“This will sound dorky,” says Pete Donnelly.
But strangely, nothing this 30-something bassist and vocalist for The Figgs — who are coming up on their 20th anniversary as a band — sounds the slightest bit “dorky.” In fact, a lot of what Donnelly has to say sounds pretty Zen — but maybe that’s just par for the course for someone who’s been part of the underground rock scene since he hooked up with fellow Figgs Mike Gent (vocals, guitar) and Pete Hayes (drums) back in high school in 1987.
Donnelly describes their music as being “’70s rock-influenced, New Wave.” Add a bit of early Replacements to that mix and maybe the loose fun of the best bar band you’ve ever heard and you get a sense of where these guys are coming from.
Donnelly credits three things for the band’s longevity: “We’re able to figure out how to get along. We have similar interests in life. And we haven’t been too precious about what a band is.” And he doesn’t take any of those lightly; as someone who works with young bands every day, he sees a lot of what The Figgs used to go through.
“When we get on the road, it’s like clockwork,” he says, “There’s no, ‘Well I’m doing more than you, man. Why don’t you load the van?’ Whenever you go out with other bands, you see that dynamic and it’s funny because I remember it so well. And then when we were on our first major-label deal, it was like ‘Who’s the star of the band? Who’s the Bruce Springsteen?’ And so your heart is pounding — mine was — every time you go to a meeting. And you’re like ‘Oh man, they’re going to overlook me.’ That’s all laughable now, because you’ve lived through it.”
He says he always saw a realistic future with the band. Though he was moved when he saw Kurt Cobain and Nirvana play for the first time on “Saturday Night Live,” he never really saw The Figgs exploding in that way.
“There’s no character in this band that’s like Kurt Cobain,” he says. “It may be sort of why we’ve always just sort of been a decent band. There’s not great story in just being a good band. Other than that we’ve stuck together and arguably we make quality records.”
But in their many years together as a band, the music industry has changed. “We came from back when alternative was not a marketable term,” Donnelly says. “So there is a little bit of hopefulness that more people in the business are interested in music that isn’t so isolated — the Britney Spears and so forth.” So maybe that Figgs explosion isn’t out of the question yet?
“Once you’ve made a lot of albums, you’re less precious about it, you’re more comfortable,” Donnelly says. “And I feel like we keep maturing as songwriters. I don’t feel like every record is our best when we put it out. Every record has something to offer, but I know every artist has had their shining moment. I think of the Jam — when [Paul Weller] was 18 years old, how amazing he was. And he never reached that pinnacle of when he first exploded with those Jam records.”
After 20 years, Donnelly still sees room for growth and also says that maturity has helped him overcome “the fear of not living up to your imagination of what you could be as an artist.” A fear that he says can be stifling when you’re a young band.
Donnelly even sounds grateful for the mixed blessing that came with being on a major label. “Without them we would not be where we are today,” he says, but adds, “I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with them unless they were going to go about it in a very different way.” He notes that he and the boys actually made more money off of selling 2,000 copies of their self-produced record than they did off their major-label release.
“We’ve never even come close to recouping [the label’s] money. Not even close. I mean you spend upwards of $200,000 to $300,000 [making the record]. You have to sell a lot of units before you get any money.”
Talking to Donnelly is such a contrast to talking to some of the dreamy younger bands that it’s hard not to wish that they could sit down with him and hear his tales: Call it “How to Be A Rock Band 101.”
Even the songs on the album, though joyous in their way, serve to demystify the rock star life. Gent wrote “Regional Hits” about a fictional songwriter who sits by and watches as others make money of his tunes. “See your songs flying off the racks / Make a deal / 50 percent and a clause in his contract / You’ll still be sitting in a cubicle.”
And the Donnelly-penned tune, “Jumping Again” talks about hitting the road for the umpteenth time. “Sold three records for a bottle of gin / We got a healthy dose of love so we’ll be back to win.”
According to Donnelly that “healthy dose of love” is what keeps most bands going. “The appreciation is what you do it for. And when you’ve spent a lot of time on the road and you’ve had those dates in between where it’s really difficult to put out and put out and you’re not receiving back. In the stretches in between Seattle and Minneapolis — where people just don’t know your music and haven’t heard of you — you look for that one person in the audience, of maybe five people, who is connecting and you try to engage in their energy. But after you play, you get a rush and put out all this energy, and you’ve been driving all day and you’re emotionally and physically beat up. And it’s a real letdown sometimes.”
But despite those experiences — or, more accurately, because of them — Donnelly can’t picture himself doing anything else. “There is that feeling of like, ‘This is the greatest thing.’ I don’t see any reason not to be in this band,” he says, “I enjoy it more than ever.”
For more information on The Figgs, visit: http://www.thefiggs.net/.