The Village Voice, during punk’s heyday, called The Feelies “the best underground band in New York.” But, outside of some tracks for Ork Records and a single (“Fa Ce La”) on Rough Trade, the New Jersey-based band didn’t release their debut album, the now classic Crazy Rhythms, until 1980. Meanwhile, they feverishly honed their precise, unique sound (two rhythm guitars, often two percussionists) on stage at CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, Maxwell’s (in Hoboken) and gathered a core following. Forty years since their debut, The Feelies still occasionally perform and, most recently, released a superb album, In Between. PKM spoke with The Feelies’ Glenn Mercer.
My introduction to the Feelies came about in the best way imaginable: at CBGB. I was living in Washington D.C. at the time (1978) and my best pal was living in New York, so I periodically caught the train up to NYC for debauched weekends and he’d return the favor on weekends in DC.
During one memorable visit, we headed to CBGB to see Richard Hell and the Voidoids, not expecting that there’d be an opening act. Out strolled four diminutive guys from New Jersey (present-day bass player Brenda Sauter was not yet in the band) who with little fanfare and no introduction began playing a hypnotizing blend of melody and rhythms interspersed with seemingly off-the-cuff lyrics more talked than sung (in the manner of Lou Reed). I barely caught their name. The Feelies. Hmmm, a reference to the multi-sensual cinema experience in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. They must be pretty brainy, I thought, or at least smarter than the average bear.
The Voidoids were great that night, deliriously sloppy and chaotic (that could describe the entire weekend), but the music of the Feelies stayed with me. When I got back to DC, I tried in vain to find recordings by them. They had none, I learned, not even a single. How could that be? The best band I’d seen on my several trips to NYC over those years and yet they had nothing to show for it? Finally, Rough Trade released the single “Fa Ce La” and Terry Ork, of Ork Records, briefly became the band’s manager.
Eventually, Stiff Records wised up and released Crazy Rhythms (1980), a catchy, jumpy debut album that still sounds fresh, exciting and excitable forty years later. To the two mainstays, guitarists/vocalists/songwriters Glenn Mercer and Bill Million have been added percussionists Stan Demeski and Dave Weckerman. Anton Fier played drums for the Feelies in 1978-79.
The Feelies would go on to release four albums before disbanding in 1991 only to reunite periodically over the years, resulting in two more studio albums, including the most recent In Between (Bar/None 2017), which retains that original band chemistry. They have been performing live in recent years, too. I saw them last November at Infinity Hall in Hartford and they have not lost a step.
PKM spoke with Glenn Mercer.
PKM: I was recently working on a story about Ork Records when I realized that the Feelies had a connection to Terry Ork, too. I made a mental note to write something about the Feelies when I finished the Ork piece. So maybe I’ll start by asking:
How and when did the Feelies come to Terry Ork’s attention? Did he catch you playing at CBGB and approach you?…..
Glenn Mercer: We played on “audition night” at CBGB and the sound man that night was Marc Abel. He approached us after our set and told us that he was friends with Terry and that he thought he would really like us. He mentioned that he planned to invite Ork to our next show. Luckily, we passed the audition and got a gig soon afterwards. Sure enough, Terry came to the show and Marc introduced us.
PKM: One of the old flyers printed on the Feelies’ web page has a caption at the top: “Ork Rock Presents.” Was Terry managing the band then? What did his managing consist of?…..
Glenn Mercer: He got us some exposure through his contacts—Peter Crowley, who booked Max’s Kansas City let us play there, and Max’s owner, Mickey Ruskin, started a new club called the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club and we got a show there as well. Terry also got us a gig in Boston. Back then, a band could usually only play CBGB or Max’s because they were in competition. But, because of Terry’s connection, we were able to play both. I remember that Terry put together a series at the Village Gate to showcase his favorite bands, and we opened a few of those shows, including one with the Patti Smith Group.
