Glenn Mercer

I recently had the honor of chatting with Glenn Mercer, probably best known as a member of legendary band The Feelies, about his recent solo record Incidental Hum.

CT: I love your latest solo recording. How did the concept come together? Did you travel to all of the places your new songs are based on? Kodiak? 29 Palms? The Kara Sea?

H: No, actually it’s the opposite. I don’t think I’ve been to any of the places the songs were named after. It didn’t start with the idea of doing an instrumental record with locations in mind. I just found myself thinking back to the pre-Feelies days. Listening to Kraftwerk, David Bowie’s Low, Eno & Fripp and Philip Glass. That sort of stuff. So less performance-based and more recording-based. I was also thinking back on how Bill (Million) and I scored the movie Smithereens. In scoring, we didn’t really have any ideas upfront; we just watched the film and came up with music based on what we saw. Doing that score led us into starting the Willies, which was just the two of us and occasionally a neighbor would come over and join in. We experimented with slowing down tape speeds and just having fun with no plans.

I was also getting the urge to perform again. I just love to record and keep my skills up. In the past, I did cover songs, but this time I just sat down with a keyboard. I wanted to see what would happen. After I had worked out a few songs and listened to them, I thought they evoked a certain kind of landscape, or location. So I went with it and wrote to these imagined locations, which were revealed to me as I went along. I then came across a cassette that I had recorded five years before – with some instrumentals that included Warm Jets (Eno) and Third Stone From the Sun (Hendrix) – and I transferred those songs and developed them.

CT: Did you look at any visuals when you were writing?

G: No, I would think of what images were triggered by the music and find places to look up, like the Kara Sea. I thought the song reminded me of the ocean so I started looking at oceans on the map and came across the Kara Sea. I actually didn’t have any plans of releasing it but I shared it with my manager and he really got behind it and shopped it around. I initially gave it away and sold it a shows but it wasn’t initially meant to be a solo record.

CT: What was your approach to writing for the Feelies?

G: Those songs pretty much always start the same way: with chord progressions and rhythms.

CT: I know you co-wrote with Bill (Million) quite a bit.

G: It varied, I wrote on my own as well. These days, we’ve been sending demos back and forth and the band works from the demos. Unless we have shows, we don’t have too many opportunities to get together.

CT: Sounds like new Feelies stuff is in the works?

G: Yeah, the good part of this project is that it sparked a lot of creativity in me and I started writing and Bill had also been writing. We ended up with an album’s worth of stuff and we’ve started recording that in my home studio as well.

CT: When writing songs, do you have any little tricks to help you get out of a rut or block?

G: Not really. I like to take long walks, which is good for my mood. Momentum is a big part, sort of like waves. There are times where there aren’t any waves but you need to feel comfortable with that and not fight it. You can’t force songs at all so when you do get something going, you just need to follow through and use the momentum as much as you can.

CT: Is your home recording set-up digital or analog?

G: It’s really basic. It’s digital but it’s designed to replicate analog. I don’t have to go to a menu. For years, I recorded a Tascam cassette 4-track. I got a Roland digital machine and didn’t like that at all. It wasn’t intuitive enough. I then got an 8-track Tascam digital recorder because I like the way it looked and the layout was similar to the older 4-track. The only drawback is that you can’t record more than two tracks at a time. But that’s fine for me, as I think it can be hard to focus on the big picture when you have too much going on.

CT: Are you recording the new Feelies record on the Tascam?

G: No, we’ve brought in different equipment. But I did record my first solo record Wheels in Motion on the Tascam.

CT: Has there ever been another musician who you were really excited to meet?

G: Lou Reed is pretty high on the list, or Patti Smith, or the guys in REM.

CT: Wow, tell me about meeting Lou Reed.

G: The Feelies were asked to play a Christmas party for a radio station in Long Island. It’s not the normal kind of thing we would do so to entice us they were throwing out names of people who’d be there, like Joey Ramone, Joan Jett and Lou Reed. Bill kind of jokingly said, “Well, if Lou comes up and plays with us we’ll do it.” The station ended up running with it and contacted him. (That was around the time our Only Life record had come out with a cover of What Goes On.) He knew about us and said, “Sure.” We met five minutes before we played with him, so “surreal” is the best word to describe it. It was “Here’s Lou Reed and here’s the stage”. (laughs) We played a few songs and he came out as the special guest. The crowd was into it, so we ended up huddling backstage to come up with more songs. Later, Lou had us open up for him on his tour for the New York record.

CT: So you kept in touch?

G: He had a place up in Blairstown and asked us if we wanted to come up and fish sometime, but that never happened.

