Musician to Musician: Featherface
I love Space City Rock, so I asked if I could contribute a column called Musician to Musician, in which I interview many of my favorite Houston bands and musicians on a semi-regular basis. Being a musician myself, I am always curious as to what makes other musicians create the music they make. Fortunately, Jeremy was receptive to the idea, so here we are.
My first interview subjects are Kenny Hopkins and Steve Wells from the up-and-coming Houston indie/psychedelic rock band Featherface. Featherface are everything a young Houston indie-rock band should be: talented, creative, positive, hungry, and humble. They played the Spring Forward festival I curated back in March, and after seeing them then I can say that if Featherface are not nominated for “Best New Band” in this year’s Houston Press Awards (along with The Dead Revolt), there is something seriously wrong with the award…
So here we go!
Jason: First off, for Space City Rock readers unfamiliar with Featherface, can you guys give me a short bio on the band?
Kenny Hopkins: The four of us — Kenny Hopkins, Steve Wells, Jake Harris, and Travis Peck — met in junior high, weirdly enough, and instantly started trying to play music together. None of us knew what we were doing at all, but we kept playing together all through high school. I’d say it was originally based on us realizing how ridiculously cool Led Zeppelin and The Beatles and Hendrix and all those guys were, and trying our best to emulate them.
We all went our separate ways after high school, and it was about two years ago that we started seriously writing music together. We decided on a name, threw some songs out there, and started gigging as soon as we could. We didn’t really expect to be consistently playing shows and dedicating so much time and thought to it, although we definitely hoped that would happen.
What is the Featherface songwriting process? Is there a particular leader in the process?
Kenny: The songwriting process for us has typically been either myself, Steve, or Jake coming to the rest of us with a song idea. Sometimes it’s pretty fleshed-out and sometimes it’s just a chord progression or something. Then we play the song to death and bounce ideas around as much as possible. We keep the song structures pretty open, and we use the recording process to give us a clearer idea of how to shape the song.
Steve: We basically individually come up with ideas for songs, which could be a full song or just a melody, then we record rough demos and sit on them for a while. I think that listening to the songs after the main structure is established allows you stand back and see the song from a different perspective. It kind of lets the music lead you in the direction that it naturally wants to pull.
I notice with you guys that you are all doing more than one thing — keyboards and guitars, for example — so does each person come up with their own parts and harmonies?
Kenny: Everyone comes up with their own parts, usually, but we’re definitely not afraid of coming to each other with an idea on an instrument we don’t play. If there’s a certain harmony or melody we want in the song, we’ll find a way to get it across.
Have you studied other songwriters to find out how they put songs together? Do you guys write and read music at all?
Kenny: We definitely study other songwriters, but I think it’s mostly just the result of us obsessing over music we love. We’re always pointing out little things to each other that people do in songs, but I don’t think we break the songs down all that much. We try to absorb anything we like, because we just really enjoy listening to music. We appreciate the creative processes of others, but we want everything to come out of us as naturally as possible.
Steve: I think that because we have obsessed over such a large number of artists over the years, the melodies and progressions seem to come out naturally. Once we have a rough recording of an idea, I just listen to it over and over again, and the melodies seem to just put themselves in place.
We can read music slowly, but I honestly don’t think that learning how to properly transfer musical ideas onto staff is really necessary for what we are trying to do. Most of the songs that I have written were actually initially recorded and developed with my phone mic while I was driving, so I don’t really see a need for it.
“A Youthful Offender” ends up running in my head randomly. I’ll think to myself, “What band is that? Oh, yeah — Featherface!” I think that’s one of the biggest compliments you can give a band, when you wake up with their song running through your head. Anyway, I’d consider that your signature song.
Kenny: We really appreciate that! I think people have noticed that song more than our others. It may be because it’s the only song we have a music video for at the moment, but we’ll take it either way. It’s a really fun song to play live, so that’s one that will definitely stay in our set for a while.
Steve: It’s still hard for me to acknowledge that people actually listen to our songs, let alone have them bouncing around in their heads, so I take that as a huge compliment. People do really seem to dig that song in particular, and it’s really fun to play live, so it’s not going anywhere.
Who writes the lyrics? Is there a general theme or message in your songs that you want to convey to an audience in your lyrics?
