Bill Million (The Feelies) on The Velvet Underground

Cut live at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City in October 2018, The Feelies Some Kinda Love: Performing the Music of the Velvet Underground, is a full-throated homage to one of the indie pioneers’ foundational influences. Spanning the VU catalog and charged with reverential excitement, it’s a live record that feels more like a complete statement than many “tribute to” projects manage. In her Aquarium Drunkard review, Jenn Kelly calls the bands, “two close, illustrious cousins in the rock and roll family tree,” which got us thinking how fun it would be to climb up those branches with founding Feelie Bill Million, who joined us for an all-things-Velvets chat, with digressions into The Beatles, The Willies, future plans, and more. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: Lou Reed personally told you that The Feelies were one of the only bands that “got” the Velvet Underground. Lou’s reputation is mythic, and he wasn’t always known for such compliments. What did hearing that feel like? 

Bill Million: Well, it was a pretty cool thing to say. Truthfully, I got more of a thrill out of singing and playing with him, particularly when we first met. Playing the chorus of “Sweet Jane” was much more thrilling for me. It was at a radio station holiday party—singing with him into the same mic. There’s a lot of bands compared to The Velvet Underground, but I’ve never heard a band sound like the Velvet Underground. I almost take it with a grain of salt. It was certainly a very lovely compliment to get, but I really don’t think The Feelies sound like the Velvet Underground to my ears. I don’t think any band sounds like The Velvet Underground.

AD: Even the VU sounds like different VUs as time goes on. Each record has its own feel.  

Bill Million: You compare the third album to the first album and they’re so vastly different. By the time Loaded came along, it was just really great songwriting, from a rock music perspective. 

AD: People tend to think of Lou in different ways, putting him in different boxes, like “He was a grimy New York poet,” or he’s a “literary rocker.” What do you think people get wrong about him? 

Bill Million: Our perception of him was very matter of fact. Particularly going on tour with him—we’d spend a lot of time just having dinners before soundcheck. We all had work to do,  there was no putting on airs or anything like that. I know he has a reputation for being a curmudgeon so to speak, but he wasn’t that way with us. He was just wonderful to work with, very down to Earth, which is completely opposite of what you read about. We just didn’t have that experience, but that was our only experience, in fairness. Our interaction with him was primarily that tour, which went on for quite a while.

AD: When did you first get into The Velvet Underground? 

Bill Million: Between the first and second album, around that period. I was in high school. [In 1970], Lou left the band and so you couldn’t go see the original Velvet Underground, much less John Cale. At that point, Doug Yule took the reins of the band, and Lou went solo. Lou’s solo records were really big for me coming out of The Velvet Underground. I remember going to see him do a Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal show in New York. I remember coming away disappointed. 

AD: Were you disappointed because it was more of a hard rock presentation? 

Bill Million: Well, let me put it this way. Have you heard the introduction to “Sweet Jane?”

AD: [Laughs] Yes. I wrote about Lou’s collaboration with Metallica a few years back and I think, for whatever reason, he kind of loved that herky jerky, almost plodding heaviness. So I can see being disappointed, especially if your primary reference points at the time are the brilliant studio albums. 

Bill Million: Exactly. 

AD: And you saw the VU too?

Bill Millon: Yeah, but it wasn’t with Lou. I saw them at the Electric Circus in New York. Back then, you didn’t have access to all the information that you do now. I was just going to see The Velvet Underground, but it didn’t say, “The Velvet Underground are playing, but Lou’s not there.” Even trying to track down a place like Max’s Kansas City was quite a job. I don’t know if you know Rob Norris from The Bongos, but in this new Lou book—not Will Hermes’ King of New York, but The Art of the Straight Line, about Reed’s Tai Chi experience. Rob has an interesting story in there about going to one of the Boston Tea Party shows and getting invited into the dressing room. It’s a pretty cool story. 

AD: I need to get that one because I’m very interested in Lou’s Tai Chi practice. There’s a million things that are surprising and interesting about him, but that’s the last thing a lot of folks might expect.

