Mercury Rev have always been both a musical enigma and a maverick outfit that over the years have sailed the oceans of the great rock odyssey without ever losing their way. Hitting a critical and creative high point across the globe with 1998’s Deserter’s Songs, Mercury Rev found a friendly port of call in Australia, with both interviewer and transcriber have fond post-show memories of late night discussions about great Australian bands over games of pool and late night supper in Kings Cross. Since then, they’ve continued on a journey of exploration, from the dark designs of All is Dream and its serene follow-up The Secret Migration. Touring Australia on the bequest of the all-conquering Coldplay, Mercury Rev stopped into visit Static’s Chris Berkley to talk about their latest album Snowflake Midnight and an impressive career that cannot be reigned in by simple film analogies.
Welcome back to Sydney. Nice to have you all here. This is a gift from Coldplay…
Grasshopper: They asked us to go on this tour, so it was great.
It was a last minute thing, so you had to scramble a bit, right?
Jeff: Yeah, it was a little crazy. We confirmed that it was actually going to happen on like the 13th of February and we were on an airplane 11 days later. It doesn’t get more last minute than that, but we’re happy to be here.
Can you describe the general look on the Coldplay fans faces when you’ve been playing so far?
Jonathan: You know, they’re really receptive in a way. For a lot of people it doesn’t make sense, but actually Coldplay as a band have told us how influential Deserters Songs was to them in forming their group, so I think I at least give people the benefit of the doubt. We’re a support band and of course there’s 15,000 people there a night to see Coldplay but a lot of people are listening. They’re not sure always what to make of it any more than a lot of support bands in a bigger place but they’re sorta listening.
In a way it’s reassuring to play to people that aren’t already onside with you, isn’t it, to win those people over?
Jonathan: You’re starting with a fresh slate. A lot of them wouldn’t know the long history we’ve had, the chequered past and all of those kinda things, so they take what they’re given on that night and I like things like that myself, they sorta tend to tweak the mind the most when you don’t have any expectation going in.
…and there’s no trainspotter scum there yelling out for “Chasing a Bee” either, right?
You’re here on the back of Snowflake Midnight. Did that come after a bit of a period of reassessment for Mercury Rev? Because you released the best-of compilation, was there a kind of tidying up or were you looking through things differently the last few years?
Jonathan: Probably just from within first and then musically you find what’s going on comes after. We didn’t really see the best of in the way that maybe a lot of people do and that was okay, that it was sort of an end to a chapter. For us, quite honestly it was a contractual thing we had to do, and that’s okay. We didn’t look at it in some sort of off-handed way. The record company wanted to put out some of the older material and that was fine. We were sort of already in this direction long before that was happening and in the works.
Was it daunting to have to go through the history of the band for the compilation?
Grasshopper: It’s daunting picking songs, because there’s so many that we love — all of them really — so that was the hardest part, picking which ones to put on there. When it came to doing it, our lists were pretty similar. The other CD that was included was a lot of rarities. That was kind of the fun one for us. That was our idea to include that and put some of those together for the fans. Either some of those were out of print or could never get their hands on before.
After you did that you spent some time doing the film score for Hello Blackbird something that I think was long overdue, for Mercury Rev to score a film. Again a different kind of challenge?
Jeff: It’s quite different. When you’re making a record you’ve got your own insular world of three, maybe four people involved, and with a film it’s a little different because there’s a lot more people in the chain. A filmmaker who’s had a vision of this film that they’ve been carrying for a long time so you enter into it in a different way. It’s a different kind of collaboration and it can be frustrating and rewarding at the same time. You can spend three days working on a two minute piece of music that you think is the greatest thing ever, and you get an email the next morning going “ah, I don’t like it” and they don’t tell you why and you’re just “oh okay” and start again.
And was scoring a French avant-garde movie always the way to go for Mercury Rev? I was kinda hoping that you would do a Tim Burton film at some point.