PKM: Richard Hell was telling me that Terry was kind of a “mystery figure,” and definitely not a business man. He was an aesthete who really liked what he liked, and Ork Records was done more out of enthusiasm and “benevolence” than out of any capitalist impulses. Is that how you and Bill Million perceived him?
Glenn Mercer: My guess is that Terry spent more on Ork Records than he earned. My impression is that he was motivated by the art, not the money. I remember that his lack of finances held him back from fulfilling his vision for the label and at one point started looking for investors.
PKM: Speaking of Richard, he was indirectly responsible for introducing me to the Feelies. On a visit to NYC from DC (where I lived then), I went to CBGB to see Richard Hell & the Voidoids in late 1978. The Feelies were the opening band. I was immediately captivated by the sound made by double rhythm guitars, bass and drums; it was really precise but also quite melodic. It sounded both familiar and yet entirely new, if that makes any sense. I hadn’t heard of the Feelies until that moment but made a point to seek out any recordings you might have. This was about the time your Ork Records single, “Fa Ce La” was released? How did that recording come about? Wasn’t it also issued on the Rough Trade label?
The unreleased Ork Records’ single version of “Fa Ce La”:
Glenn Mercer: Actually, the song didn’t come out on Ork, only Rough Trade. We did a few recordings for Ork but we kept evolving and refining our sound and really weren’t ready to release a record. We had a vision for what kind of statement we hoped to make and we felt we needed to wait for the right time.
PKM: That single, “Fa Ce La,” was the only recording the Feelies released before the 1980 debut album, Crazy Rhythms, wasn’t it? Are there any other early recordings that haven’t been released that we may hear some day?
Glenn Mercer: We included a couple songs on the Ork box set.
PKM: The Feelies played at CBGB fairly often and The Village Voice called you “the best underground band in New York,” but I got the impression that the band was not really a part of the punk mayhem. Was that partly due to the fact that you were from New Jersey? Did any of the band members live in New York at the time, or did you come over from New Jersey when you had gigs?
The Feelies at CBGB in 1978, playing “Crazy Rhythms”:
Glenn Mercer: We all lived in New Jersey initially. Anton lived in New York, but the rest of us stayed here. I’ve always felt that the environment where art is created will impact the creative process. I think Crazy Rhythms would sound a lot different if it had been written in a city surroundings, as opposed to a suburban setting. Also, the New York scene was filled with heavy drug use at the time and that part was not attractive at all.
PKM: In his excellent memoir, A Spy In The House of Loud, Chris Stamey writes about playing often at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, solo, with the dBs and Alex Chilton. Was that a regular Feelies venue too? Were there other places in New Jersey where you played back in the late 1970s? It seemed like a really great time to have a working band, given the number of venues that began opening up.
Glenn Mercer: Maxwell’s was our ‘home’ for sure. Steve Fallon, one of the owners, managed us for most of the ‘80s. We used to rehearse there. For a while, we tried to get a ’scene’ going at a local bar in Haledon that was across the street from my apartment. We did pretty well for a while, but ultimately weren’t able to sustain the momentum to reach a steady level of success.
PKM: Judging from your band’s name—I’m guessing it refers to the sensory-overloaded cinemas in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—the Feelies seem like a literate group. Is that just my own fantasy, or were/are the band members avid book readers?
Glenn Mercer: I think we are all fairly avid book readers, and yes, the name came from Brave New World.
PKM: You and Bill Million and current percussionist Dave Weckerman had a band before the Feelies called the Out Kids. Did the Out Kids play all original stuff? Are there any recordings from that time? I’m guessing you were influenced by the Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman, Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. Any others?
Glenn Mercer: The first version of the Out Kids had me and Dave, with a bassist named Bob and a singer named Rich. We played cover songs at first, then started introducing originals. Bill came in to replace the bassist, but soon after that we broke up. When we made the decision to keep playing without the singer, I was elected to sing since I had been the background vocalist. Also, Bill decided to switch to guitar. We also started to play mostly all originals at that point. Our influences were quite varied, starting with the British Invasion, then Folk Rock, Psychedelic West Coast music, Rock-a-billy, Surf music, Garage Rock, Big Bands, African drumming, Avant Garde, experimental music, Phillip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Kraftwerk.
