There’s a wonderful sense of ease and space to the 11 songs on Glenn Mercer’s new album Wheels In Motion. The songs glide along on shimmering guitar strums, Mercer’s soft, mournful voice rising just slightly out of textures and atmospheres, the pace steady but never anxious or rushed. It’s so laid back that you’re not really surprised when you find out that Mercer has been working on this music for nearly ten years
“Usually there’s a lot of pressure involved when you make an album,” he said in a recent phone interview. “There’s a deadline and a schedule and you have a lot more people involved to coordinate. This was a very low-pressure situation. I didn’t even really have a goal in mind to put a record out.”
That’s a very different experience from the one Mercer had with the Feelies, one of the originators of the jangly college rock sound that R.E.M. took to arena size. Mercer had already been in bands for years when the group formed in 1976; one of them, the Outkids with future Feelies Dave Weckerman and Bill Million, had played shows in nearby New York City. With the new band, Million switched from bass to guitar and, after a futile search for a vocalist, Mercer decided to sing.
“Because of our experience with the Outkids, we kind of knew that it was possible to write songs and have an original band and play in clubs. That was really what we wanted to do all along. So pretty early on, the Feelies auditioned at CBGBs, and got a gig there. Things moved pretty quickly,” said Mercer.
The Feelies were a few years behind CBs legendary punk scene. They went to gigs by Television and the Ramones at the club, but didn’t play shows with them. It was at CBGBs, though, that the band honed its sound, a nervous, caffeinated sort of pop that drew on influences like the Velvet Underground and Television, but sounded completely different.
The band’s original line-up released a single, Fa Ce La, in 1980, followed by the full-length Crazy Rhythms the same year. From the beginning, though, the band insisted on an unusual amount of autonomy during the recording process. “We were set in our minds that we wanted to produce ourselves and have control over the art work, just to have a say in everything,” said Mercer.
Most labels resisted their demands, especially the one about producing their own work. “We had companies that said, ‘Well, you can design the jacket but we won’t let you produce it,’ and vice versa,” said Mercer. “Really Stiff Records was the only company that would allow us to do that. And even they wanted a co-producer.”
The Feelies turned to Mark Ambler, whom they’d met when he was running the soundboard at CBGBs. “That actually helped us in the long run, because doing tracks when you’re recording, it’s hard ...You’re in the main room and then it’s hard to know what’s going on in the control room. You need somebody to act as a go-between, between the band and the technical people.”
Crazy Rhythms was a critical success earning the #17 spot on the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll for 1980. Still the Feelies were still mostly an East Coast, big city phenomenon. (Though they did play the West Coast occasionally; filmmaker Jonathan Demme became a fan at an early show at Los Angeles’ Whiskey A Go Go.)
Second time around
Demo recordings for a second Feelies album failed to impress Stiff’s executives. “They really hated those songs,” said Mercer. “So at one point, they actually called us into the office and said, ‘Well you have to write more concisely, like a single,’ and they played us the current Lena Lovich single. And that wasn’t a hit either. They couldn’t pick one either. So that was sort of comical.”
The band broke up shortly after, with Anton Fier and Vinnie DeNunzio leaving to pursue other projects. Mercer became involved in a series of early 1980s bands, including Trypes, Yung Wu and the Willies (who appeared in Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild.) He and Million also were tapped to write music for Smithereens, a film by Desperately Seeking Susan‘s Susan Seidelman, an experience that Mercer remembers as somewhat fraught with difficulty.
“Back then, the equipment was pretty primitive. They didn’t have videocassettes then. Video was on reel-to-reel machines,” said Mercer. “So we had to be really specific, like with a stop watch and the time when things were supposed to happen and coincide with an image on the screen. We worked it all out, and it turned out that the equipment that we were working on ran at a slightly different speed than the equipment they were editing on.”
But meanwhile, amid all these side projects, the core group of Mercer, Millions and Weckerman continued to play together occasionally, finally reconvening the Feelies (with Brenda Sauter and Stanley Demeski) in 1986 to record The Good Earth. The landscape had changed in six years; R.E.M. (whose Peter Buck produced The Good Earth) had, through relentless touring, built up a network of clubs to play in, not just on the coasts, but at college towns throughout America.
