Don Felder joined the Eagles as the band’s lead guitarist in 1974, and helped to push them from their country rock roots to a harder rock ‘n’ roll sound. He remained with the Eagles until the band broke up acrimoniously in 1980, and along the way he wrote the music for the Eagles megahit “Hotel California”, which is regularly ranked as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs ever written. This song was on the 1976 album Hotel California, which has sold over 32 million copies, a number bested by only a dozen other albums including the Eagles Greatest Hits (1971-1975), which includes some songs on which Felder played guitar. Felder also co-wrote the Eagles song “Victim of Love”.
After the break up, Felder did session work, recorded a couple of songs for the movie Heavy Metal, and released a solo album in 1983 which included the minor hit “Never Surrender”.
In a shock to pretty much everyone, the Eagles, including Felder, re-formed in 1994, touring and releasing a live album called Hell Freezes Over, a reference to Don Henley’s statement that the band would get back together when hell freezes over. The Eagles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, the first year they were nominated.
The Eagles had many disputes over the years, and Felder was fired from the Eagles in early 2001. In 2008, he released a book called Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001), which became a New York Times bestseller. Both his termination and the book led to lawsuits. In fact, since he was fired, Felder’s interactions with some of his former bandmates have reportedly only been through lawyers.
In 2012, Felder released his second solo album Road to Forever, which was written in response to his termination from the Eagles and the break up of his marriage. The album included contributions from some notable guests, and has received a positive response from fans and critics.
This interview was for a preview article for the Soundtrack of Summer Tour concert with Don Felder, Styx, and Foreigner at the Santa Barbara Bowl on 7/27/14. It was done by phone on 6/23/14.
Jeff Moehlis: I saw you perform here in Santa Barbara at the Notes for Notes benefit concert last December, and when you played “Hotel California” it was almost like a religious experience for me. Can you tell us how the song “Hotel California” came together?
Don Felder: I had leased a beach house on Malibu Beach one summer, Broad Beach in Malibu, and I was just sitting on a sofa in the big room wearing cut-off shorts and playing guitar, looking out at the beautiful California sun glistening on the Pacific Ocean. It was just one of those spectacular July days. I started playing this progression, and it just kind of came out, and I played it over and over and over again. Then I went into my back bedroom, which was my one-year-old little daughter’s bedroom when she we was awake, and it also served as my recording studio. So I went in and turned on this old reel-to-reel tape recorder, a four-track TEAC, and recorded it, just that chord progression.
Later, when we were assembling songs for what was going to become the Hotel California record, I went back and heard that little progression and decided to re-record it with a little Roland drum machine, and me playing bass, and playing the acoustic twelve-string part and little electric guitar parts. I made a demo of it. Then I put in on a reel, I think with fifteen or sixteen other song ideas – one of them became “Victim of Love”, which is on the Hotel California record – and gave copies of those to Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh, and Randy Meisner, and said, “If there’s anything in these songs that you guys like and want to finish writing with me, let me know.”
So I got a call from Henley a few days later, and he said, “I like that song that sounds kind of like a Mexican reggae or bolero”, and obviously that one with the little acoustic introduction was the one. So we started writing lyrics for it. Henley came up with the concept of “Hotel California”, and ran off with this pile of legal pads and just made lists of lyrics for it, and I worked on some of the music tracks that would need to be recorded when we re-recorded it. It just kind of came together with all the band contributing to it. That’s kind of how it came together.
JM: There’s a lot of crazy theories floating around about what “Hotel California” is about. Do you have a favorite theory that just happens to be completely wrong or misguided, but you think that it’s kind of an interesting theory?
DF: Well, the closest one that’s totally wrong is that there’s a place down in Todos Santos in Mexico, on the Baja Peninsula kind of near Cabo. Some developer bought this old hotel and changed the name of it to Hotel California, and started spreading the rumor that we used to go down there and hang out, and that’s where we were when we wrote the song. He’s got a big tourist business now where he sells T-shirts, CDs, and all sorts of stuff, and you can stay at the Hotel California. Which is totally bogus. No one’s ever been there, no one’s been to Todos Santos. Nothing was ever written there. That’s about as wrong as you can get, I think.
JM: You’re usually credited with pushing the sound of The Eagles more in a rock direction. Do you think that’s a pretty fair assessment?
DF: My background was primarily rock ‘n’ roll. Bernie Leadon, who was my high school friend, and I had a band together. He didn’t even own an electric guitar when I first met him. He played flat-top bluegrass guitar, and five-string banjo. We had two bands. We had one band that was kind of a country bluegrass band, and the rock band. So I went down to the music store with him and helped him buy an electric guitar. It was a Gretsch Tennessean if I’m not mistaken, and I bought a flat-top Martin, and he started showing me bluegrass guitar and I started showing him electric guitar. So we kind of developed each other’s skills, and learned from each other. So when I came into the band I was much more of a rock ‘n’ roll guitar player than what Bernie’s history had been. So I guess you could say I was brought into the band to kind of beef up the rock ‘n’ roll section of the band.
