Mike MacDonald details Family and Friends’ new LP before Ybor City show

The Athens, Georgia quintet plays Crowbar on August 22.

click to enlarge Family and Friends, which plays Crowbar in Ybor City, Florida on August 22, 018. - Chelsea Kornse
Chelsea Kornse
Family and Friends, which plays Crowbar in Ybor City, Florida on August 22, 018.

On record and in person, songs from Family and Friends’ EPs — Love You Mean It and XOXO — are cathartic in the purest sense of the word. Cuts like “Rust and Bone” find frotman Mike MacDonald burying someone, coming face-to-face with a preacher’s condemnation and being dramatically re-born all in the span of five minutes. The music — propelled by a grandiose noise made by the band’s two drummers — is buoyed by the deep passes of bowed and plucked upright bass of MacDonald’s longtime friend Tuna Fortuna, who gives his singer space to just unload on lines like, “Wondering if ever there a better way to live or least some better way to die/Today is the first day of the rest of my life… I’m learning how to die.”

It’s heavy, and MacDonald only digs deeper on Family and Friends’ debut full-length Felix Culpa, where he continues to search for answers to the doctrines and supposed objective truths that come up in books or during late-night conversations with close friends and even strangers. Felix’s 12 tracks clock in at an hour long, and they find producer Brad Wood (Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins, Sunny Day Real Estate) helping the Athens, Georgia five-piece turn what was already a Technicolor take on indie-folk into a full-blown kaleidoscope that takes the very hues from our imaginations and turns them into nearly tangible, completely hummable folk-pop gems.

CL caught up with MacDonald to talk about Felix Culpa’s origins, why the band had to move away from EPs and whether or not he did find those answers he was looking for. Read highlights from our Q&A below and see the entire conversation below.

Family and Friends w/Jordan Esker & The 100 Percent/Ashley Smith & The Random Occurence. Wed. Aug. 22, 7 p.m. $10-$12. Crowbar, 1812 N. 17th St., Ybor City. More info: local.cltampa.com.


Who has the NC-17 versions of the baseball cards that your buddy did?

That's a good question. It might just be on his own desktop. We sent the headshots and he made that happen.

How was last week’s tour? You’ve got days off built into the late August and September tour. Intentional rest days?

Kind of. The tour last week was really great, it was our first time in Colorado. There are surprisingly a lot of Georgia people who move out to Colorado, so we got to see a lot of people we hadn't seen in a while, and the shows were really great. This two week period is gearing up for a bigger tour later in the fall, but even that one is kind of what you touched on. Having days off, I think, makes it easier to cope on tour instead of just grinding every day. Not to mention, just playing on Sundays and Mondays is not ideal, so it helps with the ebb and flow of tour.

I guess some people freak out because they see a day off as a day where they're just spending money and not making any.

We've used those days in the past, sometimes, to rent an Airbnb and try to write while on tour, try and make the most of the time off.

Yeah, you've obviously been living with these Felix Culpa songs longer than anyone, so have you started on writing anything for a follow-up to the album?

Very early stages. We've got a lot of vocal notes, stuff like that, songs that we know that we want to write. It takes getting in the same room together and fleshing them out. We've got 20-30 solid ideas that I would like to start hammering home. We've got some that didn't make Felix, which I'd like to revisit as well.

Yeah, I think Brad cut 8 or 10 ideas from Felix, so do you have those stowed away for another time?

Yeah, for sure. Some of them were ideas that were more prepared than others, and some were on further ends of the spectrum than what ultimately made the record. They all have something to 'em, and I would like to revisit them and see what happens.

Brad Wood is kind of a legend, especially if you like Liz Phair, but he’s obviously got even more Chicago in his DNA thanks to work with Tortoise and the Sea and Cake. You wanted him because so much of what he has worked on has this big sound (similar to your EPs, IMO, As Cities Burn specifically) and that he was really excited about working on the album. What specifically do you think he did for the sound of your band that you might not have been able to do on your own, still sounds majestic like Family and Friends, you know?

Yeah, it was kind of both parties bringing elements to the table. The thing that drew me to Brad besides the fact that every time I talked to him he was clearly excited about the project, was that the mixing on that As Cities Burn album just sounded so huge, and that's something that we really wanted out of this album. So I think through him mixing it in the same way and bringing in certain instrumentation — organ, things to flesh it out and make it bigger — that's what drew me to Brad.


