SARATOGA SPRINGS — The City Center was three years old, and First Night Saratoga not yet born when Pete Donnelly, Mike Gent, and Guy Lyons comingled their daytime studies at Saratoga Springs High School with their music at night to create The Figgs. On New Year’s Eve, members of the band present and past are headed on a collision course with the future to ring in the new year and celebrate the start of the group’s 30th anniversary.
“It’s a pretty extraordinary milestone. We’re coming in on 30 years and we’re very aware of it,” Donnelly explained. “There’s been plenty of ups and downs, but our relationship is pretty solid, and we’re still able to function as a band, and as friends.”
While the three current band members – Gent, Donnelly, and drummer Pete Hayes make their respective residences in different states, Saratoga Springs remains a special place to the band. “All of us have a warm spot in our hearts for Saratoga. My parents are there and it still pretty much feels like home. Every time we come to Saratoga it feels like a mini-reunion and we don’t do it that often anymore,” Donnelly said. “New Year’s Eve is special and this time Guy Lyons is joining us - he’s an original member- so there is a culmination of 30 years and New Year’s Eve in Saratoga. It’s representative of a lot of history.”
On a night to usher in the New Year that features more than 70 regional groups performing in 30 different venues, The Figgs stand at the top of the list, with performances at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on the big stage at the Saratoga Springs City Center, which sits less than two miles from the school where they played one of their earliest shows on a December night in 1987. In between, there have been more than a dozen albums - their 13th studio record, “On the Slide,” was released earlier this year – and some 1,500 shows staged at hallowed venues like the QE2, CBGB’s, and the Whisky A Go Go, various solo releases, side projects, and a 2013 TV commercial for a luxury car that featured the catchy post-new wave riffs of their song “Je T’adore.”
“As a kid I loved jazz music, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and I think a lot of people are surprised by that. Those were my idols, but with The Figgs, we love all music of all eras,” Donnelly said. “Our main influences coming up were the ‘80s underground bands coming out of Minneapolis like Hüsker Dü, and Black Flag out of California. When we began, we felt we were counter to the cheesy, schmaltzy ‘80s pop world we grew up in during the Reagan Era. Our music was an affront to that. It was an expression of searching for an identity in a banal world. It almost feels like it’s a return to that now.”
Donnelly’s first instrument was the bass, an Ibanez Roadstar II, purchased at Drome Sound in Albany on his 13th birthday. The family piano and his two brothers’ guitars and drums also received a lot of attention. When the band scored a major record deal with BMG’s Imago in 1994, the first thing Donnelly did was secure a classic 1965 Fender Jazz Bass from Lark Street Music – a classic instrument which he still plays today. It is a far different world than when The Figgs first started, and the band has rolled with the changes.
“With the Internet, I feel that the music industry has been castrated. People treat music like it’s something on the side, an accessory. Some people claim that it’s leveled the field, that everyone can play, but I think you have a much lesser pool of quality. The bar has been lowered. It’s like there’s an ocean of mediocre work and it’s hard to find your way through it,” Donnelly said. “But, I’m not one of those people who are angry, or resentful. It is what it is.
“Where the Internet is great is that it allows a band like us to maintain contact with our fans, and what’s the same is what’s been true forever: that there is a percentage of quality work, too. Musicians have to play. It’s their desire. And we play for the exact same reasons,” Donnelly said. “I know for me and for many of my dear friends and family, music is so precious that they couldn’t live without it - and I couldn’t live without making it.”