Tag Archives: FEELIES

THE FEELIES, JERSEY’S BEST KEPT SECRET, GO ‘HERE BEFORE’

Marking their latest unexpected comeback twenty years after their fourth studio album, the Feelies are like a cat with nine lives.

Originally from Haledon, the Velvet Underground-nurtured outfit, led by singer-guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, scored instant left-of-the-dial radio success with 1980’s soft rock masterstroke, Crazy Rhythms. Prefiguring the unaffected do-it-yourself lo-fi bedroom recordings that’d pop up in the early ‘90s, Mercer’s understated half-sung baritone, barely audible in the mix, juxtaposed delicately droned six-string dribbles and primal tribal beats in an inconspicuously subtle manner.

Like sipping tea listening to Belle & Sebastian on an autumnal Sunday morning or attending an early evening wine and cheese party absorbing the sun admiring Rubber Soul, the Feelies are enduringly pleasant on the ears, mind, and body. You could place ‘em alongside easy listening soft rock legends Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Loggins & Messina, or any other decent ‘70s femme pop luminary and they’d come out smelling like roses. The world outside may be in flux, but these northern Jersey natives have remained the same – even if long layoffs dulled the momentum.

This time around, Mercer got the chance to reconvene with his seasoned partners following a high-prized low profile solo entrée, ‘08s World In Motion. So all of a sudden on a wing and a prayer he’s back in stride with Million, a transplanted Floridian, plus bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stanley Demeski, and percussionist Dave Weckerman (snares/ floor toms/ sleigh bells/ tambourine). The planets must’ve aligned ‘cause a few desirable circumstances were necessary for the latest Feelies reunion to occur.

It turns out Million’s Princeton-based son had been casually jamming with Mercer around the time Turner Broadcasting Network wanted to use Mercer-Million song, “Decide,” for promotion, developing a line of communication for the co-composing duo. Furthermore, faithful Feelies followers Sonic Youth sought out the enigmatic combo for a Fourth of July Battery Park show a few years back. Combined with high internet demand for early recordings and several requests to play live, the Feelies returned to form on 2011’s refreshing re-entry, Here Before.

Getting lasting mileage out of the basic guitar-bass-drums setup, these resilient rockers have endured way past their modest incipient Jersey genesis. Whereas Crazy Rhythms received inspiration from a positively decadent late-‘70s New York scene that nearly died on the vine, belated ’86 follow-up, The Good Earth, a more uniform set, captured a demure bucolic rusticity. Invigorated by a cross-country tour where they coveted post-punk denizens such as REM (whose Peter Buck co-produced The Good Earth), Meat Puppets, Minutemen, and Replacements, the Feelies expanded slightly outward.

“We wanted to distance ourselves from punk. Growing up, we listened to the Stooges and Velvet Underground, so we’d seen it done better before,” Mercer claims. “But the CBGB’s scene wasn’t all strictly punk. Talking Heads, Modern lovers, and Television had punk elements, but weren’t safety-pinned leather-jacketed types. The whole punk scene, to us, was a little stale at that point.”

Incidentally, the dual guitar lattice of Television’s Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine had a profound affect on Mercer and Million’s less aggressive, more anesthetized fretwork.

“I saw Television early on at their first or second show at the Hotel Diplomat in Times Square. This was before CBGB’s. I saw Kiss there at probably their first Manhattan date. It was a small ballroom, not a rock venue. Dave and I were in a pre-Feelies band, the Outkids, around that time doing British Invasion covers, garage rock, and psychedelia. We may’ve done some demos.”

Utilizing sleeker textural designs and a rockier Power Station production, ‘88s Only Life attempted to land the Feelies on MTV’s newly christened alternative program, 120 Minutes, alongside fellow subterranean minions looking for a big break. Yet ‘91s confoundedly overlooked Time For A Witness, arguably the bands’ strongest set, suffered due to A & M Records untimely merger, limited publicity sources, and pressure to get to the next level of monetary prosperity.

Still, through it all, the Feelies steadfastly maintained the same charmingly understated pastoral serenity and naïve Jonathan Richman-clipped whimsicality of yore, standing clear of gimmicky propensities while gradually gaining surreptitious prominence amongst indie elitists and attentive egalitarians.

Back in the game once again, the Feelies lengthily intermittent legacy continues to sprout fertile seedlings. And the ambitiously apropos undertaking, Here Before, seals the deal. Though the approach is undeniably similar, their assuredness, determination, and discriminating musical sensibilities have definitely evolved slowly over time.

