The History of the Feelies: Playing Fast, Taking It Slow
Glenn Mercer and Bill Million put together the band they called the Feelies in the mid-’70s. They were singer/guitarists who’d both started out as bassists, so they thought about everything in terms of rhythm. Their songs were frantically speedy, streamlined and hyperpercussive. They were nerds, and very proud of it. They were not particularly connected to any extant rock scene. They came from the little town of Haledon, New Jersey, and were proud of that, too; Maxwell’s, a restaurant and rock club in Hoboken, became something like their home base. And they didn’t play a lot of gigs; in fact, they usually only played on holidays.
Glenn Mercer:It really wasn’t any major plan on our part. We might have played around Halloween and put some pumpkins up, and that led to our being offered jobs on holidays. Our attitude about playing was that we didn’t want it to become a routine. We wanted each performance to be a celebration, in a way, like a holiday. It seemed to work out.
The Feelies quickly got a reputation as a killer live band, and everyone assumed the next step was obvious – they had to put a record out. That didn’t happen too quickly, though: the band had been recording as early as the winter of 1976, but Mercer and Million had very specific ideas about what they did and didn’t want their records to sound like. After a handful of false starts, they released a headlong 1979 single, “Fa CÃ© La,” and 1980′s Crazy Rhythms album.
GM: The songs are crafted a certain way – -we spent a lot of time on the arrangements, just on the basic sound. The sound we got sort of evolved organically. We felt the cymbals were clashing with the guitar parts, so we cut back on the cymbals and that we left a space we decided to fill with percussion. We included a song from an early demo on the album, and one thing that was really Eno-inspired was that we tried to create the illusion of the snare sound revolving around. When the engineer put the song on to remaster it [for the new reissues], he was so bewildered. He said “this record must’ve been pressed slightly off-center or something!” And finally he pointed out what he meant, and we said “no, no, that was intentional – we were trying to create an effect there!”
After Crazy Rhythms appeared, the band more or less dissolved, as drummer Anton Fier departed (he’d later go on to join the Golden Palominos). The Feelies played a handful of shows over the next few years, but Mercer and Million also started playing with another Haledon band, the Trypes, and occasionally with a more experimental project called the Willies.
GM: We had spent such a long time working on those Crazy Rhythms songs that when it came time to consider another record, we didn’t have anything. Anton kind of got frustrated with that – he wanted to play more often. So he was the first to go, and we kept playing, but we put the Feelies on the back burner. A lot of the Willies songs were based on home recordings that Bill and I did, sort of going further in the direction of ambient music that Eno was doing. We’d take those tapes and perform along with them. But we were sort of at the mercy of technology – we had problems with the tapes playing at the wrong speed, that kind of stuff. That evolved into more loosely structured songs that would enable us to improvise a little bit too.
By the mid-’80s, the Willies coalesced into a new lineup of the Feelies, with percussionist Dave Weckerman (who’d been playing with Mercer and Million on and off since the beginning) and two of the Trypes: bassist Brenda Sauter and drummer Stanley Demeski. A couple of Willies songs ended up appearing on the second Feelies album: 1986′s meditative, pastoral The Good Earth. Co-produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, it was initially released on a label owned by Steve Fallon, who ran Maxwell’s in those days.
GM: At the time I had a little bit of a question as to whether The Good Earth was produced enough – it was so low-key, and the first record had such heavy production – but looking back I realize that that’s what made it unique. I’m glad we kept that approach.
For the next five years, the Feelies were more active than they’d ever been before. They toured the U.S. and Europe, released a couple of major-label albums, and even got a bit of MTV play. As the Willies, they appeared in the movie Something Wild; Yung Wu, a variation on the Feelies fronted by Dave Weckerman, made an album called Shore Leave. The group no longer played only on holidays, but they did still pepper their gigs with covers – not just the Beatles and Velvet Underground songs that had appeared on their records, but songs by the Doors, the Modern Lovers, Patti Smith, Neil Young, Television and Love Tractor, among others.
GM: Most bands start out as cover bands – even U2, I think, said when they first started they were doing a lot of covers. We always saw the value in that. Maybe it has something to do with not writing that much on our own. That’s our roots, in a way.
By 1991, though, being in the band had become a grind. When Bill Million abruptly left the group and moved to Florida, they called it quits.
GM: We kind of saw it coming – not specifically Bill leaving, but a few other times, other people, myself included, had contemplated that, so it really wasn’t that big a surprise.
For the next decade and a half, the rest of the group continued to record separately: Mercer and Weckerman with Wake Ooloo, Sauter with Wild Carnation and Speed the Plough, Demeski with Luna. Almost all the ex-Feelies, aside from Million, played on Mercer’s 2007 album Wheels in Motion. Finally, in 2008, the 1986-1991 lineup of the Feelies reunited for a handful of shows – beginning, of course, at Maxwell’s – and they’ve continued to get together for intermittent gigs.
GM: We’d talked about it for quite a while, and it was just a matter of when everybody’s schedule opened up. Given that Bill lives in Florida and Brenda’s in Pennsylvania, we really don’t have the ability to play as often as we’d like. We wanted to make sure we had enough practice time to do it right, and keep it going, not just have it be one or two shows. We don’t mind if the nostalgic aspect is there, but we don’t want that to be the whole focus of it. We’re working on new stuff–taking it slow, like we always do. Hopefully, maybe, next year, we’ll get around to recording. I just read a review from the All Tomorrow’s Parties show we did [at which they played Crazy Rhythms in its entirety]. They described it as like the excitement of holding a flame near an open gas can or something. I guess there is sort of an appeal to that.