So you mentioned Airbnb, and you guys found that one in L.A. to work on Felix. You were in L.A. starting in April, but then you recorded all the way through August before getting done with everything in October. How long was the process with Brad?

So we had booked all of April, last year, with Brad in L.A., and so we had an Airbnb that we were staying in, but we were recording in another studio where we got the drums down and then we went back to Brad's home studio, Seagrass Studio, to track the rest of the album. It was our intention to finish everything — mixing and mastering included — while we were out there, and we weren't even close to that by the time we left. Two weeks in, we were like, "We're not gonna be able to do this," so two weeks later, after we left in April, I flew back out and cut vocals out there, and then we recorded some stuff in Athens with a friend.

Some female vocals and the horns and strings, and then Brad flew out to Athens' Chase Park [Transduction] to finish up the recording process and start the mixing process out here. That was probably August at that time, so it was a lot longer than we intended. With that in mind, we took our time with it. It definitely took longer than we wanted it to, but at the end of the day we're happy with what we made, and so we can sleep at night with that.

It’s been about five years since you all got out of UGA and decided to make this run at being a full-time band. You’re obviously stoked on the release of Felix Culpa, which is your first full-length, but could you talk about what the journey to this album did for the band? Did you really feel that the industry might not take you seriously if you just released EPs? Was there pressure about a full-length?

 It just seemed like everyone we talked to, I mean I don't think that any of the fans or listeners necessarily cared as much about a full-length. I think we could've realistically kept putting EPs out, but it seemed like from a PR side of things, that we needed a full-length to be taken seriously. At a certain point it was also just something we wanted to do to prove to ourselves as well. The EPs we had just written songs and put them together on an EP, and this album was the first time we had written with an album in mind, so it was an entirely different process than with the EPs.

And you probably ended up with two albums, actually, right?

Yeah, I'm hoping.

Are the songs that were put aside kind of the same thematically? I think, with this album you thought you were going to answer this big existential questions, but as it went on you found out there the answer was that there is not an answer. Do the discarded songs deal with the same themes from Felix?

I think so, to a degree, some more than others. Especially the last few that we ended up cutting. There's definitely some overlap with what ultimately made the album.

And in the past you mentioned getting pigeonholed. Was that getting pigeonholed into a sound or as a band that only writes EPs

More so the sound. We started in the whole folk-pop revival, and so that is what we were writing at the time, but it's kind of silly to that that was not what we were doing, but I think deep down we know that we had a lot more to offer than what listeners expected, so that's something that we wanted to convey on this album.

Yeah, it's interesting, I was looking at the songs that inspired your from that Spotify playlist. I saw some Benjamin Booker on there, some stuff that people might not expect. I saw the Owen in there and American Football. To kind of change gears, what bar was Tuna working in when you met?

Walker's.


I was wondering if you ever go all the way back to those shift beers with him, when you would talk about this album that you wanted to write. Do you go back to those conversations when you play any of Felix Culpa?

Yeah, I guess it's just an overall feeling more than going back to a specific time. We've been working together for, six years, I guess, now. So a lot of those conversations take place over that span on time, so it's really the entire time period rather than a specific day here or there, so I think in terms of that, yeah. I think that through the creation of the album, the album was kind of creating itself if that makes sense. Constantly evolving, I don't know if that answers that the questions at all.

I think it does. I guess there's just since since of nostalgia or looking back on the album, and I was just thinking about how the band is still in Athens. You mentioned going to Colorado and seeing a bunch of friends that moved, going to L.A. to record an album, I just didn't know if there was a deep attachment to some of the friendships and relationships that you built in Athens, so I guess that's why I was wondering if you had a connection to those nights when these songs were just conceptual, loose ideas in your head.

When you put it that way, yeah. It definitely evokes those emotions. The whole time creating this was a specific time in Athens that I do think of when we play this. That time is more or less non-existent anymore. Those people have moved away, and we're kind of in a different era of Athens now.

Do you still listen to a lot of Reptar?

Oh, yeah.


Graham is one of the happiest people that I've ever seen on stage in my life. A lot of your music Thinking about “Peaches” and “Double Vision” and a lot of Felix Culpa or even the Love You Mean It EP specifically — so much of it is so cathartic. Does playing so much cathartic music live ever get emotionally tiring?

