And then just for a moment/You’re lost in the jukebox glow/Hypnotized you make your selections/Psychedelic rock and blue eyed soul (“Are You Ready?”)
For the first time in forever/I lay the needle down inside the groove/And for the first time in forever/I’m hearing bands like they’re all brand new (“Rainy Day Record”)
Two songs that caught my ear on The Light in You, the first Mercury Rev LP since 2008. Which is about the length of time since I saw the band in concert (at Baybeats 2007 at the Esplanade Concert Hall). The hiatus seems to have invigorated Jonathan Donahue & Grasshopper (aka Sean Mackowiak) – the prime movers behind these veteran psychedelic-folk-rockers – as evident on the new album as well as their electrifying performance at the Neon Lights Festival on 29th November at Fort Canning Park.
Backed by Jason Miranda (drums), Anthony Molina (bass) and Jesse Chandler (keyboards/flute), the duo performed a memorable set that incorporated material from across the range of their discography, with pride of place given to songs from their hit 1999 album Deserters’ Songs – “Endlessly”, “Holes”, “Opus 40” and “Goddess on A Hiway”. Singer Donahue led from the front theatrically almost like a wizard conjuring the various sounds produced by his band mates. In this context, the new songs (like “Queen of Swans”) worked well as did the dramatic closer “The Dark is Rising” (off All is Dream).
I spoke to Donahue & Grasshopper briefly after that triumphant gig and the conversation revolved around the importance of music being ultimately for its own sake, and music in all its myriad forms.
What are songs like “Are You Ready” and “Rainy Day Record” about — nostalgia?
Grasshopper — “Rainy Day Record” yeah, we’ve always loved vinyl and cassettes as well. It’s that falling in love with it over and over. It’s not so much nostalgia but dusting off the records and finding that one Big Star record that you might not have listened to for years or something. It’s just great, re-discovering that. It brings the joy back.
“They really want to but they just can’t fake it, trying hard to look old and worn/Facebook butterflies flap their wings and suddenly a Brooklyn band is born” — is that meant to be nasty or simply an observation?
Donahue — I’ll leave that to you.
(We all laugh – “good answer” I said)
What are your feelings about the music scene now? It’s been 7 years since you last released an album.
Donahue — Yeah, some bands have had an entire career & broken up in the time since our last record! It’s much faster than I think I anticipated being 7 years ago coming back. It does move quicker, it’s much more virtual – you’re talking to people all the time in a way when everything used to be face to face, everything used to be in real time – we’ll do the interview today and it’ll come out three months later and now, everything is instant, it’s up in four hours. The show today, photos are there in 12 minutes. Some of it I miss the mystery. In the older days, you didn’t know what the band was wearing, you didn’t know what the drummer’s hair looked like & it was a mystery and you could look forward to the band coming and you didn’t know what set they were playing. These days, everyone knows everything way in advance and it takes some mystery out of the movie when you already know the plot, you already know the ending, you already know the characters – I miss those days a little bit myself.
How did it feel to put this album together? Was it different in any way?
Donahue — This one probably came together quicker than some of the others did. Once we were in the studio, it just seemed to flow in a way. I supposed we both wished that it had happened sooner than 7 years, it wasn’t on purpose to wait that long. The songs needed apparently that much time to come up from the ground and probably when we were younger we pulled them out much quicker and they would have tasted not as good and so with a little bit of time under our belts, I think we were patient in a way we might not have been if we were 21 years old.
Would you say that your inspirations and influences for this album were from the same sources or have you come across new sources of inspirations?
Donahue — I can’t speak for Grasshopper but I don’t know if our influences have changed that much in 25 or 30 years. I think he has a few that he gravitates towards and that I do and some that are in the middle that we both will pull from but I don’t know if they have changed all that much. What I think that we find is that there are new inspirations inside of those older ones. It’s like listening to an older record in a new way and you say, “God, that was there on the vinyl the whole time” but I was 16 years old and I didn’t get it and now I get it or now I think I hear it. For me, that’s probably more accurate. I didn’t listen to a ton of new bands in 7 years. But I heard a lot of the older ones that he and I both liked – maybe one of the avant-garde things from the 60s, orchestral things that we never stopped loving.
Interesting that you mentioned (minimalist composer) Terry Riley in “Rainy Days Records” – cos he is not usually associated with rock music.
Donahue — He’s on every record we’ve made! You can hear him on See You On the Other Side, you can hear him on the new one – that’s one of the ones between us that we both love.
Grasshopper — The first version of “In C” was recorded in Buffalo where we met at the university and (avantgarde artist) Tony Conrad was teaching there, Terry Riley was there and (trumpeter/composer) Jon Hassel was there. Yeah, that was something that was around growing up.
Looking at the musical references in “Rainy Day Record” I am impressed by the sheer eclectic range of the artists mentioned – Talk Talk, Felt, Romeo Void, The Fall, Splat Cats, Opal, Terry Riley, Kaka de Luxe and Derek and Clive, Popul Vuh, Agitpop, Elliott Smith, The Dream Syndicate etc. I don’t quite get that from new music – how do you feel? do you agree?
Donahue — Well, one thing I feel all those references have in common, they didn’t sell many records. But they influenced a ton of people. And that’s probably why Mercury Rev has a uniqueness to it because a lot of our influences are not popular – they’re not good selling records, very small ripples but they really affected us deeply so – that’s something we’ve been saying in interviews for almost 30 years but people like yourself get the Terry Riley reference – very few people, especially today understand how influential that is.
Thanks to Neon Lights for making this interview possible.
Mercury Rev’s new album, The Light in You, is available now.