Interview: Ex-Eagles Guitarist, Don Felder, Still Flying!

Interview: Ex-Eagles Guitarist, Don Felder, Still Flying!

Ahead of his upcoming charity concert at the first annual Hong Kong Rugby Union Ruck ‘n’ Roll Charity Ball on November 5th, ex-Eagles member Don Felder talks to Scott Murphy.

With the song “Hotel California”, ex-Eagles guitarist Don Felder is responsible for one of the most recognizable rock riffs of all time. He’s written quite a few others too—many of which long-time fans of the rock group recognize, and many of which he’ll be performing with his band at the first Hong Kong Rugby Union Ruck ‘n’ Roll Charity Ball on November 5th at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center in Wan Chai.

Ahead of the performance, Felder talked from his California home about life after the Eagles (he was abruptly dismissed from the group without explanation in 2000), his thoughts on the sudden passing of group member Glenn Frey earlier this year and performing in this city for the first time ever.

You’re performing for the first time in Hong Kong to benefit the Po Leung Kuk charity. How do you feel about all this?

I do tons of charity shows every year and it’s one of the delights of my career. There’s a great benefit at the end of it and some people get a lot of great help. Whether it’s St. Jude’s or cancer research, it’s a real pleasure and real joy to take my talents and help people with it.

As for Hong Kong, I’m very excited. I’ve never been to China at all. Everything I’ve heard about it is fantastic. I’m just excited about it. I’ve played in Japan a lot before—in the 1970s and 90s with The Eagles – and I’ll play there after the Hong Kong shows.

What can the Hong Kong audience expect?

I do about 80 percent Eagles material via songs that I either wrote or toured with and then I do some of my solo material like “Heavy Metal” (a song I did for the 1981 film of the same name). I do a tribute to the late guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, doing songs like “Pride and Joy” and we’ll just have fun. It’s an exciting set. By the end, when we’re doing Eagles songs like “The Long Run”, “Life In The Fast Lane” and “Hotel California”, everyone is on their feet and rocking.

There are five people in my band and four guys in my crew. My drummer is Steve DiStanislao. He’s played with Crosby, Stills & Nash and David Gilmour. He’s a five star singer too. Shem von Schroeck is a classically trained opera singer and plays unbelievable electric bass. Timoth Drury was on the Eagles’ “Hell Freezes Over” tour and has written with Stevie Nicks and was in Whitesnake. Guitarist Greg Suran has played with Joe Walsh and was in the Goo Goo Dolls. They’re a great group of guys. I’ve been playing with them for 10 years. It’s one thing to be a great player. It’s another thing to be with these guys for the 22 hours we’re not onstage. This is the perfect combination for me.

How many shows do you play a year?

I do about 75-80 show a year and I’m currently in talks to have a residency in Las Vegas early next year. I find that if you’re on the road all the time, something is going to suffer. Like, I know the guys in Chicago play 150 shows a year and go through personal hardships as a result. I find that I’m happiest being able to balance the two. On this Asian stint we’ll play in Japan for a week, do four shows in Tokyo, do Hong Kong and then play back in the States. I’m hoping that this entry into China opens the doors so I can see more of the country and do more shows there in the future.

Do you feel as creative as ever?

Yes! In fact, I’m writing and recording six new songs which should be finished in October. It’s something I have to do. Part of being a musician is the creative process that gets the inspiration going. I’ve been trying to write five or six new songs every year. I’m doing an EP right now for the radio, for my set and while the year is going on I’ll release another EP. It’s a new model so you don’t record every few years.

I don’t write in just one genre. My last CD had a lullaby and then a rock song and then a pretty love ballad. I get to write in a wide area and a wide style. My next stuff will include a Latin flavored song, some electric rock songs on it and a piano ballad. Something strikes me and I follow that. I’m just writing the stuff that I feel that I need and want to and am excited about. I’m as excited now as I was when I was 15.

How about your book “Heaven and Hell”? Did you write that yourself or did you get help?

I wrote 95 percent of it myself. It wasn’t intended to be a published book in the first place. It was just me doing daily meditations to see how I had grown up in a destitute impoverished situation in Florida and how I wound up being in the largest band in American history. It’s about what changed and happened to me and before I went forward in my life, I wanted to get a good understanding of what had happened so I wouldn’t go forward and repeat the same mistakes.

I would do daily meditations and write coming out of that. Pretty soon I had a legal pad full of memories. My girlfriend read them and said they would make a good book. I failed ninth grade English. I can’t write so she introduced me to a guy and the next thing I know I’m on a plane to New York and five editors came back to work on the book. Having never written a book, I needed people to work out dates and legal aspects, so one person did all the corrections and factual checking. That was Wendy Holman, the co-author. She helped with structure and form too. I call it a pool and beach book, an easy read. It was a very cathartic process for me.

What was your greatest lesson?

If everyone could sit down once a year and write their experiences from the year instead of waiting 50 years, you could recognize traits and mistakes that you had made. You get a great self understanding. Now I do it once a year so I can understand my life better.

Where were you and how did you feel when you heard that former bandmate Glenn Frey passed away earlier this year?

I was flying back to Los Angeles from Mexico, where I was doing a celebration charity concert with Billy Gibbons, a couple guys from Guns ‘n’ Roses and Dave Grohl. My phone was turned off and as soon as the tires hit the runway, my girlfriend’s phone blew up as soon as we landed. When she got all these text messages, she said ‘Glenn’s dead’ and I thought she meant Glen Campbell, as we have someone in our touring group who worked on Campbell’s tour. And she said ‘No, Glenn Frey.’ I was absolutely shocked. I couldn’t figure out what had happened. She said that he had died in a hospital and as it turned out the medication he was taking for his arthritis had weakened his immune system. He was in there for a procedure that he’s had before in the 70s and once in the 90s. He was supposed to just be out of action for three weeks and back on the road. It wasn’t a life threatening procedure.

