The members of Mercury Rev met in Buffalo in the mid-80s, and began their long collaboration by recording soundtracks for the experimental films they and their friends were making.
The current core of the band consists of three original members: front man Jonathan Donahue, guitarist Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak, and drummer and keyboardist Jeff Mercel. A fourth founder, bassist and engineer Dave Fridmann—best known for his work with the Flaming Lips—continues to work with Mercury Rev in the studio.
The band recently released its seventh full-length, Snowflake Midnight, and a free all-instrumental companion album, Strange Attractor (available only as a download). This interview is with Jeff Mercel.
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Who are Mercury Rev's influences?
There are a few things we come together on: Brian Eno, George Gershwin, Led Zeppelin.... Growing up, I was reared on show tunes, Benny Goodman, classical, and things of that nature. It wasn't until my late teens that I found out about rock 'n' roll. On certain records we use electronic and ambient music. We still want our string arrangements to sound beautiful... like Beethoven.
What's your favorite movie soundtrack?
I am a big fan of how Kubrick used music. He just understood it so well. You watch the opening of 2001, 14 or 15 minutes, there is no dialogue. He just totally got it. I also really enjoyed the Jonny Greenwood music in There Will Be Blood. It helps paint a picture of the world you're about to enter.
I've heard that Mercury Rev doesn't plan out a song and lyrics, then go into the studio to record—instead you use an organic group process, and are apt to convene and simply let the tape roll. Can you elaborate on what actually happens in the studio?
Well, every record is different.... Snowflake Midnight and Strange Attractor were both born out of a stream-of-consciousness sort of approach. Every day, the three of us would walk into the studio with a clean slate. No preconceived notions about what we would work on. On most days, we'd just start by playing simple motifs, patterns, or textures... after 45 minutes, if we were still lost in the simplicity of the idea, we'd pursue it. Tape was always rolling, so after six months we had nearly 100 hours of material recorded. We were conscious about not going back immediately to scrutinize what we'd done. Many of the ideas that ended up on the records were only played once.
You use laser harps, ad hoc computer programs, and random-note generators—how do you create music that way?
These tools were merely one aspect of the process, not the record in its entirety. It's my belief that humans are still the best random-note generators. We did, however, find some of these tools incredibly liberating.
In "Runaway Raindrop" there's a beautiful leitmotif that gets thrashed against these ominous background voicings. It has a Bambi-meets-Godzilla feel. Does that say anything about how you see the world?
Snowflake Midnight is made up of many of these moments, or strange juxtapositions.... We were experimenting with this technique throughout. I do think that it is a valid representation of the way the world can work, though. Even when things look the most ominous, there is always the potential for extreme beauty.
"Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower" runs nearly eight minutes, more than twice as long as the typical radio song. Do you ever consider the potential for airplay when you're writing?
It really doesn't factor into the equation. That song happened rather spontaneously. We would go do little shows under the name Harmony Rockets in New York. We'd play unannounced, armed with maybe one or two motifs. There was one I had been fiddling around with for a while; at one concert we expanded that motif and worked it for about 40 minutes. We use the shows almost as an extension of the writing process. By the time we hit the studio, we were ready for almost anything to happen.
On the new records the sounds fit together so honeycomb tight that I really can't tell which of you is doing what.
Listening back to some of these songs, it's actually difficult to tell... and I was there! We work so quickly that a lot of things get lost in the shuffle. There are lots of electronic textures on this record—we were all running tons of programs from our laptops in addition to our typical instruments.
Who is that gorgeous cat in the album art for Snowflake Midnight?
That cat is Yahoo, who lives in Brussels, and the rabbit [on the front cover] is named Lise. He's black like licorice. The rabbit belongs to VK Red, the photographer. We actually got to do some photos with her and meet her two rabbits and cats. Yahoo was very camera shy that day. He let his status go to his head.
How did you come up with the title for Strange Attractor?
Jonathan has a keen interest in quantum physics and things of that nature.... I don't really get it, but if you google it you'll find all sorts of mathematical diagrams.
How does it feel to play this type of music onstage? Do you expect the same kind of interaction with the audience that a more mainstream band does?
I guess we never considered ourselves in or out of the mainstream. The live show, and the reaction of the audience, can vary wildly from night to night, depending on where we are. Last night we played in Copenhagen, Denmark, and the crowd was very vocal, cheering, singing, and smiling. On other nights, the crowd can be a little more contemplative—some of it has to do with cultural differences, I think. Our show can be pretty intense, though—there's quite a bit going on both musically and visually. It's a lot to take in.
What are the band's dreams now that Snowflake Midnight is out in the world?
We try to find new places, where we've never played before, to keep the thrill alive... like the Balkans and Russia this time around and last summer going to places like Taiwan and Singapore. We want, in the long term, to keep making records—the industry, as everyone has realized, has changed significantly.
Mercury Rev has sampled Cape Canaveral and Times Square. What's next?
We don't do field recording anymore. Like Charlie Mingus, I would listen to the sound of the busy street traffic and get inspired by that. I think we [still] subconsciously work that way, but we don't overtly collect samples and put them into songs. We more convey moods or essences of a place—we're constantly trying to add mental imagery.
Are you planning to do more U.S. touring?
I think in the new year there will be some opportunities. We did some earlier shows in August and September, and if we survive this [tour], we'll get home before Christmas, recharge our batteries, see if there's still an economy.... We're like everybody else. We're sort of playing it by ear.v
For more on Mercury Rev, see Monica Kendrick's Critic's Choice.