Brenda Sauter (The Feelies, Wild Carnation) :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Brenda Sauter, pictured with The Feelies.

After making several of the best records of their era, The Feelies splintered in 1991, going on an “extended hiatus” that would last until 2008. When the band went their separate ways, bassist Brenda Sauter joined up with guitarist Richard Barnes and drummer Chris O’Donovan to form Wild Carnation, a group that shared a certain jangly groove with The Feelies but developed its own distinct personality — especially with Sauter taking on lead vocals. 

Tricycle, Wild Carnation’s 1994 debut, is an under-heralded classic of Garden State folk rock, from the electrifying opener “Rising Tide” to the sweet melancholy of “Dodger Blue.” Feelies fans will find plenty to love — and much more. Tricycle is getting deservedly spruced up in a remastered/expanded form by Delmore Recordings for Record Store Day this month, so Aquarium Drunkard hopped on the phone with Sauter to get the behind-the-scenes details. Like any good New Jersey saga, it features Maxwell’s, Yo La Tengo and a Sopranos cast member … | t wilcox

Aquarium Drunkard: Take us back to the last days of The Feelies in the early 1990s before you went on your “extended hiatus” — did you have suspicions that the band wouldn’t last much longer?

Brenda Sauter: I think we all knew that things were not going well. Record sales weren’t what A&M wanted. We didn’t too much touring for Time For A Witness because it all unraveled before we really got going. It was nothing like what we did after Only Life, which was pretty extensive — for The Feelies, anyway. Other members of the band might say it came as more of a surprise to them, but to me, deep down inside, it felt like it couldn’t go on for much longer. I actually started to think, “Alright, what do I want to do with my life?”

Right after The Feelies went on this extended break, Steve Fallon, the owner of Maxwell’s, was very kind in offering me a job at a shop he owned, Hand Mad in Hoboken. I worked there part time and did a few other things and tried to sort out what the next step might be. 

AD: How did you feel when this thing you’d spent so much time/energy with over the last decade was suddenly over? 

Brenda Sauter: The emotions were disappointment and just feeling…lost! On the other hand, it was kind of a relief, just because, again, it seemed like things couldn’t go on much longer the way they were going. Having that closure was important once I got over the disappointment. I think it was what had to happen then. 

AD: But you felt like music was still something you wanted to keep doing? 

Brenda Sauter: Oh yeah, definitely. Steve also hooked me up with a woman named Patty Shaw, who was a very talented singer-songwriter. We started a duo called Evaluna; we didn’t play a lot of shows, but it was good for me to keep going. The “non-Feelies” Trypes had evolved into Speed The Plough, so that bus had already left. There wasn’t a Haledon band to become a part of. 

AD: Eventually you hooked up with Rich and Chris to form Wild Carnation. 

Brenda Sauter: A little bit of the backstory is that in the early ’90s, Chris O’Donovan and Rich Barnes had started a group called Wow and Flutter, but that didn’t last too long. When they tried to get something else going, they placed an ad in the paper, and [future Sopranos co-star] Michael Imperioli responded. He played with them for several rehearsals, I don’t think they got quite as far as having a name. Michael was choosing between music and acting and obviously he made a good choice [laughs].

AD: A good New Jersey connection — you can say you replaced Christopher from The Sopranos in the band! 

Brenda Sauter: Kind of! This would have been in early 1992. I was still spending a lot of time in Hoboken and Yo La Tengo was playing at Maxwell’s, so I thought I’d go. And Chris and Rich were there, too. Chris said he knew [Feelies drummer] Stan Demeski and that he and Rich were looking for a bass player and I guess a singer. They had guitar and drums and wanted to fill out the band. Rich had made a demo tape of a bunch of songs and Chris went out to his car and gave it to me. Long story short, I listened to it, really liked the music and felt an immediate reaction — like an attachment to it. So, I just said I was interested, and we started rehearsing. That’s how Wild Carnation got going.

AD: What do you look for in bandmates?

Brenda Sauter: When you meet people, there has to be some kind of connection. Someone with a really big ego is going to be a turn-off right away. It wouldn’t be happy circumstances. Chris and Rich weren’t looking for just a bass player, they wanted someone to really collaborate with. Rich was — and still is — really good at coming up with chords and the foundation of a song. I was the opposite. I always feel like there are too many chords to choose from. It’s too difficult to sit down and write a song out of nothing. But if I hear a chord progression, I can usually easily hear lyrics and melodies to go along with it. I could take what Rich had written and add to it — it turned out to be a perfect fit. And then we got married a year later. [Laughs]

AD: So it worked out OK! Had you written songs while you were in The Feelies? 

Brenda Sauter: I had been writing since I was 16 — not a lot, though. I was happy playing other peoples’ music mostly. But in the background, I’d work on demos. “Follow Your Visions,” one of those demos, became a Speed The Plough song. John Baumgartner asked if I had any songs and we ended up recording that. 

AD: Who were your models when it came to lyrics? 

