Pete Donnelly’s musical resume is pretty damn impressive. He’s the bass player firmly associated with legendary rock band NRBQ. He’s the singer-songwriter with several solo releases to his name. He’s the co-writer of “I Can’t Imagine,” the title track of Shelby Lynne’s recently released album. And of course, he’s the founding member of phenomenal rock band The Figgs, having worked with The Replacements’ Tommy Stinson, as well as the great Graham Parker.
Along with Mike Gent, Donnelly founded The Figgs in 1987 and they are still going strong, with a recent album release that just might be their best yet. Other Planes of Here is an eight-track wonder of a record, a record that sets forth free-sounding tunes at once loyal to aurally stimulating melodies and compositionally new. While staying true to their rock-heavy roots, The Figgs have allowed their musicality to grow and their sound to evolve into one that incorporates and is influenced by a variety of instruments and genres. The result, manifested this year in Other Planes, is thoroughly, thoroughly good.
In conversation with Pete Donnelly, we learn more about The Figgs’ story and the making of Other Planes, as well as Donnelly’s numerous artistic influences and his warranted and well-articulated thoughts on the current state of the music industry.
First of all, congratulations on the new Figgs album Other Planes of Here, it’s really great. How did you devise its overall aural aesthetic? Because it seems to be a newer sound for you guys, incorporating more experimental musical components, more computerized effects.
Yeah, the Figgs certainly have an organic process. I think that we usually edit down quite a bit and focus on being sort of a pop band versus an experimental band. We tend to be tight and to the point, but we do have another side of us which is very experimental. I think in this case we decided to let it go and to not edit the process. We sort of wanted to take the audience into the process of recording, and I think the experimental side sort of opened a doorway into what gets our songs together. Often times we would edit that out of the final picture, but here we decided to leave it in.
How would you describe the band’s typical compositional process? Do you guys usually write together?
We do all kinds of things. I’d say that traditionally, Mike (Gent) and I write songs and come together in the studio or a rehearsal space, blast through a number of them and just see what clicks. As we’ve gotten older over the years, we’ve tried certain things where we’d write in the studio, come up with a theme or musical idea, just sort of experiment with it and write a song to it. It’s generally a more modern technique, making tracks and then writing to them. Sometimes we’ll have an unfinished song that one of us will come and finish. So it’s kind of anything goes. But because Mike and I write so much and come to the table with many songs, I think it’s the collaboration that makes it. Songwriting on paper is writing down a title, music, and lyrics, but the band contributes so much to, as you said, the aural picture. And I think on the new record, you can expect a lot more of that.
I like that idea and I think it worked really well here. Personally, I love guitar-heavy rock-pop music, but I sometimes get into arguments with other music nerds about how that sound has already been done, and that computer music is the way of the future. But I think that your new album manages to be guitar-heavy and still sound new, and sounds of now.
I think we can’t help but be interested in music in general, and the way in which modern music is absorbed by us and into our sound. Though generally classic minded people like us generally stopped listening to music when we started making it –you know what I mean? Most of our contemporaries were ‘80s alternative bands. I’m not saying we didn’t listen beyond that, but the majority of our record collecting really happened in our youth.
Later on I absorbed new music, but I didn’t seek it out as much, as far as record collecting went. That being said, I’m in the studio all the time, making records. I’m a producer, I make records with all kinds of people. I’ve always liked electronic music from way back. I have no ethical reasons to dislike any kind of music. Though we are an instrument-based band, we love drum machines, we like going out of the box. There are all these rules that bands establish for themselves to define their aesthetics. The Figgs, probably to our detriment, have always been like, “We don’t care! We’re having fun, right now, with this music, we’ll just go for it.” So groove, dance music, is unquestionably electronic, more and more. And we love that music. But, we love James Brown, and we love the Beatles, of course, we love their melodies.
The Figgs have such a great sense of melody, a lot of your work is such pure beauty stuff, which I think is perhaps undervalued nowadays. You’re able to do that hard-rock stuff of course, but I mean compositionally.
