Joel King does a lot of heavy lifting in the Wild Feathers. In addition to his bass for the American country rock outfit, he shares lead vocal and songwriting duties with guitarists Ricky Young and Taylor Burns. In many ways, the Nashville-based band is mirroring the Beatles, so it’s not surprising to learn that King—an unabashed Fab Four fan—lives by the adage, “What would McCartney do?”
“Paul McCartney pretty much wrote the book on serving the song while still playing cool bass parts,” says King. “Listen to ‘Drive My Car’—he’s singing this super-high harmony, and at the same time, he’s playing like a champ. It’s like he’s showing off without showing off, because what he’s playing is exactly right for the song. When you do that—sing the right part and play the right part together—you make it look easy. That’s what McCartney has always done, and in my own way it’s what I try to do.”
Just as McCartney recorded most of his Beatles’ tracks with a hollowbody Hofner 500/1 “violin bass,” King relies exclusively on a hollowbody: a 1965 Harmony H-22. “The Hofner gave McCartney that ‘thumpy’ sound,” says King. “It was warm and melodic, but it was propulsive. You can really hear it on songs like ‘Baby, You’re a Rich Man.’ My Harmony gives me the same kind of thing. It’s big and rich, and when I pluck it, I can move air. I like to think that’s my signature sound.”
King’s sound was compromised a bit on the Wild Feathers’ 2016 album, the production-heavy Lonely Is a Lifetime, but it’s back in muscular form on the group’s latest release, Greetings From the Neon Frontier. Producer Jay Joyce (who has manned the board for all the band’s recordings) casts each song in a live-sounding, naturalistic setting, allowing the quartet’s Eagles-like harmonies and ensemble musicianship to shine through. Whether they’re tearing up the floorboards on bracing roots-rockers like “Golden Days” or luxuriating in the dreamy country pop of “Big Sky,” the emphasis is on simplicity and serving the song.
“Our agenda was definitely different this time,” King confirms. “On the previous record, we went wild in the studio. This time out, we pared things down. You can even hear it in my bass playing. In the song ‘Wild Fire,’ I’m thumping the root note the whole time. I sort of thought back to Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever album; half the songs are just root notes. So I was just like, ‘I’m going to lay down the bedrock here.’ The songs tell you what to do if you just listen to them.”
Not to say there aren’t sonic experiments: On the gentle, Calypso-tinged “Every Morning I Quit Drinkin’,” King makes creative use of a Roland Space Echo, playing with the effect to create a surreal surface that the rest of the band seems to hover over. “I really liked messing with the Space Echo, but it was kind of the exception to the rule. Mostly, these new songs called for us to play it straight and do simple call-and-response-type things. We wanted our material to show itself off, rather than, ‘Hey, look what I can do here.’”
When did you switch from guitar to the bass?
I started on guitar at age ten and played classic rock-type stuff. Right away I was intent on being in a band. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I played in the church camp band. They already had a bunch of great guitarists who were older than me, and I learned pretty quickly that I couldn’t complete with them. So I borrowed somebody’s Gremlin bass, and that was that. I was 12 or 13 when I picked up the bass.
What was the first bass that you bought?
The Gremlin didn’t last long, so I bought an Epiphone Viola bass. I got my chops together on that. Nobody wanted to play bass, so I figured I would always have a job if I was a bass player. The bass was kind of a challenge, but I was into it. I thought, I’d rather play the bass than be a rhythm guitar player just strumming on G, C, and D.
Have you always been a pick player?
Most of the Feathers’ first album is me playing [fingerstyle]. I used a pick on a couple of songs, and Jay Joyce really liked it. He pushed me to use a pick, but I was resistant—“Dude, I’ve got to show bass players what I can do.” But he was like, “No, no, man. John Paul Jones, McCartney—they use a pick.” That was good enough for me. And playing with a pick gives me that thumpy McCartney sound, which I’m totally into.
How did you first learn about basses and gear?
It just happened naturally from playing in bands and being around musicians. You find out about Jazz Basses and P-Basses, but then you also discover that an Ampeg SVT with an 810 cabinet is pretty great, and you discover that the H-22 is the bass for you. You learn about consistency, how to deliver reliable sounds. You can go off the deep end buying everything in sight, but that can be a cul-de-sac. Like I said, I like knowing my sound, so that’s why I’ve always tried to keep things simple.
Did singing and playing at the same time come naturally to you?
It was tricky at first. Sometimes I would be like, “Holy shit, I don’t know if I can do this.” When I sing, I’m thinking about the snare, but I’m playing bass with the kick, so I have to have two things going in my mind at all times. Some songs that sound easy, like country-type things, are actually pretty hard to pull off. The studio is one thing, because you can overdub a part, but live it’s a different story. I can’t mess up onstage; if I do, it’s like the elephant in the room. You really hear it.
Style-wise, the Wild Feathers cast a wide net of Americana. Were you always into country music?
When we first started playing, we’d go to these Texas towns, and they had all of these artists I hadn’t heard before. My country roots were more like Graham Parsons and the Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, stuff like that. I’m probably the hippie of the group. As far as real country goes, I knew about Hank Williams, but other than that I was a little green.
Songwriting in the band is fairly communal. Does everyone bring in their own stuff to sing?
Yes and no. We’re all songwriters, and we’re writing all the time. We get together and it’s like, “Hey, does this sound cool?” We don’t really have a formula. We just try to keep ’em coming and hope it doesn’t dry up.
Do you actually write on the bass?
Sometimes, but not all the time. The first song on the new record, “Quitting Time,” was written in a cabin. We all started jamming on this riff, and then it became a lot of riffs. A lot of times things come in mostly written, but that was a jam that turned into a song. And “No Man’s Land” has that big breakdown section—that came about the same way. I think that’s what sets us apart from other Americana bands: We like to focus on the whole band rather than just one guy’s solo.
How do you record your bass in the studio?
It’s a combination. We record with my Ampeg miked up, but we also do a direct line. The Aguilar Tone Hammer preamp/DI has a treble boost and a gain that works as a bit of distortion. I love that thing, man. I do the same thing live—a mic and a direct box.
What’s the dynamic within the rhythm section? Do you follow your drummer, Ben Dumas, or do you lead?
I have to watch myself so I don’t get ahead of the drums. I get excited easily, especially on fast songs, so I’m always conscious of not trying to drive the ship too much. I try to stay in sync with Ben, and when we play live, the only things I need in my monitor are my vocals and the kick drum. That’s my biggest job—staying in the groove with Ben.
The Wild Feathers, Greetings From the Wild Frontier [2018, Reprise], Lonely Is a Lifetime [2016, Warner Bros.], The Wild Feathers [2013, Warner Bros]
Basses 1965 Harmony H-22
Amps Ampeg SVTAV, Orange Terror Bass, Ampeg SVT-810E cabinet
Effects Aguilar Tone Hammer, Roland Space Echo
Strings D’Addario flatwounds (“I don’t know the gauges; I haven’t changed them in five years”)
Picks Snarling Dogs Brain