Interview: Fellowcraft (@ The Pocket, 1/10/20)

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Fellowcraft rehearses in The Pocket at 7DrumCity not too long ago. (Photo by Mickey McCarter)

Hard-rockin’ DC blues band Fellowcraft tells Parklife DC that they are transforming into a prog-rock outfit. Whatever the case, we like what we hear! Last year, the band made a transition in its sound with a new lineup, now consisting of Jon Ryan MacDonald (guitar, vocals), Brandon Williams (bass, vocals), Pablo Antón (guitar, vocals), and Zach Martin (drums). This year, the band plans a fourth full-length album, following Get Up Young Phoenix (2016), Fellowcraft (2016) and Three (2018).

The peculiar power of Fellowcraft lies in the camaraderie of the band’s four members. These guys love playing together and hanging out together. And they have the rare gift of making you feel like you’re part of the gang when you’re in the audience. That’s the special defining quality of Fellowcraft.

Parklife DC Editor Mickey McCarter met Fellowcraft at 7DrumCity recently to chat about the band’s future prior to a show at The Pocket at 7DrumCity on Friday, Jan. 10. Fellowcraft also perform at Pie Shop on Friday, Feb. 7.

Here’s the story of Fellowcraft to date in three very different but pretty killer songs.

Stream “Glimmer of Faith” by Fellowcraft on Spotify:

Mickey McCarter: Tell me about your band right now. Pablo and Zach are new members?

Jon Ryan MacDonald: Yeah. So the easiest way to say it would be, after I got married in October of last year and my best friend and drummer of the band before, he decided it was time for him to leave. He was going through some stuff in his life. So I decided it might be time to rebrand it as a four-person group.

I’d been wanting to do it for a long time. Because Fellowcraft was a trio for about five years. I asked Pablo, who was playing with Black Dog Prowl at the time, if he wanted to session with us just to see how it would sound with an extra guitarist. So he came in and he played like three songs with us. We had an awesome time with it and then right after that gig, we decided, “Okay, we need to find a new drummer and rebrand this band.”

That was January of 2019. Pablo mentioned Zach, our drummer. They’d played in a band together back in 2015. We sessioned Zach in shortly thereafter, just to see how he would fit — and immediately we fell in love. At that point, we went through a transitionary period where Brian played his last gig at Pie Shop with us in March and then Zach joined in April, and immediately after we basically re-tooled every song that we had. We started re-writing a lot of the older material from a grunge-blues trio into more of a prog-rock act.

My motto’s always been: There’s no real direction in Fellowcraft; there’s just members. And each member gets to bring what they want, and we’ll see how that homogeneous mixture will get funneled. So really it was like an option of opportunity.

MM: How would you describe the music right now? You said prog?

JRM: Yeah. I think it’s a little bit proggy. I think it’s got a hard-rock edge. There’s a little bit of a prog element to all of our newer stuff, but I would say it’s hard rock. There’s a little bit of grunge influence in there. We call ourselves an indie-blues band, because there’s still a lot of old blues elements that are left over from my writing, because I’m a blues guy at heart.

MM: When I heard you guys last year, there was definitely a Southern rock influence.

JRM: We’ve heard that before. I’m from Texas, so that’s going to happen whenever I start singing.

Brandon Williams: We have a song literally called “West Texas Blues” for godsakes.

JRM: That’s our most popular song online. So yeah, that’s where a lot of that comes from.

MM: What’s the most recent thing you guys have recorded?

JRM: “Glimmer of Faith,” which was our latest track off the new record we’re trying to get out. We’re trying to finish it in the winter, so hopefully February, March, but god only knows when it’s going to get done. We’ve got three new songs that we’re hoping to debut in the near future.

MM: You’ve played covers in the past, as I recall?

JRM: We like being an original band. It’s more fun that way. And when you’ve got four guys that all love playing as much as we do, you’ll find an excuse to play anywhere. We’ve been really blessed, and we’ve had a lot of awesome gigs. We played Mexico City in September at an enormous venue — like their version of The Anthem — thanks to Pablo. It’s called El Plaza Condesa. We’re going to try to get down to Mexico again, probably next year.

MM: Maybe for a festival?

JRM: Yeah, maybe a festival. Pablo’s got connections on that end, but also here too because Pablo played with Black Dog Prowl for the better part of three years. So all the connections he made in that band are now similarly finding their way over to us as well. And we had some connections but now it’s like a double-headed monster.

