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NonStop Banter magazineTIME TRAVELS WITH THE FEELIES
RANDOM THOUGHTS & RANDOM ELEMENTS

NON*STOP BANTER 
Issue No. 10 November December 1986

Interview by TINA WOELKE and BRUCE NOVAK
Photos by MARTY PEREZ

Bill Million - Click on the image to see a larger version
"We do what we do; we do it in 
New Jersey and we'd do it in Alaska".
Bill Million

Bill Million's statement about the Feelies doesn't sound the least bit dramatic or "artistic". Yet listen to Crazy Rhythms (Stiff, 1980) or this year's The Good Earth (Coyote Records), and what you bear is beautiful, intriguing music: murmuring vocals laced through strands of guitars and driving, insistent percussion. On vinyl, the Feelies have all the mystery and intensity of the Velvet Underground.

The Feelies, who hail from Haledon, New Jersey, just finished up a U.S. cross-country tour to promote their newest studio effort. 

 

The Good Earth and the related tour have furthered the band's status as critics' darlings. When we pointed out that we'd never seen a single item of bad press about the band, Bill Million shrugged and said, "Yeah, we've been lucky that way". Despite his offhand attitude, luck has very little to do with the Feelies' success (their show at Chicago's West End closed with six encores, and the audience was asking for more). The Feelies take their music very seriously; their albums are full of fascinating detail, and they play live with incredible concentration.

It's hard to get the Feelies to talk about their music, but not because there isn't anything to say, or because they haven't a very clear idea of what they're creating. As a group, the Feelies give an overwhelming sense of absolute destiny. They do what they do with complete conviction - so much so that to explain it seems redundant. Also, there's so much music to explain! Although there are only two Feelies albums, every band member is involved with concurrent projects.

Guitarists/vocalists/songwriters Million and Glenn Mercer began the Feelies in 1977, and for several years had a shifting rhythm section (Anton Fier of Golden Palominos fame was the drummer for about three years). Dave Weckerman was the original Feelies drummer, and subsequently returned (he was also involved in a duo called Mr. Baxter); drummer Stan Demeski, who is also a member of the Phosphenes, joined about five years ago. Bassist Brenda Sauter joined in 1983 but, as Demeski explained, "before that she was with other bands that involved all of us". One of those other bands was the Trypes (who recorded a 1983 EP entitled "The Explorers Hold", and who appeared on the 1986 Coyote Luxury Condos compilation). Weckerman, Million and Mercer also belong to Yung Wu, and Million and Mercer perform together as the Willies. An EP by the Feelies is due out soon that will contain "Slipping" and "The High Road" from The Good Earth, along with covers of Neil Young's "Sedan Delivery" and the Beatles' "She Said, She Said".

How can these people be so low-profile and also so productive? Maybe it's because the band members aren't all caught up in the whirl of publicity; instead they seem to prefer to work steadily at their music and let the critics and fans do the interpreting. We did talk to the band over dinner before their September 26th show at the West End (Dave Weckerman was not with us at dinner).

Non*Stop Banter: What was the genesis of the Feelies?

Bill Million: Nothing that special. We grew up in the same town, we had similar musical tastes. That's pretty much all it was. We (Glenn and Bill) were both musicians. Our musical tastes were pretty extreme at the time; there weren't that many people who would be listening to the Modern Lovers, the Stooges, the Velvet Underground. Except for Stanley! Stanley, as a young lad, eight years old.....

Stan Demeski: I did too! I'm the youngest, so that's why they say these things about me. I was listening to the Velvet Underground album when I went into freshman year of high school, I bought "Transformer" when I was in sixth grade. So I did listen to that stuff. I was a big Rolling Stones fan when I was ten or eleven. That's how I got into playing drums.

NSB: What became of the Phosphenes?

Stan: Oh, we're still together, we just haven't played in a while. We don't play out at all. We were playing at first, pretty steadily, but then the bass player got married, his wife had a baby, and he's going to school for electrical engineering, so we really haven't played in a while. And the singer moved to New York. We'll still play; we have demos and stuff. We were real thrown because of that record (Phosphenes, an EP recorded in 1983 with Richard Barone and James Mastro of the Bongos). It didn't come out like we wanted it to.

NSB: The Feelies are working on the soundtrack for a Jonathan Demme film?

Bill: Well, we're in the movie. We played about five songs in the movie; we play a high school reunion band. It takes place in 1986, it's called "Something Wild".

NSB: So they're all live songs?

Bill: Yes.

NSB: Did you write them especially for the film?

Bill: No. Actually it's a ten-year class reunion, so he wanted a lot of songs from that time period, like 1976, which we ended up not doing. The only one we kept really from that time period was "Fame", the David Bowie song. So that's in there. "Crazy Rhythms" is in it, "I'm A Believer" - the Monkees song.

Stan: "Until The Next Teardrop Falls", by Freddie Fender. One of the producers does a cameo and he sings it. It's really funny.

NSB: How did you get involved in this project with Jonathan Demme?

Bill: He's been a fan of the band for a real long time. He saw us play out in Los Angeles around the time that Crazy Rhythms came out in 1980. He had this idea of doing a concert film with the band back then, but had trouble arranging the money to do it. He's just always wanted to work with the band and this opportunity came up.

NSB: Do you find yourself interacting with a lot of the film community in New York since you did the music for "Smithereens"?

Bill: No. We don't interact with any community.

Glenn Mercer: I agree.

NSB: Everyone's speculating that this new record is a different Feelies. How do you feel it's different or parallel to Feelies of years past?

Bill: Well, the sound of the record is different, but it's the same Feelies. It's the same approach to music we've pretty much always had. The tempos are more varied.

Glenn: A lot of people assume that the sound o Crazy Rhythms was the sound of the band for quite a while. We actually sort of changed; it just happened to be that particular sound we had at the time. It was quite different before that and quite different after that.

Glenn Mercer - Click on the images to see a larger version
Bill
: Some songs that are on The Good Earth (are older), like "Slipping", which actually preceded Crazy Rhythms - it's about eight years old. "When Company Comes" was written around the time that Crazy Rhythms came out. They range anywhere from being eight years old to being recorded right in the studio at the time.

NSB: You say that the Feelies have been changing, and yet you've all been involved in other bands, too - is it that you're trying different sounds that you don't want to try with the Feelies?

Bill: Different people have different roles. We have a band called Yung Wu where Dave writes the material, we help him arrange it, he sings and fronts the band. It's his material, so it sounds a lot different than what the Feelies would sound like.

NSB: So they're different showcases for different people?

Bill: It's just... different. None of the bands really sound the same.

NSB: The Feelies seem to be the best-known of the groups. Is that because you've been together longer or are trying more to be in the public eye?

Glenn: It was the first band to have a record out. I guess we are concentrating more on the Feelies now.

Bill: Although there'll probably be a Yung Wu record in the works soon. We've recorded a few songs.

NSB: Do you think your other projects are taken seriously? From what I gather, people tend to write about them as just a side project. Was that your intent?

Bill: No, it's just difficult... at this particular time the Feelies are real busy, doing a lot of work on this band. When we go back we'll probably do a Willies and a Yung Wu show. And then we have to play in two weeks with the Feelies with R.E.M., and then we're going to Europe for a month. So there's really not that much time at this particular time to spend more with the other bands.

NSB: Could you run down what you feel is the idea or what's behind these groups?

Stan: We just like to play the stuff, have fun.

Bill: The Willies has varied considerably since they started playing. It initially started out as real experimental, mostly music on a four-track at different speeds. We would accompany the four-track and there would be speakers throughout parts of the room. We went after a three-dimensional sort of sound with a lot of movements and stuff. It's changed from that. Now that band's a lot different; we actually broke in some Feelies songs with the Willies, some instrumentals.

NSB: Is there going to be another Trypes record?

Bill: I think not.

Stan: They sort of have another band now, because they got tired of waiting for the people in the Feelies to rehearse with them. They like to rehearse two times a week, and after a while we just couldn't do it all.

NSB: So the other people in the Trypes are doing it on their own?

Stan: Yeah. I doubt if they'll play out or anything. They sort of do it for their own amusement.

NSB: Do you feel there's a sound, the same ideas running through your head when you play in all the bands? Something that ties all the bands together?

Bill: Well, we have the same aesthetic with those bands, probably.

NSB: Do you think you would feel as complete an aesthetic if you didn't have the other bands? What if something happened, say the Feelies became Top 40? Would you feel weird about abandoning the other bands?

Glenn: It's always nice to play with different line-ups.

NSB: You wouldn't necessarily stop doing that, then?

Bill/Glenn: No.

NSB: Earlier we were talking about the stuff you did in the beginning of the songs on "Crazy Rhythms", the quirky effects that are obviously studio. Do you just play around when you go into production, or plan...?

Bill: Sometimes; sometimes we have an idea what we want to do. It really varies. If it sounds interesting, it might purely be by accident. we have a lot of respect for what we refer to as the 'random element' in music. So something might happen by mistake, by error. We just have a lot of respect for that.

NSB: Do you think that touring has affected your music at all, changed the kind of stuff you write, travelling around the country?

Bill: Well, we haven't really toured - we did one tour two years ago, and that was around the whole country. Then, there's this tour.

NSB: Do you just not like it, or haven't you had the opportunity, or what?

Bill: Well, we kind of take things real slow. We work within our own time frame, you know, seeing how we do like it. *

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