JM: When you listen to the studio recordings of The Eagles, they’re so carefully done, and there’s such an attention to detail. To paraphrase a lyric from “Hotel California”, was the recording process more like heaven or more like hell to do?
DF: Well, it was both. The attention to detail went into everything we did, whether it was the lyrics, the guitar solos, the recording techniques, the sounds that we got in the studio. I mean, there were times where somebody would spend three days singing one line of a song to make certain it was perfectly in time and perfectly in tune. You know, just the best we could possibly execute it.
The same thing with our shows. We tried to do the absolute best shows we could by being consistently demanding of ourselves and each one of the other people in the band. So it was difficult and tedious, but the end result was that we made some great records and we made some great live shows together.
JM: When I grew up listening to The Eagles albums, I would look at the back cover to see who all was involved, and the producer… we never knew how to pronounce his name. We thought it must be made up.
DF: Bill Szymczyk [pronounced Sim-Zik]. There are no vowels in his name.
JM: I know. We just assumed it must be a joke, but it turns out that it’s real. How would you characterize his contributions to the recordings that you guys made?
DF: If you listen to some of the really early B.B. King records that were just done with a live band in the studio, and then you listen to the B.B. King record “The Thrill Is Gone” that Bill produced, you can hear Bill’s thumbprint or fingerprint on the recording technique. You listen to the first album, The Eagles, and the second album, Desperado, [both produced by Glyn Johns] and then you listen to On The Border and thereafter [produced by BIll Szymczyk], you hear a real sonic change. The mic techniques were different. He had a great set of ears.
When we were out in the studio recording tracks, we would record sometimes the same song for two or three days, and he would say, “Oh, that was a great introduction”, or, “That was a great chorus.” He would take these little notes, and then he would go in and edit together our takes until it just sounded like a really, really great performance. So, Bill was a very gifted sonic engineer as well as giving very great musical input into helping put together solos, and helping to put together vocals, and all sorts of stuff. We would not have been able to make the records that we did had he not been so well versed as a technician and an engineer.
JM: Your new CD sounds great! This came a long time after your first solo album came out. What made it the right time to do another solo album, and will we have to wait so long for your next solo album?
DF: Well, the reason it took so long between Airborne, which I think came out in the early ’80′s [it was released in 1983], and Road to Forever was that there was a little project that got in the way called Hell Freezes Over. That took a long time to do. That was almost six years. Then when I left the band in 2001, I sat down and started writing an autobiography, which took a couple of years, put together my own band, was out doing shows and starting to establish myself as a solo artist, and at the same time writing and recording songs for what became Road to Forever. So, the process of doing it by myself took longer when I had to write all the material.
I wrote twenty-seven songs for Road to Forever. Sixteen, only, wound up being finished and recorded, and then we had to cull four of those off for the initial release because iTunes wanted an exclusive, Amazon wanted an exclusive, Japan wanted an exclusive, I think the U.K. wanted exclusive songs that weren’t on any other releases. That was one of the reasons I re-released the Road to Forever as an extended edition that had all sixteen songs on it, the way it was intended, in time for summer of this year. So when people bought it they got the full package of sixteen songs.
I’m already in the process of writing and recording new song ideas. As soon as I come up for air and have enough time to go into my studio for a couple of weeks, I’ll start developing those song ideas into tracks and into finished lyrics and that sort of stuff. And hopefully somewhere in 2015 or early 2016 I’ll get out another CD.
JM: You’re sharing the bill with Styx and Foreigner for the upcoming show. Did you know those guys back in the day, or is it a more recent friendship that you have with them?
DF: Well, I really first came in contact with Styx. Everybody knows the music from Foreigner and Styx. They’ve had just a great catalog, and a lot of great songs, a great number of hits. But we first really became friends about ten years ago. We started doing these benefits together, like Alice Cooper’s fundraiser in Phoenix called the Solid Rock Foundation, or I put together a benefit for the victims of Katrina, I guess it was like eight years ago or nine years ago. When we would do these shows together, we just had so much fun.
Tommy [Shaw] and I became really good friends, so when he was in L.A. we’d go out to dinner with our wives and hang out. We eventually started doing shows together, the Don Felder Band and Styx. It was just so much fun to do it. The music was great together, the audience really knew both catalogs very well. So when this idea came up with doing this tour with Foreigner, Styx, and myself, it just seemed like a perfect package. I knew those guys really well, I loved the songs in all the catalogs. I thought it was a perfect fit for the audience that would get four hours of just literally solid hits.
When we’re not on stage, we spend a lot of time together just hanging out. Like yesterday, half of both bands played golf together, and we have dinners together. It’s a very fun, light-hearted, no ego / no drama organization. Which is extremely different from what I’ve been on tour with. This tour has just been delightful for me. I’ve had a great response from the audience for all the shows. Nearly all the shows have been sold-out. It’s just been a really great time together, with dinners and golf, friendships. It’s almost like a big family. A lot of fun and a lot of great music, so what’s not to like?
