Swinging Modern Sounds #79: The Rhythm Section Speaks


When a band gets to the second album in a reunion cycle, and when this reunion comes to be near to its tenth year, it no longer makes sense to call the reunion by that name. Furthermore, when the band has existed for forty years, as has now been the case with The Feelies (of Haledon, NJ), in a number of configurations, then a mere ten or fifteen year lapse is just a hiatus in which the band regathers its principles and begins to feel again the internal need to compose; then the reunion is not a reunion and the breakup is not a breakup and all these ways that we think about bands—that they should have a definitive lineup, that the band members should be close friends, that they should woodshed all the time, that they should live together in a pink house—all of these rules end up being faulty reasoning, to be replaced by the simple fact of music.

What is beautiful is when a particular sound is revisited and extended in time. What is beautiful is when people who have played a lot together speak again, musically, and by their very appearance together, speak to the idea that music can live on and have historical merit, that music of a certain kind can continue to stand for something. The music is the affiliation and the fraternity of the band members, and even if the principals hate each other, there can still be the expression and pathos of the music (try, for example, the comeback song, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” by The Beach Boys, from that pretty mixed fiftieth anniversary album). The first album after a reunion is an album in which people delight because of the surprise of its recording (LIVE MCMXCIII by the Velvet Underground, let’s say, or In Space by Big Star), not because of the merits of the recording, and often these albums substitute the power and surprise of the reunion for the knowledge that this is all that remains (Gang of Four’s Return the Gift), that new composition is impossible, or not in the spirit of a band from a very different historical circumstance (see, e.g., Steve Jones’s remarks about the Sex Pistols’ attempts to write new material during their first batch of reunion gigs).

But when it comes to a second album in the reunion cycle, all bets are off. If the second album is not good on its own merits, if it’s not a piece of music that argues for its own inclusion in the canon of the particular band, then the reunion, and the celebration that comes with it, has run its course. Hard to imagine, at this point, another post-reunion Eagles album, and not just because Glenn Frey has gone on to the great gig in the sky. Fleetwood Mac scraped by with Say You Will, and if they can’t really get back to that Fleetwood Mac pop immensity on the next one, then they will be reduced to playing the hits unto eternity. Same with the Who. Endless Wire was buoyed by the good will of the audience, but if there’s another studio album coming, it has a lot to live up to.

Which is why, let it be said, In Between, by The Feelies, is an incredible record, a great achievement, and an enduring piece of the band’s legacy. It’s the most consistently great record The Feelies have made since 1984 (though there are surely some great tracks on Time for a Witness), which is to say the most consistently great album since The Good Earth, which in many circles, these days, is considered the best album the band ever made. Whereas the first album after the reconvening of The Feelies, Here Before, from 2011, sounded exactly like a Feelies album in every way, there was still a kind of proficiency standing in for the ecstatic and slightly mysterious or ethereal Feelies blueprint, an aping of Feelies effects, that I often associate with reunion albums. Wherein the bands become a tribute band to itself. I liked Here Before, and there were things about it that were indisputably enjoyable (Brenda Sauter’s bass lines! Glenn Mercer’s leads!), and I was delighted that it existed.

But In Between is something else entirely. What made The Good Earth so perfect (and go and listen to it, if you have not, and you will understand what I mean) was the need to make the record. The Good Earth was made despite the tide running against The Feelies, legal, historical, cultural, and otherwise, during the period that it was recorded, and it displayed a completely new sound they devised to get to their unlikely destination—a mix of acoustic guitars, barely perceptible lyrics, and hovering clouds of minimal melodic material. The Good Earth feels astonished, weary, open, vulnerable, uncertain, and powerful in a decidedly and methodically understated way. It doesn’t demand your attention, but reckons with it, and rewards it, over many repeated listens.

In Between, made by a bunch of people in their late fifties and sixties, who no longer live three houses apart, in a town near to where William Carlos Williams plied his trade, but in several states, hundreds of miles apart, and with grown-up children and day jobs, has a similar need, which is in this case is an urgency not to be forgotten, to own the legacy of The Feelies, to profit from it aesthetically and professionally, and to celebrate it, but at the same time to extend the legacy, and to find new ways to make this legacy relevant in a musical environment that seems to have forgotten what a band is, and what are the kinds chemistry that make a band a useful delivery system for the popular song (listen, e.g., to “Been Replaced,” on In Between, for an impassioned and reflective take on the subject). It’s not an album that wants or expects to become a Top Twenty album. But it’s an album that indicates that the people who made the records attributed to The Feelies (and the Trypes, and Yung Wu, and Wake Ooloo, and Sunburst, and The Willies, Speed the Plough, Wild Carnation, and Luna, etc.) are not going gently into late middle age, and are not conceding that rock and roll is completely depleted, who are, on the contrary, making a really lovely defense of it, a music for neighbors, for localities, for clubs, for adults sharing the experience of music in the flesh.

I want to talk about the perfection of the song “In Between,” briefly, to indicate how much there is to love about the album as a whole. The first thing that should be said about “In Between” is that there are two recordings of it on this album, one acoustic, and one gigantically loud (and, at ten minutes or so, the longest studio recording in the history of the band). The first recording of “In Between” opens the album, the latter closes it. The strategy, to me, recalls Rust Never Sleeps, the Neil Young album that The Feelies have plundered for covers twice (“Powderfinger” and “Sedan Delivery”). And the power that the gesture has on Rust Never Sleeps it has here too, the reiteration, and affirmation. The insistent survival sketched out in repetition. The loud version of “In Between” is intense, stripped down, elemental, and it has an unrestrained lead guitar assault which serves as its close. Though Glenn Mercer, the band’s lead guitarist, is known for his cogent soloing, lots of In Between sticks with rhythm guitar, to the interplay between Mercer and Bill Million, the rhythm guitarist. But the loud take on “In Between” makes possible a long, noisy, punky, unrepentant wail of a solo, and it’s a sort of mission statement for the entire album.

The first recording, on the contrary, is light, acoustic, and exceedingly melodic. It’s a catchy fucker. The lyrics are thus:

Used to be, get a sound, find a beat, make it loud
Take a walk, ‘cross the town, by the barn, past the plow
Like a dream, in between, where you go, then you know
Make a plan, let it be, find a voice, make the peace
Like a dream, in between, where you go, then you know
Wake up on time, clear out your mind, ready to go, want you to know

As usual, the lyric is remarkably compact, allusive, and as you can see, it’s in the second person, to the extent that it has any pronouns at all, and it’s an extremely slippery second person. Is it the “accusatory first-person” that I often refer to in writing classes, is it the second person of the contemporary love song, in which the “you” is a romantic imago of some kind, or is it the second person addressed frontally to the reader? As I have said before, Mercer’s poetic compaction has, over the course of time, become like the compaction of the late Samuel Beckett, in which the self is sheered away until only fragments and traces of perception remain. Mercer is more about a probability of meaning than an actual meaning. He’s sort of rhizomatic, in the Deleuze sense, or fragmented in the R. D. Laing sense of things. But there’s real cumulative and associative power in these fragments. The commencement of this strategy in “In Between,” is the phrase “used to be,” which instigates a backward reflection at the beginning of the album. “Used to be,” which is a three-beat utterance, so well-traveled in the Glenn Mercer lyrical canon, is a particularly trenchant way to begin an album that adduces the truth that rock and roll is a thing now more backward looking than forward looking. But in this case “used to be” is also about what The Feelies were, indeed the whole first line “Used to be, get a sound, find a beat, make it loud” is about the travails of making music as member of The Feelies, as working musician, but because of the critical placement of “used to be,” it’s as if the entire lyric is washed backward into the tidal influx of retrospection. There’s no clear junction in the narrative of the song between past action and present action. And as the song has pride of placement on the album the entire suite of songs (which begins and ends with “In Between”), its alpha and omega, is in the key of “Used to be.”

The second line, on the other hand, is a rural articulation: “by the barn, past the plow,” which recalls again the cornfields on the jacket of The Good Earth. This is agrarianism counterposed against the heavily urban implications of the punk/post-punk aesthetic in which the band first operated (suburban shading into urban), and there’s something nicely oppositional about it. But the rural vs. urban piece of the song gives way immediately to the chorus, and the chorus is of a profundity that is immense, if correlated in reverse to how casually it seems to be dashed off: “Like a dream, in between, where you go, then you know…” It could have been made up on the spot, this chorus, and there is, I think, some evidence that Glenn Mercer does not labor overlong on the lyrics, but if it’s made up on the spot, then it’s even better, even more profound, because revealing the instantaneous and unpremeditated.

What does he mean by “Like a dream?” What is a dream like? Well, if you take the Freudian view it means composed of condensation and displacement and serving as a vehicle for the subconscious to express itself, to express its needs and longings and libidinal direction. It is music, I think, that is being compared to a dream, here, or the process of music making, or the history of the band, the forty years of making music together. But this equation of songwriting and dreaming is implied, not stated outright, and so the similitude express therein is liminal, and thus condensed and displaced, as advertised. “Like a dream” is quickly followed by “In between,” which also serves as the album’s title. And “In between” to me articulates, as few other commonly applied bits of locution, the quiet desperations and agonies of middle age, outside of the corridors of power, and the post-dialectical condition of post-modernity, with estimable clarity and with real poetical compaction. Those three syllables. In-be-tween. In between so many things now, in between youth and senescence (born astride the grave), between fame and obscurity, between right and left, between Apollonian and Dionysian, between self and other, between urban and rural, between awake and asleep, in between. And it’s “where you go” in order “to know,” to find certainty, to find self, to find meaning, to find value, to find ecstasy, in between, in a condition of lack as a precondition of knowledge.

An oneiric space, then, as inaugurated by the first song, a space unselfed, and staffed up with implications, but flowing, outward, unfixed, unmoored by reductions of complexity into simplicity. And yet the music is as simple as it could possibly be in order to make this case, all ones and fours, strummed on acoustic guitars, with some percussion relatively muted in the backdrop, and lots of humming and unison singing for background vocals. It feels laid back, as Glenn Mercer says, but it is deceptively panoramic and numinous for all its simplicity, in its in-betweenness, a sort of a cosmic campfire song about longing and the fragmentations of self in transit on the planes of the dream world, out of which the entire album unfolds, until it comes, at its close, to the Dionysian cult of the electric guitar.

