Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Midway through Jonathan Demme’s 1986 comedy Something Wild, Jeff Daniels lets loose on the dance floor of a high school reunion with some goofy expressions and a half-baked moonwalk. Though Daniels is the film’s star, it’s the live band in the background who steal the scene—gawky, cheerless, and swaying before a giant, wall-mounted American flag, the group pulls off a skittish and propulsive cover of David Bowie’ s “Fame.” The band is The Feelies; they have been playing under that name since 1976. Despite time, despite hiatuses, they are still making the same basic sounds, in the same mode of skittish propulsion, thirty-five years later.
That cameo notwithstanding, the Feelies’ early catalog (beginning with the seminal Crazy Rhythms in 1980 and ending with Time for a Witness in 1991) did not make the splash it should have, and is only recently enjoying wider recognition with the help of several reissues. Though the band members continued to write and play music in a number of offshoots and side-projects (Speed the Plough, the Trypes, and Yung Wu, to name a few), the Feelies didn’t perform or record from 1992 all the way until 2008, when they opened for Sonic Youth at Battery Park in Manhattan on July 4th. Their lineup has remained the same since 1984—Glenn Mercer, Bill Million, Brenda Sauter, Stanley Demeski, and Dave Weckerman—and you can tell: here’ s a group that plays with familiarity and clarity of experience, qualities evident on their latest for Bar/None, Here Before, which came out April 12th. But while the Feelies have become a little less perpetually nervous with age, perhaps, the group’s sound is still instantly recognizable, a fact that has a lot to do with songwriter and main man Glenn Mercer. Mercer is a New Jerseyan and a suburbanite (the band formed in North Haledon), and he lives there still. We spoke over the phone, about tension, guitar distortion, and the difficulties of lead singers.
Jacob Kaplan Here Before is the first Feelies full-length in twenty years. Does it feel as if it’s been that long? Is this a reunion, or a continuation?
Glenn Mercer If you’re asking if we really broke up, or if we were on hiatus…I don’t really know. I kind of stopped thinking about it after a while, maybe after a year, after I got another band together, and started getting back into music. To me, it didn’t really seem that long. The years kind of flew by, to be honest.
JK Here Before is sonically similar to the work you’ve already released, as the Feelies and as a solo artist. Many bands rework their sound completely across decades. Why haven’t the Feelies? Is the album a fluid continuation of the catalog you began in 1980? In what ways is it representative of a wholly new band?
GM I agree that it does sound similar. We have a sound—there’s a certain chemistry we have as a band. If you were to compare The Good Earth and Only Life and Time For a Witness to Crazy Rhythms, they sound kind of different because of a different rhythm section. So, this particular lineup has its own unique sound, even when we’re doing cover songs. It still sounds like us. If you put us together with instruments, that chemistry is going to be there. So even if we wanted to change the sound, for instance, to fit in with whatever was popular at the time, we really couldn’t do that. We just kind of play, and it comes out the way it does.
JK Could you say a little more about what separates Crazy Rhythms from the rest of the Feelies’ catalog? There’s a sparseness throughout the album that’s not as evident in subsequent ones.
GM That really was the result of a lot of different factors, one being the time that it came out. The environment we wrote the songs and played in had a big factor in it. The way the songs were recorded, the fact that, although we had done some demos, it was really early in our recording career, so in terms of our production skills, we were learning a lot along the way. Some of it had to do with the songs.
JK It strikes me as a very careful album, very deliberate—the silences and the swells, the cleanness of the guitar tones.
GM Yes and no. A lot of it was the idea we had from the beginning. Having done demos, we had a template for the approach we’d take on the album. But another factor in that was our inability to get really good guitar sounds. We had an engineer who was really unsympathetic to the band, he kind of seemed like he didn’t want to be there. He wasn’t very helpful in that regard. They didn’t have a lot of rock bands at that studio [Vanguard Studios in Manhattan]. It was mostly for orchestras, and jazz, particularly. So, basically out of desperation, we decided we would record the guitars direct, and feed them back through an amp when it was time to mix. But after we recorded them we got used to hearing them that way. We decided it was unique, that it had an element that really fit the songs. So we ended up keeping a lot of those directly recorded guitars. That was a big factor in how clean it sounds, how upfront the guitars are.
JK Were those techniques used when you worked with Peter Buck [of R.E.M.] on The Good Earth? That’s a very clean record, too, but less sparse than Crazy Rhythms.
GM We’ve always particularly liked that early ’60s, late ’50s clean guitar. But at that point we weren’t really recording direct anymore. We had more experience recording, were at a different studio. We had more time to work at it. More variety in the guitar sound. But Peter is basically quoted as saying that he’d be the last one in a producer’s role to have any impact on how a band sounds. He was there to give us encouragement, to have somebody behind the glass. He was an extra set of ears to give a different perspective. But I don’t think he would really take any credit to how that record sounds.
JK You rarely use guitar distortion. Why? How do you feel about guitar distortion in rock music?
GM It’s kind of an easy out. Put some distortion on—that’ll do the trick. Rather than spending the time… .it’s a lot harder to get it through clean sounds.