I don't think it does, to be honest. It's cathartic in its own sense, these are, a lot of times, emotions that I am not able to express in other contexts, and so to be able to play it is cathartic in finally being able to unleash those emotions in some capacity.

And you've talked about how you grew in writing this album — and maybe not with lyrics specifically since some came after the music — but you used to write songs in a bathroom or somewhere you could be alone. You know that feeling where you cringe after hearing or reading something you wrote?

Yeah.

I get that writing collaboratively is fun and something Family and Friends will probably do more moving forward, but does that self-critical feeling change when you approach writing more collaboratively the way you did on Felix Culpa? I mean other people made this music, too.

I think time will tell, to be honest. Even though it's been six months or however long, almost a year now since the album has been done, it still feel fresh after the June release. Right now, this is the first time that we've released something and I am still listening to it after it's come out — and that's a good feeling. I don't really listen to the EPs anymore.

Is that just because...

A lot of times, when I am done making something I just want to move on to the next thing and be done with it. For whatever reason, I am not experiencing that yet with this album. It's a good feeling. But most of the time, after making something I am overly critical of it, so I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up there at some point. Maybe when we start working fully on the next one. But I think there's always the thinking that you could've done things better or that whatever you do next is gonna be better.

And I know you don't talk about the specifics behind songs like "Hold On To Your Love," but is that the kind of thing where you have to call the person to tell them that you're going to release a song about a situation?

I mean, I think that they know. It's one of those things, that's not fair, in my opinion, to talk about or bring them into something like that.

How's that person who wrote the song doing? There's obviously a lot about knowing when to and learning how to let go in that song. How's that person doing today, a year later?

I think things happen for a reason, and time helps to heal the wound. So I think that song was written at a time, in the past, that we've moved on from. The emotions are still there, and the sentiments are still there. I don't know, I think maybe that's another one where time will tell. The message from it is ongoing. I don't know if it's cemented.

I always picture Family and Friends as a band that you can listen to and feel OK with whatever is going on. There's stories about basic trust, trusting the process. I guess this goes back to some technical stuff from the album. There's a lot of texture in the music. Obviously two drummers, so there's that, but I think a big reason you guys exist is to play these songs live, so is there ever a moment where you have to say, "OK this song is done, too packed with sound, etc.?"

Yeah, we've always separated the recording from the live show, and I kind of look at them as two separate entities. I'm never necessarily thinking about the live show; it kind of comes after. When that times comes, we're like, "OK, let's think about how we can make this happen in a live context." Which is sometimes harder than others. I like seeing bands that don't necessarily sound exactly the way they do on the album. I think it brings something different to the table.

Going back to these Colorado shows. You mentioned being able to see some old friends. Your live show is kind of a two-way street with the audience where the audience energy circles back to you. What does Family and Friends do when it gets to a town where the energy just isn’t there? Is it a skip for the next tour? What’ll make you want to go back?

I don't think it's a hard skip. Even the hardest shows have produced some of our biggest followers. So even if there's one or two people out there vibing to it, sometimes that's enough to say next time, "OK you guys bring some friends, and we'll be back." I know, just as a band, in those situations, that's when we try and feed off of each other the most to try and provide some sort of energy of our own, but as long as people are showing up and experiencing it, and it's making some point of an impact, I think we're always down to play the music and be there.

And real quick. Is Casey still in the band or is she just gonna do her solo thing now?

Um, a little bit of both. That role has kind of been evolving. The older we get in trying to balance life and music, for the time being she is in the band. She's coming out in September. We have more tour dates coming in October and November, it just depends on life schedules.

You’re a University of Georgia film guy, and your brother went to FSU for film. Seems like you made a good connection when you played Gasparilla Music Festival some years ago. What’s your personal background? Is it in Florida?

Him going to FSU was kind of random, he went there specifically for the film program. We actually were back in Florida this spring when we did three shows with the Oh Hellos. I think we did three shows down there, and we did Okeechobee fest. Florida has been awesome. Whenever we go down there it just seems like everyone just wants to hear music and have a good time, so I am stoked to be down there.

Yeah, and I think we're running short on time. On Felix, you set up to find some answers to doctrines and objective truths people try and share with each other. Have you gotten any closer to those or have you abandoned that pursuit?

I think I'm always looking for those answers. Maybe, for the time being, I put it on the back burner because I kind of exhausted myself through the album and actively searching for it only to end up more confused than when I started.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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