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The Feelies really care about their public. Lead vocalist-guitarist Glenn Mercer swears it's true. So what if they only record when they are good and ready, or that they only gig in the flesh every three years or so?
The Feelies care deeply about having an audience. According to Mercer, the group's shadowy profile--infrequent gigs, few records and long periods of complete invisibility--is due in part to its erratic songwriting habits.
"Songs are really important to us," Mercer says from his home in the urban wilds of north Jersey. "A lot of albums are weak because they are filled with throwaway tracks. Bands have deadlines to meet, so they rush."
Saying that deadlines and the Feelies don't mix is more than an understatement. Band members seem oblivious to the normal processes of the music business. But somehow, they still have a record deal--and a reputation.
Their hide-and-seek strategy may have even allowed them to outlive all the bands they began with, back in the late Seventies and the glory days of the New York scene. It's been twelve years since Television unraveled and three since the last and possibly final Talking Heads project, so maybe the Feelies and their maddening disappearing act really are the way to go. That is, if longevity is what you care about.
But the Feelies have had it both ways. They've lasted, and they've made good, verging at times on great, music. And instead of killing their momentum or inducing amnesia in their fans, their absences have made their audiences' hearts grow fonder.
"We took a six-year break and people remembered," Mercer says, referring to the almost unbelievable time lag between the band's first and second records. "We have a sense that the group is strong enough to survive periods of inactivity. It's hard on us economically, but in the past few years we've managed to be self-supporting without day jobs."
The latest flurry of Feelies activity began last year when A&M rereleased on CD the group's first record, the out-of-print Crazy Rhythms. A record whose Byrdsian strumming and nerd-punk attitudes proved a watershed for the alternative explosion, Crazy Rhythms hinted that the band was ready to come out of hiding. The hunch proved correct when early this year a new Feelies record Time for a Witness was released. Written, rehearsed and recorded in the span of a year ("That's pretty quick for us"), it is a typical set of folk-pop rockers; droney, open chords and abstruse lyrics that only those who drink the water in New Jersey can make sense of.
But Mercer and vocalist-guitarist Bill Million have always put the time between albums to good use. Their way with guitar-band hooks has influenced nearly everyone who ever mispronounced "Rickenbacker." Time for a Witness shows that their skill has not lost its edge over time. Just when you think a song has gone flat, a memorable chorus or bridge jumps out. Overall, the record is another strong indication that the band's make-a-record-then-rest-for-two-years way of doing things has left it with a healthy reserve of creative juices.
"It's not intentional. We don't plan, like, `Let's take time out and become cult figures.' It took us four years to get a sound before we made Crazy Rhythms. We don't feel like we've exhausted all the possibilities yet."
Back on tour again in support of Time for a Witness, the band is trying to make the move into bigger showplaces. But explaining that desire carries Mercer into the kind of upside-down logic the band has achieved success in spite of.
"We'd like to move into larger venues," Mercer begins. "But there are bands who, once they move into larger venues, what playing the music means to each person is diminished. We would rather have less people who really like the band for the right reasons."
The Feelies will perform at the KUKQ Birthday Bash at Compadre Stadium on Saturday, April 20, with Stan Ridgway, Front 242, An Emotional Fish, Material Issue, and Royal Crescent Mob. Showtime is 5 p.m. They have become living proof that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
"We have a sense that the group is strong enough to survive periods of inactivity."
"We don't plan, like, `Let's take time out and become cult figures.'