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Getting to Know... The Duke & The King

September 11, 2009  |  10:00am
Getting to Know... The Duke & The King
If you've ever seen the Felice Brothers in concert, the sight of percussionist Simone—one of the raggedy band of buskers' namesake fratelli—heaving himself around his drum-kit and springing to his feet to pummel a crash cymbal or leer over his toms at the crowd is likely still etched in your mind. Earlier this year, though, his frenetic, oft-wifebeatered presence suddenly went missing from the band's raucous live shows. After spending the winter writing and recording songs with his longtime friend Robert “Chickenfoot” Burke, Felice was struck with a major personal loss in January and took the tragedy as a sign to re-asses his life—musically and otherwise.

On Aug. 4, Burke and Felice released Nothing Gold Can Stay, their debut album as The Duke & The King, on Ramseur Records. A few days later, just after launching a U.S. tour with a few other musician-friends, the new bandmates stopped by the Paste Studios—and, though they were running late for their show at Eddie's Attic that night, graced us with a four-song set that put a barn-stomp spin on the album's AM-tinged, folk-soul feel. A few weeks later, once the tour had wrapped and Felice was nestling back in at home before hitting the road again (the band kicks off a string of European dates today), we spoke with the wild-haired troubadour about Mark Twain, Michael Jackson and growing up in the shadow of Woodstock. 

Paste: Where is home?
Simone Felice: I live in the Catskill Mountains, in New York, like a couple hours north of the city. It's where I was born, and it's where my mom is, my family. Now the fire whistle is blowing at the old firehouse because it's noon right now. So that's where I am.

Paste: How long were you guys out on the road?
Felice: Just two weeks. It was a nice trip, though. And it was so nice to stop down at your place, I'd never been there before.

Paste: I hope you guys made it to Eddie's on time.
Felice: [Laughs] Yeah, we got a little bit of a reprimand by Eddie, but it was fun hanging out with you guys.

Paste: It was great to see you play. Tell me about the band you toured with—who are all of those people?
Felice: That's Bobby Burke on the bass, who's my sort of songwriting partner and production partner—we made this record together. And Nowell Haskins on the drums—he's a very very important part of the group, he's our best friend. His dad was in the original Funkadelic Parliament, so he grew up in a singing band, touring around with George Clinton and all those weirdoes back in the day, back in the '70s when they were really more of a barbershop band. So it's really nice to have him because what we're doing with this group is making a singing band, a harmony band, all of us singing together. And then Simi is a good friend who is rolling with us on this tour. We just did a trip to England and a couple weeks in Spain and stuff and she played the violin and sings and a little keyboards. So that's pretty much the four-piece core of the group at this hour. It's an evolution, you know, who's rolling with us when and how.

Paste: The Felice Brothers is the only other band that you've toured with—I guess you guys had your own certain kind of dynamic with that group. How has it been traveling with a whole different bunch of people?
Felice: It's been really nice. Half the reason I'm really working with these other people is because they're my best friends, not like a couple dudes—they're not studio musicians or nothin'. They're people that I've traveled with a lot and lived with and hung with, so they're really like family too. I miss my brothers. It's so funny, the last night we played in D.C., two nights ago, we were driving home and I was co-pilot, we were tired, it was like two in the morning, and we came upon this old camper and we're like, “Look at this crazy pirate ship,” and we came up on it and looked over and said, “Oh my God, it's the boys.”

Paste: It was your brothers?
Felice: It was my brothers. On all the highways in all the country at all the hours that could be possible. We didn't even really know we were on the same highway at all, or whatever, and it was like, “Oh my God.” So we pulled up on them and started throwing water at them and they started throwing stuff at us, yelling at each other, “Oh, we love you guys!” So it was really sort of special, unexpected psychedelic communion on I-95 the other night. Really nice. And at the beginning of the tour all those guys came to The Duke & The King's debut in Woodstock. So our paths will always cross and we'll completely love each other and support what we're doing. But it was so cool, just so wild—you can imagine, just psychedelic, two in the morning after being on the road.

Paste: Did you think at first that maybe you were hallucinating?
Felice: Yes, I felt like I was hallucinating, I swear to God. Because that's the same RV that drove us, that I lived in for three years with the band, you know, so it was beautiful. It was really beautiful. It made me laugh and brought a tear to my eye. It was really nice.

Paste: So where do you live now, is that up near Woodstock?
Felice: Yeah, it's up near Woodstock. I live about a mile from the same house that I was born in. I was born in an old house on the creek here, and where I live now I walk down by the creek where I was born and I swim there every summer day that I can, so it's really peaceful. I'm on a dead-end road and I heat my place with just a wood stove and I got an old motorcycle and I go in the mountains when I'm home. It's my sort of Shangri-La.