Brenda Sauter: Mostly folkies — Bob Dylan, primarily. Not that I wrote anything that was close to a Bob Dylan lyric, but just telling a story was important to me and still is. But in 1992, Michael Stipe was a big influence for some of the songs. He was unique. Not to narrow it down too much, but just to have phrases that come together and form a picture — and then the listener is wondering, “Gee, what is this about? Should I take this literally or is this a metaphor?” In particular, “Trailer Song” on Tricycle was a kind of what I thought of as a Michael Stipe approach. These phrases or images put together so that someone can read into and find a story. Bits and pieces of Tricycle were things I had written previously. You might have a little book that you would write down phrases and then come back to it and try to put it all together. 

AD: When you listen back to Tricycle now, do you hear a theme running through the songs?

Brenda Sauter: Yeah, for sure — it’s childhood. And childhood lost, I suppose. I think it’s a natural thing to be in your 20s or 30s and thinking back to your childhood and kind of musing on how you got where you are. Whether they’re good memories or bad memories. And then there are songs dealing with ecology, too — “Acid Rain and the Big One.” Back in the early 90s, acid rain was a big subject. It was something that hadn’t come up before, but in newspapers you’d start seeing articles about it. It sounded terrifying — what we were doing to the environment. It’s an end of the world song, but it has this nice, happy sound to it. I liked the contrast. 

AD: Well, in the last 30 years, we’ve solved all of those environmental problems, right [laughs]? 

Brenda Sauter: Oh sure, yeah, right.

AD: “Susquehanna 142” is one of my favorites on the album — where’d that come from? 

Brenda Sauter: That’s an actual train that was coming through the town I was living in, Oakland, New Jersey. There was this kind of excursion train built in China that was going around the U.S. A railroad would be picked, and you could ride it for a couple of miles, this old steam train. It was coming through town, and I remember it was around the 4th of July in 1992 — Wild Carnation and some friends had come over to my house and when the train came through town, just like in the song, we went running over to the tracks to see it. Oakland is right near some mountains and when the train whistle blew it just echoed like nothing else. This gorgeous sound. So that one’s not about childhood, but it is about the past, looking back at previous times. And that song was included on a CD called The Catskill Mountain Railroad Album, so it did actually find its way onto a railroad compilation. 

AD: And then “Dodger Blue” is kind of another blast from the past. 

Brenda Sauter: Yeah, the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn was before my time. But Rich’s father was from Manhattan, and he was a big Dodgers fan, so that song came out of conversations about that. He was so upset when they moved to LA. But when Tricycle came out there were some reviews and — I can’t say who the writer was — but someone wrote that “Dodger Blue” could be as much about the breakup of The Feelies as it was about the Dodgers. It’s hard to say. I was putting some personal thoughts and feelings out there and saying, you know, “It’s a baseball song.” I was definitely projecting myself into this situation and having the perspective of one of the players. How it would have felt to be on that team, sort of an end of an era thing … like A&M dumping The Feelies! 

AD: I love the live show included on this reissue — did Wild Carnation tour a lot around this time? 

Brenda Sauter: It was more one-off shows. We played Maxwell’s and other places in the city. We really did just one tour opening for Moe Tucker in 1994. I think the farthest west we went was Iowa and we ended up in Kentucky. It was a lot of fun — Sterling Morrison was playing in her band at the time. At first, of course, when you see people like that, you’re like “Homina homina” [laughs]. When The Feelies opened for Lou Reed, it wasn’t like you were going up to Lou and talking to him that much. You sort of humble yourself, keep your distance and if they want to talk to you, they’ll talk to you. But Moe and Sterling were very nice — we were treated very well.

AD: The band has continued to exist over the years — is it still a going concern? 

Brenda Sauter: We released Superbus in 2006, but we had recorded it in 2000. Rich and I had a baby so that was one reason it was put on hold. We’re going to put it out on vinyl in the fall. Wild Carnation was supposed to play a show on March 13, 2020 — and then everything stopped, of course. I remember thinking, “There’s no way this is going to last.” Within a couple days, everyone knew how bad it was and we canceled the show. And then we were going to play a couple years before that and there was a March snowstorm that made it impossible for us. We were like, “We’re never going to get to play again!” But I’m sure we’ll do it eventually. There’s a whole album’s worth — and more — of songs that haven’t been released yet. We had a weekend of doing basic tracks in the studio, but it’s been on the backburner for a while. I didn’t feel that bad after seeing Neil Young’s movie Harvest Time — he took 50 years to finish that [laughs]. 

AD: As you know, I made it out to see The Feelies last fall at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City — and [early 1980s Feelies side band] The Willies, too! How did the band feel about the return of The Willies after all these years? 

Brenda Sauter: It felt great. From my perspective, it was so energizing. It felt like there was so much energy flowing back and forth, especially coming from the audience. It was very inspiring and a lot of fun. I think we all came away from it thinking, yeah, we should do this again. And we’ll be playing as The Willies this summer. And there could be a Willies recording project at some point, too. 

“The Obedient Atom” at White Eagle Hall was really special. That was one of the original Willies songs and it never got recorded. It was one of those songs that was always left behind for one reason or another. To finally play it out just felt incredible … and then the fire alarm went off and everyone had to evacuate [laughter]. There’s something about that song! Surreal. The atom wasn’t so obedient that night. 

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