The Feelies: Interview
“We have a sound that we really can’t avoid.”
In 2008, seminal New Jersey band The Feelies reunited to perform for the first time in 16 years at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. While a momentous occasion followed up by a successful Northeast tour, it remained unknown whether or not the band would return in full fashion with a new album as well. Then, last fall, the band entered a studio in Hoboken to record their fifth album, Here Before.. The album maintained many of the qualities of their last album before they broke up, Time for a Witness, and was quite a solid record.
A couple months ago, I interviewed Glenn Mercer. A couple weeks later, disaster struck in the form of computer problems, resulting in the entire interview being lost. Thankfully, Mr. Mercer allowed us a second interview, which came out a lot better overall (after I apologized to him profusely) anyway. Using the reunion as a focal point, we discussed the recording of Here Before, the reunion as a whole, and what it means to be a New Jersey band.
Now that I’ve shown myself to be a complete idiot, let us begin anew with this interview. Let’s start with what we started with before: The time gap. Twenty years between Time for a Witness and Here Before… What did you feel, going into the studio for the first time in a long time?
I had a ton of different thoughts. The first thing was, I was excited about it, looking forward to recording it, to working with the band again. It’s exciting. Of course, you’re always nervous, going into uncharted territory, and it had been a long time. But we felt pretty confident actually, because we had spent quite a bit of time on the arrangements, recording demos. Basically, when we got to the studio, we had a pretty clear picture of where we wanted to do, and pretty good idea of how to go about that.
The only thing that made us nervous was whether or not we had enough time to do it. The budget was pretty small, and we kind of had to break it up into different sections. So it took about four months of four different sessions, but actual recording time was a little over two weeks. It worked out okay, I was actually able to do a little bit of recording at home, too, and transfer it to the master tapes, which helped out. It helped out with the budget, and it was comfortable to work here.
I recall you saying in the lost interview that there was a lot less pressure recording this time around. Would you say that was the big difference this time, and why or why not?
Yeah, I’d say there was a little more pressure back then because you are signed to a major label, and there are a lot more people involved, a lot more opinions being presented to the band. You kind of feel like you want to please yourself and you also have a lot of other people to please. It’s probably more pressure we felt after we had signed to a major label.
And what else would you say was different this time around?
It was a lot quicker. It was spread out over a longer period of time, but the recording itself was a lot quicker. Like I said, two weeks as compared to at least a month. Other than that, not a whole lot. We pretty much recorded the same way, in the approach we always take to record.
“It’s only when you’re in a moment of reflection that you think in terms of how unusual it is to go 20 years and think how fortunate you are to be able to do it.”
Okay, taking more time to listen both to Time for a Witness, Only Life, and Here Before, there are two things that stick out in my mind in terms of overall engineering: One is the vocals, in that this album has its vocals in the front of the mix, as opposed to the middle that you see in both Only Life and Time for a Witness. Secondly, the sound is, to a subtle degree, dryer. What can you say of those engineering decisions?
Well, it is dryer, that is just our preference. Only Life had too much reverb, but that was typical of the ’80s. Time for a Witness was made at a time when people were making noisy, garagey-based records, so that probably had a bit of an influence on it.
Yeah, when I was listening to Time for a Witness, I could hear a lot of phaser and flanger and…
You mean chorus. Yeah, but I still use chorus on the new record and live. I know it’s ’80s, but I still like that sound.
Could you describe again the artwork?
Well, we didn’t have any particular idea in mind. That’s usually sort of last-minute for us anyway. So it wasn’t that unusual to not have any idea at that point. But early on, when we walked into the control room, we saw on the engineer’s laptop, he had a photo on his desktop or screen saver that was taken outside the studio from the street facing in toward the studio during the aftermath of a heavy rainstorm.
In the town of Hoboken, they have really old substructure, and they don’t want to tax the pipes too heavily in heavy rainstorms. So they block those off and the streets flood. It was kind of a flooded street looking in toward the studio.
Was this from a recent flood?
This was from when we were recording. We actually had to [record] the next day, I think. So it was from last fall, I guess.
As has been noted, you work a lot on the artwork for the albums. What draws you to it?
