THE FEELIES: Art Rock Comes to Storm King
By Janet Hamill
On Sunday, September 20, The Feelies – one of the best and most enduring bands to come out of the post-punk/new wave rock scene in late 70’s lower Manhattan – performed at Storm King. It was an absolutely spectacular day to visit the 500 acre sculpture park in Mountainville. The line of cars waiting to get into Storm King stretched from the entrance to Rt. 32. Hudson Valley residents and day-trippers from NYC had come to enjoy the grounds and sculptures on a pleasantly temperate day, under brilliant blue skies, two days before autumn’s official start. An estimated 1200 of those people came, specifically, to see and hear The Feelies. Sitting on blankets, canvas chairs and the ground of the sloping hillside, surrounded by three monumental Mark di Suveros, the enthusiastic fans of this elusive, cult quintet (Glenn Mercer – guitars, vocals; Bill Million – guitars, vocals; Brenda Sauter – bass guitar, vocals; Stan Demeski – drums; Dave Weckerman – percussion) were treated to a rousing, charging, emotive set of songs culled from all five of The Feelies’ albums – Crazy Rhythms (1980), The Good Earth (1986), Only Life (1988), Time for a Witness (1991) and Here Before (2011). From song to song, the layered guitars and pounding drums overwhelmed, aided by a superb sound system. The audience was a great mix of aging boomers, gen Xers, and Millennials, who’ve just recently discovered this musically, timeless treasure. If you really know your rock n’roll, you know The Feelies! Private and protective of his time, The Feelies co-founder, Glenn Mercer, was a willing and generous respondent to this writer’s questions. Our interview, following the Storm King performance, follows.
JH: Performing at an outdoor monumental sculpture park wouldn’t be every band’s idea of the perfect venue, nor would most bands seem suitable for such a venue. How did The Feelies like performing at Storm King?
GM: The show was scheduled a little earlier than we’re used to, but I think we all enjoyed it a lot. We appreciate nature and art, and having them represented together made for an inspiring context. In general, outdoor shows can be more of a challenge in regard to sound, but we always have our own mix person who knows how to adapt and he’s familiar with the band and the sound we want to present.
JH: It’s been a long time for me between Feelies’ gigs. Storm King marked the first time I’d seen you since Mikey Ruskin’s lower Manhattan Ocean Club in 1977. At the time I was working at Cinemabilia, on 13th St., with your then manager Terry Ork. Terry encouraged me to see you play. How did you get from Haledon, NJ to the Terry Ork and the Ocean Club?
GM: We had been playing in local clubs and schools for about a year, but there weren’t a lot of places that welcomed bands playing original music at that time, so we knew we needed to get involved in the N.Y. underground scene, which was getting a lot of attention from the press. Our first step was to play on “audition night” at CBGB. At that show, Mark Abel was working as the sound mixer and he really flipped for the band. He was friends with Terry and he invited him to see us at our next show. We quickly established a strong rapport with Ork and he agreed to manage us. In turn, Terry was friends with Mikey and they booked us into the club. We’d have to say that Terry played a big part in the band’s early days, and we’re glad that the Ork catalog is finally being reissued.
JH: I understand that while you and Bill (Million) were in the process of creating the definitive Feelies sound you spent a good deal of time at CBGB’s. In its “punk” heyday, what bands/ musicians were you most likely to go see at CBGB’s. Which ones influenced you the most and in what ways?
GM: At the time, bands pretty much played either CBGB or Max’s Kansas City and I remember seeing a lot of bands at both venues in their early incarnations, like Patti Smith, Television, Talking Heads, the B52’s, the Cramps, Pere Ubu. I think we were mostly influenced by the music we heard while growing up, but we were also inspired by what was happening in New York at the time. We also got into a few English bands like Wire.
JH: What music most influenced you when you were growing up?
GM: I guess the biggest influence, what made me want to play guitar, was seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It was certainly a ‘big bang’ moment for many of our generation. From that point, most of what I heard on the radio, or from my older brother’s extensive record collection, probably had some kind of lasting impact. When Bill and I first met, our mutual love for the Stones, the Who, the Stooges, the MC5 and the Velvet Underground, helped us form the basis for the Feelies. And, as important as these influences were, we were also defined by what we didn’t like and what we wanted to avoid sounding like.
I wanted to add a footnote to that - Hearing the Beatles and Stones doing cover songs brought to me a great appreciation for the architects of rock & roll, primarily, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis and Little Richard.
JH: As I listen to all five of your albums, I hear your great “avant-garde punk” sound, and I pick up the Velvet Underground influence. What strikes me is that it’s a post John Cale & Nico Velvets’ sound. It’s the sound of Lou Reed’s Loaded Velvets. Can you address that opinion?
GM: Well, in a general sense, I think that when John Cale left, the distinction between the music’s components became more focused. It was easier to hear what each member brought to the group. Consequently, the interplay between the guitars resulted in a more ebb and flow, with less sonic assault. That was something that intrigued us. We do also manage to include some of that feedback laden density live at various points, but it’s a hard thing to create in a studio environment.
JH: Also, as far as influences, what do you think of George Harrison as a guitarist and solo artist? I ask because from 1986’s The Good Earth through your present, solo instrumental album, Incidental Hum, I hear Harrisonesque lilting, open cord phrasings and melodies.
GM: I love his playing and songwriting, especially his slide playing. He’s probably my biggest influence as a slide guitarist. And I’m a big fan of his use of drone tones.
JH: The Feelies are exceptional in that they have proven their staying power and maintained their artistic integrity over a long period. We’re used to seeing that with writers and painters. It’s definitely less common with rock musicians. To what do you attribute this success?
GM: It’s a bit of a trade-off. We could have made more concessions and made more money, but we’ve always been driven by the creative process. We’ve also operated in a reactive, rather than proactive, manner, allowing things to be revealed and to let them happen in an organic way. That kind of process requires a lot of patience, but it kind of works for us. We take things slow and take time off periodically to recharge.
JH: You have always been an extremely independent artist. You’ve fought to maintain artistic control of your albums, and with one exception, you’ve preferred your albums to be self-produced. (R.E.M.’s Peter Buck produced The Feelies 1986 album, The Good Earth.) With the overhauling of the music industry, the break-up of corporations and streaming music, many young bands are doing things independently. Has your independence been hard won? Do you see yourself as a pioneer?
GM: Actually, Bill and I have always been the producers. Pete was a co-producer. We’ve had outside help with each record since it seems like a good idea to have someone listening in the control room while we’re tracking. Also, for the rare occasion when Bill and I might have different perspectives, it’s good to have a third opinion. I do feel that we’ve had to earn our independence. We’ve actually turned down record deals that wouldn’t allow us to have total control.
JH: Technical questions….Are you happy to see the rebirth of vinyl? Do you prefer to record digitally or acoustically?
GM: I can see value in every way that music is presented, and also the drawbacks with each. I understand that cassettes are also coming back, and I’m a big fan of that media as well. It seems to me that a lot of music buyers are talking a great deal about sound and audio fidelity, without much discussion about the songs and the music. I remember listening to my transistor radio and being excited by the music, so I believe that a good song will transcend the delivery vehicle.
JH: Here Before was released in 2011. You just released Incidental Hum, and the band is working on a new album. It would appear that you’re going through a prolific period, or at least struck a productive cord. Am I correct?
GM: Just prior to Here Before, I released my first solo record, Wheels In Motion, in 2007, so I’ve been recording a lot recently, and we have an album’s worth of new songs that we’re getting ready to record. For me, my productivity comes in waves. I trust the process enough to know when to be active or passive about it. When it feels like the time is right, I take advantage of that feeling by trying to establish a momentum, where each act leads to another, each song inspires another.
JH: The Feelies have a devoted fan base, a cult status and an enormous European following. How do you think you’ve achieved that and how do you hope to sustain it? Do you see more touring in The Feelies’ future?
GM: I try not to be too analytical about it. I think our most devoted fans can relate to how we work, in our own time, on our own terms. They know, by now, that our intentions are pure in the sense that we only make music when we’re driven by the creative urge. We’re very grateful for that loyalty. As far as touring, we don’t really do that anymore. The band is spread-out logistically and it would be hard to do any extended playing at this stage. The way we work, on weekends, with an album every 5 or 6 years, is hard enough to manage. When we’re able to complete those goals, it feels like a big accomplishment.
JH: Which do you prefer most, solo work or working with the full band?
GM: There are aspects of each that I like. When I work on my own I work very fast and do a lot in a short amount of time. The band takes a bit longer, but I don’t mind that either. Playing with a band can be very rewarding on many levels. Enthusiasm can spread and reach a point that you can’t get to alone.
JH: Finally, as a musician and songwriter, what would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
GM: That’s a tough one. I’ve played with a lot of great people, in a lot of great venues, been to a lot of great places, scored a film, been in a film...I guess my goal, at this point, is to keep making music that gives me pleasure.
The Feelies will be re-issuing Only Life and Time For A Witness, with bonus tracks, later this year. Next year will be the 40th anniversary of their first gig. They’ve been talking about “some sort of celebration of that, although that’s still in the early stage of planning.”
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