Kenny: Steve and I have written all the lyrics up to this point. The message varies from song to song, but we draw a lot from dreams and late-night discussions about anything and everything. Lately the focus has been on ourselves deciding to pursue things like music rather than trying to build a career with any sort of security.
We’re in constant amazement that our generation has so much available to us in terms of art and information and opportunity, and a lot of people don’t take advantage of it. We’re pretty young guys, and I guess we’re just searching for some kind of purpose, as cheesy as that sounds.
Steve: Our next release is most likely going to be based around an overall theme, but I just want people to be able to relate to it and come away from our music knowing that we really mean what we say.
Who books the gigs? What are your favorite places to play? What’s your best gig so far?
Kenny: Steve and I book the gigs. It felt a lot like we were annoying people into giving us shows at first, but it’s been surprisingly effortless lately. We feel really fortunate for how many great shows have fallen into our laps.
Our favorite venues in Houston are Fitzgerald’s, Mango’s, and The Mink. Our best gig is tough, but one that sticks in my mind is when we opened for The Coathangers at The Mink a couple of months back. There was some intense dancing going on, which always helps us to play harder. We played at The Mohawk in Austin about a month ago, too, opening for Hospital Ships, and that was definitely another high point.
What’s the worst thing about gigging? For me, it’s those five minutes where you have to get all your stuff off the stage. That and trekking back to the practice space on the Northwest side at 2AM!
Kenny: Agreed! Hauling the stuff of the stage as fast as physically possible so the next band can get set up is always pretty stressful. Other than that, though, the whole process has become pretty automatic for us. We pack our minivan like it’s a really good game of Tetris and unload surprisingly quickly now. Of course, Houston weather doesn’t make all that lifting very pleasant, but it’s worth it. We live pretty far south of downtown so we usually end up debriefing at Whataburger at 4AM.
Steve: Oh, yes. The worst thing is definitely the final stretch of driving and unloading after a gig. The fun is all over and all that is left is a night of intense physical labor. We are all usually in zombie mode by that time.
Do you have any pre-show ritual?
Kenny: I’d say the closest thing we have to a pre-show ritual is listening to the band Yes and speeding up 45 North to get to the venue on time.
Steve: We also tend to scream the lyrics to “You Can Call Me Al” at least two times before a show.
What does it feel like to be on stage?
Kenny: If the show is going well, and the audience seems to be enjoying the music, it feels incredible. Not that I have many accomplishments to compare it to, but I don’t know of anything as satisfying as that. To contrast that, we’ve had one or two shows that were pretty close to train wrecks, and I don’t think there’s a worse feeling than that.
Steve: Playing a show where you can see people moving around and enjoying themselves is a great feeling. We’ve played a few shows where the people were really getting their groove on, and that energy becomes contagious. Knowing that people are enjoying a song that you have worked on for a long time is just incredible.
Do you tend to play the same set or do you change it up?
Kenny: We play mostly the same set for awhile, and then change it up pretty drastically when we think it could use some variation. We’re putting a lot of new songs into our set lately, so it will be changing pretty often in the coming months.
Steve: We’ve been changing the set up pretty often. We even played a Tears For Fears cover there for a while, but now we are really focusing on transitioning the new songs into the show.
What are your main instruments and amp? Is this the one you want, or are you coveting a certain piece of gear that’s just out of reach for now?
Kenny: I play a Fender Blacktop Jazzmaster and a Roland Juno D Keyboard. My amp is a Vox Ac30C2. I’m really happy with my setup, but I do dream of having a Classic Jazzmaster, a Korg SV-1 keyboard, and an Orange Rockerverb 50-watt amp.
Steve: I use a goldtop Gibson LP and a Juno D, as well. I run both of them through a ts808 overdrive before going out of my Fender Twin Reverb. I would love to get my hands on an Italia Mondial, and a Korg MS-20 synth. A Moog Voyager would be pretty sweet, too.
What do you like about the Houston music scene right now? What can be better?
Kenny: We’re really optimistic about the Houston scene. We’re constantly impressed by people who are dedicated to making Houston into a respected city for music. Things like Free Press Summer Fest and Best Fest are bringing a lot of well-deserved attention here. There have also been the awesome little festivals lately, like Main Street Block Party and the Spring Forward Festival that have been really helpful for local bands.
