Portrait by Annalee van Kleeck
The Feelies shouldn’t need an introduction, but for a while it seemed they were on the verge of being swallowed into one of history’s darker corners, just a footnote in the East Coast post-punk scene. They first appeared in Haledon, New Jersey in 1976, a four-piece that revolved around co-vocalists and guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million. The Village Voice hailed them “the best underground band in New York”; they released a brilliantly frenetic single, “Fa Cé-La”, on Rough Trade and then, eventually, a debut LP, Crazy Rhythms, on Stiff in 1980. Its choppy guitars, urgent percussion and restless, abstract lyrics perfectly encapsulated the troubles and frustrations of coming of age.
They were as cool and as contrary as the times demanded. They would pop up to play random shows, but only on public holidays, or under different names, before slipping away again. Constantly reshuffling line-ups and Mercer and Million’s disinclination to work with outside producers meant that they put out just three more records over the following decade. In 1991, when their most famous fans, R.E.M., went platinum four times over with Out of Time, the Feelies released Time for a Witness, which didn’t chart. Shortly afterwards, they quietly moved on to other, even less heralded projects.
“It was a different time and environment then,” Mercer says of the early 1980s. “The scene had a lot more angst in it. Anger has its place – there’s certainly enough today to get angry about.” But their new album, Here Before, is anything but, instead suggesting composure and comfort in middle age. Their first new release in nearly 20 years, it follows a 2008 reunion in which Mercer and Million reconvened with bassist Brenda Sauter-Barnes, drummer Stanley Demeski and percussionist Dave Weckerman.
“After we broke up we hadn’t initially thought about regrouping at all,” Mercer explains. “It was only in recent years that we started to have a lot of interest in the band. I guess the conception of the new record began right when we decided to reform. At that point we didn’t have a contract, so the only thing that really got it going was our own desire to work.” Recorded in fits and spurts in Hoboken last summer, Here Before, as its title suggests, finds the band in a reflective mood. “I’ve heard that from a lot of people, so I guess it has some validity,” Mercer agrees. “I think, if anything, the biggest influence on our lives and, in turn, on the album, would be the impact of becoming a parent.”
Here Before, like every other Feelies record, was produced by Million and Mercer. “It’s still a priority for us to be in control of what we do,” Mercer says. They’re just as unlikely to start bowing to the commercial demands of the modern music industry by embarking on a lengthy tour. “I think we feel the same today,” Million adds. “We tried touring for a period and it really knocked the band back on its heels. It just wasn’t fun or inspiring to play that frequently. We have a few shows coming up on the east coast of the US, but beyond that we’ll take things as they come.
“Whether you’re recording or playing shows, you have to be satisfied with it,” he continues. “That’s what I take away from it, whether there are 10 people in a room or 10,000. Were we happy with it? Aspiring to that satisfaction, I think, is why we, in spite of the long breaks, are still playing today.” The album itself is more equivocal. “Should be gone / Been too long,” Mercer sings on the second track, “Should Be Gone”, with a resignation that barely recalls the alienation he once channelled so intensely. “Bring up the past, like yesterday / Try to recall what was so great.” §
Here Before is out now on Bar/None. thefeeliesweb.com