The Feelies singer/guitarist Glenn Mercer ruminates on the 30th anniversary of Only Life, his band’s classic album, which became the apex of ‘80s college rock
Right around the last week of September, you feel/smell that little slight chill that suddenly reads “winter” in your brain, rather than “cool breeze.” You look down and notice your foot dragging through a few leaves; look up, and the scattered dark clouds don’t look like rain, just clouds. And, with those last shreds of summer yearning, you concede that autumn is upon us. And for me at least, the very next thought is usually, I’m gonna go home and listen to the Feelies tonight. Next thought: Where’d I put that throw blanket?
Mind you, I like to think of “autumnal music” almost as a genre. It’s fun, if not a little melancholic, to think of albums you return to when the weather starts to turn. Winter, you sink into Joy Division; Spring, some ol’ power pop; and by June, I’m just cranking the Dead Boys. But instead of some clickbait “Top 10 Autumnal Albums” list, I figured let’s just go straight to number one, the Feelies’ 1988 masterstroke, Only Life. That number one turned 30 this year.
Only Life, released in 1988 on A&M Records, starts off with the titular tune, a kind of concession: “What does it mean / What can you do about it?” But, with singer/guitarist Glenn Mercer’s cagey, Reed-y voice, it’s more shrugging than fatalistic, and goes from there into an embrace of what you might appreciate about the fall – when you are kind of tired of all the fun you’re supposed to constantly have during the humid summer, and maybe now you just want to, oh, I don’t know, lie on the couch, look out at the changing leaves, and listen to the Feelies.
“Look out your window / they’re having a ball, having a party / Well, come inside / you can do what you like… / You could lock your doors, close all your windows and hide away.” And that, by 1988, is kind of what the Feelies had done.
With their 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms, the band set themselves apart as an interesting, if less caustic, more weirdly playful aside of the post-punk movement (and a template for the “critic’s favorite”). Some of the record was ingeniously utilized in the classic, 1982 L.E.S.-centric punk flick, Smithereens. But the band themselves did not align with the ubiquitous façade of the early ‘80s NYC downtown scene. These were four bespectacled, post-grad looking fellows from New Jersey who, on the surface anyway, didn’t seem to be utilizing constant cocaine or nightlife networking. And then… nothing, for six years.
By the time their second album, The Good Earth, ambled onto college radio in 1986, it was apparent from the long absence and front cover photo that the band went on more than just a hiatus, and had seemingly taken to country living (or at least Hoboken). And the fresh air must’ve swept through their amps, giving their mantra-like guitar lines a fresh jangle that might’ve been tweaked too by producer Peter Buck (R.E.M.). They’d added a harmonizing female guitarist and another percussionist, and were back on tour honing their new status as college rock mainstays.
So when Only Life landed, the band sounded confident in their living and sonic situations—not confident like cocky or caustic, just more seasoned, production much brighter like that fall wind. And their drooped-shoulder demeanor and ever-ascendant / fading-out song structures still left room for mystery, the kind of slowly sprawling cool that rolls along from October to December. But like the end of the season, the songs here get tougher and windier at turns.
After “It’s Only Life” opens, “Too Much” thumps right in, and you know the percussion in general is going to hold a bigger place in the mix than the band had previously preferred. The riff goes from instantly memorable hook to layered jangle, and that tact doesn’t quit all album either. The rambling “Deep Fascination” feels like you’re heading down a tree-lined, lamppost-lit, off-campus side street toward a corner house show, hearing a band’s guitar tones rising, your anticipation with it. Then “Higher Ground” is a kind of purpose statement about finding something more meaningful in life.
Lyrically, Mercer divulged a bit from his “college rock” era peers who employed either gawkish humor (Violent Femmes, Big Dipper, Great Plains) or almost surrealist lyrical obfuscation (Pylon, R.E.M.) as a way to loosen the chains of the increasingly didactic punk world from whence they rose earlier in the decade. Mercer’s plaintive lyrics were a connection to their own punk roots, but he was thinking longer term.
The Feelies specifically wanted out of the stringent hardcore zeitgeist so prominent in the NYC scene of the time. “Bring back the innocent laws,” says Mercer in the still energetic but acoustic-led “The Undertow.” “There are new places to explore.”
The strolling-then-speedy flurry of “For Awhile” and the gleaming if frantic “The Final Word” feel like a bike ride up a hill and then racing down into the final three songs which may be the best of this no filler album. The searing “Too Far Gone” perfectly recasts their earliest jitters into this new, more sinewy role of modern rockers. “Away,” the album’s only single, brings together the Feelies’ melodic nervousness and gorgeous latter-day mastery of glowing guitar tones. Then they add in a fun flurry of subtle, incremental rhythmic pieces, leading to the perfect one-word chorus that defines their whole musical aim: moving up and away from dissolution into… oh shoot, it’s snowing.
Finally a cover from the third Velvet Underground album, “What Goes On,” which at first listen seemed too obvious, but distinguishes itself as a heftier, faster take, and maybe some endpoint of the 1980s Velvet Underground revival of which the Feelies were a major part.
