I caught up with Jeff Mercel, percussionist, keyboardist and general man-about-band, to find out that Mercury Rev, unlike many of their fans, are not a band transfixed with the past and that their future is there to be embraced.
It sometimes seems like an age ago, yet conversely, it now seems like only a couple of months have past since a friend gave me a copy of Deserter’s Songs by Mercury Rev, such is the timeless quality of their magnum opus. Unbeknownst to myself, and probably thousands of other starry-eyed adolescents that used the album as a gateway to an insatiable music habit, was the heartache that went into the album. Prior to it’s release, the album was seen as their swansong.
Lead singer Jonathan Donahue, who had replaced David Baker a few years earlier, was on the verge of breakdown, having grown disillusioned with the music world. Their previous album See You On The Other Side, he had considered to be their best and the poor critical and commercial reaction the album garnered spurred him into a downward spiral of self-destruction – leaving the band on the point of meltdown. Looking back now, the album is laced with lament and despair, albeit dressed up in unforgettable melodies and climactic instrumentation. It’s actually been ten years this September and since then, the band have regrouped and gone from strength to strength mentally and in confidence – although whether they will ever top Deserter’s Songs is questionable. It’s a question broached with Jeff Marcel in this interview.
The Skinny: Hi Jeff, how are you?
Jeff: Good thanks, you?
Not bad, I hear you’re up to your eyes in press work today
Yeah we’ve been doing it all week, making our way through Europe, we’ve just been to Brussels. It’s pretty relentless! You know, we got it down to a science by now!
The new material is imminent: scheduled for September release (a double release of Snowflake Midnight and Strange Attractor). How does it compare to your previous work?
It’s slightly more electronic. We approached the record a bit differently in that the processes were markedly changed from those of the previous records. No-one really sat there by candlelight trying to write the perfect song, coming in saying “here are the words, here are the chords – let’s go!” Its much more of a spontaneous affair. You’d walk into the studio and really not know what you were gonna work on that day. We’d walk into the studio and just start playing and see where it would take us. It was much more collaborative in terms of song creation. It leads to a more open, free sound, which you can hear in the record itself.
The song titles (October Sunshine, Runaway Raindrop, Butterfly’s Wings, Snowflake In A Hot World) seem to suggest a lot of the themes of nature that have been so constant in your work are returning…
Certainly, taken literally there’s a lot of reference to nature. But I think underneath that there’s probably a more prevalent theme of transformation and state change. You know, Snowflake In a Hot World: the idea itself is something of a paradox. A snowflake which is crystal and formed but inherently its water at the same time, it just needs an outside force to change it back to water and again to vapour and back up to the clouds. So there’s this idea of change and the natural process that can apply to something as literal as a snowflake or something as ambiguous or strange as a human being.
Your work and songwriting seems to be quite personal. There seems to be nothing overtly reflecting the moods of the ‘outside world’. Are there external influences too?
Well we’re certainly of and in this world, just like everyone else. The influences of course are present. They don’t always manifest themselves overtly or clearly. The political climate in the USA may not directly find its way into the lyrical content of the song but the way our life is day to day certainly finds its way in. But it’s never as overt as that. The songs don’t tend to be topically about a particular event or person – hopefully a little more universal.
This year is the tenth anniversary of Deserter’s Songs. Are the band planning to mark it in any way?
We’re marking it with a new record. Two new records, actually. We have another record coming out in September as an accompaniment. It’s called Strange Attractors and it’ll be available from our website. It’s not like you have to purchase Snowflake Midnight. For those who are familiar with the band, I guess it’s a little thank you. For people who have heard of us but maybe not heard the music, it’s more of a gateway. We’re hoping people will think: “Hey, I’ve got nothing to lose, why don’t I check out this record?” In the same way that we felt we had nothing to lose when we made the record. You mentioned Deserter’s Songs briefly, and some people think it must be a stone around our necks. People get that impression of it as the record that first broke the band in a big way and therefore it’s a burden. But we’ve never really seen it like that. For us, it opened so many doors. It allowed us to play in places and countries we’d never dreamed of. But at the same time we’re conscious of not getting caught in the past and not reminiscing or being nostalgic about it. We want to move forward, we want to keep making new records and that’s where we’re at.
You’re playing Hydro Connect Festival this August, are you appearing at many festivals this summer?
Just a few around Europe really; maybe four or five smaller, more under the radar and eclectic festivals that will allow us to get up and moving and playing our new songs but also branching out to places and festivals we’ve never played before. We could’ve played the ‘stand by’, regular festivals, which we probably will do next Summer. So we’ve got some festival dates and a proper tour booked in November. I think we’ll be back in the new year too – and many times after that, I’d imagine.
Two of the real highlights of the festival line-up are yourselves and Grinderman. Nick Cave seems to be one of these artists that gets better with age – everything he does is further improvement. Do you see Mercury Rev as a band growing old gracefully? Do you feel compelled to move with the times?
