Mean Fiddler, London
Melody Maker, June 15th 1991
by Simon Reynolds
MERCURY REV, interview
Melody Maker, August 24th 1991
by Simon Reynolds
We're on a boat moored at Manhattan's west side dock, me and three-fifths of Mercury Rev. The boat spent many years under water before it was refloated. Now it's in the process of being refurbished as a floating nightclub. Its interior is a fantastical grotto of corroded pipes and rust-mottled surfaces. But Rev and I do our mumbling in the night air, way up on the poop deck, and nicely placed to marvel at the laser beams streaming into the firmament from the Twin Towers. It's a Rev kinda thing.
The cosmonautical Mercury Rev have been universally acclaimed by UK critics as the draughtsmen behind the first, and so far only, great rock long-player of 1991, Yerself Is Steam, a record that re-ignites the flame of late-Eighties Anglo-American underground noise. But in their native USA, Rev have got zippo, zilch, nary a single mention.
The collapse of their outlet, Rough Trade America, didn't help, but even before that, Rev were shunned by American arbiters of hip. Rev were just too cosmic for the US fanzine mentality to stomach, too expansive. American fanzine consensus dictates that the pastiche rock of groups like Urge Overkill is where it's at.
Americans (correctly) detect a suspicious whiff of ‘art’ about Mercury Rev, and in fanzine USA, ‘art fag’ is one of the worst things you can be. It's the same reason why you'll never find an indie-minded American who rates Jane's Addiction. Rev's tousled aestheticism comes though in the look of the records, the care that goes into presentation of the group. Worse still, like Jane's, Rev are not sacred of being epic.
"I like the word 'epic'," says Jonathan Donahue, singer and guitarist, while bassist Sean (aka Grasshopper) and flautist Suzanne lurk inscrutably in the shadows. "I don't think it means you have to be ELO or ELP. We don't put a time limit on our songs – if it takes ten minutes for a song to work, then that's how long we'll write it. All this paring it down to three minutes for radio play, we don't care shit about that."
A huge, almost symphonic foghorn sounds from a passing vessel, prompting an impressed Jonathan to add: "We like sounds a lot. We wouldn't know how to write a well-crafted pop song if you shoved it up our ass and lit it. We make music that we listen to in certain places, like when we're driving or sitting on a bus. We lose ourselves in it. It's not a party record. You couldn't put it on for people to start boogie-ing!"
Rev isn't gregarious music, nor is it agoraphobic. It's space rock, in all senses.
"You've got to keep moving," the singer says. "We're always trying to get as far away from each other as we can. I wish we could say we were a band that drinks together and thinks the same. But Lord knows, we're not. It's not just that we're not friends, it's sometimes borderline violence. David Baker (occasional vocalist) tried to scoop Sean's eye out with a spoon on Virgin Airways when we were coming back from England. Now we can't fly Virgin. And that's a good airline! They would give you free headphones, socks and sleep goggles. When we landed, the stewardess took our passports and wrote down our names and now we're banned from flying Virgin.
"That's why we don't play live much, cos it's painful to be together for long. It's much better the way it is right now, where we get together one week a year and make a record, and then we split. But then without everybody there, it doesn't work. You need everybody there, tense and uncomfortable, to make the pot boil. We're all like these prehistoric fish at the bottom of the sea – you don't really see each other cos it's dark and you're under a lot of pressure."
Am I right in thinking that Rev, like all righteous folk, are fans of wildlife documentaries?
"We sure do watch a lot of nature films. We do videos, and we put all our songs over wildlife footage. So for 'Very Sleepy Rivers', there's this platypus trying to find his way to water. It's not like we can say we go see weird foreign films or snuff movies for inspiration, like other bands. We have enough tension between us; watching some nature films cools us off."
Last time around, you described yourselves as losers.
"Losers have no potential. It's the same with Rev: there is no ladder for us, nowhere for us to go. The record company feeds us bullshit, say that we come to England and we're gonna play a big ol' show, with a thousand people. And we say: you don't need to bullshit us, why would a thousand people come to see us? Unless Live Aid's happening…"
I explain to them that they are in fact appearing at Reading Festival, to face not a thousand but more like 30,000 hard-to-please punters. Rev are bemused and incredulous. After all, their (mindblowing) Mean Fiddler UK debut was only their second-ever performance (the first was in Fredonia, New York State, where they played to 100 people and Chris Roberts, and they thought that was a lot of people). I tell them that at Reading they'll have to project to the back of the throng (pointing at the New Jersey shoreline across the Hudson River), so they'll have to stride back and forth across the stage and gesticulate like Bono. They look even more befuddled.
