Richard grabel words and joe stevens pictures take an
outing to the home of militant wimpism
Boys simply don't come more next door then the Feelies,
four model citizens of Haledon, NJ
The Feelies are a study in eccentricities. Two
boys in a small New Jersey town, developing an understanding based on shared
heroes. Two boys constructing a homage to a music that passed on. Two boys with
a puzzling approach to being in a band. Two boys: Glenn Mercer (nee Sebesma -
Dutch, spelling approximate) and Bill Million (nee Clayton), who lead The
Feelies. It is their show - they are the writers (with Mercer responsible for
lyrics) the producers, the frontmen.
From the start, Feelies gigs were few and far between. Usually they occurred on
national holidays - President's birthday, Flag Day, Veteran's Day. They never
used roadies. At early gigs they would "disguise" themselves in
baseball caps as they set up their equipment. Even their equipment was a quirk -
the smallest Fender amps available, perched on chairs.
Two eccentric looking boys. Baggy pleated pants, conservative shirts, intent and
serious airs. They could have been out-takes from an ancient My Three Sons
casting call, the kind of awkward, adolescent science-rejects who spent all
their time in the basement tinkering with a physics set. Only these boys
tinkered with guitars.
But were they really like that? "Well, I didn't have many friends in high
school," Glenn Mercer confirms. "I went to Eastern Christian High
School, in North Haledon. It was fairly strict. Most of my friends went to the
public school" - 'public' in the US equalling 'state' in the UK. Bill
Million was going to high school in nearby Haledon.
Mercer: "We knew each other. We never played in a band then, but we knew we
had similar tastes. The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, The Who."
Million: "There were very few people out here who were into that kind of
music. So to find someone was very exiting.
The two boys begin to write songs together. "Eventually," Mercer says,
"we had so many songs we thought we should have a band." Enter the
brothers Keith and Vinny DeNunzio on bass and drums. They debut in February
1977, and make a powerful noise. At first, they take the drone guitar attack
pioneered by the Velvets and extend its method to an even more frenzied result.
When drummer Vinny leaves and is replaced by Anton Fier, they begin to
experiment with a more fluid, polyrhythmic approach to the drone beat, often
adding a second percussionist for greater rhythmic texture.
The Feelies' first single 'Fa CÚ-La' was a surprise for those who know the
band's live sound, and their album will be even more so. The ringing harmonic
chaos that had been their forte has been abandoned to a more subdued, careful
The translation of these experiments into vinyl reveals something else. The
Feelies trace their lineage from The Velvet Underground. But they are really
closer in spirit to Jonathan Richman, they maintain a suburban detachment, a
state which may be passed off as innocence. Lou Reed in his good days never
shied away from smearing our faces in the urban dirt. It gave him something to
It's a very quiet Sunday afternoon. We pick up drummer Anton Fier at his SoHo
loft and drive off to Haledon, New Jersey, home of the Feelies.
Fier has one of the few cheap lofts left in an area that has been converted by
hip capitalism from an abandoned manufacturing area into Chic City. It's not far
to the tunnel that takes us off Manhattan Island and into another world, a tacky
commercial landscape of highways, gas station and fastfood joints.
Fier is a native of Cleveland who found his way into The Feelies through a
newspaper classified ad. In addition to his Feelies duties he holds down the
drummer's seat in The Lounge Lizards, an intriguing and funny punk-jazz outfit.
Even more than Keith DeNunzio, who shares with Mercer and Million a New Jersey
background, Fier is the odd man out in the group.
Haledon turns out to be a quiet, middle-and-working class suburb. Not rich, but
the streets are lined with trees and the houses are neatly set out, with front
and back yards. The streets are totally deserted.
The front door of the house is open. Bill Million lives here with his wife and
three dogs. Glenn Mercer lives five minutes away.
Million greets us in the living room, his ever-present coffee cup in hand. He is
a confessed coffee addict who brings a portable electric coffee pot to the
dressing room every gig the band plays.
The living room is unusually bare and stark looking for a suburban house, the
white walls creating an unnatural-seeming brightness. Otherwise all is the very
picture of normality.
Mercer and DeNunzio emerge from the kitchen. DeNunzio is friendly, good-natured,
but relegated to a minor role in terms of speaking for the band. Million is
talkative and personable. But Mercer remains stand-offish, distant, his manner
suggesting a crotchety New England grandpa.
We take seats in the living room. Slipping coffee, looking at The Feelies in
their V-neck sweater Sunday best, I feel like a kid on a Sunday outing to visit
the family's black-sheep cousin. An awkward, slightly askew moment. Sit still
and don't fidget.
We run through the pertinent facts of their backgrounds and the band's formation,
outlined above. Their first recording was for Ork Records, an aborted single 'Fa
CÚ-La', really only the general release of a demo tape. Then came the Stiff
Million: "The main reason we signed with Stiff is that we insisted we
shouldn't have a producer, and they agreed. I don't know how bands can allow
their music to be mixed by someone else. It's something we could never do."
Boys at play. Mercer and Million mixed 87 'Crazy Rhythms' according to their own,
Million: "We didn't want to go after a big modern sound. We look at it as a
rather unique sounding record. There's an awful lot of clarity and separation
that isn't found on most records. The guitars are split. Very seldom did we use
the centre spectrum in the mix."
Mercer: "It lets you know right from the start that it doesn't require
passive listening. That's why I think a lot of people are surprised by the sound
of our record. It doesn't come out like our live sound and assault you. You have
to actively listen."
Million: "It's very difficult to record certain guitar parts in the studio.
Our whole idea is to have this droning guitar thing as the foundation. Sometimes
live that drone gets out of control, and the melody lines and the drum lines
take a back seat.
"In the studio we couldn't get that same guitar sound. We could get it but
it wouldn't go over into the control room. So it was either doing what we did,
go for that clarity, or do multiple guitar overdubs, which we didn't want to do.
It wouldn't fit our style of playing."
Boys sending baffling smoke signals. The songs on the album make impressions,
set an atmosphere, but they never seem to make a statement. Their lyrics
teasingly suggest content, but nothing is being said.
Mercer: "That's correct, I think."
Then 'Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness' really does sum you up? "There's
a boy I know but not too well/'Cause he doesn't have a lot to say."
"Well it doesn't really sum up the band, but it is a good opening song in
that it says it's a person who doesn't have a lot to say, and throughout the
album is not real lyric-heavy. I look at myself primarily as a musician and as a
lyricist second. We're an instrumental type band, the lyrics are just vehicles
for the melodies. I don't think it's important to have a statement in your music."
Two boys approaching a career in music with unflappable casualness. Not only do
they rarely play gigs, they also don't really rehearse.
Million: "We very seldom rehearse our songs. We just rehearse them briefly
before we play. The idea is to have a catalogue of ideas, and then when the time
comes to apply them."
Later, out of earshot, Fier confesses some misgivings about this approach. He's
of the old school theory that musicians should play, constantly. "I'm
worried about the band," he says. "We're coming to an important
juncture, getting up before the world. They have to make some decisions."
Meanwhile, fishing for facts, I discover that Mercer just married in November a
girl whom he'd dated for seven years. Million has been married for "a few
years". DeNunzio is getting married in May. Fier is divorced: "I'm the
only one who's in this rock and roll life for the women."
So the Feelies are real model citizens. Marry your high school sweetheart and
settle down in your parent's hometown.
Million: "I think we just hit on an image as a natural growth out of our
backgrounds. The way we dress, it's suburban, small town. We are like that. It's
just the suburban nature of the band."
And you're not rushing to get out?
"No, we're rushing to stay."
The Feelies are peevish at times, stubborn always, determined to have their way.
They seem bent on deliberately confounding expectations, on not giving of
themselves what people seem to enjoy most from them. When their gears mesh, they
transmit a buzz straight to the heart. But theirs is a presentation more than a
performance; they play to each other.
They are gentlemen farmers of the underground. Kids with a hobby. It is a mode
of operation they will have to break out of if their music is to develop beyond
the confines of its present shape: an intricate, insular arabesque, a brilliant
tapestry that points only towards its own centre.