Perfect Sound Forever

Feelies intervew- Part 1

Glenn and Dave
Glenn and Dave- photo by Andrea Bucci

by Jason Gross (September 1996)

The one thing I forgot to say to Glenn Mercer and Dave Weckerman was that not only did I admire their integrity and stick-to-it-iveness but also because of this, they didn't have great chances to make it really big in the music industry. Glenn and Dave, having played together for years, decided not to use their fairly-well known band name (the Feelies) for their band once their partner Bill Million left to change locks at the Magic Kingdom (Glenn said that he did write to apologize and also sent a Christmas card two years ago). No doubt that this has cost them in terms of name recognition but they're content to make Wake Ooloo a new proposition along with Troy Meiss (bass) and Russell Gambino (keyboards). You'd expect no less from a guy who played "In-A-Gadda-Divida" in a battle-of-the-bands with an accordian.

Just in case you're wondering, "Wake" refers to a type of herb and "Ooloo" is Eskimo for "knive" (and supposedly means "owl" in Indian). At least, that's what they told me...

You can find Wake Ooloo's label at the Pravda web page. Special thanks also to Rev. D. Dondiego, propietor of Flipside Records (120 Wanaque Ave, Pompton Lakes, NJ 07442 USA, 201-835-8448, the best CD/record shop in New Jersey).

PSF: How did the Feelies first come about?

GLENN: It sort of evolved from a band that Dave and I had been in called the Outkids. The bass player left (he manages a Kentucky Fried Chicken now) and we got Bill to play bass. This was about '75. We started a couple of years before that.

DAVE: The drummer that was playing in their band was selling their drum set and he told me about Glenn's band. I called him up and he asked me what kind of bands did I like. I just mentioned Roxy Music. Back then, not that many people knew who they were in New Jersey. The name "Feelies" didn't come about until '76.

GLENN: After Bill joined the Outkids, the singer left. Bill, Dave and I didn't play out. We were just a trio. We looked for singers and couldn't find anyone, so I became the singer by default. Bill got bored with the bass and we thought we needed another guitar. We did some shows and met Keith (Clayton, bass) and Vinnie (DeNunzio, drums).

PSF:Where did you play?

DAVE: Elmood Park. A place called Phase Five. Blondie played there. The only place West of the Hudson that bands from New York played. It was sort of like new wave then. We played there four or five times. We used to play with a band called the Commercials, which were Vinnie, Keith and some other guy. Then Bill and Glenn hooked up with them. This was when it was the Feelies.

At that time, I went to England then because I was really into the Punk scene then. I saw the Sex Pistols and the Clash. By the time I got back, they had pretty much solidified the band with Keith and Vinnie. I thought they were going to change their name because it was a totally different band.

PSF: How so?

DAVE: We only had a few original songs and when they came back they had more songs. They were doing covers like the Stooges before. We had maybe three original songs. Then with Keith and Vinnie, they had ten original songs.

PSF: After Dave came back, what was happening with the band?

GLENN: There was a big scene going on in New York. It was the center of... whatever you want to call it. Punk rock I guess. You had CBGB and Max's Kansas City. We played shows out here at high schools and whatever clubs gig we could get. We realized (we had) to go to New York to make any kind of impact. We auditioned at CBGB and got a job there. At the first show we did, the soundman at the time, Mark Ambel, was friends with Terry Ork. He was managing Television and had put out some 45's and vinyl. Mark liked the show a lot and told Terry about it. He came to the next show. In a way, he was like our manager. He just helped us out. He got us more shows.

We played a couple of years and we really weren't getting any offers to record or anything. It was frustrating. We did a lot of shows for Richard Hell. We opened up for Patti Smith. We went to see Television quite a bit.

PSF: Did you feel that you were part of that scene at the time?

GLENN: (We were) part of the scene but it was almost like the second wave. Television had a deal, Talking Heads had a deal, Blondie had a deal. They were like the first role models. At that point, anyone who wanted to pursue original music had to go to New York. It wasn't like in the '80s where you had Minneapolis and Athens, Georgia and Los Angeles or any of that. You had tons of bands going to New York, trying to get a deal. I remember CBGB had a Summer Festival and had 10 or 12 bands playing each night, all original stuff.

