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THE FEELIES

Bucketfull of Brain
1989

By JOHN PLATT

This article has been given to me by Eddy Cilža,
wonderful journalist from Mucchio Selvaggio
Thanks, Eddy!

As the editor of this august journal is wont to point out, I rarely go to gigs these days. Nor, for that matter do I pretend to be a journalist and go off to interview people too often. He thinks it's because I'm getting old. In fact this is palpably untrue - there are simply fewer and fewer bands I want to go out and see, let alone write about at any length. No doubt he would argue that my lack of appreciation of new bands is due to advancing middle-age, but who needs to see a bunch of wimpoid Byrds impersonators or guitar thrashers (Where are they on? Get me a drink in! Ed.) - pause for editorial backlash... (See! You're too late for that too, reflexes not what they were? Sarcastic Ed.).

Fortunately there are few genuine talents about and even some with a story worth relating. Like the Feelies - a band so good that they deserve to be constantly splashed in the world's press. They aren't and wouldn't want to be. And therein lies half the story.

The Feelies dropped in for one gig recently (of which more later) and I took the opportunity, not only to see them again, but to talk to guitarist and co-founder Bill Million. Much of the information in what follows, therefore, comes from him, but thanks are also due to Steve Daly and Steve Fallon of Coyote Records and "The BOB" magazine, who like the band as much as I do. It's a complicated saga (the best ones always are) so if I don't get it all in a comprehensible form - tough.

This story centres around Haledon, a quiet, suburban town in New Jersey, about 45 miles west of Hoboken (itself just across the river from New York City). Virtually all of those who have passed through the Feelies (and offshoots) grew up there and most still live there. There never was much of a music scene in New Jersey (disregarding Bruce and his pals) and for the teenage Bill Million in the late 60's, the music he wanted to hear was coming out of Detroit (MC5 and Stooges) and to some extent New York. Frequent trips to the Fillmore east and other clubs all over NY state were the order of the day. He learnt to play the guitar but pretty much in isolation, until one day, around 1975, he was walking past a garage in Haledon (in an "altered state of mind") and heard this weird version of Iggy's "I Wanna Be Your Dog". Bill, "It was Glennn (Mercer) and Dave (Weckerman). I was a very big Stooges fan and I stopped in my tracks and went in and introduced myself. We found out that we had common musical grounds, especially Glenn and I, like The Stooges, The Velvets, MC5 and the Modern Lovers. I remember going home and feeling great because there was someone in my town that I could actually discuss music with and possibly get a band together with."

It was nearly a year before it gelled into something approximating to a real band. Allegedly Bill came up with the name (I forgot to ask him to confirm it) and according to "The Bob" it derives from Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" ("Going to the Feelies this evening, Henry? -enquired the Assistant Predestinator- I hear the new one is first-rate. The most amazing tactual effects").

The very first line-up featured Glenn and Bill on guitars and vocals, Weckerman on drums and a guy called John on bass, who's last name Bill can't remember (and presumably the same chap as "Jimmy J." mentioned by other writers). In fact this line-up lasted only a few weeks and a couple of gigs before both Weckerman and Jimmy J. left. The latter disappeared, but Weckerman has always been around. Bill, "I don't think we were happy with his drumming, I don't think he fitted in with the sound of the band. He's a real good drummer, sort of Mitch Mitchell style. Lots of our songs feature straight repetition, something he wasn't really adapted to and are probably very physically demanding but boring to play."

The percussive elements are a very obvious facet of the Feelies sound (both Glenn and Bill play percussion on the albums and occasionally live) - one that was formulated by Bill and Glenn right from the start, rather than something that grew naturally.

