I was a Stones/Zeppelin/Beatles kid but in 1978 I heard a song called “Strange Way” on the radio that perked up my ears. It was catchy, it was rock-y, it was prog-y. I went and immediately bought the album, Elan, and tried to find out more about this band called Firefall. Well, it seems they had a reputation for producing ballads – “You Are The Woman” and “Just Remember I Love You,” which bass player Mark Andes recently assured me was not always what the band was about. You had to see them play live, he told me, where they would come alive and hang with the best of them in the mid-late 1970s to the early 1980s.
An original member, Andes would stay with Firefall for four albums before leaving after a not-so-great tour and album recording process. He ended up in Heart, appearing on two of their biggest albums, 1985’s Heart and 1987’s Bad Animals, before reconnecting with Firefall in 2014 to tour; and on December 11th, release a new album called Comet. It has been a long time since the band released new material but you’d have a hard time telling it. Comet is a breath of fresh air, sounding crisp and modern, fun and sentimental. Their first single, “Way Back When,” takes us on a time capsule ride through the music and turbulence of the 1960’s, while “Before I Met You” has that iconic Firefall blend of ballads with a good hook and harmonies. “A New Mexico” takes up where 1976’s “Mexico,” a fan favorite, leaves off, and Andes steps back into his Spirit band shoes to sing lead on “Nature’s Way,” from that band’s 1970 Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus album; this time joined by the Eagles Timothy B. Schmit and Doobie Brother John McFee.
Andes, son of actor Keith Andes who appeared opposite such Silver Screen beauties as Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Stanwyck and Loretta Young, gained his own notoriety as a founding member of Spirit alongside Randy California, Jay Ferguson, Ed Cassidy and John Locke. They were hot on the LA scene, playing shows with The Doors, Zeppelin and Hendrix, before Andes and Ferguson left to form Jo Jo Gunne. But it was in 1976 as part of Chris Hillman’s band that Firefall took flight. Hillman had released his first solo album, Slippin’ Away, and needed a band to tour with. Vocalist Rick Roberts from the Burrito Brothers came aboard along with Jock Bartley and Mark Andes. When Hillman became sick on the tour, the band continued on, and with former Byrds drummer Michael Clarke, Firefall became their own entity (along with Larry Burnett and David Muse).
Andes feels he’s had a great career so far and has been enjoying being a part of Firefall again. With touring on hiatus until Covid is more under control, Andes has to content himself with promoting the new album from his home in Texas. We spoke recently about making a new record with his old band, his early days with Spirit, the big hair of Heart and how “Strange Way” came together.
Yeah, it sure seems like it. But, you know, it’s Jock’s band. I left in 1980 and came back like six years ago, so there was a whole chunk of Firefall history that I kind of missed. But I was called by Jock to come back in and see if I liked playing shows and I did and we kept doing that. Then the idea about doing some new songs came up and that’s how this thing started. So what happened was, we did like four songs. We didn’t really commit to doing a new album initially. We were going to do maybe three or four songs and maybe record those and release them as merchandise at shows.
I think we did the first batch of tracks, and I’m talking basic tracks, in Colorado. I’m not sure of the running order, to be honest with you, but we moved around a lot to a bunch of studios. We had been doing “Nature’s Way,” a Spirit song, and “I Got A Line On You,” which is another one, during the live shows and we decided to record “Nature’s Way.” It’s kind of a special tune for me because I was around on the original version and it turned out to be a little personal tribute to Randy [who passed away in 1997]. I asked our friend Timothy B. Schmit to sing on it and John McFee played pedal steel and that beautiful mandolin. So it was this little tribute to Randy and it was just something I felt like I wanted to do with Firefall, cause I’ve had a lot of people ask me to record that song with them and this is how I chose to do it initially.
Then it sat. Actually, “Nature’s Way” got some airplay and I thought that was crazy. I mean, how about that? You put it out there and it winds up getting noticed by certain radio stations, so I was flattered for sure. But this lineup, with Gary Jones, the lead singer, hadn’t done any recording before. Of course, David, Jock and I have all worked together, and Sandy Ficca, the drummer, has been in the band longer than any of the other members except for Jock. He’s been in the band like thirty-five years.
So I’m back doing the shows and we’ve got these new tracks and they say, “Come on, let’s get it going!” So I cut my vocals in Austin, sent it to Timothy in LA and it was very, very cool. But it just sat and then it turned into an album. It had no planning, we didn’t really have any goals in mind; we just sort of backed into the whole idea and it turned out pretty good.
