4/13/2005

Mercury Rev



Back in 2001, Mercury Rev seemed poised for world domination. They had had
been around for ten turbulent years and had come out with one of the finest
albums, which was Deserter's Songs (1998). This was an amazing album of power and
loss. Mercury Rev made secret psychedelic vistas palpable for the listener.
Mercury Rev had become one of the biggest American bands in Europe. All the
praise by the British press didn?t translate necessarily into American success,
like their buddies The Flaming Lips enjoyed, and Mercury Rev were seen more like
Sparklehorse, a band that was misunderstood on its own soil, while well
respected everywhere else. Mercury Rev did three albums previously to all
this with a different lineup. Now the band has become Jonathan Donahue
(vocals/guitars), Grasshopper (vocals/guitars), and Jeff Mercel (piano/drums).

What happened in 2001 is Mercury Rev released their anticipated All Is Dream
on 9/11. Both Mercury Rev and Sparklehorse released great albums to an
American public who thought they were just plain weird. Now there are younger
American bands like Secret Machines and Mars Volta who are also playing space rock,
with a touch of Pink Floyd, that are conducive to the far out path that Mercury Rev
have trudged alone in years past. The Secret Migration (2005) is an album that
contains all the elements of past Rev greatness. They create soaring
landscapes, helium vocals, piano crescendos, and dive-bomb guitars. Apparently
this started out as a quieter acoustic album. It was made to be intimate and
raw. They recorded it in their new studios in upstate New York. I guess when Dave
Fridmann joined the fray; thoughts of string sections did appear. The first
song "Secret For A Song" sounds as big and expansive as anything they have
done. Mercury Rev conveys emotion and feelings through stories and references to
nature.

The scuttle beat of "Diamonds" recalls their participation with techno
music. Jonathan Donahue did sing a song with The Chemical Brothers before. The
killer bass line in "Black Forrest (Lorelei)" floats around the chords.
"Vermilion" is the sound of this band at its most positive. As you listen to this
record, you notice how the piano has been used in a rock song in a very exciting
way in many of the songs. "Moving On" is one of the best vocals they have done.
This record is very satisfying. It's not shockingly new ground for them, but
it does sound like a greatest hits record of their last three records. Mercury
Rev is a band to look out for. I spoke to Grasshopper recently before their
American tour with Doves.

****

AL: When did you record the latest album, The Secret Migration?

Grasshopper: We finished it last May. We worked on it for nine months. We did
the record like we always do. We all have little ideas for songs: Jonathan,
Jeff, and myself. We go into a studio and start banging it and putting it down
on tape. This time the difference was we had our own space. We have our own
studio now. The last album, All Is Dream, we recorded at Tarbox Studios with
Dave Fridmann. Dave would come up to our place. A lot of it we would do by
ourselves.

AL: Did you plan to avoid Tarbox Studios this time?

Grasshopper: We set up our own space to do demos. After we did Deserter's
Songs and All Is Dream, we realized that we were driving across New York State to
Dave Fridmann's all the time. Those trips took seven or eight hours. It felt
like we continued to be on tour for four years, while we were recording our
albums. We wanted to do something closer to home. Dave came up one time and
recommended some microphones for us to use. He listened to what we had done. He
said: "That sounds really good. Why don't you guys keep on recording here? We
can go to Tarbox later on and shape it up and mix the record."

AL: How do the songs on the album usually start out?

Grasshopper: They start out with music first. Each one of us contributes to
that process. Jonathan usually has a lot of lyrics either floating around on
paper or in his head. We will change the structure of the song to fit the lyrics
or vice versa. A lot of the songs are written on piano or acoustic guitar.
When you start orchestrating or experimenting in the studio, and adding stuff,
then you strip away what originally played the melody. It's like throwing the
legs from underneath the table. It keeps it interesting for us when you kick
the song around a bit. The songs take on a new life that you didn't originally
thought they would. That happens when the three of us get together, and we have
different ideas, and Dave Fridmann gets in the mix.

AL: Did you set out to do a more stripped down acoustic album?

Grasshopper: In the beginning we were thinking something like that. It ended
up not being that way. One thing we wanted to do was playing around with
rhythm. We wanted to use drums and bass and percussion, but also use guitar or
piano percussively. We wanted to do things with the rhythm section that we haven't
done in the past. We concentrated more on that. I was listening to Minimalist
Composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

AL: Some of those Minimalist Composers were interested in the idea of
repetition in music. Some of those arpeggios and tri-chord are mood altering.

Grasshopper: Yeah. Mercury Rev has always been about mood altering through
music. We are always trying new ways of doing that.

AL: Since you recorded Deserter's Songs, many band like The Delgados and
Gemma Hayes, have come to Tarbox Studios to work with Dave Fridmann. I guess the
appeal to them was they were attracted to the sound that was on Deserter's
Songs.

Grasshopper: A lot of Deserter's Songs was recorded in other places. We
recorded it in Connecticut. Some of it was recorded in the Catskills at The Band's
studio. That album wasn't really a product of Tarbox Studios. Dave Fridmann is
capable of getting that sound. That was something that was in the air. That
was our mindset.

