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Mercury Rev: A Conversation with Jonathan Donahue, Part II

11 September 2011

As the interview about Deserter’s Songs wound down, I felt it time to bring up another record celebrating a milestone this year, follow-up album All is Dream. Like a number of records mentioned below, it saw release on the darkest Tuesday in American history, and it became obvious that in discussing the topic that Donahue, who had been very open and honest and chatty about some painful issues in his life, still felt uncomfortable about the subject of his band’s fifth album. And how could he not be, especially this year? Admittedly, I felt uncomfortable about this subject, but given the anniversary, I felt his comments prove an insight into a greater truth, and serve as a basis for him discussing the future of Mercury Rev and as an artist entering their middle age, as the tragedy of this day has surely inspired and motivated him as an artist to appreciate his gift.

BT: All Is Dream came out on a most difficult day.

Yeah. With it coming out on that day, it obviously became lost. It melted into the background like everything else did, and was brushed under by the necessity of something bigger that day. It put a lot of things in perspective. Had it come out the week before or the week after, we wouldn’t be talking about it like this. It came out on that one day, it had that title, “All is Dream.”

BT: I remember getting it that day, and it was a weird day for music, because there were a number of records that came out that day that were heavily ironic. You had British band Departure Lounge, releasing an album called Jetlag Dreams, and featuring airplanes flying off into a dark, ominous dawn. You had Ken Stringfellow releasing Touched, a solo album dealing with death. It’s weird, how that day had so many connections to music, and how records that came out then seem to foreshadow something bigger, something darker. To me All is Dream is a soothing balm in a sea of hellish reality.

JD: It’s called All is Dream and the lead song is “The Dark is Rising,” and that video… (Pauses) The whole connection to the events of the day—it wasn’t lost on us. We really love it, we still do, and we continue to play pretty much all of it still today. But because it came out on that one day, that it is connected to the terror attacks, and that it is inescapably linked to that time and to that point, it…it can be difficult and weird to think about.

BT: Are you planning to do anything for a ten-year recognition of it, or are at this point, for now, are you going to let it pass?

JD: I don’t know. I know we are hoping to re-release the record in the same way we did Deserter’s Songs. We are really looking forward to releasing it on vinyl. I’m not sure it ever did come out, or if it did, it was in such limited quantity that it disappeared immediately. There may be some extra things, maybe a DVD or an extra disc of material. Like I said before, because of the events surrounding it, we obviously have to address those things, and talk about it in the notes, because it was released on that day, and because many people have told us what you mentioned—that it has a very special meaning to them because of its release date—we want to treat it respectfully. We didn’t want to do anything in terms of reissuing it right now, because we’ve been busy with the Deserter’s Songs reissue and shows—but even if we didn’t have that, we probably would have let the tenth anniversary pass. It’s a special thing; All Is Dream occupies a special, odd place thanks to 9/11, and we want to be respectful of that. It just seemed…wrong to have it reissued this year.

BT: What is that place, for you, at least?

JD: Well, you know, we were looking forward to it coming out. Deserter’s Songs had been an unsurprising hit, and the environment around the release couldn’t have been more diametrically opposite to when we released Deserter’s. We had people waiting to hear it, we had a lot more positive press going into it, and the experience for us was nowhere near as bleak. I woke up that morning thinking, “Yeah! Today’s gonna be a great day, this is a fresh, new, exciting start for us…” and then I turned on the television… (pauses) I see the world turning completely upside down. New York City, it is special to us. (Pauses) It put a whole lot of things in perspective for me, and it made me think about life and what is important. (Pauses)

BT: Moving on into the present, what is Mercury Rev up to now?

JD: We just played the Deserter’s Songs in its entirety, we played with The Chameleons and had a good time in Europe. We’ve been recording and I’ve been writing an awful lot over the past year, year and a half. It’s been a rather productive, prolific time for me, truth be told. But, as you know, we’ve sort of stepped aside for that for a little bit, to focus on the reissue, the shows, and that takes up its own energy. We’ve been recording a lot and will be heading back into the studio in early fall.

