Eric McFadden: Oh, Come To Me

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By: Dennis Cook

I’m blacking out in the morning/ Stay numb all day
Sliding down on the edge of a razor/ I’ve got a lifetime to pay
I’m keeping up with destruction/ I’ve got a foot in the grave
I kiss the mouth of corruption/ I’ve got a lifetime to pay
Give me one bad reason why I should and I will

Eric McFadden
Eric McFadden is both salty and salt of the earth, spewing truths in a way that leaves the dirt on the roots. His primary vehicle, the Eric McFadden Trio (EMT), snake-handles his tunes with crunchy, ground zero forcefulness that embraces and celebrates rock’s intrinsically broad umbrella – a genre born of blues and country but capable of drawing energy from just about anywhere. EMT’s new album, Delicate Thing (Deathbunny Records), is really appealing from end to end. Where some of his earlier records like Joy of Suffering were intense, amazing works, one really had to commit to them to have the full experience. There’s more swerve, more embracing fire to Delicate Thing, though the dark mind behind everything remains firmly planted in thick, redolent earthiness and complicated emotions underpinned by the strongest overall songwriting, singing and arranging of his career. Encompassing rockers, instrumentals and fragrant hybrids, McFadden’s diversity never feels a clutter but instead flows from a cohesive center – a single gifted musician’s ranging imagination.

“[That diversity] has been a challenge. I used to have too many bands, which I thought was a way to address how I like to do so many things. But, I came to realize they’ve become somewhat of a detriment to me, career wise. Some people encouraged me to cut back because it was confusing and overwhelming and people couldn’t quite figure out what I do. I’ve done that, and outside of a few collaborations I jump into, I only have EMT and one larger ensemble I do sometimes,” says McFadden. “The big contributing factor to [Delicate Thing] and EMT in general is James [Whiton, bass]. When people see James it shatters the whole idea of what a bass can do.”

One of the core pleasures with McFadden and many of his collaborators – including drummers Jeff Cohen who rounds out EMT on Delicate Thing or Doug Port who currently plays with them live – is how they take their instruments into fresh places, tugging newness from weathered wood and shiny strings, eroding preconceptions note by note. If only for his ceaseless forward march in this area, McFadden should be far better known as a guitarist than his highly devoted cult following, which admittedly includes former bosses George Clinton and Eric Burdon (The Animals) as well as Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools, his bandmate in sometimes (but not often enough) super group Stockholm Syndrome. In McFadden one hears the usual high end six-string influences like Django Reinhardt and Jimi Hendrix but also the brute beauty of Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, the slinking, pointed genius of Robert Fripp, the popping dance of Andrés Segovia and the tube amp flight of Mike Oldfield.

Eric McFadden Trio by RK Riekman
“There’s a lot of great guitar players, players I’ve always loved who play the guitar in much the fashion you’d expect them to and they do it really well. Then there’s people like Nels Cline,” offers McFadden. “I am a guitar player that’s been striving to improve constantly and who’s been influenced by a number of players, so it’s not easy for me to be ultra impressed. On the other hand, I’m also the kind of person who’s impressed by different facets. I don’t need someone to be a virtuoso or shredder to be impressed. Sometimes somebody’s style or touch moves me. Jim Campilongo is one of my favorites.”

McFadden doesn’t play a straight electric guitar very often. He prefers old archtop and nylon string Spanish guitars. However, a number of his regular axes look beaten and close to the scrap heap.

“Some of them have lived a little too much [laughs]. I’m trying to keep them alive. That Gibson I play is from the early ’30s and it’s taken a lot of abuse, and I don’t know how much more it can withstand. I’ve met someone, Roger Fritz from Mendocino, a luthier amongst other things. He used to work for Gibson and he’s going to work with me to keep my guitar functional. It can only last so long so I need to find other guitars, but nothing can really replace it. That guitar is so unique and special to me. With other guitars it’s like, ‘I can get away with playing this one but… [trails off],'” says McFadden, who uses both the pure tones of these antique instruments but also isn’t afraid to mess and manipulate that sound as suits his needs. McFadden is no purist.

Eric McFadden by Andy Tennille
“There are usually two sides to the fence. For a while I was more on the side of the purists but eventually thought, ‘What’s the point of that?’ For the sake of it? What the fuck!’ I believe in limitations, in the sense that when you have to work with limitations you really rise to the occasion, make more out of less,” says McFadden. “I like the idea of having restrictions because it forces you to think outside of the box. Your handicap becomes your advantage. I don’t want to make things too easy for myself. How am I going to grow that way? With the instrument you play it’s not just a matter of exploring different avenues musically but also technically, like when you have to fight an instrument to get something out of it. That’s very different than having a guitar you can play with ease with your fingertips. With these guitars the challenge was it was no longer comfortable or easy. I had limited access on the fretboard, it was far more difficult to bend the strings and more difficult to fret in general. It changed the way I approached my guitar playing.”