Paste: I bet it's been nutty this summer, with the big Woodstock anniversary. Have there been, like, streams of tourists up there?
Felice: Yeah, there's a lot of tourists coming through up through Woodstock. There always is, though. Everybody wants to catch a little taste of that magic that's sort of faded away. And you know Van Morrison used to live up here, and Jimi Hendrix.

Paste: Do run into Levon Helm any?
Felice: Yeah, I've been to Levon's a couple times. They asked us, actually, to come do a Ramble with Levon November 7th, so that's such a cool honor to hang out with him at his house and do a little rock 'n roll. It's just a really special thing to be able to do that so I can't wait. Time flies and it's only a couple of months away.

Paste: Tell me about how you got started doing stuff with the new project. I know it was a very intensely, personally rough time, and the songs seem to reflect that, but at the same time they don't seem directly autobiographical.
Felice: Me and the brothers were on a little break and I was recording a bunch of these songs I was writing. And then my lady and I were expecting our baby and in sort of a late-term miscarriage we lost our baby girl. I was really excited about being a dad and having her, singing songs to her when she was in the belly and all that. It was in January. And then when we lost the baby my life all came pretty clear and heavy to me and like, “Man, I got all these songs I'm writing, I gotta go out and sing them.” Half the songs are written inspired by the baby, and then inspired by the absence of the baby. You know, some are born to reign, some are born to sin, some are born to die in the open wind. And a lot of that album is autobiographical, although I hope that it could feel a little bit universal, too, that everyone could feel those things. But yeah, so it was pretty organic, rather than planned. My friend Bobby Bird and I were just recording these songs in wintertime in his cabin, had this old two-inch tape machine. We've been writing songs together for ten years and were just having a nice time writing some tunes, recording, just what we do, and then everything happened with the baby and it just turned into an album, a story, a piece of—you know what I mean? And then there was a story that I had to tell, and you can't really argue with it when it's all out there.

Paste: Did you ever want to kind of not make it so public, not make it so out there? Or did that not cross your mind?
Felice: I'm pretty private in general, but you know, it came down to that a lot of [Felice Brothers] fans were wondering where I was, because I had to stay home with everything to look after my lady, and the boys had to go on tour, and I'm getting all these letters from everybody, “Where are you?” and “We're worried about you.” So I kinda had to write a letter to the fans so that they would know I was okay and not that I wasn't skipping out on them, I just had a real special connection with the fans. If it wasn't for them we wouldn't be able to live our dream, singing songs around the world and doing our thing. So it was kind of out of love for the fans and wanting them to rest assured that I was okay and that I wasn't dead in a ditch somewhere or something. That's why I came out with all that stuff. And I'm glad I did because it was sort of like a healing process kind of thing.

Paste: Tell me how you met Bobby.
Felice: We met like twelve, fifteen years ago in Woodstock, sort of naturally met and saw this crazy look in each others' eyes and said, “Hey, brother,” you know. We became friends a long time ago, even before the twin towers fell. We met a long time ago. We did all the things best friends do, taking hikes and wrote a lot of songs together and sort of writing one-act plays and weird shit that nobody would ever see. Just dreamin', dreamin'. So we would always get together to write songs and record them, and over time it became something more than just for us, it was something we had to share.

Paste: Tell me about the importance of the Huck Finn story to you guys, because I know it comes up a lot—with the title, and I heard you read the book for something like the millionth time while recording.
Felice: When I was a kid, I lived in a racist town. It was really a white-people town. If you were black and you came through town trying to hang out, you would get kicked out—and this was in, like, 1985. So when I was a kid and I read that book in the library or whatever, it sort of blew my mind that a young white kid in the South, where his whole upbringing tells him that black people are the slaves and the savages and the lesser humans and all that horseshit, that he can have this runaway slave Jim and, instead of turning him in, which is his sort of sworn duty as a white person, he became his best friend and they took a raft down the river and lived a free, peaceful life under the stars. And it just shaped my belief in the world—sort of like, “Wow, I don't ever want anyone to tell me what to do, to live by any of these horseshit guidelines.” So the book was very important to me when I was a kid and when I started to grow up or whatever.

It was cool because music in general has been a thing that's sort of healed that weird racial thing I felt in my town when I was a kid. I was fortunate enough to get out and play on that last Avett Brothers record with Rick Rubin—Rick asked me to come play drums on it, which was really cool. It was amazing. So I got to hang out with him and I got to tell him the story about, you know, he produced that song “Walk This Way” with Run DMC and Aerosmith—and this was in the middle of the 80s, and people were having race riots in my town and my high school and all that. And when that song came out on MTV and everybody saw the rappers and the rockers all getting down together, it was like, “Oh.” And I told Rick, I said, “After that song came out, there was no more race riots.”