DAVE: A lot of bands came out from Cleveland just to get noticed.

GLENN: Nowdays, if you want to make it, you have to look at what's selling and sort of pattern yourself after that. Back then, no two bands had anything similar. You really had to be original.

PSF: How did you see the Feelies then? What was your original slant?

GLENN: We really didn't have any particular model for the band. It sort of evolved. We only played maybe seven times a year. Every time we played, our thing was to be a little different and a little more original. Part of that was really playing with Vinnie, two guitars along with the cymbals cancelled each other out a lot so we said we'd cut back on the use of the cymbals a little bit. We found it was a big space that needed filling. So we thought of a little bit of percussion instead but you're really limited with what you can do when you're playing a drum kit. So that's when Dave came back to play percussion.

DAVE: It was '78 but in the meantime, Vinnie had quit had went to play with Richard Lloyd (Television).

GLENN: We would have a different guy each time.

DAVE: Sometimes Glenn's brother would play. In the meantime, we got a drummer from Cleveland, Anton Fier. He had played with a lot of bands out there- he was like a drumming fixture. A real good drummer. We started the whole permanent percussion thing. Anton would play a lot of toms. Glenn would say, instead of riding a cymbal, it would be like a fast maraca or fast tambourine part. There were still cymbals but they weren't used like a lot of rock bands where the drummer would crash. They can get to be annoying.

PSF: You didn't stay with the band up to the first album though.

DAVE: I was in the band. It was just that Stiff Records saw the band as a quartet. I wasn't in the band for photos. It was OK with me because the band had that high school look with the baggy pants and the plaid shirts. They called them "science students playing with guitars."

GLENN: Also, it was a lot easier to play the parts with him. They were pretty simple parts.

PSF: So what happened with Stiff then? Didn't you start out with Rough Trade?

GLENN: Geoff Travis saw the band. We did a demo or he proposed doing a demo then decided it was good enough to release as a single. I don't know if Rough Trade were really doing albums at the time or if they could come up with a budget that we felt we needed. So we really didn't do anything with them. Just like any other band, we sent our stuff out. The main thing was that we really wanted to produce ourselves. We wanted complete control over the packaging and all that kind of stuff. Nobody really wanted us to do that. We had done demos before the Rough Trade demo. We were happy with the way that came out. We actually had a bad experience with a producer the first time we did a demo. It was just the case of someone having a sound they wanted to impose on the band and we had a different sound in mind.

PSF: I've heard that Stiff was pissed that it was took so much time and money to get Crazy Rhythms done.

GLENN: It was a number of things really. I don't think that was such a big deal to them. They gave us an advance and part of it was ear-marked for a recording budget and the rest was for us. We went a little bit over budget so we just took money of our own. It took much longer than they expected though. The main thing that cause some friction was that they we didn't want to tour that much.

PSF: Was there any particular reason for that?

GLENN: We played six or eight shows a year. Going out and playing every night for three months didn't appeal to us at all. They proposed a package tour with other artists from Stiff. We would be in a situation where we'd all travel together and it would be rotating headline kind of thing. Which would mean that everyone would go to the venue and we had to sit through all the other bands' sound checks. It didn't seem like what we wanted to do.

DAVE: Plus, one of the other bands was the Plasmatics and they were always blowing up stuff on stage. It didn't seem like a compatible bill.

GLENN: Our main gripe with them was that they were selling the label more than the individual artists on the label. They were selling shirts.

DAVE: It was a big merchandising thing. They had clocks, ash-trays, everything.

PSF: So you don't think they promoted the band the right way?

GLENN: I guess when we said no to the tour, things really soured.

PSF: What do you think of Crazy Rhythms? Do you like it when you hear it now?

GLENN: It was really one way, one approach that was taken. I could see the songs now, in retrospect, working in a different way. So I don't think the songs have changed that much but definitely the production was unique to my ears. One of the main reasons, we had a lot of problems getting a good guitar sound in the studio. We tried everything. Different amps, different rooms. Pretty much exhausted everything we could at the studio we were at. Mark Ambel, the co-producer of that record, said "why don't we record the guitar direct and feed them back to an amp when we're ready to mix?" We were scheduled to mix in a better studio. He told us that we'd get a much better sound there. So we were recording the guitars and doing it direct, which is like a rule. NEVER RECORD THE GUITARS DIRECT. It sounded really dry and dead. But we really started actually to like the sound. A lot of the guitars on the record were kept that way. We actually found that when you record direct, it's a little bit closer to your ear. You have the space of the speaker and the ambience of the mike when you're recording it. A lot of what people think are acoustic guitars are just electric guitars recorded direct. A kind of dry sound.

DAVE: I was kind of surprised when I heard the album. I liked it because it sounded real mysterious. I was so used to playing the songs. I saw the band play them a couple of times with Anton. It was always real loud and fast. Then the album was real distant and weird sounding. It wasn't dark. It was distant. It didn't sound like the Feelies live.

GLENN: But no band really captures their live sound on a album, I don't think. From not playing very much, we really didn't think of ourselves as a live band. I actually had a conversation with the Stiff soundman and he was going on and on about how live is everything. To us, if you want to make a statement, you should go for it. We had a sound in mind and we wanted to get that on the record.

PSF: You did a lot of treatments and interesting percussion parts on the album that would have been a kind of difficult to do live.

GLENN: Yeah, I guess we really kind of felt like the whole punk thing was redundant at that point. You had bands like the Dead Boys. We saw their first show in New York, they had big Seattle hair, like a heavy metal band. Then a week later, they had like a Johnny Rotten hair cut. They went punk overnight. We had seen the Stooges, the Dolls, the MC5. We saw that and said, why go down that road that's already been travelled? We were pretty heavily influenced by Eno and Bowie's ambient stuff. We were a rock band but we wanted to incorporate what we liked about that stuff. A melding of the two led an experimental edge to it. Working with tape speeds and using the studio as a tool in the recording process.

PSF: The band's image at that time was a preppie look. How did that happen?

GLENN: We were playing a while in New York and hadn't gotten any offers, sent out some tapes. We were really getting frustrated. I remember talking to Bill and saying nowdays you really need a gimmick. All the bands that were signed had a really distinct image. I remember Keith had a bowl haircut. He brought a Beach Boys album to his barber and said "Gimme that kind of haircut." He came down to rehearsal with that haircut and had new glasses. We were like "Wow, that's a striking image." Also, we were big fans of Jonathan Richman and we thought that that would give us a lot of advantage.

PSF: The lyrics on the first album were pretty impressionistic.

GLENN: I don't know if it was a conscious thing. It's the way I write. It's pretty common from what I've read. You just sing whatever comes into your head. You look at it later and certain lines will stick out and make sense. Then you take those and build on that. Eno actually talked about being inspired by Dylan's Blonde On Blonde and that's how he approached lyrics at that point.

PSF: After the first album, what happened with Stiff?

GLENN: Stiff requested a demo for a second album. They didn't like it. We were doing a lot of home recording, even more in an Eno mode and less like a rock band. Stiff rejected the songs and he just wrote some more. We weren't playing (live) at that point. Anton was playing with the Lounge Lizards, doing live shows. He just called up and said "I quit the band." Then Stiff took that that opportunity to drop the band. One song "The Obediant Atom" was pretty similar to "40 Days" on the first Wake Ooloo record. I think we only had a couple of songs. We really weren't ready to do another record anyway. It was kind of relief actually.

DAVE: We spend three days recording "The Obediant Atom" in Carla Bley's studio. It was an instrumental with some chanting at the end. When Stiff heard that, their hair started falling out. "Is this what the next album is going to sound like?" In the meantime, me and Keith did all the drumming parts. We went to England and played two shows and came home.

GLENN: At one point, they (Stiff) took us into their office and said that we needed a hit single. They played the latest Lene Lovich single. It was like a scene out of a movie. "(Do) something like this- you know, verse-chorus-verse." We just laughed to ourselves and it turned out that it wasn't a hit anyway.

