An act that many have been holding their breath for the return of for as long as they’ve been absent from the stage are Haledon, New Jersey’s The Feelies. Arriving in the late 70’s, and releasing one of the first great new wave/post-punk albums of the early 80’s (truly. no hyperbole here) in Crazy Rhythms, The Feelies were the Velvet Underground and Television’s Jersey geeky cousins. An enthralling percussive ride, full of jerky rhythms and wild melodic guitar interplay, the sound of The Feelies would evolve over the years, drifting away from the arty CBGB crowd toward a more refined pastoral ‘college rock’ sound that typified an era when bands like R.E.M. and Camper Van Beethoven loomed large.
The last Feelies album Time For A Witness was released in 1991, with their albums remaining out of print and highly sought after over the years, with occasional rumours of reissues, that would eventually gather momentum when word arrived of the band reforming, seemingly at the whim of Sonic Youth, who like everybody else that adored The Feelies, felt enough time had passed. Proving that this reunion was no cash-focussed nostalgia jaunt the band took time out last year to enter the studio to record their fifth album, Here Before. Speaking with Static’s Chris Berkley at home in New Jersey, Glenn Mercer of The Feelies explained the events that lead to the reformation and the eventual recording of Here Before.
Did you ever think that in 2011 you’d be sitting back talking about a new Feelies album?
Didn’t give it much thought for a while, no.
Did it ever seem like the band would be reactivated?
Well it could’ve gone either way. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I think the fact that we never had a big fight and never really broke up in a traditional sense, we just kinda stopped playing. We never burned any bridges, so that possibility existed. The only real stumbling block was that Bill (Million) lived in Florida. So we stopped playing then.
It’s an interesting thing to think about even now, Glenn, as most bands can exist in different cities, thanks to the internet and Skype and all those kinds of things. It seems to stop less bands rehearsing and keeping together.
They do, but it is difficult though. We don’t play nearly as much as we’d like, but when we do we try to be pretty efficient about it.
You guys all weren’t ready to move to Florida yet? You weren’t going to have The Feelies playing retirement homes down there?
Maybe some day, I don’t know. Not yet.
The signs that you guys were getting reactivated were kinda easy to see. You did those Sonic Youth supports a couple of years ago, and then the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, so was it a nice ease back into being in the band to say ‘yes’ to a couple of shows and see how they went?
Well, when we first discussed reuniting, we were all in agreement that was wanted to have something other than pure nostalgia. We realised that would be an element to it, a big element, but we didn’t want it to be the only element. We wanted to make sure we were a fully functioning band, and the only way to exist like that is write more songs and record. So it was something we talked about right from the beginning and I think for the first couple of years, we were pretty content with just playing shows, and we started writing songs when it looked like we had enough and had to make a decision to put the live shows on the back burner so to speak, so that we could focus all of our energy on recording another record. It didn’t seem possible to do both at the same time.
It must’ve been interesting for you to look at a lot of other bands, and I guess people who were probably your contemporaries at the time who did get back together just for the sake of nostalgia, and must‘ve had much better paydays than they did when they were together the first time.
Well that’s ok if that’s what they wanna do, but for us it’s always been about creating music and recording music. It’s really our favourite part of the whole thing. It’s what drives us and motivates us to do it.
It certainly seems for all the name-checking The Feelies have gotten over the years being a cult or underground band hasn’t paid any bills, so you have to be in it for the right reasons, I guess.
Yeah, pretty much. Nowadays the way the business is, nobody’s buying records anymore. They don’t want to pay for music, so we’re not in it for the money.
Part of the charm, or maybe even the secret, with The Feelies stuff seems to be a bit of naivety about the way you guys played, when you first started out on those early records. Were you a bit worried that it might be like trying to capture lightning in a bottle, trying to get back to where you were or even a Feelies sound once you guys all got back together?
We didn’t give it much though, but once we started playing we knew that the sound would be there. We pretty much approached our instruments in the same way we always have, so if even our playing has gotten any more refined it’s still the same approach we take to how we play and how we interact. So I don’t think it could’ve helped sounding any other way.