Absolutely. The hard rock stuff comes from loving high volume and energy, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Kiss. You could make the argument that melody has been dulled out of music nowadays because it sounds so simplified. I think it sounds more and more like nursery rhymes. People are trying to be so immediate with the process, that there’s no chance to allow someone to develop a melody.
You have a lot of great singers, who are riffing, in R&B and hip hop, these master singers might be throwing out some cool melodic stuff, but as far as melody in song goes, it’s been simplified. If a child can sing it, then it’s a hit song; it has to do with the immediacy of the culture now. I love melody, I can’t get enough melody. I listen to classical music a lot and jazz music a lot, because there’s so much melody to be mined.
On this album, particularly on the track “Triple Standard,” there’s such great interaction between guitars, and on “In a Small Hospital” too, like a dueling guitars thing, almost in a Television-esque way. Most of the album’s tracks have a sense of free form, no restrictions, no limits. They feel exploratory and experimental, but there’s also this constant awareness of a destination, which is manifested in the excellence of melody. Did you make that an aim?
I don’t know if it’s so deliberate, but lately Mike and I have been cutting tracks while both playing guitar, and on this record in particular it created the aesthetic of the dueling guitars, with intertwining kind of stuff. I’ve been playing a lot of guitar lately, I’ve been fronting my own band as well, so my confidence is up on the instrument. It’s fun to lead in the studio in a way that you can’t on the bass. And I’ll lay the bass on after the fact.
The experimental side is founded in trusting that you’ll find your way back. What’s so often missing in the bands I see is the security to really go somewhere where they don’t know if they’ll get back. We love improvisational music. I spent some time playing in NRBQ and that band, they’re masters of how-far-can-you-take-it and then just dropping it out there. That’s the kind of excitement that makes music alive. So not to say we never talked about it, but that’s the sort of thing that happens in the band amongst each other.
Lyrically, the track “Keith and the Buddha” is so intriguing, with its presentation of philosophy. But who is Keith? In my mind it was Keith Richards.
Well, those lyrics were mostly written by a good friend of ours, John Powhida. He lives in Boston, where Mike does, and they wrote the song together. He’s a really good lyricist and writes very descriptive stories of people. I’m not going to give it away, but it’s mainly about a guy in Boston, like a rock legend, you know, “The overdose is still on your resume.” It could be Keith Richards I suppose—or just this guy Keith as a Buddha-like character who’s full of the problems of rock and roll. The Buddha’s the pure side and Keith is the dark side. But the story’s definitely about some of the creepier side of rock and roll.
Were you in any way inspired by Sun Ra’s 1966 album Other Planes of There? It seemed a fitting connection, because he did a lot of spaced out, experimental work, and there’s a bit of that here.
Absolutely. Right on. Like I said, we’re jazz fans, we’re record collecting geeks. We love Sun Ra and yes that is a reference to be made. I get to play with Marshall Allen quite a bit when I work with NRBQ; he’s the leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra. He’s probably 90 years old by now, but totally heathy, full of life, touring all the time. Their house is still in Philadelphia.
How do you think your musical or artistic goals, both of yourself and of the band, evolved over your career? Are they similar now to how they were when you started out, or have they changed based on what happened to you along the way?
I think there’s probably a common hardcore theme to the band. You are what you always are, and you do grow but in our essence, I don’t think the Figgs have changed their clothes too much. I think stylistically we’ve always been all over the map. I joke that we’re a band who’s gotten more and more successful at being obscure. Like a lot of bands that we love, when people call us power pop, if you bring up any of the classic power pop bands—there’re a lot of good ones—we’re happy to cross into that.