PKM: The drums/percussion has always been an important mainstay of the Feelies’ seamless sound. How did the idea of two percussionists and two rhythm guitarists come about?
Glenn Mercer: My first band, while I was still in high school, had featured a song with a percussion break in the middle. That always went over big with the audience, so I think that was in my sub conscience at the time. But, more specifically, we asked our second drummer, Vinny, to play less cymbals because they clashed with the higher guitar frequencies. With less cymbals, space opened up in the arrangements and we decided to try filling it with percussion. As time went on, the interaction between the drums and percussion became more integrated into our sound. As far as the twin guitar aspect, we were always big fans of other bands, like the Stones, the MC5 and Velvet Underground, who featured creative guitar interplay.
PKM: Anton Fier was one of the early drummers for the Feelies? How did you hook up with him? There are a couple of nice clips of the Feelies at CBGB in 1978 on YouTube. Was he the drummer at that time?
Glenn Mercer: When Vinny left the band, we placed an ad in the Village Voice. Since that issue followed the one where we were featured on the cover, we received a lot of publicity and we started getting calls from drummers who read the article. Anton was from Ohio and there was a big connection between the music scene in Cleveland and Manhattan. When he called, he seemed to know about us and could relate to the references we cited in the ad, like the Velvets and Stooges. I think he was with us in ‘78.
PKM:Crazy Rhythms, the Feelies’ debut album, was released by Stiff Records in 1980. It was so different from the simple and loud music coming out of the NYC punk scene and maybe that’s why it took a while for its longer-lasting appeal to connect with people.
Did you feel that, when the band went on hiatus after that album didn’t lead to bigger things with Stiff Records, you’d eventually get back together down the road? Or did it feel like the end of the Feelies?
Glenn Mercer: Our relationship with Stiff wasn’t the reason we stopped playing, although that was a factor. We stopped when Anton left the band to pursue other interests. He wasn’t happy with our schedule and he wanted to play more frequently.
PKM: During the various hiatuses the band has taken over the years, the members all seem to stay busy with other musical projects, sometimes apart, sometimes together but under different names (I’m thinking of Yung Wu, which put out an excellent album in 1987).
“Shore Leave,” from Yung Wu’s 1987 album:
You, for example, have released two solo albums of instrumental music. You have also composed music for films and TV shows. What are some of the “non-Feelies” projects you’re most proud of?
Glenn Mercer: As far as my solo records, only one is instrumental, the other has vocals. Also, we only composed music for Smithereens. All of our other film and TV soundtrack music has been licensed from our catalog.
A scene from Smithereens, accompanied by “Original Love” by The Feelies:
PKM: What keeps you and Bill, Brenda, Stan and Dave, coming back together periodically?
Glenn Mercer: We enjoy it! There’s really no reason to stop at this point. We’re fortunate to be able to continue. We’re still able to perform at a high standard and we still have fans that want to see us.
The title track from The Feelies’ 2017 In Between album:
PKM: The short tour at the end of last year seemed to go really well. I know you all have other commitments, professional and no doubt family related, but is there a possibility of another Feelies album in the future? And more short touring?
Glenn Mercer: We don’t really play short tours. We play weekends, spread out over the year. Bill lives in Florida and Brenda is in Pennsylvania, so our time together is limited in that regard. I have some new songs, but we take a long time putting an album together.
PKM: Have you written about your adventure/ventures in the music world? Any plans for a book along the lines of what Stamey wrote?
Glenn Mercer: I’m too private of a person to want to share anything with the public, so I don’t think I’ll be writing a book.
The title track from The Feelies’ Only Life (1988) album: