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).