The Feelies are definitely on the less ostentatious side of the rock spectrum. They hail from Haledon, New Jersey; they wear clothes that wouldn’t look out of place if you were to see them on the street. Yet they’re undeniably among the greats. In their early days, they opened for artists like Richard Hell and Patti Smith. They also toured with the legendary Lou Reed and shaped the soundtracks of seminal punk film Smithereens and cult film Something Wild. Listen to songs like “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness” and “Loveless Love” and you’ll understand why. There’s a controlled chaos in the percussion and guitars that’s simmering just below the surface, waiting to break loose… and when it does, it’s phenomenal.
We recently had to chance to chat with Glenn Mercer, founding member and vocalist for Feelies, on the phone, just a few days before attending his Baltimore show. We talked to him about the band’s new record In Between, their highly influential 1980 debut album Crazy Rhythms, CBGB in its heyday and more.
TYF: I’m super excited for the Baltimore show. I’ve been listening to The Feelies all week to get ready. Do you guys have any notable memories of past trips to Baltimore or past shows there?
Glenn Mercer: Well, I remember the club [Ottobar]. I think we’ve played there twice before. We’ve always had a good time, good crowds. So we’re looking forward to it.
TYF: You guys have obviously traveled a lot over the years; what are some of the most interesting places that you’ve visited?
Mercer: I liked Portland, Oregon a lot. Athens, Georgia was always fun to play. I like Boston. We’ve been going there for ages.
TYF: What is Portland like? I’ve never been there.
Mercer: Well, this is going back to the ’80s, so it’s probably totally different now. Just very art-oriented and creative. A lot of creative people there… just a very relaxed vibe to it.
TYF: How about Athens?
Mercer: Well, Athens was a college town and it had tons of bands, so it was a very musical town. The musicians formed a bond. There was a real strong community of musicians—and artists, as well. Chicago’s great. We’ve always had good crowds in Chicago. I feel like I’m leaving places out. I’ve had fun times all over, really.
TYF: Now I’ve got some questions about some specific songs and albums. What’s the story behind the cover art of In Between, your most recent record?
Mercer: Not much of a story, really. My brother-in-law took the picture. He had sent part of his portfolio, maybe 50 pictures. We were going through ’em, and nothing really jumped out, although they were all good—they just didn’t seem to fit for the album cover. And then I happened to walk past our refrigerator—and we have a ton of stuff all over the refrigerator, so I don’t normally even pay much attention to it—but [something] jumped out, and it was a postcard that he had made to promote his photography career. It just caught my eye and I thought, “Oh, that really fits the mood and the title.”
TYF: Where is it a picture of?
Mercer: I think it’s in France, if I remember right. It’s on the postcard that I got.
TYF: This is going way back, but one of my favorite songs by The Feelies is “Loveless Love.” What was the inspiration behind that?
Mercer: No one specific thing. I have a hard time talking about inspiration of songs and lyrics where they come from because often when you’re writing, it’s almost stream-of-consciousness, just whatever pops into your head. And a lot of times, I don’t even know what they’re about till years later.
TYF: What about “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness”?
Mercer: It’s just from the point of view of [someone living in] a suburban neighborhood.
TYF: Do you think that The Feelies will be coming out with new music anytime soon, or are you mostly going to focus on playing In Between and the older albums?
Mercer: We’ll kind of shift back and forth. We’ll do a record and then promote it for a few years. It takes us a few years to write more songs and then a few years to record ’em, so a lot of time goes by between records. We’ll probably do a bit of each. We have some shows coming up in the spring and the summer, and we’re also working on some new songs, so we’re trying to balance those two things—playing live and working on new stuff to play live. We play not only the recent record, but we go back all the way to Crazy Rhythms. We do try to do a good balance between all of the records.
TYF: When you guys first started out, you played at CBGB for a couple of years and opened for artists like Richard Hell and Patti Smith. What was it like to be starting out in that scene?
Mercer: It was a great time. A lot of energy, a lot of original music. A good alternative to what you were hearing on the radio. Even though those bands weren’t getting airplay and selling any records, they were just so full of life and inspiration, that passion for what they were doing. It was cool to be amongst it. It definitely seemed special.
TYF: Do you have any particular stories from that time that you look back on fondly?
Mercer: I look at it all fondly, really. I don’t know if there are any particular ones. I guess playing with Patti Smith’s group was a major one.
TYF: You and Bill Million worked on the soundtrack for Smithereens. How did you get involved with that project, and what was that like?
Mercer: I think, although I’m not totally sure, it was through Jonathan Demme. Jonathan Demme was a fan of the band and he was also friends with Susan Seidelman. I think he might have suggested us to her, but I’m not totally sure. It was pretty unusual working on that. We did it all at Bill’s house in the basement on pretty crude recording equipment, which we really hadn’t been using much. It was pretty new to us, so a lot of it was experimenting. Video back then wasn’t a cassette—it was actually reel to reel, so each machine would run at slightly different speeds, and we would have to time out sections. So it was pretty hard, but the challenge was exciting because it was a new way of working for us—improvising and using the equipment and stuff. I remember when we submitted a lot of the recordings, Susan said, “Well, I can’t figure it out where any of it is all supposed to go,” so we actually had to go into New York while she was editing and put the pieces together. I think it turned out good. There’s really not that much music in there, which is good for us, that being our first time doing it.
TYF: You guys were also featured in a scene in the film Something Wild.What was it like filming that?
Mercer: Well, that was pretty… I wouldn’t call it uncomfortable, but it wasn’t super comfortable either. Somewhere in between. I had taken some film classes in college, so I was used to the whole idea of the camera and the way things are put together, so that wasn’t that surprising. But the scale of it was a little overwhelming. They were real nice to us. We had some reservations about doing it initially, but Jonathan said, “Whatever you worry about, we’ll take care of it. Don’t worry. It’s gonna turn out great.” And you’ve got to give him a lot of credit because so much of the film revolves around it—it’s a pivotal moment, really, in the film. It shifts gears, really, at that point, from comedy to a darker tone. And it really all happens in the scenes that we’re in. You know, he really had to have a lot of confidence, not only in his ability to do it, but in the band’s ability, because a lot of the stuff… I think some of the songs were even suggested while we were on the set.
TYF: Oh, wow.
Mercer: Yeah. We couldn’t really prepare that much. Although we tried some songs at home, it all really came together there, surprisingly.
TYF: That’s pretty cool. What are your favorite movies, personally?
Mercer: My favorite movies? I like a lot of different stuff. My favorite era is probably the ’70s. It had a lot of good movies. I’m a big fan of Eraserhead.
TYF: Your name comes from a phrase from Brave New World. What other books do you like?
Mercer: I’m not a big reader of fiction. I prefer nonfiction, so I don’t know if I could really recommend particular books. I actually didn’t even read Brave New World.
TYF: Oh—you just heard about the concept?
Mercer: Bill had suggested it; I guess he read the book.
TYF: Oh, got it. What nonfiction topics do you like to read about?
Mercer: I like to read about music and musicians and biographies.
TYF: You graduated from college with an art degree. Do you think that your studies influenced your work in any notable ways?
Mercer: I think it did, but I think it’s also just the outlook and the approach to art. Mine was the same in each area—I’m kind of a minimalist, so my art would be minimal. It didn’t necessarily “influence” the music, but the approach, I think, was pretty much the same music
TYF: The Feelies used to be known for playing holidays. What’s your favorite holiday?
Mercer: Probably Halloween. My birthday’s the next day, so I always celebrated them together. Christmas is big.
TYF: For sure. What’s the best Halloween costume you’ve ever had?
Mercer: I don’t remember any that really stood out that much. I remember that my brother was The Mummy one time, and my mother spent literally an hour tearing these sheets apart and then wrapping him up in the sheets, and as he walked it started to unravel. The whole costume was trailing behind him. That was pretty funny.
TYF: That’s pretty great.
Mercer: I think it lasted about 10 minutes.
TYF: The next holiday that’s coming up, of course is New Year’s Eve. With that in mind, what would you say, looking back, some of your favorite things about 2018 were?
Mercer: Just everyday stuff, really. Playing with the band. We had a lot of fun shows.
TYF: And looking forward, do you have any New Year’s resolutions?
Mercer: Not yet. I have a couple days to think about it.
TYF: Finally, is there anything else that you’d like to say to the readers and the fans before we wrap up?
Mercer: Just that we’re looking forward to the shows and hope to see them there.