When the Feelies splintered after playing a show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken on July 5, 1991, few knew then if this time it was for real and/or how long it might be before the group, originally incarnated in 1976 in North Haledon, New Jersey, might again be onstage together. There had been four years between when high school chums singer/guitarist Glenn Mercer and guitarist Bill Million, along with bassist Keith Clayton and drummer Anton Fier, had put out their heralded debut, Crazy Rhythms, and when they returned with a new line-up rounded out by percussionist Dave Weckerman (who had played in initial versions of the band), bassist Brenda Sauter, and drummer Stanley Demeski. It was this line-up that recorded The Good Earth and Only Life, two records with a near perfect alchemy of purified Velvets jangle, golden, folksome strum, and propulsive rhythms, and released the only slightly less brilliant Time for a Witness.
As it turned out, it would be another 17 years before all five members played together again, opening for Sonic Youth last year at a free July 4th show. More shows followed and are scheduled for the immediate future, including an appearance at All Tomorrow’s Parties New York, where they will play Crazy Rhythms start to finish, and this summer will see reissues of that record as well as The Good Earth by Bar/None. Could this be the beginning of a second/third life for the Feelies? Who knows, but it’s probably best to treasure every moment of the band’s reunion as if it was their last.
I drove out to the wilds of New Jersey to talk to Mercer and Weckerman about the Feelies’ past, present and future.
It sounds like Thurston Moore asking you to play prompted the reunion, but you had been talking about it for some time. Would it would have happened just as soon if he hadn’t asked you or would you have been talking about it for another three years?
Glenn Mercer: We had offers that have increased in the last few years. A lot of it was just timing, working it out with everyone’s schedule. They kind of made us an offer that was hard to refuse. They flew Bill up, got a hotel room, provided equipment—they made it real easy for us.
Were there any pressures outside of the band?
GM: No, not really. It was more like interest than pressure. It’s easy nowadays, with the internet, to keep tabs on your fanbase, so we had a pretty good idea that there was a pretty strong fanbase still. It seemed like the timing was right.
Were there things within the band that needed to be resolved for this to happen?
GM: No, not band stuff. There were personal things in Bill’s life. He had a house built and had a lot of problems with the contractor. Something he thought would take a year took three years, and he actually got involved in a lawsuit. His son was real ill for a while. I think he didn’t want to do it unless he could have 100% focus, and those things wouldn’t permit him to have total focus.
Reunions seem to be the trend these days. Everyone from the original Dinosaur Jr. to My Bloody Valentine, American Music Club—seems like everyone is getting back together. Were you at all worried about being perceived as trying to cash in? Did anything like that ever enter your mind?
GM: No, not me. We had some ideas for t-shirts, and Bill said he didn’t want to do any t-shirts because they might give the wrong impression. We’re really not playing enough for it to look like we’re cashing in. We’re not doing a big tour; we did about eight or 10 shows and we’ll probably do about the same this year.
How would you gauge the reaction thus far?
GM: It’s been great.
Are you enjoying it?
Dave Weckerman: Yeah! I said the other night that I’ll play anywhere except Somalia.
And you’re doing Crazy Rhythms in its entirety for All Tomorrow’s Parties?
GM: Yeah, that was their idea.
Does that record stick out from the other ones to you?
GM: Actually, the offer was for either Crazy Rhythms or The Good Earth. We talked about it, and Bill pointed out that it would play better as a set to do Crazy Rhythms. A lot of the songs on The Good Earth are acoustic, and we’re required to do it in order, so there would be a lot of switching back and forth and it wouldn’t flow as well.
To some extent, that seems to be the record people remember you by. Is that irksome to you?
GM: Well, when we play live, we really don’t do that many songs from that record. It’s like we had an audience in the ’70s, but our audience in the ’80s, for them The Good Earth—or any of those records—they’re more endearing to them, I think. The college crowd that we played to when we toured are more familiar with The Good Earth and Only Life than Crazy Rhythms.
DW: Like Glenn was saying, Crazy Rhythms was a different era than The Good Earth. When Crazy Rhythms came out, a scene for that music only existed in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Cleveland. By the time The Good Earth came out, there was more of an audience for it, especially in the heartland of America because of bands like REM and the Replacements, who had their scenes in the heartland. We could tour and play small college towns, and the college kids wanted to hear that. But in 1980, when Crazy Rhythms came out, they were probably still listening to Styx and Foreigner in college. Between 1980 and 1984, there was a big difference in musical tastes.
Will Keith and Anton be involved with playing Crazy Rhythms?
DW: We were entertaining the thought once, though.
I only recently realized how long you had been involved with the band.
