The Feelies’ Deliberate Speed
There’s Greenwich Mean Time, Eastern Standard Time, Pacific Standard Time…
…And then there’s Feelies Time, a recording and touring pace stubbornly set by the New Jersey rockers. The band released its classic 1980 debut, “Crazy Rhythms,” and then came to an immediate halt when the members wanted to extricate themselves from their record label.
Running down a musical line that goes from the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, the Feelies’ propulsive sound gave the impression of constant forward motion fed the starved interests of critics and created long-term fans. Both were forced to wait six years for the group’s next effort. After writing, recording, performing and collaborating with others, a new (and permanent) lineup got together – guitarists/vocalist Glenn Mercer and Bill Filion along with Brenda Sauter (bass, vocals), Stanley Demeski (drums), and Dave Weckerman (percussion) — and released The Good Earth. That was followed by Only Life (1988) and Time For A Witness (1991).
Another hiatus then took place as Million bolted for Florida for a more stable non-music life. Once again, the members took part in other projects – Mercer and Weckerman started Wake Ooloo, Demeski became a founding member of Luna and Sauter played in numerous outfits including her own Wild Carnations. Mercer also put out a solo album in 2007.
With the welcomed reunions of Mission of Burma, Gang of Four, Wire and others, 2008 became the year that the members got back together. Long time admirers, Sonic Youth, requested the band to open a show at Battery Park. Several reunion gigs preceded that date while several others followed. The following year saw re-issues of their first two albums and a special performance consisting of the entirety of Crazy Rhythms at All Tomorrow’s Parties. The show also provided the opportunity to perform new material.
Now, two decades after their last studio effort, the Feelies release the all-new Here Before, an album that sounds as a worthy addition to their ever so slowly growing catalog. The songs are self-aware of the band’s status, the winking lyrics on “Nobody Knows” acknowledge the passing of time but, overall, the group perpetuates their signature sound while showing no signs of rust.
Located a mere 23 miles from Manhattan, and allowing the freedom to leave home and travel for work only when needed, I discuss the renewed Feelies with Glenn Mercer from his North Haledon, New Jersey home.
JPG: Can’t help myself because it’s just so obvious. I want to bring up the opening lyrics of the new album’s first song, “Nobody Knows.” “Is it too late/To do it again?/Or should we wait/Another ten?” Considering the situation it’s a perfect line. Tell me about that particular song and setting things up in that way.
GM: Well, with the first song I wrote for the record. The way I write is I get the chord patterns down and they suggest a melody and I’ll improvise words and take it from there and refine it. So, that just kind of popped in my head. I didn’t really set out to write a song that dealt with the reunion or anything like that. If you’re going to take that line for reference then the line that follows is really part of the whole picture — You never know how it’s gonna go (slight laugh). You kind of approach these things with optimism but you want to be realistic about it, too. Don’t want to take it for granted. It’s a good opportunity, and just make the most of it, really. You never know?
JPG: Yeah. I did write down those next lines – “Nobody knows/everyone cares/ everyone’s asking/for answers to prayers/well, you never know/how it’s gonna go/no one ever knows/how it’s gonna go. In a way the answers to prayers are as much for fans as for the band members themselves.
GM: Yeah, I guess. I try not to be too specific.
JPG: Is it something where when you wrote it you recognized how it dealt with things on so many levels or has it gained significance because of people like me focusing on it and bringing it up?
GM: No, no. I think we kind of recognized that. That’s why we put it there first. Not only was it the first song we wrote, which kind of made sense. So, there’s a little bit of humor in that. You don’t want to come off – although we’re serious about what we do – we don’t want to be too serious about it.
JPG: I’m looking over your catalog of releases and over that time I always thought it was pretty cool that the Feelies stuck to its own pace of when to put out a record. But there was a line in the recent “Village Voice” article that described you as the “ultimate hobbyist band”, and I don’t know if you find that humorous, a good description or offensive?
GM: You can’t take something like that too seriously. It does kind of suggest that we don’t take what we do very seriously, which isn’t the case. We approach it the same way anybody would dealing with something creative and artistic. You have an idea in your mind, and you work hard to realize that and bringing it about. I think it’s more of a case of just working on a timeline that’s comfortable for us. It may look unusual to other people but for us it’s a natural way.
JPG: It’s quite fortunate that you’ve been able to keep your name out there without getting pushed around by outside sources to release albums quicker or tour more frequently.
GM: Well, we kind of started to toward the end. Our label that we put The Good Earth out on, Coyote Records, had a deal with A&M. The first album we did for them, Only Life, went real well. We had a really good relationship with the company. They weren’t really major but kind of independent. They got bought out. A lot of people left the company, a lot of people quit or were fired. And people we had a relationship with were gone. So, it became more about dollars and charts and comparing to other bands and a lot of pressure was put on us to go to the next level. We were happy where we were. And that’s where a lot of the problems set in and frustration and tension, really.
JPG: Do you think that was why Bill took off for Florida and took that job?
GM: Well, that was one element of it, one component. The economics of it, too. We found that to go to the next level, you need more people in the crew. Towards the end we had as many people working on the crew as in the band. It was really hard for us. We were starting our families around that time. That was another element, too.
JPG: Just checking up on this. I’m pretty sure that I saw you open up for Lou Reed. Would that have been from the Only Life tour?
GM: We had actually pretty much finished touring for that record but it was between Only Life and Time for a Witness. So, I guess it was in support of the Only Life record. That was cross country so it was a pretty long tour.