Glenn Mercer, singer/guitarist/co-founder of New Jersey’s modestly legendary Feelies, is a warm, soft-spoken guy who hasn’t altered much of anything about his music in, oh, twenty years. Sound of the City recently chatted with him about his band’s new and old material–Here Before, the Feelies’ recent album, is the group’s first since 1991–his band’s critical stature, and how the vinyl resurgence has affected him.
The Feelies reunited in 2008. What happened with the band in the three years leading up to [2011’s] Here Before?
Well, we played shows, mostly on the East Coast, and started writing songs around that time. And we realized after about a year and a half, that we get together so infrequently that for us to really make another album, we had to put our live shows on the back burner. And it was about a year since making the decision to make an album the top priority. So it was about a year of writing all the songs, rehearsing, mixing, recording. It was a slow process, since we’re really kind of spread out: Bill’s in Florida, Brenda’s in Pennsylvania.
Are any of the new Feelies songs left over from your solo album [2007’s Wheels in Motion]?
No. I used all the songs at that point on my solo record and then the band reunited. I always write.
It’s a remarkably consistent-sounding record with the rest of your career. Are there any big differences in what you’re writing about 20 years after the band’s last album?
I don’t really set out with themes in mind. I basically write the same way I’ve always written. I can’t say anything’s different, though I guess I’ve matured as a person a little bit.
I actually found “Morning Comes” kind of sexy.
I think we’ve kind of had those elements before. With 13 songs, we got to explore a wider range of variety in tempos and textures and stuff.
Should we expect another Feelies record in a couple years? Are you guys expecting this run to last awhile?
Well, I don’t see any reason why we won’t… but anything could happen, really. So we’re not taking for granted that it’s a given.
Do you think the critical assessment of the band is unfairly weighted towards the earliest records?
Uhh…[long pause] Somewhat. But I guess that just has more to do with the times they were released and…[pause again] I don’t know. I guess they do kind of focus on the first two a lot. It’s kind of a shame that Time for a Witness isn’t available. The other ones are, but we’ve actually gotten a lot of response from people saying that’s their favorite, so…
[Fellow Sound of the City contributor] Jason Gross wrote the liner notes for the Only Life reissue, right? Have you tapped anyone yet to do Time for a Witness?
Well, we don’t have plans to rerelease that. We’d like to, but it’s kind of complicated. We weren’t involved with the Only Life [reissue], it was kind of done without our permission or consulting the band. It kind of stems from our relationship with Coyote [Records], and Coyote’s relationship with A&M, and A&M’s relationship with Universal. And the principal people involved are no longer there. So just establishing ownership of the masters has been difficult for us. But maybe you could get in touch with Jason?
Is it even easy to get in contact with label people who you’ve never even spoken to before, who aren’t from when you were there?
A while back, someone contacted someone from Universal and they said, “The Feelies… who are they?” We did spend a lot of time at one point trying to work it out, and it just became too much. But we’re still hoping it might happen.
From that standpoint, do you think illegal downloading’s maybe benefited you guys more than most, considering it’s the only way a lot of people could’ve heard these albums for a bit?
Um, I guess that’s one way to look at it. It also hurts bands on our level because we don’t play a lot, we don’t have a huge income from other sources, so when people steal the music… it definitely works both ways. But I guess with vinyl coming back, the new record’s dealing real well actually.
Is that the first time you’ve ever considered a Feelies record to be doing “real well” sales-wise?
Well, when Only Life came out, it entered the Billboard 200. And Here Before did that as well. I think now it’s more of an accomplishment because of the whole environment of the music industry now.
Recording the guitar direct to the line-in, as you guys did on Crazy Rhythms, is considered a big production taboo for some reason. It sounds beautifully spare on that record and I don’t know who else has recorded guitar that way. What other musicians influenced that sound for you?
When people generally do that, they overload the preamps; I think the Beatles’ “Revolution” was done that way. So it’s not a real clean sound. As far as getting the clean sound, I think Joe Meek might have done it as a producer. Buddy Holly might’ve done it.
Well, thanks for talking to me. And by the way, I also went to William Paterson University [Mercer’s alma mater, located in the Feelies’ hometown of Haledon, N.J.].
Oh yeah? What was your major?
English. It’s gotten me… freelancing.
Well, maybe Time for a Witness will come out and we’ll ask you to do the liners.
The Feelies play at The Bell House tonight; the show is sold out.