Features Music The Greatest Story Ever Told The Greatest Story Ever Told: Felix Hagan

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Music: The Greatest Story Ever Told: Felix Hagan

Felix Hagan & the Family play grandiose pop songs tinged with hints of musical theatre, classic rock, and jazz. Hagan's shows have been described as a whirlwind of show-off nonsense (in a good way!) with Hagan playing ringleader to a seven-piece backing band of highly theatrical, immaculately dressed, misfits. The group has released two EPs to date and since their formation in 2013 have traveled across the UK winning over fans and critics. They play shows with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks and the hands either in the air or around someone’s hips.

Recently Felix Hagan completed a tour with Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, playing keys while Sleeping Souls’ member Matt Nasir was busy having children. For this installment of the Greatest Story Ever Told, Hagan explains how playing in the band all started with a fan email.

"I first met Frank a few years ago when, in a fit of boundless optimism, I emailed him a track from my first album. Someone had compared our general tenor of lyricism, and I decided to waste half an hour and send an email to the Famous Guy, sure it would never be read. This was before I knew him, of course. Lo and behold I got a reply in which he was awfully nice about the song. We corresponded a bit (by which I mean I showered him in more unwanted music), and he ended up coming out to see us play after the mighty Beans On Toast booked us at the Monarch in Camden. We became friends, and so began this wonderful adventure. Whenever he’d blow through my hometown of Manchester I’d come down to hang out and watch him and the Sleeping Souls smashing the shit out of any venue they encountered, and I became hugely fond of this travelling circus of rock 'n' roll gentlemen.

Later that year we ended up supporting them at a one-off show in Hatfield to 2,000 people, which was roughly 1,950 people more than our usual crowd at that time. So in a white-hot rage of terror we stepped out and played. I have no memory of it at all, just a kind of rushing noise in my ears and the most glorious feeling of joy. It was a fucking magical evening. Cut to two years later and Frank calls me up to ask whether we would like to support them on their UK tours, playing clubs and theatres up and down the UK for a month. I was yelling the word yes before he’d even finished the sentence, and so we packed up our bags of leggings, glitter and makeup and hit the road for our first big tour.

Nothing will ever equal the feeling of driving around with my best friends, doing our ridiculous stage show to thousands of people every night in our home country. It was exactly as wonderful as I’d ever dreamed it would be. Frank and his team were so hugely supportive and encouraging, going above and beyond to make us feel at home, assuage our fledgling nerves and welcome us into life lived on the road. But right before we left Frank had another question for me. Matt Nasir (the keyboard supremo in the Sleeping Souls) and his partner were expecting a baby, slap bang in the middle of their planned tour of the US and Canada and wouldn’t be able to make it, so did I perhaps fancy learning the parts and coming on the road with them playing keys? I nearly swallowed the fucking phone.

It was a glorious moment. It was a huge deal for me. Since I was about 10 I’ve spent hours every day in a psychopathic cycle of practice on every instrument I could get my hands on. I started on drums and then took on the guitar, bass, various other wind and string instruments and then finally the piano. I had no end game, no target. I just wanted to get better and better at these things, to be able to express the noise in my head, and to revel in the sheer joy of playing music to people. But I also, like every single wide-eyed child who has ever picked up an instrument, harboured dreams of playing huge fucking arena shows in America. But in recent years, aside from a few solo jazz gigs around the place, and my occasional guitar playing with The Family, my instrumental skills have been confined to the studio, as in my band I tend to just sing and dance around in sparkly tights. And I had never ever played keys with a band before. So to be asked to take on such a huge role felt like a fucking siren call from the heavens.

There was one big problem, though. Frank told me that they would send through the sheet music for the parts, and my blood ran cold. Because I have never in my life learned how to properly read music, preferring to play everything from ear. I can falteringly pick my way through a single melody line on a page if you give me a few hours to study it, and I’m pretty on-point when it comes to drum music, but piano music with its endless notes, staves, clefs and articulations? Forget it. I glumly revealed this and waited for the offer to be rescinded, but Frank is cooler than that. He said “Leave it with me. We’ll think of something.”

A couple of weeks later an enormous video file arrived in my inbox. I opened it, and laughed my arse off for ages. What those brilliant boys had done was affix a camera to a mic stand and hang it over Matt as they played some colossal show somewhere, and they had videoed his hands from above. So this was to be my tutorial, and for the next few weeks I obsessively watched, rewound and watched again these videos of Matt’s hands as he played the endless tricky little multi-textured lines that make up the Sleeping Souls keyboard parts. Slowly I managed to get my fingers around his lovely style of playing and the particular flourishes and chord voicings that he uses, and then while we did the UK tour I would play with them in their soundchecks, tackling a few songs a day and polishing until we were locked in and ready for the US. All the while Matt would watch over me like a bearded Yoda, and nod his head approvingly or shake it reproachfully as I shrugged off my own stylistic quirks.

The tour itself was utterly astonishing. It was five weeks of living on a bus, travelling around the whole of the US and Canada, playing everywhere from dirty awesome little rock clubs and theatres to ten thousand capacity ice hockey arenas and convention centres. I got to play in venues that I had heard only heard about in song lyrics and rock biographies, and see and do things that I had fantasised about when I was holed up in the music block at school [while] age 10. Nothing can quite prepare you for stepping out in front of 10,000 people, but I was armed with the hundreds of hours of practice and the unending camaraderie and support of the band and the wonderful crew, and so every show was just so much fun.

Seeing the way that Frank unfailingly unites the crowd every single night has been hugely instructive for me. In my band we’re all about making sure the people have the best time of their lives, and we’ll sacrifice our blood, sweat, tears and occasionally dignity to make sure they enjoy the show. And to see how Frank is able to do that not in a tiny little rock pub but in a gigantic fucking hangar of a venue is amazing and enlightening to behold. It’s impossible to pick a favourite moment from this extraordinary time. Every show felt like a blessing, and the thousands of hours off-stage were pretty magic as well. But I’ll always remember that glorious feeling, that feeling of doing the thing that you have worked for all your life, and the gigantic, beautiful roar of the crowd as you do it".

Credits

Words by Graham Isador on April 2, 2017, 3:15 p.m.

Graham Isador is a writer living in Toronto. @presgang
Felix Hagan and The Family. @felixhagan
Photos by Adam Graves

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 The Greatest Story Ever Told: Felix Hagan

Posted by Graham Isador on April 2, 2017, 3:15 p.m.

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Series: The Greatest Story Ever Told

A brief but englightening chat with an artist who reveals an interesting or unexpected story from their career

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