When I heard that he had passed, I was broadsided. I had reached out to Don (Henley) and Glenn over the last 15 years numerous times and in numerous ways. I thought we would shake hands, have a lunch without harbouring any ill feelings. The only response I would ever get would be from lawyers. I regreat that Glenn and I were never able to sit down, have a lunch, have a laugh and dispel that anger. They just didn’t care to do that.

In fact, I was sick right after Glenn’s passing. I was sitting in my doctor’s office, the same one their manager Irving Azoff goes to. I see Irving go right into the hallway. I say ‘Hey Irving, I’d like to at least say hello and if you ever want to have lunch…’ And he said ‘Okay, I’ll do that.’ But, as it turns out, that weekend was the Grammys, where the band was getting together to honor Glenn. I never got a call or email. And I just don’t know how you can keep reaching out without getting a response. I expect that to be the way they’ll act going forward. I haven’t heard a word or a peep from Don Henley.

Speaking of which, is there unreleased Eagles material in the vaults?

Yes, but it’s unfinished. It’s either, A—wasn’t good enough…or B—wasn’t finished. One of the tracks I wrote for The Long Run was a harder rock song for me and Joe (Walsh) to play. Glenn nicknamed it “You’re Really High, Aren’t You?”

About three or four months later I went to see the film “Heavy Metal” in an early stage and I thought, I’ve got this track with harmony and guitars. How about if I re-record it. So that song was really for The Long Run record. A lot of other material we had was really just bits and pieces and demos, and incomplete.

You hear a lot about “Hotel California” all the time but you don’t hear much about “The Long Run” period…so talk about it.

“The Long Run” was a difficult time for us. We had put out “Hotel California” and toured the world two or three times and it was time to write more songs. I had 14 or 15 song ideas. But it was a difficult time because of this massive success. That album had such a global impact and everyone felt this monstrous pressure to raise the bar to that level or above.

It’s like films. You see a monster blockbuster and then you see the follow up. It’s never as good. There was  a lot of self-pressure by us. Then we got done with the record and Glenn wasn’t singing anything on it. So he left the studio one day, bolted and went back to Los Angeles. Henley called up Bob Seger and Seger gave him part of “Heartache Tonight”. That turned out to be one of the biggest songs. Overall, that was a dark period. It was The Eagles’ dark period.

You’re like the “Zelig” of musicians having played with so many well known people. Like teaching Tom Petty! Talk about that.

Tom and I were kids growing up in the same Florida town and I was one of the best guitar players, teaching people. Tom was just one of my students for a while. He was playing bass in a band, so he started taking guitar lessons. I helped him do some arrangements. Stephen Stills was in one of my first rock bands. The Allman Brothers saw us one night and Duane taught me how to play slide guitar. It’s funny. I did this interview with Smoky Robinson and we talked about this because it was similar to the Motown experience where one little area produces a lot of talents. This one area of Florida, within a 50 mile radius had so many talents. It was quite unusual. People say there must have been something in the water. I think it was what we were smoking.

One of the first acts I ever saw was The Hollies when I was 14. And I thought that that guy’s got a great voice. Then I saw him at Woodstock. Then I was in California, and one of the first jobs I had was in Crosby, Stills & Nash, working with them. It’s like this odd path where people keep playing in my life. It’s just like a big family. It’s a good group of people that I’ve met and maintained relationships with over the years.

And what did you think of the famed California sound when you got there?

It was as amazing as what people describe. When I first got there Bernie (Leadon) was my friend who I went to high school with. He’s been in the Flying Burrito Brothers and was working with a new group called The Eagles, who were managed by David Geffen. Geffen managed Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and more. These artists pretty much became the California sound.

That’s how I wound up there, through Bernie and David. That time was phenomenal. When we were working in Miami at Criterion Studios, they had five studios there. Eric Clapton would be in one, CSN would be in another, Chicago would be in one and then the BeeGees were down the hall. They’d drag me down to do something. It was a great, creative, fun environment to be in.

How does that compare to today?

Today, those studios don’t exist anymore. I like to work in a big studio. But there’s not that sense of the same big community anymore, where you’re going to use it with people you know and have that communal spirit.

What’s a great life lesson for you?

Well here’s what I posted today on Twitter. It says ‘You are not a human being having a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being having a human experience.’ That’s one of the strongest life lessons. For me, that hits the nail on the head.

And what would you do if you had 24 hours to go anywhere, see anything, and eat anything. Travel was not a factor…

I would just gather my closest friends together and hang out. I’m not a foodie. In fact, I just finished a seven day cleansing fast.

Thanks Don…

Thank you.

Don Felder will perform at the Hong Kong Rugby
Union Ruck ’N’ Roll Charity Ball, Nov 5, Grand Hall, Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Expo Drive, Wan Chai, HK$2,888.
To purchase tickets: www.ticketflap.com/rucknroll

Over the past two decades, Scott Murphy has talked to many of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, in addition to vital up and comers. As a long-time producer at MTV-Asia and Channel V, he created several programs and produced many long-form documentaries on such acts as U2, Metallica, Madonna and more. He’s also been published in many newspapers and publications around the world. Currently, he’s a Creative Director at Dragon 8, a Hong Kong based auction house.