JK Yeah, you guys are able to achieve catharsis without distortion. A lot of bands lean on distortion to achieve that catharsis.
GM To convey emotion, too. Early on we intentionally shied away from that. Around the time of Crazy Rhythms, we’d see these bands and think, Well, the Stooges did it ten years ago, and they did it so much better. It seemed pretty obvious to us that there was so much more you could do with the guitar.
JK On many songs the group uses dynamic range to convey emotion; some begin almost inaudibly, progressing slowly toward release. I’d say the group’s ability to simmer is one of its defining attributes. Certain songs, though, like “The Last Roundup” and “When Company Comes,” off The Good Earth, and “On and On,” off Here Before, are just the simmer: you eschew release entirely, opting instead to sustain quiet tension throughout, never really arriving at a denouement. Has sustained tension always been part of the Feelies’ dynamic? Can you talk about the value of restraint in rock music?
GM That’s what makes rock ‘n’ roll rock ‘n’ roll: the constant ebb and flow of tension and release. The best rock always has something rubbing—there’s that rub there, whether it’s slightly out-of-tune guitars, or rhythms that are not perfectly together. It’s what basically creates the excitement of rock ‘n’ roll. Nowadays, with ProTools, people just want everything so perfect, and that’s why music is so, sort of, bland.
JK Do you consider Krautrock an influence on your songwriting? The driving, motorik beats on some songs are reminiscent of German acts like Neu!, Kraftwerk, and Faust.
GM Well, we like Kraftwerk. Dave [Weckerman, percussionist] is a big fan; he’s German, so he’s a fan of that kind of music. A lot of those bands I’ve never heard, although he’s suggested it’d be a good idea if we listened to them. That incessant beat you could find in a lot of places other than Krautrock: The Velvet Underground, even Buddy Holly on certain songs. We’re also big fans of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
JK I was about to say! Your work borrows a lot from minimalist composers like Reich and Glass. And some of Brian Eno’s influence finds its way in there, too.
GM Yeah, definitely, definitely into those guys. That’s a lot of what we liked—it’s gonna come through one way or another. I think that’s why you listen to it: because you have a certain aesthetic that gets you off, so you tend to gravitate toward that kind of music. And that’s the kind of music you in turn write. It’s all connected.
JK When you first started playing music, was there a band or two or three that got you writing in the first place? That compelled you to pick up the guitar?
GM I was always into music from the Beatles on, but I didn’t play [guitar] right away. My brother got into a band, and I started on bass, because it was easy and there weren’t any other bass players around, so it’s like if you pick up a bass you can get into a band pretty quick. And it kind of evolved from there. There was one band I was in where we’d switch on some of the songs: I’d play guitar, and the guitarist would play bass. I can’t really say when I first picked up guitar—it seems like it naturally grew out of playing the bass. But I think bands particularly like the Stooges were a big influence, because Ron Asheton played a real simple style, and it had a lot of emotion to it. It seemed a lot more within my grasp than trying to play like Clapton or Beck. Pete Townshend was a big influence, ‘cause what he did on rhythm guitar was very exciting. It seemed the possibility to express yourself on guitar was a lot more than blazing guitar solos.
JK A lot of those influences you express explicitly, by way of cover songs. What makes a good cover? What do you hope to accomplish with a cover?
GM First and foremost it’s, can we do it in a way that’s still going to be us? We don’t want to sound like the band we’re covering, so it’s gotta be comfortable enough. And probably it should be a song the audience can recognize; we’re not gonna pull some totally obscure song that people will think we wrote. (laughter) Although we started doing Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears” at our last couple shows, and we had people coming up, like, “Oh, is that a new original?” I even talked to some girl, and she was totally familiar with the Neil Young record Zuma, and she was like, “No, no, I’ve never heard that before.” It’s on there, listen to it.
JK So is part of the object of covering a song to transform it to that degree? To the degree that it becomes yours?
GM We just basically do it for fun; that’s our roots, playing cover songs. I think most bands start that way. They don’t have enough material, so they do a lot of covers.
JK What do you remember covering most of in the beginning?
GM Stooges songs. And the Modern Lovers’ “Road Runner” was a big one. Early on we played a high school, and we played a lot of ’60s songs, and the kids weren’t that familiar with them, and finally a teacher came up and said, “Play something they know!” We had just played a Beatles song! We’re not gonna start playing Bee Gees or something.
JK To what degree are the Feelies a suburban band?
GM I think environment plays a part in how you express yourself. Your surroundings inspire you one way or another. If we lived in the city, we’d be making different types of music. What I hear in my surroundings are birds chirping, kids playing. I don’t hear a lot of traffic. If I was in the city…I can’t even imagine trying to write, unless you get a soundproof room or something. But I would think that all those sounds, the traffic and the noise, would have to have some kind of an effect. And driving, I think, too. People have always said we make great driving music.
JK Talk about the Feelies live. Are you less concerned about restraint live? Is there more rocking out?
GM Yeah, but it still has its restraint. We play very specifically: we don’t improvise a lot, unless there’s a song that calls for that. So there is, like you were saying, that tension. I think a lot of bands probably don’t put out as much of that when they’re playing live. But people seem to like that.
