Mike Ragogna: Let’s talk about all things Golden Age, where historic speeches actually played a part in its creative process. Was the concept of Golden Age planned out or was it something that happened as it evolved?
Nir Felder: I didn’t really plan out the album from front to back as I was writing the music. But it was like, those themes are something that we’re dealing with in such a major way in this sort of political climate kind of musical climate, for basically the whole time I’ve been a professional musician. So this was stuff that’s with me and not something that just ended with the record. The narrative goes through basically my whole adult life. I started playing music as a teenager, and said this is what I want to do, it was when Napster came out–same exact time. The changes in the music industry, the changes in the U.S., the changes in New York City have been so profound over the course of my adult life and it was just what I was tuned in to. The Golden Agetitle is kind of more of a question than it is a statement. I’ve said that many times in interviews, but the record was written during a time that I was feeling very hopeful and now maybe things have panned out the way we could have hoped, or better, and other things have panned out not at all that way. It’s just food for thought.
MR: How would one pull off a “Golden Age” in the hostile political environment we’ve got now?
NF: Well, the whole point was that the golden age was something that was never actually there. You never think to yourself that you’re living in in a golden age, it’s just something that’s always in the distant past or the distant future. You have this kind of wheel that is spinning around and you’re always neither here nor there. That campaign was about pointing towards the future and him saying that it’s coming, come with me and I’ll take you there. There’s a certain naivety of buying into that but at the same time it is so human to want that to be the case. Every culture has that concept of a golden age, it’s just something innate in us that we do have this kind of optimism or in contrast, if we see it in the past it’s pessimism. But we all have this belief in something like that really being possible. It’s amazing and part of the human condition. Some of the stuff on the record, like the Mario Cuomo speech, who passed away this year, dealt with the rising inequality. That’s still a major issue that’s not being resolved and is looking like it’s getting worse. The fact that we address it and we talk about it and we think about it is a start. It’s better than nothing.
MR: It seems like everyone would want a golden age and all that implies, but do you ever really reach a golden age?
NF: No, you never do, but you try. Something about it in the music itself and what I chose to put in the final product dealt with ambiguity. I never released a transcript of what the voices were saying, and I purposefully had them at some points muffled. I want people to be able to interpret it however they see fit. It was amazing to see all the different theories that came back, like he’s saying this or he’s saying that. It’s purposefully ambiguous. I feel like no one’s caught it all yet. I guess I’m glad.
MR: You recorded this project with Aaron Parks, Matt Penman and Nate Smith. What did they bring creatively?
NF: Those guys are so brilliant in that they are these amazing improvisers but they also have this sense of the song being the most important thing at all times. We were a working band at the time and what I treasure about those guys is that you don’t have to explain to them what something’s about, they get it. They get that it’s a song and not just a bunch of chords on a page, or a bunch of melodies. That it is something much bigger than that. They really played that and put the music first which is cool.
MR: You started out loving the blues, your original heroes being Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Then that changed, evolved, into, I guess, a golden age for you, when you crossed into jazz. Was there a big, “Aha!” when you discovered jazz?
NF: It was a gradual, “Aha.” There are always those moments and that’s what we always look forward to finding when a door opens or a light bulb goes off. But usually, it’s more gradual. It’s just a gradual awakening to the possibilities and figuring out who you are. You get a little more clarity into yourself, which is the amazing thing. Music is a great feature
MR: You won the Berklee Guitar Department’s Jimi Hendrix Award and also you won a Billboard Scholarship for Musicianship and Academic Performance. How did you react to these achievements and did they affect your life creatively or personally?
NF: I couldn’t really take it too seriously, because like I said, music is this great feature and it’s very humbling to know. People can commend you and people can say you did well and that feels good obviously to see your hard work recognized. But we all know what we’re up against. We all know that music is endless. We all know that for everything you can do, there’s so many things you can’t do and really all we can attempt to do is tell our stories honestly and do our best to communicate the things we know that only we can share with people. Our own really unique personal stories. It was nice to be recognized and it always is, but it is really–is this music moving people, is this touching people, am I sharing something that’s special? So it never stops. You’re never like, oh okay, I made it, I’m done. It’s always going.
MR: How does the creative process work for you? Do you get together with the other musicians and then create from there? Are you on your own in a room? How does the music get out of you?
