This year has been a busy one for The Figgs. Mike Gent, Pete Donnelly and Pete Hayes released their 13th album, On the Slide, in the spring and followed that up with tours of the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and many shows throughout their base of the Northeast. They’ve also lined up their annual holiday shows in December, including “An Evening With” concerts in New York and Albany. Next year will mark the 30th anniversary for the guys and they’re planning album number-14 and couple of reissues to mark the occasion. Oh, and they’re doing a special hometown New Year’s Eve show in Saratoga Springs to kick off the new year, and the celebration for hitting a mark very few bands ever achieved.
I saw the band play in Brooklyn in early September and afterwards I looked in my archives to see what number Figgs show it was that I’d seen, and was shocked to find it was exactly 100. So when Mike emailed me a few days after the gig, it seemed like the right time to strike up a dialogue about how the band approaches shows these days, how they pick the covers they perform, and what comes next when you’ve got an incredible anniversary that’s worth applauding. –Steve Reynolds
SR: One thing I’ve always dug over the years is that when you construct a set list the tracks are put together like mini rock blocks — three songs from this album, four songs from that album, four acoustic songs, etc. until the end of the show. How did that tendency develop? Was it something that just made it easier playing wise? Or do you think it put the audience in a specific mindset?
MG: The blocks of songs from the same record, or a specific period comes from the way Husker Du constructed their set lists. I noticed a while back on some live tapes I had, that they would play three songs in a row from Flip Your Wig, in the same sequence as the record, then move onto a few from Zen Arcade, and so on. This approach appealed to me as a listener and performer. It puts you in the zone of that record for a bit, instead of just a random selection of songs in a set, which most performers often seem to have. Usually our sets start with a group of songs from whatever the most recent record is, and it works well for us to have the same three or four songs at the top every night. That way we can just be on auto pilot right at takeoff, so instead of worrying about playing the song, we have room to make amp/sound adjustments and hopefully settle in quick without thinking about which song is next, because we already know. The mid set acoustic portion is nice because it gives us a bit of an aural breather, and gives us a chance to bring the energy back up again towards the end of the main set.
SR: Speaking of audiences, obviously they’re not all the same. Some are content to stand around, drink their beer and nods their heads, while others sing at the top of their lungs and pump their fists at certain parts. Do you change your set lists on the fly if you’re not getting the audience reaction (heh heh) you expect?
MG: Oh yeah, I change it all the time, probably much to the chagrin of Pete. I will usually make out a skeleton of a set before the show, and Pete will look it over minutes before we go on. Occasionally he'll say, "Nah, let's not do that one" or will want to add something. We do try to read the crowd though, and often bail on an entire set if we think we need a different vibe once we are on stage. It depends on the venue and the crowd, you know?
SR: One thing that every Figgs fan knows to expect at one of your shows – if it’s relatively easy (and even sometimes when it’s not) you and Pete D. will walk into the crowd and jam while Hayes keeps the beat going on the stage. Do you remember when this tradition got started? Why do you keep doing it?
MG: I think it started with the idea that we would go out and play a low key, sing along type thing in the audience. We had this arrangement of “Blame It All Senseless” that we would do out in the crowd. That lasted for a bunch of tours, then we became tired of it, and started to just step out into the audience during songs with long solo sections. It's a nice way to make the crowd seem connected with the band and bring the energy of the room up. It's often part of the show. Schtick baby!
SR: Let’s talk about Pete Hayes – almost every show someone will call out for “Pete Hayes Time” where you go behind the drums, Pete D picks up the guitar and Hayes gets up to the vocal mic. It almost seems like it can’t be a Figgs headline set without it. Is this a fun time of the set for you (I know you like playing drums)? Why do you think it’s become such a crucial part of the show for your most devoted fans?