Weckerman and Jimmy J. were replaced by two brothers, Keith and Vinny DeNunzio on bass and drums respectively. This line-up found it almost as hard to get gigs as the first one - usually it was in the local high schools, including Manchester High School, the one Bill had attended. They weren't very popular. At one of them several students asked if they could borrow their instruments to play something that the audience wanted to hear! Basically they were a cover band performing their favorite Velvets, Stooges, MCS etc, etc numbers. None of these acts were big in Haledon high schools in the summer of '76. At another high school gig, two of the band showed up one and a half hours late (they'd left some equipment behind). The other two, really nervous, took to hiding behind the amps until the others turned up. They finally arrived and the band played, only to be laughed off after three numbers.

As a result of these experiences, they decided to move further afield to look for gigs. Amongst other things this resulted in a now legendary audition at CBGB's in New York. They came on at about 2.30 in the morning, having followed three heavy metal bands and a terrible troupe of comedians from Boston! In the audience was Terry Ork (of Ork Records/Television fame) who was impressed by the band. They struck up acquaintance and worked with him for a while, although not much resulted from it.

More substantial was a review in the "Village Voice", October '78, the headline for which read, "the best Underground Band In New York". The next gig, at the Mudd Club had a line going round the block. "Our audience went up from about 12 to 600 people." It was then that they realised that they could probably make a go of it - carry on and make records. It should be stressed, however, that "making a go of it" had a different connotation for the Feelies. They'd probably only played about a dozen gigs in that first year. Partly because there weren't that many places to play, and partly because then as now the Feelies were not desperate about worldly success. Bill, "The band was essentially a hobby. I've almost always regarded it that way. It was only recently after we'd been doing it for 12 or 13 years that we realised that it was some sort of a career." None of the band like touring for more than three or four weeks, and in any case they all have day jobs.

Anyway, back to the story. By the time the aforementioned "Village Voice" article had appeared the band had changed again - drummer Vinny DeNunzio was fired (for over-use of cymbals! Mercer and Million preferred the Mo Tucker style of virtually cymbal-less drumming) and was replaced by Anton Fier (at some point though at least two other drummers including one Charlie Beasley came and went). Although the band knew of the Electric Eels and Pere Ubu (Fier's former bands) they didn't know him and in fact he got the gig only because he replied to the band's ad in the "Village Voice".

Undoubtedly a brilliant drummer, Fier added a new dimension to the band's already exemplary percussive sound, an affect heightened by the return of Weckerman as second percussionist on live gigs. Feelies performances (always pretty much on the edge) were apparently at their most intense during this period. Fier, for example, was wont to bleed from hands and mouth and occasionally threw up behind the drum kit!

Inevitably record companies began to sniff around, several expressed interest but oddly (and in the event unfortunately) it was an English company, Stiff, that signed them. Bill, "The main reason we got involved with Stiff was because our manager at that time was good friends with Paul Conroy (of Stiff) who was also good friends with Geoff Travis (of Rough Trade) and we had a lot of respect (and still do) for him. Unbeknownst to us the guy who ran Stiff was an asshole. We got involved with them strictly because of Paul - he was the one who came to see us play and the one who talked to us."

The band were signed on the basis of the live performance and a four song demo comprising early versions of "Moscow Nights", "Fe Ca La" and "Boy With Perpetual Nervousness" and what was to become the album (and single) version of "Raised Eyebrows". The tape had actually been produced with Ork Records in mind, before Stiff had appeared on the scene, but just to confuse things a one-off single deal in late 1979 saw "Raised Eyebrows"/"Fa Ce La" come out on Rough Trade. As far as I can tell "Fe Ca La" is the original demo version. The album "Crazy Rhythms" was released in March 1980 and comprises the aforementioned tracks plus "Loveless Love", "Forces At Work", "Original Love", the title track and a cover of the Beatles' "Everybody's Got Something To Hide". It is quite simply a superb record and essentially defines the Feelies' sound. Perhaps the first thing you notice is the incredible, syncopated layers of percussion, or maybe its the constantly shifting interplay between the guitars. More likely it's the sheer manic energy that puts most punk or new wave bands to shame. It's also hypnotic, sounds constantly changing, rhythms subtly altering. The words (like early R.E.M.) disappear tantalisingly in the mix or - almost chanted - become a rhythm in themselves.

