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Glenn Mercer on The Feelies' Live Album of Velvet Underground covers, Their Connection to Jonathan Demme, and More

True story: if he'd had the funding, director Jonathan Demme would've done a Feelies concert film before doing 'Stop Making Sense'

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Source: Fumie Ishii

The Feelies sit on a bench and just barely tolerate a promotional photo

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The Feelies are one of those bands that never really goes away. Sure, they might go their separate ways for awhile, even going for a stretch of more than a decade between albums, but it would be wrong to say that they've ever broken up. They're just...inactive. Fortunately, this is not a period of inactivity for the band: they've just released a new live album of Velvet Underground covers, Some Kinda Love. Why would they do such a thing? Well, as it happens, frontman Glenn Mercer made time in his schedule to chat with Q about that very topic, among other aspects of the band's history, including their connection to Lou Reed, how they were almost the subject of a concert film directed by Jonathan Demme, why they might've lasted longer if they'd never signed to A&M Records, and more.

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Source: Doug Seymour

The Feelies, looking mildly amused at best about having to pose for a promotional photo

The Feelies have made no bones about their appreciation of the Velvet Underground over the years, but what led the band to decide to do an entire live album of VU covers?

Well, we were approached and invited by the curators of the Velvet Underground Experience exhibit. It was a show that was conceived in Paris and then moved over to New York, and the idea was to invite bands that were influenced by the Velvet Underground to perform at the exhibit. So we thought, "Well, if we're gonna do it, maybe we should just play Velvet Underground songs!" They gave us the option to play originals. Whatever we wanted to do was fine with them. We had maybe a handful that we had previously done, so we had a little bit of a head start, learned a few more, and then we found out that there was a delay in bringing the exhibit to New York. And the result of the delay was that there was a change in the venue, and the change in the venue meant that there was no longer a performance space.

So we had already started our rehearsals and were kind of already geared up for doing the show, so we thought, "Well, let's just do it anyway, and we'll tie it in and promote the exhibit. It'll be part of the exhibit, just not at the location of the exhibit." So when we decided to do that, our record company was, like, "Well, we really need to document this, even if it's for our own enjoyment, just to have it." So we agreed to that, and then we listened back to it and...it was really just the record company saying, "You know, we really should put this out." So it wasn't really that we felt a need to express our inspiration or celebrate the Velvets. But that's why it took so long [to come out]. Also, it was around the time of COVID, so that played a factor as well.

Since the first Feelies album I ever owned was Only Life, I knew that you guys were fans of the Velvet Underground, since you closed that LP with "What Goes On."

Yeah, for that record, we also did a tour with Lou Reed. He invited us to open up for him on the tour for his New York album. So that kind of established a bond there, too.

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Had you known him or at least interacted with him prior to that? Because you guys had obviously been part of the New York and New Jersey music scenes.

Well, only shortly before that. Which I guess probably may have led him to inviting us to tour. We were invited by... I can't remember their call letters, but a radio station - I think it was in Long Island - to play at their Christmas party. This was probably '88. And to entice us to perform at their party, they were kind of rattling off the list of guests. "Joan Jett's gonna be there, Joey Ramone, Lou Reed..." And I think it was Bill who jokingly said, "Well, if Lou will play with us, that'll do it." So they kind of ran with the idea and contacted him. He was familiar with the band because we'd put out "What Goes On." He'd heard that, and I guess he liked it, and he agreed to do it. So we met five minutes before we were onstage with him.


Yeah, it was pretty weird. And to make it even weirder, he didn't want to sing. He said, "I'll just play along." So we started that way, and I felt really uncomfortable, because he was kind of standing behind me, and I kept looking over my shoulder and motioning for him to come up. He finally did, and that made it a lot more comfortable for me!

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As far as putting together the set list for the performance, was there a lot of scratching songs off the list that you couldn't do or didn't think you could pull off live?

Well, we started with the songs that we had done previously and just kind of added songs after that. I think our motive in the song selection was to underscore and to illustrate the fact that one of the things we liked about the Velvet Underground was that they really covered a lot of ground. The variety of their songwriting is just all over the place. So we wanted to make sure we did enough of their quieter songs and the louder songs. I think the only one that we might've tried but we didn't do was... [Hesitates.] Actually, I think we did everything we tried!

