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Mercury Rev: A Conversation with Jonathan Donahue, Part I

5 September 2011

One of the most dynamic, interesting, and beautiful bands in the last twenty years has been New York-based experimental noisemakers and psychedelic visionaries, Mercury Rev. From their earliest days, wherein they pummeled the listener with some of the most joyously complex and cacophonous sounds to come out on a major label, the band truly defied description.

Unfortunately, times and tastes change, and when founding member David Barker left, the band decided to go into a different direction…only to fail miserably. Time now shows that 1995’s See You On The Other Side was merely a foretaste of great things to follow, that patience and perseverance would prove to be a blessing.

Earlier this year, a deluxe, expanded version of the band’s groundbreaking fourth album, Deserter’s Songs was released. The creation of this record, as you will soon read, was not a pleasant experience—interrupted with inter-band conflict, side projects, and self-destructive behavior. The sessions were ostensibly the last gasps of a good band, with songs borne and delivered in a manner that is almost almost suicide-note feel in its finality, and approached with utter bleakness. There was no hope left in the band; this was their final testimony, and they weren’t even sure anyone would know or care about their efforts.

And yet…something unexpected happened. The band that nobody cared about, with their album that they expected no one to hear…became an internationally-acclaimed hit record, both in terms of commercial sales, and in terms of critical acclaim. The little band that couldn’t…all of a sudden proved it could.

It was with this in mind that I recently sat down to a pleasant chat with lead singer and visionary Jonathan Donahue, one hot July morning, from his home in Woodstock.

BT: I was listening to the band Talk Talk last night, and they are a great example of a band who stylistically jumped so far beyond what their earlier records were, that one might be tempted to think that the last two albums were the work of another band entirely. In thinking about Mercury Rev, I sort of feel the same way. But yet, I feel like the Rosetta Stone of the new reissue is the 1988 version of “Goddess on a Hiway.” Was Deserter’s Songs an album that you wanted to make, or did the notion of making this grand, symphonic record simply develop over time?

JD: I think it was something that was quite blatant, after we did See You On the Other Side, which, to our ears, had a number of similarities to Deserter’s Songs. It had moments that were quite orchestral in parts, so that sort of blood was already flowing. In terms of the melancholy and the stillness that’s in Deserter’s Songs, that wasn’t something that was planned out, it wasn’t always there, it was just something that I think we cultivated as time progressed, and it arose from the inner quiet that was going on while making the record, much of which had a momentum of sadness and loneliness.

BT: See You On The Other Side was a transitional album, and ditched much of the experimental noise. Was David Barker‘s departure a factor in the development of this new sound, or did he leave because that sound was what Mercury Rev wanted to do?

JD: He had left much prior. He left at the end of 1993, but what I think it did allow for was a different way of approaching songs and certainly a different way to approach vocals. At the time, Grasshopper and I, we noticed that there was this empty space where David had been, and we decided to fill it up with the inner longings and inspirations that we had always loved. I grew up on theatrical music and classical music, it was much more influential on me than rock and roll, while Grasshopper grew up on early Americana. These things just flooded out quite quickly and filled up that void that David left behind.

BT: How much time did you spend on See You On The Other Side?

JD:We did it quite quickly, to be honest. I think it was about nine months total from start to finish. Deserter’s Songs was much, much longer than that. It was something that we became somewhat obsessive over, and one that we went into with the notion that we wanted to do it right. That album, the time we spent on it, was at least eighteen months, from beginning to end.

BT:With David leaving and you taking control of the band, the sound changed, and yet the album wasn’t received well at all. Did that create a crisis in confidence for you that made you want to spend more time on Deserter’s Songs?

JD: Well, I had always written the music for Mercury Rev, even with the first two albums. I just didn’t sing on most of the songs, so it wasn’t a new weight to carry, or a particularly new albatross hanging around my neck. Looking back at it, I think what we found it wasn’t so much the commercial failure of See You On the Other Side, or that we had felt that we had done something really new and different for music that hadn’t been done before. It was a lot of personal things that were going on between me and Grasshopper and Suzanne Thorpe. Those lines just completely unraveled between us. There was nothing else to lean on. There was no longer any stability in our world, everything had just been swept from underneath us; maybe the record’s “failure” seems a part of that, but to us, these personal issues were what really caused the earthquake in our emotional lives; it really left an indelible mark on me and Grasshopper, it really damaged our psyches, so that when we went into Deserter’s Songs, we went into thinking, and quite realistically, that this is the last thing we are ever going to do. We were sure that nobody would hear it, that nobody wanted a Mercury Rev record. When it became an unexpected hit, and the world all of a sudden treated us in a different manner, the success had such a grounding anchor for us. We had already been through so much, both personally, individually, and musically, so that when success came, we were very well-centered. It would have been extremely easy to let the critical success go to our heads, and to get drunk on the acclaim and the popularity that came along after Deserter’s Songs, but we had just come out of points in our lives that were so terrible, and so low, that we were extremely balanced. That’s the only reason I’m talking to you now, in an active band…or even that I’m alive, truth be told. It would have been so easy to go over the edge with all the money and success and trappings that were suddenly being tossed at our feet.

