On a particularly cold, wet and Saints-less Sunday, Dave Fera and I huddled over our coffees trying to stay warm, like a clichéd scene of hobos with brown bags clustered over burning barrels. It was probably only in the 50s, but our layers of clothing and shivers proved that this Virginia native had completed the full transformation into a New Orleanian. And like his adopted city, Fera admits to half-assing it in the past, just getting by on his charm. But as one of the true creatives of the city, Fera is rising above the fleur-de-lis crusted clichés ( like blue dogs and the eight millionth rendition of “Do Whatcha Wanna”) by stomping out bad habits of the past. With a new approach (and a refurbished lineup), Fera is releasing the first album in nearly a decade by his longtime band, Mahayla, titled Electricspaceagesweetheart. It’s also the first release on Mahayla’s label, Serial Lover Records. Mahayla cofounder and drummer Mark Davis returns with cornerstones Ike Aguilar (guitar) and Chris Johnson (bass). Yanti Turang adds keys and a little Sandy Olsen to Dave’s Danny Zuko. As Fera and I battled the elements, he spoke about the paradigm shift from fretting over selling one of his songs (the Seymores’ “Arcade Boy” to Levi’s), to slumps and the exaggeration of his demise.
You’ve started your own label to release Electricspaceagesweetheart; what makes this more of a functioning record label than just another self-release?
Dave Fera: I just feel like I now need a vehicle because I’m writing so much… I’m writing like crazy right now. I wrote the entire Grasshoppers record, which we are recording now at Studio in the Country, in 30 days. I was in a funk for three years. I didn’t do shit. I couldn’t write; I just sat on the couch and got fat. I was using drugs. I just wasn’t happy. Then I got happy and started writing again. So the record label is here to help get out all of the stuff I’ve been writing and other spin-off projects. I saw what Those Darlings did and wanted to do the same thing. They started their own label [Oh Wow Dang Records], which helps them garner more national attention. With a brand, people take it more seriously because there is an investment. Also, I just want to keep putting stuff out. I’m at a place in my life where I can afford to do that more than I have ever been before. I’d love for our stuff to sell, but I’m not going to worry about that; I’m just going to do it.
What caused your unhappiness?
I wasn’t writing. One night at the Howlin Wolf, someone asked me if they could come over and talk about songwriting; and the way they put it was like, “Now that you’re done, would you mind sitting down and plucking on the guitar and talk about song crafting?” I was a little taken aback by the bluntness and assumption. It made me realize I was wasting years of my life. I was practically giving up. I don’t really want to go into the reasons why I was so depressed but—I wasn’t having a very healthy lifestyle. The crazy thing is it makes you manic and obsessive. I’ve upset everyone around me from time to time. I just hope we can stick it out. It’s just too important and I’ve still got a half a tank of gas and I’m ready to tour and get this stuff out there.
What turned it all around?
I went on a writing binge, and having the guys in my band for so long—Ike, Mark, and Chris—we starting finishing Electricspaceagesweetheart and started booking studio time and it hasn’t stopped since. I also wrote another full length and a complete folk album that I still need to record.
You have this label, spent a lot of money on recording, packaging and even music videos; are you guys selling heroin to fund all of this? Seriously, in the age of everyone using Kickstarter, Go Fund Me and other digital tip jars, how important was it for you to do this on your own?
I had to make my mind up that I wasn’t going to have money for anything else other than this. That’s the attitude I have. Music is the most important thing in my life and that is where all of my finances are going. I’m going to do it right. I’m not going to half-ass it, because I have half-assed it in the past. I want to roll out a complete product, do it right: make videos, do publicity, do radio, go all the way with it… Also, with the digitization of music, the art has been lost. And Becky [Cierpich] has been a very important part of this album. Her artwork just really adds to the feel and vibe of what we are going for. And for our packaging on the vinyl I printed all of the lyrics on the sleeve, and the sleeve has a hole in the middle so you can see the label—I think it looks beautiful. So it’s really a complete package of promotion for something I feel really strongly about.
Being a pre-Katrina New Orleans transplant, what changes have you seen in the music that New Orleans celebrates?
I think the film industry has really changed the landscape here. It’s boosted the visibility of the city more and exposed segments of the culture that people weren’t exposed to before. That has helped a lot; Treme has helped a lot… A lot of things that were never written about before are being talked about now. The indie scene has pretty had done. The indie scene in New Orleans in the late ‘90s was actually a really strong scene. It was really the first underground thing that wasn’t like Eyehategod that had much of an impact. I wanted to try to go back to that. Also, Big Blue Marble was dissolving and I needed an outlet; and the familiarity and comfort of Mahayla and those bandmates just made sense.
Was the comfort of slipping into old songs with old friends the spark you needed to get out of the funk you had been in?
It certainly helped. Playing with Mark and Ike is great. We all finish each other’s sentences and think about what approach is best for the song and the story. “Greenhorn” — our bassist [Chris Johnson] — has come along great, too. Yanti and I really converged during the birth of Electricspaceagesweetheart. I love singing with her. I drive her crazy but, as I told her, I would rescue her from a burning building.
As discussed in your last interview in AG [June 2011], you sold a song to a Levi’s commercial. With the death of MTV (as we knew knew it growing up) and the fall of record stores, is getting your songs on television shows and commercials the new record deal?
Publishing is where it’s at. That’s where the money is in music now. I was just talking to the guys in the Seymores and we were talking about how we had seriously considered saying no when we were asked to let Levi’s have one of our songs. We were so high and mighty with our music and indie principles at the time that we didn’t think it was a cool thing to do. I’m not saying it’s cool to do now, but it’s a good vehicle to fund projects. I think it’s awesome. I’d sell out in a second.
Are we too old to worry about selling out? Or is that even a thing anymore?
Yeah, I don’t even think it’s a big deal anymore. It used to be. The publishing thing is the diamond in the rough these days; it’s the best way for artists to fund themselves and break even with their bad habit and make hundreds of dollars. It’s survival.
Electricspaceagesweetheart was recorded in parts in two different studios (Fudge with Tom Drummond from Better Than Ezra and the Living Room with Chris George and Daniel Majorie). Why did you decide to break up the album this way?
We started working at Fudge, but I have a long and good history of working with Chris and Daniel. I wanted to go over [to the Living Room] to get that big room and analog vibe that you get there. That’s really important to me and half of the record has that rich analog drums and bass. The record needed it. Even though it was recorded in two studios, it still feels like it has continuity. It all fits together. It needed the meat-and-potatoes real analog feel. Tom is awesome at editing and his biggest gift to me is his work with my vocals. Instantly he knows the right take. He’s also a genius with ProTools. I wanted his editing acumen on this record, so that it’s competitive with big budget records, but it had to still have that feel and warmth you get at the Living Room.
It’s always hard to have your work criticized even when it’s constructive, but what is the most impactful criticism you have received from an engineer or producer in your years of making music?
Usually engineers and producers are scared to say anything too critical when you are spending money. I would say the one thing that really stuck came from kind of a harsh review for the first Seymores record. I had someone tell me that my voice was subpar, which really hurt. Back then I thought I was really good. But the truth was, I really wasn’t. Now I spend so much time on it, that I know what I am doing a little more. We had just gotten to New York to play a show at CBGB’s and the label was there and they had a zine with this review in it. It wasn’t necessarily a bad review, but it also wasn’t a good review either. It was all about the record industry and how they were just signing bands like crazy. This was all during the time of the big record company crash and it kind of hinted that bands like us were the reason for the crash. And it wasn’t a terrible review; it said some complimentary things in it, too. But it was enough that it was really embarrassing because the label was there. I mean, the label rep was talking to me while I’m reading this review in front of him. I was just like, “Goddamn it!” It kind of put us as the face of the irresponsible spending of the record industry, which then led to the collapse.
Wow, that’s pretty heavy.
With Big Blue Marble and on this record, you have a good balance of male and female vocal interplay. Do you gravitate towards this since a majority of your songs are written about relationships?
A lot of it is about storytelling and that interplay can be crucial to the story. Also, working with Yanti has been awesome. I worked with Blair [Gimma] for a long time in Big Blue Marble, which was fun. But Yanti is really into this project and it’s more of a band feel than it was in the past. Also, I just enjoy a woman’s voice on a recording. It adds a really nice element. I love things like Sparklehorse. They are a perfect example of how to use that interplay.
He uses PJ Harvey and it is just really beautiful; it complements the song well.
If you could sum Electricspaceagesweetheart up with one line from its lyrics, what would it be?
Oh shit! I may need to think about that for a second. [He grabs the CD to read over the song titles] I’d say the line: “Sitting at the table waiting for the cake.” That’s my favorite. It’s just so simple. Every time I’m at the doctor’s office and I’m waiting for my prescription, I sing that song in my head. In that moment, the prescription is my cake. It’s just about waiting for that next good thing to come to you.
Mahayla releases Electricspaceagesweetheart on Decemeber 16th. For more information, check out reverbnation.com/mahayla