McFadden is a lifer along the lines of Chuck Prophet and Alejandro Escovedo, dyed-in-the-wool musicians’ musicians that have evolved into consistently excellent songwriters along the way. It’s a quiet sort of triumph, rarely trumpeted in the mainstream but cherished by those who recognize lovingly created, intelligent, emotion filled music, work of individual character that still cuts across common ground. Delicate Thing stacks up nicely and naturally with Escovedo’s much ballyhooed Real Animal (2008) and Prophet’s stunning, slept on Soap and Water (2007), albums that point to long futures of excellence. Like his peers, McFadden has figured out a few things and he’s nice enough to impart them, rarely more clearly or readily than on Delicate Thing.

“I want my songwriting to grow. It’s a process, everything is, but my standards are high. When I think of songwriters I think of people like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Chuck Prophet, Lucinda Williams and pat mAcdonald. That’s holding oneself to a pretty high standard! It’s easy to feel like you suck by comparison [laughs]. I always need to push just beyond my current abilities,” says McFadden. “I need to be out of my comfort zone. I’m not comfortable when I’m NOT out of my comfort zone! Not just musically but also financially – and don’t get me wrong, I want money, everybody wants money. I want to be able to buy a house. I’m sick of struggling and wondering how I’m going to pay the bills each month. But, I’ve traded that money in on a few occasions, like when I left P-Funk or Eric Burdon and the Animals to dedicate more time to my own music. At the same time I had to take a 75-percent pay cut. It’s not as satisfying as one’s own work but it’s a great education, and I’m always grateful for these opportunities and experiences.”

Continue reading for more on Eric McFadden…

 
I like the idea of having restrictions because it forces you to think outside of the box. Your handicap becomes your advantage. I don’t want to make things too easy for myself. How am I going to grow that way? With the instrument you play it’s not just a matter of exploring different avenues musically but also technically, like when you have to fight an instrument to get something out of it.

Eric McFadden on his favorite guitar, the 1933 Gibson L-10

 

Engorged Reveries

I could take on an army if I had me a cause
I would break all the rules, break all the laws
I would prowl in your jungle like an animal child
I could hunt you down like a beast in the wild.

Eric McFadden & Dave Schools by Josh Miller
At its origins, rock ‘n’ roll is about getting it on, wildness, rebellion and sensuality. To excise sex from its predominant makeup is ludicrous and dishonest. Fortunately, Eric McFadden injects huge, rippling waves of carnality into his music. When he leers over his primo moustache and sings, “You look pretty good in the rain, girl, why don’t you come on inside,” well there’s plenty of humid wetness to go around.

“Beyond just my pleasure in keeping that spirit alive, I feel a duty and responsibility to keep that fucking element alive in rock ‘n’ roll. It should have an element of danger. It shouldn’t be fucking safe and easy to digest all the time. It’s not the nature of it,” says McFadden. “People are buying what they’re force fed. That works across the board, whether you’re buying Nike, shopping at the Gap, going to Starbucks or McDonald’s or whatever. It’s the same with the music business. They’re all buying their stuff from the McDonald’s of music – safe and familiar and easy to digest, familiar and no risk involved. But there are people who want the danger, who want to take risks. You find the most fulfilling, satisfying shit when you go someplace like the dive bar on the corner or the little café with the shitty paint job and discover they have the best hamburger or enchiladas ever [laughs]. You take a chance and discover the Holy Grail of enchiladas!”

Much of what endures in rock is the dangerous stuff, the music that feels like it could go off the rails any minute or gets up to its elbows in human mess. It’s not “Emotional Rescue” or limp retreads like “Harlem Shuffle” that cement The Rolling Stones in rock’s foundation. It’s the nasty, uncomfortable, misbehaving corkers like their empathetic pitch for Lucifer (“Sympathy For The Devil”) or slave auction block ode to dark meat (“Brown Sugar”) that ensures what the Stones have wrought will endure.

Eric McFadden by Eddy Briere
“Before I went to bed last night I watched “Cocksucker Blues”. That kind of exemplifies some of what we’re talking about. That movie is The Rolling Stones in their prime – fuckin’ sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” observes McFadden. “I’m not advocating things like, ‘Hey kids, go out and have sex and do drugs!’ But, it was the real deal. Now they have glitz and they’re in great shape for old guys still out there rockin’ but it ain’t the same thing.”

