He might be best known as the Indian or Native American character of disco legends Village People, but Felipe Rose is more than a face-painted icon of 70s disco.
In an effort to find and re-invent himself after COVID-19 isolation, Felipe wrote and recorded a post-pandemic party jam – “Dance Again” – out of a pure desire to hit the dance floors and hang out with people again.
The 67-year-old New Yorker has had a career full of excitement, success and heartbreak, topping the charts with legacy songs like “YMCA”, “In The Navy” and “Macho Man” – iconic songs of a long gone fancy-free era of freedom, fun and crazy fashion.
Felipe sat down from his home to chat about the new single, Village People and the campy movie Can’t Stop The Music, which has become a cult classic.
You have a new solo song out. Tell me about it.
The song is called “Dance Again”. It basically came out of my desire to want to go back to the clubs to dance because in 2020 while we were all experiencing this global consciousness at the same time, the clubs were empty, and yet, great music was being produced and great music was coming out like Dua Lipa with “Levitating” and BTS with “Dynamite” and all of the Donna Summer remixes exploded around the world.
Then suddenly, you have people gravitating on TikTok and social media, playing disco. Then of course, as you well know, “YMCA” took on a life of its own, with the Trump phenomenon and that became a head scratcher, you were kind of wondering, why, so I just realized that it was the best thing for me to do, and the best way for me to deal with a lockdown living by myself with my cat.
I started working on a full length show from all of the music I’ve recorded, and my Native American award winning music, and put together a couple of medleys.
Then I started losing a lot of friends, a lot of people I know due to the COVID-19 and I don’t know if you’re familiar with a one on Legendary DJ Warren Gluck who passed away in June. I thought, okay, that’s pretty much it for me.
In August, I lost my longtime producer, Frosty Lawson, and I fell into a deep, deep state of depression. Coming out of that, and going into the winter of 2020.
In November, it was just better to sit up, and let’s just take stock of it all and let me just start writing about what I was feeling. I started writing in song form. That’s when I realized, okay, you know, what I want to write about is something that I know really well that a lot of people can identify with, because I didn’t want to write a song about depression, come on, right. So the one thing that I realized that we didn’t do was dance, I said, let me write something and let’s dance again.
I took that idea to my young producer, Tyler Sarfer, who is 24 years old. He’s a genius, and another songwriter, friend of mine, Ben Harrison, and I told him that I wanted to go into the studio on my birthday of this year and that I wanted to record. So we did that. Booked the session and went there without a mask on or social distanced, and we wrote in five hours and we came up with the song.
“Dance Again”, is such a great title and perfect timing for the opening of everything again, and it’s almost like this big giant finger to COVID-19 .
It is, I love that. It’s like a giant no, you’re not gonna do this to us. Wow. Looking back, I knew when we wrote the song in January, I was looking to this moment, because I knew they were talking vaccines, and that eventually we’re going to open up and come back out. Come on, come out of our little holes, right out of little cocoons or bubbles and then I realized, okay, well, here we are.
When the song came out, they pre-released it on the distribution label that I put it on, but I put it on just as Felipe Rose, like, no big deal. Then what I realized, Oh, my God, and I didn’t send a picture and a bio and when they received that they freaked out, oh my god, this guy’s not an independent artist. This guy’s huge. They released it without letting me know and then suddenly, it was out all over the internet, all over the world and everyone’s going, oh, wow, this is really great. But people were not putting two and two together. So we uploaded one of the pictures of my Native image and the bio, and people, oh my god, then they got it.
It has a throwback vibe, but it’s also very modern sounding, it must have been a bit tricky to mix those elements?
That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted Tyler to give me certain elements of what music is today, and how would a vocalist like me sound by myself without a group? Basically, his question to me was, well, how do you want to sound? I said, Well, I love Post Malone, so why don’t you give me some of what he uses. And I saw it in an interview that he was doing for “Circles”, which I’m madly in love with that song.
