Spring Arts Guide: The Feelies Get Perpetually Nervous All Over Again

Plus CSS, Adele, and other spring music picks

Some people pick up guitars and want to be rock stars. Other people pick up guitars because playing music is a cooler hobby than collecting toy trains. For more than three decades, the Feelies have been the ultimate hobbyist band. At every step—from the 1978 Village Voice story that declared the Haledon, New Jersey–based group to be “the best underground band in New York,” to their 1986 cameo in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, to their recent return as indie icons—the Feelies haven’t just eluded the golden chalice of fame, they’ve shuffled indifferently past it.

“We’ve never been a band that operated with a sense of it being a career,” lead guitarist and vocalist Glenn Mercer says from his home in North Haledon. “We never made particular career moves. The momentum is something we really don’t control. We’re aware of it. We feel the momentum and kind of ride along on that.”

“Momentum” is a useful concept when considering the Feelies. Whether it’s the self-descriptive title track of their 1980 debut Crazy Rhythms or the insistent drone of “Should Be Gone,” from their recently released disc Here Before, Feelies songs have a sense of perpetual motion. Rhythm guitarist Bill Million’s frenetic strum, Brenda Sauter’s skipping bass, and the fraternal-twinned percussion of Stanley Demeski and Dave Weckerman click together like a finely tuned speeding locomotive, which has to be physically braked to stop. All the weight of narrative lies on Mercer’s Lou Reed–esque monotone and, mostly, his guitar—worried, seeking, howling, hushed. Everything stops. Until it starts again.

So, too, the Feelies’ history. Formed by Million, Mercer, and Weckerman as a suburban riposte to the New York art-noise of the Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, and Television, the Feelies quickly rose to the top of the club pile. English label Stiff signed the then-four-piece, with Anton Fier on drums. But the band found even that stalwart punk franchise to be too mercenary. The Feelies became notoriously enigmatic, playing only on holidays, if at all. Or they’d play under other names, with varying lineups: the Willies, Yung Wu, the Trypes.

The rise of an American indie scene in the mid-’80s gave the Feelies new life and members (Demeski and Sauter, with Weckerman back). R.E.M.’s Peter Buck co-produced 1986’s The Good Earth, a more pastoral album than the New Wave Rhythms. The Feelies became positively prolific, releasing Only Life in 1988 and Time for a Witness in 1991. Demme crowed that “the Feelies all had finally quit their day jobs.”

He spoke too soon. In 1992, Million abruptly moved to Florida.

“He had a good job offer he couldn’t really pass up,” Mercer says. “We found out about it after the fact. It was a bit of a shock.”

The Feelies entered a 16-year ebb. Weckerman and Mercer played in Wake Ooloo, Demeski co-formed Luna, and Sauter played in Wild Carnations. Then, once again, with indie rock waxing anew and old-school postpunk bands like Gang of Four and Mission of Burma finding fresh audiences for their intricate, jagged guitar opuses, the perpetual nervousness machine started rolling. The Feelies sent each other tapes. They rehearsed. They played at Battery Park on July 4, 2008—yes, a holiday. This spring, they play the Bell House on May 13.

The Feelies recorded Here Before at Hoboken’s Water Music. With titles like koans—“Again Today,” “Time Is Right”—the tracks are mellowed, almost meditative. “The more time passes, the more you have to reflect on,” says Mercer sagely. “As you’re moving forward, you look back as well.”

Jangling guitars and a high-hat wash provide the base of the Feelies’ dense but simple-sounding arrangements. “We’ve always had definite ideas about the production, how we wanted to sound. We wanted it to have a certain clarity, but also for it to have a certain depth to it as well. So that you could hear things initially and later on discover other parts that were there.”

Million still lives in Florida; the band isn’t giving up their day jobs again. They rehearse sporadically, tentatively—the Feelies are affirmed spare-timers. Mercer concedes that if there’s an album after Here Before, it will take years. What’s the hurry?

The Feelies, May 13, the Bell House, 149 7th Street, Brooklyn, thebellhouseny.com

Spring Music Picks

The Hold Steady
April 8
The Hold Steady is a bar band the way the E Street Band is a bar band—i.e., those are roots that Brooklyn’s finest have moved way beyond. Last year, Craig Finn, the Hold’s Boss, described the band as “Led Zeppelin meets Microsoft Office.” With quips like that, who needs critics? Terminal 5, 610 West 56th Street, terminal5nyc.com

TV on the Radio
April 13B Speaking of funny lines, TV on the Radio founder Dave Sitek recently described the record industry as being run by pedophiles looking for the next ringtone. Sure, he’s peeing in his own bath. Come on in, the water’s warm. The molesters at Interscope release the new album Nine Types of Light the day before this show. Advance track “Will Do,” streaming now on a MacBook near you, makes an awesome ringtone. Better than Radiohead? Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Sixth Avenue, radiocity.com

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