We love Paul McCartney, the Raspberries, no doubt about it. But we love rhythm and blues, we love soul music, jazz, experimental. We’re always trying to say, “there’re no rules.” When it comes down to it, I think we are a pop band, but for a lot of people, that doesn’t make sense to them, they think of Justin Bieber. There needs to be something, a chorus, for the listener to walk away with. It’s not necessarily heady music—I think we give enough to put your head into if you so choose, but it’s pretty immediate, which I think has always been a common theme for the band. Energy, immediacy.
Yeah, well that’s the best stuff of rock and roll, that feeling. It’s hard to describe in words, but it’s a tangible thing—that’s why it’s so great live.
I know that you’ve been around for a couple of decades, and we touched on this before, but the increasing irrelevance of big record companies—though maybe you guys feel more at home now—you understand that disconnect between record companies—the best bands are these random indie ones, not played on mainstream radio. Perhaps the Figgs can relate to that already.
Yeah, well it’s complicated. There’s a lot in what you said, and I have a lot of different feelings. The record industry has less of a piece of the pie now, but the piece has been refined more and more. Like how McDonald’s spends millions crafting its food so that it’s palatable. And yes there is a large sect of unsigned bands, but a lot are breaking through.
My feeling about the record industry with the Figgs is that of course, you wish you knew now what you knew then, about how to manage relationships. I think we were really lucky to have record deals, which allowed a certain amount of money to be spent on the Figgs, which gave us survival. Because we were already a band, and we could already be a band on our own without anything else, all of that money—you know, for three years we established an infrastructure with record label money, and we didn’t function very well with the record label. But we established a fan base by touring as much as we did, and then we just ran with it when it was over.
Our A&R guy said to us when we were dropped from Capitol—one of the first things we did with our money was make another record—“why are you making a record? You guys don’t even have a record deal.” But it’s what we do. We play shows and make records. It would probably be nice to have a business person in the band too, but we stick with what we know how to do. I think we’re comfortable because we’ve been through so much, all of us have families, and the relevance of life is really clear to us now, like what really matters. None of us have ever taken money out of our own pockets to pay for the band, it finances itself. Now, it doesn’t make any of us rich by any means, but it allows us to make records, play shows, and experience some things.
To what extent do your Jersey or Philadelphia roots play into your overall sounds creation?
When I moved here, I was introduced to singer-songwriters and a lot more R&B, hip hop here in Philadelphia. There is a lot happening here, I’ve been here about fifteen years and I feel like all the work I’ve been putting in has actually been paying off. The Figgs just had a great weekend here playing shows. But the blue-eyed soul of Philly no doubt had influence over us; we’ve always loved roots, American, funk music and just having that exposure to it—and playing with all those people, there’s no doubt I absorbed it. You could probably connect us right to the Spinners and Hall & Oates and Todd Rundgren. There’s a lot of music that we love that comes from this area, and I think we started to consume it more by me being here. Not so much the banjos and the beards, though I like that stuff too.
How did your connection to Graham Parker develop? You’ve played with him and toured and recorded—how did that get going?
That was a good sixteen-year run for us, and we’re still connected. He did reunite with the Rumour as you know, and that Judd Apatow movie happened (This is 40, 2012), and some other serendipitous things for him, which was great.
We met Graham in Atlanta, and Mike’s dad is a rock and roll fan so Mike had grown up with all of Graham’s records, he knew them all. He basically knew every Graham song so when he met him, he made an impression on him. I remember seeing the two of them standing there for forty minutes or so, with Mike playing Graham his own songs. He lived in the Hudson Valley near where we were camped out at that point with our manager. We did a song for the Graham Parker tribute. He loved it, contacted us, we did two rehearsals, went out on the road, and whenever it made sense we just toured with him from there forward.
We did one studio record, a bunch of live stuff, some outtakes. I played on his studio record Deep Cut to Nowhere. Graham is amazing, his songwriting, language, is unrivaled really. The Figgs grew up on this music, ate it constantly. It’s funny how we became involved with our favorite music in some ways. The British stuff, the Minneapolis stuff, me playing with Soul Asylum, the Figgs playing with Tommy Stinson and with Graham. You kind of become your idols in a way as you grow up, if you’re lucky.