So is there a different mindset you get in when you go to play a Feelies song or is it just the fact that it’s those certain people in a room. Did you have to kinda prepare yourself for how The Feelies were going to sound when you started to do this record?
No, there wasn’t much thinking at all. It was very intuitive and organic and natural and effortless, really.
Was there also less pressure in the fact that you had had a reasonably disjointed timeline before anyway, because there was six years between Crazy Rhythms and then the follow up. So you were kinda used to work what not all bands would consider a regular pace?
I think that’s part of it and also that each record we made had a slightly different sound to it, so we knew it had to reflect where we were at the time we mad it so, likewise this record reflects where we’re at now. The basic approach is just to be truthful and honest about how we did it.
There are a few references to the passing of time in the lyrics on Here Before. Were you conscious of marking that lyrically?
I think as the more time goes on, the more you have to reflect on, and I guess thinking about the fans and the friends it’s only natural it would come through in the lyrics.
There seems a bit more of a contentment as well, I guess. Like what we were saying early, you can’t be in it for the money, really, and the fact that you guys all got back together, and as hokey as it sounds, did it kinda mean that you were making a record for the right reasons and you feel that when you were listening to the album?
Well I think that comes through. Hopefully that comes through, the excitement that we felt when we were making it. I think also that it does have its moments of edginess too, not all kinda mellow.
Did you deliberately try and leave some mistakes in so that it wasn’t all ‘sitting on a porch, finger-plucking?’
Yeah, I guess on our Time For a Witness record we had started to use pro-tools a little bit and we were very careful to use it sparingly and with this record again, with the advancement in technology, it just made more sense to do it that way. We just tried to record it the same way we would with analogue.
You can’t be a complete luddite. Time’s moved on and I’m sure tapes were a lot more expensive than when The Feelies were making their first record, so you can’t not use pro-tools either.
That too, and just the time, we were very limited in our time and in our budget. It was certainly a lot easier to queue things up. We knew we probably would be able to finish the record in the studio, so I was able to do some recording here in my house. I have a studio in my basement, so I was able to record here and then transfer those tracks to the master tape and we wouldn’t have been able to do anything like that in previous situations.
It must be weird thinking back to the way you might’ve made, especially the first record, did it still seem now that it was made pretty quickly and intuitively as well, or does it seem like a very different era?
That was probably our longest record to make, at least close to the longest, and it wasn’t that easy. We used a studio that really wasn’t suited for rock n’ roll. It was a real big place that had recorded a lot of jazz and big bands, and the engineer really wasn’t that savvy with recording electric guitar. We had a lot of problems getting a good guitar sound, so consequently we ended up recording a lot of it direct with the idea that we would feed it back through an amp when we mixed in a different studio, we found that it had a certain edge and a certain tone I guess that kinda fit, so we decided to leave a lot of the direct guitars as they were.
So almost by default on that record you got The Feelies sound…
That’s one component of it, there’s a lot of things that contribute to the sound. The interaction of the rhythm is the main thing, probably. The role that the drums play, the interaction between the guitars. A lot of different elements really.
The other things is that on nearly every previous The Feelies album, you guys have rolled out a cover, you’ve done The Beatles, The Velvets and The Stooges, if the 20 year gap between this one and the last one, had you saved up enough songs that you didn’t need to have to do a cover version on this record?
Yeah, that’s pretty much it. In the past we put covers on mostly to fill up the record because we didn’t have enough songs, but this one we did.
I thought you might’ve been running out of classic artists to get round to covering. I thought the list might be getting shorter and shorter.
We still do cover songs and we still learn a new one at least once a year, I think.
Well I’m hoping that if you guys are back in business then there’s still room for an Australian band to covered by The Feelies in the second half of your career. You should be looking at doing an Easybeats song or something like that.
Maybe. Like INXS maybe…
We’ll draw the line there, thanks.
Interview broadcast on Static on 28/04/11. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).