PSF: After the whole fiasco with Stiff, what happened to the band?

DAVE: Anton left. They (Stiff) heard "The Obediant Atom" and that was the last straw. Bill had his first baby.

GLENN: We never really said "let's not play together anymore." We just got involved in other things. We started playing as the Trypes. Keith started a band. Dave started doing his own thing.

DAVE: I used to play in a band called the Adults which was kind of Cramps-influenced rockabilly with no bass. The Feelies never played very much so I could really be in three other bands if I wanted to and still have time for them. We used to rehearse more than we'd play. So the Adults fell apart and we started a band called the Leisure Valley Singers where I became the singer- in the Adults, I was just the drummer. We started writing some songs which later wound up on the Yung Wu album. We used to play at the Showplace in Dover. Glenn started playing with the Trypes at that time.

Then we started getting back together- me, Bill and Glenn. We started recording stuff on a 4-track in Bill's basement. After a couple of months, we decided to play out as the Willies in 1982.

GLENN: Bill and I worked together on the Smithereens soundtrack. Jonathan Demme became fimilar with the band. We were asked to do music for Urgh! A Music War which mostly had just I.R.S. acts. He was involved in that and wanted us in the movie but they wouldn't allow us to pick the song- they just wanted to shoot us in concert. We didn't feel comfortable with that. He was friends with Susan Seidelman, director of Smithereens. He suggested using us to do the music. She got the record, liked it a lot and called us up. We worked at home at Bill's house. Some of the things we used for that and some of the things we didn't use that we thought of using for the band.

Keith worked at Maxwell's. He suggested Stanley (Demeski, drums), maybe he worked there too. When we talked about reforming, we called him but he didn't work on the next record. We worked with Stan. I'm not sure why but we didn't become the Feelies again, we were the Willies. I think it was our way of looking at what we didn't like with playing in the Feelies and came up with this concept of not being on display and people coming to hear the songs and getting that rock experience. A lot of stuff we were working on came about through manipulating tape so the initial shows of the Willies relied on tape. Most of the time, we were accompanying a tape.

A couple of things happened. One time, the guy working the machine had it at the wrong speed. Another time, some speakers got unplugged. It just became more of a headache than it was worth. Plus, the songs became more song-like anyway

DAVE: In a couple of the shows, Anton would just show up and play anything. He suggested playing a few shows as the Feelies again with three drummers. Stan was still in the band so we couldn't just kick him out because Anton was back.

GLENN: The Willies would play in the dark, sitting in chairs. We wanted to make this an anti-rock experience.

PSF: So what happened with the Willies?

GLENN: We took it as far as we could.

DAVE: It wasn't rock'n'roll. It was more like art stuff. People in New York liked it. But you probably couldn't play it in Dover.

GLENN: Plus, I think it was probably the first song I wrote was more verse-chorus, "On the Roof" (which appeared on The Good Earth). It didn't fit the Willies so we decided if we wanted to use it, we needed a different band. I guess doing that song inspired the other songs to come around.

PSF: So when did the Feelies officially start up again?

GLENN: We did some shows as the Willies even though it was really the Feelies. We weren't sitting on chairs, playing in the dark, we had vocals. It became the second version of the Feelies but we called it the Willies because we had a little bit of an audience. We thought it was kind of a good way to test it out. Having a new bass player, a new drummer. It was a way to see if the Feelies would work again. It was a lot more successful than when we played in the dark with no vocals.

DAVE: In the meantime, Keith had got married and we never really saw him again. Anton started playing with Herbie Hancock. We got Brenda (Sauter, bass) who was a friend of the Trypes who Glenn and I used to play with. The Trypes had no bass player and she started playing with them. Then we asked her to play with the Feelies. Then it became the regular band format again. We played the first show as the Feelies with Brenda in May '83. We would play at Maxwell and the Peanut Gallery in Haledon, which we'd play with the Trypes on Sunday nights.

