Q+A: Glenn Mercer of The Feelies: Returning With a New Album!
He was inspired by Andy Warhol's musicians during The Factory era and continues inspiring musicians today. Through his legendary band The Feelies, Glenn Mercer handcrafted the sound that labeled them The Village Voice’s "Best Underground Band in New York." On an afternoon when he thought he might practice later, Glenn chatted over the phone about his career and his vinyl records’ thriving popularity to this day in a landscape of "streaming only!" hipsters.
I was listening to your music this morning to get into the mood for this interview. What I noticed was your band is probably the only act keeping it personality and being relevant because you don't follow whatever Top 40 producers are selling at the moment. How have you fought against the pressure to conform from the industry, producers and others?
Well, I guess throughout our 40 years of playing music, it hasn’t been consistent. There’s been times where we tended to maybe be more concerned with the mainstream, but usually, that’s not the case. I’m thinking particularly about the time when a lot of the alternative bands were signed to major labels. What happened was the alternative music was getting a lot of support from the college radio market, and the major labels took notice of that and thought there might be some value in taking those bands and nurturing them along and turning them into big arena bands. An example of that might be R.E.M. When we signed to a major label, we did a little bit. We always had someone in the studio to help us. Even though we produce our own records, we usually have a co-producer. We kind of allowed the co-producer a little creative control and thought with the production, we would maybe gear it towards radio because a lot of alternative bands were getting played on major radio stations as well as college radio stations. We had a manager at the time. We had some aspirations of being a little bit more mainstream. But we soon realized it was not something we felt comfortable with, and it probably lead to the band breaking up at that time, and we didn’t want to make the same mistake again. The lesson from that is we did not want to listen to anybody else.
Your releases defy the "let's release an album every year" industry format. Between the years, how many songs do you write versus what gets tossed out? What is your album process?
We don’t really have one. We’re not super prolific. We don’t throw anything out. I think that some songs might take longer to develop than others. There might be an idea from a song that might be used later on. We write albums with material that could take a few years between the writing, recording and the promotion. We find what is comfortable for us is about five to six years, and it’s usually the same way we approach each record. I guess when we did our second record for a major label, we stepped it up a little bit, but typically, we take a really long time. I really don’t see the point of getting product out there.
How much of what you do when you aren't working ends up in your music?
The writing process is mysterious. I can’t really define how it occurs or what goes into it. I really don’t try to analyze it. I think that might be a bad idea. I just accept it for what it is, a mystery. I mean, where does any idea come from, really? We don’t know. They just come into their heads. I can’t think about a particular song I could trace back to an event. I guess things in our lives definitely seep into the work, and the artistic expression is based on your feelings, so it is an element, but I cant really define how much of an element or how it works that way.
How might your band sound different if you were starting out today? What do else do you think might have changed, if anything?
It’s not something I think about, and if you ask me to think about it, it probably won’t even result in a conclusion. I’m not really good at hypothetical type situations. There’s so many variables if we started out today. The most obvious thing is the things that influenced me may still possible be an influence, but they wouldn’t be as strong an influence because it would be experiencing those experiences kind of second hand, and the perspective would be totally different. Kids today could like The Beatles, but it wouldn’t be the same as seeing them when they were first around, so everything would be different. I could still like the same bands, but it wouldn’t resonate as strongly having the impact that it did.
Everything in your life would have a different perspective. Most likely, it wouldn’t be the same, but I can predict how it would be different. I probably wouldn’t be doing it for a living.
That would be really sad! I think you would probably still be doing it for a living. People today are talking about the box office failure of Ghost in the Shell due to people and professional journalists online saying mean things about the movie to where nobody gave the movie a chance. How do you feel today about what I've nicknamed "follower culture?" Meaning people pretend to like a movie or band because everyone at work or school does, and it's gotten much worse. How many bands do you think go undiscovered because of this?
I think you’re talking about a group of people who music is sort of secondary. It doesn’t touch them as deep as some of those who associate with someone who is not popular. If you’re just listening to music that’s popular because everyone else is, it’s probably not reaching you at a deep level.
Do you think pop culture will ever recover from this moment in time? Do any musicians have a chance anymore at “making it?”
It really depends on your definition of success. You’re saying they don’t have a chance. They might not have a chance to be a billionaire or have their face all over the TV or Internet, but that’s not how I measure success. How successful you are is how you are able to express yourself and connect with people. It’s not the number of people but how deeply you connect with one individual. I’d rather connect with one person on a deeper level than 100, where it’s superficial.
What you do with The Feelies seems to possess, again unlike other artists or bands, is that people of all ages really enjoy your work, like my former neighbor when I knew him as a 12 year old. I don't think a lot of really young people understand where the influences are coming from, but they really have fun and discover you through Spotify or reading about you. Are you in the future ever going to dedicate an album to writing about who you once were at the age range of some of your new fans?
I just write songs myself. I try to be in the moment. I don’t think that much about the past or future, just be here and now.
What you do by habit when you write music? Things like, "I have to drink coffee at 8:00 am," or "I only write when I'm feeling upset?"
I just need a quiet place with not too many distractions. I usually have coffee; that helps. I think nothing too particular. I guess typically, I know now to not worry so much about times when I’m not motivated. Early on when I started writing, I’d go through periods of feeling unmotivated. That scared me. I thought I’d never be motivated again. It comes and goes like waves. The best thing is to be open to different moods and realize when it’s time to preserve and time when it’s best to just let it be and allow the process to hold. Try to be more relaxed about it. You shouldn’t try to force it if you’re not feeling in the mood. There is no point to continuing it, really. It depends. Also, I tend to procrastinate because I find that pressure will help and the deadline, so there’s no one set way. I guess it’s trying to be more relaxed about it.
Your first album famously didn't sell well, but it is also very iconic to musicians everywhere. What about this can you advice current popular musicians and bands trying to make it?
I guess now, it’s tough. Back when we started, there was a tendency to allow for bands to develop, to take their time and build a following kind of slowly. Now, there is a lot of pressure for debut records to do well, and sometimes, they don’t get a second chance. It’s tougher now. I don’t know what advice I could give, really. People aren’t buying records anymore anyway.
Right, like streaming everything! I’m asking another person I am interviewing about how to deal with Spotify. The company claims they pay $0.007 or upwards per song. The reality is, artists I know and myself included when I looked back at my pay, get $0.001 per song. By this rate, you need 1 million plays to make $1,000. How can people nowadays earn a living through music?
I don’t have an answer for that. I just think somewhere down the line, something will happen that will make it better. It’s a tough time for people starting out for music. For sure, it’s tough everywhere.
I want to thank Pitchfork's festival PR staff for making this interview possible. What are you most excited about with this year's Pitchfork Music Festival?
I don’t know! We don’t play many festivals, but I’m looking forward to going back to Chicago. We have a lot of fans in that area.
What other career news do you have going on?
We’re just looking forward to promoting the new record, really. It’s doing well, so we are really happy about that. From what I’ve been reading, the reaction to it is people really like it. If you like our other records, you most likely will really like the new one. Some have mentioned it’s a return to form. In other words, they are coining it “the best," "like Crazy Rhythms [The Feelies' debut album]” or “good art.” These are all equal. It’s doing well. The fans are really pleased with it.