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. In 1992, guitarist and co-founder Bill Million had walked away after 15 years for a number of reasons: “One big one,” he says, “was lack of inspiration. 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 our set list during one show and counting how many songs we had left. With that, I realized it was time to take a break.”
Legend has it that Million relocated to Florida without bothering to give the rest of the Feelies a forwarding address. Though he had some personal issues weighing on him—one being the imminent death of a beloved sister of cancer—he maintains there was never any bad blood between him and his former bandmates. He put his ax away for years, only picking it up again when one of his sons requested an acoustic guitar for Christmas. “Having that guitar around and watching my son play kind of got me back into it,” he says. Meanwhile, he and Feelies co-founder Glenn Mercer had begun discussing licensing agreements for some of their songs. “That’s when we really started talking about getting back together.” It didn’t hurt that the members of Sonic Youth insisted that the Feelies open for them at a summer 2008 concert in Manhattan’s Battery Park.
After a few more scattered live dates, in 2010 they began developing a new album in earnest, with Million and Mercer working on songs by exchanging CDs through the mail. Million has also driven from Florida to New Jersey for band rehearsals. “I travel with three guitars, and I’m just very reluctant to deal with the hassles of air travel,” he says. (Driving also allowed him to stop on the way at Princeton University for lunches with his son, who graduated this spring.) He’s pleased with Here Before—“We were able to go in a musical direction we hadn’t tried before and experiment with more varied tempos”—and happy to return to Daniel Street, having found “a great audience” there at a previous gig. Big, long road tours, he says, will never be the Feelies’ thing. “We feel that really detracts from the joy of playing. We like to keep our shows special, for us and the audience as well.”