AL: The album All Is Dream came out at the time of 9/11 in America. Did you
think that affected its reception?

Grasshopper: I think so. That is exactly what happened. We were all preoccupi
ed with that. That was strange. The record company, V2 Records, is on Houston
and Broadway, which is pretty close to the site. They were shut down for a few
weeks. The record comes out on that day and the record company shuts down.
That didn't help matters. We ended up picking up the pieces. A few days after
9/11 we ended up going to Europe for a few months and concentrated on playing
and touring there. There was a whole mental toughness going on in America.

AL: There is also the fact that people don?t seem to catch on with new music
in America so fast. Many bands lose money on American tours.

Grasshopper: Why bands lose money is because the traveling. You end up doing
a lot of driving in wide-open spaces. For the most part, in the big cities,
the west coast, the northeast, Texas, Florida, and Chicago, we do really well.
It's the traveling from place to place that you lose money. We love touring in
America. This tour with Doves in May will be really good.

AL: Will that be the biggest American tour you have done?

Grasshopper: When we played with Pornos For Pyros in the South years ago,
that was pretty big. We also played with Wilco a lot when we did All Is Dream.
That was good. This Doves/Mercury Rev will be pretty big.

AL: What will the new set be like?

Grasshopper: We play a lot of the new stuff from The Secret Migration. We mix
in songs from our two previous albums. We don't many songs from our first
three albums any more. We occasionally throw some of those songs in. But we are
going to concentrate on the new album.

AL: You did a solo record a few years ago. What happened to that record?

Grasshopper: I was messing around with some songs. It was a studio project
and I gave it the name "Golden Crickets." There are a lot of different Golden
Cricket people. I want to do another record. We played a few shows together. It
was a revolving cast of characters. Some of those guys ended up playing live
with Mercury Rev, like the Russo brothers. They are now in the band Hopewell.
My solo record came about because we were in between record labels, between
Sony and V2. There were a lot of legal problems. Mercury Rev couldn?t record
anything until all that stuff was resolved. I recorded that album right before
Deserter's Songs.

AL: What are some of the other older members of Mercury Rev doing, like
Suzanne Thorpe and David Baker?

Grasshopper: Suzanne Thorpe is playing with J. Mascis, and also with Jimmy
Shields, who is in this band Rollerskate Skinny. I haven't spoken to David Baker in
quite a while. I think that he works in a studio in Chicago. Jimy Chambers
has a band in Buffalo called Odeon. They opened for Mercury Rev on a tour in
Spain and Italy a few years ago.

AL: Who plays with you now?

Grasshopper: There is the three of us. Then there is Carlos Anthony Molina.
He played on The Secret Migration. He toured with us playing keyboards. Now he
plays bass guitar. Jeff Mercel used to play drums with us, and now he plays
piano. Our new drummer is named Jason Miranda. So there are five of us.

AL: The song "Moving On" seems like new territory for Mercury Rev.

Grasshopper: Jeff came up with that idea. I elaborated on it. Jonathan really
encouraged us on that song. He said that it reminded him of a mantra. That is
mostly Jeff and myself singing on that song.

AL: Do you think that there were new influences on this record?

Grasshopper: Some of that Minimalism and Classical records that I mentioned
before. Maybe some stuff by Terry Riley, Lamonte Young, and John Cale. There
were a lot of records he did after the Velvet Underground. If there was anything
that we were all listening to it was that stuff.

AL: There was a connection to Tony Conrad at some point?

Grasshopper: Yeah. I studied film with him in Buffalo. That was in 1987 and
1988. We played together a few times.

AL: Have you played any shows in the Catskills before?

Grasshopper: We have played in Woodstock at the Bearsville Theater with
Sparklehorse. We have played at some colleges around here like SUNY Purchase.
Those shows usually go pretty good. College kids are usually more into new music.

AL: Mark Linkous from Sparklehorse used to have a song, I think it was
"Spirit Ditch," that he would play live, that had similar chords to "Holes" by
Mercury Rev. He used to sing a few lines from "Holes" and people used to go
crazy. Did you ever hear him do that?

Grasshopper: Yeah. That was good. I like him. He is great. I think that
Sparklehorse opened for us on a tour. I think that he continues to do that.

AL: How many songs did you record for The Secret Migration?

Grasshopper: There are probably about another ten songs that didn?t make it
on the album. Some of those songs have already been b-sides. When the record
comes out in America, there will be a second disc included. Some of those songs
will be on there with some recordings we did for a radio session. There was a
John Peel session and one session with KCRW. We usually have the record come
out at the same time in both countries. This time we released it in the UK and
tour there for a few months. Now we are releasing this special double disc
before we tour in May. The whole time you can download some of the songs on
Itunes.

AL: How has the reaction been to the new material?