MM: All right. Is Black Dog Prowl still around?

JRM: They are. They played The Fillmore recently. I went and saw them. It was a great show. They opened up for Candlebox.

BW: And Jimmy’s Chicken Shack.

JRM: I didn’t know who they were.

Zach Martin: I used to listen to them every day.

JRM: Apparently they were a big deal. Everybody was, “Oh my god, Jimmy’s Chicken Shack.” I had never heard of this band.

ZM: Back in the day.

JRM: Were they a thing?

BW: Well, it’s interesting to see them now because you have this mindset as a 13-year-old of what they look like, and then it just dawned on me, “I’m 34. Oh, they aged as well.” But they still rocked it, man. It was still fun.

MM: So this year, you’re going to start working on an album. You’re hoping to put it out no later than the end of winter.

Pablo Antón: The reality is that we are planning to record it in the winter. We don’t have any set dates yet, but our plan is definitely to try to record this thing soon, so we can push it out and start promoting it on tour in March and April. We have a couple of shows already on the books for the first part of the year.

MM: Who are you working with?

JRM: His name’s Tonio Ruiz. He was in a big Mexican band called Coda. They’re like a really, really good like hard rock, prog rock group. And then he’s in a group now called Qbo, Q-B-O. We worked with him for “Glimmer Of Faith.” I’ve met a lot of producers in DC, a lot of people that are in the music business, and I’ve never met anybody that I was just comfortable and happy to be around like Tonio Ruiz. He’s one of the most genuinely, easygoing people. I mean pardon my French, I can swear, right? He’s a fucking pro.

PA: He’s a very accomplished rock producer in Latin America. He’s produced probably a couple of the most successful rock albums in Latin America in the last couple of years. Just being able to have that connection with him and the fact that he’s interested in the band and he really likes the band is kind of a blessing.

JRM: We didn’t really have a producer before. We would always say that we had a producer, but it was just a sound engineer that we knew, right.

BW: It was like, “Hey, the bass sounds like a fart on that one. Maybe do something different?”

JRM: Or like we would get a cut back, and then a guy would like suggest, “Oh, maybe we should do this here.” There was no production value other than like being in the room with them. This was the first time and around where there was a dude like legitimately going like, no. He told us: “I want to be your producer, and I believe that you can be a great band.” And I was like, that’s awesome.

PA: Right now, in the Spotify era, it really makes more sense to release singles as opposed to full albums. So our strategy for this new album is to release a couple of singles, one by one — like space them out and then after that release the full album. But a lot of the focus will be more geared toward getting the singles out, getting video clips out for each one of these singles, and then bringing them out there one by one. And that really seems to drive a lot more traffic than just releasing a full album of like nine or ten songs. What typically happens is that people begin to listen to one then two songs and then disregard the other seven. So we want to make sure that each song gets the right type of attention. We don’t know how many songs we want to put out there for the next album, but we do know that we want to strategize in a way that is more appropriate with the way that the music market works right now, which revolves more around singles than albums.

Watch Fellowcraft play “The Last Great Scotsman” live at Black Cat on Nov. 9, 2019:

PA: Jon and Brandon had an old song that we’ve basically reproduced and rewritten called “The Last Great Scotsman,” which we completely turned in to a new song.

BW: It was a throwaway.

PA: Sort of like a B-side.

BW: *C*-side.

JRM: Brandon and I might’ve played that like maybe twice. It’d be like whenever we were at a punk show. It was kind of heavy and like really sludgy. Whenever we were at a punk show or like a hard rock show, all right, we’re playing “Scotsman.”

BW: I would put it on there and be like, “I’m just going to get drunk before this show.”

JRM: And lift weights. There’s a weight lifting track, you know. It wasn’t one of those songs you would lead with. It wasn’t one that you would be like, “Oh, you got to hear ‘The Last Great Scotsman.'”

BW: Or close with.

JRM: But well now that is one of our favorite tracks.

BW: People sing it back to us.

JRM: That’s very indicative of what’s happened with Fellowcraft. So an older track that Brandon and I had written and kind of tossed away. We brought it out, let these guys take hacks at it. Pablo for instance said, “Oh, I think we should do like a call and response chant in this part.” And we tried it and it sounded great.

PA: You looked at me like baffled.

JRM: A little bit initially! Like, are you serious? Okay.