Rev come from that milieu of twenty something defeatism and J Mascis "zen apathy" that spawns so many underground bands. At school, these kids – the ones with motivation problems, who smoke weed behind the bike shed, or drop acid in geography –are called ‘slackers’ or ‘burn-outs’ or ‘stoners’. Rev's untogetherness certainly rivals anything Mascis has ever displayed. Check the feat of fecklessness behind their fab forthcoming single ‘Carwash Hair (The Bee's Chasing Me)’.
"We did this single with Dean Wareham (ex-Galaxie 500) and it worked out real well," says Jonathan. "But later we found out that the record company had sent David Fridmann, our bassist, enough money to do a whole album. And that mother f***er took the money they'd wired us, and he sent his mom to Bermuda. And there was only enough money left to do one song. And he was crafty, he didn't tell us until we were ready to do the second song. We thought we had the studio for another week. Now she needed a vacation, she was very uptight. But Lord knows, we're in deep shit."
Asked to name what they think was the last incontestably great record made, Jonathan nominates Richard Burton's soundtrack to Camelot, recorded in the early Seventies; Suzanne chooses The Little Prince.
That line of approach having foundered, I ask: who are your peers?
"Most of them are people who aren't in music, or are dead. Like Richard Burton. Lord knows, he's from England so people are probably tired of him over there, but we wouldn't want people to forget him. When he came on the screen, my mom could shiver. He summed it up, just with his presence. My mom took me to see him on Broadway in Camelot."
Jonathan has an intense relationship with his mother.
"Something had happened today. We stopped off at my mom's. She found out about our trip to England, and she got mad and she told me not to come home for Christmas, not to come home till next Easter. I don't know how mothers find out, maybe they read fanzines or something. She was bummed."
She sounds over-protective. Does she depend on you for company?
"That's probably a good word. I'm sure Sonic Youth's mom let them go."
Mercury Rev remind me of what I call ‘incest rock’ – the Valentines/Slowdive axis – that sensurround swirlpool of suffocating intimacy, the Loop/Can/Faust/Floyd axis make you feel like you're being wombed or entombed (Can's "Mother Sky", Floyd's Atom Heart Mother). The idea comes though clearer still when I eventually edge Jonathan towards a real and revealing musical reference point.
"Heard a couple of songs from the My Bloody Valentine girl. I don't know what they're all about, but when I put them on they remind me of things I don't barely remember. It goes beyond music. You can put it on, and remember things or places or girls. And I don't pick apart the music and say, 'That bit comes from an obscure Brian Eno record'. I listen to it and think about things that are nothing to do with music, and that's the whole point of music, isn't it?
"Why would you put on a piece of music that you can study for what they're trying to do? When you listen to music, you wanna think about something besides other music. These days it's almost like people are writing songs as a form of name-dropping. There's nothing wrong with having influences, we sure have influences, but you've got to get beyond that."
Into the beyond.
Melody Maker, summer 1993
by Simon Reynolds
Mercury Rev are virtually unrivalled as sculptors of stuff and nonsense. With the possible exception of Pavement, no band today revels so richly in the materiality of sound, all the ways it can be molded, smeared, daubed, played with. Too much is never enough for the Rev: Boces sounds like every available strand of the soundscape is crammed, caked, with exquisite stuff.
In a year when the guitar is synonomous with either monochrome sub-blues toil (grunge) or flailing tantrums (the Huggy Nation/shambling revival), Mercury Rev are refreshing because of their aura of unearned, heaven-sent happiness: they sound not so much light-hearted as lightheaded. With the sun streaming through the
window, Boces sounds so right. The opener, "Birth Of A Rockette's
Kick" is an almighty epic of euphoria. Jonathan Donohue babbles stuff like "make it connect, make it come true"; the song's glee-stricken tumult rises to a crest, then subsides into a gorgeous lull riddled with Eskimo babytalk, elf-chatter, and happy-sad woodwind instruments. Then it brims over again, gusted along by horn-section
freak-out and galloping piano, finally collapsing in a shattering avalanche.
"Trickle Down" is untypically uptight for this slacker-daisical bunch, fraught and herky-jerky and jutting accusations like "I think you think too much", then revving up into a dust-bowl swarm that trails a background chorus of what sounds like jeering schoogirls. "Bronx Cheer" is more dazzling frazzle overlaid with ooh-oohing
backing vocals like ventricles spasming in rapture. "Boys Peel Out" is enchanted, jewel-encrusted jazz-psych that defies categorisation, a shimmering idyll of spine-tingling xylophone, lustrous keyboards, and scat-babytalk vocalese that harks back to Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom. "Bottom's Up" is an astral weekend in the Catskills: clouds of cymbal-spray like pollen motes incandescing fire in the sunlight, gilded guitar-chimes darting like dragonflies. "If there's one thing
I can't stand, it's up" murmurs Donohue, defending his right, as a true Mother Nature's son, to loll about, bask in Van Morrison's "silence easy".
