Wild Feathers in the Wind
An American band chases the dream
"We’re in a confined space, of course,” Taylor Burns, The Wild Feathers’ guitarist/vocalist, marvels, calling from somewhere between Kansas City and Minneapolis. “There’s a guy literally 12 inches above me in this bunk — and I can reach across the aisle and touch Ricky.
“It’s that kind of close quarters,” he continues. “You will get on each other’s nerves, but you also learn to let things go and just be.”
For the harmony-laden genre-blurrers, the journey to Lonely Is A Lifetime — like The Wild Feathers before it — has been a study in faith, patience, and running up the odometer. As the roots band beyond radio formats chased their dream, Burns, guitarist/vocalist Ricky Young, bassist/vocalist Joel King, and drummer Ben Dumas made the decision along the way, being true to the music — as cliché as it sounds — was more important than the vast amounts of work it would take.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Young explains, calling from somewhere outside San Francisco. “We’re very blue collar when it comes to rock & roll. I wouldn’t have it any other way, either, because we know how to appreciate things — even things we don’t have yet. I don’t think things should be handed to you, they should be earned.
“People who think otherwise — they’re not pushing amps in for the show, or carrying things up stairways in the rain. It’s not glamorous, but it’s real.”
The proof for the band, whose self-titled debut hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Chart, is in the routing. The Wild Feathers never called from the same place, and if allergies, exhaustion, or tedium ever got to them, it never dampened their spirits — or enthusiasm for working beyond the easy labels modern record companies seem to thrive on.
The band evokes ’90s power pop acts like Gin Blossoms and The Rembrandts as much as anything. They cite Tom Petty, Gram Parsons, The Band, The Beatles, and The Black Crowes as influences — if you want a prism through which to view the no-frills attack they employ. Add a lush wave of thick cream harmonies, layers of shimmering guitars laced with that one Ginsu knife lead line, beats that crack like a fistful of Black Cats — that’s the essence of The Wild Feathers.
“I kinda introduced them,” begins Warner Brothers VP of A&R Jeff Sosnow. “I really missed harmony in music. I felt with Kings of Leon … or in that post-Wilco world in which we live, there wasn’t any. Or there was space for voices to interact.
“It’s really an extension of my A&R philosophy: When everyone else is looking right, look left.”
As their tour bus rolls up Pacific Coast Highway from an SRO gig at LA’s famed Troubadour, King recalls his first meeting with his future bandmate. “I thought (Taylor) had an awesome hat on,” he says. “We were all hanging out at the Mercy Lounge, when they’d have eight, 10 bands on. I was way into what he did. … Jeff had had me and Ricky cut a few sides, and we were still looking.
“My band was pretty hard rock, like Led Zeppelin — and wanted to be even harder. I’m a diehard Ryan Adams fan. It felt like a fit, though it came together by writing songs together and alone, then bringing them in for everyone to work on.”
A test-tube group — three front men, all writers, good musicians — waiting to happen, The Wild Feathers’ course was gusty. Signed originally to Interscope, headed by Jimmy Iovine, who helmed seminal albums for Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks, as well as label-chiefing The Wallflowers’ breakthrough, this apparent blessing became their first snag.
Working with Dave Cobb, being flown to Vancouver and London, writing and getting ready for their debut, it was all systems “Go.” Except, as King says, “They were trying to find our sound or our hit. … The attitude then was the Kings of Leon thing, because they’d got big — or the Black Keys. But then Jimmy Iovine bought American Idol — and our A&R guy was gone.
“We were gonna be assigned Lady GaGa’s A&R person. Jeff was like, ‘Please. I’ve worked so hard developing this band. …’ They didn’t seem to care. He swore, ‘When I get somewhere else, you’re going to be the first band I sign.’ ”
The dream popped. Promises made, everyone knows, are worth less than the breath used to make them. The band responded the only way they knew: They got in the van. They hit the South, anywhere within a 10- to 12-hour radius of Nashville. They hit bottom in Birmingham, Ala.
“We were playing the Nick on Valentine’s Day,” King recalls. “It was the most depressing show.”
Divine intervention — or at least an agent who believed enough in the band to personally hand Paul Simon a copy of their music — arrived with an offer for Simon’s Southern tour. As King explains, “It turned everything around.”
Once Sosnow landed at Warner Brothers, he did, indeed, sign The Wild Feathers. Though still a band without a format, Sosnow believed. “They’d never even started making a record,” the A&R man explains. “So it’s not like they’d put out a record and it sold poorly.
“There’s a number of things: No. 1, they’ve just hired me. I figured if they tell me ‘no,’ I say, ‘Fuck you! Why’d you hire me?’ and walk out the door; No. 2, they trusted me; No. 3, I believed in this band.”
Sosnow had a vision. He knew Jay Joyce, who’d worked with Cage The Elephant, Coheed & Cambria, Eric Church, and The Wallflowers, would get it. “Jeff was thinking, ‘Here’s a guy who’s done both (country and rock) and it’s working,’ ” Joyce says. “The intention was not to bring ’em to country, but to make a rock record that has that harmony thing to it. That rocking thing of Stills and Young in CSNY. It was something more street than, say, Poco or the Eagles.
“And I’ve always been a big Neil Young fan, the dissonance he brings to things. For that first album, they’d been on the road, so we messed with arrangements a little, but it was all pretty formed. Figure there were three writers, a lot of choices, and trying to get cohesion was the driver.”
“Jay is an incredible musician and technician,” Young says of the choice. “But he really gets what it means to be in a band. He gets it all — and in the studio, he knows how to get you to be a real human being giving a real human performance — even if it means all on one mic with one guitar in the middle of that cathedral room with all the acoustics.”
Burns concurs. “Jay is the master of weird sounds and surprising things happening,” he says. “On the first record, he scared the shit out of me. He can be intense and really pucker me up, but he’s able to be seamless with ideas, just slip in and out of something without even stopping down. We’ll try something — and then move on.”
To that end, Lonely takes a giant step forward. Tougher than their debut, the album has a terseness that underscores the grit of a record that captures the real tides and emotions of a band trying to find its place in the world. From the drugs, loss, rootlessness, and seeking things to fill the void of road life, the songs are interjected with the musical euphoria the band finds playing live.
Young understands the juxtaposition of the buoyant melodies and thick harmonies with the tales the songs contain. Laughing, he admits, “The overall theme is desperation and trying to get somewhere you think you belong — whether it’s physically, mentally, spiritually.
“The majority of us have family back home, wives, girlfriends, friends. The rock & roll life is great — but you can start to feel real isolated. It’s a strange sensation, not fame, but the idea that people know you because they’ve listened to the songs, but don’t know you.”
There is also the notion of drugs, which inform the record with an honesty not always copped to. Focused on success, living the life, but not drowning in it, The Wild Feathers have seen enough — and avoid specificity at all costs when discussing songs like the silkenly unrepentant “Don’t Ask Me to Change,” the undulating bass-driven “Happy Again,” or the 8-minute power jam “Good-Bye Song” that opens “Stolen marijuana and some pain pills in a hotel room/ Talking to myself ’cause I can’t talk to you.”
There’s no blood on these tracks, just cleareyed reporting from the scene. As Burns concedes, “(‘Happy’) is all about drug addiction and chasing the high. But it’s whatever you’re addicted to: a housewife drinking martinis at 4, taking her Xanax, or someone who can’t stop social media, can’t get out and live their life. It’s about escape.
“As for us, we’re all pretty focused on the music; we’re not a rock & roll cliché yet. But every one of us has had parents or close friends go through it. … It’s real to us, to people around us, to everybody on some level. I think it’s something we should be talking about more in this country, instead of swept under the rug.”
Burns pauses, weighing his word. The Wild Feathers don’t want to preach, don’t wanna act like they have all the answers — or are some kind of straight-edge band. “We’re not like Motley Crue, drinking Jack Daniel’s onstage and glorifying that lifestyle. ‘She Talks to Angels’ was about heroin addiction, which I didn’t get, but the melody and energy pulled me in.”
If they’re addicted to anything, it’s music. After incessant touring, the band retired to Muscle Shoals, Ala., then Barcelona — not to vacation, but to immerse in the history of those places and write. Chasing their music is like chasing the dragon, wherever it might lead.
“I want my songs and our songs to be around forever,” Young says. “I want someone to feel something, like songs have made me feel. We can write about sunshine and going to parties and picking up chicks, but it’s very empty and shallow — and no one cares.
“When it comes to real life, that’s where it matters. Everyone knows, is related or dealt with addiction or a serious medical issue or depression — that’s real life shit. It’s what people need to hear (to know they’re not alone).”
Beyond the promise of that elusive place to return to — which turns the album with “Leave The Lights On,” “On My Way,” and “Into The Sun” — there is also the spectre of Gram Parsons.
Music geeks to the core, when the three primary writers found themselves in Los Angeles on Parsons’ birthday, there was only one place to celebrate: Joshua Tree. Young marvels, remembering, “I called (the Joshua Tree Inn) and asked, ‘Is Room No. 8 taken?’ They said, ‘No,’ and I was like ‘You’re serious?’ I gave them my credit card, and we were on our way.” Pilgrims, they were seeking something beyond the room where the chief architect of the real merge between hillbilly country, hard bluegrass, and Keith Richards’ rock & roll breathed his last. What they found — beyond a room that didn’t particularly stand out — was “Good Bye Song,” which marks Lonely’s climax.
“That cosmic California country sound and a guy who burned out too soon,” Burns says. “You could feel the energy. We wrote the song in like 15 minutes. No one was trying, didn’t want to put too fine a point on it — or look it in the eye.”
And when it came time to record, the spirit boiled over. Steel guitar, finger-picked acoustic, and that sense of lonely build to an almost Britpop feel, until by the extended instrumental, the band — like Crazy Horse — embarks on its own exploration of melody and form.
“We thought we were going to try and get three or four more jams — and create one great take,” King begins. “But when we listened back (after the first)? That’s what you hear. There are hardly any overdubs.”
“When you hear that, you can tell,” Young explains, “that’s a real band playing real music in an actual room. To be part of something like that is pretty special. You can’t just throw that together.”