The Feelies look back by moving forward

Jersey sure
By ANNIE ZALESKI  |  May 8, 2012

main_Feelies_480
CREATIVE SPARKS In "We didn't want it to be purely nostalgia, just the old stuff," Glenn Mercer
(second from right) says of the Feelies' recent reunion.

Legendary New Jersey underground rockers the Feelies have always existed outside genre boundaries. Their 1980 debut LP, Crazy Rhythms — an enormously influential album that inspired R.E.M. and Sonic Youth, among others — grafted punk's jittery riffs and tempos with restless post-punk anxiety. Its vague sense of unease softened into innocent existentialism and wistful longing by the time of 1986's Good Earth and 1988's slightly more optimistic Only Life; the melancholy jangle-rock of both albums made the Feelies a peer of bands such as the Go-Betweens. By 1991's Time for a Witness, brighter production underscored a slightly more raucous direction, one indebted to their earliest work. Not long after, the band lapsed into inactivity, until 2008.

Remarkably, since their reunion, the Feelies have picked up right where they left off. The group — guitarists/vocalists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, bassist Brenda Sauter, and drummer/percussionists Dave Weckerman and Stan Demeski — remain ferocious live performers capable of jaw-dropping speed and precision, as well as sharp, barbed melodies. This innate chemistry translated to the studio, too: when the band came together to write a new album— what would become last year's Here Before (Bar/None) — Mercer observed how "effortless" the whole process was.

"It really came together just in a real organic, natural way," he says from his New Jersey home. "We didn't have a record deal or anything, so there wasn't a question of a deadline with the record company pushing us toward it. It was purely on our own, motivated by our own desire to do it. We took our time about it. At one point, we made a conscious decision to put the shows on hold and concentrate more on the writing and the record. Once we decided to do that, it came together pretty quick."

Although Here Before sounds meticulously arranged, it's not stifled by heavy-handed production. Majestic riffs — from feathery jangle to Velvet Underground-style unrest, and even a psych-tinged drone — drive the band's conspiratorial vocal cadences and their unique lyrical alchemy: emotional uplift despite uncertainty, despair, or confusion. If anything, Here Before exists on a continuum with the rest of the Feelies' catalog, a logical progression from the past — a phenomenon explained by their usual writing process ("Which is basically acoustic guitar, and build it from there," Mercer says) and their distaste for using previous creativity as a crutch.

"It was something we had talked about right from the beginning: we didn't want it to be purely nostalgia, just the old stuff," Mercer says. "Well, maybe we would have considered that for a show or two, but not [if we were going to] keep playing. It was vital for the band to exist as a band by writing."

That forward motion continues to inform the Feelies' philosophy. Although Mercer is temporarily looking back — Acute Records recently issued a collection of music from the Trypes, a New Jersey band all the current Feelies were in at one point or another in the '80s — on the horizon are more concerts and some new music. When asked if he knows the direction that music will take, Mercer chuckles slightly and says: "The same."

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