DW: When the band started, it was just me, Bill and Glenn, like a power-trio. We had a group called the Outkids, which had a flamboyant kind of guy as the singer. Bill played bass, Glenn played guitar, and I played drums. We had an incident where the singer quit. He said, “Well, let Glenn sing then,” and we said, “Okay.” We were left as a trio, but Bill and Glenn decided to mesh their guitar work and we got a bass player, who didn’t last very long, but that’s when we first played out as the Feelies, around 1976, the bicentennial.
The name “The Feelies”—where did that come from and was it at all a reaction to such sentiments of the time as Johnny Rotten singing “no feelings?”
DW: No, not at all. It comes from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Instead of going to the movies, you go to the feelies, where you experience sensory things going on in the movie through your seat.
GM: It’s a little bit of an alternate, virtual reality kind of idea.
Yeah, but in the context of music at the time, you have other bands with names like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, and here you are called the Feelies, which has much softer connotations. Did that ever enter your mind?
DW: No, because those bands weren’t an influence on the Feelies’ sound at all. I remember around that same time, summer of 1976, the first Ramones album came out, and I bought it and brought it over to Bill’s house. He listened to it for about three songs and turned to me and said, “You paid $4.98 for this?” and took it off. We all did agree on certain things, though, like what Brian Eno was doing on Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). Glenn had introduced me to the music of the Velvet Underground that I didn’t know existed. I knew about the banana album and White Light/White Heat and Loaded, but I didn’t know the black, third album existed.
In that sense, did you feel out of step with the times?
DW: It depends on what strata you mean. As far as what was going on in New York with Talking Heads and Television, no. We felt like we were trying to aspire to that kind of stripped down sound as opposed to what was commercially big at the time. As far as Bad Company and Peter Frampton, we were definitely out of step with that stuff, but proudly so.
GM: There were plenty of underground bands that we were into, like Pere Ubu and Wire, and gaining the notoriety of the Sex Pistols wasn’t anything we were trying to accomplish.
You were mentioning before that you had more of a crowd in the mid-80s. Do you feel like your music fit in with the contemporaries of that time better?
GM: There just seemed to be more of a network of scenes throughout the country that didn’t really exist in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It really would have been impossible for us, at the time of Crazy Rhythms, to do a cross-country tour because we would have had to pass through the Midwest where there was nowhere to play. By the mid-80s, college radio had made it into a network throughout the country.
DW: I read an REM autobiography, and they really paved the way. They would play out-of-the-way colleges and bars where people just wanted to hear the Grateful Dead and “Whipping Post.” Eventually they won over college towns in the early ’80s so by the mid-80s, that’s what they wanted to hear.
Do you think your music was more attuned to those tastes at that point? To my ears, The Good Earth has more of a, for lack of a better word, Americana, folk influence.
GM: Crazy Rhythms was really a New York–influenced record, but with The Good Earth, we had started to listen to bands like the Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, REM, The Replacements—bands from places other than big cities. In general, the tone of the times was geared toward a small town way of life as an influence on music.
Driving around here, it seems more small town than big city. Did that feel more natural to you?
GM: Well, yeah...
DW: I look at Crazy Rhythms as having a suburban sound, like north Jersey. It almost sounds like blenders and lawnmowers and things. A lot of the percussion reminds me of insects chewing on things, little clicks. Whereas The Good Earth, if you drive north of here for 20 minutes, you’re in the country, and it’s a different way of life. But it’s still New Jersey as far as I’m concerned.
On both The Good Earth and Only Life, many of the songs seem to deal with travel or some sort of restlessness, almost tapping into the spirit of On the Road or John Steinbeck. Were those themes purposeful?
GM: It’s what we were feeling at the time. When we did Crazy Rhythms, Stiff wanted us to do a tour, but we just wanted to play around here and stay home. But by the time of the second record, the opportunity just seemed to be expanding. It was inspiring to think that across the country there was a scene going on. Each town would have its own bands. Bands tended to support each other, go see them play when they came through town and make contacts that way.
Do you think the band’s sound would have evolved the same way had you not taken that time off and done side projects in between those two records?
GM: It’s hard to say, I guess. It’s all kind of wrapped up together and it’s hard to define what influenced what and what inspired us to do something. To me, there’s a thread that runs through all the records and that basically comes from that they all start the same with acoustic guitar and a vocal melody on top of it. Even on Crazy Rhythms we had a little acoustic guitar.
DW: I’ve heard people say that The Good Earth sounds the way it does because Peter Buck coproduced it, but the songs were all done before he ever got there or we even knew we were going to work with him.
I know you had a lot difficulties with Stiff. Was your situation that much better when you came back or were you better at dealing with record company bullshit?
GM: Well, we recorded The Good Earth for a friend, Steve Fallon, who ran Maxwell’s and had a record company (Coyote), so we knew we’d have a good relationship right from the get-go. Any reservations we had from the Stiff situation, we knew we’d be able to avoid by working with someone we knew real well.
But then you signed with A&M. What made you decide to do that?