Look, I love this album. This is an album of the year, with a real gravitational impact, a growing-on-you heft, especially if you care about rock and roll, and it is an album of the year while being offhanded, simple, not particularly unusual in the canon of the band in question, and recorded in circumstances (see below) that were anything but easy. This record was made so fast it makes the first Ramones album look as though it is Pet Sounds. Maybe there is something important about rock and roll now, rock and roll the neglected past tense of a musical form, and that is that it is the music of adults. (I mean, mid-sixties and early-seventies soul is also the music of adults, but it is harder to come by.) Rock and roll, because it is the music of your parents (or, if you are a parent yourself, it is your music), is now able to speak to the concerns of parents, by which I mean mortality, regret, retrospection, wistfulness, mild feelings of desperation, and, on occasion, transcendence, of a kind not permitted in the corporate laptopped enhancements of EDM. In Between does all this. It speaks to life, and when the dust settles, this will be as significant a compositional milestone as the first two Feelies albums, which are very, very good and very, very important.

Because I have written a lot about this band, and have already interviewed Glenn and Bill, the conceptual architects of The Feelies, I decided to take a completely different approach this time, and to interview the drummers. The Feelies are famous for always having had two drummers (excepting the brief period when they had three drummers), and at least in the modern iteration of the band (the one that is thirty-three years old, as opposed to forty) those drummers were always Stanley Demeski and Dave Weckerman. They are both much more than merely the drummers for The Feelies (Weckerman sang lead and wrote the songs for one Feelies side project, Yung Wu, whose album must surely be rereleased shortly, and Demeski is a major indie rock presence, having sat behind the kit for Luna for several years as well—he’s also a significant record collector whose erudite passions in this direction are a major Facebook thread for this writer). In addition to having played together for more than thirty years, Demeski and Weckerman are close friends, though they are startling in their dissimilarities. Stan is genial and polite and thoughtful and to the point; Dave is funny, provocative, wise, off-handed, willing to say almost anything. Stan is accessible and kind to fans; Dave has no phone, no answering machine, and no computer, and can’t drive. Together, they make up a remarkable and important rhythm section that has no particular modern parallel in terms of impact, not in rock and roll of the last twenty-five or thirty years. They have defined roles and a cumulative power that is not showoff-y or pyrotechnical but is still also perfectly calibrated, and laboriously perfected. They are great and understated timekeepers, but also given to significant ornamental beauty, as long as it is never about ostentation. They serve the song. With Brenda Sauter, the bass player, and Bill Million, who mostly plays rhythm guitar, they have devised a perfectly tight and still incredibly expressive rhythmical bed for the songs of Mercer and Million. This kind of perfection is almost impossible to pull off, except maybe in James Brown’s bands, and even harder to quantify. In the interview below, I try to get Stan and Dave to quantify it.

The interview was conducted in January at The Feelies homeland of Haledon, NJ, at the residence of Stan and his family (including wife Janice, who turned up briefly during the conversation), in the living room of which was contained Stan’s impressive collection of vinyl. As a writer who has long felt some kind of mythic (and probably erroneous) connection with the Haledon musical subculture I felt greatly honored to be there, in that house, with those players. It must be at least thirty years that I waited to make the trip.


The Rumpus: I was trying to figure out when you guys—you two—first played together. That would’ve been after the first album and before The Good Earth?

Stanley Demeski: What happened was, I guess, Anton [Fier] was hemmin’ and hawin’ about playing again—you’d have to ask him those exact details—and I was already in a band that was playing Maxwell’s (my first original band) that eventually became Winter Hours. I mentioned to Steve [Fallon, booking agent of Maxwell’s, and Feelies manager] that I thought The Feelies were a great band and he said, “You know, they’re auditioning drummers” and shortly after, I got a call from Keith [DiNunzio, an original Feelies member] who was living in East Rutherford at the time. I went up and I auditioned. It was kind of weird because it didn’t seem like they really wanted to play as The Feelies; there seemed to be a series of things that were going on.

Dave Weckerman: I don’t remember any of that; it’s just that there was a new kind of direction in music that the band started towards the end of the Crazy Rhythms [the first Feelies album] days that was more instrumental in nature and experimental.

Demeski: Which, actually, I can play for you but I don’t know if you want me to play it while we’re recording. Some of it, at least.

Weckerman: The label the band was signed to at the time—Stiff Records—were sort of aghast; they wanted some pop single like Ian Dury or Lene Lovich.

We had recorded a song, well, it wasn’t even a song, more like an instrumental chant called “The Obedient Atom.” Stiff [Records] paid a lot of money for the recording of that and they weren’t too pleased with the result. Anton [Fier] was involved with a band called The Lounge Lizards which was taking up a lot of his time so his status with The Feelies was uncertain. And then Stiff didn’t want to know about the new stuff but we had these songs, these instrumental things and, when it became apparent that Anton wasn’t going to be playing, we started playing these songs but decided not to call it The Feelies. We became The Willies from Haledon and that’s when Stan entered the picture.

Demeski: Keith wasn’t involved in that. I did three rehearsals with Keith and I guess we tried to play the Crazy Rhythms stuff. You know, I gave it my best shot but I wasn’t walking in and playing it exactly like Anton was yet, and they seemed more interested in playing new music anyway. Some of the stuff ended up on the soundtrack for Smithereens. I was in college at the time and I thought “Experimental music: this is really right up my alley!” They were using found percussion and stuff; it was in the summer of ’81 that we did that—probably about three or four rehearsals—and I don’t think I heard from them for a while.

Weckerman: Yeah, and then Glenn started playing with John [Baumgartner, later of Speed the Plough, also Stan’s brother-in-law] and Toni [Baumgartner, John’s wife] and Elbrus [Kelemet] in the Trypes, so that occupied his time.