BT: In between the two albums, you guys went your separate ways. You did The Harmony Rockets, Suzanne, Justin and Jason Russo did their solo projects, (most notably the Russo brothers’ band Hopewell, and working in collaborations with Vas Deferens Organization and Medicine leader Brad Laner), and Grasshopper did Grasshopper and the Golden Crickets. I wanted to ask you about that record, because it wasn’t until about a week ago that I heard that record. To me, in listening to that record, it almost seems like a lost Mercury Rev album.

JD: For Grasshopper, he went off and did his own thing on that album, and I think it was a very therapeutic thing for him to do, because I think he really got his bearings back as an artist, working on music by himself, doing what he wanted to do, exploring ideas, and trying things out for the first time. We then got together as The Harmony Rockets, which was really instrumental for the more avant-garde ways we had grown up with approaching music as a whole. Both of these things were very important to us, and they were very much a vital part of the Deserter’s Songs story. That album, it didn’t simply land from Planet X. It was an accumulation of a lot of different factors leading into it.

BT: Grasshopper and the Golden Crickets really, really surprised me. I had never heard about it before, and when I finally did, it just seemed to be quite revelatory—as you said, it was definitely a key to what was coming next from you and Grasshopper. You heard the traces of the past yet there were songs that would not have been out of place on later records. What kind of role did you have in making that record? Were you just helping out with vocals, or were you doing more than that?

JD: I played very little role on that, because at that time, the two of us were very much estranged. We weren’t talking to each other much, we hardly saw each other. It was a difficult time for the two of us, and I didn’t know what he was doing, and he would say the same about me. I dove into a lot of self-destructive behavior, and I allowed that behavior to take over my soul. I’m sure you’ve been through times when the clouds over take you. It was a real dark time, and darkness took me over, and everything was out of focus, and you lose time with perhaps the only people who can best pull you out of that well and help you to save you from yourself. So he went off and he did that on his own, and a lot of it was a collaboration with Suzanne. It really helped to repair their relationship, working together, much like the Harmony Rockets did with me.

BT: Was making Deserter’s Songs an arduous process for you, or do you, looking back, find yourself enjoying what you went through?

JD: I remember feeling quite empty, and I don’t mean that I didn’t have any material or momentum to record. I didn’t have landmarks around me to gauge where I was mentally. Strange analogy, I know. With See You On The Other Side selling five copies worldwide, that music industry grounding that we had had was gone. We had zero support. The manager? Gone. The booking agent? Gone. The accountant? Gone. A&R rep? Gone. Our “friends?” Gone. I knew that there was no expectation for a Mercury Rev record. I knew that was a fact. There’s no way to sugar-coat it. Nobody gave a shit about us any more. We were operating in a void, and ultimately it was just Grasshopper, myself, and Dave Fridmann, in a studio, making this record for ourselves. No one cared. That had a very liberating effect on making that music, though at the time it seemed so very despondent. A curtain drawn. When you go into something, and you suddenly realize, “Well, this is it, no one is going to hear this record but us, so let’s just try and make something we want to listen to, something that even if no one ever heard it or released it, that we could sit back and years from now, play to our grandchildren and be proud of, thinking, ‘We made this.’ That was perhaps the only way we could have gotten out of that emotional pit. Because, Joseph, there was no expectations, and I really—I really cannot stress that enough, that absolutely no one would have cared if we had broken up or had died in a van accident or had created the greatest record ever made. Back in 1996 and 1997, everything musically was very pop, Rickenbacker-based songs, or it was that metal/hip-hop blend. There was no call for what we were doing.

BT: And yet, when we look back at it ten years later, one sees that Deserter’s Songs really was a game-changer, the first in a series of records that helped to redefine a certain sound. After this, you had your friends The Flaming Lips and The Soft Bulletin, you had Tripping Daisy making their beautiful, yet neglected Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb, and you had Grandaddy with The Sophtware Slump. You even started to see bands like Radiohead dive into this sort of sound, and then later period bands like Doves and Muse and Coldplay. Looking back, how do you feel about the influence?

