Monday, July 7

Interview #22 :Glenn MERCER from the FEELIES

The Feelies, a mythical band is often in many friends of mine top 10 list for best bands which ever existed. They lasted gloriously a bit more than 15 years splitting in 1991 after having released 4 albums which were as vital to rock as those from the Velvet Underground a decade before. Johan Kugelberg writes in Ugly Things #26 : "(...)White soul : if black folks have Solomon Burke, James Brown and Wilson Pickett, us white folks can consider the troika of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, the Feelies and Penguin Café Orchestra".

All the Feelies members, but Bill Million, kept on playing music in other projects after the end of the band, for information about the band and its musicians go to: the night of the living Feelies (
On July 4th in NYC, the band reunited for a concert at Battery Park after warming up gigs had been going on the previous days at Maxwell's in Hoboken, where the Feelies played a lot in the past.

Glenn Mercer is one of the 2 guitar players of the Feelies, a band which had also two drummers and a girl bass player. I have to admit that Glenn is one of my heroes, I have followed his career since the very first Feelies album and last year he released "wheels in motion" a beautiful CD which had that distinctive Feelies touch. Just before the Feelies reunion show, Glenn agreed to answer my questions, he kept on posting as the band was rehearsing. I would like to thank him now for the care he took sending me his answers day after day.
"Crazy rythms" the first LP, in the middle of the picture Bill and Glenn, 30 years ago...

- When your first LP (“Crazy rythms”) was released in Europe in 1980 on Stiff records it was a shock for a lot of us. We had found a sequel to the line initiated by the Velvets and followed by the Modern Lovers. And those crazy rhythms sounded so fresh and natural. Something new was obviously starting. So had the velvets and the Lovers really influenced you?

Yes, we were influenced by the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers, as well as the musicians who had influenced them like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly through the Beatles, Stones and Who, then, later, MC-5, Stooges, Alice Cooper, T-Rex, NY Dolls (the list goes on).

- Your sound was original based on what I used to call duelling guitars - you and Bill - but your trademark was the speeding up of the rhythm along one song. I loved that concept and when “the good earth” came out after all those years of waiting it was just fabulous because these constant accelerations were everywhere to be heard on the album. Could you comment on that ?

We always tried to take an 'organic' approach when arranging a song, the idea being to allow for the natural dynamic of the material to develop, so the song would follow a path that would, hopefully, take the listener on a journey. In other words, during the course of the song, it might develop from one place to another by the end, through the interaction of the parts. I prefer to think of the guitars as being 'woven' together, rather than 'duelling' with each other.

Feelies ad in1991

- Now to come to Jonathan, did you ever see the Modern Lovers on stage ? If you had that luck, what are the memories you keep from that time ?

How did you become familiar with Jonathan Richman’s music ?

I was fortunate enough to have seen the original line-up of the Modern Lovers, with John Felice on guitar, when Jonathan didn't play any guitar, he only sang. They were the opening band for the New York Dolls on New Year's Eve in 1972. I had read an interview with him in Interview Magazine and was intrigued by his point of view about performing, but that didn't prepare me for the intensity of the show - they blew the Dolls away, which was hard to do because the Dolls were the 'hip' band of the moment.

Jonathan was wearing a cardigan sweater and, needless to say, looked rather shocking in the midst of the 'glam-rock' crowd. I was impressed that such a plain looking group could seem more outrageous than the band wearing make-up and glitter. At that moment, the distinction was clear to me, and it was like the 'changing-of-the-guard'.

- The Feelies have covered some of Jonathan’s songs. It is funny because as time went on you were covering older and older songs starting with “Egyptian reggae”, then it was “Roadrunner” and eventually “I wanna sleep in your arms”. Is there a reason for that ?

July 4th Battery park, l-r, Glenn and Bill Milion, © Jason Bergman

We didn't plan it that way. We started doing "Egyptian Reggae" in the Willies (our instrumental side-project) and first played "Roadrunner" when we ran out of songs during an extended series of encores one night. I remember that Brenda wasn't too familiar with the song and seemed a little reluctant to play it 'on-the-spot'. We explained that it was just two chords and she agreed to play it. But we had forgotten to mention the part that stops when Jonathan sings "Roadrunner once, etc.", but she fell in place pretty quick. I think we decided to play "Sleep in Your Arms" because the other two had always gone well with the audience. We also felt that the earlier Modern Lovers material fit our sound more than the later and solo stuff.

