By Jim Morrison
When the Athens, Georgia, alt folk-rock group Family and Friends decided to record an album after a pair of EPs, they changed the prescription.
After all, why not mess with success?
Rather than have front man Mike MacDonald pen the songs as they’d been doing, the band went democratic (that’s small “d” folks) for Felix Culpa, the 12-song album debut they’ll bring to Toast in Norfolk on Sept. 23 on a bill that includes Walden and Broke Royals.
They also signed on with Brad Wood, the producer behind classics like Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville,” Smashing Pumpkins’ “Adore,” Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Diary,” and an As Cities Burn’s “Hell or High Water,” which MacDonald loved.
They talked about the process and the sound they wanted. And they created an album club, sort of like a book club, where every member of the band put up an album each week to everyone to check out as they were beginning to write, the first time the band collaborated rather than rely solely on MacDonald’s pen.
“It really helped a lot in the writing process,” MacDonald says from home in Athens. “It made a certain language that made the conversation easier. When we were trying to figure out a part or work through something we could reference those moments on an album that we were trying to achieve.”
They returned to the same five or six bands including Local Natives, Bon Iver, Alabama Shakes, My Morning Jacket and The Head and the Heart. One of the biggest benefits for MacDonald was listening to some of the hardcore and Emo liked by guitarist J.P. McKenzie and drummer/percussionist Ryan Houchens. “Those are genres I had never given the time of day,” he adds. “Just listening and being open to listen to things you would never otherwise come across was super beneficial.”
For MacDonald, the writing was an adjustment. The band worked together, taking their time. “This was the first time we sat down before we started the process and talked over what we wanted to see happen, the sound we wanted to see happen. We demoed a lot more,” he says. “We had never demoed before. Going to LA and working with Brad Wood, I think, elevated everything to a new level.”
MacDonald says it took a minute to adjust to collaborating — “I can definitely be stubborn in some situations” — but then moved ahead arriving at a place the band would not have gotten to without the change. He cites “PRSM,” a track that took the six-member group into new territory. Tuna, their bass player, brought the harmonic loop that opens the song. “Coming from a past where I would bring songs on acoustic guitar, a song like PRSM would never have existed in that context,” MacDonald notes. “That’s one we’re really proud of.”
Wood’s ability to get a big sound out of groups was an attraction to the band and it shows in an album that moves easily and occasionally disjointedly from one sound to another, touching down in Mumford & Sons land, then skipping over to folk rock with a nod to Dylan, slipping the bonds for a spacey bit of Bon Iver/Pink Floyd orbit, and even dipping a toe in jamband land. The result is a sprawling, ambitious album of a maturing band finding its voice, demanding to be heard.
The title — Felix Culpa — was suggested by David “Tuna” Fortuna, the bassist. But that came after the album was complete. MacDonald said he started thinking in grandiose visions for the album, thinking it could be about finding meaning in life after college, figuring out where he and the band were at that time in their lives.
“Tuna worked at the same bar,” he says. “We’d talk through these same ideas. He had a philosophy degree,” MacDonald says. “I didn’t necessarily have those answers by the time the album was finished.”
But the quest for answers, as always, produces a meaningful dialogue on the disc’s dozen songs. And that title? It translates as happy mistake. The band seized on it as meaning that just being together was a happy coincidence worth celebrating.
The group formed in 2013. All the guys went to the University of Georgia. Three of them were in high school together. From the beginning, MacDonald says they knew who they wanted in the band. It just took time to get everybody together. They knew they wanted two drummers — standing up performing live, something unique.
“They have a lot of fun back there and feed off of each other,” he says, laughing. “After a week or two when we’re on the road they kind of become the same person. They give a certain energy that kind of feeds the rest of the band.”
They practiced a ton and after four or five months took the leap to playing live. The band set up a potluck party at the Chase Street warehouse in Athens for about 100 friends. “It went from there,” he says. “Someone saw us and wanted to put us in a venue in Athens.”
Soon, they had a career, playing around town and touring. The Eps and Felix Culpa naturally followed.
The album closes on a sort of meditation, “Houndstooth.”
Am I doing what I’m supposed to?
Am I making the most of it?
Is this the path I chose?
Will I ever know it?
“That’s one of the songs that was on the back-burner. The bare bones structure came about early on at the time of the first two EPs. Starting with that low quality then getting pretty loud out of nowhere. It just seemed like a cool idea for a song,” he says. “We revisited it making this album. It was one of the last songs written lyrically. I wanted to evoke some kind of emotion. I was struggling for a long time getting the lyrics exactly how I wanted them. Once it started coming together, we knew that would be the album ender.”
WANT TO GO?
Family and Friends
With Broke Royals and Walden
September 23, 7 PM