This conversation illustrates the difficulties of playing genuine, heartfelt, unsafe rock-and-motherfuckin-roll in 2008. When factory produced lug nuts Maroon 5 and Nickelback define popular rock where does that leave a mud splattered, emotional, grandly unpretty craftsman like McFadden?

“My whole life I’ve kinda felt I’ve gone against what’s good for me, in terms of business. I’ve never wanted to latch onto the latest trends in music, you know? I could do that and reap greater success; I can adapt to anything. My reasons for not doing it isn’t because I can’t, it’s because you have to do what you naturally feel compelled to do,” says McFadden. “I don’t want to go play a bunch of homogenized, soulless bullshit to make a buck. Different people have different reasons for doing things. There’s musicians with VERY different reasons for doing it than mine. It is so much easier to take the easy way out.”

“At gigs I sometimes think, ‘This might be a good place for a happy song,’ then I realize I already played my happy song! ‘Sorry folks, I played my one happy song. I should have saved it for later but oh well [laughs].’ If I look through the catalog, I probably have a few but there’s not many. We’re living in the fucking Bush Age. How much happiness is there to be writing about? And it’s not just this administration and the profoundly negative, horrific effects they’ve had on society, it’s the disenchantment that comes with so many people buying into it,” says McFadden (though this conversation took place before the recent presidential election). “The only reason people can support these things is they don’t know, they don’t have the right information.”

Eric McFadden by Resa Blobaum
On record, McFadden’s approach to politics and societal ills runs parallel to The Clash, where the music is paramount but it’s dotted with prickly truths and unwanted reflections that avoid naming names, which traps one’s ideas in time. It’s not so much a spoonful of sugar as a candy shell on arsenic laced speed – a rough ride you don’t see coming until the beast is all the way underneath you. It’s a sneaky but very effective way to jostle discourse and shake off comfort’s cocoon. You’ll likely be having too good a time to realize the amphetamine rush about to course through your bloodstream, but when it hits, woo howdy you’ll feel it. When McFadden barks, “The President is feeding us bullshit,” that cuts through the subterfuge and niceties often buffering us from reality. But, it works for any President that’s lying their ass off to achieve an agenda, not just one called W.

“It’s got to be a broad thing. What The Clash did then is still relevant now. You can still listen to it and believe in it. It’s not too specific,” says McFadden. “Sometimes you can write a little less directly than just saying ‘bullshit’ but sometimes, in the context of a song, you just need a line that says, ‘Well, there it is.’ A lot of times there’s an urge to mix sex with politics. I think when you have that doomsday feeling, that sense that it all might go to shit and this is the end that you gravitate towards the idea of sex, like in a plane crash. I’m just thinkin’ good times and how to make the most of these final days here. In my mind that gravitates towards sex and love – love for your friends, love for your family. You need to be close to people you love or have sex with someone you love. It’s the only real comfort in these times. People are really out for themselves now, and this current administration has really caused a separation of people, effectively dividing the people through their propaganda and tactics. It’s not supposed to be the people versus the people, it’s supposed to be the people united and the government working for us. They’ve pitted us against each other, and we’re so fucking polarized it’s tragic.”

“One thing I hope to do through my music besides just entertain people and make them feel good is maybe raise some awareness. I know people need healthy forms of escapism, some sort of release, and coming to a rock show is a way of achieving that. I hope I provide that necessary service [laughs]. But I also hope to raise some awareness and inform people on some level, not by preaching at them but maybe they’ll get the message if they’re paying attention,” says McFadden, touching on how concert halls and clubs are ritual spaces where an increasingly divided, insular society shares a communal experience. “It’s my fucking church. When I’m playing and the audience connects with me it’s magic. But I’m also the kind of guy who likes to catch a show whenever he can when I’m not playing. I’m still a fan. That’s why I got into making music, so why wouldn’t I continue being a fan of music after becoming a musician? It doesn’t make sense to me. I need to have that feeling of just being a fan going to see a band that rocks me and connects with me. Plus, how much inspiration can I derive just with myself? I live with me everyday. I know how I think and what I feel [laughs]. I need to experience other things, bring in more information, more experiences.”

EMT – Eric McFadden Trio “Devil Moon” 1

Eric McFadden on Fog Town Network – “Mr. Toyhead”

Widespread Panic Red Rocks 2008 with Eric McFadden

JamBase | Ever Beckoning Tomorrow
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