Many of the lyrics display a degree of naivety (songs about suburban living, "your mind is like a TV show, but it's alright I'll watch it anyway") that seem at first to be at odds with the sophistication of the music, with its echoes of the Velvets and even (yes) Terry Riley. Equally the lyrics tie in perfectly with their "high school kids" image as portrayed on the cover. They were presumably happy with that, despite being at least 10 years on from graduation! In fact the image seems totally planned right down to the name changes (Anton Fier became Andy Fisher, Keith DeNunzio became Keith Clayton and well... apparently Glenn and Bill's real names are not Mercer and Million) not to mention publicity shots of them sitting at school desks. An odd mix to be sure.

Despite critical acclaim the album failed to sell in huge quantities. It was Stiff's reaction to that fact that started (if they hadn't already) the problems between the band and the label. There isn't enough space to go into the problems in detail, but one farcical episode took place in Stiff 's New York office. Glenn and Bill were played a Lane Lovich single and told, in essence, "ok boys, this is what a hit record sounds like". They also wanted the band to do these huge tours supporting other acts, something the band had made perfectly dear to Stiff they had no interest in.

They did, however, visit England in October 1980, an episode that contributed to the friction. Somehow all of the band's equipment (including all their exotic percussion) never left the tarmac in New York. Jetlagged, pissed-off and with borrowed gear their two gigs here (the Electric Ballroom and a late support to the Cramps at the Venue) failed to do them any justice at all. (As it happens I really enjoyed the Venue set - but then I had nothing, other than the album, to compare it with). The band drifted on for a few more months until it finally fell apart..... sort of. Anton went on to the Lounge Lizards & the Golden Palominoes, I'm not sure what happened to Keith. Glenn and Bill became the Willies.

The Willies grew out of the somewhat simpler and less frenzied material, like "Company Comes" (eventually on the second Feelies album) that Stiff disliked intensely. When the band broke up Glenn and Bill continued in that vein. Bill, "We started becoming very interested in recording things on 4-track - like a lot of the outdoor sounds you hear on "Company Comes". Glenn and I started doing occasional gigs under the name, The Willies, accompanying the tapes. We set up speakers around the room, getting a three dimensional sort of sound, usually we played seated. Usually there were no vocals, if there were, we just sung without mikes. Each time we played it would be different. Sometimes it was three or four people, Dave (Weckerman) would play simple drum parts and a guy called Paul Casler would play some percussion, like big sheets of metal. Sometimes someone else would work the 4track, sometimes I would work it by foot. Later on Stanley Demeski joined (of whom more later) and the band kind of evolved."

One Willies-type project was the soundtrack Glenn & Bill did for the movie "Smithereens" (starring Richard Hell). Mostly they play instrumental versions of some of the "Crazy Rhythms" numbers but they recorded a lot of material, including a mandolin part for the scene in a cafe during a fight sequence; the soundtrack music to a horror film that Hell goes to see plus lots of percussion. Also included is a Weckerman song.

Throughout this period a bunch of Bill's old high school friends had been putting a band together, called the Trypes. Originally a strict acoustic trio, the group was led by John Baumgartner (keyboards) plus his wife Toni Paruta (woodwinds) & Marc Francia (guitar). This line-up cut a demo tape (possibly with another friend L. Bruce Kelferman aka Turk, on vocals, who was around for a while) which came to the attention of Glenn and Bill. The two offered to produce the band, but in the event what happened was that Glenn joined on drums - using his sister's kit - and the band started gigging at places like Haledon's Peanut Gallery and Maxwell's in Hoboken. At most of these shows Bill did the sound.

In the summer of '82, Glenn's sister returned from college and requested the return of her drums. It seemed easier for Glenn to go back to guitar and get in a new drummer who turned out to be Dave Weckerman. Except he didn't work out too well and was replaced by Stanley Demeski, late of several local bands including the Phosphenes and Red Buckets. The new line-up (or possibly the one with Weckerman) cut two 16-track demos of "A Plan Revised" and "Veszpren" which were played a lot on the radio in the New York area..

1983 saw the band change again, Brenda Sauter came in on bass and Bill Million finally joined - on percussion. Towards the end of the year this line-up (the final one) cut the four tracks that were released on the Coyote 12" "The Explorers Hold". A fifth track, "A Plan Revised" surfaced on the "Luxury Condos..." compilation.

Many people thought of the Trypes as a Feelies spin-off, which wasn't really true. To start with, John Baumgartner wrote most of the material and the whole texture and feel of the band was different. One difference was in their choice of Beatles covers. The Feelies opted for uptempo rockers like "Me & My Monkey" whereas the Trypes went for the dreamy acid numbers like Harrison's "Love You To" which appears on their 12". The Trypes Ep was released in England on Rough Trade but for various reasons (like I didn't know it existed) I failed to obtain a copy. It's now deleted, so could anybody out there sell me a copy (or even make me a tape) it would be much appreciated.

The Willies had been semi-active all through the Trypes and we'll return to them in a minute. In the meantime mention should be made of yet more Feelies related projects from around that time. During the summer of '83, the Trypes persuaded a bar in Haledon to let them play there on Sunday evenings - primarily because it was air-conditioned! The Trypes played there, but in the main it was the excuse to put together a series of ad-hoc bands each specialising in covers of just one band. The musicians were basically varying permutations of Trypes plus friends from other bands like The Bongos. These groups included Foggy Notion (the Velvets), Dr. Robert (Beatles) and the Ex-Lion Tamers (Wire). Most only played together for one night, but Foggy Notion, at least, played several, including headlining New York's Peppermint Lounge.

The other side project was Dave Weckerman's band, Yung Wu. The group evolved during Trypes rehearsals when Dave was on drums. Every so often they would all swap instruments and "goofed around". Dave wound up on vocals and guitar. Yung Wu proper first performed at the Peanut Gallery in Haledon in the summer of '82. Weckerman was usually drunk and no one took it seriously until one day someone said "hey, this could work". Even then they never rehearsed properly - but they did continue to gig - often opening for the Willies or the Trypes. The band (basically Glenn, Bill, Stan, Brenda and John Baumgartner continued on and off and eventually recorded the album "Shore Leave" that came out on Coyote in 1987. In some ways the sound is like the Feelies (more so than the Trypes) but the songs (mostly Weckerman's) are completely different - lyrically and melodically. Weckerman's view of the world Is undoubtedly a singular one. According to Bill it was incredibly difficult to record - Dave had felt that passion and commitment were enough. They weren't, the vocals are very strange but it's as fascinating and rewarding as any of the other Feelies related projects (there's even a version of Neil Young's "Powderfinger" on the album).

Ok, back to the main story. In late '84 the Willies metamorphasised for the last time. Stan Demeski had already joined, closely followed by Brenda Sauter, making it a 5-piece with Mercer, Million and Weckerman. Glenn and Bill had more or less come out of their experimental phase and were doing Feelies and Feelies-type material again. So the band, in the face of the obvious, readopted the old name. However it should be pointed out that just to confuse everybody, the old Feelies had done at least three gigs during the time they officially didn't exist. They were apparently amazing shows with three drummers, Anton Fier, Stan Demeski and Dave Weckerman.

