The Agit Reader

The Feelies

February 27th, 2017  |  by Stephen Slaybaugh

The Feelies

When I last spoke to Feelies guitarist and singer Glenn Mercer and percussionist Dave Weckerman nearly eight years ago, the New Jersey band had just reconvened after a 17-year hiatus. Aside from a gig at the now defunct All Tomorrow’s Parties playing their 1976 debut, Crazy Rhythms, in its entirety, the group had few concrete plans, although they did intend to make a new record.

That album, Here Before, appeared two years later, musically encompassing the mix of influences (Modern Lovers, the Velvet Underground’s self-titled album, Television, Neil Young) that characterized the band’s output in the ’80s while lyrically expressing their own doubts about doing it again. To put it simply, the album didn’t miss a beat, the years apart seemingly evaporating as soon as the first chord was struck.

With Mercer’s songwriting counterpart, guitarist Bill Million, continuing to live in Florida, The Feelies, which also include bassist Brenda Sauter and drummer Stanley Demeski, as well as Weckerman, have subsequently taken a very relaxed approach to their new existence. Touring never extends much beyond a 200-mile radius and usually only consists of a handful of shows spread out over a few weekends. Meanwhile, the band took its time making Here Before’s follow-up, In Between, released just last week by the Jersey-based Bar/None label. Like its predecessor—and everything the band has done—its a comfortable mix of the familiar and the new and features all the qualities that has made this band’s music standout for four decades and counting.

I caught up with Mercer on the phone to discuss the new album and what’s gone on since we last talked.

Last year, you celebrated 40 years of being a band. Does it feel like that long to you?

Glenn Mercer: I don’t really think about it in those terms. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. It certainly seems very different from when we started, but the changes are so gradual you don’t really notice until you reflect back on it. We did a slide show presentation, and seeing how everybody changed, it brought back a lot of memories. But normally I don’t think back too much on it.

When you made Crazy Rhythms, did you think you’d still be doing this 40 years later?

GM: In some capacity, yeah. I thought I’d always be involved in music in some way. But as far as the band still playing together, I probably would have been pretty surprised.

Just in the time since we last talked, Lou Reed died and Maxwell’s closed. How have those losses affected you?

GM: Well, they’re both so different, different realms of experience. I’d heard Lou had been sick. Everyone knew he had the liver transplant, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when I heard the news. It happens all the time, that you hear in the news that someone has passed, so it wasn’t a major event in my life. But yeah, Maxwell’s closing, that’s a huge part of my life that’s not there anymore. Every time I walked through those doors it was like walking into a time machine. I had so many memories connected to that club. But you move on. Everything is different. Some things stay the same, but mostly life changes.

It’s been six years between records, but how much time was actually spent making In Between?

GM: Probably about three years. There was a couple years writing. We finished recording last winter and had started the previous fall. We were done with it in March so we’ve been sitting on it for awhile.

Was there much tinkering after the fact?

GM: No, it primarily had to do with vinyl making a comeback. Vinyl is very important for us, as it outsells CDs for us. There aren’t too many pressing plants so you have to book it far in advance. We could have made the fall deadline, but we thought it would be better to have a buffer in case there were any errors, so we waited until the spring.

Does Bill still live in Florida? I’d guess that would have something to do with the time it took to make the record.

GM: Yeah, the last one was the same thing. We’d get together and do the basic tracks, then in a month or two do some overdubbing, and another month or two would pass and we’d start mixing. So yeah, there was a lot of time between sessions, which has its pluses and minuses. It’s hard to get a momentum going when you are stopping and starting, but it’s also good to have that perspective, to take a break from it and approach it with fresh ears.

Do you guys send audio files back and forth?

GM: We exchange CDs of demos. That was primarily the impetus for recording here at my house: we liked the way the demos came out. We thought we’d try to capture that same vibe, and in some instances when we couldn’t, we actually went back and used parts of the demos.

You were talking about the vibe of the record and this one strikes me as being slightly more subdued than the last one…

GM: Well, the last one was pretty mellow as well.

Listening to them back-to-back in preparing to talking to you, In Between sounds quieter, which I was also wondering if that was due to recording in your house, like you were worried about disturbing the neighbors.

GM: No, that was pretty much the same approach as the demo. That approach is basically trying to maintain what is best for the song. That encompasses a lot of areas: the sonic qualities of the room, the way it’s mixed. We hoped it would sound different.

Is that the way you approach it, song-by-song, or do you have also look at how it’s all going to fit together as you’re making the record?

GM: It’s a little bit of both. The fact that the album is pretty divergent and covers a lot of ground enabled us to experiment with sound and texture more. You want it to be cohesive as well, but sometimes something that sounds out of place finds its place. I’m thinking of the song “Raised Eyebrows” from Crazy Rhythms. That was one of the demos we made. We tried to recapture that, but after rerecording it, we realized we couldn’t beat the demo so we used the demo. On the record, it stands out like a sore thumb because of the production difference, but it comes at a time on the record when you want that shake-up and a little more variety.