In that interview, they asked him, why is your sound so good, and he said, it’s called auto-tune. So I told my producer, I want to auto-tune and I want a lot of that. Tyler basically explained that my concept of auto-tune is not that you’re trying to make the voice sound better than it is, is to make the voice sound softer in the presence in the room. That’s how we hear music on the radio today, and on podcasts, and without auto-tune it would be dry, it would be flat. It wouldn’t be in the room. It’s like he’s just in the corner over there singing. So auto-tune the way they used auto-tune today, just like in the beginning, over 10 years ago was Cher with “Believe”, and that’s why it sounds like a robot. But she was brilliant with it and got away with it.
I interviewed Michael Bublé actually and we got into a conversation about auto-tune. He said, ‘There is no way I would ever make an album without auto-tune’ and he described the exact same reasons that you did, that it makes it fuller.
You hear yourself in the room, it’s like, I’ll play the song, then I can just stand still and it’s like, I can hear Felipe standing next to me singing. That’s what it sounds like. That’s what it feels like.
I was at LaGuardia Airport and I saw Bublé in front of me putting his stuff in the bin, and I heard one of the guys behind me say ‘There’s Michael Bublé” and I said, ‘I know I know’. So when we were gathering our things, I’m like ‘Hey, Michael, I love you, man.’ And he goes, ‘Oh, yeah, thank you’. , and then I introduce myself and he goes, ‘Holy Shit, I love you guys’.
He said ‘You know, when my audience gets a little like, they don’t want to really get into the show. At the beginning of the show, they just want to sit there comfortable, with their lavish asses on their seat. He then stops his show, and he does a round of a rousing rendition of “YMCA”’ (laughter) and I said, ‘Do you really?’ Michael says ‘Yes, he gets some going with that.’
Do you enjoy the solo side of things? Are you missing the group format at all, It’s been five years.
I am not missing the group format of that, at all. I mean, I did it, a lot of it was painful. A lot of it wasn’t fun. When you’re in a group situation, you take backseat to everything, your ideas are not welcomed, or they’re not ever imagined. We were also under the helm of a very, very controlling producer, and ex-producer who basically lives vicariously through us as if they were the stars, and Jacques Murali.
Then of course, we had the ex-lead singer, and that’s a whole other planet to itself. So, the chemistry was very combustible, it was toxic. How I survived this long, and got through it, I think it tells the story of my life and in having tenacity and having the spiritual guidance, to just keep plowing, getting through disco, the death of disco, the AIDS crisis, marching straight through that fire.
As sad as all of that was coming through into the 90s, and really taking the group as president of the corporation and as one of the co-founders, and then really instilling those members that were with me, let’s make the show better. Let’s keep the show always fluffed up, I know we’re not a new group, but we can sound and look good and look new on stage.
Finally, after all of those changes, and with disco dying and the movie flopping in the US, “Can’t Stop the Music” because the movie was old even before it came out. It should have come out two years after we hit the scene. Then the interesting thing is that when “Can’t Stop the Music” was filming in the village “Cruising” with Al Pacino was filming in the village. That movie was also a train wreck because you had the likes of Nancy Walker directing her first feature motion picture.
It’s funny you mentioned the movie because I was going to ask about that. I watched it about a month ago, and it was the first time since it came out and I feel the same way about it as I do about KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. Horrible movies, but campy and fun to watch to bring back some memories. I think the movie probably works better now in that sense than it did when it came out.
It does. It absolutely does. The interesting thing is that in Australia, it is one of the biggest movies ever there and in movie history, and every year for New Year’s Eve, they basically play the movie an hour and a half before the New Year rings in. So they play it on Channel Nine every New Year’s Eve. That’s crazy, isn’t it? It’s fun, though that you have generations after generations after generations watching it and then rediscovering The Village People all over again.
It’s funny, you mentioned the discovery of The Village People because I have a pretty funny story about how I became a fan of The Village People. I was a KISS fan. And this is hilarious because my mom had asked me what I wanted for Christmas. And I told her I wanted KISS “Alive!”. And she’s like, KISS “Alive!”? I said, Mom, you know, the band with the makeup and the crazy costumes. They have a live album. So she’s like, oh, okay, so she goes to the store and she picks up “Live and Sleazy”. And that’s what I got for Christmas. It was my very first album, and it was the first album I ever played on my own stereo.