Showing no signs of wear and tear, the gallant troupe habitually relies on gentle melancholic mementos to counter louder uplifting fare. The cheerful jangled spritz and rubbery bass lope consuming “Nobody Knows” fittingly contrasts gently strummed dispatch “Should Be Gone.” Then, gray skies cloud the politely sublime auspices of “Again Today,” where presciently angular Neil Young-like shredding reinforces the cryptically caliginous mood. A tiny patch of sun shines across the mild psychedelic scamper and unbridled enthusiasm guiding “When You Know,” lighting up the wispy percussive-knocked tenderness branding “Later On” as well.

“We spent some time sequencing it to give it a good flow,” Mercer ascertains. “We don’t put out a lot of records, so when we do, we put in a lot of effort. Vocal parts sometimes provide direction, but mostly the songs start with guitar, then melody and lyrics. It’s all pretty effortless. It comes naturally, even more so now that we’ve played together so long. Usually, we do nine new songs and a cover, but this album had 13 songs so we varied the tone, tempo, and texture more.”

Never a big record collector, Mercer concentrates on songwriting and doesn’t spend time tracking current trends. However, he enjoyed the ‘mellow chill music’ of local Jersey band, Real Estate, enough to place them as the Feelies openers for the few dates they’ll play supporting Here Before.

Asked if his band would ever change its schematic, Mercer suggests, “Normally, I’d say I didn’t know, but I’ve been recording some instrumental stuff reminiscent of the Willies, a band I had between the first and second Feelies lineups that didn’t release anything. As for the Feelies, our chemistry’s improved and we each have our own unique approach to the instruments we play. Our individual styles have become refined, resulting in a comfort zone that lets us fall into the groove pretty easily. Also, as you go through life, you have more life experiences to draw upon.”

Hardly taking a backseat to his long-time lead singing pal, Bill Million may not be the focal point, but he’s the glue that binds the quelling quintet. His primary formative influences include the Beatles, Rolling Stones, MC5, Stooges, and of course, Velvet Underground.

“We used to joke about only redoing Crazy Rhythms’ nine songs and make a career out of it,” Million chuckles. “Initially, we approached music like minimalists. After some time off, it’s like Tom Verlaine used to say, ‘My senses are sharp, but my hands are like gloves.’ I interpret that to mean you have the thought process in place, but need to redevelop the physical attributes.”

Putting music aside to take care of family obligations, Million’s recent re-acquaintance with his old mates just felt right from the start. Complementing Mercer’s extraordinary leads with efficient chord progressions, he’s always fine tuning nifty guitar licks.

“We’ve retained the same basic premise, but keep working on it. The entire band is very comfortable listening closely to each other when we play. For “Later On,” Glenn’s doing these arpeggiated harmonics and Brenda comes out from right underneath him with similar bass notes,” he relates.

Touring with Mike Watt’s post-Minutemen trio, Firehose, during the late ‘80s, and Hoboken legends Yo La Tengo soon after, the Feelies and these worthy peers never reached aboveground access, but Million realizes contemporary radio and indie acclaim have been worlds apart since punk broke through the cellar door in ’77.

“Even Rolling Stone, the premier music paper, now does a mere two paragraphs devoted to cool bands, but put Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and Rhianna on the cover. They used to write poignantly about Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. It’s a giant change and most bands don’t have a connection to that,” explains Million. “When I grew up, AM radio played the Beatles and Stones. But our bands’ content to be where we are. We have no interest in major labels. We’ve established an extended family with Bar/None Records. I don’t envy anyone who wants to go down the road to a major label deal with what goes on.”

Flying in the face of Lowest Common Denominator commercial airplay, the combative “Time Is Right” could be seen as a snippy snub serving notice to handcuffed mainstream discjockeys. On the positive tip, the Feelies have a large contingent of renegade fans in the northeast, Australia, Japan, and Europe. They’ve been offered tour dates overseas and on the West Coast, but seem averse to flying.

“We’ll keep honing our craft and probably won’t make any dramatic shifts. We just wanna improve upon our own musical direction,” concludes Million.

GLENN MERCER GETS ‘WHEELS IN MOTION’

The Garden State has its fair share of admirable bands that’ve passed into history without proper recognition, left behind by conservative mainstream forces whilst arbitrarily getting lumped into college radio’s vast expanse. Enigmatic cult legends, The Feelies, like neighboring Manhattan antecedents, the Velvet Underground, influenced dozens of promising independent bands. Having an impact way beyond the few thousand copies winsome 1980 entrée Crazy Rhythms sold, these unsuspecting harbingers presaged ‘90s DIY bedroom pop a la Sebadoh, Liz Phair, and Jack Logan. Initially, singer-guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million fronted the trailblazing combo with bassist Keith Clayton and iconic Cleveland native, drummer Anton Fier (Golden Paliminos) in tow.