Like many a great cult band, the Feelies’ timing was a little off. Their 1980 debut retains a certified new wave import, but at the time landed in a darker, late ‘70s NYC post-punk milieu. When The Good Earth arrived in 1986, the “college rock” that the Feelies had inspired with their debut was in full swing, mostly coming from non-coastal towns, with R.E.M. as the leading light. Their guitarist Peter Buck expressed humility about having the pleasure of producing The Good Earth. But the Feelies moved in an East Coast indie world that was getting harder and noisier, with bands like Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Husker Du, and laying the groundwork for what was happening in the Pacific Northwest. So while Only Life could be considered the apex of 1980s college rock – and a big influence on indie rock in the latter-90s – there it was, a little out of time again.
Ironically, the band’s mid-80s temporal retreat to an imagined leaves-changing landscape did not turn into retirement from the music scene. Instead, the Feelies have turned into a lifer touring band – the indie rock equivalent of AC/DC, and with a not dissimilar sonic consistency. Their latest records show no drop off in their ability to come up with consistently warm jangly riffs, subtly complex rhythms, and staring out the window musings.
We recently called up Glenn Mercer to muse about Only Life.
PKM: Before we go way back, how was the Velvet Underground covers show you did a couple weeks ago (in conjunction with the opening of “The Velvet Underground Experience” exhibit in Manhattan)?
Glen Mercer: It was fun, went well. We had been approached by a booking agent somehow connected to that exhibit, and they were looking for bands that were influenced by the Velvet Underground. And originally, they had a space in the gallery that was set aside for performances. We were into it, but that would be only a week after a three-night stand we did in Brooklyn, so we thought, who’s gonna come after we just sold out three nights in Brooklyn? You might have a hard time drawing a crowd, we should do something different. So we suggested just doing a set of Velvet Underground songs, and then that got postponed, and they couldn’t use that venue. So since we were already halfway there, had put in all this rehearsal for it, that same booker connected with the Bright Eagle, and we did it there. And it was fun. We had rehearsed 20 songs, and did 18. Fans have seen us do Velvets songs before, so we wanted to do some they weren’t expecting. So we did “Story of My Life,” “New Age.” Brenda sang “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” ”Head Held High” –we might’ve done that once back in the ‘80s. “I Heard Her Call My Name,” and we did “Sweet Jane” – surprisingly we’d only did that once with Lou Reed awhile back. Anyway, almost half of the set we had never done before.
PKM: Okay, so what was the reason for the six years between the 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms, and The Good Earth?
Glen Mercer: Well we just kind of stopped playing with that lineup. [Percussionist] Anton [Fier] got busy with the Lounge Lizards, and he wanted to play often. We were just the opposite. Just weren’t on the same page, and he just left. So then we were all involved with other bands – the Trypes, the Willies, Yung Wu. We kept busy, but never really said this is the end, just got involved with other stuff.
PKM: Do you think moving away from the downtown NYC scene influenced and expanded your sound, made it a little airier?
Glen Mercer: Yeah, to a certain extent. We definitely didn’t want to repeat what we’d done. We aren’t super prolific, so to only do certain tempos in that early vein wasn’t very appealing. I think doing the offshoot bands gave us a chance to explore different things. Also, by the mid-80s, New York wasn’t as inspiring anymore. There was a lot of stuff going on elsewhere in the country: R.E.M. in Athens; all the bands in California, like Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade; the Meat Puppets in Arizona, the bands from Minneapolis. I guess you could say those were the seeds of the “college rock” that was coming around, the alternative scene, whatever you want to call it, but it was much more inspiring than what was going on in New York.
PKM: You were pretty busy after The Good Earth, right, with touring, college radio play, etc.?
Glen Mercer: Yeah, that’s when we had done our first independent, cross-country tour. On the eve of the tour, our booking agent crunched the numbers and said, ‘you’re not gonna make any money on this tour.’ But we were all just so psyched to do it, and did it anyway. We had just enough money to get a motor home, it was pretty cheap, and did it that way. Like I met Cris [Kirkwood] from the Meat Puppets on that tour, and we got to go to all those areas, see some of those bands, and that was pretty inspiring.
PKM: So how did A&M Records come around?
Glen Mercer: During that time we were on hiatus, during the offshoot bands, we became friends with Steve Fallon, then owner of Maxwell’s, and he was launching Coyote Records, and he proposed we make a record for him. Actually, it was at one of his parties that I met Peter Buck, and he suggested we could work together. Then through Coyote, they wanted better distribution, so that’s how A&M came in.
I do remember we flew to the West Coast for, I guess not exactly an audition, but part of the deal Coyote had with A&M was definitely their interest in us. They were actually a really good label for us.
PKM: How were the recording sessions for Only Life?
Glen Mercer: It was a different experience for us, because prior to that, we were super involved in every aspect of every little area of recording. But on this, we kind of relinquished a lot of control to the co-producer Steve Rinkoff. And we were working in this expensive studio, The Power Station. Actually, we didn’t have the budget to do the whole record there, so we did the basic tracks there, then we did the overdubs at Mixolydian in New Jersey, where we did The Good Earth. We felt really comfortable there. Then went back to the Power Station for mixing.
