Michael Falzarano’s career echoes across five decades, over 50 albums, and multiple rock n’ roll outfits. Most notably, Falzarano has been a guitarist and collaborator with Hot Tuna and a longtime member of New Riders of the Purple Sage. He’s also organized the Englishtown Project, a massive tribute to the 1977 concert in Englishtown, NJ that celebrates the music of the Grateful Dead, The Marshall Tucker Band, and the New Riders. It was that group that Falzarano had intended to spend his year with following a successful run of 60+ dates in 2019– but a global pandemic had other plans for the music industry. Choosing to remain productive while tours and live shows were canceled, Falzarano decided to add the finishing touches to a particular labor a love. A Kaleidoscope Christmas features 11 original songs and performances from an impressive roster of musicians including Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and Pete Sears.
AI- A Christmas album has been on your to-do list for a few years. What finally put Santa’s sleigh in motion if you will.
MF- (Laughs) Well, I actually started the project at the end of 2019, in September, and I thought, “Oh, we’ll get it out for Christmas 2019!” Which didn’t happen because a lot of things have to happen to make that happen. And then life got in the way, and I sold my apartment up in New York… There’s a lot of things that happened, so they kinda put it off ’til 2020, which is actually a good thing ’cause it gave me somethin’ to do while I was of sitting around, scratching my head going, “I haven’t played a gig in months!” This is the first year in 50 years I haven’t played a single gig in the summertime. Just the whole year has been pretty nutty!
But somewhere along the way, I decided to do the Christmas CD mainly because a while back, when I was working with Jorma Kaukonen— you know, Hot Tuna and all that stuff– we did a Christmas album called Christmas. And we had a lot of fun doing it! I wrote a bunch of songs for the record, he and I wrote some songs together, and then he and his wife wrote the hit from that record, “Christmas Rule”. It was on American Heritage which was a subsidiary of Relix Records– but then Relix got out of the CD business and it’s out of print! I’d been talking to [Jorma] about doing another Christmas record, but his schedule and my schedule are just so crazy that it just never came together.
I’d been playin’ up here in the Northeast with a band I put together called The Englishtown Project. A couple of those guys, I ran the idea by them and they said, “Yeah, that’s a great idea! Let’s do it!” So I’d been thinkin’ about it and then it just sort of came together. And then it gave me something to work on over the summer to finish it up. That’s how Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, Pete Sears… I was workin’ remotely with them because nobody could travel during that time period. But I’m really happy with how it turned out and I’m really happy with all the people that agreed to play on it. I call ’em The Extended Family because they are my extended family!
I’ve known Jorma and Jack probably for over 40 years, Pete Sears probably 30 years, and the other guys all in the 25-year range! It was a labor of love and just a fun project to do. It’s a Christmas album, but I don’t think it’s as hokey as some of the other Christmas records that are out there. It’s me doing my swamp, Southern Rock. Country rock, blues thing (laughs)! And it seems to work! People are diggin’ it! I’m sold out of my first pressing already. That’s something that never happens (laughs)!
Tell me about writing Christmas songs versus writing rock n’ roll songs. Did you have any particular Christmas albums that you used as a blueprint or inspiration?
Again, to go back to that album I did with Jorma, we just made it up– and that’s kinda what I did for this record. Now at the tail end of that record, when I was working with Jorma, that writing process was still in motion. It didn’t stop because the album came out– that Christmas album– so I’d already written a couple of extra ones. And then over the years, I wrote a couple of other ones, but the process is always the same for me. I don’t know how other people write, but for me, it’s just this thing that happens. I get an idea– either chord changes a melody or lyric or chorus– and then slowly, it turns around in my brain and then I write it down! The process was the same and the sound of the songs are essentially what I do. If you took the lyrics of any one of the songs on this record and changed ’em so that they didn’t have a Christmas lean to them, they would just be songs! So the process is the same for me.
One of my favorite tracks on the record is “The Tree Nobody Wanted”. Tell me that’s a true story, that that’s a Falzarano family tradition because it’s so sweet and it’s so cool.
