Despite the Sunshine State-referencing title, The Felice Brothers actually recorded much of their adventurous new album, “Celebration, Florida” (Fat Possum), more than 1,200 miles away in an abandoned schoolhouse in Beacon, N.Y.
With free run of the building, the group set up their gear everywhere from the cafeteria to the gymnasium to the locker-lined hallways, which also served as both a makeshift skate park (the bandmates blew off steam zooming through the halls on skateboards) and a percussive element (shutting lockers doubled as clattering drumbeats on a handful of songs).
The band even utilized a choir of children who could have populated the empty classrooms at one time, their youthful voices ringing out like “Lord of the Flies” castaways on the album-opening “Fire at the Pageant.”
“It was kind of a bizarre, back-to-school experience,” said singer-guitarist Ian Felice, who joins his bandmates for a free concert at The Sett at Union South on Saturday, May 7. “A lot of the percussion is just sounds we took from around the school — slamming lockers, stomping our feet, scratching on the chalkboards. We tried to be as creative with everything as we could because we wanted to make a record that was different from anything else we’ve done.”
That exploratory approach even filtered into the songwriting. With references to zombies, interstellar travel and seafaring pirates, “Celebration” contains some of the band’s most trippy lyrics to date. Said Felice: “There’s a lot of strange allegory and surrealism, but most of the songs are about characters who are feeling disillusioned with the world and are trying to make some kind of artificial paradise.”
Others are just plain funny. Witness the darkly comic “Honda Civic,” a cryptic tune that unfolds like a lost Coen Brothers screenplay and culminates in a shootout outside a Wonder Bread warehouse.
Still, the close-knit group (brothers Ian and James Felice are joined in the crew by three childhood friends) couldn’t completely shake their acoustic roots, which surface on the tender bedroom lament “Best I Ever Had.”
“A lot of (the songs) are removed and bizarre,” explained Felice. “We wanted something a bit more intimate where people could feel like they’re in the room with you. Cover all our bases, I guess.”
The track is a throwback to The Felice Brothers’ 2006 debut, “Through These Reins and Gone,” part of which was recorded in a chicken coop on the family’s property in Palenville, N.Y. Often compared to Bob Dylan and The Band in those earliest days, the Brothers’ early sound had an out-of-time appeal, as though they’d hidden away in the Catskill Mountains since the early ’60s.
Indeed, it’s true that the group’s isolated, rural upbringing had a distinct influence on their musical development.
“My closest neighbor growing up was almost a mile away,” said Felice, who currently shares a home with several bandmates near his childhood stomping grounds. “There are a lot of folk singers that lived around where I grew up. It’s just a bunch of scattered weirdos living in the woods.”
Felice points specifically to late Greenbriar Boys banjoist John Herald, who lived nearby and provided crucial early instruction and guidance.
With “Celebration,” the group blocked out additional time (off-and-on recording sessions stretched out over a 10-month period) for further musical exploration, determined to escape the folk-revivalist label that had dogged them since their early days as Dylan-esque subway buskers in New York City.
“We just want to have fun and not limit ourselves,” said Felice. “We’re not just listening to Appalachian stomp and gospel music. We want to use all those elements that move us and try to make it our own thing.”