ERIC MCFADDEN WAS DESTINED TO BE DIFFERENT. His mother sang in an early
incarnation of the Fugs, the Ed Saunders-led New York ensemble that was
arguably the first underground rock band. Bob Dylan slept on the
McFadden couch while Eric was still in the womb, and counter culture
poet (and neighbor) Allen Ginsberg successfully protested when the
family was faced with eviction from their Greenwich Village apartment.
McFadden’s father turned Eric on to Jimi Hendrix and the Mahavishnu
Orchestra at a young age—influences he would combine with flamenco,
punk, and heavy metal to form a unique style.
McFadden always expresses his expansive range of styles through myriad projects—a trait that has made him an elusive cat to categorize. In 2000, he finally caught a break as the first-ever mandolin player for George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars. Over time, he played an increasing amount of guitar in the band, although McFadden officially left the group at the start of 2004 to join the Stockholm Syndrome, a genre-transcending outfit that also includes Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools and drummer Wally Ingram (Sheryl Crow, Jackson Browne). When the Stockholm Syndrome went on hiatus in the fall of ’04, McFadden and Ingram continued to work together as Alektrophobia. The duo’s eclectic—and largely acoustic—debut featured guest appearances by Les Claypool, Keb’ Mo’, and Nels Cline.
McFadden now splits his energies mainly between Alektrophobia and the Eric McFadden Trio. McFadden’s hallmarks include a rough-and-tumble voice and a preference for amplifying ancient archtops and classical acoustic guitars to yield very unique-sounding overdriven tones.
What gear are you currently using?
I have a 1933 Gibson L10 that has been modified with a Barcus Berry neck pickup, a 1947 Gibson ES-150, a LaPatrie Etude, a Washburn M3WSE mandolin, a ’95 Fender Jerry Donahue Signature Telecaster, and a ’77 Gibson Les Paul Standard. My amp is a Fender Vibrolux Reverb reissue loaded with a Tone Tubby 12" speaker, and my effects include a CryBaby wah, a Reverend Drivetrain, a ProCo Rat, and a Boss TU-2 tuner.
You favor minor keys, wear black clothes, and have a knack for demented humor—what’s your attraction to the dark side?
People such as William Burroughs, Lydia Lynch, David Lynch, and Nick Cave show a side of reality that needs to be represented, and I feel that I’m here to do that, too. It’s not a matter of choice, it’s what I’m inclined to express.
Were you always that way?
Early on—oddly enough—I loved the Beatles. My father introduced me to Jimi Hendrix, and I was way into Band of Gypsys and Are You Experienced? Then Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin came into my life and really changed me. Metallica’s Kill ’Em All was another big influence. I dug the aggression, but I’ve always been into so many different things—from Jimi Hendrix to Bad Brains to Django Reinhardt.
It’s interesting you should mention Django, because there’s a bit of gypsy spirit that pervades everything you do.
I have an affinity for gypsies, because they know and celebrate extremes. They live lives of suffering, yet they are so full of love and passion. There is beauty in acknowledging suffering and relating it to other people. I’m drawn to extremes in music. I like to play with reckless abandon, absolute delicacy, and everything in between.
The gypsy flavor in your music isn’t jazzy like Django’s. Where else might it be coming from?
I don’t know where the gypsy flavor comes from specifically, but when we moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, I got into flamenco. A younger kid who was a family friend needed to be taken to flamenco lessons after school, so I agreed to do it. I was overtaken as I sat there listening, so I picked up records by Paco de Lucia and Carlos Montoya, and the flamenco sound became a component of my style. There’s a lot involved, but once your alternate picking is fluid, and you master the harmonic minor scale, you’re in good shape.
Is the flamenco factor why you play an amplified classical nylon-string to this day—even in your rock bands?
I played acoustic-electric first, and then I got into solidbody electric—which I played most of my life in rock bands. The amplified acoustic style I play now came about by accident. I plugged my classical nylon-string into an amp one day, threw on some distortion and a wah, and started experimenting with different tones. I like the acoustic instrument’s sensitivity—and I can make it sound like an electric if I so desire—but it’s a unique sound that’s different from a Les Paul or a Strat or a Tele. On the other hand, it’s much more difficult to make an electric guitar sound acoustic and organic.
You often use an old hollowbody Gibson archtop, as well.
I like playing old archtops with heavy strings, because I want to struggle with the guitar. Also, old archtops have great tone. It requires effort to bend the strings on my 1933 Gibson L10, but I’ve grown accustomed to the feel. The tone is penetrating and sharp, yet the sound is still round and warm. It will rock, but it also responds well to touch. It’s like a beast that you have to control. The L10 gives back whatever you put into it, and that’s rewarding.
How does that compare to playing the classical nylon-string?
The classical is easy on your fingers, because nylon strings don’t dig into your flesh the way steel strings do, but the feedback is difficult to control. You have to find new ways to get around in the high register, and bending strings can be a challenge. I wind up playing lots of trills and runs that work without sustain—stuff you might normally play on a mandolin.
How did your mandolin skills lead you to P-Funk?
I first met George Clinton at a 1998 studio session in San Francisco. It was intimidating, but we ended up laying down some really fat tracks. I sat in with P-Funk the next time they were in town, and I did some more sessions. I whipped out the mandolin at one point, and George dug it. In 2000, I was doing a solo tour of the East Coast that was falling apart, so I was hanging around P-Funk. Out of the blue, George told me to get on the bus, and he brought me into the family. Eventually, I began to play more guitar in the band, but, essentially, I’ve always been the mandolin player in P-Funk. It helped me get through some very difficult times, and got me re-established in the music business.
What was the main thing you learned from playing in P-Funk?
I learned how to lay back and play behind the beat. That’s something I’ve strived to do during my whole life, but playing with P-Funk made me ultra aware of the value. You don’t want to hump like a bunny—that’s what you do when you’re 18. Hump slow, like a man. Live in the moment, let it build, and feel it!
Why did you leave such a cool gig?
To be a part of P-Funk is a great honor, and it was a great learning experience, but I can’t fulfill every musical need in one context. Playing with a variety of great musicians compels me to create. In the eyes of the industry, however, this direction has been a detriment. They want to pigeonhole you so that they can market you more easily or effectively, but they are limited by their own shallow conceptions of who you are and what you do. That’s largely due to the fact that they don’t have any point of reference.
Do you ever consider that jumping from project to project also makes it harder for the public to understand you?
I don’t expect the industry or the masses to understand me. Forget being an artist—you can’t expect that as a human being. I don’t believe in expectations, because they lead to disappointment. Catering to everyone is a recipe for disappointment. I want to be true to myself as a person, and as an artist. I’m grateful for those who are accepting and supportive.
Do you feel frustrated about being told forever that you’re going to finally breakthrough?
At a certain point, I became embittered and frustrated. But that time has past, because I’ve realized that I have reaped great rewards from the people I’ve met, and the heights I’ve reached as a result of playing with so many amazing musicians. That’s invaluable—as is the fact that there are people out there who really appreciate and connect with my music. I stepped into this music career—it wasn’t a matter of choice. Music chose me, and I’m here to fulfill that purpose.
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