They Were on a Break

An Interview With the Feelies

by Dan Weiss

6 October 2008

The Feelies, the most plaintive and modest of the 1980s indie-breakout bands, wrung total pastoral bliss from a North Haledon garage for over a decade. Glenn Mercer reflects on the close of the band's initial run and looks at the promise of its reunion.

The Feelies, the most plaintive and modest of the 1980s indie-breakout bands, wrung total pastoral bliss from a North Haledon garage for over a decade, creating beauty that ricocheted off waves of jangling guitar parts. Most of their big decisions felt like a shrug; when asked about the band’s unofficial split seventeen years ago, after A&M’s wrongfully doomed Time for a Witness, singer/guitarist Glenn Mercer says, “Everyone else we knew was breaking up.” The band’s reunited, though, playing the River to River Festival this summer and scheduling a few dates for this fall.

R.E.M., whose Peter Buck produced their second full-length, and the Velvet Underground, who they’ve covered, are most frequently mentioned in the same sentence as the band, and free of the postmodern burden of denying musical comparisons, the Feelies don’t appear to mind and I won’t either. They knew their D to G changes and clean jangle riffs, glued to tight, frantic drumming unlike anyone else. With this basic template, the group made four very tonally different records from it in ten years. The nervy, percussive Crazy Rhythms is the most well known, but the gorgeous, dewy The Good Earth and the well-rocking Time for a Witness are even better. When these go back in print, seek out those first. Only Life was sandwiched between those last two, with its cleanly funky title tune and the hooky “Deep Fascination” driving the group toward their poppiest avenues yet.

Mercer and his wife still reside in North Haledon, NJ, a college town that shouldn’t be one, with a Dunkin’ Donuts and not much else warning of the supposed horrors of Paterson laying just beyond the tire on the sidewalk. This guy deserves a well-touted reunion gig for enduring that alone; he can apparently see the beauty in everything.

You rounded up nearly everyone who’s ever been in Feelies for your solo album last year [Wheels in Motion], is that right? Had everyone been still playing all this time or were some picking up their instruments again for the first time in years?
Well, most of us have been playing to varying degrees, except for Bill [Million]. Apparently, he didn’t play guitar at all or not very much for that whole period, like seventeen years.

And, uh, what was he doing during the—
What is his job? He’s a locksmith.

Was the key to the reunion getting him back in?
Definitely, yeah. We’ve had offers in the past five or so years to play, and offers for various licensing arrangements, and talk about reissuing the records, so we’ve been in pretty close contact for the past few years, and we’ve been talking about playing again. And it’s just a matter of getting everything lined up schedule-wise so that we could do it. Actually, for the solo record I had hoped that Bill at best would be able to fully be involved and make it into a Feelies record. But that wasn’t possible, so I kind of hoped he could at least play on it, but it really didn’t work out.

Tell me about the state of the band, after Time for a Witness, right before the hiatus.
Well, we had signed to A&M Records, and the people who signed the band were really big fans of the band. And after the initial album, Only Life with them, they all left the label. So the people who were dealing with us really didn’t know much about the band. And we weren’t able to really establish a good relationship with them. And it just seemed like the people who came in who bought out A&M were more from the business side, were more concerned with making money than making good records.

So that was a big factor, I think. Us wanting to take some time off. We never really disbanded, we basically just uh, (laughs) took a really long hiatus. We never ... no one ever said, “That’s it, I’m never playing again.” More like, “I’m taking a break.”

How quickly did the albums go out of print, do you know?
No, I don’t know how long they were available.

There was so much label bullshit going on…
Well, that really was a big factor in the tie-up of the reissue of the records, determining the ownership of the masters. So at this point, we’ve established ownership of Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth, so those we hope to have out by the end of the year. And as far as the other two, we’re still checking on that ... we hope to know more about it pretty soon.

When you signed to A&M, and they were fans, did they see a commercial crossover? What was the mentality of the band at the time, were you expecting to just keep doing what you were doing or sort of expand on a greater commercial level? What were your expectations?
Well, I think at the time in the ‘80s, alternative really kind of took off. All the bands who were on indie labels signed to major labels. So it was sort of a matter of seeing the potential there, both the band seeing it and the record company seeing it. And we know what happened to all the bands that signed to major labels, they pretty much all broke up after that. Kind of gives you an idea of how things worked back then.

