Q & A: Bill Million/The Feelies
New Jersey's most influential alt-rock band is back with its first new album in 20 years and a live gig July 22 at Milford's Daniel Street.
In the 1980s and early ’90s they created a series of guitar-driven, avant-garde pop albums—Crazy Rhythms, The Good Earth, Only Life—that are still cherished touchstones of American indie music. Their songs have been featured in acclaimed movies from Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob and Something Wild (in which, billed as The Willies, they also covered The Monkees’ “I‘m a Believer” and the country standard “Before the Next Teardrop Falls”) to Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. They’ve shared stages with admirers like Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Patti Smith, Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. Yet, you still may never have heard of the influential New Jersey band, the FEELIES (named for a notorious diversion in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World). Well, here’s your chance to catch up. The band swings by Milford’s Daniel Street Club July 22 at the end of what has been not exactly a tour—more a limited series of Friday and Saturday dates undertaken since May in support of a new album, Here Before. Listening to it seems like old times, which is particularly remarkable given that this is the first Feelies album in 20 years. For more info on the show, call (203) 877-4446 or visit danielstreetclub.com.
I wanted to say I love the new album and "welcome back." It feels as though no time has passed. When I listened to the album I was like, "This could be 1987." Did it feel that way for the band?
No; it was exactly the opposite. We don't really over-think things like that, but initially, when we got together, there were some rough spots. But ultimately, everyone was pretty comfortable with each other, even after not playing for so long. It was just a matter of tuning up, so to speak.
What lead to your leaving the group 20 years ago, and then coming back together after so much time away?
To answer the first part of the question; there were a number of things. One big reason for leaving was really, a lack of inspiration. There seemed a sameness about what we were doing—we were playing a lot more than was suitable to all of us, and it literally became a grind. I found myself looking down at a set list during a show and counting how many songs we had left. It was at that time I realized, it was time to take a break. We had always kind of agreed that when we came to the point where we didn't enjoy what we were doing, it was time to stop. Of course, I stopped and that stop lasted 20 years!
But there were also some personal things going on . . . my sister, who I was very close with, was dying of cancer, so I was dealing with that. And my parents were down in Florida, and we were dealing with them long distance. That had a big impact. So there were a number of things going on. And I just put my guitar away and figured, if the time came to pick it up again, I'd know it. I literally stopped playing.
One of my sons decided he wanted to play guitar; he asked for an acoustic guitar for Christmas, and I bought it for him. So there was this successibility to having this guitar around the house and watching him play that kind of led me back into it.
How'd that lead back to the Feelies?
Glenn and I had been in touch for quite some time. We had a licensing request on some songs, so had spoken because of that. The band had never stopped playing on bad terms—I figured everyone kind of understood that—so that was not a big issue to get over. So when Glenn and I started talking about this licensing deal, we talked about the possibility of getting back together and playing. It just took awhile; there were a few things I had to get past. Once that happened a reunion fell into place pretty easily.
What had you been doing all the years you had not been playing music?
Just working . . . I had kind of gotten involved in microelectronic access, computers.
So, you started working on this album last year?
Kinda sort of. When we first got back together Glenn had two songs that we immediately started playing. I think what really brought us back together was a request from Sonic Youth to play a show in [Brooklyn's] Battery Park with them. It's sort of this summer series that the city of New York puts on. Anyway, they were insisting we play, to the point that they weren't taking no for an answer. Our idea had been to get back together and see how it felt and kinda go from there. But right from that very first show we were already playing two songs that were on Here Before. That was in 2008.
Last year, around the Fourth of July we had played a date, and we decided that we just wanted to dedicate our time to making an album. we thought if we just kept playing, we'd get too easily sidetracked from that task. So we got a little more intensely devoted to recording the middle of last year.
By the way, you played one show recently in which you played just songs from Crazy Rhythms, right?
Yes—there's this festival called All Tomorrows Parties. One of the nights is dedicated to taking an artist or group and having them play what they might consider their signature album from beginning to end, in sequence. A strange sort of idea and a peculiar request, I think. They asked us for either Crazy Rhythms or The Good Earth; I thought there were too many guitar changes in The Good Earth. My take on it, when we were done, was, "Wow—what was that all about?"
Personally, I was kind of glad it was over. It was an interesting challenge that we had all agreed to do, but there's something that I hink we all look for when we perform, and you can get into certain situations when you're performing live that preclude your achieving that.Playing something from beginning to end would be one of those. Particularly for a band like ours—we develop our sets a certain way; they start slower and they tend to build. When you're doing something in sequence like that, you tend to lose that whole element.
I understand that you commuted back and forth between Florida and New Jersey to work on the album.
