Eric McFadden on How He Defies Musical Boundaries

From his sinfully good AC/DC acoustic tribute to his mandolin playing in George Clinton's P-Funk, Eric McFadden is not one to be musically pigeonholed.
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“I’m always looking for an element of the uncommon,” Eric McFadden says. Perhaps that’s why he’s still something of a mystery to the mainstream after a quarter century of virtuosic playing with George Clinton, Eric Burdon, Stockholm Syndrome, Anders Osborne and countless others. McFadden’s fantastically broad range makes him difficult to pigeonhole, and he’s equally interesting on either side of the acoustic/electric guitar equation. It takes a truly unique cat to blaze a career path from playing gypsy mandolin with P-Funk to strumming flamenco-inspired nylon-string with the Animals, right up to his largely electric blues affair Pain by Numbers, released last summer on Tab Benoit’s Whiskey Bayou Records. Last fall, McFadden released an acoustic duo album with Omar Torrez (check out the video for the furious “Mosquito Song”), and at the close of 2018 he dropped Eric McFadden Does AC/DC, a dazzling all-acoustic tribute to the least acoustic rock act of all time, AC/DC.

McFadden already has another acoustic release up his sleeve, and an exclusive sneak peak for Frets reveals that it’s stocked with Latin-flavored nylon-string nuggets such as the aggressive flick-picker “Easy Tiger” and the lovely and melodic “Long Way Down,” which brings to mind shades of Steve Winwood’s Blind Faith classic “Can’t Find My Way Home.” We caught up with the prolific McFadden on the heels of participating in the Steel Bridge Songfest, which was originally founded by Timbuk3’s Pat MacDonald as part of a grass-roots campaign to restore a historic bridge in Wisconsin. It has grown to become an annual pilgrimage for hungry song magpies on the endless search for killer hooks.

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What early life events shaped your acoustic outlook?

I wanted an electric guitar when I was a kid because I was into the Beatles, Stones and Zeppelin. But the first guitar I got was a nylon-string acoustic at age 11, so I wound up learning to play that material on that guitar. When I eventually got serious about playing acoustic guitar, I had a steel-string for a while, but I gravitated back to the nylon-string for a few reasons. For one, I love flamenco music, especially Paco de Lucía. Willie Nelson was also a big influence, and I figured if the nylon-string was good enough for Willie, it was good enough for me. I simply adore the tone and character of a nylon-string acoustic. When I moved to San Francisco in 1994 and started playing everything from country to punk-inspired rock with the Faraway Brothers and Liar, I often wound up using the nylon-string to play it all, frequently through an amp with distortion. To this day, when playing styles ranging from rock to flamenco to blues, I integrate the nylon-string. It’s become sort of a signature sound.

How did you develop the other side of your signature acoustic sound on mandolin?

The Faraway Brothers had some gigs in Lake Tahoe in the mid ’90s, and [bassist] Ed Ivey brought a mandolin along when we went on a hike. I started messing around with it, and wrote my first song on mandolin at soundcheck that night. I eventually wound up checking out some mandolin greats, including David Grisman and Sam Bush, but I wound up going down the mandolin road simply because Ed had the good sense to bring one that day.

How did that fortuitous moment eventually lead to the wild scenario where your mandolin playing landed you a gig with P-Funk?

Mutual friends connected me with George Clinton for a recording session, and he called me back for another series of sessions. I was playing a nylon-string acoustic guitar on a funky tune, and George came running into the room all excited, shouting, “Gypsy funk! Gypsy funk!” The next day I dropped by after a gig with my mandolin, which I played for them while they were on a dinner break. When I started playing a riff, George threw his chicken down. “Everybody gather around the mic,” he said. “We’ve got to capture this idea.” He invited me to come play it that night at the Warfield Theatre, and that riff wound up being incorporated into a new arrangement of a song called “Gypsy Woman” on How Late Do U Have 2BB4UR Absent? I connected with them again when my solo tour was falling apart on the East Coast. George eventually pulled me aside and said, “We’ve got a bunk for you on the bus. Where do I send the checks”? It’s nice to have the distinction of being the first and only mandolin player in P-Funk. [laughs]

What’s your primary mandolin?

I recently worked out an endorsement deal with Ovation, so I’m using one of their Americana Collection Pro Series mandolins, which is very nice, with a distressed sunburst finish. They also sent a few steel-string acoustics, so it’s the first time I’ve had one of those in 25 years, and I’m particularly fond of the Elite TX. But I mainly stick to the nylon-string acoustic, because that’s really what I’m into, and my main nylon-string is a LaPatrie, which is a division of Godin. I actually play a Godin A8 mandolin as well, but regarding LaPatrie nylon-strings, I’ve played many models over the years, including the Etude and the Concert, but the one I play most is a black Hybrid with no cutaway that they custom made for me. LaPatrie instruments always feel comfortable, and they tend to sound good plugged in because they have fine electronics. In addition to the usual pickup, mine has an internal microphone that I can blend in to get an authentic acoustic sound onstage. Sometimes I simply run it through a direct box, and other times I’ll run it through an amp, depending on the quality of the backline provided on a particular gig.

