If you’re looking for the musical bridge between the darkly beautiful strumming of the Velvet Underground and the majestic jangle of early R.E.M., you’ll find The Feelies. Fronted by artist/songwriter Glenn Mercer, this New Jersey-born group has been on the edge of what we now call alt-rock since the mid-1970s; they released their first album, Crazy Rhythms, on the groundbreaking Stiff Records label in 1980, and scored their first bonafide Modern Rock hit in 1988 when the lovely, punk-ish, off-kilter song “Away” off of their album Only Life reached Number 6.
The Feelies’ lineup has changed over the years, yet the members always somehow stick around. All of the past and current members continued to perform in various configurations and under various band names throughout the ’80s: The Trypes, The Willies, Young Wu, and Speed the Plough all had at least one of The Feelies in them.
After releasing Time for a Witness in 1991, The Feelies called it quits. The bandmembers then carried on with their many splinter projects, and Mercer’s songs were placed in a number of films and TV shows. However, The Feelies lineup of Mercer (guitar, vocals), Bill Million (guitar), Dave Weckerman (percussion), Brenda Sauter (bass), and Stan Demeski (drums), returned 20 years later to make the aptly named Here Before. And this year, they release In Between, a somewhat grim but seriously gorgeous record that carries the torch for strong influences like the Velvets, and fulfills the bandmembers’ long-held dream of making a true “basement” record.
“We started doing home recordings not too long after Crazy Rhythms,” recalls Mercer, speaking by phone from the personal studio in his home, where much of the In Between tracking was done. “We always had a hand in the production of our records. Early on it was 4-track tape, and we would do demos, and I did two solo records here, but this is the first Feelies record that was done here.”
Sessions for In Between began with “demos,” with most parts being tracked and assembled in Mercer’s 22x20-foot, wood-paneled basement studio and others, such as Bill Million’s guitar ideas, created in other bandmembers’ spaces. Then the band got together at Mercer’s place to cut live basics, inviting Dan Francia—their friend and Sauter’s replacement in Speed the Plough—to assist with the engineering.
Francia carted his Pro Tools rig, as well as a few other pieces of his gear, and a few that were not his, over to Mercer’s house. “I borrowed a 4-channel Universal Audio mic pre from a friend. That’s definitely where the kick and snare came from in the basics,” Francia says. “I used my neighbor’s Summit Audio tube mic pre for bass, and everybody loved that.”
Francia says that the basic tracking sessions were mainly designed to capture the drum parts, but some other parts ended up being keepers. And some parts of the demos ended up being keepers as well, with basic tracks or later overdubs being edited together with the demos. “On this new record, Bill had a particular guitar sound in mind, based on the way he did the demos,” Mercer explains. “On [demos for] about half of the songs, he sent the guitar track to me and I would overdub everything else on top of that. We liked the sound of the demo and we wanted to capture that sound and vibe of the way Bill recorded his guitar at home.”
Million played the same 1980s Gibson 335 that he plays live, through a Musicman amp. “And he has a Gibson cabinet from the ’50s with a JBL replacement speaker in it,” Mercer says. “We tried to re-create his sound here, and we set up three signals for him: direct from the guitar and amp, and a mic on the amp. We ended up not being able to use the mic because even though Bill was in another room, the studio isn’t soundproofed, and we had a lot of leakage from the drums. So, in those instances when there were songs that really required that particular guitar sound that he’d gotten direct by himself, we would revert to the demo and overdub drums and various things onto the demo.
“We’d keep a lot of the percussion I did on the demo, but Brenda and Stan, in a lot of cases, would replace the bass and drums. That was one way [songs came together]; and another way was totally live and we kept everything except vocals.”
The demos that were cut in Mercer’s studio were captured to the artist’s Tascam DP01 8-track machine, mainly through his MXL 909 microphone, which was also used to capture all of Mercer’s vocals, whether they were cut in his studio or Francia’s.
“Overdubs and mixes were at my studio,” says Francia, whose home studio is equipped with his Pro Tools 10 system and RME Fireface interface, a Soundcraft Ghost analog console, and JBL LSR305 monitors. “Glenn likes to do vocals by himself, so he cut a lot of his own vocals, but when I was listening back to them in the rough mixes, they had so much hiss, so one day we had him come over and he did all the replacement vocals for four songs, doubled them. It was an incredible day of tracking.”
Another incredible tracking memory: “On the last song [‘In Between (Reprise)’], they had a weird ‘loop’ in the demo,” Francia says. “And they weren’t sure if they wanted to do an acoustic or electric version. So they said, ‘Let’s play both and see what happens... ’”
“It wasn’t actually a loop” Mercer says. “I made a 4-track cassette tape of a guitar, sustained with an EBow device, through a tremolo pedal, combined with two other guitar parts playing octaves and a Casio keyboard all playing the same thing—in real time for 9 minutes. It would have been faster and easier to make a loop, but I didn’t have a looping device at the time.”
“Well, they played to that,” Francia continues, “And it was a live take, no click—just playing to this ‘loop’ that Glenn made. They did it in one take, and it’s this incredible jam—almost ten minutes long. Nobody was expecting to play for ten minutes. We thought we were just getting sounds, but we ended up keeping the whole thing.”