Glenn Mercer Of The Feelies

by Jeff Suwak

In an age where so many people are willing to sacrifice their dignity for five seconds of viral video fame, Glenn Mercer is a refreshing guy to talk to. He and the rest of his band, The Feelies, recorded one of the most influential albums of the '80s with Crazy Rhythms. Heavies such as R.E.M., Sonic Youth, and Weezer have cited his work as a major influence on their own. He's had every chance to sell out, yet he has never broken from his position that his music isn't about sales. It's about fun, comradery, and making art that impacts individuals rather than the masses. You can find him saying that in interviews going back through the decades. You can find him saying it still.

In conversation, Mercer is not unlike the minimalist music he is known for. There's no sense of duplicity or pretense about him - what you see and hear is what you get. He is polite in his rather monotone way, but also unhesitant to speak his mind when he disagrees. Through it all, he never makes a very big deal about himself.

On February 24, 2016, The Feelies are releasing their latest album, In Between. It's a relaxed, self-assured album that seems imbued with optimistic energy. More relaxed than most of their previous work, it still bears the hallmarks of the classic Feelies sound, which should appease longtime fans' appetites. At the same time, there's more vitality in the music than many, younger acts manage to catch even in their debuts, and in that way can also act as a nice entry point for new fans.

In this interview, Mercer talks about the album and the four-decade evolution of the Feelies. He even suffers questions about the meanings of songs he wrote four decades ago.
Jeff Suwak (Songfacts): We'll start out with your new album, In Between. The album's got a very relaxed, mellow kind of feel to it, and I'm wondering if that was part of your vision going in.

Glenn Mercer: Well, it's probably a combination of a couple different things. One being the way we recorded, which was at my house, on our own time, our own terms. We were off the clock, so it has a different feel for us when we're working. You know, you're not constantly worried about the budget or where you're at in terms of progression on the record.

We didn't have a deadline or anything, so we wanted to go in a different direction and experiment a little bit. Approach it with a little bit more of a relaxed type of feel. Different factors played into it. We don't really think in terms of tempo or what kind of song we should write - we just basically write what we feel.

Songfacts: You started off the album with the sound of crackling fire and bird songs. What made you decide to kick it off with that?

Glenn: Well, the acoustic version of "In Between" came second. I wrote the electric one first, and when I was listening back to the demo of the mix, I just took it down to the vocal, which had acoustic guitar on it because when I sang the demo, I was playing the acoustic. It kind of helps me get in the mood of a song.

So when I was mixing the electric version, I just had the vocal with the acoustic in the mix, and I thought, "Wow, this sounds kind of different. This could go in a different direction." So I did a demo just acoustic. That sort of made me recall a lot of times a song will evoke a certain mood, almost like an atmosphere, and that one in particular struck me as kind of a campfire-ish feel. So, I probably thought, "Well, we can try to push that image a little bit by including sound you would hear around a campfire."

Songfacts: You start the album with the acoustic version of "In Between" and end with the electric version, kind of like "My My, Hey Hey" on Rust Never Sleeps. Was there any particular reason you chose to do that?

Glenn: I didn't think in particular about the Neil Young song, although at some point that got referenced. It was the idea that there's no set way a song needs to be. Like, a lot of times it will evolve over time from what we recorded to the way we perform it live, and I'll also listen to other people's versions of our songs. Some of them are pretty wild and out there, but I still enjoy hearing that. The idea, I guess, is that a song doesn't necessarily have to be performed in one particular way. It can be performed in lots of ways.

I guess the bookend thing, it just seemed to fit the best. We couldn't really think of following the 9-minute version with something else, so that seems like a good closer, and then, the other song being kind of sparse, we couldn't really fit them any other way.

Songfacts: It's funny because it creates an ironic effect, because the song is titled "In Between" but it appears on both ends.

Glenn: It kind of takes the thing full circle, but it's transformed by the time it's at the end. That wasn't intentional, but I think that's kind of a cool thing.

Songfacts: It had me thinking what you guys were trying to get at it, so it was very thought provoking, even if unintentional. The idea of time comes up in three song titles and seems suggested in various ways in other songs on In Between. Was time a conscious theme while you were making this album or just something that came out during making it?