Was "Heroin" ever under consideration?No, I wouldn't perform a song like that. I mean, I did when I was a kid, but now... I don't know.

Where do you stand on the Velvet Underground's Squeeze album?

Well, I saw that incarnation of the band perform, but... [Long pause.] It probably shouldn't have been called the Velvet Underground.

Did you have any interactions with the other members of the VU over the years?

Well, at one point, John Cale - this would've been the late '70s - was spending a lot of time in New York City. He may have been living there at the time, I'm not sure. But he was also launching a record label, so he approached us with the idea of doing a single on his label. We kind of thought about it, but we realized that we really weren't a singles band, that we really wanted to do a full album. And I guess somewhere along the line the communication broke down, and there was a meeting set up that I wasn't aware of, and he called me on the phone and...kind of was pretty mad that I wasn't at the meeting! [Laughs.] So it's really unfortunate that the only time we spoke was a little bit uncomfortable.

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As long as we're talking about covers, I'm curious: on Crazy Rhythms, whose idea was it to cover "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey"?

That was my idea.

The only other artist I've ever heard cover it is Fats Domino.

He covered that?

Yeah, it's kind of amazing.

I'll check it out!

It's just as piano-pounding as you'd expect from him.

It probably sounds like the Velvet Underground! [Laughs.] You know, even the Beatles had different versions of it. Some of them didn't sound anything like they did on The White Album.

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I'm sure you've been asked this question more than a few times, but how did the Feelies first come together?

I guess it was... [Hesitates.] Well, Dave and I... I was in a band, and the drummer was leaving, he gave Dave our number and suggested that he audition. I was initially playing bass in that band, and there was a different singer. I didn't sing. And then I think by the time Dave joined, I was on guitar. And then our bass player left, so we approached Bill, who I knew previously, although we hadn't been in a band together. He was playing bass at the time, so he replaced our bass player, and then our singer left, so it was just me, Dave, and Bill, and I started to sing. I had been background singing prior to that.

The idea was to get a singer. We auditioned one guy. He called himself Eggy. And during the audition, he basically performed all of Iggy Pop's stage moves in Bill's basement, including rolling around on the floor. It was really funny, but we thought, "Oh, this isn't what we had in mind." We just realized that we probably wouldn't be able to find somebody that we felt comfortable with. And the idea of a lead singer was not all that appealing, because we wanted to explore different instrumental sections, which is hard to do when you have a singer who's just standing there.

So who was the Aldous Huxley fan who named the band?

Um... Well, Bill suggested it. I don't know if he was a Huxley fan or if he just read [Brave New World], but it seemed to fit. I guess it's one of those books that really had a big impact.

I'd say it's only become more prescient as time has gone on, unfortunately.

Like a lot of things.

When Anton Fier left the Feelies after Crazy Rhythms, was that under good circumstances? Did he just decide that he wanted to go a different direction?

He just wanted to play more often. We really didn't play a lot.

Did you just not enjoy playing live?

Well, it's hard to say. I mean, I could say I'm not a natural performer. I don't enjoy performing. But I think a lot of performers say that. I don't really know. But I'm much more comfortable in a recording studio than on a stage. I don't have a real drive to perform. [Laughs.]

After Anton's departure, the band didn't record another album for multiple years. Were the Feelies officially considered to be on hiatus rather than broken up?

Pretty much. We were involved with offshoot bands.

I know you did The Trypes.

Yeah, the Trypes, the Willies, Yung Wu... Yeah, we never really said unequivocally that we were breaking up. It's just that gigs got further and further apart.

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How did you guys first cross paths with Jonathan Demme?

He approached us. I think we had an address on the record, and he wrote us a letter. He said that he was a director - the movie he had out at the time was Melvin and Howard - and he said he'd like to do something with the band. He suggested we see the movie, so he actually arranged for us to see Melvin and Howard. And then we contacted him and said we really liked it, and then he arranged for a private screening of The Last Waltz. It was just me, him and Bill sitting in an empty theater, watching The Last Waltz. And then I guess he wanted to do a concert film, but he couldn't get the money, couldn't raise the money. And then we did Something Wild, and he did our video.

But you're saying that he wanted to do a Feelies concert film?


Oh, wow.

