Like the band’s 1986 song “Slipping (Into Something),” the Feelies have a tendency to sneak up on people, then disappear.
In the song, the guitars surge, then recede until they slip beyond the horizon, creating the illusion that they’re still playing just out of earshot. In the same way, the Feelies’ 33-year career has been one of slow-burn ascents and patient lulls, with a sound and sensibility immune to trends or time.
The good news is that the Feelies are again in one of its periodic busy periods — busy being a relative term, in that the band has played about a dozen shows since reuniting last summer for the first time in 17 years on its home turf of northern New Jersey. Last week, the core group of Glenn Mercer, Bill Million, Dave Weckerman, Stanley Demeski and Brenda Sauter played its first Chicago show since 1991. It reinforced what last summer’s first reunion show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J., demonstrated: The quintet’s one-of-a-kind weave of guitars, sparse vocals and percolating percussion remains intact.
“Brenda described it as muscle memory,” says Mercer, the band’s primary songwriter and co-founder with Million. “In the first rehearsal, we got back into that place where we left off, and with every show we’ve played it’s gotten a little better.”
Though the Feelies have put out only four studio albums, each offers a distinct angle on the group’s evocative sound. In 1976, they were quiet suburban kids who wore button-down shirts and glasses, and then onstage behaved like bouncing pinballs lighting up an arcade game.
“Bill and I were both at a show in New York around 1972 where the New York Dolls and Modern Lovers were playing,” Mercer recalls. “The Dolls (dressed in glam-rock drag) were the hot band at the time, and then there was this other band led by Jonathan Richman doing totally the opposite thing, with this kind of buttoned-down look. It was pretty inspiring. We heard a distinct continuation of the sound that the Velvet Underground had, and in the back of our minds it suggested an approach that kept a little distance between us and the ripped T-shirt, punk look that would become fashionable a few years later.”
The Feelies focused on a relentless, driving rhythm, but without heavy use of cymbals.
That freed up the high end of the mix for the twin guitars to weave in and out, blurring the line between lead and rhythm. And it also created room for a percussionist to add additional rhythmic accents with maracas, claves, woodblocks and timbale.
At the height of the punk era in 1978, the Village Voice hailed the Feelies as New York’s best underground band. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth remembers seeing the band during that time and being struck by its austere look and magnetizing sound.
“They had this radical otherness about them, and it was genuine,” he says. “They’re unlike any other band, really. I saw them as a rare thing, and I still think that’s true today.”
The band’s full-length debut, “Crazy Rhythms” (1980), folded its quirkiness and intuitive studio experimentation into hurtling pop songs, which directly inspired R.E.M. (whose Peter Buck would co-produce the band’s second album, the 1986 release “The Good Earth”). Director Jonathan Demme was a huge fan as well and cast the band in his 1986 movie “Something Wild.”
A major label deal soon followed, but the band drifted apart after strenuous touring in 1991.
“We didn’t get dropped, we broke up,” Mercer says. “The whole idea of taking things to the ‘next level’ didn’t appeal to us. We were touring a lot and still not making a lot of money. So when the opportunity came up for Bill to get a job in Florida to support his family, he took it. And then it became impractical to keep it together.”
Million says the band was never cut out to play by anyone’s rules or schedules but its own. “After the ‘91 tour, I always looked at it as when time came around again, we would do something,” he says. “Collectively, we’re fortunate: We are all of the same mindset. Time is different for this band, for some reason. It doesn’t affect us to think it’s been 17 years since we played. We’re not driven by schedules.”
Million stopped playing music for a few years while in Florida helping rear three sons with his wife. Mercer continued to record with Weckerman in the band Wake Ooloo; Sauter fronted the band Wild Carnation; and Demeski was the longtime drummer in Luna.
They reconnected with the promise that they would work on new music, and a few new songs have been slowly added to the set list. The reunited band still works only in short bursts to accommodate work schedules and family obligations. Million still lives with his family in Florida and commutes north on select weekends for rehearsals and shows. Sauter lives with her family in Pennsylvania. When the Feelies gather to play, it’s a treat for all involved, in part because there is no agenda other than to create something worthwhile.
“At some point we’ll have 9 or 10 songs, and we’ll collectively agree it’s time to record them,” Million says. “When? I don’t know. But we’re going in the right direction. It’s everyone’s primary interest right now.”
THE FEELIES ON DISC:
“Crazy Rhythms” (1980): Covers of the Beatles and Rolling Stones set off caffeinated originals with quirky rhythmic accents and studio experiments. One of the masterpieces of the postpunk era.
“The Good Earth” (1986): With a new lineup (which has remained intact ever since), the quintet builds a richer, almost folk-based variation on its hypnotic sound. (Both of the band’s first two records are out of print but are to be reissued with bonus material this year on the Bar/None label.)
“Only Life” (1988): Not a bold evolution like the first two albums, but a refinement of a sound that values melodic jangle and trancelike drone.
“Time for a Witness” (1991): As close a representation of the band’s live sound as there is on record, with forceful performances honed by steady touring.