Glenn: Just something that came out. With the logistics of the band, we don't have as much time as we'd like. With Bill [Million] in Florida and Brenda [Sauter] in Pennsylvania, we just don't get together much, so when we do, we're very aware of the time element. We make the most of the time we do have together. But it wasn't a conscious decision to focus on that.

Songfacts: You've said that for you, The Feelies are ultimately about having fun and making music with your friends. So, how does it feel to have that back at this stage in your life, after you had that long hiatus?

Glenn: Oh, it's rewarding, on a lot of different levels. It's a link to the past, which, hopefully is not the only thing. I guess, a lot of the fans, for them it's nostalgic. And it is for us. It's almost like every time we get together is a reunion, because we don't play very often at all.

Yeah, it's kind of doing it the way we've always done it.

Songfacts: Are you the kind of person who walks around continually making songs in your head, or is it something you turn on when it comes time to make an album?

Glenn: Well, I don't walk around with songs in my head, unless it's a song I'm working on. The genesis of the song really occurs from playing the instrument — most the times it's guitar. I've been in positions where we need songs, where we're working on an album and there's a little bit of pressure to come up with something, and it just never works. The songs invariably come out as kind of forced, so it's got to be sort of an off-the-cuff spark of an idea. Like, we might be playing some covers and just go off on a tangent and start playing something else. A chord progression might suggest a melody, a melody might suggest a sound, sound might suggest words. It's almost like a puzzle that you put together. It never really comes all at once or very quickly. It usually requires a little bit of time and patience.

Songfacts: So you don't come to the band with a piece of paper and say, "Hey, let's work on this." It just kind of evolves naturally as you're all playing around.

Glenn: No, it'll be either from an idea Bill has or that I have. With the time factor, we really don't get together to jam. We don't come up with a song by jamming.

Songfacts: The Feelies are known for having a really distinctive sound. Did you go into this with a particular aesthetic philosophy, or is it just something that came about as you started playing?

Glenn: It's a little bit of both, I guess. Initially, it's sort of, you get an idea of what you like and what you don't like, so it's more about what you leave out and what you leave in. We always approached it with a minimalist approach. Like, don't have anything that's flashy or shows off or draws attention to itself. The idea of a song being a little bit of a journey from the beginning to the end, the dynamics of it.

Songfacts: Onto some specific songs. "Stay the Course." Did anything in particular inspire you to put that message to the audience to stay the course and keep on trying?

Glenn: It could be said in different ways, and it just came out that way. Someone pointed out how often we'd sing "it's alright." Every album, there's a lot of songs there that have the same idea.

Songfacts: One of the more intriguing lines on In Between is "Are you dreaming in real time, like a weekend back in '89?" Is there any particular reason why you chose '89?
Located in Hoboken, New Jersey, Maxwell's Tavern used to be known simply as Maxwell's. It has a long and colorful musical history. The band "a," which was made up of future Bongos members, first made Maxwell's a live music destination. From there, the venue developed a penchant for hosting acts that would go on to national fame and/or music influence. The bands are too numerous to list, but include Nirvana, R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins, and the Cyclones. The Feelies became a frequent, beloved Maxwell's act in the '80s. They have continued to play there periodically ever since.
Glenn: Well, I had to rhyme, but I definitely was thinking about the time Maxwell's was closing. So, that particular '88/89 period, was my fondest memories of the club.

Being involved with all the final weeks of Maxwell's, I played there quite a bit, but the last few days... you definitely can't do something like that with the band and not be nostalgic about it. It was a huge part of our history.

Songfacts: This is going back quite a ways, but "The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness," was that based on actual person, or just an abstraction of all those perpetually nervous boys next door?

Glenn: Well, I guess it's me, because I say that in the song. It's just thinking about what other people might think about viewing you from the outside.

Songfacts: "Moscow Nights." It's a mysterious song, and it came out in the midst of the Cold War. So, was there anything political intended?

Glenn: No. It was actually the title of a book. Bill had it, and he suggested the title. It was very unusual for us to do it that way.

Songfacts: You mean unusual in that you don't usually use books for inspiration?

