Hailing from Haledon, The Feelies — one of the bands most instrumental in creating a vibrant alt-rock scene in North Jersey in the ’80s — remain a vital force at live shows and on their albums. With their dueling guitars and hypnotic beats, their concerts often reach a fever pitch. I agree with Jay Lustig’s assessment that The Feelies are “one of the greatest live bands of their generation.”
I spoke with singer-songwriter-guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million about their endurance and their motivation to continue to produce compelling music after all these years. (The band also includes Brenda Sauter on bass and vocals, Dave Weckerman on percussion and keyboards, and Stan Demeski on drums.)
“It’s all about self-expression and communication,” Mercer said. “Feelings are often expressed more than ideas, but most communication is nonverbal. Ideas are good to express as well. The possibilities are endless.”
Music enables Million to take a break from society’s strife and struggles. “It’s getting a little hectic out there in the world,” he said. “That’s one of the beautiful things about sitting down and playing guitar: It puts things in perspective and you’re not seeing the news cycle 24/7 … When I play, I really look to a sound completely enveloping me, washing the world away and getting lost in it. I think that’s the coolest feeling in the world.” (I like to think that music can help bridge the divide during times of religious and other political conflicts and am reminded of Bongos member James Mastro’s song “My God,” which encourages finding common ground.)
Formed in 1976, the intense and unique group frequently played at Maxwell’s in Hoboken and has returned periodically to the area, most recently at the Hoboken Arts and Music Festival on Oct. 1. That event’s other acts included The Bongos, Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets Golden Jubilee Band, and The Karyn Kuhl Gang.
“The Feelies are as important to music and New Jersey as Bruce Springsteen” said Mastro. “Their music lives in the darkness on the edge of towns — slow, shadowy guitars and rhythms that gain speed and intensity and then dynamically burst to light. There is no one like them, and no one better.”
Both Mercer and Million still feel a deep connection to The Bongos. When The Feelies’ 1980 debut album Crazy Rhythms — widely regarded by critics as leaving an inspirational mark on rock ‘n’ roll — was released, said Mercer, “The Feelies asked The Bongos to open for us. They were just starting out and were still a trio. It was at Irving Plaza in New York City and it was a memorable show.”
Million said he told original Maxwell’s owner Steve Fallon of the Oct. 1 festival that “it’s like ‘Maxwell’s Goes Outside.’ Beyond the music it was a really cool day. There were so many people there that I knew — a lot of people I hadn’t seen for a while.” (He mentioned Vinny and Keith DeNunzio; Vinny was The Feelies’ original drummer, and Keith played bass for them from 1979 to 1982.)
“One of the beautiful things about Maxwell’s is that it was almost the anti-rock club,” continued Million. “There was no dressing room. There was a basement to put together our setlist. But we hung out upstairs and were not disconnected from the audience. We miss that. Nowadays venues usher people out after a show.”
Last month, The Feelies released their seventh engrossing album (and first live recording), Some Kinda Love: Performing the Songs of the Velvet Underground, on the Hoboken-based Bar/None label. Co-produced by Mercer and Million, it was recorded at a 2018 show at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City.
The album represents the first set at the White Eagle Hall concert, featuring 18 Velvet Underground covers, with fiery guest appearances by Mastro and his Bongos bandmate Richard Barone.
The Bar/None label feels like the right fit for The Feelies. “It’s great that we’ve known (Bar/None owner) Glenn Morrow for so long,” said Mercer. “We’re very comfortable with the size of the label — not too big or too small, and they’re based in New Jersey.”
“Over the course of their many decades as a band, the Feelies have covered many Velvet Underground songs,” Morrow said. “They got under the hood, so to speak, of the Velvets engine, took it apart, rebuilt it and got it humming for new generations to hear. The Velvet Underground only had about five years to go from the folkie village duo of (Lou) Reed and (John) Cale to the roaring noise fest of White Light and the pop purity of their third and fourth albums. The Feelies may know what made the VU tick better than the VU ever did.”
Will The Feelies ever release another tribute album?
“The Feelies’ Velvet Underground show was done specifically for the ‘Velvet Underground Experience’ exhibit,” said Mercer, adding “we’re not likely to do another tribute show.”
Million agreed, saying that “I don’t see something like that happening. We’ve always played a lot of covers of Beatles, the Stones, Neil Young, Modern Lovers, (Brian) Eno, Patti Smith. We’ve done other people’s music since we started.”
Mercer has played a few tributes shows with Barone in recent years, “and we might continue doing those,” he said. “I don’t think The Feelies will do another live record, but it’s always a possibility.”
Mercer will perform at Barone’s “Music + Revolution: Greenwich Village in the 1960s” show at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, Nov. 19. “I’ve played a few previous ‘Greenwich Village’ tribute shows with Richard and, so far, I’ve done songs by Bob Dylan,” he said. “This next show might be a departure from that.