CT: What is the most memorable show you ever played?

G: There’ve been so many but I do remember having fun at the last night the Feelies played Maxwell’s, shortly before it was closed.

CT: What about any really big shows?

G: Celebrate Brooklyn was fun, but generally I don’t really like big shows or festivals. The sound is typically bad and playing during the day can have a weird vibe. We’re just not that kind of band.

CT: Worst show?

G: Wake Ooloo played with Speed The Plow at a place in NY called the Rodeo Bar. We started playing the second song and the owner said we were too loud so we turned it down, again and again. It didn’t work for him, or us, so we gave up and stormed out without getting paid. To top it off, when we got to the parking garage to grab our van, there was fire and we ended up getting blocked in for a couple of hours.

CT: What do you remember from the experience of performing in the movie “Something Wild?” 

G: Everyone was really nice to us. We had some reservations because we had some Yung Wu shows coming up that we had to rehearse for but they said, you can rehearse on the set. So on the Sunday they weren’t shooting they let us go in and rehearse on the set, which was pretty wild. They gave us a motor home as a dressing room. I remember when we looked through the front curtain Jeff Daniels was out there practicing the moonwalk. I also remember that I kept messing up when they were filming us playing. (I think it was just the pressure of the production with all the lights and the people and I kept reverting back to the live version we were used to playing.) We had to do a bunch of takes that I felt a little guilty about. Overall though it was a lot of fun.

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CT: Let’s talk about some of your guitars.

G: I have a lot of Fenders. I have a lot of Squiers that I’ve modified. The two that I use live with The Feelies are Squiers, where I replaced the tuners, the bridge and the pickups. On one of them I think I’m on my second neck. I went through about three fret jobs with one neck and now another three fret jobs on the new one. I like my action really high and I’m pretty tough on the neck.

CT: What kind of pickups did you use?

G: Seymour Duncan Hot Rails.

CT: Pedals?

G: I’ve stripped down. Live, I’ve been using a Boss Turbo Overdrive, Super Over Drive and a Chorus. Right now, I’m using a Vox Valvestate amp, which is programmed to the Vox top-boost sound. On a second channel, I have the same sound but set to be slightly louder, with more gain. So between the Vox settings and the Boss Over Drives, I have just about any amount of distortion or overdrive you’d ever want. Between the overdrive pedals and the channel options, I switch back and forth. Maybe once a night I’ll hit everything and take it over the top. A total assault (laughs). I usually back off a little bit on my volume with the hot rails. With many pickups I find that when you back off they can get muddy, but these pickups get a little more “trebley” and less muddy.

CT: Do you have favorite amp?

G: I’ll use anything, I’m not really tied to one amp. I ended up recording through a Digitech RP50 amp modeler on some of my recordings. On our latest recording, the amp modeler was too loud so we recorded using the headphone, out from a Fender Champ. I’ve also been doing overdubs on an old 60’s ampeg at our engineer’s house, which sounds pretty good: Marc Francia of Speed The Plow and The Trypes.

CT: Let’s talk about your influences. You started as a bass player?

G: Yeah, Bill as well. On bass, it was Jack Cassidy and Dennis Dunaway from the Alice Cooper group. On guitar, Glen Buxton of Alice Cooper, and Ron Asheton. Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, The Beatles, Buddy Holiday, Chuck Berry, Bo Didley, Sterling Morrison and the guys in MC5 were really big influences. I was really excited by the two guitar teams.

CT: What was your first guitar?

G: A Silvertone acoustic. The body was separated from the neck and I glued it back together. Then I had a Guild SG briefly, which sounded crappy, so I went back to bass and traded it for one of those acrylic Dan Armstrongs. I remember it was pretty heavy. My first good guitar was a 72 Stratocaster that I bought new in the shop. I used that for the early Feelies and played it on Crazy Rhythms. It never intonated right and I fell out of favor with the whammy. When I was in The Trypes I used Marc’s telecaster and got into those, so I switched over. I missed the Strat, so bought a few of those, but I switch back and forth.

CT: You seem to be pretty busy these days.

Yeah, Only Life, Time for Witness and Wheels of Motion are being re-released on vinyl, an EP of covers released for Record Store Day and this new Feelies stuff. East of Venus is putting out a record in honor of our friend and bandmate Michael Carlucci, who recently passed away. There’s also talk doing something around Incidental Hum.

CT: When was the last time you were in a fistfight?

G: I’ve usually avoided those. I think Legs McNeil once tried to pick a fight with me at Maxwell’s. (Laughs)


 

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