Anyway in the summer of '85 the 'new' Feelies actually toured the States. They also started to think about a new album which, in the event and not surprisingly, came out on Coyote, the label run by friend Steve Fallon, who also runs Maxwell's in Hoboken, the Trypes/Feelies home base. Curiously, Glenn and Bill being by then well versed in studio techniques, they accepted R.E.M.'s Peter Buck's offer to produce the album. If nothing else he got the job done in a matter of weeks and the result "The Good Earth" is marvelous. The 'new' Feelies sound was more mature and relaxed. The frenzied high-school look and sound had largely gone. They now looked like slightly world weary adults. The sound was still exciting (the guitar on "Slipping Into Something" fizzes like early Lou Reed crossed with Barry Melton) and the percussion parts are still uniquely their own. With its variety of moods and fabulous melodies it's probably their best recording to date. Around the time the album was released (mid '86) the band worked on Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild" movie. They appear in the film as themselves (although the credits say 'The Willies' played by 'The Feelies') at a high school reunion. They perform the Monkees "I'm A Believer" after which they are joined by Gary Gettman - one of the film's producers. He sings a touching C&W number, "Before The Next Teardrop Falls" that enables the audience to smooch. After that you get a snatch of "Crazy Rhythm", whereupon they turn into Yung Wu (more or less) as Dave sings "Fame". The whole section is priceless. Demme is a great fan of the Feelies. He says "I will go see them anywhere. Maybe because they are so studiously uncareerist".

Since then the band have edged perilously close to becoming (shock! horror!) a full-time unit. They came to the UK shortly after "Good Earth" was released and played a low-key, but excellent gig at the University Of London, with Died Pretty and have toured Europe. Never more than four weeks away at any one time, though. At the end of last year they released their third album, "Only Life" now on Coyote/A&M, a measure of their increased sales potential. On it they sound crisper and more confident, Glenn is singing better and the vocals are less buried than before. If anything it sounds as though they have married the more manic "Crazy Rhythms" style with the softer sounds of "Good Earth". One critic said something to the effect that they had now realised their dream of recording the perfect version of the third Velvet's album. I think that's unfair - the Velvet's influence is there (not to mention a cover of "What Goes On") but the Feelies are far too original to be so easily pidgeon-holed. For me the songs aren't quite up to the best on "Good Earth", but that's a minor quibble - it cuts the current work of 99% of other rock bands to pieces. So there!

They've played here again, of course (hence my interview with Bill), this time at the T&C 2. Without doubt it was one of the gigs of the decade, the band finally getting a chance to show how they can really play live over here. The sound was superb, the vocals and extensive percussion parts being especially clear. The sound conformed my suspicion that they could be both manic and subtle - and what a great use of feedback. Whatever, see them when they come back, you won't regret it.

In terms of the Feelies that brings the story up to date - but there is more...... When the Feelies "reformed" in late '84, it left the remaining Trypes somewhat high and dry. The remaining three - Baumgartner, Paruta and Francia carried on for a while, opting for a minimalist approach with the use of backing tracks. When that didn't work out too well, they decided to recruit new members in the shape of Jim DeRogatis (Ex Ex-Lion Tamers and rock critic) on drums, Pete Pedulla (another Ex-Lion Tamer) on bass and a DJ from station WFMU, Frank O'Toole on guitar. Gigs were infrequent, but the situation improved after the "release" of a two song demo tape in '86, "Ella's Way" and "Climb The Ocean". Another tape appeared in late '87 featuring "Tommy's House" and "Cardinal Rules". Their first album, released this year, features three of those (the exception is "Climb The Ocean").

The album "Speed The Plough" was produced by Bill Million, who adds percussion and on one track plays E-bow guitar. But in no way is it Feelies sound-alike. Basically its a refinement and continuation of the Trypes approach. In many ways it defies description - they go in for intricate layers of sound that constantly change and weave to produce a truly ethereal and hypnotic feeling. There are echoes of Nico, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, the Beatles (especially things like "Only A Northern Song") chamber music and god knows what else. Don't, however, get the impression that they are some kind of New Age meusli-eaters. Underneath it still has real balls - a primarily acoustic approach does not equal vapid. It's a beautiful, challenging and (despite the influences) a highly original concept. It's doubtful that the album will come out here, so pick it up on import while it's still around, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Since the album was recorded, they have acquired a new bass player, John Neilson. This change is unlikely to affect the chances of theta appearing live over here. Even if the record took off it wouldn't make much difference. At least two of the band suffer from monumental stage-fright and. in a comment that says a lot about both bands, Bill Million remarked, "they have more home bodies than the Feelies, which is saying something!"

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