We try to present it as a whole package, really. I think more bands should do that. You just want something that kind of complements the music, and gives you a feeling when you look at it. I have a background in art, Bill [Million] has a background in the visual arts. It just comes down to wanting to present a unified package.
Given that, in terms of the amount similarity between Time for a Witness and Here Before as you’ve noted, do you feel this album is simply picking up where you left off?
Not exactly. I mean, after 20 years of experiences in our lives, it’s not totally where we left off. But, in some ways, it is. We have a sound that we really can’t avoid. It’s just what happens when we get together and play. It’s not a master plan to sound a certain way, it’s just a combination. We grew up, learning instruments, and we had similar influences… I guess it’s just five people contributing to that sound. We’ve all had that same approach that we’ve always had to our instruments, but I guess the only real difference would be that it’s a little more refined now. You get to the point where you feel you’re expressing yourself more easily, just from the experience.
Let’s talk a little bit about the reunion as a whole. Did you ever feel it was a reunion?
To a certain extent, but once you’re playing you’re not really thinking about that. You’re just thinking about the song and the performance. It’s only when you’re in a moment of reflection that you think in terms of how unusual it is to go 20 years and think how fortunate you are to be able to do it. This stuff doesn’t really go through your mind when you’re playing. In that sense, when you’re playing, you feel that no time has passed.
“Part of it is, we didn’t take the situation for granted, and we realized it was pretty special.”
What did the 16 years being away from this band as a project bring you, both before and during the reunion?
You’re asking me to compare it to something that didn’t happen. So, if 20 years had passed, and we had stayed together, that would be its own thing. I can’t accurately put myself into thinking about what that might be like.
Actually, I am trying to say is, when you came back, you mentioned before how there was a certain degree of maturity that developed in the time that passed. What else occurred in the time between?
Part of it is, we didn’t take the situation for granted, and we realized it was pretty special. I think it inspired us to work really hard, to set the bar high and to do the best that we could. And now that we have families, our perspective on life has changed.
You had long been to many people a fixture in the Hoboken and NYC scenes. Your reunion started in Hoboken. In fact, you even recently had a 3-night residency at Maxwell’s, come to think. How was that?
It went well. We’ve done that every year since we’ve reunited. Even in the past, before we broke up, we were doing multiple shows around the Fourth of July.
Back to the matter of being a fixture, with this growth, do you see yourself expanding to other parts of America in terms of touring?
It’s really hard to say. As I mentioned before, we have families now. This isn’t a full-time thing. Bill lives in Florida, Brenda [Sauter] lives in Pennsylvania, so we really don’t get together too often. The economics of touring, being on a small label, just costs a lot. We actually fly our soundman in from Arizona, because we really want to have a good sound when we play live. So our expenses get pretty high with the band and crew, so it would just be really hard to make any money on the road. And it’d be hard to get away. But we try to do what we can.
I think I should explain why I wanted to interview you. My closest friend comes from Basking Ridge, over in Somerset County, and he has friends in places like Glen Rock. He said Feelies are not only one of the quintessential New Jersey bands, but also “the only band that could effectively describe living in suburban New Jersey.” Do you think it’s an apt description, and why?
Well, when you consider all of the bands that have come from New Jersey, there really is no “Jersey sound” I can hear. I think it’s accurate in that our music reflects our surroundings of living in the suburbs. If we were in the city it would certainly be different. I’ve never lived in anywhere else, so I can’t compare New Jersey to other places.
Well, there’s a certain respect to that. There are people who live in one place all their lives, and that is how they view the world.
Yeah, we’ve traveled around a lot, certainly not the whole world, but through Europe and other places, so it’s not like I haven’t been out of the state. To me, a small town is pretty similar in other states. I think it’s more the suburbs vs. the city than New Jersey vs. other states that influences us.
In recent years, there’s been an uptick in New Jersey bands that take a particular…I wouldn’t say pride, but maybe a refusal to be shamed by their homeland. Glen Rock’s Titus Andronicus and Ridgewood’s Real Estate, the latter of whom you’ve played with, come to mind. What can you say of these bands?
Well, I’ve only really heard Real Estate, and I was kind of expecting them to sound more like us, from what people were telling me… [Laughs] They even go as far as to refer to their music as “chill rock,” and we’re the antithesis of that, especially live.
[Photo: Doug Seymour]