You attract them into your life.
Yeah! And the NRBQ thing, people would ask “How did you get that gig?” and I would say, “I just… got it…”
Do you have any favorite albums that are constants for you personally?
Sure, well I do that thing where the one album stays on the table a lot, and lately my life’s been really hectic. I have kids, there’s a lot of energy being thrown at me, so I gravitate toward stuff that peaces me out. The Erik Satie solo piano work, the “Gymnopedies,” are sort of this great link between Debussy and New Age music. I love jazz music because it usually releases my mind of a sort of static energy. I was on a Bill Evans kick recently, Mike Gent got me on that—he’s a record collecting extraordinaire and when he discovers an artist he’s so wide open with it. I’ve always loved Bill Evans but Mike got me back in, and I bought the Village Vanguard boxed set.
Also, I did this ’70s pop recreation thing for WFMU. It’s out of East Orange, a really eclectic radio station not formatted, where all the DJs are really great and do specialty shows. I did a song for them with Shelby Lynne, “Ooh Child,” the old ’70s pop hit. This band from Connecticut did “The Logical Song,” they’re called the Philistines, Jr. I don’t know anything about this band but I know friends of theirs, and one of the members’ ten-year-old sons sang “The Logical Song.” I’ve listened to this fifty times, it’s so incredible, kind of going into a bit of a Coldplay triplet thing, which you know, could be a turnoff, but it works so well with his tiny little voice. I love when a song does that, when I have to listen to it over and over again because of the effect it has on me.
You’re into vinyl then? The vinyl sound?
Yeah, I am, for about eight years I stopped buying it. I almost sold my collection a couple of times. I have maybe a couple thousand LPs, nothing extreme. Having kids, they wrecked my needles, so I gave up for a while. But having vinyl back in my life is the best thing ever.
I listen to the radio a fair amount, WXPN and whoever’s playing current, independent music. But totally being at the mercy of what someone else says is good is really depressing. I think, “no, this does not make me feel good,” and then put on a record I know is great. I could play sides all day long, seeing my kids digging bebop, hearing some kick-ass groove that they just don’t hear in some sterilized music now. There’s just no friction in music anymore.
I know, it’s sad. I don’t want to trash MTV, but when visuals started to become more important than the sounds of songs, during the music video surge, it was the beginning of the end.
Absolutely. You want music to be a part of your life, but you don’t really need all of your senses stimulated all of the time, that’s what we’re battling.
Well that’s how you lose touch with yourself, which is so dangerous, especially for young people, during such a formative time.
Yes. One headphone in, both thumbs going, and they’re not looking out at the world. It drives me crazy. And everyone’s like, “Kids are so intelligent, they can use iPads,” and I’m like, “Any monkey can use an iPad! So what?” But—the power of music will overcome. If you go to live shows, I mean you do see people with their phones out filming, but even so—I think the power of vibrations will last forever.
Have you written any new material since this recent record release? I know The Figgs have a lot of live dates lined up for your Other Planes tour.
We have almost a whole other record in the can, our follow-up to Other Planes. And we’re writing seriously. When we usually get into the studio we’re just collecting sessions, and when this record came together really nicely, we thought, “Whoa, let’s just do an eight-song record, if it’s long enough with these exploratory versions of these songs.”
So we have a lot of other material and I think our next record conceptually will be really succinct, probably up-tempo. But it will tell us who it wants to be. And I’m not saying we’re doing it to please the contingency of our fans; there’s a certain group of fans that have been complaining over the years, asking us why we don’t make the music anymore that we did when we were 22 years old. And it’s like, we just can’t. We still love the Ramones, we still play up-tempo, we know how to whip it up, so we’ll see what happens.
Beyond that, Mike and I are doing our solo projects constantly, and there’s a major amount of archival work that we’re doing right now, planning to release much unreleased stuff from our early days. So there’s lots to see from the Figgs.