The Feelies is one of the Eighties’ greatest lost bands. Cited as an influence by everyone from R.E.M. to novelist Rick Moody, the band has also loomed large in the history of New York rock- the missing link between the Velvet Underground and the Strokes. The Feelies’ story would be compelling enough if it ended with the band merely being the test case for nineties alternative success/sell-out anxiety, but even this narrative is overshadowed by the unexpected departure of founding band member Bill Million in 1991. The story has taken on an Eddie and the Cruisers patina over the years, but the simple fact is that Million’s departure stopped the Feelies dead. The band lay dormant for nearly two decades, until the passage of time and existence of smallish social circles led to a few reunion shows. These gave rise to a flurry of writing and eventually Here Before, released on April 12 from Bar/None Records. Glenn Mercer, guitarist and songwriter for the Feelies, took some time to discuss the band’s reformation, its new release, and the possibility of more Feelies in the future.
How exciting is it to have another Feelies record coming out?
It’s very exciting to have a new record out. It was fun to make and good collaborating with Bill again. Overall it’s not the greatest time to be buying records, since nobody’s buying them any more, but there seems to be some interest in the band and we’ve got a lot of good feedback so far.
The band’s official bio says that Bill Million left the music industry, putting the band on hiatus. Are you willing to talk about that?
Well, I don’t really know what to say.
Did the band break up, did it just fall apart, or did Mr. Million really disappear?
We were having a lot of problems with the business side of things. Our record label got bought out by a big conglomerate. The people we had established a relationship with left the company. Other people came in, and they didn’t seem to know or care much about the band. The economy at that point wasn’t that great, and we were at the point where we were between being an indie band and a major label band. We weren’t making a whole lot of money. There was pressure to get to the next level, and it just got harder and harder to make a living at it, really. That led to
Did you have a relationship in the intervening years?
No, not really, no.
The legend is that he disappeared for seventeen years. Is that how it went?
It wasn’t exactly like that. I guess a few months after our last show we talked about the possibility of playing again, so that was something that was being tossed around. Months after that, maybe a year or so, I heard that he moved. It seemed like that possibility wouldn’t pan out. I just formed another band, made more records, and kind of got on with it.
When you reformed, was there any problem welcoming him back into the band?
No, not at all. We never really had a big falling out or burned a lot of bridges. I think we all realized that we left it at a good time and are picking it up again at a good time. We talked about it a little in 2001, when we had some business to attend to, some licensing requests. We had a nice conversation then, and I knew his son was going to school in Jersey, so I extended the invitation to him to come over to my house and jam. It certainly wasn’t anything along the lines of “Let’s resume a career.” Neither of us was interested in that. It was more or less on a friendly, social level.
There was a pretty decent time gap between your initial reunion shows and the new album. Were you unsure about recording new material?
That was actually part of the understanding. We had offers to play, to record, and to reissue the records. We knew there was a lot of interest there. I think we realized that in order to do it right, we would have to take it out of the realm of nostalgia. The way to exist as a vital is to make new music together. We also didn’t have a record deal yet, so we could take our time with writing and getting comfortable playing live again. The second year kind of rolled out like the first, and we realized that if we were going to do it, we had to make a choice. We couldn’t keep playing live and work on new material.
Has the band’s collaborative process changed at all over the last two decades?
It’s not really the second time around, because each record is another go round. With this record, I think it was different because we couldn’t get together very often. We had to send stuff through the mail, and then also be more prepared when we were able to get together. We had to be more efficient.
How many songs did you write before you started to have things that resemble Here Before?
With this record I think I made demos of eight songs, and then it seemed like the right time to raise the issue of becoming more serious about doing the album. I knew Bill had been writing, but he hadn’t really given me anything new, so I said that I’d really like to get started, and that any time he could get it together was fine with me. He had a recorder, but he was having some problems with it. Eventually he gave me a CD with some ideas. There were actually quite a few ideas, but I knew that if we worked on all of them it would be two years before we could think about putting out something new. So I picked five of his with the eight of mine, and that was the record. There were a lot of good ideas that we didn’t get to this time. Maybe they’ll make the next record.
You’re already talking about a next record?
We not really talking about it, but we can see it in the future. There’s no reason not to, I think.
There seems to be a theme of loss and return on Here Before. Was that intentional?
You just write from what’s going on in your mind and your life. We were playing again, and it gave Bill and I a chance to reflect on our past. It’s no surprise that it crept in there. We didn’t really set out to make a record about those things, though.
What do you hear when you listen to the record?
I don’t think this record is about any one thing. I don’t think we’ve made a record that was like that. That’s one of the good things about doing thirteen songs. It allowed us to spread the dynamics of what we normally do.
Was it important to you to maintain your sound on this record?
We do have a way we play, and that’s the thread that runs through all of the music. The songs all start with the guitar, and we work from that point out. We build it from there.
Was there any thought about making this a total departure, given the amount of time you had between albums?
Not really, actually. If anything, it would be the opposite. We wanted to have a lot of the trademark things that we’re known for. We wanted to have the little drum things, and the acoustic guitar-the things people would recognize.
Did you have the people who had been waiting for a record in mind when you were recording?
You have them in mind-I think that’s one of the reasons we wanted to record. We knew there people out there that wanted to hear this record, so we were motivated to make it. It stopped short of trying to steer it in one direction or another. We do what we do, and hopefully we’ll do it well and people will like it.
What are your hopes for this album?
I hope the fans like it. I hope it sells. I hope it does well enough that we can do another one. I’m happy with it either way on a personal level, but it would be nice to know that the fans like it.
The Feelies will be playing shows in support of Here Before throughout the summer. The schedule is available here.