BT: Mentioning the Flaming Lips again, over the past few years, they’ve moved away from that pastoral side that went along with what you guys did, and now are doing harder, edgier, weirder psych-rock. Do you envision Mercury Rev going back and revisiting the styles of Yerself is Steam or Boces, or is full speed ahead for dreamy pop?

(Laughs) Well, Snowflake Midnight, you know, it wasn’t really that dreamy and symphonic. I feel like a lot of groups now, they have this desire to just repeat the past, with the music industry being so different—that the idea of making a record and shipping it into the world in the traditional methods, that a lot of groups are finally not just self-releasing the records themselves and side-stepping a lot of the industry iceberg, but they’re saying, “Well, the audience is there, but let’s make a record or two that’s not for the audience, but for us—let’s do something that’s not commercially-minded, and let’s make something for ourselves” Let’s face it, looking at groups like us, or looking at Wayne and Michael and Steven, or our friends in Spiritualized or Jason Lytle—well, we’re getting older and to be completely honest, we just don’t give a fuck! (Laughing) But I’m not talking just about music. We’re beyond that point where we feel the need to spend our time wasting away, chasing an illusion. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking, “We make records to be be famous. We get famous, we get money. We get money, we can keep on doing what we want to.” That’s an easy trap to fall into. I’ve seen it happen. If I’m honest with myself, I might say that it’s happened to me. I think all of us come to that point.

BT: So at this point, if you decide next week that your next album is going to be on a flash drive that’s in the middle of a Gummy fetus, you’re gonna do it! 

JD: (Laughs) Well, I think it’s more about looking at what it is you want to do, and realizing that you want to take that risk. As an artist, you’re always gonna think, “Hey, this record we just did, it’s as good as what we did nine years ago.” You just allow it to come out. There’s lots of self-judging that goes on in artists, and when you’re younger, you can get caught up in grand schemes about things, or you can get caught up in self-doubts about what it is you are doing. As you get older, you want to get away from that. You want things to come out in a much more simple fashion. You don’t want to get caught up in throwing things up against the wall and hoping that something sticks, and you don’t worry about thinking about, “Gee, is this record better or worse than something the critics thougth was great ten years ago?” For guys like us, in our 40s and 50s, these issues change, and it’d be foolish to think about these things and putting them in play, when all we want to do is play music.

BT: This morning I watched a performance of you guys playing live in Spain about a year or two ago. You were playing “Butterfly’s Wings,” and I loved the way it morphed into New Order‘s “Love Vigilantes.” What I loved about it, though, was watching how much you were enjoying being up there on stage. You looked like you were having the time of your life!

JD: I did! For that ninety minutes a day, when we’re up there on stage, it’s precious. You know how they say, “youth is wasted on the young?” Well, when you’re a young musician, you can take it for granted. You don’t think about the future, but when you get older, you don’t take it for granted any more. You start to realize, “this could be my last show.” You could be like Mark Sandman or any number of artists, who die while on tour or on stage. You realize that that next show, it’s not promised. It sounds corny! (Laughs) I know it’s totally corny, but it’s true. That hour and a half that you have—you could be digging ditches. You could be doing something that you hate. You could be dead in the ground, or in a vegetative state. So yeah, I’m totally having fun up there. We totally love doing things like that, putting little segues in songs, or playing surprise covers, or recording our favorite songs and putting them online or on b-sides. Because, you know what, Joseph? I love music, and I’ve had some tough battles in my life, and it’s not lost on me. That song is a big influence on us, and I like to think of it like when you’ve just heard a great song, and you call up your friends, and say, “Come over to my house, you just have to hear this song, I’ve listened to it ten times today, and gonna listen to it ten more, it’s great!” We get the opportunity to do that, we’re going to take it. Our audience—it’s a giant living room. “Enjoy this song, you’re going to love it!”


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