Grasshopper: It's been great. We went to Scandinavia and Germany, Paris,
Ireland, and the UK. It was about twenty dates. This summer we are going to play
in Croatia and Macedonia. There was talk of playing in Turkey. We would like to
go places we have never been before. I would like to go to the Czech
Republic, and Hungary. My grandfather is Polish, so I would like to go to Poland.
There are more concerts going on in those places.

AL: We mentioned psychedelics a little bit. How does drugs fit in with
Mercury Rev?

Grasshopper: There was a period when it was heavy duty. We have settled down
with that now. We occasionally have a smoke now and then. For the most part it
is all about getting into the music. Music for us is like a drug. It does
change your perceptions and your moods. That is what we want to experiment with
now. Music is serving that purpose. If people want to listen to us while under
the influence, then that is their experience. For us now it is all about the
music.

AL: When Deserter's Songs came out, there was a lot of talk about Mercury Rev
being ex-junkies. Was that rumor just made up by the press?

Grasshopper: Some of that was true. That is what a lot of that album is
about. It's all about picking up the pieces and going through that experience.

AL: In some of the recent interviews with the band, Jonathan Donahue doesn?t
really talk very much. You get a feeling like, he thinks "Here is the music, I
have nothing to add." What do you think about that?

Grasshopper: Yeah. It's hard for him, as it is for all of us, to talk about
the music because it comes from a special place. The music is very personal.
Sometimes we don't know where it comes from. It's a magical process that just
comes out. Sometimes to explain that is tough. Being as sensitive as he is,
it's hard for him to talk about it.

AL: Do you think his public persona as being sort of anti-social and
reclusive is how he is in your personal experiences with him?

Grasshopper: We all go through different moods. Jonathan can be hilarious. I
went out with him last night. We went to a bar with some friends. I was
laughing for an hour. My stomach still hurts. Other times we can get quiet or
pretty blue. That is life. That is what music is too. It captures all those moods
and emotions.

AL: It seems like the last few albums have come out every three years. Would
you like to work faster and do an album a year and tour less?

Grasshopper: Sometimes I would like to work faster. After each album we have
tour for a year. After that tour we take a few months off. Then we start
recording the next album, and we have to wait for six months for the record
company to put out the record. That has just how the scheduling has worked out. I
have friends who are authors and they say it is even worse for them. They write a
book and it comes out five years later. By that time it comes out they have
written a bunch of other books.

AL: Are there any new records that you like?

Grasshopper: I like the new Beck record. There is a woman from Norway. Her
name is Hanne Hukkelberg. She is like a jazz singer. I saw her not too long ago.
I was in Norway and I saw her play and I bought her CD. When I got home, I
heard an interview with her on NPR. They played some of songs on there. I like
Soundtrack of Our Lives and Nikolai Dunger. We worked with him.

AL: The Concretes?

Grasshopper: We met the girl from The Concretes.

AL: You did a song for the James Joyce "Chamber Music" album. When is that
coming out?

Grasshopper: We did it a while ago. It was delayed because the label didn't
have permission from the estate of James Joyce. Now they finally resolved that,
so I think it is finally coming out.

AL: On the website you used to write some notes about books and what you were
reading. Do you still do that?

Grasshopper: Yeah. I just wrote a thing about Hunter S. Thompson.

AL: Have you read any good books? I remembered that you seemed very literate
and had some good choices up there.

Grasshopper: I have been reading John Fante lately. I have been reading Chronicles by
Bob Dylan. That is great. I enjoyed that.

AL: That is good. All that is all you need to read. Hunter Thompson, John
Fante, Bob Dylan, and James Joyce too.

Grasshopper: Yeah.

AL: We have been going on a while here.

Grasshopper: Yeah, actually I need to drive down to New York City to do this
DJ thing tonight.

AL: Is the DJ thing something you have been doing for a while?

Grasshopper: Yeah. Mostly in Europe. In Brooklyn.

AL: Have you lived in New York City before.

Grasshopper: I did for four years. None of the other guys did.

******


Mercury Rev

appearing at "Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival"
Sat 04/30/05 Indio, CA Empire Polo Field

appearing with Doves
Sun 05/01/05 San Francisco The Fillmore
Tue 05/03/05 Seattle, WA Showbox
Wed 05/04/05 Portland, OR Aladdin Theater
Fri 05/06/05 Vancouver, BC Commodore Ballroom
Sun 05/08/05 Salt Lake, UT Club Sound
Mon 05/09/05 Boulder, CO Fox Theatre
Wed 05/11/05 Kansas City Madrid Theatre
Thu 05/12/05 Minneapolis Quest Club
Fri 05/13/05 Chicago, IL Vic Theatre
Sat 05/14/05 Detroit, MI Majestic Theatre
Mon 05/16/05 Toronto, ON Kool Haus
Wed 05/18/05 New York, NY Webster Hall
Thu 05/19/05 New York, NY Webster Hall
Fri 05/20/05 Boston, MA Avalon
Sun 05/22/05 Philadelphia Theatre Of Living Arts
Mon 05/23/05 Washington, DC 9:30 Club

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