Side Two isn't quite so astonishing or engrossing. "Something for Joey" blabbers'n'smokes, but we already know Mercury Rev can lay it on thick. "Snorry Mouth" is better, despite predictable dynamics that shift from from lunging grunge to lagoons of langour. But there's a brilliant mid-song interlude, all glowing feedback embers and flaming wraithes of gtr, and an astounding, protracted aftermath,
a rustling, tintabulating field of glassy chimes and shuddering, muffled explosions. "Clouds" takes the Rev's nonchalance to new heights of airy effeteness redolent of The Byrds (there's even a raga-guitar solo), while "Space Patrol" is perfunctory, a half-minute fuzz-burst that hisses like a cornered cougar. "Girlfren" makes for an unsettling but inconclusive finale: it's a hideously disfigured,romantic jazz ballad, with crooned vocals guttering like melted wax over the piano keys, and ectoplasm shimmering in the background to
Of course, "the inconsequential" is Mercury Rev's domain: that's their glory and, occasionally, their liability. There's no ulterior motives, no agenda, but instead a pantheistic celebration of the wonder of being alive. Like Yerself Is Steam, Boces is "mere" sound and fury, signifying NOTHING, affirming EVERYTHING. Zen Apathy Rules Oka.........
See You On The Other Side
director's cut Spin, autumn 1995
by Simon Reynolds
Optimism, in music, is a tricky proposition. At all costs one must swerve past the
dangerzones of 'jaunty' and 'upful', in order to hit the right note of joy. Mercury Rev always pull it off. Their music sounds like spring. Like the Can of Soon Over Babaluma and Future Days, Mercury Rev's densely woven but richly melodious neo-psychedelia sounds like Nature rejoicing in its own existence, efflorescing and effervescing for the sheer arbitrary splendour of it.
The departure of tempestuous singer David Baker to form his own band Shady, has clearly had the effect of banishing the last vestiges of 'the dark side' from the Rev universe. Their debut Yerself Is Steam had its sinister moments, but its sequel Boces was glad all over. See You On The Other Side is even more rhapsodic and enchanted with itself. The titles tell the whole story: "Sudden Ray of Hope", "Racing The Tide", "A Kiss From An Old Flame (A Trip To the Moon)", "Peaceful Night". Normally such relentless positivity would have me puking, but crucially, Mercury Rev's music sounds lightheaded not lighthearted: it makes you feel like you've got helium for blood.
What with Suzanne Thorpe's fluttering, lepidopterous flute, and the rich palette of horns, strings, keyboards and other non-rock hues with which the band augments its radiant panoply of effects-wracked guitars, Mercury Rev often recalls such flower-power minor legends as Beacon Street Union and United States of America, or indeed major legends Love. But acid rock is only one of many sources, Rev being nothing if not omnivorous. "Sudden Ray of Hope" has the lilting languour, 'just brushed freshness' and fragrant backing harmonies of psychedelic-era Easy Listening. "Everlasting Arm" is at once sentimental and monumental, a wedding-cake colossus of echo-chambered fiddle, drunken brass band, ice-rink organ and one finger piano; imagine Brian Wilson meets Tom Waits.
Side Two (whatever format you get, the 40 minute long "See You" is definitely an el-pee, if you know what I mean) is stranger and stronger still. "Racing The Tide" is a
mystic rush of euphoria, Jonathan Donahue intoning wide-eyed wonderment--"I'm so
close/I'm almost inside/It won't be long/Before the mystery is mine"--over
ear-dazzling guitars. A Spanish trumpet (on loan from Tim Buckley's Starsailor) erupts, like the proverbial cup of joy overfloweth-ing, then the song glides straight into "Close Encounters of The Third Grade": boho-disco a la Buckley's Greetings From L.A., over which is draped space-siren warbling like some kitschadelic version of avant-garde diva Cathy Berberian. "A Kiss From An Old Flame (A Trip to The Moon)" is just a little too kooked out, but "Peaceful Night" is lovely, graced by an arrangment as wonky and inebriated as the orchestration on Big Star's third album, but unshadowed by despair.
Some sulky Rev-heads complain that sans Baker the band have lost their "edge". But See You proves that affirmation doesn't automatically equal "asinine". This is a wonderfull record.