stage again and playing different venues.
What are the audiences like? In the UK it has been mixed, a lot of people want to go and see live music again but there is still quite a bit of nervousness about which has led to quite a few no-shows.
TB: It has been the same here, up and down, you know. I think people have got so used to being home all the time and they have forgotten how good it feels to go to shows, I know I did. I went to that Stones concert the other night smiling ear to ear with 80,000 people there, it was like, this is fun, I’ve really missed this. It is up and down, but I’m confident it is only going to get better the longer we get out of this thing.
JK: Yeah, sometimes the crowds may be a little bit thinner because people are scared to go out, but then sometimes you go out and people are just fucking happy to be there, and they are really excited and they are like I haven’t been out to a show in years, haha, so it is all different.
We like to share new music with our readers, so currently what are your top three tracks, artists, or albums on your playlist?
JK: I’m listing to the band Fruit Bats right now if anyone has heard of them. They are pretty cool, and they also did a whole cover record of ‘Siamese Dream’ by the Smashing Pumpkins, but it is like an americana cover record, the whole thing, and it is really awesome.
TB: The new War On Drugs record came out just over a week ago and I listened to it last night, on first listen it seems really badass. There is this band Camp, and they have had a new record out in the last 8 months or something, and I really dig them. I always listen to John Prine, and I’ve been on a John Prine kick for the last two years, well forever, but I’ve really been listening to him in the last two years.
JK: Also, fall time always makes me go back to ‘Wildflowers’ which is one of the classic americana albums of all time, but the ‘Wildflowers & All The Rest’ the 58 track set with all the ones that were unreleased seems like the time and place for the fall weather.
That is a wonderful box set.
TB: Yes, it is, and another one is UK artist Jade Bird. She is Welsh I think, and she is just so incredible, I saw her at the Trans-Pecos Festival, and I was just jaw-dropped and I’d never heard of her so I’ve been checking her out.
Where do you guys stand on streaming?
JK: We just live with it, haha.
TB: Yeah, a necessary evil, haha.
JK: I really appreciate it when I have to listen to this thing and I don’t have to buy the record, but then I can’t expect people to pay me for my music, haha, so I don’t know.
I assume you get a better streaming deal with New West and their relationship with Bandcamp than you did with Warner Brothers.
JK: We never make enough money to worry about how it was made so we never really know about any of that stuff, haha.
TB: That is above our paygrade, haha.
Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?
TB: We just hope you like our version of americana rock’n’roll and we do want to get over and play for a UK audience.
The Wild Feathers’ ‘Alvarado’ is out now on New West Records