Demeski: I didn’t hear from Bill [Million, co-leader with Glenn Mercer of The Feelies] again until the following March so that would’ve been March of ’82, so that’s when we started playing again and I started playing with The Willies and Yung Wu although that was kind of a split lineup at first; I didn’t know who was playing the early versions of Yung Wu. Sometimes Marc from The Trypes played drums.

Weckerman: Really? I don’t remember that.

Demeski: You don’t remember a whole lot from those days, do you?

Rumpus: And was Brenda Sauter already playing in the band then?

Demeski: I guess no; she came in a little bit later when Dave was relieved of his duties in The Trypes and I was asked to play.

Weckerman: Well actually, Brenda knew Toni from The Trypes.

Demeski: The way Brenda met the band with through Janice, my wife. Basically, Brenda went to art school with one of Janice’s friends and that’s how she met the band.

Weckerman: Brenda is Janice’s age?

Demeski: No, Brenda is a little bit older.

Weckerman: I would think so!

Demeski: Her friend went to the same art school.

Weckerman: Oh, see—I’m learning new stuff, too!

Demeski: I told you this before, Dave.

Rumpus: Was Brenda already playing bass at the point she met you guys?

Demeski: She had a little duo and stuff. I guess in the winter of ’83 was when Brenda was brought in on bass with the Trypes.

Weckerman: It was very odd because we used to play every Sunday in a club not far from here called The Peanut Gallery and we’d rehearse in the afternoon before the show at The Peanut Gallery and Brenda would show up with her bass—we didn’t have a bass player. She wasn’t in the band but she’d play during sound check and then we wouldn’t use her for the show. It was very weird: like “Who’s that strange little…?” I thought she was sixteen or something. She had red hair and looked very artistic. But she’d just show up and she knew the songs and she’d play along but then we wouldn’t use her in the shows; it was very strange. But, of course, she joined the band when they got rid of me and Elbrus.

Rumpus: How is it that you were removed from The Trypes?

Demeski: Because he was fucked up a lot of the time!

Weckerman: Elbrus and I—

Rumpus: Elbrus was the vocalist, right?

Weckerman: He was the focal point of the band. He was, I guess you could say, to put it bluntly, getting a little full of himself on stage and I was, of course, starting to play real loud and I wasn’t playing the parts that were dictated to me by John Baumgartner (who wrote most of the songs) and plus I was in like five other bands, and so I was the first to go and Elbrus followed shortly after and they reconvened with Brenda finally on bass and Stan on drums.

Demeski: I was on drums before Brenda joined, though.

Weckerman: Yeah, and then Bill from The Feelies joined in but he didn’t play guitar, did he?

Demeski: No, he played percussion. That was a little later but not that much.

Rumpus: And Glenn was playing percussion, too, in the band?

Demeski: At first, he played a lot of the percussion and drum parts (it wasn’t really a drum set; it was more of a snare type of thing) but then I guess they got Dave. I guess they were a four-piece at first with John, Toni, Elbrus, and Mark.

Weckerman: Right.

Demeski: Then Glenn joined and did a lot of the percussion stuff and I guess started playing more guitar.

Weckerman: It was silly to have Glenn playing drums when he was a very good guitar player. So, Glenn started playing guitar and I took up the drum parts but still no bass!

Demeski: Even after I joined there was no bass player for a little while but that’s when Glenn started saying he wanted to play with a bass player and that’s when Brenda came down. The first time she came down she was wearing a jumpsuit and she had a Star Wars watch on. I remember just thinking “Wow, that’s really weird.” And she had a fretless bass too which was kind of unusual.

Rumpus: Oh, really? But she doesn’t play fretless now.

Demeski: No, she played fretless Rickenbacker for a pretty long time though and she removed the frets herself, I remember her saying.

Rumpus: She must have a really good ear.

Demeski: She says she has perfect pitch. I’ve never tested her. I take her word for it!

Rumpus: Was Yung Wu happening at that same time?

Weckerman: No, that was another complete accident as an outgrowth of Trypes rehearsals. If The Peanut Gallery wasn’t open—because they didn’t open until later in the afternoon—we’d start rehearsing at 11 a.m. at Marc Francia’s mother’s house; he lived about two houses away from The Peanut Gallery. We’d rehearse all day if we weren’t playing that night until like midnight; it was crazy! And we’d take breaks of course and order Chinese food and drink a lot and, just at one of those breaks, we’d play different instruments. Someone sat in on drums and Glenn played keyboards or whatever and I started singing and Elbrus played maracas. Yung Wu just came about as a break in the Trypes rehearsal and then we realized, well, you know “Why don’t we have this open for the Trypes since we’re all the same people, because I did have a number of original songs, and we worked ‘em out. Yung Wu came about as opening for ourselves at The Peanut Gallery.

Rumpus: That reminds me: I keep wondering when Bar/None is re-releasing Shore Leave [the lone Yung Wu album, first released on Coyote Records in 1987]. Don’t you think that record should be rereleased? It’s a great record.

Weckerman: Yeah, it’s hard to obtain! I only have one vinyl copy and a cassette copy of my own.

Rumpus: At some point, you two guys started playing together. Was it a decision for The Feelies to have two drummers or was it a decision to have you two guys in particular?

Weckerman: That went way back.

Demeski: There were a couple different percussionists even.

Weckerman: There was talk about it even when we were a trio.

Demeski: Dave was the original drummer.

