The Feelies: Indie Legends on the Comeback Trail
A BYT Interview with Glenn Mercer
Very few bands can boast a career with as much longstanding consistency and artistic integrity as The Feelies. Originally formed in 1976 by Haledon, N.J.-based high school classmate-singers/guitar players Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, The Feelies made a name for itself with its brilliantly manic jangle guitar interplay and unpredictable, yet always memorable, pop arrangements.
By the time the group recorded its debut single, “Fa Ce-La,” for Rough Trade in 1979, The Feelies were rounded out by bassist Keith Clayton and drummer Anton Fier. The band’s landmark debut album, “Crazy Rhythms,” was issued a year later via U.K.-based indie Stiff Records, and earned them numerous critical plaudits (the album was later voted #49 in the top 100 albums of the 1980s by Rolling Stone and named one of the best alternative records of all time by Spin magazine).
Record label pressure to become more commercial mounted, but rather than capitulate, the band fell into no-man’s land for a few years, with each member choosing to focus on different musical outlets. When the band regrouped to write and record again, Mercer and Million recruited percussionist Dave Weckerman (who had played with the band in the early days), as well as bassist Brenda Sauter and drummer Stan Demeski (both had played with Mercer and Million in The Willies, an instrumental side project). With the band’s second album, “The Good Earth” in 1986, The Feelies’ sound became a little smoother, but the emphasis on quality songwriting and clever guitar work remained at the fore.
This five-piece line-up of The Feelies (also responsible for 1988′s “Only Life” and 1991′s “Time for a Witness”) remained unchanged until the band called it a day in 1992, and is the one that longtime Feelies fans are most familiar with. And it is this line-up that reformed last year for a notable July 4 gig with Sonic Youth in New York’s Battery Park. Thankfully, the band enjoyed playing that show as much as the fans did watching it.
And now, here they are. The band is dipping its feet into the waters of the live music circuit once more, and DC is one of the lucky spots on the map with a 9:30 Club date slated for this Saturday. Man of the hour Glenn Mercer was kind enough to field some questions via phone about this most special of reunions…
BYT: If I understand correctly, it was Thurston Moore who kind of brought The Feelies back together when he asked you guys to open for Sonic Youth at last year’s July 4 Battery Park show in New York. What can you tell me about the initial effort to bring everyone back together? Was it one of those cases where it just felt right to do The Feelies again?
Glenn: Well, to backtrack, I don’t think that’s really correct. It (Thurston’s show offer) certainly played a part, but we had been talking (about reforming) for about 8 years really. It was just a matter of getting to a point where it would be possible for us to be totally focused with it.
BYT: So you guys were already heading in that direction and then when Thurston came in with the offer to do the show —
Glenn: — the timing was right.
BYT: What was it like to start rehearsing with everybody again?
Glenn: Um…it was fun, it was nostalgic, it was low key, it wasn’t too much work. Things felt good.
BYT: Was it difficult to decide which songs you wanted to play? I would imagine there was a lot of healthy discussion among the band members as to which tracks would be part of the live set.
Glenn: No, it wasn’t like that at all. I think we just got a basic idea from the fans’ perspective of what songs were most popular. Once we went through those, it felt pretty good and we just kept at it and came up with a set from there.
BYT: Are all 4 studio albums represented fairly well in the live sets?
Glenn: Yeah, I think so. And we didn’t plan it that way. It was just…once we got a set that felt right, we kind of looked through it and saw that we had about an equal number of songs from each album.
BYT: I wanted to ask you about the band’s early days. The Feelies’ first single “Fa Ce-La,” came out on Rough Trade in 1979. Around that time, there weren’t too many American artists being put out on that label. Do you recall how you guys came to the attention of Geoff Travis (founder of Rough Trade)?
Glenn: Umm…I don’t remember.
BYT: (laughing) It was a long time ago.
BYT: Well, what are your recollections of that time period in general with everything that was happening? I understand you guys had a rough time with Stiff Records—the label that put out your debut album “Crazy Rhythms” in 1980.
Glenn: Well, there’s kind of two questions there. The first one…It was obviously an exciting time to play in New York. It was the center of… whatever you want to call it. Punk rock I guess. There were a lot of venues. You had CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. We knew we had to go to New York to have an impact. We did a lot of shows for Richard Hell. We opened up for Patti Smith.
Recording that single was a lot of fun because it was the first time we had total control.
BYT: It seemed like that was an era of unprecedented artist empowerment. It makes sense that you guys would feel encouraged to just do-it-yourselves when it came to the production side of things.
Glenn: We had an experience early on where we did a demo and a producer kind of suggested that we take a break and go to dinner. And when we came back, it sounded so far from what I had in my head.
BYT: And that’s no doubt where your in-built suspicion of producers started (laughs)…
Glenn: It was sort of a turning point. We had a sound in our head and we thought we’re probably the only ones who are able to articulate what that is and translate that into the production.
BYT: Getting back to the second part of my initial question, what can you tell me about working with Stiff Records to get “Crazy Rhythms” out?
Glenn: Um…not a whole lot. They weren’t that involved really. They gave us a decent budget to be able to record the way we wanted. I think they came in towards the very end to listen but…really, they weren’t that involved. When the time came to do our second record, they started becoming more involved. They requested a demo and didn’t like what they heard. That’s when they asked us to write something a little more commercial.
BYT: But rather than doing that, you guys sort of went on hold for a bit. And in the meantime, buzz for “Crazy Rhythms” continued to build. R.E.M. stated that it was a huge influence on them. These days, it’s considered a classic by many music journalists, musicians and in-the-know music fans. Why has it been unavailable for so long? I must say I was excited when I heard there was talk of a reissue.
Glenn: Our whole catalog has been unavailable for years. But we’re working on the reissues right now. The first two records are coming out this year—hopefully by the summer.
BYT: Cool. Did you guys oversee the remastering process?
Glenn: Yeah we were involved in that.
BYT: So how do the final remasters sound to you?
Glenn: It sounds like it did then. We didn’t change anything.
BYT: I asked because you have some different views among music fans and musicians about remastering jobs, and whether or not they help or hinder the original recordings. Sometimes there are issues with compression and volume levels being too loud and stuff like that.
Glenn: Well, that was one of the discussions that we had. We decided on taking a more middle of the road approach to the volume. We didn’t want it to be too soft either. And we wanted all the records to be the same volume.
BYT: I also wanted to ask you about the band’s appearance in the film “Something Wild.” How did that come about? Was Jonathan Demme a Feelies fan?
Glenn: Yeah, we actually met him shortly after the “Crazy Rhythms” album came out. He had seen us play at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in L.A. He got in touch with us and talked to us about doing a concert film at the time. That didn’t work out but we kept in touch over the years. When the part for the movie came about, he just invited us to do it. It was a lot of fun.
BYT: What was it like going to the movie theatre and watching yourself on the big screen?
Glenn: Uh…I don’t remember. I think we were out of town when the movie came out. It’s been on tv a few times, but it’s usually the one scene that gets cut out for commercials and stuff.
BYT: I’ve noticed that a number of contemporary bands mention The Feelies as an influence. The Arcade Fire is one example. How does that make you feel?
Glenn: You don’t think about the future impact of what you’re doing while you’re doing it. It’s nice to see the impact though.
BYT: What are the chances that Feelies fans might see a fifth album sometime in the future?
Glenn: I don’t know, it’s hard to say. We have been talking about it and it’s certainly a goal. Anything can happen—who knows?
BYT: Well, I hope it happens. Thanks very much for taking the time to do the interview. I’m looking forward to your show at the 9:30 Club.
Glenn: Don’t mention it—thank you!