“Prior to the Feelies, Dave (Weckerman: percussion) and I were in (developmental precursors) Outkids. Bill joined on bass, the band broke up, then we auditioned singers,” Mercer recollects. “One was an Iggy clone obligated to demonstrate his stage persona, rolling around the floor while we jammed in audition. So I became singer by default.”

Though signed to archetypal punk label, Stiff Records, during its halcyon daze, the Feelies had a soothing beauty lost on rebellious punks. Too unhip, well adjusted, and low key for voguish punk acceptance, the Feelies weren’t as exciting live or inventively eccentric as friendly CBGB rivals Television and Talking Heads. They may’ve had a naïve, understated tone, but always provided stimulating six-string lattice and temperately variegated percussive elements (tom toms/ timpani/ claves/ snares/ cowbells) to push forward prudently rudimentary compositions.

Long-time Haledon resident Mercer affirms, “I was never a fan of large scale production. Lo-fi superceded the polished material. I never got into arty bands. They lost the essence of what rock and roll was.”

Inadvertently, the Feelies prefigured many ‘80s indie rock ideas on the timeless Crazy Rhythms. The huskily half-sung baritone timbre draping carefree “Original Love” foreshadowed Morrissey and spurred Violent Femmes’ nervously conversational assimilation “Blister In The Sun” while lengthy lexical epithet “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness” imbued Belle & Sebastian’s similar tonicity and drawn-out titular descriptiveness. The cautiously sustained tension of “Forces At Work” unwittingly informed slo-core progenitors Slint and still-vital Hoboken magnates Yo La Tengo.

Of the latter, Mercer says, “We became friends. (Leader) Ira (Kaplan) did an early Feelies interview. I played with them a few times, did the Maxwells’ Hanukkah shows, and may’ve done a Psychedelic Furs song with them. Ira got us into (paisley pop purveyors) Dream Syndicate, (de-constructive subversives) the Minutemen, and (post-punk mavericks) Husker Du. Apparently, Steve Wynn started the Dream Syndicate after seeing us at Whiskey Au Go-Go. They, in turn, influenced us.”

Perhaps even more profound, the garbled verbal mumble of “The High Road” found its way into college rock lynchpins R.E.M.’s precociously analogous utterances.

“Peter Buck (who’d co-produce The Good Earth) acknowledged our influence. In turn, they took us on a large-scale tour,” Mercer says. “We got good responses in places we’d played before: Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Bands like the Meat Puppets and Rain Parade claim Crazy Rhythms was influential.”

Inversely, Mercer’s subtle, effective, fey eloquence and easygoing manner knowingly beckon folk-bent nerd Jonathan Richman’s anthemic “Roadrunner” on Good Earth’s distended title track. And the quickly jangled beat-driven skitter of Beatles re-make “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide” reinforces Mercer’s Beatles fascination.

“My mom played some keyboards and always had the radio on,” he recalls. “She brought me the first Beatles record. My favorite early Beatles songs were inspired by Chuck Berry. I wasn’t aware of him, Bo Diddley or Buddy Holly prior to that. Right now, we do “You Can’t Do That” live ‘cause it has a cowbell part. People love that.”

Following a six year pause (when he drummed for subdued Eno-induced tranquilizers, the Trypes, ‘til his sister returned from college and took back her kit), belated ’86 sophomore set, The Good Earth, found Mercer and Million no longer one step ahead of the curve. The Feelies break no new ground and at this juncture look to proteges REM for inspiration, but the new-sprung songs are more uniformly lustrous, eloquently formal, and personal, even if they can’t invent mod vistas for green basement bands anymore. It’s as if they woke up and it was suddenly “Tomorrow, Today.” Yet the band’s completely focused, mature, and confident, as fresh acquisitions, bassist Brenda Sauter and drummer Stan Demeski (Luna), assist.

The difference might seem negligible, but they lean towards folk-pop instead of soft rock when drifting into the ozone. South of the Border rhythms and then-fashionable cow-punk riffs lend tertiary supplements. An increasingly noticeable plainspoken balm, comparable to Velvet Underground’s narcotic impulse, permeates pitter-pattered spangle “Last Roundup” and hastened jam “Slipping (Into Something).” Peculiarly, a recessive dramatic stillness first introduced on the debut’s angular “Moscow Nights” eerily inaugurates the wistful “Slipping.”