NF: It’s a combination of it all. I’ve tried all the different approaches that I can think of to create. Sometimes I write a lot on my guitar, often alone, and then I bring it to the guys and we revamp it. Sometimes I’ll sketch it all out on the computer with different elements. Maybe I’ll make the drumbeat first. It all depends. But I really do enjoy writing from the guitar, because I came up in the era of guitar. Big guitars and that rock n roll guitar sound of open strings and open chords. I felt like some of that was lost in jazz guitar because guitar players were trying to be horn players or piano players, which was great. I wanted to remember what it was like to still really be a guitar player but still play this improvised music that we love called jazz.
MR: That thing we love called jazz, what kind of state do you think it’s in right now?
NF: It’s in a state of evolution that’s kind of like everything around us. It has a lot to do with the recording industry and the changes within the recording industry. If you look around, people are like maybe this will work or what happens if I do this. So it is a creative time, it’s a time of experimentation, but some people are still sticking to tried and true formulas as a reaction to the uncertainty. There’s a mix of both, of avant-garde pushing forward and the reactionary clinging of the status quo and everything in between. I like to explore the grey areas. But I am also interested in what’s coming next. I think there is a lot of great, exciting music to be made.
MR: Is there anything out there musically where you’re so blown away it affects your own creativity? Do you have those kinds of experiences?
NF: Sure, I’m always looking forward to those experiences, so I’m always trying to find that thing that lights something up and inspires me. Sometimes it’s not through music and it’s through travel or something. But musically, I really enjoyed the latest Ryan Adams record. I thought that was just such a great example of a true record, when there are so few true records these days. Things are so marketed towards singles and I felt like he really made a statement with that and it was something that he did himself, in his own studio and self-produced. It sounded amazing. The care they put into that record was really amazing. He didn’t win a Grammy but he was nominated for many, which was a coup in and of itself. I thought that was really cool that he followed his vision and it paid off and he made a great record. I also like Father John Misty’s newest album and the one before. I think he’s pretty brilliant and very funny too. Doing cool things with production and really caring about it. You can really tell those guys really really care. That’s always good to see.
MR: Where do you see you going from here? What’s the game plan?
NF: Well, we’re improvising, right? So we don’t totally know, but I’m working on the next record, which is a continuation of a lot of these themes. It’s not going to be a huge departure from Golden Age because we have so much more material to mine there. Just bringing it forward with the guitar and jazz and this kind of music that’s inspired by songs and hopefully speaks to people. So I’m continuing in that direction.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists…emerging artists?
NF: For emerging artists, the best advice I can really think of is to just really believe in yourself. I could list all the terrible advice that I got over the years that I didn’t follow and that I’m really glad I didn’t, because its hard to teach someone not to follow advice. The best we can do as teachers, is to say this is what the mainstream is or this is the general practice. You want to give students information, but I think the most important thing any student can take away from that is, okay, let me explore this information and let me take what I like from it–I’m talking about in music and in the arts in general – and leave the rest and follow my own path. Every one of these emerging artists and ever individual that approaches music has some thing special to say. That can get lost if you are trying to say what someone else has already said. You have to sing your own song. That’s the only way to do it. You know that all the artists you love are influenced by other artists but they found a way to say their own thing in their own way. That’s the goal. To do that you have to take what you like and leave the rest. So my advice is to not always follow people’s advice and believe in yourself.
MR: Just curious, do you find that using those heavy gauged stings on your particular guitar affects your creativity as opposed to maybe using other kinds of guitars?
NF: Yeah, because I know that there are not a lot of other people that play that way. I have this old Mexican Stratocaster that I got when I was 13 with really heavy strings on it and I’m playing jazz indie rock hybrid on it. I know there’s not really anyone else doing that but it’s not because there’s no one else doing it that I did it. I just kind of happened. When someone told me I needed to get a new guitar I said, no I like this one and I’ll keep these strings on it because I like those. I like the way those sound. I love Stevie Ray Vaughan and he did that, but I don’t want to play that style of music necessarily. I just loved that sound. When I think about it, I realize it’s something unique so let me keep going with it and follow all my whims. Sometimes something good comes out of it and sometimes I have to say, maybe I’ll just do this one by the book. It’s a mix of respecting history and learning from the tradition of the music but also willing to say, oh screw it.