Glenn: No, it just had something suggestive in it.

Songfacts: The song "Away" on Only Life seems like one of the songs that most clearly shows the influence of the Velvet Underground. It also comes before a cover of the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On." Was that intended to be an homage or anything of that sort?

Glenn: No. I don't think that's the most Velvet-inspired song that we have.

Songfacts: Going with the Velvets, what was it like to tour with Lou Reed, who you've cited as an influence on you?

Glenn: It was okay. I mean, we had just played a lot of the same places on our own tour, so we were kind of covering the country for a second time in a short period. We didn't have a lot of interaction with him. The theaters we played in were really, really nice. When we went on there weren't that many people there. It was okay.

Songfacts: The song "Here Before," was that about reincarnation, or am I reading way too much into it?

Glenn: I don't know. I guess it could be. I didn't really have a specific thing in my mind. I guess, if I was semi-conscious of an idea, it was something to do with the band.

Songfacts: Are there any particular Feelies songs that you really enjoy performing live? More than the others, I mean.

Glenn: I always liked the way "Raised Eyebrows" goes into "Crazy Rhythms." I kind of look at them as one song, the way they go together. On the record they're tightly back to back. It's usually at the end of a set. So, those are a lot of fun. They cover a lot of ground. They have a lot of percussion.

Songfacts: You've had a somewhat unique path in that you're a very influential band, yet for the most part you've all kept your day jobs. Now that things are ramping up again with the new records, are people treating you any differently, like rock stars?

Glenn: No. We've been making records for so long, most of them probably don't even know we have a new record coming out.

Songfacts: Oh, really?

Glenn: I mean, family and stuff. No, I definitely don't live that kind of a lifestyle, to be treated differently.

Songfacts: In a couple other interviews I've read, you said you stopped following popular music very closely. Is that still true?

Glenn: I don't really listen to much music. Not a lot of new stuff.

Songfacts: Where would you place In Between in the ranking of your favorite Feelies albums.

Glenn: Well, I've never ranked them or graded them in any particular order. A lot it depends on the response we get from the fans, the response we get when we play it live.

Songfacts: Do you have a lot of live shows planned to promote the new album?

Glenn: No, not really. We're talking about it now, but we'll do pretty much what we've been doing the last few years.

Songfacts: Do you still like to play the holidays? That used to be something The Feelies were known for.

Glenn: Well, we don't get to do that. We used to really like the 4th of July Maxwell's shows. A gig is a gig. I'm not picky. It's not less fun or less exciting if it's not on a holiday.

Songfacts: I see. In the song "Fa Cé-La," is Mary Ann based on a real Mary Ann?

Glenn: No, I think it was based on someone.

Songfacts: Okay. You don't care to elaborate on that, though?

Glenn: Just for the sound. I don't know. It could have easily been someone. I don't know (laughs). It could have been some band or something, and the name just seemed to fit.

I mean, who knows where ideas come from? They just sort of pop into your head.

Songfacts: When you think back to that album [Crazy Rhythms], can you clearly remember the thought processes behind the songs? As a fan and listener, the music always sounds alive and present, but for the artist it's something from the past. So, do you remember how that album evolved in your mind during its creation?

Glenn: I have a lot of memories, but they're all questionable. I mean, the whole idea of constructive memory is that you only retain a small amount of information from an event, and a lot of memory is empty space that your mind will fill in. That's why different people can have different memories of the same event. That's why we should take everything with a grain of salt.

Yeah, I have memories. A lot of memories.

Songfacts: Okay, this is kind of a big question, but it'll be the finale. A 2008 article of the Village Voice said, "Fate always had a way of crapping on the Feelies." But when I read your interviews, I don't get the feeling that you feel that way. So, how would you respond to that statement?

Glenn: I think they're using a measurement of record sales as a way to measure success, where it was never as important to us as the impact we had on the individual person, rather than the amount of people.

Songfacts: What's next for The Feelies? Do you have projects lined up?

Glenn: No, we don't plan in advance. Our attention now is on the new record. Beyond that, it's really anybody's guess.

February 23, 2017. Get more at thefeeliesweb.com.
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