“It’s not silence. “Moscow Nights” (utilized) a foghorn, a boat in the distance, and wind,” Mercer instructs. “It’s like modern avant-garde composer, John Cage, who’d set the mood with buried sound affects to make you aware.  There was talk about remixing The Good Earth, to bring up the vocals, but that’d ruin the record’s charm.”

Lean acoustic strumming guides ‘88s It’s Only Life, where a reacquired innocence emerges. Now signed to major label, A & M, a more capricious, less serious tone conveys brightened whimsicality to resplendent contemplation “Too Much,” endlessly looped guitar-grooved “For Awhile,” and a sentimental cover of Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On.”

“It was easy mastering Velvets songs when I learned guitar. Their stuff was easy to play. I gravitated towards that, the Stooges, and Rolling Stones. I was big on jamming, like the Velvets and Stooges let loose improvising, but not as far as the Grateful Dead went.” He adds, “We got to do a Lou Reed tour of smaller theatres. He came up to play with us at a Philly radio station and then onstage. He didn’t want to sing. We did a medley with him just playing guitar. He reluctantly inched forward and took over the mike and convinced us to go back and do “Sweet Jane” very impromptu.”

Moreover, It’s Only Life’s inarguable standout, the contagiously labyrinthine resonator “Away,” proved to be a high water mark, soothingly advancing to a glistening radiance as Mercer’s nonchalant inflexions airily float inside its recurrently somniferous intoxication.

Mercer reminisces, “Jonathan Demme directed “Away’s” video. I had worked with him on the movie, Something Wild. We felt comfortable he’d do a good job. He contacted us with an idea about filming a concept. We were gonna call it “Night Of The Living Feelies,” where zombies file into our show and by the end, they’re all rejuvenated. But it never came about. Instead, we did it at Maxwell’s.”

The Feelies second A & M album, Time For A Witness, came out at a bad time, when the label got purchased by Universal. Made at New York’s huge Power Station in ’88, its glossy polish and sophisticated expressiveness caught critics’ ears, not fans.

Mercer reflects, “A & M didn’t drop us, but wouldn’t offer tour support. It’s hard to get to the next level. We had more people in the road crew than the band. We toured with Mike Watt’s Firehose. He had a word, jam-econo, doing tours on a budget.”

Million quit, moved to Florida, became a Disney World locksmith, and temporarily lost touch with Mercer, who’d go on to record with Weckerman in Wake Ooloo, a loud, aggressive duo predating the White Stripes that criss-crossed Weckerman’s side band, Yung Fu. Then came a ten-year break.

But time marches on and Mercer’s first solo effort, Wheels In Motion, brings forth a batch of guilelessly prospective tunes.

“I went through its lyrics and noticed I’d said the word ‘time’ an awful lot. You tend to look back when you have kids,” Mercer concedes. “Like The Good Earth, it’s acoustic, low key. Maybe that’s because I have bad tinnitus, ringing in the ears, from playing on stage, checking amps, and cranking volume in-studio to simulate live sound.”

Captured in his home studio, Wheels In Motion perpetually relies upon articulate guitar prowess and an underlying emotional shrewdness to guardrail its peppier moments. Faithful Feelies comrades’ Weckerman, Demeski, Fier, Sauter, and Vinny DeNunzio dress up a few cuts each. Buoyant wonderment “Whatever Happened” closely resembles the early Feelies precipitated hasten with its masqueraded passive-aggressive urgency. An unwaveringly upbeat swagger belies resigned tambourine-shaking jingle “Get It Back.”

But pensive lullabys, “Days To Come” and “Morning Lights,” possess a defiantly chimed circumspection matching the discreetly foreboding Casio organ undertone swamping “Here And Gone” and “Another Last Time.” Experiencing life within rock’s narrow margins, the resurgent Mercer needn’t manufacture the wintry discontent and disillusionment steadfastly pervading Wheels In Motion’s darker side, even if the 50-year-old seems entirely secure transmitting George Harrison’s pacifying psychedelic Indian mantra, “Within You, Without You.”

On a grander level, will Mercer ever receive deserved aboveground plaudits? Or will he carve out a factional niche the same way fellow Northern Jersey band the Wrens have done releasing similarly sporadic material. Either way, he’ll retain the dignity and respect much bigger artists sometimes begrudgingly get.