JK The clean sound you were talking about on the albums, how do you go about reproducing that live?
GM We fly our soundman in from Arizona. We’re concerned about our live sound. He’s real familiar with the band, the records. He’s good at what he does. We know him from when we used to play in the ’80s at Maxwell’s, he was the house soundman at Maxwell’s. He did some sound for Wake Ooloo and Luna. His name’s Andy. When we did the reunion, I thought he’d be the perfect choice.
JK Why didn’t you play live more often?
GM I guess we’d approach each show as being so special, almost like a celebration. So once we did it, we felt like, Well, we don’t have to do that again for a couple months.
JK I have you quoted in an interview as saying, “The Willies would play in the dark, sitting in chairs. We wanted to make this an anti-rock experience.” [The Willies, an offshoot of the Feelies, formed in the interim between Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth.]
GM It’s pretty true. It wasn’t totally in the dark, but we had pretty low lights.
JK Are there anti- rock components to the Feelies? What did you mean by anti-rock?
GM Well, I think that kind of cliché rock thing of like, “Hey, everybody, how you doing tonight? Hello Cleveland! Put your hands together.” We wanted to take it in an even further direction. We thought at that point, so much was being written about the way we looked, and the image of the band, we thought, well, we’ll just do the opposite, so no one can see us.
JK How important was image?
GM Image was really important. I think if we hadn’t looked the way we did, we probably wouldn’t have gotten signed by Stiff. That’s one of the first things they said. It’s what’s required of the job. You gotta get on stage, you gotta have some kind of an image. So our image was like the anti-image, I guess.
JK On the subject of offshoots: the Feelies have had a number of them over the years, including the Willies, the Trypes, Wake Ooloo and Yung Wu. What are the statuses of those groups?
GM Actually, the Trypes, we’re working on reissuing the EP The Explorers Hold, a four-song EP originally released via Coyote Records in 1984] with extra songs. So that might come out as a vinyl and download record. And Dave’s got some songs we recorded here at my house. We’ve been recording a lot of cover songs as well, but nothing concrete. And I’ve been actually recording some instrumental music as well. In the back of my mind I’ve got an idea of maybe doing something with the Willies again. But the only concrete things right now is that Trypes record that might come out this year.
JK What do you enjoy about playing in those offshoots? The ones you do play in?
GM Well, for me, it’s being a sideman. That’s what I started out doing: just playing bass. I always enjoyed that role. It’s kind of refreshing for me, just to step back a little and not have the extra pressure.
JK I read you weren’t originally slated as the vocalist for the Feelies, that you were looking for another vocalist, but it never panned out, so you just kind of fell into the role.
GM Yeah, that’s more or less true. We were in a band, Bill, Dave, and myself, with a singer, and when that broke up, we had the idea of replacing him, but we thought, Well, we might just be inviting the same problems back.
JK What do you mean by the same problems?
GM Well, he didn’t play an instrument, so it was sort of like that whole lead singer—I don’t know, it was just the idea that we could go into an instrumental section, and not have somebody just kind of stand there. When I’d see the Who, Roger Daltrey would be just kind of waving his arms around, banging a tambourine.
JK Was it a push for you to do vocals? Or did it feel like a natural solution?
GM Well, Dave reminded me—I totally forgot this—he said when that band broke up, the singer who quit or got fired, I don’t even remember what, he said, “Well, you should just have Glenn sing.” I sang background and I started singing one song. We didn’t want to remain totally inactive, so it was a way for us to keep going. We auditioned one guy. I think the ad said, “Singer, into the Stooges,” and he was like an Iggy clone—he called himself “Eggy.” During the first rehearsal, he acted like there was an audience there. He was jumping around, rolling around on the floor, doing all the histrionics.
JK That sounds horrifying.
GM laughs Yeah, it was. It was funny, though.
JK What is your take on stage presence, on histrionics, on engaging the audience via theatrics?
GM Well, I think there’s a place for it, but I think it can definitely go over the top. When I see early clips of the Stones versus now, they play arenas, so [Mick Jagger] kind of has to do that. But I always feel like he was best when he worked that little four-foot area by the mic. And I saw some stuff for the Stooges recently—I thought the band was great, but it was kind of distracting to watch Iggy, in a way.
JK What are some contemporary bands you feel excited about?
GM I’m not the best person to ask about that, because I don’t really listen to a lot of stuff. When I’m not working on my own stuff, I tend to kind of take a break from it. Maybe put the radio on. I never really was a big record-buyer. Growing up my brothers both had really big record collections, so I didn’t need to buy stuff, so I kind of never got in that habit. When I did have money, I’d always spend it on musical equipment.
JK You’ve influenced a lot of newer groups and performers. Is that something you’re aware of, or that you even really care about?
GM People mention it, and usually when they point something out and I listen to it, I can’t hear similarities. I tend to focus more on the differences. It’s flattering, I guess.
The Feelies new record Here Before, their first since 1991, was released April 12th on Bar/None Records.
Jacob Kaplan is a writer and schoolteacher. He lives in Brooklyn.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.