Jeff: Well I don’t know. We met Robinson Savary many years ago when we were doing some press in Europe. It seemed like every time we were in Paris he would turn up and say “I’m still working on this film and I still want you to be a part of it“. He was very passionate and very persistent and it’s not easy to get a movie made, raising the funds and pulling it all together and he definitely had some setbacks along the way to getting it made but he stuck with it and so I think we were into it because he was so passionate about doing it.
So then after these projects did Mercury Rev have a clearer idea for what you wanted to do for your own next record, or when you convened for Snowflake Midnight?
Jonathan: I think it sort of unfolded before us. It was up to us to accept that that was what was coming out of us and that may’ve been the biggest part of it was that songs weren’t necessarily on this record being generated from just a piano or a acoustic guitar or in those usual songwriting ways. In fact it was almost entirely the polar opposite. They were coming from a more unpredictable ether and sort of flowing through us and it was up to the three of us to sort of settle ourselves down and say “wow, we didn’t see that coming“. Even listening back now to Snowflake Midnight and certainly Stranger Tractor.
Were you more interested then in disassembling traditional song structures for this record? A track like “Senses On Fire” is like a Krautrock mantra and even “Runaway Raindrop” has hip-hop beats and a sample breakdown in the middle of it. Was it getting out of a structure so much?
Grasshopper: Unconsciously I don’t think we thought about it as much as it happened that way. Some of it might have unconsciously been from working on the Hello Blackbird soundtrack where we were doing music that wasn’t chorus verse chorus pop songs and maybe without thinking about it, that could‘ve had an effect.
Jonathan: It sort of worked with a way of de-attaching yourself from the music coming out of you and walking away or abandoning the possessive side of it which said “Well, I’m the singer, here’s where I’m going to sing for sure, and Jeff’s the keyboard player and here’s where his part is”. We sort of walked away from that or it walked away from us, and then again you do a lot of listening to the song rather than telling the song or the piece where it’s going.
So you had this extra album that came out as well in tandem, Stranger Tractor which was the instrumental stuff. Was that a by-product of that you were doing so much in the studio or was that a concerted extra piece that you were working on as well?
Jeff: We talked about a double album, if you want to call it, from early on, because we had a lot of material and it wasn’t the kind of thing where you’d walk in the studio and have to scrounge around for ideas. It was actually almost too much of the opposite where we were inundated by sixty or seventy pieces of music that we were like “Oh my god, we’re going to have to sit down and really go through it”.
I believe it’s called an embarrassment of riches…
Jeff: (laughs) We would go back months later and go “Oh my god, I really don’t remember this. This is a good one. We have to keep this one” and it really came about that we wanted to show both sides of what we were doing. You know, if you were the fly on the wall in the studio, the songs from Snowflake Midnight and Stranger Tractor are indicative of what you would hear on any given day. Both represent the process very accurately. There are some obvious musical similarities between the two and there’s some departures if you compare one record to the next but both were happening simultaneously and it didn’t make sense for us to release them separated by eight or nine months. We really wanted them to come out at the same time and then it just came a question of how do you do that? Do you package them on the same CD? What do you do? In my mind it was what’s the simplest possible answer to the question, which was distribute it through the internet and make it free.
And so does it feel like the start of a different phase for Mercury Rev, these couple of records? I did read an argument that said you can almost picture the Mercury Rev albums now as a couple of trilogies. There’s the chaotic avant-rock years of Yerself is Steam, then the more elegiac chamber-pop eras of Deserters Songs. Does it feel like you’re on phase three, or phase fifteen maybe?
Jonathan: There was a good review recently of us in Mojo that described us as on permanent evolution and I don’t know — the eye cannot see itself. Sometimes we’re so close to it, on the outside quite accurately trilogised or something like that. For us, it’s a little bit more non-linear than that. So I don’t dispute it, but I don’t know if it was a conscious thing to make Star Wars (laughs).
First broadcast on Static on 12/03/09. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).