JM: Sounds great!
You mentioned the book you wrote, which came out about six years ago. Were there any surprises, about yourself or otherwise, that you found while you were reflecting on your life in music while writing that book?
DF: Yeah, I was really kind of taken back at how much I had changed, and been influenced in a negative way by being involved in the rock ‘n’ roll world. My mother was extremely religious, she would drag me into church every Sunday morning. I had Sunday School [attendance] pins that were about ten years long, with each year having a different pin added to it.
When I got into the rock ‘n’ roll business with The Eagles, I was dragged into non-sobriety, alcoholism, drugs, all sorts of promiscuity. My life, ethics, and morals completely changed. I was kind of shocked when I realized what had happened to me. Even though I was kind of aware of it at the time, I didn’t realize how substantial that impact had had on me.
That was one of the reasons I started the whole process of writing the book. It didn’t really start out as a book. It started out as kind of a self in-depth understanding of who I was, how I’d gotten to where I was post-Eagles, and how I was going to address it going forward in life, so I wouldn’t drag all this baggage that I had not dealt with forward. As a matter of fact, the process of writing Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles and looking back at really intense time in my life and my career, every time I would be stirred or moved emotionally by certain experiences, I would write it down, but then I would go into the studio and start writing songs about it.
Like “Fall From the Grace of Love”, when I finally went through a separation and a divorce from my wife of twenty-nine years. “I Believe in You”, trying to get the strength to try to love again and go back into a love relationship. A song called “Heal Me” which is what I was trying to do to myself by going through that process of taking an in-depth look into myself through daily meditations and understand what I had become and what I liked and what I didn’t like, and how to go about changing it. So a lot of that songs that are on the Road to Forever came out of that in-depth personal insight that I gained from writing Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles.
JM: What advice would you give an aspiring musician?
DF: You know, I would have to say to anyone aspiring not only in music but aspiring to do anything in life, you have to find something that you’re absolutely obsessed with, that you love more than doing anything else in the world and that you can’t stop yourself from doing. If you have that kind of passion about whatever it is that you’re trying to do, whether it’s music or art or business or whatever it is, your success will be maximized on a really great scale. If you don’t have that kind of passion, whatever you do will seem like work. If you have that kind of passion it’s a labor of love. You’re doing something you love, and you’ll spend the 10,000 hours or more that you love doing it, and you’ll become really great at it. That, to me, makes life worth doing. If you’re doing something you really like, then you’re enjoying your life. If you’re not doing something you like or love in this world, your life will be a long series of work. Find something you like, you love, and make your life a labor of love.
JM: In some ways you’ve already addressed this in your book, but do you want to set the record straight on anything about your career, something that always bothers you that people get wrong?
DF: No, not really. I think the book really laid out a lot of stuff that was not known about how all of the stuff worked in The Eagles and my early career. I’m currently thinking, in a couple more years, of starting another volume on my life post-Eagles, and documenting all that, the experiences that I’ve gone through and all the people that I’ve worked with and am working with, and projects that we’re working on and different things like that. So I think what’s out there is pretty accurate.
JM: When I read your bio, it was striking that you worked with some people that went on to be famous, like Stephen Stills, Tom Petty, Duane Allman. At the time, did you have an inkling that these guys had a big future ahead of them?
DF: Well, yes and no. I thought Tom Petty had a great deal of charisma onstage. He was actually playing bass at the time when I was teaching him guitar. He wasn’t particularly a great singer, but his complete commitment and ability to sell what he was doing onstage was really overwhelming, very powerful. I remember standing next to a couple of young girls and Tommy was playing, and they went, “Oh my God, he’s so good!” He was flipping his hair and shaking his head. I think they were more influenced by his looks than his music, but he did come across as very committed, very sincere, and a strong talent.
Duane Allman was by far the best guitar player in Florida, maybe ever. So I knew after the Battles of the Bands we were in together, and watching him play countless times, and him teaching me how to play slide guitar, that he was just on fire. Now, you can never really predict if somebody’s going to go on to become successful to the point of being a Platinum selling artist, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and all that sort of stuff, but I could tell that he had a magic about him, just like Tommy had a magic.
Stephen Stills was brilliant. He just walked in with a guitar and started playing it and singing. I immediately said, “You’re in my band.” The strength of these personalities and talents, it was just amazing that we were all in the same little area at the same time. But it was pretty much undeniable. You could tell that these people had some sort of magic or special gift that came across in spades. I never knew that they would go on to be that successful, but I did recognize the talent.
JM: Where are you speaking to me from?
DF: I’m just leaving Syracuse, New York, on the road. We’re in the middle of the Soundtrack of Summer tour, and I’m on our tour bus on our way to go to Verona, New York to play a show there tonight.