Weckerman: Well, Bill, Glenn, and I were in the band called The Out Kids. We had a lead singer and it was kind of like a typical rock band lineup at the time. We did a lot of garage rock songs like from the Nuggets era and there was that fine line between glam rock and punk so the singer would sometime wear fishnet stockings! We were called The Out Kids and we got booked at a lot of places in New York where things were happening like Club 82 where the New York Dolls played, but it was before the CBGB scene. The Ramones used to come to see us! They were like: “We’re going to get signed!” and we were like “Yeah, right.”

Then the singer quit and Bill, Glenn, and me were left as a trio and, by this time, CBGB was goin’ and we used to go see Television a lot. All of us were very enamored of that band and the band opening for them very often was The Talking Heads and they were just a three-piece band: guitar, bass, and drums. Very minimalist. We never thought this would be commercially huge—it was just too weird at the time. It just seemed like a good direction to go in. And then Bill, of course, knew about The Modern Lovers; he had seen them at the Mercer Arts Center years before that and this was all new to me. I had never heard of The Modern Lovers so when The Out Kids stopped doing their garage rock, we went in a whole different direction—I guess you could call it an artier direction. Bill gave me my first guitar instruction, like, “No more of that Ginger Baker shit.” You know, just keep it steady: no rolls, don’t play the cymbal, ride the floor tom. But then I grew to like it and we got a bass player and Bill switched to guitar. (Bill found the name The Feelies in Brave New World.) The first bass player, Junior, who we can’t track down…

Demeski: He found him; he just wasn’t sure he wanted to contact him…

Weckerman: So we played about four shows as The Feelies with Junior and, by this time, Bill and Glenn have written some of the seminal early Feelies songs. Like, we were doing “The Boy Next Door” which later became “The Boy with Perpetual Nervousness,” “Original Love” was down, a very primitive, early version of “Moscow Nights” although it had a different title then. And we were doing unusual covers like “Third Uncle” by Eno, which was new then, nobody had ever heard it. So, that’s how The Feelies started and then Bill went to see a band called TV Toy (they were from New Jersey) and their drummer had all these sheets of aluminum that he’d play with mallets and stuff and Bill liked that idea. Of course, on the Eno records, there’s strange percussion stuff listed so that spurred the interest in that sort of thing and The Feelies songs had so many other percussion parts that, later, it became necessary for another person to do it.

Demeski: I think a lot of it, too, with having a drummer and percussionist is the sonic side of it, had to do with the cymbals cutting out, blocking out a lot of the guitar harmonics (whatever they used to call them). You could play maracas instead; a lot of this was from Beatles records. A lot of it is sounds the Beatles used, I think.

Rumpus: At this late date, the percussion section, the rhythm section generally, feels totally locked down, totally in the pocket. Remarkably tight.

Demeski: Well, we’ve known each other for an awful long time now. [Laughs]

Rumpus: But with Brenda, too. It’s like Brenda and the two of you are one functioning instrument.

Demeski: Well, thank you very much.

Rumpus: How has it changed over the years, what you notice about it while you’re participating in it?

Demeski: I don’t think it’s changed much.

Weckerman: The thing about The Feelies, as long as we’ve been playing, every night is a challenge because you have to listen all the time. You can never become distracted and let your mind wander. Particularly with some of these pieces, like “Raised Eyebrows,” I still get butterflies when I see it coming up on the set list because, if that song falls apart, it’s very hard to recover and get back into it. It hasn’t fallen apart in a long time but it has sometimes.

Demeski: It usually comes back together a little bit! We’ve never had any real big…

Weckerman: Yeah, there’s been… [Laughs] It’s like that—remember that game they used to have—it was called Jenga: you take pieces out…

Demeski: Jenga!

Weckerman: And one little piece will make the whole thing. “Raised Eyebrows” is like that. If Stan and I are out of sync with Bill’s rhythmic playing or with what Glenn’s doing, it can be disastrous.

Rumpus: Stan, I remember seeing a video of you—it must’ve been on Facebook—rehearsing rolls for the early reunion gigs.

Demeski: Yeah, my daughter took that; it was in preparation for one of our rounds of shows. It was probably for “The Last Roundup.”

Rumpus: “Last Roundup!” Exactly. I remember thinking, you know, I used to listen to that song and I never thought about how complex it was for the drummer until I watched you do it.

Demeski: It’s not too hard as long as I practice for it, but Glenn doesn’t really like playing it anymore for some reason; I think it hurts his hand. [Laughs]

Rumpus: How much rehearsing does the band do?

Demeski and Weckerman: Not a whole lot!

Rumpus: It’s just the gigs?

Demeski: Well, we’re not supposed to talk about the other band members’ personal lives but Bill lives in Florida and Brenda lives about three hours out in Pennsylvania. It’s hard for us to get together to rehearse, obviously.

Weckerman: Back in the ’80s when we all lived relatively close, we used to practice, sometimes, three times a week. We used to go to Maxwell’s on Monday nights because they were closed on Mondays and Steve Fallon would leave the key in his mailbox and we’d just go in the backroom at Maxwell’s and we’d play till two in the morning sometimes! We’d play pretty late, and I had to go to work the next day!

Demeski: And I was going to work or going to school, so…

Rumpus: And so the tightness of the rhythm section is an achieved thing: it doesn’t have to be re-oiled at this point.

Demeski: Every now and then you have to remind yourself to do certain things. I play along to tapes, to recordings, to practice for the upcoming shows, and I try to do it to the most recent ones to see what was good and what needs work. I think to fine-tune.

Rumpus: Does Brenda stand near your bass drum?

Demeski: I don’t listen to Brenda a whole lot.

