For a band that exudes such a peaceful, easy feeling in their music, the Wild Feathers sure have a hard time coming to rest. The Americana group have spent the better part of their eight years together grinding out the miles on tour, but when they sat down to work on their third LP, Greetings From the Neon Frontier, they had to re-learn how to chill out. The recording of their second album, the more experimental Lonely Is a Lifetime, all but exhausted them.
“We were doing the majority of that on the road. It wasn’t really us with acoustic guitars, sitting around leisurely on a summer afternoon. It was more like dressing rooms, onstage – whenever we could find time,” says singer-guitarist Ricky Young. “With this third one, we had a lot of time at home, we’d take turns going over to each others’ houses, writing around the porch, writing around the coffee table with our wives and kids around.”
Greetings From the Neon Frontier, out on Warner Bros., was actually birthed in a state of upheaval for the band – despite, and partially because of, those scenes of domestic bliss. Young and bassist Joel King, who founded the group and share lead vocals with guitarist Taylor Burns, had children last year – drummer Ben Dumas rounds out the lineup – at the same time that the Wild Feathers changed management.
“We had a lot of time to reflect and take it all in, what we’ve been through the past four or five years. We got a little hindsight to set our aims in the future without doing some of those mistakes again, and to also up our game in certain areas,” Young says. Though he doesn’t elaborate on particulars, speaking instead of a need to break the routine, it’s clear the band was in need of a change. “2017 and touring on the second record wasn’t as fruitful as we’d have liked it to have been. You could point fingers, take the blame — it was a lot to swallow that year.”
Becoming parents, a first for all of the new fathers in the crew, had the double effect of forcing them to stay off the road most of last year as well as giving them some fresh perspective. “As artists or musicians, we’re notoriously known to be very selfish and self-absorbed, and [being a parent] completely cleans that out of your brain,” says Young. “Now you’re responsible for this human being, which is an awesome responsibility but also scares the shit out of you.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the group’s extended downtime, however, was a newfound focus on what they love most about making music. “The second record, we didn’t do it purposely but we were a little more cognizant of making the album different from the first one, because everyone was pinning us as this Eagles, Americana, roots-rock thing,” Young says. “Which is cool, it is what it is, but we really wanted to fight that off on the second record – for reasons I still don’t really know, except that it was just the ego of showing people we’re capable of doing different things.”
The lead single from the new album, “Wildfire,” certainly sounds like it could be a lost Eagles demo, with lush harmonies and a sun-kissed melody that would be perfect for some tequila sunrise. Young, who says bands like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are “burned in his brain,” doesn’t mind the comparisons.
“Our failure to rip artists off like that is what makes us original. I’d love to be Tom Petty, I’d love to write songs like that and have that career,” he says, speaking generally rather than for the Wild Feathers. “[When you] try to write and pull something like that off, I think, if you’re honest and working hard trying to make it your own, that’s what makes it your own.”
A defining part of that sound is the carefully sculpted harmonies between Young, King and Burns. “We’ve definitely come a long way as far as singing harmonies together. We’ve spent a lot of years doing 150, 200-plus shows, singing those songs every single night, writing together, recording together too,” Young says. “Are we natural at it? Hell no. It’s very difficult for us, because Joel, Taylor, and I were lead singers of own [previous bands].” The key, he says, is that they don’t really try to sing backup: “It’s more like we’re singing lead but not as harmony, just in the background. You see these old videos of Keith Richards or Rick Danko where they walk up to the mic and just own it like it’s their lead line.”
Putting together Greeting From the Neon Frontier was still a familiar process for the Wild Feathers, despite all the other change swirling around them. They returned to Jay Joyce, the same producer of their first two records, and also repeated a tradition in having an extended songwriting getaway in North Carolina. “Our drummer has a little cabin up there on top of this huge-ass mountain. We went up there for a week, set up recording gear, and just went crazy. Sun-up to sundown for seven days, drinking heavily and recording and playing loud because no one was around us,” Young says.
Young estimates the band had 50 songs to whittle down to the 10 that appear on the album, but that high volume is an intentional part of the process. “We get up there, knock these ideas out – finish them, good or bad, so we can put them to bed,” he says. The first song on the record, “Quittin’ Time,” was in fact the very first they cut during the trip, as Young started playing the riff while the others were still setting up. It’s also the hardest rocking on the album, and helps set the tone for much of what’s to come – namely, a semi-autobiographical tribute to the life of a touring band, and the freedom of being on the road.
Not surprisingly for a band so unfamiliar with standing still, that theme pops up frequently. “Wildfire” and its not-too-distant relative, “Big Sky,” are two other notable examples. Elsewhere, “Every Morning I Quit Drinkin’” skitters along with breezy sense of humor, while “Hold Onto Love” finds them getting reacquainted with what matters most – possibly the best summation of where the band members find themselves today, wherever that may be physically.
“It feels really good, there’s a little bit of pressure off. We’re not trying to do anything but just be ourselves,” says Young. “It’s funny because now it feels like more people are coming around to what we’re doing. It’s like, ‘Yeah, we were doing this like seven years ago too.’”