Can you detail the killer resonator that you often play onstage?

That’s a James Trussart SteelReso that he customized for me. It has a dual-pickup system. One is a traditional resonator pickup, and the other is a humbucker. A blend knob allows me to dial in any combination. A resonator with a deep body sounds better unamplified, but mine has a thin body that helps reduce feedback, which is important, because I often play it through loud amplification. That Trussart sounds and looks pretty fantastic. It’s one of the top instruments from my collection that I’d save first from a burning building.

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You incorporate some rockin’ acoustic tones on your AC/DC tribute album. How did that record come about?

Bad Reputation is a French label that approached me about doing an acoustic tribute to a band that is notoriously not at all acoustic. I couldn’t think of a single instance of Angus or Malcolm Young playing an acoustic guitar track on an official AC/DC studio album, so it seemed fun to see how their stuff would come across in an acoustic format.

“Whole Lotta Rosie” works well as an slide boogie.

I’m a big fan of the original version, and I’ve been playing that song since I was a kid. The riff is very much like a John Lee Hooker riff, so I figured I’d take it back there by swinging it more like he would. I played it on the Trussart resonator with a slide. I almost never play slide, so I’m not the best slide player, but the fact that there’s a lot of out-of-tune slide playing on that is fine with me. I’m sure a few people will cringe, but maybe I derived a small amount of pleasure knowing that.

“Beatin’ Around the Bush” is slamming, and it has a similar, yet different sound.

That’s one of my favorite tracks from Highway to Hell, because it’s a real romp and I felt it translated well when played in pretty much the same fashion as the original, but with a stomp feel on a resonator. On that track I played a full-bodied Trussart resonator that James lent me for the session.

Your cocktail-lounge take on “Have a Drink on Me” is a hoot. Can you talk about how you arrived at that arrangement?

I started out trying a more bluesy tack, but I wasn’t quite happy with it. I recorded at Lucky Recording Company in Brisbane, California, working with Travis Kasperbauer and Mikel Ross. Travis prompted me to take it in a different direction, and he might have even used the word lounge. Considering the song’s title, it made sense to go in a Dean Martin direction. So instead of power chords, I went full minor swing, with jazzy chord extensions such as 6ths, 9ths and 13ths on the black LaPatrie Hybrid. Mike Anderson played upright bass, Josh Zee played the first guitar solo, and I took the second one.

Do I hear Django Reinhardt’s influence there?

I’m a big Django fan, so you probably hear some of his influence, plus a little Wes Montgomery, and even a bit of Eric McFadden in there as well. [laughs]

Speaking of your signature acoustic tone, the preview of your upcoming album sounds like a return to your nylon-string roots.

That’s right. I’ve been recording at Okey Doke Studios in San Rafael, California, with producer/mixer Phil “Philbillie” Milner. The first track we recorded, “Heading for the Light,” is a fingerstyle song that I actually started in Mexico last year when I went there to play a gig with Omar Torrez. He’s a great guitarist who now lives in Los Angeles, but his family home is in Cholula, Mexico, and while I was there we recorded what turned out to be an entire album, Cholula Sessions, in a single day. Cholula Sessions is fun, because it happened spontaneously with just the two of us playing guitar.

Back to the upcoming album, “Long Way Down” is an older song that I originally wrote as an instrumental. I wound up collaborating on the lyrics with [former Sneaker Pimps singer] Kelli Ali, and this new version was born. “The Way I Loved You” features Emily Palen on violin. There are a few songs from the upcoming record that venture toward blues, but mostly it’s steeped in the sort of Mexican, Spanish, anything-Latin flavors that I love.

McFadden performing with Anders Osborne

McFadden performing with Anders Osborne

What’s the balance of electric to acoustic guitar playing in your live show at the moment?

It fluctuates, but right now I’d say it’s about 75 percent electric, because I’ve been on the road supporting Pain by Numbers, and it’s mostly bluesy electric material with a couple of acoustic cuts: “I Never Listened Too Good” and “Cactus Juice.”

You always come across with a cool rock vibe onstage regardless of the material. Do you have any thoughts on how to avoid folkie trappings and rock the planet, even when you’re playing Latin-influenced nylon-string guitar?

Rock and roll is embedded in my blood, so I certainly can’t live without it. If you didn’t have the good fortune of growing up with rock and roll as a religion, then it might be a little more challenging, but there are ways to get there, and it’s never too late to get the rock in you. Maybe the folk players out there could delve into some rock music for a couple of hours a day? There’s no harm in trying. Rock can’t hurt you, it can only help you. Rock and roll saves lives.

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