Glenn Mercer is the most humble soul I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with. What’s insane is that he’s an integral part of one of the most influential bands in the history of alternative and underground music. If you’re not familiar with the back story, Glenn and his friend Bill Million – who had played together in a band called The Outkids – rounded up a stellar lineup in Dave Weckerman, Keith Clayton, and Vinnie DeNunzio and in 1976, The Feelies came to be.
The lineup is a tad different these days, after a couple of reincarnations – and a number of extraordinarily good records – Weckerman, Mercer, and Million remain, with Brenda Sauter and Stan Demeski to fill out the band. In honor of The Feelies’ 40th anniversary, they have been playing some giant shows lately. Included in the fun? Re-releases of some of their most jaw-dropping work.
But that’s not all. This year, the five piece went back in-studio to produce more original work for us. As of August 4th – the afternoon I got to speak briefly with Mercer – they were putting the final touches on their album, and hoping to release it in late fall 2016. Mercer had a little bit of insight into the new recording, and a lot of reminiscing to do. Below is what transpired during our conversation.
What have you been up to lately?
Well, we’re working on our new record. We’ve done recording and mixing and now we’re kind of putting the packaging together and finishing up with the mastering.
That’s so exciting. What are some big changes that have happened in the recording process for you over the years?
In particular, on the new record we did a lot of it at my house in my home studio with extra equipment. It’s the same room where we rehearsed. We’ve been here since we reformed and a little bit prior to taking the hiatus in the 90’s. So it’s a room we’re really familiar with and feel comfortable in. We also did some recording at an engineer’s studio, so it was all done very low key. We refer to it as “off the clock” when you’re not paying an hourly rate, so in that sense it was a lot more relaxed. We still had deadlines to meet. The fact that Bill – the other guitar player and co-writer – lives in Florida, and our bass player lives in Pennsylvania made us a bit restricted in terms of time frame. But it was still more relaxed than it would typically be.
Did you go for a different sound with the upcoming record?
A little bit. Recently, we’ve been doing demos. Our last record, we did demos for all the songs and we did it on this record as well. We’re pretty happy with the way they came out and we actually – in some instances – took the recordings from the demo and used that for the record. I don’t think anyone would notice a drastic change in the sound or the vibe of the record. I think it sounds a lot more relaxed and laid back.
When you started out, who did you look to as influences for your sound back then, as opposed to perhaps now?
Initially our biggest influences were bands that had pretty heavy, distorted guitar sounds. Like The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, MC5. We kind of grew tired of that pretty quick, as it felt like a lot of bands had a similar sound. Punk was coming up and they were all fast and distorted. We thought we could explore a lot of other types of moods and guitar sounds. Prior to the punk scene, we had been into the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Birds, folk rock. Different genres of music. We thought it’d be interesting to take all of those different elements – rather than going with a restricted sound – being able to draw from a variety of stuff. We experimented more with guitar textures and different sound. The first record, we actually recorded some guitars direct to tape so it had a really clean sound. That kind of defined us for a while, but eventually we brought in more distortion. Now we’re at a point where we could go either way with it.
It seems like, no matter what you do with your sound, you have a strong fan base and it’s always well received.
No matter what we do, there’s always that connective link of everything. It’s undefinable. You can change one element in the sound and in the group it could change everything. So it’s a combination of a lot of different things that results in a sound that pushed the envelope. We can push it around, but it will still retain a lot of elements that still define the band.
So, to back it up a bit, do you remember the first song you ever heard?
My earliest memory is seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Shortly after that, my mother bought my brothers and I the first Beatles record. She played keyboard and was a real big fan of music. We always listened to the radio in the car. She was a big influence and a big supporter of my musical endeavors.
Was there a moment that you realized you wanted to pursue music?
Not really. We try to avoid thinking of it in terms of a career. Obviously, at some point, you have to invest a lot of time into it and you realize that it’s taking you away from other areas of your life. So it does take the same place as a career, but we try to avoid thinking of it that way. At least in terms of the business side of it.
It’s your 40th anniversary. How has all of the hoopla this year been for you?
I don’t know if I have a concise thought on it. It’s somewhat overwhelming to think that so much time has passed, it’s really gone by in the blink of an eye. The most important thing is that it was something that started out as primarily something to do for fun and self expression and, at some point, other things get in the way of that. It’s not the top priority. The fact that we have gone back to that place where we were initially, doing it for fun and self-expression, has kind of brought us full circle.
