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.
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."