By Conor Devlin
I first heard The Feelies sometime in 1988 when their version of the Velvet Underground’s ‘What Goes On’ came on Irish radio on a summer afternoon. There was a sense of fun there that didn’t exist on the original and, true to form, I went to the record store that weekend and bought three albums, one new and two used: ‘Crazy Rhythms’ (Stiff, 1980), ‘The Good Earth’ (Coyote, 1986) and ‘Only Life’ (A&M, 1987). I picked up ‘Time For a Witness’ (A&M, 1991) on the day of its release and shortly after that I heard they’d gone on hiatus.
The main guy Glenn Mercer formed Wake Ooloo with percussionist Dave Weckerman in the meantime, drummer Stanley Demeski hooked up with Luna for a few years, and bassist Brenda Sauter stayed busy with Speed The Plough. Meanwhile, guitarist Bill Million hung up his guitar and disappeared to Florida.
In 2008 the band reformed to play some shows in New York with Sonic Youth, which prompted the band to reconsider the steady interest in the band and test the waters with a new record. Released on Bar None, ‘Here Before’ is the first Feelies album in twenty years. Since the last one, we’ve had the internet, Clinton, two terms of Bush, the euro, 9/11 and the DVD, but the Feelies sound exactly the same. And that’s okay.
Glenn Mercer was kind enough to answer a few questions.
Conor Devlin: The band is now on Bar None, how did that happen? And will ‘Only Life’ and ‘Time For A Witness’ be getting the reissue treatment too?
Glenn Mercer: We became involved with Bar None because we’ve known the president of the label since the 70’s. We also like the fact that they’re located in New Jersey. But as far as re-releasing ‘Only Life’ and ‘Time For A Witness’, the situation regarding our relationship with A&M Records has made it difficult to take the steps required to make it happen.
CD: What is the main difference this time around? Is the pressure off the Feelies to meet outlandish expectations? (record sales, endless touring etc).
GM: Well, the biggest difference between then and now is that we have more going on in our lives outside of the band. Most of us have families, so our perspective has shifted somewhat. Also, since two members live outside of New Jersey, our time together has been more limited. Another difference is that advances in technology have made it possible for me to record some parts of the record at my house and that helped with the budget and the comfort level.
CD: Before the reunion, were there ever informal get-togethers? As in, you’re all over at Brenda’s for Thanksgiving and someone brings out a guitar…..
GM: Well, since Bill had moved to Florida, the opportunity to play, even informally, just wasn’t possible. Wake Ooloo was only ever me and Dave so that wasn’t really a reunion at all. The nearest thing to a reunion would be my solo record “Wheels In Motion” (Pravda), which included all the former Feelies except Bill and Keith.
CD: It always seemed that Bill was always the most ‘done’ with the industry after ‘Time For A Witness’, and he then didn’t pick up the guitar for years. I’m wondering was there any one thing that prompted the reunion, or was it a gradual process?
GM: Well I’d called Bill in regards to some business related stuff and I casually suggested a jam session if and when he was in New Jersey. He was interested but we weren’t able to co-ordinate anything until a few years later, and then that happened to coincide with an offer from Sonic Youth to play with them in New York. So I guess the timing was right then.
But overall, no, the reunion wasn’t prompted by any single event. I think we’d also become more aware of a growing interest in the band when we received offers to play shows and reissue our records, and we also got a sense of our fans’ interest from internet activity.
CD: ‘Crazy Rhythms’ seems to have captured a permanent spot on a lot of ‘most influential’ lists. How does the band compare that period of burgeoning college rock to today’s industry? Or do you even care?
GM: There are many things that have changed in the music business since the late 70s/early 80’s. The popularity of ‘independent’ music has gone up and down several times since then and technology has changed everything, from how people listen to music to how it’s created and distributed. Overall, our motivation hasn’t changed that much – it’s still about self-expression and the desire to connect with others.
CD: Bill’s solos are as crackling as ever….is he still as meticulous in writing them?
GM: Bill doesn’t play the solos…..
GM: Yeah, with the exception of one or two ‘lead lines’ on past recordings, I’ve always played all the solos. My approach has always been the same, although I wouldn’t call it meticulous. On the new album, about half I wrote in advance and half I improvised during the recording. That’s about the same ratio as on our previous records.
CD: A lot of Feelies fans I know are very protective of the band. They also seem quite worried for the band’s general health. Are the Feelies happy in their lives? Do you see each other much?
GM: I’d like to think we’re all relatively happy……but since Bill and Brenda live in other states, we don’t get together socially very often. Stan and I play together sometimes with East Of Venus, and Dave and I play fairly often with Russ from Wake Ooloo or with various other friends in an acoustic setting.
CD: Finally, are there long term plans here, like touring, or is it back in the closet after this LP?
GM: We don’t have any plans to tour. It would be hard for us now to embark on any lengthy tour because of the situations with our personal lives. With regard to everything else, we haven’t made any long-term plans, or even discussed our future beyond the next few months. We’ve always been more re-active than pro-active, so we’ll just wait to see what is presented to us. At the same time, we never considered this a ‘one-time only’ situation. We all feel that ‘Here Before’ is a success, and there’s nothing I envision that would prevent us from continuing, but I can’t take it for granted that we’ll make another record. But you never know how it’s gonna go.
A big thanks to Mark Lipsitz from Bar None for facilitating this interview.
The Feelies – Again Today