PKM: So you were okay with the relinquishing?
Glen Mercer: Well, we were open to the idea of, like, so this “alternative rock” thing is becoming more mainstream, which we were comfortable with because we wanted to reach a bigger audience. Radio airplay – even if just college radio – was still pretty important. So we were open to trying some new stuff. The whole process, it wasn’t uncomfortable, it just wasn’t as rewarding, to say the least. Like we’d be sitting around watching videos in the back room, and the co-producer would call us in, and we’d listen, make some suggestions, then leave, and then come back again later to give our opinions. Not really hands-on, y’know. Of course, we were happy with how it came out. In retrospect, I don’t like it as much as I did at the time. But that’s just because that basic sound of the ‘80s, that really loud, reverbed snare, gated snare.
PKM: Well, I think that’s such a big part of your sound though, the, well, crazy rhythms and other percussion instruments shingled in there. So that kind of upfront drum mixing worked well for that record. Not to get too rock critic-y, but The Good Earth has that black and white photo of the band in a kind of rural setting on the cover; then the cover of Only Life, it’s a full color photo in front of a bigger house in a similar rural setting – and the album is bigger and brighter like that.
Glen Mercer: Yeah, if you would listen to our catalog beginning to end, Only Life wouldn’t stick out as some weird sounding thing, it’s just those drums are louder.
PKM: I assume A&M signed you guys as one of the better college rock bands coming up – R.E.M. being the biggest at that time. Was there thought of using Peter Buck again to produce Only Life?
Glen Mercer: I don’t think we gave it much thought. We probably didn’t want to, like I said, we don’t like to repeat ourselves. But I think, as part of the deal, the label was a little more comfortable with the co-producer.
PKM: You say right in the first song, “They’re outside having a ball / Come inside, you can do what you like.” As this college rock scene was coming up, did you guys feel like the band was kind of separating itself from the New York scene, or just from the kind of hardcore and new noisier alt-rock bands coming up?
Glen Mercer: Not particularly, well yeah, we wanted to be separate from the mohawk crowd, that ‘80s safety-pin punks thing. But we always feel like we are in our own world somewhere, like living out in the suburbs. At the time, we were in North Haledon, New Jersey.
PKM: Your cover of “What Goes On,” how did you pick that particular Velvets cover, as I assume the band’s whole catalog was an influence?
Glen Mercer: We used to do a Velvets medly: “Run, Run, Run,” “European Son,” and “What Goes On,” and we just always really liked that one a lot.
The Feelies covering “What Goes On” at White Eagle Hall on Oct. 14 of this year:
PKM: I like how it ends with a tight stop, as most of your songs fade out. The album does have some drift and rumination, but those last three faster songs and that tight stop on a Velvets cover – it all gives the whole thing a kind of confident closure.
Glen Mercer: Yeah, we were in a good place at that point. We were all pretty optimistic, I think. There wasn’t a lot of drama attached to making that album. We did another cross-country American tour, a European tour. And then we went across country again opening for Lou Reed on his New York tour. We covered a lot of ground, twice.
PKM: Was there a feeling, like, “Oh, well we know R.E.M., and they’re getting big; and the Meat Puppets are getting some attention. So naturally that should happen to us.”
Glen Mercer: We didn’t worry much about it. I mean we wanted to be as successful as the bands we considered to be our peers. But in terms of the whole landscape of popular music, we didn’t care.
PKM: So how was Lou Reed on tour? Did he hang out, or…
Glen Mercer: Well, I don’t think Lou Reed “hangs.” Although at the end of the tour, he invited us to come fishing at his house, but we never did. He was nice to us, the few times we had interaction. I remember he went to bat for us to get us a sound check. His sound check was running late, and they threatened to cancel ours. And he said, “Well, if the Feelies don’t get a chance to check, I’m not playing.”
PKM: It’s interesting that you mentioned earlier that you guys weren’t into touring a lot at the beginning. Now it’s 30 years later, and you’re still touring and putting out good albums. Did you think in 1988 you’d still be doing this?
Glen Mercer: Oh no! I mean, the fact that we took a 17-year hiatus, that probably helped.
PKM: Ha, true. So how did you decide to get back together?
Glen Mercer: There was a request for licensing of a song, which put me back in touch with Bill (Million, guitarist), and we had a nice conversation. He’d been coming up to New Jersey with his son, who was attending Princeton at the time. Then we had offers to play to reissue our records. I think the Internet helped us check in with the fanbase, and saw there really was quite a bit of interest for the band to return. But we talked about it for almost five years before we really did anything about it.
PKM: There was a Bar None CD reissue of Only Life a few years ago, with a couple extra live tracks, but do you feel there are any worthwhile demos from those sessions that might be worth tacking onto a new expanded edition or whatever?
Glen Mercer: I have some cassette demos that I made around then, and I re-evaluated those prior to that Bar None reissue, and they really weren’t up to release snuff.
PKM: How do you think Only Life holds up in general?
Glen Mercer: Well I don’t really go back and listen a lot. I tend not to look back at things as career building, or “where things stand.” I will say, I don’t think there’s anything we’ve done that makes me cringe.