Oak, Dirt, Soul & Sunset: Joe Firstman of Cordovas

Destiny Hotel finds Cordovas immersed in West Coast groove and Southern charm while reveling in the warm vibes of ’70s psychedelic-tinged country rock. Composed and rehearsed in Todos Santos, Mexico– the scene of conception for 2018’s That Santa Fe Channel– Cordovas frontman and bassist Joe Firstman enlisted an old friend for the album’s execution. Joe originally worked with producer Rick Parker (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Lord Huron, Beck) on 2003’s The War of Women, a project that led Firstman to the rock n’ roll promise land, ultimately landing him on television as the bandleader for NBC’s Last Call with Carson Daly. In the wake of that experience, Firstman rediscovered his muse while surfing and writing and in 2011, he relocated to Nashville and rejuvenated with Cordovas. Destiny Hotel was finished just days before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the live music industry to a screeching halt. For Firstman, it’s an opportunity to share songs that are of the moment but designed to endure.

AI- I spent the morning, a very pleasant morning I might add, with Destiny Hotel. I’ve heard the lead tracks off of it, but it was the first time I got to hear the whole thing in its entirety. I appreciate this album, particularly with what we’re dealing with across the country and really around the world. You got to make that album and then all of a sudden everything shut down. What was your initial reaction?

JF- You’re hitting on a big thing there. This was something that we were all thinkin’ about in the writing of this. Now, you’re talking to a dude who’s written a lot of songs about “Baby, baby, baby, I love you! Come back! I messed up! I want this! I want that!” And so the progress of the narrative itself, we wanted to mature it. We wanted to move away from that. We wanted to talk about oak and dirt and soul and sunset. Things like this. Above all that, Aaron, we wanted to, just in case the boat got rattled and the sales flew away, or if there was some great calamity– or if there was a pandemic– we wanted our songs to be there and work. So we’re sittin’ there goin’, “Dude, this is gettin’ real!” But as we were makin’ the record, we kept going song to song and goin’, “Well, we need to cut this one because this is kind of appropriate right now,” and then the next one was kind of like, “Oh, this one works too!” So we built that into it. And then, sure enough, it all went down, right?

A great deal of the music that’s been coming out this year– and I should qualify by saying in roots and Americana music– a lot of it was written of course, before the pandemic, delayed in many cases…

Or made obsolete!

That’s a fact! But a lot of it has felt very prescient in a way. Now with Destiny Hotel, you’ve stated that you wanted to make an album transcends all of that. But at the same time, true and easy are some words you use to describe it. Is there a bit of prophecy on Destiny Hotel? Do you see a positive point on the horizon?

Unquestionably! It’s right there in front of us all. Yeah, destiny is a concept, a construct, right? Your destiny, this is what you were meant to do. Barry Bonds’s dad was a baseball player. His destiny was to play baseball. And so forth. And then a hotel, of course, is a fixed place. For us, maybe it means gettin’ to that place so you could start to grow. But as far as it being in time with everything, yeah, the good is right there. I think a lot of this is part of the destiny of the American. We are some rugged bastards, man! We are some rugged people. And I’m from the South, so I know exactly what’s going down because I am y’all! I’m from right over there and my people are from right over there. It’s a tricky time, but Southerners have a beautiful birthright that we’re also proud to be from here with our music and with our way and our artistry and our understanding of nature. There’s parts of the whole makeup– up and down– that are having to be addressed right now, but good will come out.

You bring up the South. The songs on this album, stylistically, to me, really batter back and forth between California and Carolina. Just for instance, “Rain On The Rail” has a very George McCorkle, Marshall Tucker Band feel to it. You got some Outlaws in there. Of course, The Grateful Dead are some of your favorites on the California end… Are you conscious of your heroes and your influences when you’re writing these songs? Or when you’re woodsheddin’ with the band?

Without question. And you put it there! You know what you’re listening for, Aaron. I was a North Carolina kid who took that Greyhound out there. I don’t need to sing pretty songs about Mexico. I have a beach house there. I don’t need to tell you songs about the Greyhound because I took it for four days. I’d never been on a plane when I showed up in Hollywood. When I got to Hollywood, it sounded like everybody else who showed up there tryin’ to be a singer was tryin’ to sound like they were from North Carolina! They were tryin’ to sound like us! But I did not flinch from my adoration of the way that Southern Californians– even Northern California– they talk, their beat, their phrasing, their cadence, and of course the smoothness and the way those cats made music out there. But once again, I go back to that birthright of being Southern and having hopefully a little bit of a born-in understanding of what American music really is. The blues and jazz– it came from the South!

You’re back with Rick Parker for this album– somebody you worked with very early on with The War of Women and the Wives Tales EP. How long has it been since you did a project with him and what made him necessary this time around?

I had no choice, but to get it right! For real, man! I was lookin’ at Lucca [Soria], the young guy in our band, and goin’, “Man, [he’s] been in a band since he was 21. And he’s had two records on a major label! You’re doin’ pretty good, you know?” And I think one of the parts of it, he might’ve looked at me and gone, “Oh, well, this guy has to get it right!” I have to! I have a two-year-old! I have to! And when you have to, you have to! Rick was part of that “have to,” man.

We’d already had a misfire. We tried to start the record with Kenneth [Pattengale] who did the first one [That Santa Fe Channel]. It was a different time in his life and in our band’s career… And so we misfired and we wasted money– and we don’t have it like that! We just don’t have it like that at our label. So when it came down to me, have to, I had to get it right. That meant us going to my little hot place in Mexico. We did our festival. We really, really, really, really shed’d the songs. And then I compelled the label to rent us a little house up there in the Canyon a couple of blocks from Rick’s. And yeah, it had been probably, shoot, I don’t know, 15 years since we’d done anything? I surf with him! I invite him to Mexico, but yeah, we haven’t had any budget to be able to get him involved in anything. Now, he’s also my mentor. So over the years, he’ll mix things for me when I need his help. But ultimately he’s a busy pro guy.

You also got to hook up with Adrian Quesada from the Black Pumas. How’d that come together?

Right! That was through the label, and I think that was Rick turnin’ in the best “High Feeling” that he could. And then I think that’s sittin’ on the speakers of Jon Salter up there on ATO in New York and him just being a really, really old school label head. The Ahmet Ertegun type, you know? That type of guy who’s goin’, “I need a hit! I need to rev this up!” And going through his mind and his resources and pullin’ out a guy who could add a little bit more to it. Adrian added all the vocals– the Black Pumas female background singers [Angela Miller and Lauren Cervantes] and some of his own– and some of his impressions on how the mix should be and how loud the drums should be and how loud the piano should be.

You said something in another interview about this album, about how “an artist’s eye can get off the ball.” I’m assuming that is in reference to your fortuitous but also tumultuous career up to this point. What’s the ball right now?

The ball is holdin’ the feet to the fire. First of all, we don’t have that much time to even think about the damn ball! You think about gettin’ your ass up and goin’ to the next town, gettin’ your ass up, goin’ to the next town, go to the next town, get on a plane… We don’t make any money out there, but we tour more than anybody because the dates are the payment, to be able to get in front of people. So that’s the ball. You don’t have any time. Now, you gotta make your own ball, right? That’s why I’m strugglin’ with the boys and how much we’re doing right now. It’s because we live together! There ain’t no drive across town. There ain’t no quarantine separate. We live here like The Grateful Dead! So the ball is you gotta get up and make your own goals each day. And that’s hard for musicians. We’re a lazy bunch! They call it herding cats for a reason, Aaron! So the ball is you get your ass up and make a ball! I don’t play bass around the house. I play piano around the house, but my main thing that my feet are to the fire about is songwriting. I know I can make up a song every day or two if I just sat down there at the piano and did it.