Were you able to record the album all together?
Oh, we got together, it was just in various locations. I think we did some stuff virtually. I know that Timothy’s stuff was virtual. He was in his studio in California, and the same with John McFee, he recorded in his studio in California. But it just took a while for us to get our bearings and it’s kind of been worth the wait. It’s been a very interesting experience.
So you’ve been waiting a while for this to come out
Oh yes, it was three years ago, four years ago, when we cut “Nature’s Way.” But even for this record we’ve been waiting a while. But that’s kind of typical Firefall way of doing things (laughs). It’s just a little more laid back than most but it works out, you know. Jock, it’s his band like I said, and I came back and it’s not a democracy or anything but he takes our opinions to heart and I have a lot of influence, being an original guy, and having the track record I have amassed over the years. But it’s an interesting way to do it, I think. When we were in Nashville, we would stay extra days. Our lead singer lives there so we would stay, maybe play Nashville and then stay for five days recording and that’s how we took advantage of some of that pre-covid touring and then all of us being in the studio together, which was really pretty great. We had several wonderful experiences in far flung studios here and there and meeting some talented people. I enjoyed it.
Other than “Nature’s Way,” which song on Comet would you say really has your imprint on it?
Well, I actually arranged the vocal parts on “Way Back When.” And I think I am in there singing, I think you can hear me pretty well in the vocals. So I would say I feel connected with that and “Hardest Chain.”
“Way Back When” is the big single and it feels like a love letter to the music of your youth.
That is exactly what Jock was going for. Jock wrote the lyrics and sings the lead on that song so his imprint is pretty much on the song and definitely it’s a statement from Jock. And you’re absolutely right about what he’s talking about for sure.
Were those bands he mentions in the song as equally important to you when you were a kid as they were to him?
I would say that they are to a degree, maybe a large degree. I also have different ones but I think he nailed pretty much everybody that I would respond to. There would have been others that I could have gone with but I think he did an interesting thing. He actually did some research for those specific years. He went to Billboard Magazine online and got the Top 100 Albums of those years and he just picked and chose his songs from this master list of all the hit albums. He yanked out the ones that made sense to his narrative that he was doing, which was sort of a sequential thing going up to the Firefall era. I think that was what he was getting at.
Which bass did you use the most recording Comet and how similar or different is it to the ones you used in the early Firefall days?
That’s a great question. Wow, I’m impressed. That’s kind of a musician tech thing (laughs). But I’ll tell you, and it’s kind of a big deal really. I play pretty much exclusively a Fender Precision 5-string bass. I started playing a Fender Precision on all the Spirit stuff and then Firefall. It’s been sort of my go-to. I have several of them, of course, but the original Spirit one I have and I used the Spirit one on Firefall pretty much. But yeah, it’s a relatively new bass. I’ve had it for maybe fifteen years, however, it still looks great but it’s just the standard Fender Precision 5-string and that’s what I kind of prefer now. Like I said, I have a 1957 Precision that I used on Spirit and Firefall.
That is correct. I was still in high school bands and stuff. We actually had a pretty good little band and we started to do quite a few shows on the weekends. Our really good multi-instrumentalist – he was very good on bass, a great guitarist – got a real gig for money (laughs) and he left and my brother was playing lead guitar and I was playing rhythm guitar. So it seemed like a natural thing for me to fall into the bass and not have to add another guy to the band. And I enjoyed it. It really, I don’t know, spoke to me in a cool way and I felt kind of empowered and being the only bass player in the band kind of made me feel good too.
What was the hardest thing to get the hang of with the bass when you started playing?
You know, it wasn’t a very bad adjustment at all. It wasn’t difficult. Like I said, I was playing a rhythm guitar part already and there were quite a few single-note things that I would incorporate in the rhythm guitar parts that I played so it kind of was an easy transition, to be honest. You just have to think, an octave lower than the guitar. The thing that really was an adjuster was the B-string on the 5-string. You get so used to having the low string on your bass being E and now it’s a B (laughs). That was an adjustment and took a while, for some reason.
Prior to Firefall’s first album, Chris Hillman produced a demo for you guys. Did he give you any direction or advice musically?
Maybe he did with Rick in the selection of the tunes. I don’t recall him even coming up with the tunes. I think he just respected us as musicians and I know he really loved Rick Roberts’ writing. We were in his backup band out there in Boulder for quite a while. I was there for a while and Jock came and then later Rick joined in. But no, personally I don’t remember getting any specific advice or pointers from Chris but I think he helped discuss the song selection and the sound of the tracks, basically.
I understand Chris got sick and you guys took over and that’s kind of how Firefall started?
That is kind of a dramatic story but it’s true and how sick he got. Poor guy was not comfortable and he made his way back to Colorado and we flew Larry Burnett in, and Michael Clarke, I think. But we played this club and Rick’s then-manager invited some A&R people at Atlantic Records just to come down. We were pretty tight as a band and we were playing a lot of shows in Colorado and we really had our material pretty well-rehearsed, so I think the manager guy felt confident in inviting the A&R people to come down. They did and they were impressed and we started to negotiate.
Working with Chris on that demo, was that why you put “It Doesn’t Matter” on that first record?
I think, probably not directly because of Chris, but because of the group’s sense of worth and worthiness of the song and the work that they did together and we always did that song, even when we first got together and started to play shows in Boulder, we always did that song. I think Rick was really proud of it and we were really proud of it because it was the original version and Chris had a lot to do with that version.
On the first Spirit album, you have a very trippy song called “Gramophone Man.” It’s more trippy than the other songs, I should say.
It’s got the card game in it for starters (laughs). It was a Jay Ferguson song and that’s one of the things I loved about Spirit, was their fearlessness, just going places that you don’t expect and being comfortable and having a fun time doing it. I loved the sense of humor that Spirit was able to muster up occasionally. But this was a Jay song and it was kind of a comment on the music business. I don’t want to say scathing but a little criticism of that character, cause we were in Hollywood in the sixties, you know what I’m saying (laughs). It was 1967 when that record came out and that character is rife within the music business, even to this day. It wasn’t just a thing in the sixties, believe me, but that character, every band had one of those guys around it, kind of hovering.
But Jay got inspired to do this little narrative on that guy. And the funny thing is, the guy was Marshall Blonstein, who was Lou Adler’s nephew who found the group because of Spirit’s first manager Ann Applequist taking him to the Ash Grove, a legendary folk house on Melrose in Hollywood, which Randy’s uncle owned. Marshall is the guy who told Lou Adler that there was something going on that he should seriously check out, cause Spirit had been dismissed by every major label at that point. We kind of went through the whole roster and probably were due to take a little time off and play gigs. You kind of have to do that and resubmit. But Lou heard it and the first record is sort of what we were playing at the Ash Grove.
Spirit got to be around a lot of these really cool bands – The Doors and Hendrix and Joplin – and you got to be friends with some of them. Which one of those artists during that time did you click with the best?
There was a special connection with Randy California and Jimi Hendrix. Jimi recognized Randy when Randy was young – I think he was barely a teenager – and he had the Red Roosters, which was a folk rock previous incarnation of Spirit. Cass [Ed Cassidy, Randy’s stepfather] and Randy left with the mom and went to New York for some business reasons. Cass had an opportunity to play Jazz with a big name and the whole family up and left and Jimi found Randy at Manny’s Guitar Shop. Randy was playing in Jimi’s band in the Café Wha? in the Village so there was this softness about their relationship that is kind of cool. They were both interesting people and Jimi was very quiet.
When we played the Devonshire Downs Festival , it was one of the festivals right in the Valley where Jay and I grew up, we played right before Hendrix and we were right in the backstage area in these RV’s or something and we’re waiting to go on and Jimi comes into the trailer and it was just a sweet moment. It wasn’t like a big ole, “Hey!” It wasn’t loud but quiet and intimate and he was so nice and there was so much good feelings and he just seemed very comfy and could fit right into our space and we just kind of made room for him and he and Randy had a very nice visit. That’s what I am trying to kind of describe, is that feeling. That was special and I was in the same room when Jimi and Randy reconnected like that.
What about for you personally? Who did you like to sit and talk with?
I sure got to meet so many people but so often your moments are so fleeting. I loved the guys in Sir Douglas Quintet’s horn band when he had those guys from California. There were some very good players and we had so much fun hanging out and Doug Sahm was a great guy. So I loved his band and I knew that whenever we would run into those guys, it was a good hang. We did play several shows together over the years and it was always fun to see those guys.
What did you think of Jim Morrison?
He was a little reclusive but they were all UCLA guys and Jay and John Locke were UCLA guys and I think the reason that we were sort of close to The Doors was both Jay and John knew Ray Manzarek and the guitarist, Robby Krieger, at school. I don’t think I really met Jim. We did a ton of shows together but the guys in the band were really cool, the three musician guys, and were very accessible and we always had fun hanging out backstage when we’d play. Jim did keep his distance.
You know, that’s a pretty accurate description really. We played at the Ciro’s Club with The Doors. It was this big, decadent nightclub, built, I think, in the twenties or thirties, and it was this legendary high-falutin nightclub. It was huge and I remember seeing the Temptations there and I saw the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. Taj was a great friend and he was somebody I had a strong friendship with due to his association with the Ash Grove place. But it was over the top. It was just lush and drapes and colors and intense lighting displays; just really powerful, beautiful, and decadent. And the stage would revolve like a platter so you’d have a band setting up, not making any noise, on one side of the thing, and on the other side, the band would be performing and then you would be swiveled around to the front. It was crazy and it was a concert venue but it was very, very intimate and that was special about those days and those shows. The access the fans had to all of this stimulation – the beautiful drapes and the light shows, not like in San Francisco yet, but just beautiful lighting. And the performers really wound up being very pleased. It was just a very audience friendly venue and artist-friendly. It was about the music and very cool.
You were a very young man when Vietnam was going on. How nervous were you about being sent over there?
Oh very. In fact, I got my draft notice to appear when in the middle of a Spirit three day run at the Whisky. We lived all the way up in Topanga so I finished at like two in the morning and I’m driving and I get home and I have to wake up and get to downtown LA by 8:00 in the morning, or something crazy, so basically I’m panicked. I thought, well, all the crazy stuff that guys did about getting out of it, by then all those tricks had been tried and they were not buying a lot of those things – all the wacky stuff those guys did. So I just decided to play my cards the way they were. I knew that I had scoliosis as a kid, that curvature thing, so I just said, okay. It wasn’t like I tried not to go in. I did it like I was really wanting to go in but I knew it was a huge mistake and a horrible, horrible thing to be a part of and I just pitied the poor guys that had to do it.
So I thought, well, if I can get a deferment, that’s what I was going to do. I was hoping that I would get it but I had no idea. I didn’t have a letter from a high-powered doctor or anything like that. I was just on my own and I explained the situation and they wanted me to touch my toes and I said, “I can’t. I’ve never have been able to.” They said, “Okay, follow the green line on the concrete.” You just followed the green line and I eventually got to a place where they took x-rays and I waited and waited and waited. And I’ve got a gig that night (laughs). I’ve got to get to Topanga and then go to Hollywood and I was just numb. They called me over and said, “Are you okay?” And I said, “No, I’m not, thanks for asking.” (laughs) But they said, “You’ve got a 1A deferment,” which enabled me not to have to go and do the service.
What year was this?
- I graduated high school at seventeen so I was already out playing with Spirit when I was eighteen.
What about those times of turbulence – with the war, the civil rights, the assassinations?
I think that whole era has sort of melted into the culture and I think that we’re really rediscovering right now with all of this crazy stuff going on how it’s still relevant. All those causes and the civil rights. I mean, we’re talking health care and some would argue that’s a civil right, and the black lives matter thing, it’s all very kind of related. Climate change, everybody wanted to get back to nature but we didn’t know how important it would be to do that. But I think there was a couple of decades where we sort of didn’t act on it and I was distracted by music. I’ve always felt that I stayed true to my free-range, old-growth hippie thing even though I was dolled up as a rock star in the eighties and nineties.
The hair, I noticed that
I know! But I’ve still got plenty of hair, believe me (laughs).
But you don’t have it sky high
You’re right about that (laughs). But it was such a fun time. I enjoyed that. Even in the Spirit days, we were pretty flamboyant, everybody flirted with androgyny and dressed up. Jo Jo Gunne did a lot of glam-y type stuff visually, so it was right in my wheelhouse to go there with Heart. But it’s high maintenance and that’s why later on in the band, I was with Heart for ten years, by the end of that run, I was relaxing into who I was in that role and it did not include the big hair. That kind of settled down into more of a layered, long-haired look.
Yeah, I think we did. That era of Heart was a band and we had equal say. Of course, Ann had ultimate veto power cause any song that she wasn’t really keen on doing she would not sing it as great as the others. But the guys worked on the arrangements and we had equal say in that and of course, when you get into the studio, the producer is in there with you. But I was pleased, except for one producer which I really did not have good feelings about, and still don’t really, but he did produce some of the best stuff, most successful stuff, but not because of what he did, I don’t think necessarily.
It was great songs like “These Dreams” and God, I got to play on that song. And that wonderful performance by Nancy, and that was one of the coolest things that Ron Nevison did. When we demoed that song, Heart would play these songs and sing them, like old-school, just to get the vibe right on the basic track, and then you did the technical thing by overdubbing. But she sang that song when we cut the track and we listened back and her voice cracks a little bit and on the playback, under his breath so she couldn’t hear, he turned to the rest of us, and I think including Ann, and said, “She doesn’t know it but that’s the vocal we’re going to keep. That’s the keeper vocal.” He knew right from that first take of that song, well, I don’t know if it was the first take but it was the take for the track. That was kind of cool.
But you know, it was a great experience and a good band. I mean, gosh, Ann is the best lead singer I’ve ever worked with technically. I’m proud of what we were able to do. I have regrets about some of the decisions about how to market ourselves and it kind of relates to the glam-y, big hair way to present yourself, and it was an unfortunate thing to try to ask Ann to fit into that stereotype when her body wasn’t really cooperating. I think we made a tactical mistake that I was voicing very plainly and loudly saying we should just not worry about that stuff; let’s just write our songs, be who we are, just be ourselves. And I think we would have probably been like the grandparents of the grunge thing and instead we were this, I don’t know, this artifact of a time gone by: “Oh, that’s when they used to wear makeup.”
Firefall had a number of hit ballads all over the radio and then came “Strange Way.” What was Firefall really?
Well, we sure were more rock in our earlier incarnations and the albums kind of toned that down a little bit. Even to this day, Firefall onstage is pretty muscular. Sandy and I really play strongly. Somehow or other, maybe on this record it’s a little different, but on the earlier records, they seemed to get toned down for some reason. But boy, we could rock and we would hold our own live with like Marshall Tucker or those kinds of bands. We did really incorporate more of the vocal, especially on the records where we’d have Timothy come in and sing the high parts and some special guests come in and do really lush things that we really probably couldn’t do live. There was that element that was also introduced into the sound, that kind of softer vocal-oriented thing.
Was “Strange Way” completed when Rick brought it to you guys?
One of the ways that we really were good as a band was Rick and Larry would bring their song ideas pretty much in sort of a primitive way – they would play the guitar parts and sing – but pretty much that was it and there wasn’t a lot of arrangement stuff going on. They would present it as that and the band really was instrumental in the arranging and on that particular song, Tom Dowd, the producer, was very instrumental in helping the arrangement along. In fact, it was Tom’s idea, and of course, our good friend Joe Lala, who played percussion in Firefall, and the Manassas records by the way, and he’s a brilliant and legendary percussionist, but it was Tom’s idea to change the tempo and do that Latin kind of thing, and of course that is basically a drum solo for Joe. So it was very fun and I guess what I’m trying to say is that up until the very last, typically we would have rehearsed and really gotten our bearings on there, but we did not do that with that one; or at least if we did, Tom, in his ultimate wisdom, suggests this thing and it winds up hitting it out of the park. So that’s when it happens when you’re right there doing it and the producer says, “Try this” and everybody goes “Holy Moly! That was awesome!” and you keep it.
You worked with the great Dan Fogelberg. What do you think was Dan’s greatest gift to music?
He was my neighbor in the mountains of Colorado. His gift, I would have to say, there are two that are related: his songs and that voice. I mean, unbelievable. And that’s why he could do shows and do as good a business, as far as selling tickets, as a soloist as he could with a band, because he was so complete as a musician, whether he was accompanying himself on the piano or the acoustic guitar. The guy was really amazing but his songs were so, I don’t know, special and pretty heartfelt. He told wonderful stories, and that song, “Same Old Lang Syne,” I still get choked up with that thing after all this time and playing it live.
If this virus and shutdown wouldn’t have happened, would Firefall be out on the road now?
Oh yeah, if there was no coronavirus, we would be playing gigs and promoting the record with the idea of selling them at gigs. But you want to keep people safe and you want your artists safe so it’s a complicated deal. I would think with the vaccines that are coming that we might be okay for maybe in 2021, probably 2022 more than likely. They probably have to see how long these things last, how long you can be immune.
Do you think this new record is enough to inspire another new record?
Now that we’ve found our groove and we know our bearings in the studio, I think that it’s possible. You know, you get into your seventies and you’re still playing music and you just wonder how long you can really go forward with it. But as long as we’re having fun and the music is at a high level and there’s a venue for it, I’m in.
Photos by Jamey Bartley