Bill Million: I knew about it but I think you’re exactly right. It goes back to what you said earlier about this “mythical figure.” When you start to think about what The Beatles were doing when that first Velvet Underground album came out, it kind of puts things in a completely different perspective. But the book is really interesting, it talks with a lot of his acquaintances. The Jonathan Richman section is really interesting. He talks about bumping into Lou in Harvard Square—and he just introduces himself, goes up to him and says, “Are you Lou Reed?”  Lou says, “Yeah.” I guess Lou was walking through Harvard Square, carrying a guitar. Jonathan said to him, “I love your band.” Lou asked him what he loved about it, and he said, “It’s the guitars. The guitars sound like drums.” For both Glenn [Mercer] and I, that was a huge part of the appeal.  

AD: That percussive quality really is miraculous. Richman delivers my favorite parts of the Todd Haynes documentary. Did you enjoy that movie? 

Bill Million: It was good—really good.

AD: I love the movie, but you mentioned seeing Doug Yule, and he definitely gets short shrift in that doc. His contributions to the VU songbook and discography are so massive. 

Bill Million: He was a really good musician. I’m not one that subscribes to that take on it, but I can understand how it would come about, especially if you’re a big Lou super fan. But he really contributed quite a bit, and it’s kind of unheralded, unfortunately. 

AD: His voice is fantastic, and he really makes Loaded. 

Bill Million: The story I always heard was when they went into record Loaded, Lou had somewhat blown out his voice, and that’s how Doug ended up kind of stepping in and doing lead vocals on a number of songs. I don’t know if that’s all true, but yeah, Doug’s great.

AD: Do you remember Chick tracts? A couple years back, the artist Luke Geddes did a great play on those comics called “The Forgotten Velvet.” It’s his attempt to evangelize on behalf of Doug’s contributions.

Bill Million: So he wasn’t like dissing Doug?

AD: No, the opposite. 

Bill Million: People in general have weird interpretations of such things. Look at The Beatles: for many years, Paul McCartney was considered the dork in the band. John Lennon was the cool guy. But you step back and you look at Paul’s contribution to music: he revolutionized the approach to playing bass. He turned it really on its head. But people were kind of locked into having those sorts of opinions, when they’re not worth anything, really.

AD: Let’s talk about another vocalist known for their work with the band: Nico. I love the way Brenda Sauter sings those Nico songs. 

Bill Million: Our old manager [Steve Fallon] was the owner of Maxwell’s and lived upstairs. We would play and rehearse there all the time. We were kind of the house band. When Maxwell’s closed, we played the show there, and we covered “After Hours” and Brenda sang. So we had experience doing that song. And then when it came time to select the songs for the concert that this album reflects, we had a number of Velvets songs that we had done live for a number of years.

AD: What was the mood like at White Eagle Hall the night you guys recorded this?

Bill Millions: What was kind of funny about this—and it happened purely by accident—is that this album was released five years exactly to the date that we played the concert. It was purely coincidental. But I have vivid memories of that night. It was pure joy. The audience was really up for the show. I think that’s the one thing that you can hear on the album. 

AD: What are you working on these days? 

Bill Million: We have some shows coming up. We’re playing in Woodstock in New York, and we’re playing in Philadelphia at World Cafe Live. We have this band from years ago, The Willies, which is inspired by a lot of the stuff Brian Eno, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich were doing. We just started playing as The Willies again and we’ve added two additional people that play about half of the set with us. We’re just kind of formulating what we want to do next. We’ve been kicking around the idea of doing a Feelies/Willies album. The Willies are primarily an instrumental band. That’s another album that really had a big influence on us—Bowie’s Low. So it’s almost a similar approach.

AD: You mean where side A is more song-based, and then it’s more abstract on side B?

Bill Million: Exactly. We’re kind of kicking that idea around, but nothing definite. 

AD: Are there other bands you could see doing a full-on tribute to, like you did with the VU on this one? 

Bill Million: We cover a lot of bands. I mean really anywhere from Wire to R.E.M., to The Beatles, to The Stones. It just really runs the gamut. It’s just a lot of artists that we grew up listening to that we still listen to, bands that we’re friends with. But I don’t think we would take on something like this again.

AD: When I spoke with Glenn last year for the AD podcast, we talked about that, paying tribute and homage to artists you love. I feel like Yo La Tengo works that way too, tapping into their inspirations and helping share them with others. Part band, part fans.  

Bill Million: I think that’s a really accurate description, particularly of us and Yo La Tengo. That’s almost always our starting point: “fan band.”

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