The often sparse, sometimes dark Americana of upstate New York's The Felice Brothers hardly seemed like it needed a facelift. But, during a long solo drive through the freshly-tilled corn and soybean fields of Wisconsin, I was introduced to the group's latest record -- and first for Fat Possum -- and it was a revelation.
"Celebration, Florida" is built on the same rootsy songwriting and Dylan-esque voice of frontman Ian Felice as its seven predecessors, but this time 'round there are brassy horn arrangements, thumping bass and drums and even synths, radio samples and more. Listen with headphones on and you'll hear all kinds of things.
That bombastic, but dynamic style makes "Celebration, Florida" especially unique in the Felice canon.
The band is nearing the end of a long string of dates and stops at Turner Hall on Sunday, May 8 for an 8 p.m. gig with Shovels & Rope. Tickets are $15.
We managed to reach Ian Felice via e-mail a few days ago to ask about "Celebration, Florida," due out two days after the Milwaukee show and about what Brew City fans can expect at the gig.
OnMilwaukee.com: You guys have a new label and a new, expansive sound ... coincidence or did the new deal provide different resources?
Ian Felice: We decided to put our record out with Fat Possum before we even knew what our record was. They would have supported any direction that we took.
OMC: What struck me is how much the sound changed yet stayed the same in vibe and spirit. Did you consciously try to balance that or was the progression so natural that it just sorta happened organically?
IF: Well, it's the same five people making music together in a room. We didn't formulate any process that would give us balanced results. That would have been terrifying. We just tried to make ourselves excited about the music we were making. So I guess if you hear a correlation with older recordings then it happened organically. Overall, there was more of an attempt to depart than to expand.
OMC: In terms of making the record, did you approach it the same way you approached previous records? Or has each experience been very different from the start?
IF: We approached it with the same level of enthusiasm that we put into everything. The processes were different, and the things we focused attention on were different. The circumstances were better than other records. We had more time and different environments to work off of. Like all the other stuff, we recorded in a studio that we constructed with our own equipment in a space that we found interesting and inspiring.
OMC: I heard it was done in the gym and auditorium of an old school. What was that vibe and process like?
IF: The whole record was recorded in an out of use high school in Beacon, N.Y. It was a somewhat eerie and surreal setting. It was completely preserved, all the lockers were in the hallway, the chalkboards, the desks. It brought some nostalgic feelings with it. A lot of the sounds on the record, particularly percussion, were taken from lockers slamming, stomping in hallways, random people talking or shouting, children singing. A lot of the tracks have a haunted quality partly because we are drawn toward that kind of atmosphere and partly because there was strange and unnerving energy in the building at times.
OMC: What can fans expect when you take the stage here in Milwaukee -- will you try to faithfully recreate the sounds of the record or is that not really a major concern?
IF: No, we like to rely more on improvisation and try to play in the moment. The songs won't be unrecognizable but we need to keep it interesting for ourselves and be expressive.
OMC: Has anyone ever pointed out the irony of a name that implies happiness (felice means "happy" in Italian) on a band that often has a dark and moody sound?
IF: No, I'd like to believe that we inspire happiness as much as any other feeling.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.