“Aside from those ‘Greenwich Village’ shows, the shows with Richard have been mostly electric with Bob Torsello on bass and Dave Weckerman on drums. We’ve done a couple of Velvet Underground-themed shows, as well as ‘Hazy Cosmic Jive,’ where we play Bowie, Eno, Roxy Music, New York Dolls, T. Rex, Iggy Pop etc. Those were big influences for both of us as well.”
He said his strongest musical influences are “mostly from when I first started out playing — British Invasion, folk rock, psychedelic rock, punk rock and early rock and rockabilly. It represents the wide variety of expression possible when playing the guitar. The guitar was the hook that pulled me in.”
He and Million have been making plans to record their next studio album.
“We might do a Willies album featuring instrumentals, or a combination Feelies/Willies (album),” he said. “We’ve been sorting through material, new and old, trying to decide how everything fits together in the best way.
Million explained that The Willies “grew out of the period in between Crazy Rhythms and (1986’s) The Good Earth … it’s The Feelies and some friends, primarily John and Toni Baumgartner from (the band) Speed the Plough.”
The Willies perform experimental, ambient music with a Brian Eno influence.
“Everyone was very enthusiastic about playing this music: a combination of original and covers, instrumentals and vocals,” Million said. “We’ve been talking about the possibility of doing a Willies/Feelies combination album like Bowie’s Low, an influential album for Glenn and me. Feelies on one side and Willies on the other. We haven’t decided yet. It may be two separate things. We probably won’t figure out what to do until after the New Year. Our starting point will be deciding how we want to record it.
“When we did (2017’s) In Between, it was more like home recording. We liked the sound of the demos so we approached the album like a home recording and brought equipment into Glenn’s basement. I did some recording at home and we used some of those recordings.
“We want to build the songs in that manner. And we might have to go into the studio for some things. It might be a mix. We aren’t big planners — we just let things happen. And a lot of times the direction becomes obvious.”
Who have you enjoyed playing with?
“The R.E.M. tour was really good and they were incredibly supportive,” Million said. “We’ve done shows with Yo La Tengo (but) usually we just do our own show.
“Opening for Bob Dylan was kind of interesting — at the University of Massachusetts, outside. It was around the time (1988’s) Only Life came out.”
Was it fun?
“No, it was just the opposite,” Million said. “It was kind of comical. I was told, ‘When Mr. Dylan comes onstage, do not make eye contact. Don’t talk to him. Don’t take any photos.’ It is what it is.”
Mercer and Million are continually creating, producing at their own pace and staying true to their vision.
“I’m almost always working on music and most of the time I don’t know what will become of it,” said Mercer.
Mercer said his songwriting process varies, explaining that “most of the time, it starts with improvisation, but sometimes it’s more conceptual. Usually, it starts with a chord pattern that will lead to melodic ideas — either vocal or instrumental parts. Those melodies will then lead to lyrical ideas.”
Million said his approach to composing is similar. “I sit down and play, learning new chords and playing someone else’s song and hearing something in it that you can apply and one thing kind of leads to another. Over time, you can change the arrangement around. It starts with a leading guitar part and it goes from there. No excess for me. Glenn will send demos down — I’ll send stuff to him, he’ll add parts. We’ll go back and forth.”
How did Mercer and Million meet?
“One of my band members knew Bill and was aware that he also played Stooges songs, so he invited Bill to come to our rehearsal,” Mercer said. “We both played bass at the time, so we had that instant connection. The first Stooges record was still new, so it would have been 1969 or 1970.”
“The Stooges’ guitar player Ron Asheton, along with Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground, were two big reasons why I picked up the guitar in the first place,” said Million. “We lived in suburbia and no one knew who The Stooges were. I thought I was the only person that knew. Nowadays, you take these things for granted. You can hear Iggy (Pop) selling cars in tv commercials. The Stooges and The Velvet Underground are all over the place now, but back then, prior to the internet, we (only) had radio and at the time it was WFMU, which is not the same as today. Danny Fields was one of the DJs. He would play MC5 and The Stooges — then called The Psychedelic Stooges — and he’d play The Modern Lovers before they even had record contracts.
“No one else in our town talked about these bands, so it was a surprise to walk through the neighborhood and hear ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ coming out of Glenn’s garage. I stopped in and one thing led to another and we are still playing music together, many years later.”
Mercer said The Feelies first met Reed “when we were invited to play at a Christmas party hosted by WLIR. They mentioned that Lou was on the guest list so Bill suggested, jokingly, that we’d play if Lou joined us onstage. The radio people thought it was a great idea and reached out to him. It turns out that he was familiar with us because we had covered (the Velvet Underground song) ‘What Goes On’ on our Only Life LP. Lou really liked our version so he agreed to play with us.
“At first, he didn’t want to sing and just wanted to play guitar. It was awkward because I felt self-conscious singing his song with him standing behind me. I quickly motioned for him to come forward to sing and, thankfully, he felt comfortable enough to take over the vocals.
