Interview: Glenn Mercer of the Feelies
They seemingly came out of nowhere (far north NJ to be exact) in the mid-70's, but by the time the Feelies stopped playing together (never officially breaking up) in 1991, their legacy loomed large enough to have not only rock critics slobbering over them, but also fans like R.E.M. (Peter Buck co-produced their second album), Moby (who lists them as an influence on his MySpace page), and Weezer (who mimicked the cover of the Feelies' 1980 debut Crazy Rhythms for their own "Blue Album" debut).
Back when the Feelies first released Crazy Rhythms, they were a gotham phenom, known for cryptic lyrics, tense sound, unwound guitars and insistent drums. They'd gone through a bassist and a pair of drummers (including co-founder Dave Weckerman, who was in and out of the early incarnations, and Vinnie DiNunzio) before settling on the foursome immortalized in the nerd-prep portrait that graced the cover of their seminal first release: guitarist/singers Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, bassist Keith DiNunzio (Vinnie's brother), and drummer Anton Fier.
But just as they were first gaining critical momentum, the band collapsed when their label lost confident in their commercial potential. They went even further underground, regrouping under names like the Willies and the Trypes, before emerging again in the mid-80's with a new line-up of Mercer, Million, Weckerman, bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stan Demeski. In 1986, this new roster released the more-relaxed The Good Earth and then signed to A&M Records for Only Life (1988) and Time For A Witness (1991). But fate had a way of crapping on them, and things fell apart again when Million left the band and the music biz. Demeski wound up in Luna; Mercer and Weckerman formed new bands Wake Ooloo and Sunburst.
But just after Mercer put out a solo album last summer (Wheels in Motion) featuring almost the whole Feelies family (no Million), there was a surprise announcement that the mid-'80s line-up was reuniting. Fitting, then, that their first show was planned for this July 4, opening for Sonic Youth at Central Park SummerStage. "When the Feelies initially started, we played on national holidays only," says Mercer. "We thought of a show as like a celebration." A pair of warm-up shows at Maxwell's have since been added, the first of which takes place tonight.
I recently spoke with Mercer on the phone about the reunion, their unreleased material, future touring plans, and the possibility of a new Feelies album (the answer: maybe).
How did the recent reunion come about?
Going back to about 2001, I contacted Bill since we had some business that we had to deal with. I hadn't spoken to him in a long time. Maybe 5-10 years, something like that... But we had a real nice talk and one of the things we talked about was at some point in the future, getting together to play. He thought it was a great idea and I guess we just kept in touch and talked about it over the course of about five years, just trying to determine the best way, the best scheduling for everybody. We had a bunch of offers come through and it seemed like they'd been increasing recently so... It was really just a matter of everything lining up, with everyone's schedule and I guess the fact that this offer to play with Sonic Youth happened to be during the summer, kind of made it a little bit easier.
Another thing was that we realized that if it was ever going to happen, we really needed to make a strong effort to get it done. There's a lot of deal with as Bill lives in Florida and Brenda lives in Pennsylvania now.
Was that the main difficulty in trying to reunite?
Yeah, basically... Bill also had a lot of personal things that he had to deal with. It seemed that as soon as the possibility might exist, then something would happen and give way. But this is the first time that everything really cleared up and that made it possible for us to do it.
Who approached the band about doing the July 4th show? Also, did the band decide to do the two Maxwell's shows as a kind of warm-up for the July 4th show?
The two questions are somewhat related. We were approached by Todd [Abramson] from Maxwell's, who knows Sonic Youth [SY drummer Steve Shelley co-owns Maxwell's], and he explained that they had requested us for the 4th. We thought it would be a good idea to play a few shows prior and the Feelies have always had a special relationship with the club. We played our last show there in '91, we rehearsed there for awhile, and we played extended-run gigs every summer for some time as well, so it was a natural choice for us.
On your recent solo record, you had just about every ex-member of the Feelies. At some point, did you think that it might have become a Feelies record otherwise or did that never cross your mind?
Oh, it did, it did. When I had spoken to Bill, that's one of the things we had talked about. But it just wasn't a good time for him.
So when you were planning a reunion, and planning the record, and you had all your other former bandmates working with you, the missing ingredient otherwise was Bill?
Oh yeah, absolutely. We couldn't consider a Feelies reunion without Bill. He's a founding member, co-writer of a lot of the songs... he thought of the band's name. He was a part of the legacy as much as I was.
What's different about playing with the band now versus before?
[pauses] When you say 'before,' that was a period spanning more than 10-15 years. So throughout that period previously, there was a really wide range of different Feelies really. I couldn't really compare it to the past as much as a specific time in the past.
OK, then could you compare the band now to any particular time in the past?
Soundwise, it's exactly the same, to my ears at least. I think I'm singing a little bit better than I ever did so maybe it's even better. Everyone's playing as well as they ever did. I think the only difference might be that we don't have any pressure on us from any outside source. It doesn't feel like we're involved in the business side of it. It's kind of back to that feeling we had when we just doing it for fun really.
