Mercury Rev Interview: The Intriguing Birth Of Snowflake Midnight
, October 3rd, 2008 17:41
Mercury Rev tell the Quietus that new album Snowflake Midnight was influenced as much by the building of their new bar as their Catskill Mountain home.
The last time I interviewed Mercury Rev, shortly before the release of All Is Dream in 2001, I arrived at a West London hotel to find Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper tucking into a 10am breakfast of red wine and American Spirit cigarettes. Donahue, dressed in black with silver rings on every finger, had a flash in his eye, while Grasshopper was stern and taciturn behind his black shades. Fast forward seven years to a late summer afternoon in London, and Donahue seem to have entered more genteel times. Donahue's Philip of Spain-style beard is now flecked with grey, the jewelery gone, and he turns down the offer of a Guinness. Grasshopper, for once, is without his shades.
Yet this new, gracefully aging Mercury Rev have pulled the stops out to release an album that marks a significant shift in their sound. If, perhaps, their recent 'Best of' marked a line in the sand after the somewhat below par Secret Migration (the end point of the territory that Deserter's Songs began to explore), then new record Snowflake Midnight is ambitious in the band's desire to start again, a renewed vigor derived from changed circumstances and practical limitations. Speaking of the shift, Donahue says "They are all quantum leaps, even maybe if you don't see the extent when the artists says that this record is going to be completely different from the last. Sometimes you can't see it, and sometimes it isn't different. This one we got the feeling a ways into it that it wasn't quite the same, it was moving into quite uncharted waters for us."
You might not expect Deee-Lite's 'Groove Is In The Heart' to have had an inspirational effect in turning Mercury Rev into these "uncharted waters", but you'd be in for a surprise. Donahue takes up the tale:
JD: "Our bassplayer Carlos was a DJ in this little nightclub, but he would play stuff that would get the girls dancing, you know, [sings] "groovers in the heaaart", and we'd sneak in there and bring in tiny synthesizers, and say 'OK, at the end of 'Groove Is In The Heart' switch into this and see how long we could play before people noticed. Not mimicking the sound, but the feel."
Were these events a regular treat for the residents of the small towns of upstate New York?
JD: "That's where some of the confidence would come from that'd help us to go forward. It was infinitely thrilling to us. Another night we'd play and we'd make a big guitar drone-fest. There's no relying on lights or big sound, you just have to play. It's a really wonderful way of trying new material, it's not like we were going up there and doing 'Holes' or something, it was all new. We'd get up there and say "C", and we'd play all one note. We played radio stations, art openings, just out of the context of what we'd usually do. That momentum itself was just incredibly forceful."
Was it this momentum that changed how you worked in the studio?
Jeff Mercer: "Some of the songs on the record go on for 30 or 40 minutes - we cut them down, but when we played them for the first time they'd go on for that long and there was no clear line, oh there's the chorus, there wasn't even a clear idea of where to sing."
JD: "They were really far out. At some point we'll probably put them out. How do you describe this?"
Grasshopper: "Hallucinogenic, glacial..."
JD: "...they were really tripped out, not that we were trying to do that, we'd be thinking 'hey, this is a good song'
G: "Yeah, like a dance party for sea otters."
Had you not worked in that way before?
JD: "Not for a while. Maybe the first record had some of that idea in it, but not in this way. It sort of came up on us, there wasn't a way we could pinpoint it coming along, we just felt it carrying us along, like a current a lot bigger than you. The things you try to hold on to... normally I'm the guy who sings, but where do I sing in this part? And they just had their heads buried in synthesizers. Some of those very usual exits or rest stops on the highway weren't there any more, so you really just held on..."
What were the physical changes in your environment that inspired this shift?
JD: "The last studio we had for The Secret Migration was pretty huge, so we decided to turn that into the bar and move into this smaller, quite intimate space where the keyboards were literally stacked eight high, so you'd have to be reaching up to play. It's transition, it's like anything, you change apartments or houses or girlfriends, there's something to it that can be exhilarating."
G: "We were putting a bar together, plastering the walls, stuff like that."
JD: "Some of the first recordings we did when we were breaking down the studio and turning it into a bar. Every day, more and more gear would get moved into the new space, which we couldn't move into, so we'd have less and less stuff to use recording. So gear was almost being taken out from underneath you. The tape machines were going down, less and less channels were working, so you'd have 20 things going but they could only go to four channels and you could never repeat what they were doing. Eventually we had to use those parts. Again, some of the meticulousness that sometimes groups go through, when that gets flushed out with the flood waters, what's left is dirty but it's interesting, it's covered in mud but it's interesting."
G: "And then there was the issue of what instruments are around to play. Obviously if things are gone then you find something else that you might not have picked up, and play that. I think some of the stuff we hadn't used for a long time was laying around, and i think consciously I didn't want to pick up guitar for a little bit."
JD: "Then there were small changes, like where you sit in the studio, as opposed to where you used to sit, or what instruments you chose to use, as opposed to the ones you used to use. You'd expect Grasshopper to pick up the guitar, but he wasn't, he was picking out some of the more electronic stuff that I haven't seen since Boces. Jeff would usually jump right behind the kit, it was a motif that was established, but he didn't, so it left space to wonder what the beat was going to be, or if it was even going to have a beat. So you began to always be a little off-kilter as to what the next guy's doing, which left you a lot of space, not to think about what you're doing, but to not think 'Oh I'm just the singer, I have these roles'. You can back away from that, and not do any of it, I'm just going to mutter some words and let these guys go. It sounds really small, but in the scheme of things and the momentum it has its own energy."
How about the overall feel of the album? Despite the change in sound, it still seems to be rooted into that evocative, American pastoral feel that you've had since Deserter's Songs
JD: "Lyrically, there's animals and stuff going on. But I don't think any of us wake up at any point and think 'we need a song about the mountains'. It is a part of it, yes, things would come to me because they're everyday - for you in London it's something else, but again up there after a certain point it's just weird. We live in a weird little Twin Peaks-like town. You might think, oh, it'd be nice to go on tour and see some weird places, but then you realise that your home is really fucking weird. It's a lot less weird on the road than when you're at home.
How does that affect you on a day to day level?
JD: "There's a certain isolation there, and for me at least, there is this sense that you can operate on your own time. That's a good thing, for us. And Woodstock, where I live, and that area, is a bit artistic community, but it's just not a modern artistic community, it's old time. There are a lot of artists and musicians we know there who are just not popular, but they're very vibrant and interesting, and still very prolific, and further out than most modern musicians. It's not a vaccuum, it's a bizarre orbiting solar system of things that really don't often coincide with what's popular, even on the indie level. So I suppose our music forms at a different rate. A year to me is nothing."
Back to the bar gigs. When 'Groove Is In The Heart' stopped and you began playing, did the girls keep dancing?
JD: "They did, didn't they? Because Grasshopper's brother said I couldn't tell whether it was you or the record."
G: "Yeah he thought we were DJing up there. He said 'so when are you gonna play?' I said, we just did it. They just kept dancing through."
Mercury Rev's new album Snowflake Midnight, along with companion free download album The Strange Attractor are out now