I would like to tell you that, but unfortunately, I can’t without lying to you (laughs)! No, it’s a unique story though. I had finished all the basic tracks. When I record whatever album I’m recording, what I like to do is get all the musicians in the studio, or as many as I can, playin’ the songs at the same time because you get that live feeling of musicians bouncing off musicians, as opposed to bricklaying it and all that. So the whole album had been recorded. All the basics were recorded. We were already overdubbing. Jeff Mattson came in and Jason Crosby came in and the albums was set the way I thought it was gonna come out with 11 songs on it. And then one day, I was drivin’ with my wife– my wife was drivin’– and I dozed off.
And when I woke up, for some reason, although it’d never been in my head before, I had no inclination as to why I came up with this thought of the tree that nobody wanted. It just popped into my head! And it was pretty much the chorus part of the song that popped into my head. And I’m goin’ like, “Geez, I don’t know what that is. Is this a song that’s already been out that I’m thinking of?” So I did a little research and as I was drivin’, I started the story. And it just wrote itself! Twenty minutes later, when I got home, I took out a pen, wrote down the lyrics, picked up the guitar, played a rhythm change to it, wrote a melody to it– and the rest is what you hear!
You’re not alone. Many people love that tune. I love that tune! Because the main thing I love about it is it’s one of those songs that just came out of nowhere, didn’t exist, and 20 minutes later it existed (laughs)! It was a song! My favorite thing I do in music is write songs. For that reason. You’re creating something that wasn’t there and then it is! And sometimes you luck out and people really dig it! A lot of times songwriters write songs and they never record them, or they record ’em and people aren’t that enthused about them. But I always jot everything down. I try and record the songs that I can when I do a project. That’s what gives me the most joy is the songwriting. But that song, “The Tree Nobody Wanted”, it’s unique for that reason, because it literally is one of those songs that I had no inclination [to write]. There wasn’t like mulling around this idea, “Let me write a song about the tree nobody wanted, about this family and this tradition and this whole thing…” It just came to me from the cosmos or something. I dunno, man!
On the flip side of that, the epic “A Psychedelic Cowboy Christmas”— you must have felt compelled to write and put that together after the passing of your friend and bandmate, Buddy Cage.
That’s another pretty unique story. I was on the road with the New Riders up in California a couple years back, maybe five years ago now. We were out to breakfast– me, Buddy Cage, David Nelson, my guitar tech at the time, DeLacey Ault, and maybe Captain Toast might’ve been there, maybe the other two guys in the band. I don’t remember, but I know buddy and David were there and we were talkin’ about what we’d done in the past and what we should do in the coming year. I suggested that maybe we should do a Christmas record, that Jorma Kaukonen and I had done a Christmas record. It was really well received, people love it, people talk about it to this day, and I said, “I doesn’t have to be a traditional Christmas record playing all the traditional Christmas songs. We could write some.” I said, “I have a bunch of songs ready to go. And we could all write some songs and make a real fun project out of it.”
Buddy and David were both really into it and we discussed it and then my guitar tech, DeLacey Ault said, “This is a great idea! You should call the album A Psychedelic Cowboy Christmas!” And if it were a New Riders album, I would’ve called this album A Psychedelic Cowboy Christmas. It didn’t seem to work as a title for an album for me, but at the time I thought, “It’s a great title. I’ve got to write a song called “A Psychedelic Cowboy Christmas”. I started to mull that around and I had it all written out at one point. I didn’t like it, and I changed it. And then I went back and changed the chords, I changed the melody… And eventually, I landed where I landed, which I’m really happy with.
The stuff on the track– Jeff Mattson plays the lead guitar stuff, and Kerry Kearney playin’ the slide guitar, Jason Crosby on piano, Scott Guberman on Hammond Oregon, Klyph Black on bass, and Dave Diamond on drums– to me, it’s just magnificent! I couldn’t have asked for a better rendition of the tune. And then later on Clare Maloney, the singer from the Englishtown Project, came in and sang the backup part with me, and also did that sort of operatic singing thing over the jam at the end. That whole tune came together really well for me. It’s one of my favorite tunes on the record. It might be an acquired taste for some, ’cause it is nine minutes long (laughs)!
I thought for a minute, “You know what? Maybe I’ll do an edited radio-friendly version and try and knock it down to four minutes.” I couldn’t do it! I didn’t know what to take out. It is what it is! Just leave it alone. If a particular DJ can’t play it because it’s too long, too bad. If somebody doesn’t want to listen to it, they don’t have to, if they don’t nine minutes to do it. But I think it’s a cool little tune and I’m really happy at how it came out too.