MG: Hayes is a good showman. He's fun to watch on drums, and people love watching him front the band. We ripped off “Pete Hayes Time” from NRBQ. Tommy Ardolino would often come out and sing a song, sometimes play a little piano. It was always a part of their shows that I really looked forward to. Also Tommy had this really sweet thing about him that was great to watch when he was fronting. I thought...ahh, Hayes can do that. Now, Hayes tends to go for the crazy, yelling side of things but he can also do the sweet thing (“Avec U”), which I sometimes enjoy more. Way before “Pete Hayes Time,” back around 1990 through maybe 1992, he would sing songs while playing drums. He has a lot of unreleased songs from when he first joined the band. One time we let him play guitar, but everything about that was wrong, so that idea was quickly axed. He's always been really good with lyrics. I wish he would set aside some time to write more. I'm getting tired of playing the same 5 songs that have been in “Pete Hayes Time” rotation!
SR: The band started playing house concerts about nine years ago and they’ve become a staple of your tour dates each year, whether it’s in the Northeast, the Midwest or all the way in Seattle. What’s the appeal of doing them? Do you feel you have to change the way you play at all because you’re in someone’s living room (or backyard)? Do people that attend act differently than someone going to see you at say, the Mercury Lounge in New York (where you’re playing on December 17th)?
MG: We’ve loved doing the house concerts the last few years. The #1 reason people go to these is to listen to the band and there is an instant connection made usually. Drinking and socializing are lower on the list, whereas in a club, these things are higher up and sometimes the music is a much lower priority. This leads to people yelling out for only the fast, rocking material, and a different kind of performance from the band. Don't get me wrong, we love playing that kind of show. We've played that sort of show for almost three decades! That specific size club circuit, with the loud PA, bad monitors, and grumpy sound guy has been our entire career! So it's very appealing to go into someone's house where they are actually very excited for your arrival, and the audience might be people that don't have the opportunity, time, or energy to go to a club and see a band. At the house concerts, people listen and it gives us a great opportunity to open up and tell funny stories, and play material that doesn't always translate well in a rock club. I love doing the house concerts. I wish we could play more of them.
SR: Speaking of house concerts, the one you did in Roxbury, Mass. on September 17th had one of the craziest setlists I’ve ever seen. Set one was On the Slide, in its entirety. Set two had half the songs from The Day Gravity Stopped. And the third set was Other Planes of Here in its entirety. Where did the idea to do these two and half albums in one show come from? Did you guys have to rehearse to pull it off? And did you get a massage the next day?
MG: Well, this was more of a back yard party thing. A little different than a house concert, where people want to see us! We were asked to play three sets which is something we don't usually do. We have been playing a lot of shows that have two sets, which I enjoy. I recently had an idea to do some shows where before we go on, we pick three records, put them in a hat, then have someone in the audience pick out of the hat, and we play the record they pick. We'll see if that happens. I think it would be a fun thing to add to the set. We would need to touch up on some material we haven't played in a long time.
And yeah, I was fried the next day. Whew. Most of it was pretty good. There were a few stinkers as far as performances. The new record works really well playing the entire thing in sequence. There are songs that we take out of rotation and put aside for years because we get burned out on certain material so this idea would be a nice way to maybe bring out some stuff we forgot about.
SR: You guys would occasionally play covers over the years, but in the past decade they’ve become more of permanent fixture of your set lists. When you have such a wide catalog of your own material (including the solo albums you and Pete D. have released), why tackle someone else’s song?
MG: Good question. I think I have always been more apt to throw in more covers than Pete thinks we should have in the set, ha ha... I think there are always people out there seeing the band for the first time, and I think it's nice to maybe throw in a few familiar songs. Plus, I love learning and playing other peoples songs. It's what we have done from the start. It's how we learned to write our own songs. How to arrange, what keys work the best for our vocal range, which tempos work best live, etc... This was all learned from playing covers I think. Playing covers gives us a nice break from playing and hearing our own songs! I remember reading a Nick Lowe interview years ago and he was saying that he likes putting a few covers on his records because it's a little egotistical to want to hear an entire record of your own songs. Ha!
SR: I picked out some of the songs you’ve covered the most over the past five years – tell me why you chose these songs and what you get out of performing them:
The Beatles – “I’m Only Sleeping”
MG: I have been playing this one solo for a long, long time. I finally figured out how to play the bridge correctly and brought it to the band.
The Broken West – “Down in the Valley”
MG: My wife bought the album this is on (I Can't Go On, I'll Go On) when it came out, and I could not stop listening to this track. It's rare that we would do a contemporary cover. We usually stick to stuff from the ’60s and ’70s. I brought this to the band, and they dug it. I wish I could remember the words in the correct order!! I contacted Ross Floury who wrote the songs, and he wrote back saying he was very honored.
MG: It was 1985, and I was at the Pyramid Mall walking through the stereo department in Service Merchandise when I first heard this song. I had no idea who it was, but on my way home, I did a detour to downtown Saratoga, and stopped at Strawberries. I remember singing the chorus to one of the clerks and he handed me Listen Like Thieves. A great record, done with my favorite producer, Chris Thomas.
Kate Bush – “Hounds of Love”
MG: Pete Donnelly turned me onto this record while we were on tour in the late '90's. A few years later, we were starting a tour in Buffalo and staying at the promoters house. I woke up and was watching VH1 when they played the video for “Suspended In Gaffa,” and I was hooked on Bush from then on. She's incredible. The Dreaming is her masterpiece, but I love all of her records. During the recent sessions for Other Planes of Here and On The Slide we cut versions of “Hounds of Love” and “Suspended In Gaffa.”
The Who – “Happy Jack”
MG: Only a few people have tackled this one. In fact, it looks like we've played it live more than The Who!!
Talking Heads – “Life During Wartime”
MG: This was in the set for a bit. Too many words to remember! Great dance song, fun to play.
SR: So you cut the two Kate Bush songs and INXS’s “This Time” during the sessions for the last two albums. You’ve posted “This Time” on SoundCloud, but any chances the other covers will see the light of day? Have you ever thought about doing an entire covers album?
MG: We haven't really cut that many covers in the studio over the years. In fact, the only cover I can think of that is on a record is “Feeling Higher,” the Gene Clark song. I'm not a huge fan of cover records besides [David Bowie’s] Pin Ups or [John Lennon’s] Rock and Roll. Nilsson Sings Newman is incredible. There a probably a bunch of great ones I'm not thinking of right now.
SR: The 2010s have been one of the most productive eras in the band’s history – four albums, a reissue of the Badger EP, a live album, a best of compilation and vinyl repressings as well. (And that’s not counting all the solo albums you and Pete D have released in the past few years.) What’s driving all this activity? Everybody has young kids – how do you find the time?
MG: Well, for Pete and I, raising our families and making music are our full time jobs. It's still hard finding time to get together to write, record, and perform. I keep thinking that we will be able to double our output once our kids are grown up! The amount of stuff we have done just in the last 6 years is impressive though. Pretty cool....
SR: Once in passing to me you mentioned something you put together for shows called “The Book,” — what exactly is it, and what significance does it have for the band?
MG: I made a list of all of our released songs going back to Ginger as well as covers we have played from maybe the last 10 years, printed it out, and made it into "The Book.” Sometimes we will bust it out at a show, pick an audience member, and have them pick two numbers (which page, and all of the songs on that page are numbered). It often leads to interesting situations.
SR: Next year marks 30 years as a band. You’ve done special shows to mark anniversaries in the past (full performances of Sucking in Stereo on its 10th anniversary, full performances of Low-Fi at Society High with Guy Lyons to mark its 20th anniversary) — do you have any idea what you might do for 2017?
MG: As usual, we have lots of ideas. Who knows if we will get to any of them. The first thing we are going to do to celebrate 30 years together is this New Year’s Eve show in Saratoga. We are playing two sets. The first set will be me, Pete D., and Guy (on drums) playing songs that we played during our first three years together (1987-1989), then we will play the second set with Hayes, and possibly some of it with Guy on guitar. Should be interesting! I would like to play some anniversary shows with Guy out in the Midwest where our fans would really appreciate seeing the four piece lineup again. We didn't make it out there on the 25th anniversary tour.