How brilliant for mom. Good for her.
There was good music in there. That was the pinnacle of when disco, the format and the industry started to collapse under us, and we had “Rock and Roll Is Back Again” in that album, and “Sleazy” by David Hodo,. There was a lot of good music for that album. It’s just sad that the industry panics, collapses under us with the soundtrack of the movie, so you just keep marching on. But for us, we were very lucky that we had a worldwide following. So we were able to just move across the waters and go through Italy and Southeast Asia, and South America. That’s what we did for years, we toured internationally.
I found it funny that my mom when she bought that album, she bought a Casablanca album. So a KISS fan has a Casablanca album. Do you have any great memories of being on Casablanca?
Yeah, I do. One funny memory was when we were at the office at Neil Bogart’s office. We were doing television and radio and doing tower record in store and lots of interviews in their conference rooms. They would have teen magazines coming into to interview us, as well, 16 magazine and all that. Neil called Donna Summer, who lived on fountain Avenue, not far from the office, and he said ‘I’ve got the boys here”.
We saw her when we she was filming “Thank God, It’s Friday”, and we went into her dressing room. But she was in such a mood, because people just kept coming in and out in and out. And so she apologized that she wasn’t really up to feeling friendly, because she was working and we understood that.
She made up for that and came to see us at the office. She showed up with her big Applejack hat and former jeans, and she always had a camera. While we’re standing there looking at her, one of the guys said to me, who’s going to tell her and I said what, he said, her wig is crooked. And I said well you tell her and we went back and forth. Then she said what’s going on, so I said your wig is crooked, and she said, Oh God, and she fixed the hat with the wig and turned it around. And so that was a really funny moment with us and her.
The band was never really afraid to showcase its sexuality, and that kind of changed the world a little bit, because we’re embracing a band known for being gay and promoting gay lifestyle. Was it always meant to be that way from the start?
I don’t think that we were showcasing it, I mean, we flaunted the sexual aspect of it on stage. And we didn’t take ourselves serious. But we weren’t endorsing it like the way the kids do today. We weren’t doing that, we weren’t sitting on The Merv Griffin Show, or on Dick Clark.
I’m a homosexual. I mean, we couldn’t do that, it was a very different time. I always felt that my private life was my own business, and also, in the climate that we were living in, there was no real room for that kind of talk, because we were really selling music.
Tell me about your character that you had in The Village People and why you chose him specifically. He’s been with you for a long time now.
He is a real person. He is my father. My father is a Native American of two tribes, Lakota and Apache and my mother’s Puerto Rican and Italian, so I’m very mixed. Because they both have mixed parents, so I’m mixed.
With me it wasn’t a character I dressed up in the village when I was really young, with my long hair braiding it and walking around with my little cut off shorts and moccasins up to my knees, with my fringe jacket and a little necklace and carrying my dad’s bag.
Running into Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and going to The Pink Tea Cup with them to eat breakfast, I was dancing in The Advil and also was with a dance company. To look back at my life then and to see where I came from. I literally came from the ghettos from the bowels of the village, and then was catapulted into this huge international world famous group. At that time you check the boxes, like biracial, gay, poor, artist, starving, all that was me.
Through that, and through that new journey, I was able to define myself as who I was, and becoming who I was and becoming the artist, very discipline, and still I live a very disciplined life. I think that’s why I still look young because I take really good care of myself and it’s not to say that I didn’t party like everyone else did in the club.
It’s just with me, I always have to look at the time, I gotta go to the airport I can stay at the same or I can’t stay in the club at Studio 54 till 9, 10 in the morning, because I have to go, I have to pack, I have to leave. So I was always saying goodbye, See you later and with no family, and the guys, we became family, we toured the world and I grew up and became a man on the road and I stayed with the group for 40 years until it sadly ended really bad.
At the end of the day there are no regrets.
Keep you up-to-date with Filipe Rose here.