I still do; even when we rehearse. In fact, last weekend we played in Brooklyn and Boston. I'll drive up, we'll rehearse, we'll play, and then I'll drive back. I travel with three guitars, and I'm just very reluctant to get on an airplane and deal with an airport. That's way too much of a hassle. I kind of enjoy the time alone, just driving. It's something I want to do, so I don't really think too much about it. I'm used to it.
One of the benefits of this is that my son's been going to school at Princeton, in the middle of New Jersey. (Ed. note: He graduated this May.] I'd typically stop off and have lunch with him, then kind of continue on to northern New Jersey, where we'd rehearse. We rehearse up at Glenn's house.
There are several songs on the album that are collaborations between you and Glenn. How do you write together, especially given the physical separation?
This was somewhat a different experience, because we exchanged CDs through the mail. We talked about ideas, and also scheduled some scaled-down rehearsals with just Glenn, myself and Stan [Demeski; the Feelies' drummer], where we did some additional work on the songs. Then we took those home and worked further on them. For the most part, they developed like that.
With Glenn and I, I think for the most part, everything starts on the guitar and goes from there.
Listening to the track "Again Today," I noticed lyrics that almost seem to refer to the band's hiatus, the bit about "turning your back" . . ,
I don't know . . . I'd rather not . . . you can take any number of meanings out of our stuff. But I think most critics have probably over thought it. we prefer not to have everything up front, on the surface. We just find it more interesting if you can discover some elements after repeated listenings. If you figure everything out right away, it just seems like the album would get boring pretty quickly.
Who are your musical influences?
We grew up with bands like the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Neil Young. There were bands or guitar players who I could say kinda inspired me to pick up the guitar—people like Ron Asheton from the Stooges or Sterling Morrison from the Velvet Underground. But I was just listening to . . . someone had given me a copy of Neil Young Unplugged, which I listened to on the way back from the Northeast last weekend. I listen to something like that and I think it's on a whole other level.
What about Ron Asheton impresses you?
I was just a longtime Stooges fan. I would go anywhere to see them play; I saw them probably 28 times live. he just had a very simple approach to playing, and the sound he got out of his guitar just seemed achievable to me as a teenager. I'd listen to him and think, "I can do that." Whereas you might listen to someone like George Harrison and think he's otherworldly. But something about the Stooges inspired a lot of kids to pick up instruments.
When we're writing music, having listened to someone like Neil Young or the Stooges or any of the people we've listened to—it does kind of come out. I may think there's a song we're putting together that sounds like Neil Young—but I may be the only person in the room who thinks that.
What about your style or approach to guitar-playing is distinctive, would you say?
I don't know if it's distinctive—when I play, I think more in terms of the people I'm playing with. I try to complement what they're doing. And we try always to improve our songs in live performance, even ones written as far back as Crazy Rhythms. And probably what comes out is mostly subtle nuances, which most people wouldn't even hear.
How do you think the band has evolved? When you talk about always trying to improve specific songs . . . how have you changed overall?
I think with Here Before, we actually decided to go with the 13 songs we picked. We actually had more that we may work on in the future, but we thought those 13 songs allowed us to go into a direction where we could use more varied tempos than we had in the past, and to try some other things that we hadn't done. It just seemed much more interesting to us to be able to do that.
How are changes in the music industry in the last 20 years impacting the band? The rise of digital recording and mp3s?
We recorded Here Before digitally. We were kinda surprised—initially we wondered if we should record analog, but we recorded digitally and we're quite pleased with the result.
I know what you mean about mp3s, people downloading a song here, a song there . . . we've always been interested in a body of music, how songs sound together. I know that the CD or LP market always drove that. And I still think there's a big place for that. I really don't listen to mp3s, I don't put headphones on my ears to listen to music. I do have a mp3 player, but I listen to it in my house through my stereo system.
As part of this series of weekend live dates you're playing this spring and summer, you're coming to Daniel Street in Milford. How did you happen to hook up with that club?
We played there once before, and while it wasn't real crowded, the audience we had there was great, and the band really liked playing there. It's a good fit for us.
Are you getting younger audiences at your current shows, or mostly people who have listened to you back when?
It's actually been a pretty broad spectrum of ages, which is kind of cool. Rock has always been limited to a pretty youthful audience, unlike other forms of music, which tend to span generations. Obviously, there are a lot of people who listened to the band when we started, but there are a lot of young people, too.
Daniel Street is one of the last dates on your current live schedule. Do you hope to do more performing this year?
We get a lot of offers actually, but we really don't like to travel too much. Touring is not something that we have any interest in. We like to really get something out of our playing, and we want our audience to as well, and long stints on the road just detract. That was never a good fit for us—I can't say that we've toured extensively, compared to bands like R.E.M. or U2. We like to keep the show experience more special.Q & A: Bill Million/The Feelies