After awhile when people realized that the Feelies were playing together then, we got an offer to do a cross-country tour. A booking agent in New York worked with us, even though we no new record out, just a few new songs. We did this tour where the only other "tours" we did was two shows in England and then in the West Coast, we played three shows. Then all of a sudden we're on a 25-date tour. Mostly clubs in college towns. We played with the Minutemen in Los Angeles. We played with the Rain Parade, who we knew from Maxwells. It was kind of fun but we had trouble with the motor home after a while and it ended up being a disaster.

PSF: You went from an anti-rock band to doing a regular tour then.

DAVE: It was new. We didn't know what to expect. We just wondered who would see us in the middle of Illinois. But people did.

GLENN: It became easier. That's the crucial thing. In 1980, if you wanted to tour the United States, you had the big cities and nowhere in between. Then college radio sprang up and it was a big support for independent, alternative music. Then you could tour and play where-ever you could. Pizza parlors, bowling alleys. It sort of established a network for bands to go from one coast to the other and back. In 1980, that wasn't possible.

DAVE: Back then, college radio was still playing Styx and Kansas. By '84, they were playing X, R.E.M., Black Flag, the Replacements. We ran into them (the Mats) because they were playing ahead of us at the same places the night before. The same tour.

PSF: How did the next album, The Good Earth come about with Twin/Tone?

GLENN: It was through Steve Fallon who runs Maxwells. He was our unofficial manager. So we really felt comfortable working with him. After the Stiff experience, we kind of soured to the business side of things. We'd only do something if we felt comfortable. Again, it was a case of wanting to do things a certain way.

PSF: How did you feel about doing another Feelies album after six years?

GLENN: We had done stuff in between that time. We had done the Trypes record. We had done (work with) Sprial Jetty for their demo that they put out. It wasn't too much different. The first record we had Mark Abel. The main thing is to have someone there when you're doing the basics. When we're playing, we can't be in the control room and listen to the tapes. We were real stubborn for the first record for how we wanted it to sound. We wanted to be different from everything that was going on. When we did The Good Earth, just having experience. After the first record, Mark Abel said that we had three years to think about it. Everything in our mind had to be a certain way and had to work every part and the way it would sound. When we did the second record, the songs were pretty new, we hadn't played them out a lot so they weren't really worked out. It was more of a relaxed atmosphere. It came about from doing the tour and getting more confidence.

PSF: Around that time, you met up with Jonathan Demme again.

GLENN: He had called us in the early '80s and proposed a concept of a concert film that would take place in our home town. He described it as cross between The Last Waltz and The Night of the Living Dead. He had this vision. He's obsessed with small town life and suburbia. His idea was to have everybody in the town be like zombies, shuffling towards something. It turns out they're going to a Feelies concert. The zombies go inside and then by the end of the show, they're all rejuvenated and come to life. Interesting concept but he couldn't sell the idea to anyone. But we kept in touch.

When we was doing the movie (Something Wild), there was a part for a band and he thought of us. It was fun but it was hard work. It was tedious, even more tedious than rock'n'roll (laughes). It's like what Charlie Watts says with 25 years of playing and 25 years of waiting- sums up what rock'n'roll is about.

DAVE: For that sequence that we're in for 10 minutes, it took a week to film from 6AM to midnight.

GLENN: Plus, it had a lot of room for spontaneous things. He sent a list of songs that were top 40 hits the year that the class graduated (in the film) so that the band would be playing all the hits at the high school reunion. Out of that list of 40 songs, we really couldn't play any of them. We worked on "Take It To The Limit" and "Fame" and the Rocky Theme where we worked up this really insane instrumental version that was pretty good but they couldn't get the rights to that. We were on the set ready to film it and this guy's on the phone with Rocky's manager. He said that Stallone wouldn't give up the rights. We had to do something real quick so he suggested "I'm A Believer." We did another song but couldn't get the rights so they dubbed it in later.

DAVE: It was "Til the Last Teardrop Falls" and they had this guy who was the executive producer sing it in Spanish.

GLENN: We wanted to record in the studio and lip synch actually.

Part 2 of the Interview