In 2011, Haledon, New Jersey jangle-pop pioneers The Feelies released their first album in 20 years, Here Before. Their reunion, like almost everything else they do, contained very little fanfare—it’s just not their style. Never mind the fact that, since their formation in the late ‘70s, they’ve directly influenced nearly every formative college-rock act, from Yo La Tengo to Weezer to R.E.M. to Real Estate. Now, six years later, the band—which comprises guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, drummers Stan Demeski and Dave Weckerman and bassist Brenda Sauter—is readying their follow-up and sixth studio album, In Between, which you can stream in full below and purchase when it comes out on February 24 via Bar/None Records.
The long play takes after nearly every Feelies release since their 1980 debut, the frenetic Crazy Rhythms. Which is to say, instead of spinning out hyper, high-strung melodies and quick-tongued lyrics (“Fa Cé-La,” “The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness”), In Between takes its time with each evenly distributed acoustic strum, much like the band did on 1988’s Only Life and their reunion project. Here, though, Mercer sounds practically horizontal on this ultra-placid record, as he more murmurs than sings words to songs like the equanimous title track.
Paste caught up with Mercer over the phone, where he expanded on his band’s ever-growing penchant for halcyon music (as opposed to how they started out sounding), how hearing loss and tinnitus has affected his music career, and why The Feelies rarely tour beyond the tri-state area.
Paste: Why did you feel like now was the right time to follow up 2011’s Here Before?
Glenn Mercer: Well, we don’t usually follow any set pattern or schedule. As a matter of fact on this latest record we really took a lot of time. A lot of the writing for the record took place about two years ago and we recorded it last year. I dunno. It’s a hard question because have enough songs certainly to fill a night’s worth of performance, so we don’t really need more songs. But I think in order to feel kind of vital and important as a band you have to create. Some bands get back together, reunite, and it’s all nostalgia, and they don’t do new stuff. And that’s fine, but that’s not something that we’d be really interested in. Right from the get go when we got back together we said, “Well, if we’re gonna do this that means we’re gonna write and record.”
Paste: Right, I’ve noticed from your live shows that you always start out with new material and then end on a really high-energy note, usually with tracks from Crazy Rhythms.
Mercer: We always approach the set, or the night, as having a progression to take it from one place and have it sort of accelerate to a different level. We find that now, when we’re playing two sets, it’s even better and we’re able to do that more widely and have enough material to do that. We also end with a lot of covers, which is part of our way of acknowledging our roots and celebrating the spirit of rock and roll and what initially sparked us to become musicians.
Paste: What led you to choose the album title In Between?
Mercer: Well, it was the title of a song and then it became the bookends of the record. We have two versions of the same song. Then I found an [album art] picture and it seemed to fit as well, so those three things together made it make sense.
Paste: Where is that photo from? It’s beautiful.
Mercer: I think it’s from Paris, or somewhere in France. My brother-in-law took the picture, and it’s funny because when I approached him with the idea of contributing a picture for the cover — he’s been taking photos almost his whole life, since he was a boy — and he has such extensive archives that he sent maybe 30 to 50 pictures, then he sent a second batch. There just so many pictures, but none of them really jumped out as something that fit with our aesthetic. Then I happened to notice as I walked past our refrigerator that he had sent us a postcard with that picture on it, and it’s been on our fridge for 10, 15 years at least. We have so many things hanging on the fridge that I just walk by it every day and didn’t really even think about it. But for some reason it caught my eye and I thought, “Wow, that would make a good cover picture.”
Paste: The record itself sounds very easygoing—it’s even more of a soft-spoken project than Here Before. You might even argue that The Feelies take on a more serene sound with every record since Crazy Rhythms. Do you think that reflects where you are now as older adults?
Mercer: Yeah, I think it does. Going back from the point after Crazy Rhythms, we’ve always had songs that were kind of mellow, and I remember prior to recording our second record, thinking during the writing process that we had backed ourselves into a corner. We can’t keep doing the same thing. [We can’t have] every song be high energy and fast – it just wouldn’t have been as creatively fulfilling. But some of it too is that I have some hearing problems, so I think naturally I’m just drawn to quieter stuff now. Rather than putting on a record I prefer to just listen to the sounds in nature.
Paste: When did you first begin to experience problems with your hearing?
Mercer: I first started noticing the tinnitus back in the ‘80s, but it got particularly bad back in the ‘00s. It’s not only tinnitus, it’s hearing loss, too. I think it was definitely from performing, and performing loud.
Paste: Does it affect the shows that you do today?
Mercer: I try not to let it, but it does, yeah. It’s probably one of the reasons we don’t play as much as the fans would like us to.
Paste: In a lot of your lyrics, especially on In Between and certainly on Here Before and Only Life, there are these overarching themes of “stay the course.” It feels very Zen. Does that reflect your mindset, and how would that play into In Between?
Mercer: I certainly appreciate Zen and the practices of Buddhism. My wife is a Buddhist, but I dunno. I guess it’s just the feeling that if you’re going to share and have this connection with someone through music, it really should be positive. Y’know, there are some moments that might be interpreted as kind of negative, but I think it’s tempered with “even though things are bad, you should try to be optimistic about it.” I have moments that are dark and not optimistic, but I think overall I tend to be fairly optimistic.
Paste: Yeah that’s exactly the tone I’ve picked up on in almost every record, other than Crazy Rhythms. But then there’s also a tinge of darkness on, say, The Good Earth and Only Life and the new one. Like you’re teetering on the edge of self-assurance.
Mercer: It’s definitely a struggle but it’s something we all share.
Paste: Between Here Before and In Between Maxwell’s closed down in Hoboken. I know you guys played there a lot. You’re actually quite vital to the venue’s history. How was it for you personally, as such a foundational act, when they closed down?
Mercer: It was sad. I hadn’t really been going too much towards the end, but we did still play there. It was our favorite place and it was super important to the band’s history in that Steve Fallon, who co-owned Maxwell’s, was our manager and owned Coyote Records. Our history with him was tied in with the club. We used to rehearse there, I met my wife there and we had our wedding reception there. I could go on and on about the memories connected with the club. But, y’know, everything’s got its time and you move on.
Paste: Yeah. It seems like so much of The Feelies is connected to the past. I know R.E.M. especially, and I think Weezer too, cite The Feelies as a major influence. I’m curious, especially when you’re on the precipice of releasing a new album, do you get a lot of people coming at you being like “Are you going to tour outside of New Jersey and New York and the tri-state area?” How is that for you if you have to say “No no, I’m gonna keep performing the way I would normally.”
Mercer: Well, I feel bad that they’d like to see the band and they can’t. To me, that shouldn’t prevent them from being a fan of the band. I never saw The Beatles and I love The Beatles. It’s just two different things: making records and playing live. For a lot of people they kind of put those together. We had our time when we were able to tour and I guess it’s sort of “Is the glass half full or half empty?”
I think that some people, even within the band, kind of feel like “We should shake things up.” My personality is just one where I like doing things in a familiar pattern and settling into a certain way and other people don’t feel the same. We do what we can do, really.