Yeah, basically, what he wanted to do with us, he went and did with Talking Heads. I'd heard that one of the people he approached was Talking Heads' management, who he approached to, I guess, borrow the money from for the concert film! [Laughs.] So they were, like, "Well, we'll finance it if you do it with Talking Heads!" I don't know if that's true, though. That's just what I heard.

Well, at least Demme came back around when it came time to do Something Wild. You guys were able to take the spotlight briefly.

We actually didn't want to do that initially. We tried to talk him out of it. [Laughs.] We said, "Well, we have a Yung Wu gig coming up. We need to rehearse for that." He was, like, "Well, you can rehearse on the set! We have a day off, on a Sunday. You can have the whole day to rehearse!" So he basically talked us into it.

You're credited as The Willies in the film, right?

Yeah, he introduced it as The Feelies, and then during the dailies, when they watched it, he realized that it kind of didn't make sense that we'd be this real band who'd suddenly be playing at this reunion. So he thought we should have another name. And he asked us if we had any ideas, and we'd been playing as the Willies, so we told him to use the Willies. But it was confusing, because recently we started the idea of playing again as the Willies. We did a few shows recently, and some people just thought we were going to do stuff from Something Wild. [Laughs.] The Willies was entirely different. It was just the same people.

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What led you to ask Peter Buck to co-produce The Good Earth? Was it just a matter of the Feelies running in the same circles as R.E.M.?

He asked us. He approached me at a party. Our manager, Steve Fallon, he was the head of Coyote Records, and he was friends with R.E.M. He had a party, and at the party Peter approached me and said, "Hey, I hear you're doing another record. If you ever need anybody to help you out with that, I'd love to do it." And we just like to have an extra set of ears in the control room when we're out tracking with the band. It's kind of hard to wear two hats at once. It was an extra perspective.

After that album, the band signed to A&M. Were you actively looking for a major-label deal, or did they come looking for you?

Again, it was our manager, Steve Fallon. He kind of did a deal with Coyote Records, so we actually never really signed to A&M. We were signed to Coyote, who were then signed with A&M.

Still, the change in distribution must've been pretty significant.

Um... I'm not sure who was distributing Coyote prior to that. I never really followed that side of it.

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I just figured that the difference between an indie label and a major label would've been distinctly different

Yeah, I just don't know... I can't really evaluate how a move like that played into our career. Whether it was a good move or a bad move. [Laughs.] There are both sides to it, I guess!

At the very least, one presumes that you had a few more ears on the music, anyway.

Maybe. But we probably would've gone longer if we hadn't signed to A&M. I think that initially we had a really good relationship with A&M, but then they got bought out, and it became a lot more kind of corporate. All the people that we'd established a relationship with, they left the company. New people came in, they weren't familiar with us at all, they were kind of put off by the way we ran the band, so...it was just a lot more stress, a lot more pressure. I think that all contributed to us wanting to take a break. Whereas if we'd just stayed on Coyote and not had the pressure, maybe we wouldn't have taken a break. I don't know. Maybe the break was good anyway! I don't really think in terms of bad and good. It's just all experience. We don't know how it turns out until it's over, I guess!

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You guys got back together in 2011 and did Here Before, and then you did In Between in 2017. Do you foresee another studio album at any point?

Well, we've been talking about it. Really, we'd like to, I guess.

Do you have the songs ready, or would you still have to write them?

We have some. We don't have a full album's worth. Although we were also talking about recording as The Willies, so if we combine both the instrumental and the other songs, we'd probably have enough. But if we're gonna do two albums, then we'd need to do more material.

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As far as your side projects go, I wanted to ask about Hazy Cosmic Jive, with Richard Barone. That seems like a real hoot.

Oh, it is. I'm glad you brought it up, because it kind of ties in a little bit with the VU thing. When we weren't able to do the Feelies there, the curator had seen Richard and I perform together. He did a folk tribute show to Greenwich Village, and I performed at that. So we played together, and the curator of the Velvets exhibit was at that show. So he said, "Well, I know the Feelies can't play at the exhibit," because it was just, like, a small basement room. There's no stage, no lights, no P.A. Really, it wasn't a performance area, it was just a little annex basement room. He said, "If you guys want to do something a little more intimate and low-key..."