You brought up 2020 being nuts. Another big part of your 2019 was dedicated to the Englishtown Project, which I know you have a lot of fun doing. I imagine that any plans for that have been put on hold indefinitely as far as live performances go. But what have you been doing to occupy yourself during the pandemic and the quarantine? You don’t strike me as a cat that takes being idle very well. Have you been in the studio? Have you been doing any production?
Yeah, that’s what I was getting at a little earlier. Had I finished this project up in 2019, I woulda been sittin’ around scratching my head, goin’ like, “Okay, now what?” But fortunately, that didn’t happen. My original plan was to get back to work on A Kaleidoscope Christmas right after the new year– from 2019 into 2020– and finish it up earlier in the year. But then of course COVID came to town and everything got changed. So then by the time the spring and summer came around– I have a little studio right here near where my house in New Jersey is– I decided, “Okay, it’s time to go back to work on this, you know?” And it wasn’t the easiest thing in the world because, now, everybody’s home. I have to work remotely. I had to ready the tracks to send to people.
For instance, like when Jorma was gonna play on his tracks, I readied those tracks, I sent him the tracks via the internet, he went to the studio, downloaded them, he played his parts over the track, sent me back his tracks, and then I had to marry them to the master tape. And then mixing and mastering it. The process took a couple of months– ’cause it always does. It’s time-consuming. So that’s what I did for several months leading up to the release of this thing. It actually isn’t officially even released yet, but I had some advanced copies printed up and I advertised them on my Facebook page. It says, “You want a copy of this, PayPal me the 12 bucks at my PayPal address,” and I sold out (laughs)!
People just bought ’em up! It was the strangest thing. People were buying 2, 3, 5, 7, 10– one guy bought 20 of ’em! I thought, what? And I emailed him back. I said, “I don’t care, you spent the money, you can do whatever you want with them, but why did you buy so many? Are you reselling them?” He said, “No, no, no. I’m giving them away as Christmas gifts and stocking stuffers!” I never thought of that!
Now that the train is rolling on this, you would think, “Well, it’s out, there’s not much to do.” No. There’s a lot to do. First, I had to get it all set up and get it ready for all the streaming sites and iTunes and Amazon, all that stuff, which is in the works. And I’ve been doin’ promotion now for two weeks or so, and I’m gonna continue on probably ’til Christmas, the week before Christmas. So I been stayin’ really busy. I’ve also been writing and I have another a hundred songs that I’m still waiting to record! I’m gonna start a new recording project pretty soon, and probably, I will do all the basic stuff, and then hopefully by the spring or maybe earlier when things start to die down a little bit with all this craziness, I can get back in there and finish that up. Again, as time-consuming as the recording process is, it’ll probably be late in 2021 or 2022 before I get another project out there.
In the meantime, I’m hoping that I can get back to playing live shows because when this COVID thing came to town, all the shows I had on the books went away, got postponed, and pushed into 2021. It’s been really crazy. I mean, this is the first year in 50 years that I haven’t worked a summer tour somewhere with some band, either Hot Tuna or the New Riders or one of my projects. It was so strange to me. But it is what it is! We can’t do anything about it. We can only wait it out and see what happens.
You wrap the album up with, “You’re Still Standing”. As you mentioned earlier, that’s one of those songs, truly, that just a few changes of words, and that song has a whole other life outside of being a holiday or New Year song. I feel like it’s a really great way to end an album. And end the year! What are your New Year’s plans? Are you gonna try to do any kind of streaming show?
I actually have done a couple of streaming shows– and they were fun. I tried to make it fun. I did a whole little skit thing and I played some songs but it’s certainly not playing live. It’s a different animal, a different beast altogether. You play your song and there’s no feedback from the audience, so it’s a little difficult. I’m not crazy about it, but I probably will do some. I’m hoping that by March or April that I can get back out and start playing shows. Some of my friends who are much younger than I am, they’ve been out playing shows. Being an old geezer, I have to be careful. So the plan is to get back out there and do some shows. If this whole craziness wasn’t happening right now, the original plan was to do a bunch of big holiday shows and support the album. I think almost all the people involved would have come out to play on the shows. It would’ve been really great, but that’ll have to wait for next season, next year.