You mean like when you started out?
When we first started... and when we had the beginning of the second line-up... Before you sort of get involved in too much of the non-musical elements, like having a record company put a deadline on you, booking agent proposing a month-long tour... Any number of things that really don't have much to do with the music but they have a lot to do with the business.
It seemed that when the band was around the first two times that it was a little out of its time. Do you think that it might be different now?
(pauses) I don't really follow the music business too much anymore. It seems like... it's such a transitional period now. It's hard to really think of trying to fit in really. Every story I read is 'this business is suffering and things are bad.' You really can't have that in your mind when you write music. I've never written music with the thought of "how is this going to fit in?" No matter what you do, you'll either find an audience or you don't. I think nowadays with the Internet and MySpace, being able to sell, download... It levels the playing field a little bit.
As such then, do you think the band might be easier to sustain now in a digital age?
When you say 'sustain,' I have no idea... I don't think we could do this full-time and make enough money to live on, but that was sort of a struggle all along anyway. I think we can 'sustain' ourselves on an artistic level where we can certainly make the kind of music we want to make without having to compromise.
How do you look back on the original four Feelies albums now?
I normally don't listen to them once they're done, but I've kind of had to reacquaint myself with some of the songs that we're considering to play live. I don't think there's anything I would change. You know, production styles change over the years, like when I hear Only Life in particular, it's that really 80's kind of sound, heavy reverb on the drums. I think that it would be kind of nice to hear it with a little different kind of production but overall, we were always happy with the way that the records came out.
Was there a reason that you decided to use the mid/late 80's line-up for the reunion as opposed to the earlier versions of the band?
I think that had the longest run, that existed the longest. We did the most work, the most albums--three out of the four records. You look at the history of the band and that spans the biggest part of our history. Most of the people who say the band saw that incarnation.
On your solo album and at your own live shows, you've worked with earlier members of the Feelies also, like Fier and Vinnie DeNunzio. Would you work with them again otherwise?
Sure, I love playing with both of those guys. I'm still doing gigs to support the solo record. I love my solo band. I wouldn't consider having to disband that group for this [reunion]. I've actually been talking about the possibility of maybe reuniting the first line-up, possibly to do a show to coincide with the reissue of the Crazy Rhythms album. Although Keith (DeNunzio) is pretty well retired from music. He doesn't have his equipment anymore (laughs). I see him off and on though--I play with Vinnie and he comes to the shows around here. I haven't asked him about it but I think he might be interested. But the record's not even reissued and I'm just saying that anything's possible at this point.
Do you think there's any kind of special aesthetic to the Feelies that makes the band what it is? And how do you know when a song you write is really a Feelies song?
Well, I've never had a song that the band felt uncomfortable playing and didn't think it was the Feelies or Feelie-ish enough [laughs]. I just kind of write according to mood, more than to a preconceived idea of how it should sound.
Do you think it's possible that the Feelies might record something new?
We've been talking about it. We're probably going to play a couple of new ones live and yeah, we'd like to do another record. Definitely.
What can you say about these new songs?
They sound like all the other ones, you know [laughs]. There's no great departure or anything. These are songs that I recently wrote, that I had demoed and gave out copies to everyone in the group. I said to them "you wanna work on any of these songs in the future?" I just left the door open for that because it seemed like the reason for doing it (the reunion) goes beyond this performance--we want to continue and record. So we'll learn a few ones, taking a few songs at a time, play them live and before too long we'll have enough for a record.
Do you have any ideas about how you'd record it or which label you'd work with?
No, not really. It's kind of early in the game to talk about that.
So this is maybe something for next year?
Yeah, I would think so. Probably.
What about the possibility of doing a full tour?
Well, we've been talking about doing some other shows. I'm not sure about touring. I guess if it was a short tour, maybe. But all of us except for Dave have families and kids... I kind of feel like we've done that already. There aren't many places that we haven't played. We've seen much of the world to satisfied my traveling needs. [laughs] But, we're not ruling anything out really. If there's a big enough interest, we'd consider it. We've been getting a lot of offers to play elsewhere. We're just kind of taking our time with it really.
So you want to take everything at a more considered, relaxed pace?
Yeah, that's the way I feel about it. That's kind of the vibe I get from everybody in the band. You know, when the Feelies initially started, we played on national holidays only.
Why was that?
Well, it actually wasn't our idea at first. I think we played on one holiday and we put up some decorations to coincide with it. Then, somebody reviewed the show and pointed that out. Then, another club had a holiday that they wanted to fill and booked us. Then, it just snowballed really. It became our trademark.
So it just happened organically?
Yeah, exactly! That's kind of appealing in a way to me too. We thought of a show as like a celebration in a way. We really wanted to have each show be different from the one before and have the band seem more involved, like we'd be working on our sound and searching for a certain sound. Each time we played, we got a little closer. We kind of felt that we needed the time to really develop so we didn't play that often.
So you'd work on that in rehearsal?