BW: Well, how about a three-part harmony? He was like, Oh wait, wait one, two, okay, we got that. We just needed to practice a lot.

JRM: And then we added a solo to it from Pablo and stuff like that. We’ll constantly look to add new pieces to things that have already been kind of done and recorded to make the set a little different for people that have seen us before.

Whereas in the past, Fellowcraft was more of a sort of like a blues band, it’s now morphing into more of a prog rock band, which is something that is really interesting and exciting. A lot of the stuff that we’re doing with the new songs that we’re writing currently is along those lines. There’s absolutely no more demands. We can add whatever we want, and we have more like a capella harmonies, we have more extended solos, we have more atmospherical back parts. We have more heavy, groovy, metal type parts, and we’re blending all of those things together.

PA: At this point, I don’t know if it’s a little out there to say it, but at this point after being in the scene for so long and for so many years, it takes a little bit more to keep us engaged and to keep us interested. We don’t want to play the same songs again. We don’t want to keep writing songs that have the same structure, the same A, B, C type of patterns like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus. We want to really expand our horizons and try new stuff that we haven’t tried before. After being in different bands and being in different projects, right now we really just want to try new stuff to keep things engaging and to keep things interesting.

BW: Sure. To our guitarists’ credit, that also means I’ve got a bass solo or I’m going to funkify a song, and we’re going to still keep straight.

PA: We’re not against any ideas. “Oh, that doesn’t sound like total crap!” We’re open to whatever, including having him rap in some parts.

JRM: I don’t know. I’ve done some Rage Against the Machine style rapping — just ’cause we thought it might fit.

MM: Well you guys are definitely getting at the heart of something that I want to ask about. What is your process? When you’re writing these new songs and you’re putting together this new album, what is the process for writing?

PA: Typically, the process starts with like a core idea that is something that either JR will bring to the table or I will bring to the table. But once, we just start like with the newest track that we’re writing right now, it was just a riff that I came up with when I was just like noodling at home in front of the TV. And then I brought that forward. And then from that, we wrote an intro. From there, we just literally started like brainstorming ideas of where to go.

JRM: And we tried a few ideas that didn’t pan out and didn’t work. We tried them for a couple of rehearsals. We try to brainstorm in the rehearsal phase, and we try to do some free-flowing stuff, and then we will record the whole thing, listen back to it, and sit on it for about a week. And then we’ll come back and critique it. Maybe we thought it sounded really cool in practice, but after listening to it for a couple of days, it doesn’t really work. We should try something different.

ZM: It’s like this. It’s like when comedians write their own jokes. If they don’t laugh themselves, they’re not going to put that on stage. It’s the same thing when we write. If we don’t feel it and we’re not grooving this, we’re not going to force anything unless we feel it first.

JRM: With one recent song, there was a moment there where Brandon and Zach had some room to exist alone, and Pablo and I just bounced. We went outside and had a smoke and just hung out in the sun, and the two of them were in there for a while, just dialing it in. And it was like that kind of stuff happens a lot where it’s like you’ll leave some space, and you’ll let your band members figure out what to do with it.

PA: This entire process for writing new songs is very interesting. It’s a lot of fun. It takes a while though. It will probably take us like maybe three or four practices to write one song, but that’s just because we’re toying with so many ideas. So it’s the same free-flowing process that maybe a jam band would have writing songs. But then at one point we stop it, we like cement it, and we say it’s going to be like this every single time from there forward because we’re also not a jam band.

JRM: That’s when I go to the whiteboard.

BW: When JR goes to the whiteboard, that mother fucker is done.

PA: We just like jam for a little bit, get the idea, and as soon as everybody likes it — as soon as we sit on it and let it marinate for a couple of weeks and we like it — that’s when we cement it there. From now on, this is how we’re always going to play this song.

BW: A lot of songs written by Fellowcraft are a team effort. You can’t come in with a really snazzy beat like “A Thousand Sunsets” and play that alone. Say I want to do a bossa nova beat and then the band writes a song around it. That’s why none of these members are going to take a song that Fellowcraft wrote together away and play it like it was a solo act with another band.

JRM: I would totally do that. Well, I promise you I will do that.

BW: You did write all of the lyrics — and he’s played acoustically, but my point is that I wouldn’t see “Hold the Line” with another band. No way. No how.

JRM: I don’t think another band in DC could play “Hold the Line.”

