The Federales: This group has basically been a crash-course in country history
Photo By Dan Zimmermann
Like any good alt-country rock band, the Federales came together over their shared love of Townes Van Zandt and Old Overholt. Six veterans of the Twin Cities music scene formed a new creative outlet in 2012, and their harmony drenched, pedal steel driven sound reflects not only a knowing nod to music's past, but the fresh vibrancy of a group who came together at the right time.
The Federales are set to celebrate the release their debut full-length, Blues, Bourbon, and Burritos, tonight at Icehouse along with Reina Del Cid & the Cidizens. And ahead of their big night, we were able to catch up with James Gould (electric guitar), Kark Wahoske (banjo, acoustic guitar, vocals), and Ben Miller (acoustic guitar, mandolin, vocals) to discuss the origins of the band, how their live show has helped shape and refine their songs and their sound, as well as their love of burritos of all kinds.
Gimme Noise: How did the band come together initially? Was it a six-piece straight from the start, or did more people gravitate towards the project as it gained steam?
Ben Miller: James and I met through some mutual friends, and at parties we always ended up off in a corner talking about Doc Watson and old country music. We got together a few times to try playing some of that stuff, and then decided to recruit a few people so we could try it out live. I called Andy [Schuster] and our former drummer Ben Cook-Feltz, since I'd played with them for years, and James called Karl for the same reason. About a year later, James mentioned that his friend Mick [White] was learning to play pedal steel, so he was in, and then when we needed a new drummer James suggested his buddy Joe [Evans].
You all have been in your share of bands, both currently and over the years. What were you looking for with the Federales, both sonically and creatively, that wasn't necessarily as prevalent in your other outlets?
BM: I had been in a few bands that played modern "country" music (some of which is good, don't get me wrong) but that was just as a sideman so I really wanted to start a band and sing and write, none of which I'd done before.
James Gould: I think it's great to make music that has so much nuance. No matter how many times you play the music, you can always find new depths as you explore the nuance and feel of the music. It's really fun to play with that.
Karl Wahoske: I was brought in to be another vocalist and to play banjo. I had expressed interest in learning to play banjo before, and this was the perfect excuse to go for it. Also, having come from a fairly progressive rock band previously, it has been really enjoyable to play pretty straightforward music. I still want to make it interesting to listen to sonically, but it doesn't need to be a PhD-level experience to be awesome.
You guys have been playing live quite a bit before heading into the studio to record Blues, Bourbon, and Burritos. How did those shows help these songs tighten up and take shape?
JG: It's funny and difficult to listen to those early shows because we were all still trying to figure out how to play this music. Since we're mainly an original band, it took us awhile to find our sound and apply it in a meaningful way. Live shows are the best way to do that. The audience is your judge. You can tell right away when you play a song if the audience is getting into it. If the audience isn't digging it, it's probably not a very good song, or you're not playing it very well.
KW: The more we play, the better I get at banjo, the more I can add to the songs instead of just keep up with them.
BM: We've definitely figured out a spirit to the songs that wouldn't have been there without playing them live in a variety of situations. If you write a song about drinking whiskey late at night in an empty bar it's not a bad idea to find out if it actually feels appropriate for that atmosphere.
Was the addition of burritos in the album title your way of bringing some levity to a collection that is drenched in some rather tenderhearted, alt country anthems? Or was it just a matter of telling the world how much you, in fact, love burritos?
KW: We love burritos of all kinds -- the food, the brothers, the small donkeys -- everything.
BM: I really do love burritos and in college I would sing "oh ohhhhhh, burrito / I'm gonna eat you" to my food whenever my roommate and I went to the burrito place across the street. The title track is actually about a sad guy sitting in a bar, having a few strong drinks and listening to "Hot Burrito #1" by The Flying Burrito Brothers, but he could probably be thinking about going to get some food later too.
You drew the name of the band from your shared love of Townes Van Zandt. What other bands and musicians have influenced your sound -- and how important do you think common musical interests are for bands as they coalesce?
BM: Gram Parsons' work with the Byrds, the Burritos, and solo has been a big influence on our actual sound -- "Christine's Tune" was the song that gave us the idea to start the band in the first place. When I started writing songs I was listening to Dead Man Winter's Wolves EP, The Jayhawks' Bunkhouse album, and Erik Koskinen's Keep It To Yourself a lot so those were sort of the inspiration for trying to write this type of music. I know a few of the guys weren't too familiar with this style when they joined but they're all great musicians so they can play anything.
KW: Ben's guitar strap tells the story pretty nicely. [BM: It's adorned with Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard buttons] In seriousness, I had always liked classic country and bluegrass, but had never really gotten into it -- or knew anyone else who was. Getting to know Ben and playing in the group has basically been a crash-course in country history for me.
JG: The Deslondes (formerly Sam Doores and the Tumbleweeds) from New Orleans have a big influence on me. Also, Wilco, Leadbelly, Jimmy Rogers, Woody Guthrie. The local groups The Cactus Blossoms, Jack Klatt and the Cat Swingers, Charlie Parr, Low all loom large as well. I think every person in a band brings their own unique combination of influences and how they let those voices be heard is what makes the sound of the band. Just like a bowl of chili -- if you add the right ingredients and spices, it can an extremely rewarding experience. On the other hand, too much of just one and the whole thing is ruined. Our goal in The Federales is to make some really good chili.
What were the recording sessions like at Creation Studios, and how did you manage to capture the spirit of your live shows in your studio takes?
JG: Lots of Old Overholt.
KW: I think doing the vocal harmonies together really helped. As did doing as much in the same take as possible.
BM: Yeah, we did most of the initial tracking pretty quickly in just a couple nights and only added a few things later on so that kept it pretty true to how we play live. But we did change stuff when it made sense for an album versus a live show and Miles Hanson, who did the recording and mixing, was a big help there -- he had some great ideas that pointed us more in the direction of what we wanted to accomplish.
You guys are veterans of the Twin Cities music scene -- how have you seen it evolve and change over the years? And did the communal nature of the scene make it easier for you all to get together in the first place, and eventually form a band?
KW: I can say for certain that without the interconnectedness of the scene, I wouldn't be in this band--and it might not even exist at all. I'm only here because I've played with James since high school.
BM: It just makes it fun to be a musician here because that vibrancy sort of diffuses out into the community of non-musician music lovers too, and you know people truly care about going to shows and seeing all kinds of different music.
Now that you've got an album under your collective belts, how do you see the rest of 2014 shaping up for the band, and what are your aspirations for the band and your sound as you move forward?
JG: Try to play as many shows and festivals as we can to promote our latest album. I'm a big fan of beer/music-themed festivals, so hopefully we'll get into some of those this summer. Ben and Karl are already writing some new songs. Always looking forward with new material while shaping our old stuff as we grow as a band.
KW: Personally, I would love to keep writing tunes that play with some of the conventions of country music, while still being true to the spirit. I think we're doing some of that now, with our "up north, big city" type of lyrics. I'd also love to get even more lush with our arrangements--more vocal harmonies, varying the instrumentation, that kind of thing. I also want to make sure that we're still a fun band to see live. Not getting too serious about ourselves and not getting bogged down in melodramatic sentimentality.
BM: We have a bunch of new songs that we can start working on again now that the album's all finished, and we have five shows at the 331 in April so that should be a good chance to test things out. We're also going to try venturing outside the Twin Cities once everybody's available at the same time -- hopefully some time over in Wisconsin and up north at the very least.
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