The Feelies’ Stan Demeski
by Patrick Berkery
Few groups enjoy as loyal a fan base as the Feelies, whose handful of ’80s albums had a profound influence on many a guitar-oriented alt-rock band. The days of bottomless major-label budgets are long past, though, and since the group has always been staunchly independent, working only when and where the members want to, its longtime drummer has learned to balance performing with more traditional work opportunities. But his ability to rock it like the old days hasn’t diminished one bit.
Walk by Stan Demeski’s North Jersey home on any given night and you’ll probably hear the veteran indie-rock drummer woodshedding.
After he gets home from his day job in the parts department at a machine-tool manufacturer (a full-time gig he’s held for seventeen years), Demeski spends an hour or so each night working on exercises from Stick Control or prepping for one of the handful of shows the Feelies have been playing annually since reuniting in 2008. Demeski hasn’t been a full-time drummer since being fired from the alt-rock band Luna in 1996, but he remains devoted to the drums and is perfectly content to do most of his playing these days in his basement to an audience of none—a far cry from the days in the ’80s when the Feelies were opening big shows for R.E.M. and Lou Reed, and when Luna seemed destined to break through in the ’90s.
“I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, but I really feel very little need to play in front of people anymore, and I really haven’t for a long time,” Demeski tells MD over the phone. “I’m most happy when I play in my basement. I’m very grateful people pay twenty bucks to come see my fifty-five-year-old ass play with the Feelies. But if they didn’t, I’d just go to work.”
During much of the ’80s and well into the ’90s, drumming was Demeski’s full-time job. He joined the Feelies after the band issued its influential 1980 debut album, Crazy Rhythms—an apt title given former drummer Anton Fier’s frantic yet machinelike timekeeping—and stayed with them for nearly a decade as they flirted with mainstream success. By the time he was out of Luna, Demeski was a married father of two with a house in the suburbs. His priorities had shifted from providing the beat to providing for his family, so he entered the 9-to-5 world and has remained there ever since.
MD: You make a point of saying you haven’t been a full-time drummer since you were fired from Luna in 1996. When that happened, did it feel like that phase of your life had ended, or did you still have the desire to pursue music as a career?
Stan: I started working at a local farmers market, and I was trying to see if I could get anything going musically. But the writing was on the wall that it was time to stop at that point. I got fired right before I turned thirty-six. I had a house, two young children….
But I kept my playing up and started playing with my in-laws in the band Speed the Plough, and now my son plays drums with them. We would play on the weekend, but I really didn’t play a whole lot other than that. For most of those years I would come home from work and play guitar. Playing drums after a while, I felt like I had wasted a lot of time. But then in 2008, when the time was right, the Feelies got back together.
MD: The Feelies seem to have a fairly light workload, but the band has been active this year with the reissues of 1988’s Only Life and 1991’s Time for a Witness, a two-night stand in New Jersey to mark the group’s fortieth anniversary, and a new album in the can. Is there an urge to keep it going as is?
Stan: I think it might have to change at some point. We might have to move toward more acoustic stuff so we can do house concerts and stuff like that. I can see myself playing for another five years or so at this level, unless I have any health problems. Although I know work is going to get a bit more demanding, because I’m about to be [promoted]. The good thing about playing when you have a full-time job is that it really recharges you for the full-time job that burns you out so much. I’m going to go as long as I can. I’ve invested too much time in it not to.
MD: The two groups you’re most commonly associated with—the Feelies and Luna—share a Velvet Underground sensibility. Was Moe Tucker’s approach to rhythm and percussion something you gravitated toward during your formative years?
Stan: There were several things that influenced me back then. One of them was Moe Tucker, though I couldn’t figure out what the heck she was playing until Luna opened up for the Velvet Underground reunion tour in the early ’90s. I was into American and British punk rock. Even though I liked and appreciated a lot of overplaying—fusion and stuff like that—really straight, basic music appealed to me. And then along came the advent of rhythm machines and drum programming. That was taking drummers’ jobs away, and I was like, Why don’t I just play like that? Maybe they’ll use me instead of a drum machine. Part of it was hearing Steve Reich and stuff like that, which was kind of repetitive. Stripping things down to the bare bones really started clicking with me in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
MD: When many people think of the Feelies, they think of the speedy, jittery energy Anton Fier brought to the first album. With you on drums that vibe was still there, but dialed back a bit. Was that a conscious creative move or just the byproduct of your being your own drummer?
Stan: Frankly, I tried my best to play like Anton when I first started playing with them, but I couldn’t come in and just play his parts perfectly. They seemed more interested in playing more experimental-type music then anyway, like the score they did for the movie Smithereens. A lot of times it was them telling me what to play, as best they could articulate it. It could still get frantic, though. Especially when we were doing “three drummer” shows, where Anton came back for a handful of shows on drums, Dave [Weckerman] was on percussion, and I was basically playing a kit without a kick drum or cymbals. But my version of the band was the fastest, though we’re not as fast as we used to be. [laughs]
MD: As everyone has gotten older and evolved as players, have you settled into a different sweet spot tempo-wise? Are you concerned with playing things as fast as they are on record?
Stan: I prefer to play things as fast as possible. But the songwriters don’t want it that way anymore. Even though he’s sixty-six now, Dave can actually do a lot of the stuff [up to tempo] because he’s just playing percussion. It’s no real big stretch for him. But [singer/guitarists] Glenn Mercer and Bill Million are a little older now, and they just don’t want it that fast anymore. People used to tell us we played too fast back in the old days anyway. We play them a little slower now, and I think it does benefit a lot of
MD: But live you still play the 8th notes pretty fast with your right hand, on the hats, ride cymbal, or toms. Are you using any tricks to “cheat” as you get older? Lighter sticks?
Stan: Lighter sticks? No! I’m using basically the heaviest stick Promark makes, the 2S wood tip. I use the American Hickory models, as the oak ones are a bit too bright. I can get more bounce and volume out of the heavier sticks, and I don’t have to play as loud. I can let the stick do more of the work.
Feel These: 5 Great Demeski Performances
“The Undertow” (from the Feelies’ Only Life). Demeski taps out a jittery, Hoboken-y variation of the Bo Diddley beat, which creates a darting wall of rhythm with Dave Weckerman’s percussion.
“The Final Word” (from Only Life). Wrist-burning 8ths on the ride cymbal and sweet fills that whiz by in a blur make for some of the busiest college-rock drumming ever.
“Too Far Gone” (from Only Life). You can feel the drum machine’s influence on Demeski’s playing in the unwavering, unaccented hi-hat 8th notes pulsing through this minimalist rocker.
“Time for a Witness” (from the Feelies’ Time for a Witness). Dig the way Stan plays it tight and steady against Weckerman’s rattling percussion on this garage-y freak-out.
“23 Minutes in Brussels” (from Luna’s Penthouse). From Demeski’s last stand with Luna, the loose and sexy groove on this hazy jam feels like a self-assured, slightly stoned older sibling to all the anxious rhythms the drummer cranked out with the Feelies.
Tools of the Trade
Demeski plays either a 1993 Ludwig or early-’60s Gretsch drumset. His cymbals include two 18″ crashes (one Zildjian and one Sabian), a 20″ Zildjian Medium ride, and 14″ Zildjian New Beat hi-hats. His hardware includes a Tama Iron Cobra chain-drive bass drum pedal “with that really nice and heavy Low Boy beater,” which has a counterweight. He uses a variety of Promark products, including TX2SW model sticks, and Evans heads, including G2 Coated snare and tom batters and G1 Coated or Clear resonants. Occasionally he’ll use an Evans Heavyweight head on the snare.