You mentioned the last album. I was surprised to hear you to talk about it that way. Did you feel a disconnect with that one?

No! I thought Kenneth, the producer there, kind of plucked us, man! We didn’t have much going at that point. I woulda had to produce it myself, although I’m a huge player in that, which is a small detail. But the microphone maker, Matt Stager, his studio was what really allowed us to get that sound goin’. Kenneth kind of swooped in there and did it on spec. And you can tell he went away and got the headphones on and made a beautiful, wispy, little record, man. I thought it was nice. I didn’t produce it, so I could be able to step back from it and think about it. I think he did a good job! We made that record not being on ATO. They signed us before that record was put out, but we had it finished. So that was that. But this one, once again, I had to get it right. I had to, had to, had to, had to! It was just a different scenario and we needed a different set of guys for this time. There was no knock on Kenneth. He’s a genius, and he don’t need us. He might not even remember who we are!

Leading a band behind the bass. That’s something that I asked Bonnie Whitmore about one time and she told me, basically, it’s just more fun. Is that how you feel about it when it comes to the live show?

I like that. I like the fun part because melodically, you can define the tonal aspects of your chord by what the bass is playing. So if you have a mind on what the guys in your band are playing, then you can arrange on the spot. That’s very, very exciting for me. That’s very, very fun. I love that. On the piano, around the guitar, you have a chance to make rhythm a little bit more completely. And that’s where I think we need to work because the sound that I like, the bass player in me, the way I play, the approach is like Dixieland. Like The Dead, man, there’s all kinds of melody going on all at once. Sometimes I’m singing– and playing a different melody on the bass. But I really try to push the guitar players in our band to make their own adventurous rhythms because rhythm is what really is exciting about live music. People like to dance!

Did I hear you say that you have a two-year-old?

Yeah, she’s right there.

I thought I heard a little twitter there!

Yeah, she’s gettin’ ready to get her piano lesson goin’.

Oh, already started on the piano! Man, I’m tryin’ to get mine to just do like one fret at a time on guitar strings. She got the singin’ part down, but she’s not quite got the patience for the guitar yet.

How old is she?

She just turned four.

You’re a couple years ahead of me, man. You gotta give me some guidance!

They keep gettin’ more fun, more fun, and more fun! I’m assuming you’ve had more of an opportunity spend with her this last few months?

There you go again, man! I’m telling you, we ride so much that my hips were just hurtin’! They’re falling apart. I need to get more yoga going, but damn, we just ride all the time! And then we get to Europe and we ride! And then I get down to Mexico and I get my surfin’ on and try to get my body back, man– but good Lord! We’re fallin’ apart, eating McDonald’s every day and ridin’ all the time and drinkin’ coffee so much. So being here, being able to run around the backyard, man, play wiffle ball with the boys, build a deck, we built a beautiful fence… And then of course hangin’ out with my family! There’s no way that a guy like me is able– probably not even physically capable– to turn down a company goin’, “Hey, we’d like to book your band!” That’s all I ever wanted to do my whole life. Of course, we’re gonna do it! But we can’t do it right now! [I have] great love and respect for people that have been affected by the pandemic. We are very much tryin’ to make the best of this.

Sounds like you’ve done that on this record too. If I have heard one record so far this year that has made the best of this, I think it’s Destiny Hotel. And that last song, “Do more good and talk less shit…” I gotta tell you, I aspire to that very sentiment every day I wake up!

Thank you for mentioning that one. The great Brian Wright! He’s just part of the Cordovas family. He’s always aware of when we’re going for a record and piecing songs together ’cause we were workin’ so much together. He threw much of that one at me, and it was easy for the Cordova to make that one good. What a nice theme! And it’s kinda like a way that we talk, you know?

Friday, October 16th, Destiny Hotel lands on CD, vinyl, and your favorite digital platforms! Pre-order now! Be sure to Like & Follow Cordovas and keep up with the lastest news and performance updates!