Yeah, we did a lot of work on our sound when we started. We had those same eight songs for a lot of years. I guess that rather than play new songs, we kept working on the same ones. [laughs]
How did that sound change as you worked on it?
Well, it got a lot more textured, varied. The guitars got a lot cleaner sounding. The vocals varied and went down in pitch more. Less use of cymbals, more use of percussion. The songs had more of an influence from non-musical elements, from music outside of rock and roll--Philip Glass, Steve Reich. Stuff that Brian Eno was doing was a big influence on us. I mean, initially we were just kind of traditional really--guitars, bass, drums. Sounded like a lot of other bands.
When did these elements come into play?
I'd say from the time we first started playing up until the first album. It was mostly in that period when we didn't play very often.
How about the state of the reissues of the original albums?
Unfortunately, we're not very sure. We're just kind of proceeding very slowly on that. I guess having this group of shows coming up, we kind of felt that each thing needed our full attention. You deal with the records or you deal with playing the shows so we just decided to wait until we did the shows before we put our full attention towards the reissues.
Are you specifically working on getting the first two albums out?
Yeah, we hope to get those out by the end of the year. We really don't know which label it will be on.
What about the reissue of the third album, Only Life? How might you be involved in that? [Full disclosure: the author wrote the liner notes for the reissue and got the label in touch with Mercer.]
I talked to the guy at Water Records and I said that we hadn't been contacted and we weren't happy about that. His attitude was "I tried to reach you through one of the websites." I mean, we're constantly getting contacts through MySpace or the website we're in touch with all the time (geocities.com/thefeeliesweb). So it doesn't seem like anybody else has a problem getting in touch with the band so it was kind of weird that he'd say that he did. So, I don't know where it's at now.
What about the last record, Time For A Witness?
I think what it comes down to is that Universal are claiming ownership. So it's kind of up to us to see how much we want to pursue that. They're a huge conglomerate and they have a lot of lawyers. So even if they don't have the rights, it would probably cost us a fortune to prove that.
But for the first two records, you're confident that you have rights to that material?
Yeah, we do.
Is there going to be any unreleased material on either of those albums?
Well, we had some B-sides that we recorded. There's not a whole lot of stuff that we had to consider. A lot of time, a band will put out bonus tracks and you realize why they never came out! [laughs] So we don't want to do anything like that. We think that the records stand on their own. They've been gone for so long that people would be happy just to have them as they were.
What about a live record?
We've considered it. Most of the stuff I've heard has been audience tapes or board tapes that sound like bad mixes. The problem with the board tapes is that you don't get the ambience of the room so a lot of times, there's a different balance that you hear than you would have heard if you were in the audience. That kind of stuff, you really can't mix--it's all previous recorded on two tracks so you have to go with what you got.
Let's talk about some of the early unreleased material and what happened with it. What's the story behind "The Obedient Atom"?
It was before the second record but it was after the first record and that's a pretty long break there. We had done a demo and I guess we never used it because we weren't totally happy with the way that came out. We had just gotten a 4-track machine and we were doing a lot of experimenting, recording, various speed tracks, using non-musical instruments in a musical way. Just totally experimental kind of stuff. I guess maybe we had a handful of songs.
It was kind of a prequel to the Willies I guess--something that was more instrumentally oriented. We never really talked about it, but "Atom" probably would have been something that we would have used if we had recorded a Willies album. But for the Feelies, we never had an abandoned album or anything like that--it was just a song that didn't find a home.
Shortly after that, we started writing songs that had more vocals and were shorter and more song-orientated. At one point, we kind of left them behind. They never came out. We would perform some of them live as part of the Feelies and sometimes with the Willies.
Do you think that the Feelies might become a long-term proposition now?
Well, since you're asking, I'm thinking about it. But it's not something I would normally think about. At this stage, I just don't see the value in trying to predetermine the length. At some point, we're going to have to say, "Well, we've invested this much time in it... Do we have a goal?" But right now, our only goal is to have fun, see each other again and take it from there. I mean, we haven't had any discussions about... what our mission statement would be. [laughs]
Have you thought about what you'd like to happen with the group when you do get together and do the shows?
Just speaking for myself, I'd just like to maintain the relationships with the people in the band. I could still play with other bands, record on my own... It's not like I'm putting any pressure on myself or the band for it to happen, to keep going. But I don't see any reason why it wouldn't. I just don't really see any value in having to define the terms though.
How have the rehearsals been going?
They've been going real well. We've been putting a lot of time into it--playing generally about four hours each time. We're taking it very seriously and having fun at the same time. We have like 30 songs now that we feel pretty confident playing. Obviously, we probably won't get around to doing that many, but there's going to be a bunch from each record to cover the whole history of the band. There's going to be some new stuff and some covers that we're known for doing too. Rather than not having enough, it'll be a question of what we're going to have to cut out.
That's always better than not having enough material.
Yeah, if we can agree on what to cut out! (laughs)
Do you have plans for any other local shows?
We're probably going to play New York again, definitely before the end of the year, but probably pretty soon. I know that a lot of people weren't able to get the tickets to the other shows.
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