I don’t know if I feel compelled to move with the times, per say, but I do feel compelled to keep pushing; to keep learning. You talk about Nick Cave and I think he’s perhaps at his most prolific point in his career to date. He’s putting out his best work in years and that’s encouraging. Over the course of touring last Summer we were in Spain and we were in the hometown of Salvador Dali. We visited the museum that celebrated his work and his life, and just looking at the scope of his work was so amazing and so inspiring. It almost appeared as if it was fifteen different artists, such was the variety. Even into his later life, he never stopped and taking inspiration from someone like that is every bit as valid as taking inspiration or cues from a great musician whose been around for a length of time. We’re pushing ourselves to work in that sort of way.
Are the band still getting on as well as ever, it’s been a long time?
Yeah, it has. But over that time, you get to know one another better and maybe with some things you didn’t understand in your earlier years, you learn to maybe stop pushing the buttons that you know will get somebody riled up. You learn to take a step back when there’s disagreement over something. You know, of course we don’t agree about everything everyday, that is definitely not how it is. We have our disagreements. We’ve learned that we will fall out, that’s inevitable. But when we deal with the music, then that’s not personal. It’s not an attack on someone’s person. And that takes sensitivity on both sides. It takes you being careful about the things you say and how you say them. It takes a conscious effort to leave your ego at the door when you walk into the studio because at the end of the day we’re working on something that’s bigger than any one of us. You have to see the larger picture and when we do that, I think that’s when we work best together. But after all this time, we’re still learning. It’s not something we’ve perfected.
You must have been on the road together countless times over the years. How have your extra curricular activities changed? Are you, or were you ever, a hedonistic bunch whilst on tour?
We appreciate the chance to see the places we go to as much as possible. We’re not the kind of people to seek out the nearest MacDonald’s wherever we go. We’re more inclined to try and learn a little bit about the people and find out what’s good, local and try to experience some of the culture. That for me is the most exciting part of being on tour. It’s much different than travelling on vacation; you meet people in a different way when touring with a rock band. In terms of partying? Well, none of us are altar boys but we’re also not animals either.
When did you last play Scotland?
God, maybe three years ago, I think at Barrowlands.
How have you found all of your previous experiences up here?
I really love it. My family on my father’s side came from the north of England and Scotland. So there are some loose ties there. It’s pretty hard to trace it all back, but it’s something. It’s funny, because my great grandfather was a fly fisherman and I found this old little leather bound book of his that had flies tied in it from the 1870s. Basically, it was a record of his fishing experiences in Scotland. But, I love Glasgow and Edinburgh. We’ve been to Aberdeen too. The first time I ever went to Edinburgh I seen that massive hill, or mountain, or whatever you want to call it (F: Arthur’s Seat) and I thought “that’s where I’m going today.” I ended up spending the whole day walking around it on my own. I love the Necropolis in Glasgow too. It’s incredible.
You’ve been about for almost twenty years. Does Mercury Rev have an expiry date, or do you think you can go on and on making records until you drop?
Well it’s hard to know. But I would say as long as we’re open to keep working in new and different ways, it helps prevent us getting bored. I think that’s what happens when bands fall apart. I think that’s the first seed: it is boredom, and that leads to other things. As long as we keep challenging ourselves with the music, then I don’t see any time frame. We may do things differently in the future, of course. In ten years we may decide we don’t want to play any tour dates and that we want to release two records every year. Or we might decide that for the next two years we’re only going to write film scores, or nothing at all. Maybe we’ll do collaborations with theatre or dance. I think those are the most likely steps for us to take: to change the way you think about what Mercury Rev actually is.
We touched on the fact that it’s been a full decade since Deserter’s Songs. Those were trying times for the band and I guess the stuff of rock n roll legend: “Band members on the verge of breakdown. Band itself close to meltdown. Band produces classic album.” How do you look back at it now, knowing what you all went through?
In time, those sorts of wounds begin to heal. We do see the others from time to time. We see Jimy Chambers (former percussionist) a couple of times a year and every time we’re travelling through Chicago we see David Baker (former lead singer). We saw Suzanne (Thorpe – former flautist) about a year ago. She’s living out on the West Coast. Everybody’s vibrant and doing things and some of their lives have changed. Jimy’s got a child with another on the way, so now we can look back and say, “Hey that was in the past.” A lot of the time, when things go wrong in a band it’s due to pressure and it’s not being prepared for what’s coming at you. There is no way to prepare for the kind of scrutiny, the criticism or the praise that’s coming at you when you make a record, because as soon as you put it out there, it’s going to illicit a reaction. And sometimes, it’s very intense. People tend to deal in extremes, so it’s either the best record they’ve ever heard or it’s a piece of crap. It’s hard to deal with that extreme, whether it’s good or bad. When you multiply that by thousands of people, it can tear at you. You have to try to stay grounded and tell yourself that you’re never as good or as bad as people say you are. You’re normally somewhere in the middle.
And do you think you’ve prepared yourself for the reaction to your new records?
I think so. Yeah, we’re excited for people to hear both records. I know that sometimes pride can go a little too far, but we’re really proud of these records. We think it embodies a change in spirit, I think it shows growth on our part, and we’re excited for people hear it. We understand now that you can’t please everyone. One person’s criticism of a song doesn’t make anything other than what it already is and you just have to remind yourself of that. The music will find its audience. People will gravitate towards it naturally: that’s the way the music was made. It wasn’t forced, it wasn’t contrived and it was very free flowing and I think it will attract listeners of a like mind.