Interview: The Collective Energy and Undeniable Magic of FAMILY AND FRIENDS

"As long as we’re able and fortunate enough to continue to do what we’re doing, the goal is just to continue to grow this community, meet new people, and share new experiences together along the way. If we can wake up and put a little more love into the world than when we started, then that alone is worth it for us."

From left: JP McKenzie (guitar), Alejandro Rios (percussion), Mike MacDonald (guitar/vocals), Ryan Houchens (percussion), Tuna Fortuna (bass)

Today marks the release of Georgia-based Family and Friends' debut full-length album, Felix Culpa, a dynamic ode to self discovery, awareness, and - most importantly - the celebration of life.The band's name is fitting in multiple facets. In addition to three of the core members originating from the same high school in Atlanta, GA, this bunch seems to play with a universal heartbeat. This intangible connection extends from collaborative songwriting to complex, multi-instrumental harmonies to an unbreakable bond with their home community of Athens, GA.

As a UGA alum, I've had the pleasure of following the band's success since college. In light of Felix Culpa, I was able to catch up with the gang in regards to their maturation, influences, and what lies ahead.

MG: Congratulations on your debut full-length album my friends - I'm a huge fan of the new music. Is there an underlying theme to this album? How does the development of Felix Culpa differ from your previous projects?

F&F: Thanks so much! Means a lot to hear you enjoy. As soon as we finished and released our 2nd EP in 2015, I think it was pretty apparent to us that the next move and logical step in our progression as a band would be to write a full length. As we were beginning to undertake the initial steps to writing, I found myself in a period of pretty significant questioning. As we grow up, all of these ideas, beliefs, and emotions are more or less embedded within us. There are certain facets that we just accept to be canon, but as we grow older, we begin to see the world for what it is. At a certain point, I think most people reach a crossroad where they realize that they actually have a choice in the matter. A lot of this album grew out of that place of just kind of rediscovering and uncovering certain core values and the interplay of what it all means in the whole scheme of things. With the previous projects, it was more of a collection of songs we’d written and subsequently grouped together. For Felix Culpa, the goal from day one was to create something more cohesive.

The term "felix culpa" often describes a positive outcome which arises from unfortunate circumstances – how is that incorporated into this music?

As previously mentioned, when we began the initial stages of writing this album, I found myself in this state of questioning and confusion. We’re raised in this society where so much emphasis is placed on things that are so seemingly trivial in the whole scheme of things - Wake up, work, sleep, repeat. We get so stuck in the monotony that we often lose sight of the beauty of life itself. I just found myself pleading that there must be something more and constantly coming back to the same question that everyone experiences at one point or another - What’s the meaning of it all?

I’m not sure anyone will ever truly have the answer, but at a certain stage, I think there was a turning point where this album became about acceptance. Just living in the now and the acknowledgement that we’ll likely never have all the answers we’re looking for. The album title, which we’ve loosely translated to “happy mistake,” ultimately comes from the idea that through the ups and downs, good and bad, even if this is just some random happenstance, the fact that we get to experience it at all is worth celebrating.

What was it like working with Brad Wood out in LA?

Working with Brad was a dream. This album would honestly not be what it turned into without his input and guidance every step of the way. When we set out to record, we talked with various producers, all of whom were extremely talented and I’m confident would have made an amazing record in their own right. But every time we got off a phone call with Brad, we all had the same gut feeling that this was the direction the universe was pointing us. He really seemed to understand the vision and scope for the album as a whole and was excited about it in a way that was even more encouraging and motivating for us.

With both of the previous EPs, we had recorded over the span of weeks and months, mostly picking days here and there when schedules would permit - so it was a very disjointed process. With the full-length, we knew it would only make the album stronger to find a way to be in the same place and allow ideas to marinate and manifest. Being in LA for a month strictly in the studio was great not only to be able to bounce ideas off each other and live with the songs, but also to really allow them to develop in a studio setting.

Although Mike was the primary writer of the material on your latest EP (XOXO), how were the responsibilities divvied up on this project? Is that the plan going forward?

This album came from a much more collaborative writing process. A lot of times someone would bring an idea to the table, and we would kind of flush it out and jam on it for a few hours at our practice space and see where it would lead us. Often times, this meant there was a degree of homework involved as well. Rather than waiting until the next practice, the most headway often came from everyone taking the initial basic puzzle pieces we’d formed and attempting to find a way to put them together or add new ones prior to the following practice. So much of the writing is done outside of the space when there is time to really think through things and take the time to break it all apart just to find new ways to put it back together again. In this way, everyone more or less shared the responsibilities of crafting the songs.

Believe it or not, this was the first time we’d demoed before, and it made all the difference in the final product. In the past, we’d just rehearse until we all had parts written and memorized and figure out the rest in the studio. Being able to arrange and layer parts and hearing how it all interplayed within the context of the song was instrumental in shaping these into what they would eventually become. So much of the writing process was uncharted territory for us at the time and took a degree of navigating, but I’m confident we’ll continue to implement the lessons learned and ultimately grow moving forward.

I remember back in school my buddy Louis, who at the time worked at Walker’s with Mike and Tuna, dragging us to The Foundry for our first Family and Friends show with Mama’s Love. How have your day-to-day band responsibilities changed from balancing school, work, and music a few years ago to now?

The first year or so we began playing together, half the band was still in college, so it was a lot of balancing class, day-to-day barista/bartending jobs, and practice schedules. We were only playing locally at the time and hadn’t really begun touring yet, so we were able to allocate much of the time together to writing and coming up with new ideas. Once everything more or less began taking off, time-management became so much more crucial.

