Interview: Glenn Mercer of the Feelies
They seemingly came out of nowhere (far north NJ to be exact) in the mid-70's, but by the time the Feelies stopped playing together (never officially breaking up) in 1991, their legacy loomed large enough to have not only rock critics slobbering over them, but also fans like R.E.M. (Peter Buck co-produced their second album), Moby (who lists them as an influence on his MySpace page), and Weezer (who mimicked the cover of the Feelies' 1980 debut Crazy Rhythms for their own "Blue Album" debut).
Back when the Feelies first released Crazy Rhythms, they were a gotham phenom, known for cryptic lyrics, tense sound, unwound guitars and insistent drums. They'd gone through a bassist and a pair of drummers (including co-founder Dave Weckerman, who was in and out of the early incarnations, and Vinnie DiNunzio) before settling on the foursome immortalized in the nerd-prep portrait that graced the cover of their seminal first release: guitarist/singers Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, bassist Keith DiNunzio (Vinnie's brother), and drummer Anton Fier.
But just as they were first gaining critical momentum, the band collapsed when their label lost confident in their commercial potential. They went even further underground, regrouping under names like the Willies and the Trypes, before emerging again in the mid-80's with a new line-up of Mercer, Million, Weckerman, bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stan Demeski. In 1986, this new roster released the more-relaxed The Good Earth and then signed to A&M Records for Only Life (1988) and Time For A Witness (1991). But fate had a way of crapping on them, and things fell apart again when Million left the band and the music biz. Demeski wound up in Luna; Mercer and Weckerman formed new bands Wake Ooloo and Sunburst.
But just after Mercer put out a solo album last summer (Wheels in Motion) featuring almost the whole Feelies family (no Million), there was a surprise announcement that the mid-'80s line-up was reuniting. Fitting, then, that their first show was planned for this July 4, opening for Sonic Youth at Central Park SummerStage. "When the Feelies initially started, we played on national holidays only," says Mercer. "We thought of a show as like a celebration." A pair of warm-up shows at Maxwell's have since been added, the first of which takes place tonight.
I recently spoke with Mercer on the phone about the reunion, their unreleased material, future touring plans, and the possibility of a new Feelies album (the answer: maybe).
How did the recent reunion come about?
Going back to about 2001, I contacted Bill since we had some business that we had to deal with. I hadn't spoken to him in a long time. Maybe 5-10 years, something like that... But we had a real nice talk and one of the things we talked about was at some point in the future, getting together to play. He thought it was a great idea and I guess we just kept in touch and talked about it over the course of about five years, just trying to determine the best way, the best scheduling for everybody. We had a bunch of offers come through and it seemed like they'd been increasing recently so... It was really just a matter of everything lining up, with everyone's schedule and I guess the fact that this offer to play with Sonic Youth happened to be during the summer, kind of made it a little bit easier.
Another thing was that we realized that if it was ever going to happen, we really needed to make a strong effort to get it done. There's a lot of deal with as Bill lives in Florida and Brenda lives in Pennsylvania now.
Was that the main difficulty in trying to reunite?
Yeah, basically... Bill also had a lot of personal things that he had to deal with. It seemed that as soon as the possibility might exist, then something would happen and give way. But this is the first time that everything really cleared up and that made it possible for us to do it.
Who approached the band about doing the July 4th show? Also, did the band decide to do the two Maxwell's shows as a kind of warm-up for the July 4th show?
The two questions are somewhat related. We were approached by Todd [Abramson] from Maxwell's, who knows Sonic Youth [SY drummer Steve Shelley co-owns Maxwell's], and he explained that they had requested us for the 4th. We thought it would be a good idea to play a few shows prior and the Feelies have always had a special relationship with the club. We played our last show there in '91, we rehearsed there for awhile, and we played extended-run gigs every summer for some time as well, so it was a natural choice for us.
On your recent solo record, you had just about every ex-member of the Feelies. At some point, did you think that it might have become a Feelies record otherwise or did that never cross your mind?
Oh, it did, it did. When I had spoken to Bill, that's one of the things we had talked about. But it just wasn't a good time for him.