“Soon after that show, we were asked to be the opening band for the entire New York LP tour. And Lou joined us again onstage at the final show of the tour at the Universal Amphitheatre (in Los Angeles).”
I asked Million about Reed saying that The Feelies were the only band that “got” the Velvet Underground’s music.
“He said it and it was the ultimate compliment, coming from him,” Million said. “And it’s great to see, with each passing day, that he’s being recognized for what he’s contributed. I just finished the ‘Art of the Straight Line: My Tai Chi’ eBook — Lou passed away before he got it completed. Laurie Anderson put the book out. It’s fascinating because all these people (are in it) who are connected to him, including Rob Norris of the Bongos. He has a small section about meeting Lou in Boston. The Jonathan Richman piece is very interesting as well.
“When we were on tour Lou made some other comments. We did a week on Broadway at the St. James Theatre. Lou was being interviewed at the time and he said The Feelies remind him of himself but only five times faster. It’s definitely a compliment and we were taken aback by it. He always had a reputation of being a curmudgeon, but he was not that way with us.”
How did The Velvet Underground and others influence The Feelies’ sound?
“I can’t say for sure because influence comes in an unconscious way, and a variety of influences mix together to form something else,” Mercer said. “A big part of their influence, along with others like The Stooges, was rooted in the simplicity that allowed me to feel that it was possible to start on a basic level without musical training.”
Million said that when he first heard The Velvet Underground, “I loved their sound and approach to having two guitar players, Lou and Sterling. The interaction between them, I found real interesting. Glenn and I have maintained that, and that’s what Glenn and I are interested in: how guitars interact. I think a lot of the music we listen to, whether it’s The MC 5 or even the Stones, has that guitar interaction.”
In a time when a lot of bands were “overplaying,” Million said, The Velvet Underground “had a very simple approach … I felt that Sterling’s playing was not beyond my reach and that sense of rhythm really appealed to me. The repetition, drums, the raga riffs, the feedback. You have put it into perspective: What was the Velvet Underground’s singing and what was their sound like compared to what was popular at the time? It was vastly different than anything else that preceded it.”
He objects to writers who state that The Feelies sound like the Velvet Underground. “I don’t think The Feelies sound anything like The Velvet Underground,” he said.” I don’t know of any band that sounds like the Velvet Underground. Newer bands cited as sounding like The Feelies … it’s the same thing. For quite a while, you couldn’t read anything about the band Real Estate without a mention of The Feelies. And I don’t think Real Estate sounds anything like the Feelies. And I love Real Estate.”
Yet obviously, he connected with The Velvet Underground’s sound.
“Yes,” he said. “Anybody who plays music or writes music, that’s how it works. There’s a continuum of ideas. If you listen to a band like Wilco, you can hear a very distinct Beatles part in some of their songs. You can say you’ve heard this approach before. Not exactly. But you heard something like that part before.
“I think it’s true of all music. The Feelies are big Buddy Holly fans and he has influenced the way our guitars sound. It doesn’t mean we’re writing songs like Buddy Holly. It’s one piece of the whole.”
We talked about The Feelies maintaining their own sound by producing their own records.
“It’s all part of the creative process,” Mercer said. “I usually hear the song in my head in a semi-finished way while working on it, and the proper sound and atmosphere is revealed as the process unfolds. So it makes sense to see it through until the final stage.”
“The way something sounds is just as important as the way it’s played,” said Million. “For the most part we’ve always used a co-producer, but Glenn and I always did the production and the co-producer was always more like a sounding board, an extra set of ears.”
The Feelies take their time making albums and establish a reasonable touring and recording schedule.
“It stays fresh because the pace doesn’t result in burnout, which can often happen on the road,” Mercer said. “But sometimes, if progress moves too slow, you can lose momentum and the songs can risk becoming stale. But if you can sustain the initial inspiration, it tends to keep the song honest.
“Going back to Crazy Rhythms, we determined in advance that if we couldn’t produce our own album, we would rather sell shoes at a store in the mall. It was that important to us. And that’s how we ended up on Stiff Records on Crazy Rhythms. They were the one label that allowed us to produce.”
It seems like Mercer and Million have a compatible creative vision.
Million agreed and offered an example: “When we did our last album, In Between, with Dan Francia (engineering), we found this freedom. He (Glenn) had an idea of playing a wine glass on an entire song … we had the freedom to do those things.”
It is not uncommon to run into Mercer at shows in New Jersey and New York, but Million has been living in Florida for many years. He is planning, though, to move to Greenville, South Carolina, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
In addition to being “a beautiful city with green spaces, a river and a sense of changing seasons,” his new home will put him “closer to the band,” he said. “His long drives to gigs in a car filled with his many guitars will shorten, making it easier to join his friends in The Feelies.
The Feelies will perform at The World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, on March 22; and The Colony in Woodstock, New York, on March 23. For information, visit thefeeliesweb.com.
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