Legendary Feelies gets act together again and takes it on the road

June 26, 2009


When the Feelies last performed in Chicago, at the Vic Theatre in 1991 during a show broadcast live on WXRT-FM (93.1), the legendary New Jersey art-punks were at the end of the second phase of their career.

The first act had started in Haledon, N.J., in 1972, when guitarists and vocalists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million bonded over a shared appreciation for the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Brian Eno and other bands that no one else in suburban New Jersey seemed to appreciate. After several years spent honing a unique sound in the basement, they adopted a name from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, began to play at New York clubs such as C.B.G.B. and Max's Kansas City, and eventually signed with England's Stiff Records to release their debut album, "Crazy Rhythms" (1980).

Aptly titled -- the Feelies' trademark is a hyper-frenetic version of the Bo Diddley/Velvets beat augmented by percussion and propelled by frantic rhythm guitars -- the group didn't sound or look like any other. These were mad scientists who took the art-nerd personas of the Modern Lovers or Talking Heads to a new extreme. Yet though they developed a devoted cult following and were hailed by the Village Voice as the best underground band in New York, they essentially disappeared in 1982.

A few years later, as up-and-coming indie-rock bands such as R.E.M., the Minute Men and Chicago's Big Black enthusiastically sang their praises, Mercer and Million regrouped with a new lineup -- Brenda Sauter on bass, Stanley Demeski on drums and their old friend Dave Weckerman on percussion -- and began to perform again (at first, only on holiday weekends) and eventually recorded a new album, "The Good Earth" (1986).

This second act in the Feelies' story was not without its high points. The band opened for its hero, Lou Reed, on his "New York" tour, appeared in the Jonathan Demme film "Something Wild" and signed with A&M Records to release two more albums, "Only Life" (1988) and "Time for a Witness" (1991). But once again, the group failed to follow its acolytes R.E.M. in breaking through to a bigger mainstream audience, and as the pressures to provide for their families mounted, the Feelies fell into another long period of inactivity, this one seemingly for good.

I say "seemingly" because, to all of their fans' surprise, the cameo appearances that Mercer's old bandmates made on "Wheels in Motion," the 2007 album he released on Chicago's Pravda Records, led in time to a full-blown Feelies reunion. After two warm-up shows at Maxwell's in Hoboken, N.J., last July, the band made its triumphant return before a crowd of 7,000, opening for Sonic Youth at Battery Park in New York. And on Monday, they're coming back to Chicago to perform for a similar crowd at Millennium Park.

"We're excited about it," Mercer says.

"And with [longtime technician] Andy [Peters] doing sound, we're set," Million adds.

As those comments might indicate, and despite the fact that I've known them for 27 years, the driving forces of the Feelies are not the most loquacious interview subjects. "You're always talking, never much to say ... I don't talk much cause it gets in the way/Don't let it get in the way," they sang in the title track to "Crazy Rhythms," and that's fair enough. Still sounding utterly unique and undeniable, nothing got in the way of the music at the first of those Maxwell's shows last year, and the Feelies were back and brilliant as ever.

What else is there to say? Well, I did glean a few newsworthy nuggets during our recent chat.

Question: What have you guys been up to since Maxwell's last year? Have you been playing regularly?

Mercer: Semi-regularly. In the fall, we went to Boston; in the spring, we went to Philadelphia and [Washington] D.C. We also played the R.E.M. tribute night at Carnegie Hall.

Q: You're also playing New York's All Tomorrow's Parties Festival, right?

Million: Yeah; it's early September. One of the nights is called "Don't Look Back," and they have the band perform what they are best known for -- their signature album. We had a couple of choices. We could either do "Crazy Rhythms" or "The Good Earth." We decided to do "Crazy Rhythms."

Q: There was one new song at that Maxwell's show ...

Mercer: Yeah.

Million: I think there were two, weren't there? "Nobody Knows" and "Time Is Right."

Mercer: Maybe.

Q: My point is, there's new material! Are you going to record again?

Mercer: We're hoping to. It's going to take a while to get a whole album's worth of stuff. We're working towards that. You know, we have always been slow ...

Million: It's kind of weird to even think that it was a year ago that we played Maxwell's. It doesn't seem that long ago to me.

And so it goes on Planet Feelies, where time always has been irrelevant.

"Being in the Feelies is kind of like living in this great pyramid," Weckerman told Jim Testa of Jersey Beat fanzine back in 1984. "Nothing ever changes, and no one ever grows old."

For that matter, even though a whole new generation of bands is once again hailing their legacy -- current fans include the Decemberists and Peter Bjorn & John, and Chicago even has a cover band devoted to them called the Boys with the Perpetual Nervousness -- the Feelies fit in about as well today as they ever have.

"I think we kind of fit where we always fit: We're kind of within ourselves," Million says.

"We're on the fringe, but we're comfortable there," Mercer adds.

"It doesn't seem that much different today," Million concludes. "We're older now, but we have some of our old fans and we have some new fans."

Both are sure to be out in force on Monday.