So me, Richard, and Dave, we wound up doing something at the exhibit. And since we had just done the Feelies' Velvets show, I didn't want to do the same songs, so we kind of focused on a few different songs as well as included songs by other artists who were influenced by the Velvet Underground. Like, we did some Eno, some Lou Reed solo stuff. And we had a lot of fun doing that, and when we had the opportunity to do something together again, we thought we'd kind of expand on what we did for the Velvets thing. So it was kind of more along the lines of that period in rock that came after the Velvets, that post-Velvets stuff. Roxy Music, Brian Eno. Obviously the Velvets had a big influence on David Bowie. When I saw him at his first show in America, he did some Velvet Underground songs.

So the Hazy Cosmic Jive kind of evolved out of our idea to do the post-Velvets thing, which kind of tied back into the band that Dave and I had been in previous to the Feelies that eventually Bill joined. That started out as a cover band that played a lot of those songs. As a matter of fact, when Dave came to audition, we talked about groups we liked, and he mentioned that he'd just seen Roxy Music. I said, "Oh, yeah? I was at that show, too!" So we had a lot of common ground with those types of bands. As a matter of fact, Dave just pointed out yesterday how, when we first met, he had a copy of the Mott the Hoople record with "Sweet Jane" on it. I said, "Oh, yeah, it's a really good record. And they do a good version of 'Sweet Jane,'" which is a Velvet Underground song. And Dave said that, even though he knew the Velvet Underground, he'd never heard their version of "Sweet Jane" at that point! [Laughs.]

It all comes full circle.


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You mentioned that the Feelies opened for Lou Reed, but who would you say is the most unlikely artist that the band has ever shared a bill with?

Well, being someone who came from an era where... Well, like, the Fillmore would have such a wide variety of acts on the same night, things you wouldn't think would go together. So I can't recall ever being on a bill where I just kind of shook my head and was, like, "Oh, this is...wrong." Although now that I'm thinking about it, we did one with the New Potato Caboose.

I remember them well.

Yeah! It was an outdoor show, and I think the whole day was jam bands, and then us. [Laughs.]

I'll start winding things up, but do you think you'll ever do another solo album, or do you think you'll stick predominantly with the band stuff?

Well, I'm having some issues with my hearing. That's also kind of slowing things down with the Feelies recording. A lot of is the logistics of it and the timing and coordinating things and scheduling. At this point, I'm not really sure what or where the material I'm writing will wind up. I'm hoping to do another Feelies record, though.

I'm sure I'm not the only one keeping his fingers crossed.

Well, thank you.

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How was the experience of doing the East of Venus album?

That was a lot of fun. I sometimes think it took so long because we enjoyed it so much. It was really a couple of years at least, I think, that we were working on that. But, you know, it was obviously bittersweet, because Michael passed before it came out.

Which reminds me that you got to reunite with Anton on the Wheels in Motion album before his passing.

Yeah. I loved making that record, too, because I did all the engineering, so when I had guests come to play, it was just me and them. So it was really intimate. And being able to play with all of the prior Feelies drummers, that was really special.

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Do you have a favorite Feelies album of the bunch?

No, not really. I like all the songs. A lot of it depends, too, on the process involved in getting the record together. But if a record was hard work, then that could be part of the appeal of it. The challenge and the sense of accomplishment that you were able to do something despite the challenges. Crazy Rhythms was really challenging, but we were really happy with the way it came out. I mean, that one to me stands out a little bit because it kind of launched our career, and even today I'm amazed by how many people connected with that. Even young people today. I'm always hearing about how they're so aware of that record.

It really did stand out in a crowd. As I said, it wasn't my first Feelies album, but once I got it, it really stood out as something distinctly unique.

Yeah, for sure. But a lot of things back then... That was part, I think, of what was required. It was rewarded to be unique and sound different. Now you're rewarded for sounding like everybody else! If you have something that sounds different, it'll be, like, "Ah, it's too weird. I don't wanna listen to that!"

Well, if we don't get another Feelies album, I hope we do at least get a live album that actually has Feelies songs on it.

Well, I don't know. [Laughs.] This was really challenging, more so than we thought it would be. I guess because to mix it, if you make a slight little adjustment in one thing, there's so much leakage in all of the mikes, you're really limited to what you can do with it, because everything is into everything else. I guess if we were to do it, we'd probably come up with a different process for recording. Try to isolate things a little more. But I don't know. It was a lot of work.

It paid off. It's a great live album.

Well, thanks. I appreciate it.


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