Growing as a band in my mind is a lot like juggling. You start off with x-amount of balls in the air, and as you continue to grow, someone keeps tossing more and more into the mix. There are so many more things to think about on a daily basis now from writing, touring, marketing, finances, merch creation and fulfillment…the list goes on and on. Individually, maybe it’s not so much, but collectively it’s an entire operation. From the beginning, we’ve run this as a business and it’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to continue to operate independently, but it’s a full-time job.

Nowadays, we’re split between Athens and Atlanta. Individually, there are more personal responsibilities in terms of jobs and relationships and whatnot, which also add to the balancing act. Being in a band of our size is like dating 5 other people, so a lot of it comes down to communication, patience, and sacrifice. I think ultimately being able to evolve and adapt with the inevitable change is what determines success in the long-run.

How did you all link up in the first place?

For the most part, the band formation was serendipitous. A few of us knew each other from high school. Jandro and I had been playing music together since we met in the 7th grade, and JP was a few grades below us. The rest of us met through UGA and Athens as a community in general. The city - and especially the music scene - are tight-knit enough that you begin to see and recognize the same people. It wasn’t until graduating that we ultimately decided to pursue music full-time, but once we did, all the pieces began falling into place.

Last question about Athens, I promise. What does Athens mean to you all? What was it like to play the Georgia Theatre or AthFest for the first time?

I can confidently say that we as individuals and a band wouldn’t be where we are today without Athens playing a role. Everything that we’ve accomplished, everywhere we’ve been…it can all be traced back to Athens, so the city itself means a lot to us.

I remember when we first started, it was a goal of mine to one day play the Georgia Theatre. It seemed like such a distant prospect at the time, but so much of those early days was thinking, “what tangible steps can we take to make this happen?” As we’ve progressed, we have these bucket list moments, and we’ve been fortunate enough to slowly tick some of them off. Going from playing the Georgia Theatre for the first time to selling it out twice to now to headlining Athfest…they’re moments that were always goals, but to see them realized is a literal dream come true. The fact that we’ve been able to accomplish even some of these is surreal in a lot of ways, and it’s not something we take for granted in the slightest. A lot of it really is a testament of the amazing city Athens is, and how much we owe to this community that has supported us since the beginning.

The Georgia Theatre, Feb. 2016 | Photo by Chelsea Kornse

How have you all developed since the band’s inception, both as individual musicians as well as the band as a whole? Was there a certain sound/genre you were hoping for initially? If so, how has that evolved over time?

We like to think of this album as a logical step in the progression of the band. Obviously the more we continue to play together, the tighter and more polished everything gets from a technical standpoint. But, I like to think one of the biggest developments is just a certain maturation in the overall sound. When we first started, the folk scene was exploding and the foundation of the majority of our songs was written first on an acoustic guitar. That being said, we’ve never been one to stay stagnant and spin the wheels in place. It’s our goal to continue to push ourselves creatively and try new things. I think a lot of this album has been a great step in a new direction and uncharted territory and hopefully one that we’ll only continue to explore further.

Who are some of your biggest musical influences? What would we find playing on your Spotify today?

We made a list of musical inspirations to draw on at the onset of recording this album that included Bon Iver, Local Natives, Alabama Shakes, Fleet Foxes, Modest Mouse, Typhoon, The War On Drugs, My Morning Jacket, Manchester Orchestra, The Oh Hellos, and The Head And The Heart, just to name a few…

The band’s name fits the group perfectly, given the consistently complex intertwining of various instruments and the band’s camaraderie onstage. What do you all try to give to the crowd any given night?

We’ve always put an emphasis on the live show and trying to make sure it’s something special. It should be a given, but we try to leave it all on the stage every single time we play. It’s a goal of ours to get as weird as possible, and a lot of that comes from playing off each other and a certain intangible connection. I think one of the most important aspects of the live show for us is that it’s not just some linear exchange. We never just want to be playing at a stagnant crowd. The best shows are a conversation between every party in the room. It takes everyone in that specific space and time working together to create something bigger than any one body. When everybody’s energy is feeding off of the collective energy, there’s a real and undeniable magic to that.

Another tribute to your talent as performers is the ultra-effective use of two drummers – how did that come to be? How are those percussion roles written and assigned?

Before we even began playing any music together, we knew we wanted two drummers. Originally, in my mind, I had always pictured them standing and facing the crowd flanking both sides of the stage. The first practice space we had was small enough that the only way we could all fit comfortably was if the drummers faced one another - and we haven’t looked back since.

Together, they’re pretty like-minded and incredibly talented at playing off of one another. One of the whole reasons to have multiple drummers is to be able to do things that you couldn’t necessarily pull off with only one individual. We try to split parts whenever possible. To me, one of the most exciting aspects is the limitless possibilities moving forward. Both drummers are multi-faceted musicians. Neither is limited to solely drumming abilities, so ideally the role of the drummers will continue to evolve and expand as the band continues to do so.

What’s the ultimate goal for this band over the next three to five years?

At the end of the day, the overarching goal and ultimately why we pursue music is to connect with others and hopefully create something that resonates with someone out there on some level. We don’t kid ourselves, and we’re pretty realistic. It’s an incredibly difficult industry in terms of sustainability. But as long as we’re able and fortunate enough to continue to do what we’re doing, the goal is just to continue to grow this community, meet new people, and share new experiences together along the way. If we can wake up and put a little more love into the world than when we started, then that alone is worth it for us.

If you haven't already started your day off with Felix Culpa, the brand new album is available wherever you get your music fix.

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