Stream “Hold the Line” by Fellowcraft on Spotify:

MM: Tell me about your ambitions for the coming year. You’re putting out the new album, you’re going to have some tour dates.

JRM: I hate to be so cliche, and I’m really sorry. But I’m going to be, and it’s just *onward,* man. I don’t know where we’re going. I don’t know. I want to put the record out. I want a tour, I want to play, but I want to just be faithful to those moments.

BW: We’re looking forward to Baltimore. I think the goal is to expand outside of DC.

PA: That’s the number one goal for sure.

JRM: Definitely. Definitely for 2020 most of our efforts are going to go toward booking out of town shows. We’re still going to do at least three or four in the District, but Fellowcraft has been around for five years. All of us have been around in playing in DC local bands for over five years. And so at this point, we’ve all played every single venue there is to play in DC except The Anthem.

BW: Let’s get a raw reaction from people we don’t know and see if they clap or nod their head. Are they going to like it? That is how we’re going to tell whether Fellowcraft can expand outside of DC. We’re hopeful that we will. We think that we can.

PA: Yeah, we already won a Wammie!

JRM: Yeah, and I think we won that by being authentic — just being a little bit different. I really do. I talked to a couple of Wammie voting members who said the same thing. They thought we were unique. They liked “Hold the Line,” and they thought it was unique. The irony is when you listen to our whole record, that’s just one of five or six different sounds, and I think we’re going to find the same thing with upcoming songs like “Guanajuato,” “This Is How the World Ends,” and “Don’t Make a Sound,” and a lot of the other new ones that we’ve tried. Because they’re all very different. But we will try them out, and we’ll be authentic to those songs. Pablo’s point is well taken. DC has been good to us, giving us a lot of great opportunity, and it has rewarded us in kind. And I’m thankful for that. But there’s more to being in a band than being the best local band you can be.

PA: And the best situation that you can be in when you’re in DC is being a local band that is no longer treated as a local band. Because that always had some sort of, I’m sorry to say this, stigma. There is a stigma or a label when you say, “Oh, it’s a local show.” And I think that something that we aspire to — that would be a dream come true — would be being able to play in DC at a show that’s not a local show if that makes sense.

MM: I get it. I really do.

JRM: Honestly, for the Wammies, we were up against Cat Janice, man. I didn’t think we’d win! That’s how I discovered her. I don’t even know who she was until the Wammies. Brandon hit me up, and he’s says you’ve got to hear this song! And I looked it up and I was like, yeah, we’re done. We’re not winning that category. But after that happened and we won, we ended up hitting her up for a show and she’s freaking awesome. That’s the thing about DC that I think is really cool. That sort of thing can happen.

BW: We went out to brunch to get to know each other.

MM: That’s awesome.

JRM: The bands at brunch! That was a fun outing. That was a fun outing. And we do stuff like that too. That’s something about Fellowcraft. We’ve all been in other bands. One of the things I love about this band versus any other band is that with these guys we have Christmas parties, we do brunch outings, we hang out. And maybe it’s forced occasionally, and I will admit that. I force it when I have to. And we created a little bit of a family, I think. And that’s more important than anything.

PA: Agreed.

BW: We don’t argue about politics. We argue about our songs and our lives. Because we care about each other. You know what I mean? We wouldn’t if we didn’t.

MM: It’s the chemistry, right. The chemistry is important. You just can’t go up there with anybody and play these songs. You need the chemistry that you’ve formed here. You’ve got the new energy with Pablo and Zach.

JRM: It’s weird though. Pablo and I met like five years ago when we were playing in a flashband together, and I didn’t know it at the time but he was in a flashband with Zach. The chemistry is one part of it, but we wanted the band to be filled with friends. So, when it was time to rebrand Fellowcraft, when Brandon and I knew that the end was nigh when your last drummer left, we wondered, “What do we do?” And we discussed it and I really wanted to bring in Pablo. Pablo was very adamant in bringing Zach over because they played together and the chemistry is very strong.

***

Catch Fellowcraft soon at a venue near you!

Buy your tickets online for Fellowcraft at The Pocket at 7DrumCity on Friday, Jan. 10!

Buy your tickets online for Fellowcraft at Pie Shop on Friday, Feb. 7!

Here are some pictures of Fellowcraft performing in The Pocket at 7DrumCity! See them there soon yourself.

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