JD: Well, I suppose the only word would be “strange.” It would be like if someone said to you, “Hey, Joseph, remember that girl that you dated back in your freshman year, in 1988? She went to become a really great actress! How do you feel about the influence you had on that?” (Laughs) I don’t mean to be flippant, because you do have a really good point. But it’s just that, at the time, I didn’t think I was influencing anything. “Well, you know, she won the Academy Award last night—and it’s all your influence because you told her to take a drama class!” And all you can think of was, “I just wanted to make out with her!” I know, I know—it’s a strange analogy. (Laughs) But I just see it like, I was lucky. I was lucky to be alive, to not have allowed myself to let my demons conquer me. I was just lucky that Grasshopper and I were still able to work together—I was just happy he was still talking to me! I was just happy to have a band to go to. I wasn’t in a hospital bed or the ground. Then again, to address your point, recognizing one’s influence is probably something that you can’t really properly judge. I’m probably not the best one to ask, even though I know it’s there! (Laughs)

BT: Another aspect, in thinking about that slew of albums I just mentioned, is that they all seemed to serve as a coda to the then-forthcoming millennium. Was thoughts of that looming in your mind at the time as well?

JD: I don’t know if I saw it as the end of the century, again, it was so latent within me that when it came out, I still don’t have a good explanation as to how it got to the vinyl. To me, I’m still mystified about how it all came to pass, and there have been times recently, thanks to thinking about it again due to the reissue, where I’ll talk about the record and that night, I’ll wonder, “Where the hell did this come from?” I still am impressed that this—this came from me??? How did it strike the consciousness you mentioned? Those things, they were out of my hands, man. I think you’ll find that—and you’ll talk to other bands who have bigger, inexplicable hits—a lot of it is just out of your hands. It is something you have zero control, that once it is out, strikes a chord with the consciousness of the people who listen to music, and it’s something that’s much, much bigger than you. Again, that’s just something that has left a great watermark on myself is just that you realize that it’s all so much bigger than you, and that you are a part of it, rather than thinking that it was all about you, or that you had anything to do with it. If I’m on a boat in the sea, I can steer it one way or another, but you know what? It’s really that current underneath me, the thing I cannot see, that leads the way. It’s arrogant to think that you and your talents are the ultimate force at play here.

BT: Once you release a record, it’s no longer yours.

JD: It’s the world, and it’s the reception that can be positive or completely neutral, which has much more to do with a collective consciousness, that doesn’t necessarily have a reflection on the work that you have done. The moral of the story? Don’t take it so damned seriously. It’s like the advice we were told when we first signed to a label? “Believe it or not, the biggest song you will ever do will probably be the one you least liked, or spent the least amount of time on, or the one you just didn’t care for.” I’ll give you a good example from my life. “Goddess on a Hiway.” People absolutely love that song, it gave us fame, and it made us known. It’s a nice little song, but would I put it on my tombstone? No, probably not. I love it, but it not one that resonates at all with me, but does it do so for other people? Absolutely.

BT: And that’s a danger, it can be fatal for some, the dichotomy between what a song means to you and what it means to the world. And that brings me to another fascinating part of the Deserter’s Songs campaign, is that you released an all-instrumental version of the album this year. When I heard about it, at first I thought, “You know, this is kind of superfluous,” but being the fan I am, I bought it anyway, and it really amazed me, to see this classic album from a totally new perspective. You see how words can have an impact on what is, essentially, a soft, fuzzy underbelly.

And that is why we released it, I think you got it absolutely right. Obviously, in rock and roll, the words do have a great centering affect, it brings out sentiments, such as, “Baby I love you, I need you, can’t go one day without you.” Rock music needs that weight; it’s rare to have instrumental hits anymore. I can’t think of one in the last twenty-five years. But when you lose those words, you put them to the side, and it’s just the music, it does open the listener to a new interpretation that is totally theirs, and not the singer, or lyrics to say, “this is what I want you to feel.” This is what classical music does for some people, or ethnic music does for others. It allows the listener to place themselves in the context of the music. On some level, isn’t that the point of all music, even vocal music? You want the listener to feel something, to engage with the music and you use tools to make this happen. We could have released it with the album, as part of the package, but we decided not to do that, because that would have muddied the issue; it would have detracted from the album itself. Those who want the different experience can find it. What you said would be the best compliment, that it stands on its own, and it shows a different side to your favorite record. It’s good to hear that.

Next week, we will conclude this interview, where Jonathan discusses the band’s next record, All Is Dream, the day it was released, and the band’s current state.