Was there any pressure the label gave you or any ridiculous ideas they had? I know with Hüsker Dü, the label wanted to replace Grant Hart with a drum machine.
Wow. I had heard fIREHOSE had a big meeting and they basically said, “You guys need a frontman,” and they broke up after that. Nothing quite as dramatic as that. I remember one time we did a promo at—I don’t want to mention the station, but it’s a pretty prominent radio station—and we were there to record a station ID. And the program director was trying to direct the segment by telling ... it was me and Brenda [Sauter, bassist] who did it ... and she said, “Well how about if we do ... Brenda, you say ‘Hi,’ Glenn, you say ‘We are,’ Brenda, you say ‘The,’ Glenn, you say, ‘Feelies.’” So back and forth, like that. We said, “No, we’re not going to do that ... that’s totally out of character with who we are!” And she got really upset. She said, “I think you should try it that way.” And we said no. And she basically exploded and said, “We’re an important radio station and we can make or break your career if you don’t do this!” (laughs)

Do you listen to a lot of current music or pay attention to the band’s legacy or influence in pop culture?
Well, I hear about it more than I hear it. I’m not really too up on a lot of the new stuff.

At least two bands that have gotten a lot of buzz in the last few years, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Vampire Weekend, bear a resemblance to the Feelies rhythm-wise.
Yeah, I guess. I don’t know, I had heard the Strokes mentioned us in a bunch of interviews and stuff.

And the cover of Weezer’s first album is said to be an homage to Crazy Rhythms.
I heard that as well, but I don’t know, because ours was an homage to Buddy Holly, so theirs might be as well.

Their first big hit was called “Buddy Holly,” actually!

Some of the best-known Feelies material are actually covers. Is there still anything to be said for making cover songs your own at this time? Because I don’t know if, in 2008, people would be willing to put faith in another version of “Paint It, Black.” [which the Feelies recorded as a bonus track for the 1990 CD issue of Crazy Rhythms]
I think it would depend on the song. If it was an obscure song that you can turn people onto, then it might be worth doing.

Your choices were generally pretty bold, well-known stuff, though: Neil Young, the Beatles, the Velvet Underground. And they were pretty well-received. Which is rare, I think. Are you a big classic rock person?
There’s kind of a derogatory connotation to that word, but we’re all fans of rock ‘n’ roll music really, from the ‘50s on. That’s what we grew up with, so.

How will you guys be dividing up the setlist for the reunion shows?
Well, we get a general sense of which songs were the most popular, so we want to make sure we include those. But we’ve rehearsed about 35 songs, so we have a lot to pick from. We played last night; we did two sets. It went great, and tonight we’ll probably play the ones that we didn’t get to last night. So some point over the two-day Maxwell’s gigs, we’ll probably have played those 35 songs. At least 25, 30 of them, I think.

Is there a good portion from Time for a Witness? I always felt it was really underrated/
I’ve been hearing that a lot more lately! That’s funny, yeah. We’re trying to balance it out between all the albums, I think they’re pretty much equally represented.

Do you think that if the band had stuck it out another five years or so, that the band could’ve seen more success, with alternative as a format on the radio, with Nirvana and all the other breakthroughs.
Not really, because I think each decade has its own flavor, identity ... pretty much all the bands from the ‘80s were breaking up at that point. It seemed like Nirvana came in and swept everything, like, out with the old, in with the new in a way.

At the same time, Kurt Cobain celebrated so much ‘80s stuff and a select few of the bands, like the Meat Puppets stuck it out.
Yeah, but it really didn’t help their career much! I don’t know.

True. Well, for a few minutes. Have you seen any other of the ‘80s bands that reunited recently, like Dinosaur Jr or Mission of Burma?
No, I don’t get out much.

They’ve been pretty well-received ... I think the Pixies are making more money than they ever did in their heyday, and I think there’s more hope than there ever was for an underrated band to have a second life now.
I think you know, it’s almost like it cycles. Now there’s enough distance from the ‘80s where it’s kind of nostalgic to look back. Whereas in the ‘90s it was just a little bit too soon to look back at what was going on then.

And is there talk about a new album coming together after the shows?
Yeah, we’ve been talking about it. We have some new songs we’re gonna be playing. That was really essential to the idea of getting back together, that we work on new material, not just go back and revisit the old stuff.

You don’t want to feel like Journey playing on a cruise ship.
Yeah, I guess you can’t really take the nostalgic element out of it, but you don’t want that to be the focus either.

What do the new songs sound like?
I have four new ones, and I think three are pretty close to The Good Earth, they’re kind of acoustic-based. And the fourth one is a little more like Time for a Witness, little bit more harder-edged, more distortion. I think they could easily have fit on any one of our previous albums really. It’s no great departure.

Topics: the feelies
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