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UP AND DOWN WITH THE FEELIES

New York Rocker
1980

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

The exterior of Bill Million's Haledon, New Jersey house is not very impressive. The paint is chipped, the yard is only adequately maintained. The house fits in nicely with the neighborhood, as does Bill, who is often seen going in and out. He's a mild-mannered fellow: quiet, polite, a community asset. It's only occasionally that something seems strange - when the other boys come over and a rock and roll rumble rises from the basement.

Once you get past the front door, things are different. The ceiling is white, as are the wood floors, as are the giant empty canvases that hang on the white walls. The modern muzak of Eno and Kraftwerk floats through the setting from an unseen stereo. There is no excess - everything is its place and everyplace is scrubbed clean.

Bill can't start the day until the house is organized, and while his wife works (as a hairdresser), Bill cleans. In his spare time he does his work: being a Feelie.

Every day, Bill jogs with Glenn Mercer. Together they cover three to five miles. Together they write and play guitar for the Feelies. Sometimes, when they run, songs go through their heads, and when they perform their songs they seem to be running a race.

Keith DeNunzio and Anton Fier don't like to jog, but they do race with the Feelies: Keith on bass, Anton on drums. They wear their pants tighter than Bill or Glenn. Keith likes to watch TV; Anton smokes cigarettes, says lots of things off the record, and lives in New York City.

BILL: "We don't go to New York much. We get real bad headaches going through the tunnel."

GLENN: "You just can't breathe."

The Feelies don't practice much and play even less. Legend has it they used to only play on national holidays. Every now and then, Anton takes a bus out to Haledon and runs through the band's ten or eleven numbers. Other times, the bass and drums lay down a beat while Bill and Glenn try out their new effects boxes. If someone isn't in the mood, practice can end in twenty minutes. The Feelies play their music fast and take their lives at a slow, careful pace. The team of Million and Mercer has probably cranked out no more than fifteen songs in their entire writing career. Most of the songs were written when the band formed in the spring of 1976. Now, four years after their inception, the Feelies' debut album, Crazy Rhythms, is out on Stiff (import only).

GLENN: "Songs that are a couple of years old are totally different songs. We change the parts so much that they're not really the same songs. To me, they seem like new songs."

BILL: "I don't think music plays that important part In our lives. We just feel real comfortable doing what we're doing. We pretty much approach it like we can take it or leave it."

Anton does not agree. Playing drums is Anton's life, and the Feelies' light work schedule allowed him to play with other musicians on the side. Right now he's in the Lounge Lizards, the new rave of the New York underground scene. They are currently recording demos with Chris Stein of Blondie.

ANTON: "Arto Lindsay of DNA and I became friends and started playing informally in his rehearsal space and these… you could call them jams - eventually included John Lurie, who had material and an idea for a band. The Feelies weren't rehearsing alot at the time, weren't playing alot of jobs, weren't working on alot of new material - and my playing was suffering for it". 

One starts to wonder about these Feelies after a while. I mean, what are they up to? I tell my friend about these guys: how they never play, don't have any new songs and never practice. "How can you call them a band?" he asks. And I've got to admit the question sort of stumps me. After three hour-long conversations with Bill and an afternoon interview with the band at Bill's house, I still don't have an answer.

The Feelies aren't real talkers. They just don't have alot to say. What they do say is enigmatic and hesitant. As if they really are not sure why they do the things they do. Glenn calls Feelies performances a "celebration", a special event that takes alot of preparation.

And indeed, a Feelies performance really is a ritual. A sacred rite of the suburban boy. It's as if any literal meaning the Feelies songs might have is stripped bare. The Feelies do not play songs so much as administer a series of complex mantras designed to release them of the tension and complacency of their lives. When I say "them" I really mean Bill and Glenn. They control the show, conduct their lives slowly and carefully, hesitate whenever possible. Only on stage, with those ten songs they know so well, can they really let go.

To get an idea of the operating principal of a Feelies concert listen to "The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness." The piece begins with a tiny percussive figure played on what I guess are claves. Slowly, a guitar comes in sounding a single repeated note. The bass drum enters like a heartbeat, and the guitar increases in volume until a second harmonic note is added, tom-toms come in, timbales and these percolating guitars and... well, pretty soon that tiny percussive tweak has increased to a tumultuous roar. Anton pounds his skins, red-faced, with a big vein bulging in his neck. His parts are technically simple but his attack is rigorous. Keith and the additional percussionist (a peripheral hired hand that no one really talks about) are relegated almost to the wings, as Glenn and Bill hop about the stage in frenzied abandon. The song may contain only two chords, but with those constraints incredible forces are at work. The pattern repeats from song to song: constriction and release, the running of the race, the pacing of the pain and the pure joy. Not since Television has a band brought such a spiritual element to rock and roll. It's that shared spiritual element that makes the Feelies important. And makes the Feelies a band.

And the biggest contradiction of all is their album, because it misses so much of the excitement the band generates live. And Million and Mercer did it on purpose!

"They are the most obstinate people I've ever met," says Mark Abel. Mark was the ostensible producer of Crazy Rhythms, but readily admits it was Glenn and Bill's baby all the way. "They had real set ideas of what they wanted. That record was the culmination of four years of fantasizing about how they were going to record those songs... they couldn't understand anyone else's ideas... Frankly, I think they dug themselves into a hole, but that's the hole they want and they have a perfect right to sit in it."

Crazy Rhythms was recorded in four weeks at Vanguard Studios in New York and mixed at New Jersey's House of Music. It's a remarkable record with a personality all its own. It doesn't rely on trendy new wave gimmicks like synthesized drums and keyboard washes. The Feelies give it to you straight, so straight that I question how this baby will fare in the marketplace with "cult item" branded on its behind. That's the hole Mark Abel is talking about. Crazy Rhythms is a finely honed effort, but it doesn't reach out and grab you.

GLENN: "We don't want the listener to listen passively. They should be prepared to sit down and listen to things. It shouldn't be all worked out for them, so that it's something they put on while they wash their dishes."

Abel got into big fights with the duo over things like overdubbing of rhythm guitar parts for a thicker sound. Million and Mercer won out: the rhythm tracks are single-tracked, and consequently sound pretty thin, undercutting the drama of their playing (a far cry from the droning wall of their live sound). They also fought over microphones. Much to Abel's chagrin, Mercer opted for an old 1940's RCA mike to record his lead vocals. The old mike didn't have the frequency range of a modern one and caused problems at mixing time. Halfway through the mix, Abel gave up and let the boys do it themselves.

What was lost on Crazy Rhythms is that firey overdrive that makes the Feelies such a remarkable live act. What is gained is a clarity that lets you hear how intricate and thought-out these simple songs really are. The problem is the Feelies know these songs too well, killing any hope of spontaneity and unbridled passion. Yet Crazy Rhythms is a valuable document of some of rock and roll's most original thinkers.

Million and Mercer think alot. Like Mark Abel said, these recordings are the culmination of four years of thinking. The Feelies' career is kind of like the bass and drum break of the title track: a long, expansive tract with a lot of white space occasionally punctuated by small events. Mainly it's alot of white space...

SPRING 1976
Bill and Glenn are in and out of various basement bands. Finally they end up in the same one and begin writing material together. They play in a bar every Tuesday night in Elmwood Park, NJ. The De Nunzio brothers (a/k/a Keith Clayton and Vinny Dee) also play in a '60s cover band. They decide to join forces: Million and Mercer on guitars, Keith and Vinny on bass and drums.

FALL1976
The Feelies audition at CBGB, playing for about six people at 2:30 in the morning. One of those six people is the sound man, Mark Abel, who likes the band and tells them so. He also tells Terry Ork, at the time THE New York new wave entrepreneur. Ork comes and sees them, and agrees to manage the band.

WINTER 76-77
A single is cut at Trod Nossel Studios in Connecticut for Ork Records. Jon Tiven is at the controls. The songs are "Forces at Work" b/w "Original Love" and the Feelies don't like the results. The single never comes out.

SUMMER 77
The Feelies return to Trod Nossel this time with Mark Abel producing.

BILL: "It was a real scary place, we were afraid to go up there. It took up two months to psyche ourselves up." The songs are "Fe Ca La" b/w "Big Plans." The Feelies are to be part of a massive deal that Ork has made with Polygram. There will also be singles by Alex Chilton and the Cramps. The results this time are impressive but...

WINTER 77-78
The records never come out. Ork deal with Polygram falls through and there's no money for pressings. When Ork finally gets the money up, it's too late. The Feelies don't like the tapes anymore. They feel their sound has changed.

SPRING 1978
The Feelies continue to slowly hone their sound. The drums take on a real importance.

GLENN: "Alot of times we felt the guitars were competing with each other, so we'd have Bill play percussion and we found that intriguing."

BILL: "There were other times when the drums would compete with the guitars. Sometimes the cymbals would hit this one frequently and all three would be cancelled out. So we took away the cymbals and we had to replace them with something, so we added a percussionist."

By adding extra snares, the Feelies could get an overdubbed drum sound live. The combination of massive drums and droning guitars has become a Feelies trademark, but in 1978 the public wasn't buying it.

SPRING 1978
White space.

SUMMER 1978
More white space.

FALL 1978
The Feelies headline at Max's on a weekend over Alex Chilton (the last time Chilton plays New York). It's also one of the most abysmally attended weekend shows I have ever seen. The Feelies play their second furious set to about six people. One of them is John Picarella from the Village Voice. He likes the Feelies and tells them so. He plans to write an article. In the meantime, Vinnie Dee decides to call it quits, and the Feelies are without a drummer. When Television break up, Vinny goes to work with Richard Lloyd.

GLENN: "I think when you hit the low points, it forces you to look at what you're doing and evaluate it. If you feel you're getting a certain amount of satisfaction, you don't need hundreds of people applauding you. With personal satisfaction, you can make it through those times."

KEITH: "As soon as it got to the lowest, something would always happen... then we'd drop down again."

Before the Feelies can find a drummer, the Voice prints its story and slaps what is now a trio on the cover and calls them the best band in New York. One person who reads the piece is Anton Fier, fresh from Cleveland, where he developed quite a reputation playing drums in X Blank X, the Styrene Money Band, Pere Ubu, the Electric Eels, and the Mr. Stress Blues Band. Through an acquaintance, Charles Beasley (a former Feelies percussionist), he is the first to audition and the first to get the job.

JANUARY 1979
The Feelies with Anton debut at Hurrah. New converts flocking to hear what Robert Christgau calls "the best band in New York."

SPRING 1979
Demos are recorded at Carla Bley's studio, an attractive press package assembled, and the Feelies start trying to hustle a deal with Roger Trilling acting as a liason. Most of the labels show at least a spark of interest, one offers a crazy scheme whereby Phil Glass will produce the record and skim 50% off the top of all profits and publishing. The Feelies turn down the offer, as do other "new," "difficult" rock artistes like DNA and the Lounge Lizards.

KEITH: "At one of our final auditions at the Mudd Club, the representative from A&M wanted us to go on right away or they threatened to leave. We weren't ready to do on, so they left." (chuckle)

SUMMER 1979
Rough Trade releases two of the Carla Bley demos, "Fe Ca La" b/w "Raised Eyebrows," to mixed critical response. (The same version of "Raised Eyebrows" appears on the album slightly remixed.) Finally Stiff takes the plunge and the story begins...

After a four-month lag time, the Feelies album is now out. Bill and Glenn are upset that they never got to hear a test pressing. (The record was already out for a week in England before they heard it, complete with an inordinate amount of surface noise). They were also unhappy with the way the cover art turned out: the colors are brighter on the cover than they had requested (pale mute tones for these boys) and the back cover (an enlargement of a floor tile from Bill's closet) has a big empty square in the middle of It that was supposed to contain the band members' names. It's things like this that are of utmost importance to Bill and Glenn, moresoeven than selling records.

The Feelies' future is full of white space. Anton wants to quit to join the Lounge Lizards full time. An ad has been taken out in the Voice (pictures and resumes, please) but no one has been auditioned because the group was planning a European tour with Anton fulfilling his final duties. Now the tour has been cancelled due to financial disagreements with Stiff. Glenn and Bill are busy working on new material, but the process is real slow and none of it has even been played to the other members of the band. "This the worst possible time this band has ever gone through," says Bill. Another down in the long series of up and downs that has made up the long slow journey of the Feelies. They vow not to play New York City again until they have new material.

Until then, Bill Million will clean his house until everything is in its proper place. Glenn and Bill will go jogging and listen to the songs run in their heads. Some of the fragments will end up on their tape recorders, and soon the Feelies will be rumbling once again. "You must be waiting for something to happen," goes the chorus of "Original Love," "Expecting something to happen, but nothing ever happens."

Good luck, fellas, I'm rooting for you - all the way down and back up again.

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