- Were all members of the band fans of Jonathan’s or the choice of these covers were more individual ones ?

We never talked that much about the Modern Lovers or Jonathan Richman. If I remember right, it was Stan who suggested doing a cover of "Sleep in Your Arms", so I think he's a fan. Bill was also at the Lovers/Dolls show and I know he was as impressed as I was by the performance. I'm pretty sure that everyone liked the Modern Lovers, I never heard anyone say anything negative about them.

Brenda Sauter , © J. Bergman

- Of course “Roadrunner” with its Bo Didley/Sister Ray beat suited you perfectly, a road song which can be speeded up as well. Could you tell us about that particular song ?

I consider Roadrunner to be a classic car/driving song on one level, and also one of the few good songs about the Rock and Roll genre itself. It's hard to write a rock&roll song about rock&roll, but Jonathan is able to pull it off because of his sincerity and passion for the art-form. The heavily-syncopated rhythm is almost like a 'boogie-beat' in it's relentless drive. It's got a great, catchy chorus that begs you to sing along (you don't have to be a good singer to join in). Another great thing is how he improvises the words at the end in an almost rap-like manner to drive the point home.

- Speaking of covers you were also often covering Patti Smith’s “dancin’ barefoot”. Did you know the riff had been ripped off “Karen” from the Go Betweens, Patti admitted it eventually. My point is you should try to cover “Karen” it is a real gem of a song.

I hadn't heard the song "Karen" before. It came out prior to "Dancing Barefoot"?

"Karen" was released in May 78 as the b-side of the Go-Betweens first single. Patti wrote the lyrics of "dancin' barefoot" towards the end of 78 and it was recorded for Wave in 79.

- Are you familiar with Jonathan’s music evolution ? what do you think of it ?

I'm most familiar with Jonathan's early stuff, especially the Modern Lovers and his early solo work. As far as the evolution, I appreciate the sound of his songs with a rocking band like the Modern Lovers, but I also get the appeal of the stripped-down, low-key, approach. I think the gtr/voc./perc. line-up that he's used most recently is perfect for him now. I really liked his performance in the film 'Something About Mary'. He seems relaxed, direct and sincere.

- You had a substantial following in Europe as still does Jonathan. Do you think your music and his have something to which Europeans can relate to and which is less obvious in the US ?

That's hard for me to determine. I guess having the distance of the geographical and cultural divides provides a different perspective, as seen from the outside. There's also an inherent novelty attached to something foreign. I can't say I feel as if the Feelies are any more appreciated 'abroad' than in the U.S.

- What would be your favourite Jonathan song ?

It's probably "Roadrunner", the obvious choice. I also really like "She Cracked". I guess it's kind of a toss-up between those two.

- I have the impression that being from New Jersey was the same kind of inspiration to your music than Jonathan being from New England. What is the quality you find on these East coast states ?

I'm not sure if that connection to 'place' is related to the East Coast as much as it is a connection to our past in relation to our environment. I've always felt my 'roots' were firmly planted in this area and the types of sounds I'm surrounded by have been an influence. I also feel strongly affected by the changing seasons and the various weather variables, as opposed to a more constant climate. That might be another factor.

- Would you have any anecdote related to Jonathan ?

I went to the Modern Lovers/N.Y.Dolls show with a friend, and when the M.C. came out to introduce Jonathan and the band, my friend said "Hey, that's my cousin". So, after the show, he invited us backstage to hang-out awhile.

I thought about approaching Jonathan to tell him how much I enjoyed the set, but he seemed to be in some sort of trance, so I left him alone.

- Now let’s come to the Feelies reunion, the musical event of the year for me. How did you manage to bring Bill back after he had resigned from music for 15 years?

Not much, really. We just asked him. We had been considering a reunion for a few years. The timing just worked out.

- You are sharing the bill of the Battery Park festival with Sonic Youth, how do you feel about it ?

Since the past few nights have been so incredible, and the show is tomorrow, I'm really excited about it.

- How are the rehearsals going? Are you enjoying playing together again?

Rehearsals went great. We work real hard and get things done. We worked on about 33 songs, so there's a lot to choose from.

Rehearsing in June 2008, l-R, Brenda, Glenn, Dave, Bill and Stan

- Is there any project of a tour in the US or over to Europe ?

We have no plans that are worked out. We've all agreed to play more, but not likely to tour at this point..

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