You mentioned experimenting with textures, which I know you did a lot of that with the Incidental Hum. Did making that album have any bearing on how this one turned out?

GM: Yeah, I think it did. For me, I usually start with a guitar part and that will suggest a melody, and the melody will lead me to a lyric. With this record, and the title track in particular, which was the last song I wrote, it was very much inspired by how I worked on Incidental Hum, which was to have a preconceived approach to take. That led me to write that song. We realized after we made the last record that there are some songs from that we never play live. But as we have plenty of songs to pick from for our live show, we don’t need more songs to play live. It’s kind of like what the Beatles went through when they stopped playing live: they started experimenting more in the studio. Since we weren’t going to necessarily play them live, we thought we could do songs that weren’t performance-based, but more compositionally based.

I like the middle section of Crazy Rhythms and how on “Forces at Work” we were kind of going around one chord for a long time. I also like the Who’s Next record where they used a synthesizer loop, so I thought I’d make a loop of one chord and improvise around that. During the mixing, I took the loop away to leave the vocal and acoustic guitar, and I thought that was equally interesting so that led to doing two versions.

Did having the studio at home and not being on the clock somewhere also lend to this approach?
GM: Sure, you don’t tend to experiment when you’re paying by the hour and you’re looking at the clock. We really wanted to follow our…

Muse?

GM: Yeah, we wanted to take it any direction we wanted. The other thing was that if we didn’t like the results, we didn’t have to use them, so that was liberating as well. Someone asked me just after we finished the album if there was a theme to the record. Usually I don’t have a theme, but one will reveal itself over time, but this once came to me pretty quickly: it’s about being in the moment. There’s a line in one song that says, “Be in the moment, now and forever.” I realized that the title of the record, In Between, is between the past and the future, in the moment. The way we worked was without having a preconceived idea and just in the moment unconcerned about schedules and so forth.

You were talking how some ideas from past records worked their way into this one. I hear little snippets that seem to reference older songs. “Pass the Time” sounds like “Slipping (Into Something)” at the beginning, and the bridge on “Stay the Course” seems reminiscent of your past work. Do you purposefully put little breadcrumbs in there?

GM: No, not on those two, but there are probably a few. Most of that stuff is just coincidental really. When you have a certain approach, there’s going to be similarities. I think it’s about having an open mind. Somebody might say it’s too similar, but we take the approach that it’s part of our past and we should acknowledge it.

You also sing with, “with the radio on.” I assume that was purposeful…

GM: No, I wasn’t thinking of “Roadrunner” when that line popped into my head, but I knew immediately that it referenced that. Nothing we do is too preconceived; usually it’s pretty spontaneous.

I was curious, on “Flag Days,” you sing, “Like a weekend back in ’89.” Were you thinking of something specific?

GM: I wrote that song right around the time that Maxwell’s was closing, with the idea that we’d perform it there, but we didn’t get it down quite in time. I was reflecting back on the period of when I have the most memories of the club. My wife and I met there, we had our wedding reception there. The late ’80s there hold a lot of memories.

So does “Flag Days” refer to the Fourth of July shows then?

GM: No. I mean, it could, but the day I happened to start recording the demo, I didn’t have a title yet. It was Flag Day, so I thought I’d call it that and change it somewhere down the road. I ended up deciding I liked it, though. But a lot of times, I grab a little thing there and a little thing there. One verse could be about something, and the next verse could be about something totally different. It’s not always so very linear.

Obviously, there’s a continuation from one record to the next over everything you’ve done, but do you see there being something sonically or thematically that separates the two records you’ve made since you got back together from the previous work?

GM: Soundwise, I think each record is unique. Often we won’t have the idea ahead of time, but it will evolve into a distinct sound. That has to do with the songs, where we record, who else is involved in the recording, and other various things. I think they all sound pretty different.

So you don’t see a line in the sand separating the 21st century Feelies and the 20th century Feelies?

GM: No, I don’t. Maybe someone else can pick up on that. To me, I’ve always been playing music, making records in the interim, so it’s all been a continuation.

I assume you have a pretty personal relationship with Bar/None, but if a bigger label would approach you, knowing what you know now, would you entertain the idea of working with them?

GM: First of all, no big label would approach us. But no, we wouldn’t. We operate in a very unique way, and I couldn’t foresee any benefit for them or us in working together.

I read in an interview where you admitted to being a shy guy, and you seem somewhat reserved. How do you balance that with having to get up onstage and perform in front of people?

GM: I’m not entirely comfortable onstage, but we’ve managed to make that awkwardness less of a detriment and part of who we are. And our audience has embraced that. A lot of it is creating tension and release. There is something interesting about the dichotomy of playing really intense music and being uncomfortable with the performance side of it. We don’t talk between songs, and if we tried to be more normal, it wouldn’t be us and people would realize it. It wouldn’t make sense.

I know you have some live shows and then I assume we’ll see another record in four or five years?

GM: I don’t know. We never think that far in advance, but you never know.

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