GM: Coyote really had the deal with A&M. But all the bands that came up with us at that time period were signing major label deals, and the majors were actively seeking out bands. It seemed like a mutually good situation. I realize, though, that all the bands that signed to major labels broke up shortly afterwards. We felt like we had taken it as far as we could on an indie label, so if we wanted to go to the next level, we had to sign to a major label.
Given all the problems you had with Stiff, some of the features I’ve read from the time also portray you as being a little bit obstinate. Do you feel like there’s things that you did where you might have been shooting yourself in the foot?
DW: I’ve heard people say that too, but I feel like we did everything that we were asked to do. We were asked to be in a movie, we did it. We were asked to tour, we did it. We were asked to be on David Letterman and do videos and we did it. The only thing we did once refuse... they wanted us to be on some kiddie show, and we felt like that’s not what the band was about. They Might Be Giants ended up doing it, and yeah, they’re like a kiddie song band. We’d scare the little kids or have nothing to say to them. And one time they asked us to open for New Order, and we didn’t think that would go well. But otherwise we did everything the record label required of us.
In general, knowing what you know now, are there things you would have done differently?
GM: No, I think we achieved what we set out to do. We might not have had the biggest number of fans, but the fans that we had were loyal and we meant a lot to them. It was never about the number of people we reached, but how deeply we were able to affect them.
DW: To me, when the Feelies played their last show in 1991, it was the most prophetic, perfect timing because what we considered in the ’80s to be “alternative” was about to change into just another version of arena rock when Nirvana and Pearl Jam came out. To me, they were the same as Guns N’ Roses. They might have been more downplayed and wearing different clothes, but I hear Robert Plant vocals and flashy guitar solos. I’d heard it before, but the industry manipulated the masses to believe that was what was “alternative.”
So you don’t think you would have fared well?
DW: Of course not! What bands did that stuck to their guns? It killed off the Pixies and the Replacements. They should have been big bands, and Nirvana killed off any notion of them being big, although that Replacements soundalike band, the Goo Goo Dolls, they made it big.
Talking about the break-up, it sounds like Bill instigated it. But if he hadn’t, would the band have broken up anyways?
GM: I don’t know that we ever really “broke up.” We looked at it as taking a break—it just lasted a lot longer than any of us would have thought. Between Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth, there was a pretty long break too...
But this time it’s been 17 years.
GM: Yeah, just about.
It sounded like he quit and moved to Florida. That sounds like it has more finality.
DW: We thought we were going to play again, but then as time went on, it seemed like maybe we weren’t. So Glenn and I started Wake Ooloo, Stanley joined Luna, and Brenda got married and started a band with her husband (Wild Carnation). Bill got a good job offer in Florida so we couldn’t blame him. But now it’s working out. He gets a lot time off and he seems enthusiastic about coming all the way up here and doing these shows and rehearsing. He seems more enthusiastic than he did in 1991, when I think he had a lot of doubts about a future career in rock & roll, which is only practical. Now he doesn’t have to look at it like his meat and potatoes income.
Did you feel like the band had run its course at that time or that a break was needed anyway?
GM: Yeah, and A&M had gotten bought out by a big conglomerate and all the people we had made a relationship with were gone. And all the new people didn’t really know about the band and didn’t appreciate our way of working.
The one time I saw you play back in the day was opening for Lou Reed, and I was just wondering, being big Velvet Underground fans, how was that for you and was he aware of your cover of “What Goes On?”
GM: Yeah, that’s probably what prompted it. We had been asked by a radio station on Long Island to play at their Christmas party, and as an incentive, they said that Lou Reed was going to be there. Bill jokingly said we’d do it if Lou played with us. Someone at the station who knew him asked him. He was aware of us because of the cover and he said he’d do it, but he didn’t want to sing. We started with me singing and him playing guitar over my shoulder. I felt ridiculous about it, so I motioned for him to come up and he took over. Through that we got asked to do the tour, and he came out and played with us on the last night of the tour.
DW: I used to go see Lou Reed all the time. I saw Hall and Oates get booed off the stage opening for Lou Reed at the Capital Theater. I was nervous, but we went over well. He treated us really nice—well, as nice as Lou Reed can be.
Do you feel like you have a legacy to live up to?
DW: The Feelies have a very unique sound, and I don’t know too many bands that sound like that. I don’t think the Feelies sounded like a punk band, or the Velvet Underground or the Modern Lovers, and I don’t think there’s any new bands that sound like us.
What do you have as far as plans for the Feelies? Are you going to record a new record?
GM: We hope to. That’s one of the things we talked about when we first decided to play again, to do something more than just a reunion, something more than just nostalgia. You can’t remove that element from it, but that shouldn’t be the focus of it. We agreed that if we were going to do it, the goal would be to make another record.
How’s that been progressing?
GM: Slow, but that’s not unusual for us.