“During the Crazy Rhythms time, we could only play in the bigger cities. Like we’d fly to California, play Boston, maybe Washington and Philadelphia, but nothing in between,” said Mercer. “But then in the 1980s, things really started to change. College radio became really important. Bands like REM were doing tours and kind of establishing a little network of touring venues across the country. So with the college being the backbone of that. So it was pretty easy for us to tap into that. We could tour, really, without a record or without any support in 1984, totally on our own, going across country. So you know, it was a way for us to get back to that idea and kind of do it ourselves.”
The Feelies also got a boost from a couple of movie appearances. The band had a song in Something Wild, though credited to The Willies, in 1986. Unfortunately the song didn’t make the soundtrack, because the producers wanted to remix it, and the Feelies were out on the road at the time. Later Demme’s Married to the Mob featured another Feelies song, “Too Far Gone.” They were signed by major label A&M in the early 1990s and recorded two highly regarded albums there, Only Life in 1988 and Time for a Witness in 1991.
40 years in music…one solo album
In 1991, the Feelies broke up for the second time. Mercer and Weckerman formed Wake Ooloo, which has, to date, released three albums. By the early 00s, Mercer was playing regularly with a handful of bands in and around his native New Jersey. He wasn’t the singer or main songwriter in any of these projects, though, so there was no real impetus to begin laying down melodies. That happened, he said, very naturally and over a rather lengthy period of time.
“I tend to write kind of slow and take my time, so just having nine or ten songs was a pretty big accomplishment,” he admitted. “I spent three or four years writing the songs and then two years recording them ... That’s like on and off. I didn’t spend the whole time doing that.”
Mercer found that when he got to certain point in his process, it helped him to make demo tapes of the songs he was working on. “Especially when I’m doing lyrics, I like to have a recording of the music that I can play, and then be in almost like a passive mode where I’m not playing the music. I’m just listening to it,” he said. “And then the melodies will kind of pop in my head and the lyrics will follow that.”
But this time, once he had the demos for several songs, Mercer decided to share them with a few friends, fellow musicians and acquaintances. He handed out some homemade CDs to people he trusted, and their response was very positive. “These were people that play in bands that have been putting their own records out,” he said. ” They all said this was really good. You should think about making a record.”
At the same time, Mercer had been reconnecting with some of his old Feelies bandmates—not just Weckerman, but Anton Fier and Vince DeNunzio. “Initially, my idea was to record a Feelies record, to reunite the band and call it a Feelies record,” he said. “But I’d been in contact with Bill and he expressed an interest, but this was not a good time. So it was kind of hard to coordinate it.” (Mercer doesn’t rule out the possibility of a Feelies reunion at some point in the future.)
Mercer had been playing casually in a number of bands, not just Wake Ooloo, but Sunburst and Trypes and others. Originally he thought he might use several different bands to record his songs, but the logistics proved difficult. “There are about 12 people that I could have asked, and just to schedule that many and to go through the arrangements and teach everybody the songs ... especially when I could play a lot of the parts myself, especially the guitar parts, it seemed too complicated,” he said. “It made more sense to stick to the drummers and, particularly, the people that were in the Feelies.
As a result the record, amazingly Mercer’s first-ever solo disc, includes a large contingent of ex-Feelies—Stanley Demeski, Vinny DeNunzio, Dave Weckerman, Anton Fier and Brenda Sauter. And moreover, it sounds very much in line with the Feelies legacy, particularly, Mercer thinks, the Good Earth album engineered by Peter Buck. “To me, everything has that thread right through it,” he said. “Though I think that these songs in particular sound a little bit like the Feelies in that I used a lot of acoustic guitar, percussion, and the, particularly the Good Earth album had a lot of acoustic guitar and percussion.”
Mercer in the age of DIY
Throughout his career, even long before it was common, Mercer has demanded a great deal of control over his work, and now, decades on, the music industry has finally caught up with him. Home recording, self-production, self-releasing and self-promoting are quite common now ... and though Mercer turned to Chicago’s Pravda Records to release Wheels in Motion, he initially considered releasing the record himself. The internet wasn’t as much of a factor in 1997, when the last Wake Ooloo record came out, and Mercer said he was intrigued by possibilities for networking and promotion that the world wide web has opened up.
And, at the same time, Mercer admits that he has changed a bit himself. He’s able to support himself and his family with royalties, money from soundtracks and other commercial use of Feelies songs. The business end of the music industry no longer has much impact on him. “I think I’ve kind of mellowed out a little bit. Hopefully. I don’t let things bother me as much as they used to,” he admitted. “It’s a little bit easier to get a perspective on things than it used to be. I have different expectations of the business side of it really.”
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// Notes from the Road
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