We do think some people in Houston could stand to be more accommodating of new bands who aren’t regulars at the hip places in town. It’s not easy to break into the scene, even though most people have been really nice to us.
Steve: The Houston music scene is really starting to get some much-deserved attention. All of the festivals that Kenny mentioned have really helped it to grow, but I would also say that the revamping of Fitzgerald’s has definitely been a major factor in the whole thing. It seems as if the scene is a little slow to welcome bands into its circle, but people have been really great to us so far. I’m very happy with what’s happening.
Who are your favorite Houston bands or national bands?
Kenny: In Houston, we really like The Wheel Workers, Tax The Wolf, The Dead Revolt, The Handshake, Buxton, TameBlonde, Alkari, Muhammadali, Roky Moon and Bolt!, Robert Ellis, listenlisten, and a lot of other ones that I’m forgetting.
As far as national bands, we love Arcade Fire, Radiohead, David Bowie, Yes, Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Black Sabbath, Sigur Rós, Deep Purple, The Beatles, Elliott Smith, Wilco, Tame Impala, Cursive, The Strokes, Grizzly Bear, Liars, Yeasayer, Sufjan Stevens, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Deerhunter, Surfer Blood, Kimbra, Colour Revolt, The Flaming Lips, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Fruit Bats, Tom Petty, Queens of the Stone Age, Vetiver, Mastodon, Fleet Foxes, Against Me!, Stevie Wonder, and a ridiculous amount of other ones. Yeah, we could go on forever, so I’ll leave it at that.
What are your favorite records of the past year or two?
Kenny: Arcade Fire – The Suburbs, Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest, Radiohead – The King of Limbs, Paul Simon – So Beautiful or So What, Kurt Vile – Childish Prodigy, Cursive – Mama I’m Swollen, Liars – Sisterworld, The Strokes – Angles, Tame Impala – Innerspeaker, Sparklehorse & Danger Mouse – Dark Night of the Soul, Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues, Fruit Bats – The Tripper, Kimbra – Vows.
What’s a great show you’ve been to lately?
Kenny: We successfully snuck into the last day of ACL in our determination to finally see Arcade Fire. We were completely blown away by them. Fleet Foxes were really good, too. Other than that, we saw The Strokes for free at SXSW, and that was unbelievable as well. Travis and I saw Deerhunter, MGMT, and Mastodon at the last Fun Fun Fun Fest, which was pretty amazing.
Steve: Sneaking into ACL to see Arcade Fire was just the best.
How does image play into Featherface? You are all relatively young and easy to photograph. Are you going for any certain look, or are you wearing your day clothes?
Kenny: We haven’t put any thought into what we wear. We know it’s important to have some sort of image, but so far we’ve ignored it as much as possible. That may not be the best choice, but we’d be pretty hopeless at dressing ourselves in anything more significant than our day clothes.
Steve: While it would be nice to have cool clothes and all, we don’t really seem driven to maintain any particular image. Right now, I just have no desire to go out and spend money on clothes when that money could be spent on making music…
Who did your Website? I think it’s fantastic, and people should definitely visit it.
Kenny: My brother, Randall Hopkins — who has also shot all of our videos — and a friend of ours named Nick Bontrager collaborated on that Website for us. We think it’s a far better Website than we deserve, but we’re grateful to have endlessly talented friends to help us out. And we definitely think it’s helped us out.
You recorded the EP yourself in what seems like “an undisclosed location,” but it sounds great. What’s next in the recording plan?
Kenny: It was a cramped little storage unit near where we all live. We weren’t sure if they’d like us putting the name of it out there, so we just decided to make it a mystery.
We’re currently hard at work on writing and recording the songs for our next release. The plan right now is to have about eight songs. We don’t have a great idea of when it will be released, but that’s definitely our main focus right now. In the meantime, we’re playing new songs at every show, so hopefully people can come check them out before we release them!
There is no set date for the next release, but hopefully it will be very soon. Like last time, I think we are going to be taking the DIY route, but probably not within the confines of a cramped storage unit. We are really trying to take our time with this next one. END
Featherface’s most recent EP, It Comes Electric, streams for free from their website, http://www.featherfacemusic.com/ and is available for purchase there. Make sure you get a copy.
(All photos by Jason Smith.)