Rumpus: She must be listening to you.

Demeski: I would assume so. I sure hope so! I play off Bill mostly. The rhythm guitar. It’s predominantly Bill, sometimes Glenn.

Rumpus: And how about you, Dave?

Weckerman: Well, I look to Stan: he’s the section leader, we call him.

Demeski: A term from college.

Weckerman: We look at ourselves as being a little orchestra. Even if you talk to Glenn, he would never say he’s the leader of the band. He’d say, “Well, I’m just the singer and the guitar player.” He considers everything else to be of equal importance and it’s like an ensemble that equals a whole. I think that’s the approach we’ve all been ingrained with and that’s the way we look at it. There are parts of songs where I’ll just sit there and I’m not playing anything but I still have to be ready! I have to listen to Glenn’s vocals. If I let my mind drift, I’ll miss it. and they’ll hear it, and I’ll get chewed out in the dressing room! You know, it’s sort of like being in James Brown’s band except they don’t fine me fifty bucks!

Rumpus: In a way, this all supports my theory, that the thing that makes The Feelies The Feelies is Bill.

Demeski: He’s the best rhythm guitarist I’ve ever played with.

Rumpus: He’s really in the pocket.

Demeski: A lot of players don’t want to play like that; a lot of guitar players don’t want to play in that rhythmic capacity. They want to do solos. I mean, he does some solos, but a lot of people don’t want to play like that. And a lot of drummers need to express themselves; I don’t need to express myself. [Laughs]

Rumpus: In the period when you guys were on hiatus, there were albums like the Wake Ooloo albums and the Glenn Mercer Band album and those were great and they had lots of good material but they never sounded exactly like The Feelies.

Weckerman: Yeah, I’ll agree with that.

Rumpus: The magical thing is the rhythm section with Bill in the middle of it.

Demeski: I think a lot of it has to do with Bill. But it’s also the general aesthetic Glenn and Bill came up with between them, the direction… whatever you’d like to call it.

Rumpus: On the electric version of “In Between,” there’s that incredible rhythm guitar part…

Demeski: It was one take! So was the other version, too but you can’t really hear the drums a whole lot so there’s only a little bit of the track I originally did. It was recorded pretty darn fast.

Rumpus: The whole record?

Demeski: Yeah, we redid two of the drum tracks a little bit later but, basically, we did thirteen songs in two and a half days because we did two songs for the EP and it was not the easiest recording experience I’ve ever had, I’ll tell you that. But Bill’s gotta travel twenty hours, so… And I have a full-time job. I have plenty of vacation time since I’ve been there eighteen years now but, still, you’ve got to squeeze everything in.

Rumpus: Two and a half days?

Demeski: Yeah, it was a difficult task. That’s part of the reason we redid drums on two of the songs.

Rumpus: That was just basic tracks in two and a half days?

Demeski: That was mostly basic tracks. Brenda did a couple bass fixes in that period. I remember we had to stop a little bit because Glenn’s furnace wasn’t working so we had to have a service tech come in.

Rumpus: And where was it recorded?

Demeski: Mostly in Glenn’s basement. I guess Glenn did his overdubs at his house. I think, if Bill did any—I don’t think he did a whole lot—he did them probably at Dan’s house (who is Marc Francia from The Trypes’ son). He lives in Black Hawk which is pretty close to here. I redid two of the drum tracks over there too. But yeah, it was mostly done in Glenn’s basement, which is Boat Street Studios or whatever he calls it.

Weckerman: But the overdubs were done mostly at Dan’s house, like Glenn’s vocals and percussion.
Demeski: I’m not sure if his vocals were done there. They might have been done at his house. I’m not positive, though, because, basically, I went to work!

Rumpus: Did you hear demos of the songs?

Demeski: We recorded like five songs as demos and some of them I did drums on. A couple of them Glenn did drums on. One or two of the songs were Bill’s actual guitar demos that we just added to. At least one song was.

Rumpus: Bill would just send an instrumental version and Glenn would come up with the melody and lyrics?

Demeski: Yeah. Some of the melodies that Glenn sings are off of Bill’s guitar riffs. One of the strongest things off the new record, I think, is that it has some really great melodies.

Rumpus: I agree with that. Great melodies.

Demeski: It’s more of the same, with variations.

Rumpus: What do you think, Dave?

Weckerman: Well, I read a review of it yesterday. They kind of summed up what I feel about the record. We’re not trying to be Crazy Rhythms! We’re too old for that even though we still play those songs. It’s a record that reflects The Feelies now: it’s kind of contemplative and seasoned. It’s a little more laid back. It would be crazy to try and be like “Look at us; we’re jumping around! We’re punks; it’s 1981!” You know? Bill and Glenn used to jump around quite a bit; they wore baggy pants and they’d jump in the air and stuff.

Rumpus: I saw a Town Hall gig right before the hiatus started.

Weckerman: Oh really? You saw that? That’s even much later.

Rumpus: They were jumping around then!

Demeski: When I first started going to see them, they were doing a lot of jumping. Real short sets. They didn’t have a lot of songs; that was part of it.

Weckerman: In the Vinny and Keith days, they jumped around a real lot! Even when I wasn’t in the band, I used to go see them at Max’s Kansas City quite often; they seemed to play there quite a bit. I was astonished because Glenn—I’ve known him for a long, long time—was always a quiet, retiring, shy guy in public. When I saw him jumping up in the air, I was like “whoa!” He didn’t do that in The Out Kids.

