EARTH SUMMIT The Feelies Vs. Rick Moody

The celebrated novelist
and Wingdale Community Singers rocker interviews his favorite band. Blurt takes
notes.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

The growing, ongoing Feelies revival began last year when
the 1980s-era New Jersey band – whose rhythmically incessant, disciplined rock
minimalism and mysteriously allusive lyrics defined the future of indie rock
while also honoring its Velvet Underground origins – reunited after 16 years
apart.

 

It gained further traction this year when the Feelies played
their masterful 1980 debut, Crazy
Rhythms,
it its entirety as part of the “Don’t Look Back” showcase at the All
Tomorrow’s Parties festival in New York. And in September, Bar/None Records
re-released Rhythms and its
follow-up, 1986’s The Good Earth, on
CD and vinyl with deluxe packaging. Bonus material has been included via
digital download cards to preserve the actual albums in the form the Feelies
originally wanted.

 

There are many reasons for the Feelies’ status as such a
beloved band. But one is that many writers, critics and artists have always
taken the Feelies’ oeuvre seriously
as art. One of the most important to do so is novelist Rick Moody (The Ice Storm, Purple America).
He wrote his first novel, 1992’s Garden
State
, while living in Hoboken
and incessantly listening to The Good
Earth.
The novel is about young people adrift and constantly slipping into
something foreboding in an industrially decaying New Jersey. Moody credited the
band as an inspiration in his introduction.

 

Moody has remained a huge Feelies fan, even as he himself
has ventured into rock ‘n’ roll as a member/lyricist of the Wingdale Community
Singers, a moody alt-folk group that also includes David Grubbs, Hannah Marcus
and Nina Katchadourian. With that group celebrating release of its new album on
Scarlet Shame Records, Spirit Duplicator (reviewed
here at BLURT), it seemed an appropriate occasion to bring Moody together with
Feelies’ creative lynchpins, Glenn Mercer and Bill Million. (The other band
members participating in Feelies reunion gigs are Dave
Weckerman, Brenda Sauter, and Stanley Demeski.)

 

The three agreed to share a phone line to talk about music
and related topics with Blurt. What
follows has been edited and shaped into a feature:

 

“I have a funny story about what happened when I sent the
introduction [to Garden State] to
Bill that I bet Bill doesn’t remember,” Moody says. He then addresses Million:
“I sent [it] right when Time for a
Witness
came out, and I Fed Exed it to you for some reason. You called and
said, ‘You woke me up.'”

 

Million replies that he doesn’t remember that and then Moody
adds, “So I felt very guilty for waking you up.” There is a slightly awkward
silence after that, which Moody breaks by asking about the Feelies’ performance
at New York’s Town Hall in 1991, which he attended.

 

This causes Mercer to bring up a comment from a critic who
recalled the show’s evident tension – the band broke up shortly afterward. Million,
for his part, then mentions how another writer recently noted that at the
reunited band’s shows at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, the members still looked like they didn’t enjoy each other’s company.

 

“I thought that was a complete misinterpretation,” he says.
“I mean, if we didn’t like playing with each other, we wouldn’t be up there. I
think sometimes people are taken aback because there’s not a lot of interaction
with the audience – rather, it’s the music itself.”

 

Moody interjects, “And you have been playing 30+ years,
right? So you don’t have to have a lot of onstage patter between yourselves to
prove you’re acquainted.”

 

At this point Mercer offers some insight into the Feelies’
whole musical worldview: “Plus, we don’t really smile on stage, so people tend
to think we’re not enjoying it. We have what’s been described as a workmanlike
way of performing – it’s a job and we go about performing it.”

 

 Moody probes a
bit:  “Does it feel that way to you,
Glenn, or is that just other people’s interpretation?”

 

“I think that, a little bit contrary to a lot of bands, it’s
sort of not so much about having a good-time party atmosphere for us,” replies
Mercer. “A lot of bands have that – ‘Hey, how you all doing out there?’ We’ve
never felt that need to express that attitude.”

 

That’s a performance approach that Moody, who appears before
audiences both as an author and a musician, can understand. “In terms of
playing music in our little band, we have even less stage presence than the
Feelies,” he says. “I mean, it’s like an anti-stage persona to the point of
being painfully awkward sometimes. That’s fine with me – I’m only interested in
the music part of it. I arrive at that because I always felt that way about
bands that I liked. It seems they’re more interested in making the song happen
live than in making the audience happy, somehow. Like Big Star, Leonard Cohen,
the Feelies or the Velvet Underground.”

 

Mercer tells Moody, ‘‘Over time I’ve become more comfortable
onstage, but it’s always been a struggle. It’s not a naturally comfortable
place for me to be.”

 

Moody explains that the love writers feel for the Feelies
isn’t about a stage presence or lack of one. It’s about the band’s songs and
sound. “Partly, its because the records are great – that goes without saying –
but partly it’s because the lyrics are so oblique,” he says.

 

“That’s a very literary approach to lyric writing,” he continues.
“You can’t parse them easily. It’s the same way that Animal Collective and
Joanna Newsom are very lyrically cagey and hard to pin down – writers find them
interesting. I suspect you can make an argument that their lyrics are more
poeticized in that they are not easily interpreted. And that has inherent
literary value for writers who like music.”

 

Mercer says he has difficulty discussing this topic. “It’s
always been hard for me to talk about lyrics. The idea is to try to say as much
as you can with as few words. The lyrics always come after the chords. I can’t
imagine having to fit the melody to the words.”

 

Moody says how inspired he was by one particularly imagist
lyric in a Feelies’ song – the reference to “empty cars out on the highway” from “The Last Roundup” on The Good Earth. “But you did see an
empty car on the highway?” he asks.

 

“Hasn’t everyone? But it was burning,” Mercer replies.

 

“That image I used about eight times in “Garden State,”
Moody says. “I kept stealing it from you again and again. It’s actually central
to the novel.”

 

 

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