The prolific Figgs’ 13th album, On The Slide (Stomper), arrives just more than a year after 2015’s Other Planes Of Here and is another winning addition to a catalog full of pub-rock, power-pop and soul-inflected nuggets. We talked to guitarist/songwriter Mike Gent about the trio’s frenetic past and possibly restful future.
You guys have been together almost 30 years. Does this make you feel like you’ve accomplished something or just old?
Both! It’s a bit strange to think that it’s been almost 30 years. We still have a few more in us. We haven’t accomplished enough.
When you started the band, did you have any thoughts about the future?
Not that I remember. We were having a blast living in the moment. It was a little scary once we graduated high school, and everyone was moving on to college. I guess that’s when I started to think that it was either play music full time or continue getting lousy jobs, most of which I hated.
How surprised are you, if at all, that you’re still doing it?
I’m not surprised that we’re still doing it—just that it sort of very quickly crept up on us. I remember when I turned 20, one of my uncles told me, “Enjoy it because before you know it, you’re 40.” He was right.
Did you ever think about breaking up?
We’ve come very close a few times. It’s bound to happen at some point, right? I’d say it’s been around 26 great years and three crappy ones.
You started as a trio, expanded to a quartet and then back to a trio. Why did you end up staying a trio?
Well, when Guy left at the end of ’97, we may have talked about packing it in. I think everyone was expecting us to, but I knew our best years were still ahead. I was very afraid of going back to a trio. I didn’t think we were good enough to pull it off. It took us a couple of years, but by 1999 through 2002, we became a very, very good trio if I do say so myself. Some of our best tours and shows were in those years. I like being both a quartet and trio for different reasons, of course. The last few years, our friend Ted Collins has been playing keys with us.
The Figgs haven’t achieved the commercial success you guys deserve, but can we assume that given the band’s longevity that you’re making a living? Or do you all have day jobs?
Thanks. Yeah, hopefully, once we’re long gone, we’ll have some success for our kids to enjoy. We’ve been broke, made some money, been broke, made money. We’ve had day jobs. One thing we’ve never done since day one was take money out of our own pockets to fund the band. That’s something we’re very proud of. We worked our asses off for seven years before any label approached us. Throughout being on the two majors, we toured and toured, probably too much—then after being dropped, we worked even harder. In 29 years, we’ve never taken a full year off. Not once.
You’ve probably been asked this a lot, but “Je T’Adore,” a Pete Hayes song, I believe, was used in a ubiquitous Lexus commercial in 2013—was that a good or bad thing?
Both. It came at a time when the band was almost finished. It brought some new ears in, some cash in, some attention. We do have better songs that I wish people who don’t know the band could’ve heard. Hayes has better songs than that one. I always enjoyed the song. Who am I to complain? Every band or writer nowadays wants a song in a commercial. It’s the new radio.
You and Pete Donnelly don’t seem to have a strict “your song, then my song” policy on your records, but it feels like it works out that way a lot. How much do you collaborate on each other’s songs?
Pete and I probably collaborate more now than ever. The last few records, there’s been a lot of writing and collaborating while in the studio, whereas on the earlier records, each member would come in with a group of their songs pretty much finished, and we would pick the ones that we liked the most, rehearse them, play them live for a bit, then record them. We’ve always had a pretty good ear for what works on a record, and what to leave off. I’m not sure if Hayes writes songs anymore. He hasn’t brought a new one in for years.
On The Slide is being released a little over a year after Other Planes Of Here. I recall, hopefully not incorrectly, that you said they were originally intended to be released even closer together. Can you explain the thought there and why it didn’t happen?
Well, the original idea was to release them six months apart. I remember (Elvis Costello’s) King Of America came out, then all of a sudden I’m buying Blood & Chocolate, having my mind blown. I wanted to go for that instead of waiting the usual two or three years between records. It didn’t work out that way. Still, they’ll only be a year apart.
How long was the recording process for On The Slide?
A good chunk of it was recorded during the same sessions for Other Planes. After Planes came out and we were touring last year, we did some more writing and recording. I had an early mix and sequence of the record in my car, which we were going to call Smartest Of The Dumb Ones. Then Pete and I decided that we needed to cut a few more songs and drop some of the stuff that was in the original sequence. Once we decided on the art, the original title had to change as well. So to answer your question, about two years start to finish.
You guys don’t seem to have any shortage of songs—the record previous to Other Planes, The Day Gravity Stopped, had 20 songs. Was there any reason why you broke up Other Planes and On The Slide into two records rather than one longer LP? Was there ever a thought of a Use Your Illusion-type of double-record effort?
I think Pete suggested doing another double record after Gravity. We thought about it for a minute and had a good laugh. I think even though they are kind of sister records; Other Planes is different from On The Slide. To release them at the same time? Nah. We do have some stuff already recorded for another record. It’s more experimental stuff in the Other Planes direction. We keep talking about a triple record.
Other Planes and On The Slide are right up there with the band’s best, but I feel like On The Slide is maybe more consistent and on par with records like Follow Jean Through The Sea, which is my favorite Figgs LP. Am I full of it?
Not at all. I think you nailed it. Follow Jean was a very focused LP—so is On The Slide. They’re similar. I really think we’ve made some of our best records in the last 10 to 12 years.
“Gimmicks” has some pretty pointed lyrics about music-biz phonies. Are you aiming at any particular target?
Maybe, but I’m not telling. Some of it is probably aimed at myself. Who’s not a sucker for a good gimmick? Show business! It was one of the first songs that I wrote after The Day Gravity Stopped. I had doubts on whether to put it on the record. It was a last-minute decision. Most of the lyrics on this record are very positive, forward-thinking kind of stuff. The track sounds so good though, I couldn’t resist. That’s just the three of us playing live, no overdubs. I remember the first time I saw You Am I. Mercury Lounge. The crowd was going crazy. The band was rocking, and Tim Rogers was singing his ass off. I noticed that they also had great, wild endings to all of their songs, which was a key part of the excitement to the show. It was a good trick. [Laughs]
“Open G Capo Position 3” seems to express certain resignation about the music business or being in a band and not reaching enough people. Is that accurate? I know the title refers to playing guitar, but can you explain the significance of it for us non-musicians?
We have so many songs now where I use open tuning and/or a capo, I forget which fret it goes on for each song. I’m always whispering to Pete onstage, “Which fret is this one?” I need to make a chart or something. It’s frustrating when we’ve been doing this for almost three decades and certain magazines have completely ignored us from the start, and late-night TV has no interest in having us on. You see a new band come out, get a ton of hype, then after a couple of years, or even months, they’re kaput. How many times has that happened? Countless. At this point, it really doesn’t matter. We have a great little fan base that loves and supports the band. We make records and play shows for them. It would be fun to play on TV again, though.
One of my favorite things on the new record is that short, gorgeous instrumental that’s tacked on to the end of the closing title track. Who wrote that?
That was Pete (Donnelly). I went out for dinner or something, and when I came back to the studio, he had that written, recorded and already placed at the end of the song. It reminds me of the vibe on Other Planes, and I like how it’s at the end of the record, kind of pointing the way to the next one.
Look into the future: What’s next for the band? What do you think you’ll be doing 30 years from now?
Well, 30 years from now, we’ll be in our 70s, hopefully. As for what’s next, we plan on touring a bunch this year. This new record is going to work really well onstage, I think. Next year is our 30th anniversary, which is a big one. It would be nice to do something special—maybe record and tour a little bit with Guy. There are some really cool reissues and other archive releases being discussed. After that, I want to take a full year off and recharge. We deserve it.