You have influenced so many bands across the board over the years. Has there ever been an act that you have heard that you heard a similarity with?
A lot of times that will come up, and I’ll listen to the bands that are compared to us. I tend to listen for the differences more than the similarities. There are some times when I kind of hear the connection and that’s always exciting. I don’t think anybody sounds like us, to be honest.
The industry is really competitive now, to be sure. It is tough nowadays to sell records because people aren’t really buying records anymore. I heard a statistic – I’m not sure how accurate it is – but I think 90% or so of the records sold never get out of their shrink wrap. People consider them relics or souvenirs.
That’s so sad! Do you still listen to vinyl?
I do a little bit. I didn’t have a record player for awhile, but I have one now.
So you have released some pretty stellar solo material. How does the process with that vary compared to your work with the band?
It’s a lot quicker working alone because I get to work at my own pace. But there’s a certain reward that comes from collaboration. You get feedback. There’s something about enthusiasm that can spread. It helps to raise the whole level of enthusiasm. When you’re working alone, you have a distance from it and it’s hard to appreciate different perspectives I guess. With working with people, you don’t second guess as much and you have people to bounce ideas off of. I like working both ways, I don’t really have a preference for either one.
Do you have any crazy stories from touring?
Not really. There were a lot of stories connected to our first cross country tour in 1984. It was really low budget. We weren’t promoting a record, we were just playing. It was the beginning of the second version of the band. We just rented a motor home and took off. We knew prior to the tour that we wouldn’t be making that much money. A lot of things went wrong, but there were a lot of great stories that came from it. The mobile home kept breaking down, of course, but we managed to make most of the shows. It was a lot of fun and we really bonded on that tour.
We did well on the west coast, the big cities, Chicago. We had broken down for the last time – the motor home just died completely – and the guy who owned it didn’t want us to leave it there so we ended up towing it on a big tractor trailer truck. That was in Louisiana. We had to debate whether to drive straight home or to try to make the last show in Athens, Georgia. We had been following the Athens music scene, so we decided to go there and end the adventure on a high note. So we towed the motor home and did that last show.
We actually drove over the Rocky Mountains and apparently you’re supposed to adjust your carburetor because the air is really thin. We didn’t know that. We decided to stop at the top to sleep and spend the night. It was really nice. The next morning, we couldn’t start it. We were stuck for a while, but we did manage to get it started again. At the time, it seemed horrific. But you look back on it fondly. It was tough but it felt like we were paying our dues.
Anything interesting on your rider?
Not really that I can recall. Now we normally get money and take care of our own food. We have some dietary restrictions – I’m allergic to dairy and we have two vegetarians in the band – so when we were on tour with Lou Reed, we would have to get special meals made. Often, we would be eating at the venue with Lou and his band. A few times, Lou would look over and say, “Oh, that looks really good. How come they get that and I have to eat this?” It was pretty funny.
He was probably amazing when you guys toured with him, though!
Oh yes. Compared to The Velvet Underground? I don’t know. I saw him when he first played, he was supporting the Transformer record. He was so totally wasted his guitar wasn’t plugged in for half of the songs. That was the peak for him and he had a bad night. Never really sure what you’re going to get though!
Have you been to any fun concerts lately?
I don’t really go to shows. A lot of the bands are a little too loud. We play louder than we probably need to, and I’m not sure why everyone plays so loudly. We’ve gotten used to it now. I just saw a show and the entire audience was wearing earplugs. The band was wearing earplugs. Why not turn the sound down?
Couldn’t agree more! So when are you guys expecting to get this new album out?
We’re on a tight deadline now because of vinyl. You need to have everything together like, four or five months in advance and then you’re on a waiting list. It doesn’t make much sense, but that’s how it works now. If we don’t get everything done in the next week or two, we may have to wait until next year to release it. We’re hoping for a November release though.
Then we’ll do what we’ve been doing. Weekend shows here and there, mostly east coast stuff.
Is there anything to note that your fans can expect from the record?
I hope they like it. (laughing)
The Feelies play The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA on September 16th and The MET in Pawtucket, RI on the 17th. To keep up with Glenn and all updates on the storied band, check out their website.