Rumpus: There are a couple of ways that the new record summons up The Good Earth. The design looks like The Good Earth to me; that is, the jacket looks like The Good Earth.

Weckerman: Yeah, I think The Feelies kind of go for a look where the album covers kind of reflect what’s inside the record. If you look at the Crazy Rhythms cover, it’s bright blue and it’s colorful. The Good Earth is—I don’t want to say countrified—has more of a non-suburban…

Rumpus: Like a rural something or other.

Weckerman: Yeah, rural! I think you touched on that in the liner notes of Only Life about The Good Earth and that was a result of us touring around the country in ’84 because the band never toured. The most we ever did was with Crazy Rhythms: we went to England for two shows and we went out to California for three shows. Other than that, we played in our little comfort zone of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. But in ’84, we actually took a cross-country tour in a defective motorhome!

Rumpus: Glenn told me that story.

Weckerman: Glenn’s told me that a lot of his lyrics on The Good Earth are a result of that trip, you know: “Burning cars out on the highway” and probably some other ones but he’d be better off to tell you about that. The picture in the field (from The Good Earth): that was a picture from the tour. There was a field in Illinois, a cornfield. So, we’re talking about the covers that kind of reflect what the music’s like inside.

Rumpus: This album begins with the chirping crickets, which evokes this more rural aspect, and then there’s a heavy reliance on acoustic guitar, as on The Good Earth. And there are a couple of riffs that are straight off The Good Earth; for example, there’s one lifted out of “Slipping into Something.

Demeski: I think it’s “Slipping into Something.” When we play it, they start applauding.

Weckerman: People cheer.

Demeski: It’s a Velvets riff, pretty much. I can hear that, though. I can understand that observation, sure.

Rumpus: What are you guys doing to promote this?

Demeski: This is it!

Weckerman: We actually have six shows coming up.

Rumpus: Are they all on holidays?

Weckerman: A lot of it now centers around Bill’s availability to come. Even rehearsal. Whenever Bill can make it up, we all make ourselves available.

Demeski: And what Glenn wants to do too. It’s their band, you know. Especially with Bill: he still works and lives far away so a lot of it is the scheduling of that. I guess we’ve got, at the end of April, we’ve got the Rent Party and Philadelphia the next day. In May, we have two days at Rough Trade in Brooklyn then—this hasn’t been announced yet—but we’re playing the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago and then some place in Detroit the next day.

Weckerman: We’re going out of the comfort zone! [Laughs]

Demeski: Where we can drive. Glenn doesn’t really want to fly; both Glenn and I have pretty bad tinnitus.

Rumpus: Oh!

Demeski: One time we flew—I guess it was the second year that we got back together that we went to play Millennium Park in Chicago—and the flight had a really bad effect on him. I would really like to go to California. I think we really need to go to California just for promotional reasons but I’m not sure if we’re going to make it there.

Weckerman: I’d like to do another tour in a broken-down motorhome across the country just to see all these clubs that we used to play, to see what’s there now!

Demeski: Very few are there.

Weckerman: I know.

Demeski: I’d really like to go back to Europe, too, for like a week but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Weckerman: You gotta realize, prior to The Good Earth, The Feelies got a second lease on life. I was kind of aware of it at the time but this college radio Americana scene… there was this college scene. There weren’t that many of those bands back then. There were maybe twenty of them, like Black Flag, The Replacements. Very often we’d run into some of these bands on the road; they’d be going one way, we’d be going the other. It was like a new scene starting up because of college radio and REM started to become very successful. It was a new scene. It wasn’t a New York scene or a LA Punk Scene, it was all over America so that was very interesting. Later, of course, it got bigger. It resulted in Nirvana and stuff like that; they used to travel across the country, too, in a van.

Rumpus: Azerrad’s liner notes for Time for a Witness suggests that the A&M period was really stressful for the band. Is that an accurate perception?

Weckerman: When you get signed by a major record company, the whole game changes. You’re not your own boss anymore; they tell you what you’re going to do. We did a lot of playing back then and everybody had to quit their jobs. It was full-time for quite a while there. They started making these other demands like going to Australia and Japan and none of us liked to travel that much and that was when the hammer fell.

Demeski: They would have liked us to tour more but we did a decent amount of touring for the indie records. It didn’t seem like much more pressure for me other than to play more and a lot of it depended on how Glenn and Bill felt about it.

Rumpus: The first time that I ever talked to Bill was right around the end of Time for a Witness.

Demeski: Yeah, he’d had enough. I think if we were more successful financially, I think we could’ve maybe kept on going but there were factions in the band that thought we shouldn’t be making money off art. But not me!

Weckerman: In retrospect, I found it very fitting that Bill decided to not play anymore in July of 1991 because the whole alternative rock game, as we knew it, was about to change drastically in the next three months.

Demeski: We were at the height of our success at that point; we were like a machine. I thought we just cranked it out. When we signed to A&M, it was great. Between the first and second record, a lot of people at the label left; there was a big turnover. That happens a lot with major labels. What major labels are there left really? There was a big difference with me, I mean, during Only Life, me and my wife had our daughter and our son was born during the touring for Time for a Witness. I basically went on tour the day after he was born. There were other personal things; I had two close relatives who became seriously ill at that point so I didn’t want to hear anybody else complaining at that time and Bill seemed like he had enough. I think a lot of it was financial. When you’re working really hard and you’re not making a lot of money and you have a family, it’s tough.

