Interviews

Make It Clear: A Conversation With Feelies' Co-Founder Glenn Mercer

Glenn Mercer talks about the latest in a long line of releases from The Feelies, In Between.


The Feelies

In Between

Label: Bar/None
US Release Date: 2017-02-24
UK Release Date: 2017-02-24
Amazon
iTunes

In Between is the first album in six years from New Jersey’s The Feelies, though the time between it and 2011’s Here Before hasn’t been a completely idle time for the veteran group. In 2015, Bar/None reissued Only Life and Time for a Witness in celebration of 40 years since the band’s formation. The same year saw a covers EP, Uncovered emerge for Record Store Day and co-founder Glenn Mercer offered up a solo effort, Incidental Hum, within the same time frame.

Mercer, speaking from his Garden State home, says that work on the LP progressed somewhat haltingly. He wrote "Flag Days" around the time that legendary Hoboken club Maxwell’s closed in 2014. "Then I hit a wall," he recalls. "It was kind of surprising." Mercer’s son came back to the family’s home in Haledon during that time, taking a year away from his university studies. Mercer adds that though the extra company was welcome, being a parent was of primary concern at the time. His time was further complicated by a cold snap that moved through the area during the winter of 2014-15, making Mercer’s home studio a sometimes inhospitable host.

"It was bitterly cold and there were times when it was really uncomfortable to be there", he recalls. "A lot of things aligned to complicate the matter." He eventually made a makeshift version of the studio in a different part of his home and made more steady progress from there. By the end of the year, sessions were in swing for the final project with recording wrapping near the start of 2016.

Mercer and co-founder Bill Million worked alone and collaboratively from a considerable distance. Million, who has served as Mercer’s partner in the group since its start, now lives in Florida, making regular get-togethers an impossibility. "We have to do a lot of stuff through mail now," Mercer offers.

In many ways, this pace is nothing new for The Feelies. Formed in 1976, the group released its debut album, Crazy Rhythms, four years later. If there were traces of Wire and the Velvet Underground to be heard in those grooves, there were, as well, plenty of reasons to hail it as a release that broke new ground on the American rock scene. Mercer and Million weren’t aiming at guitar hero status and instead created a sound that lived up to the album’s title. With drummer Anton Fier and bassist Keith Clayton in the ranks, The Feelies offered a smart, relentless sound that fans would have to wait more than five years to hear again.

With the Million/Mercer partnership still firmly intact, the group released The Good Earth in 1986 with both guitarists co-producing alongside Peter Buck. The record ushered in the classic, enduring Feelies’ lineup with Brenda Sauter on bass, Stan Demeski on drums and Dave Weckerman on percussion. It also brought about the group’s most prolific and visible era with the No One Knows EP issued the same year, followed by the (comparatively) rapid-fire delivery of Only Life in 1988 and Time for a Witness in 1991.

The final two releases saw light of day on the A&M imprint and that, along with an appearance in the Jonathan Demme-directed picture Something Wild and material on the soundtrack to his subsequent film, Married to the Mob, might have suggested that the group was on the path to a wider breakthrough. There wasn’t much in the way of long, laborious touring and videos that featured either Million or Mercer gazing pensively from the window of a tour bus. When The Feelies closed up shop in 1992, there was a discography that was almost unfairly short on bad material and an ample supply of goodwill between the group and its fans.

There appeared to be goodwill between the members as well with most of the group appearing on Mercer’s 2007 solo release, Wheels in Motion and a smattering of other projects that featured at least two Feelies at a time. Since the group’s 2008 reunion, there have been occasional shows and the sense that there was renewed interest in past (and, potentially, future) output. "We always work slow", Mercer says, "that really wasn’t a change for us."

The patience the group took in making the album is evident in the series of well-crafted tunes that await the listener, whether the pop-ish "Turn Back Time", the slow-building "Stay The Course", or "Gone, Gone, Gone", one of the pieces used to tease the new effort. Fans of the Million/Mercer guitar duo won’t be disappointed at any point across the 11 works that form In Between.

Some listeners might even remark on the use of acoustic guitar on the tracks but Mercer is quick to point out that some sounds can be deceiving. "There’s not really a lot of acoustic guitar on there", he says, "but there is a method that Bill used when he was recording stuff by his house. He miked not only the amp but the guitar with a mic so it picks up a lot of the electric guitar in a way that sounds acoustic. I’d compare it to a technique that Norman Petty used with Buddy Holly on 'Peggy Sue' and maybe some other songs where he put a mic up on Buddy’s Stratocaster and mixed some of the pick against the strings in with the amplifier."

The relaxed vibe of the album is attributable not only to the circumstances under which it was written but also to a more practical matter for Mercer himself. "I have hearing problems, so I’m drawn more to quieter music now", he says. "The songs seemed to require that approach but that also stemmed from the demos we made. We liked the feel and that inspired us to record at my place. We really wanted to get the same feel from those sessions onto the record. Part of it’s the technique and part of it’s the vibe of being in a room you’re familiar with. We’ve rehearsed here since the late ‘80s, so we’re not looking at the clock, thinking, 'Oh, we just spent $100 just working on this one part.'"

There’s little if anything in the group’s output that seems overthought, and yet there’s a thoughtfulness to each of the recordings. In Between opens with the title cut, which is reprised in the final ten minutes of the recording. "That was a late thought. 'In Between' was the last song that I wrote", Mercer recalls. "I think I got into that mindset after working on my instrumental record [2015’s Incidental Hum]. Normally, I’ll just start playing the guitar and get a chord progression, then something more will pop into my head. With the instrumental record, I started with more specific ideas."

Mercer adds, "I thought for 'In Between' I’d do something like we did on 'Forces at Work' from Crazy Rhythms. There’s long sections where it’s just one chord with stuff moving around within that chord. On 'In Between' there’s a drone part which works as kind of pulse. I’m a big fan of The Who’s Who’s Next where Townshend used these sequencers on 'Baba O’ Riley' and 'Won’t Get Fooled Again'. I found out he was really inspired by Terry Riley and Bill and I were big fans of him and Philip Glass, so it seemed like a good place to go back and explore."

Mercer didn’t have a looping pedal as he was writing the track, so he created a loop-like effect in real time. "I started with a guitar with the tremolo with the E-bow, then I added guitar and keyboard and played in real time. It was hard to do because the demo was eight minutes long. At the end of the eight minutes, it felt like my arm was going to fall off!"

From there, the experiment slowly began to take a more defined shape. He found further possibilities in the process of mixing the demo. "What I’ll typically do at the mixing stage is that I’ll strip everything down and start with what I consider the basis of a song: The vocal, rhythm guitar. The vocal track had an acoustic guitar on it because when I sing I also like to play guitar, it helps me sing better. I heard those together and realized that they changed everything about the song. It seemed liked it was valid as an acoustic version as well. I thought, 'Well, we don’t have to pick one or the other. We could record both and see how that works out.'"

The idea was always to have them in different positions but, for a time, the louder, longer rendition occupied the opening slot. "That was a suggestion but that didn’t seem right to me", he says. "I think the way we did it created the best flow for the record."

Records are, after all, where The Feelies have garnered the greatest amount of attention and acclaim. There are no plans for major roadwork behind In Between. Million has said in the past that his group turns down far more gigs than they ever play. Instead, the group is content to take the road they’ve always taken: Let the songs find their way to listeners and, when the time is right, give them more to appreciate and absorb.

"It’s my favorite part of the music business", Mercer says, shortly before clicking off the line, "making records."

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image