Paste: People don't usually think of the Catskills as being a hotbed of racial tensions—I think the South definitely gets that burden.
Felice: Yeah, for some reason when I was a kid it was, for better or for worse, just a weird prejudiced thing happening in the mountains where I lived, where black people weren't welcome. It was some old thing that was leftover from back in the day, and I don't know why that happened that way. It's different now, of course. It's changed. But when I was a kid, you know, that's what I heard, that's what people told me—not my family, of course, they were super-cool. But there was an undercurrent of this old-guard racism.

Paste: And that was pretty recent. It's weird to think that your band now would have been a taboo band just twenty, twenty-four years ago.
Felice: 'Cause of Fleetwood Black, you mean? [Laughs] It was an old, leftover thing and it's really hard to fathom that's how it was when I was a little kid. But I'm glad it's okay now.

Paste: Tell me about the characters, the Duke and the King, from Huck Finn—how did they become your namesake for this project? Do you guys see yourselves as grifters?
Felice: No, not really. It's more—the cool part about the Duke and the King was that their hustle was to go set up a Shakespeare camp up and down the river, a Shakespeare theatre. They would do Romeo and Juliet and all these weird sort of bootleg versions of Shakespeare. So I liked that idea of setting up camp and being a traveling sort of theatrical, bizarrety. And that's sort of how the Felice Brothers started, was just traveling and setting up camp at a farmer's market or in the Subway or on the street or wherever, selling what we had to sell—which was songs—and trading songs for a place to sleep or something to eat. So it's kind of that wandering gypsy theatre that sort of inspired the name, to take something from that book that meant so much to me.

Paste: But there's also this sense of, for those characters, self-mythologizing, making up this backstory—which contrasts with yours, which is so true. You know, you're not saying you're the Dauphin or anything.
Felice: No. [Laughing] The rightful heir of Louis XIV.

Paste: Maybe next album you can be like, “Oh, by the way, I'm the son of this deceased world ruler.”
Felice: Well, you know, [Twain's Duke and the King] get tarred and feathered at the end. And if we use that as a metaphor for ourselves to always tell the truth, then we won't get tarred and feathered.

Paste: And then the title of the album—this kind of feels like a high school reading list, also—the Robert Frost poem, which most people might know better from...
Felice: [Laughing] From The Outsiders.

Paste: From The Outsiders, which I can definitely see in you all.
Felice: And you know, being regular boys in the Reagan times, we had BB guns, that whole thing. The Outsiders was just the shit when you're a kid in the 80s and it's kind of how my town was. Dudes rumblin', you know. Rolling their cigarettes up in their sleeves and rolling a bottle and fighting with it, you know what I mean? Sort of that golden time when I first fell in love with music, first got high on music when I was a kid, and sort of looking back on that, the whole album has that feeling. And “nothing gold can stay,” you know—it's like “castles made of sand melt into the sea, eventually,” you know. For me it's been really important to embrace the idea that everything changes and everything fades and that's why you've gotta grab it while you can and live life while you can and enjoy every day because we're just so many waves in the wind.

Paste: There's definitely a melancholy feeling to it. The song “If You Ever Get Famous”—I was looking it up on YouTube for some video of you guys playing live, and I found this Michael Jackson tribute video, which—have you seen it?
Felice: Yeah, some fan made that, or somebody, and just put it up there. When a fan found it and sent it to me a couple weeks ago, it just blew my mind. It was around when Michael Jackson died. It made me cry. It was also like, “Wow, this is fucking heavy.”

Paste: It was heavy but it was also just bizarre, because I think at the time the video was posted your album wasn't even out yet, so who knows where the song came from, but it felt just so sad but also very strange to me.
Felice: It did, right? It blew my mind. It was just psychedelic. It's fucking weird, right? But it's also like perfect, almost.

Paste: Before we go, can I ask—are you going to be back with the Felice Brothers in the future, or have you planned anything out?
Felice: Well, they're doing their thing, and probably I'm going to be this a while. I'm starting to make a new Duke & King album this fall, starting to write and record, and I'm also working on a new novel, so I'm really doing a lot of the things that I've been putting off for a while. So I'm going to be doing this a while. And me and my brothers will always link up and do a show here and there and record with each other.

Paste: Maybe on the side of I-95.
Felice: Yeah, we'll pull over on I-95. Isn't that a crazy story? You're the first person I got to tell about it. I called my mom last night and she was like, “Wow.”

Listen to The Duke & The King play Live at Paste, and listen to "Union Street" from Nothing Gold Can Stay:

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