Rumpus: Why try to do it now, again, in this environment? For you guys, everybody’s middle-aged, right?

Demeski: Dave’s a senior citizen!

Weckerman: As a matter of fact, tomorrow’s my birthday! I’ll be sixty-seven!

Rumpus: So you can already collect social security?

Weckerman: I’m going to start in February because I’m afraid with Trump as president it may not exist for very long so I may as well grab it while it’s there!

Rumpus: So why keep playing then? What’s there left to say? What do The Feelies say for you guys at this point?

Weckerman: We like to play. There’s enough people every time we play that come and see us; most of our shows sell out. We deliver our show. It’s like a night down at The Grange with The Feelies! We usually have no opening act. We think of ourselves as a modern-day version of a square dance band. Not musically, mind you, but the social thing! Anybody who comes to see us knows what we’re about. At the end of the show, we’re going to play a lot of real fast cover songs and they just egg us on to play more and more so they know because they’ve seen other Feelies shows so it’s a very communal thing and that’s one of the reasons we keep doing it.

Demeski: It enables us to get together to play. Again, if Bill and Brenda didn’t live far away, it’d be easier to get together on the weekends to play in Glenn’s basement. There’s the financial aspect; it costs money for Bill to drive up and down. I just like getting together to play. It’s my favorite group of people to play with out of all the people I’ve played with. That’s what a lot of it is and it enables us to play together. It’s an investment in the recordings they’ve gotten reissued; they get circulated and we’re allowed to make new recordings so we get a little bit of money from it now. I mean, I didn’t see any money back then, you know, because they don’t split their publishing money, which I knew when I joined. I may have seen a little bit of money from Coyote. Steve probably paid us something; I don’t really remember. I don’t think we ever saw money from A&M except for advances and tour support but now I see money from the records.

Weckerman: We had to make videos, too. That eats up money.

Demeski: We paid for those videos.

Weckerman: They paid a lot of money out for the recording Time for a Witness, which came under budget, and they paid us the part that we didn’t use up so that was nice—they didn’t have to do it. You gotta realize we did almost a month and a half tour opening for Lou Reed that A&M paid us tour support. You need hotels and a professional road crew when you’re playing arenas with a major rock star. They often made more money than band members, you know, the guitar roadies.

Rumpus: Where did you play in New York on that tour?

Weckerman: The St. James theatre for a week. That was great. We’d drive over and we’d drive home.

Rumpus: What was Lou like? Did he interact with you guys?

Demeski: On that tour, he was really nice and he was married to Sylvia at that time; they were getting along. By the time Luna opened for The Velvet Underground tour, they were apart and he was nice but it was definitely a different vibe and, by the time Luna opened for the Set the Twilight Reeling tour, he was with Laurie Anderson, and he was a lot nicer again. She’s really nice.

Rumpus: I think The Feelies kind of stand for a band ideal now and that there isn’t very much of that anymore.

Weckerman: This year will mark thirty-three years with the same lineup! I mean, I know there’s bands like The Pixies out there or whatever… The Replacements, it’s like two guys from the band and some other people they hired to back them up. But we have the same lineup and some of our other contemporaries are just gone. REM and Sonic Youth are dissolved. So, there’s not that many contemporaries out there.


Appendix One: Brenda Sauter, the Bass Player, Speaks (by email, Feb 27, 2017)

I consider it a blessing to play in the rhythm section of The Feelies. I think we were always a tight section, even at the advent of playing together, and the more we made music, the smoother and more intuitive it all became. It’s so much fun to just feel what the drums are about to do next. Stan plays, and I react. It’s difficult to not react in some way.

Before linking up with the bands that formed in Haledon, NJ, I would go out to shows in NJ and NYC, and I would watch and listen to the interplay between the drummer and bassist. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not touting that I was doing something new or fantastic. But I had, and still have, a genuine passion and love for listening to the dance that happens between the drums and bass.

Maybe I’ll ruffle a few feathers here, but despite their being amazing musicians, I’ve never sensed a deep rhythmic connection between The Beatles’ Ringo and Paul. They both play wonderfully, but I sensed more that they were forming two distinct and separate parts. Perhaps it’s just a recording/mixing issue. What do you think?

Depending on the song, I may listen almost exclusively to Stan, or listen to both Bill and Stan and look for that niche that will bridge both of their parts. In the live setting, because I’m on the opposite side of the stage from him, I don’t hear Glenn’s rhythm parts as well as I hear his leads. I sense that their rhythms are pretty tight (Bill and Glenn), but that their distinct guitar tones allow more sound-separation.

Beyond the rhythm aspect, I like to react to certain parts of Glenn’s leads. For instance, in the final lead of “Higher Ground,” when he drops down in pitch, I go up and then vice versa. It’s not on the recording, but I started doing this at performances.

There are songs that need a simpler, more rhythmic part; and there are songs that allow more melody. I like to fill the musical space with what’s needed or appropriate. And I’m not the type of player who plays a lot of notes just to play a lot of notes. I would rather provide the “glue” with rhythm and melody.

When I listen to Feelies recordings, I’m more tense and uncomfortable than I’d like to be, because I hear bass parts that I wish I had changed. Or, as in the case of the album Only Life, I was battling carpal tunnel syndrome, and this caused me to play more restrained, being frugal with doling out notes.

I have difficulty relaxing and letting go during recording sessions; so, unfortunately, on listening back to some songs, I hear what I should have played. The process of playing songs in a live setting helps me to get beyond that and tweak the parts.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →