Mr. Feelgood and the Firm Believers: Good times
by Charlie Walentiny
Blending together the grooving basslines of reggae, the structure of classical music, the improvisational spirit of jazz and the unconventional tunings of the 8-string guitar, local music act Mr. Feelgood and the Firm Believers serve up a blend of all their influences with a smooth folk coating and an emphasis on positive lyrics.
Guitar player and chief songwriter Major Sturm hails from Virginia, transplanting to Bellingham after his brother bought him a one-way ticket five years ago. Since then, Sturm has moved around the music scene in Bellingham, playing folk and rock tunes with cellist Nicholas Hoag. Classically trained as a part of Western’s orchestra, Hoag brought his decade-plus experience in the concert hall to the practice room. After an informal practice at Sturm’s house, Hoag said Sturm had an undeniable feeling that they needed to be in a band together.
“He’s [Sturm] always been like, from day one, ‘we have to be in a band together’,” Hoag said. “Major has a certain positivity that is undeniable.”
After playing a few sporadic shows around Bellingham, Hoag said Sturm wanted to get more serious with the group, asking for a drummer. When Hoag was packing up after an orchestra performance at Western, he met jazz drummer Reid Immel. Hoag approached Immel, asked if he wanted to jam, and the sparks flew. They exchanged numbers, and within a few months they were practicing at house shows together.
“Sometimes you just get what you need,” Hoag said. “The universe provides.”
After a large birthday party for Hoag at his house, they further cemented their connection through improvisation and Sturm’s songwriting. Sturm’s lyrics focus on positive messages, something that Immel said came from Sturm’s love of Bob Marley’s music and philosophy. Though the music Mr. Feelgood plays isn’t straight reggae, the influence is undeniable in the inflections of Sturms vocals and groove of dueling basslines. The group further forged their bond through a weeklong tour of western Washington, something that Immel said helped drum up hype for the band upon their return.
The further development of the band saw another expansion after the summer tour, with an unconventional addition. Guitarist Nick Taylor, also of Hot Cotton and Snug Harbor, plays an eight string combination bass and guitar that carves a unique role in the groups music. The extended range allows him to hold up basslines while Hoag solos on his cello, or move up and play more lead guitar type lines while Hoag holds down a groove. This interplay is integral to the bands musical exploration, because it lets them have more dynamics than simply adding a bass player, Immel said.
“The fact that they can trade their solos and bring dynamics with both their instruments give the music a lot of momentum.” Immel said.
The positive message of Sturms lyrics combined with the upbeat tunes of their music are what separated them from sounding too much like other bands in the area, Sturm said. He wanted to create music that would affect people the same way it affects him, likening his message to one of his main influences, Bob Marley.
“Anyone with the right message and is fighting the good fight can be heard,” Sturm said. “The heaven we get is the heaven we make while we’re alive.”
After finishing up the summer tour and recording a demo late last year, Immel said the groups is excited to hit the festival circuit.
“Reid came home from Sasquatch and had this crazy drive,” Hoag said. “I think that drive really propelled us to have more regular practice. It’s kind of one of our dreams to play Sasquatch.”
What’s next for Mr Feelgood and the Firm Believers? Immel said they will be orchestrating a tour next summer after they have finished classes for the school year, and will begin work on recording more material. The improvisational nature of their music makes it tough to get an arrangement they want to do a professional recording for, so they spend a lot of time reworking their existing set into a form they want to keep, Hoag added.
The band is currently working on new versions of old songs that now feature the eight string guitar, and writing new material that they’ll tighten up on the road. “That’s why I’m excited for this upcoming tour this summer,” Immel said. “I’m excited to see people’s reaction to our set outside of the state, hopefully down to California.”