"Wowb At The Top" - Mercury Rev - Melody Maker - June 8, 1991
(this was Mercury Rev's first UK interview. Big thanks to Andy Mann for contributing it.)

MERCURY REV are beautiful. They are also as weird as they come -- just listen to their debut LP, 'Yerself Is Steam'. On the eve of their first British show, CHRIS ROBERTS met them in upstate New York.

"This is our first record and some of it sucks. It may even help bring a depressive out of her shell, hurrah." Jonathan wrote that on a piece of paper and then wrote this. "Someone should love Mercury Rev. No, really."

One minute and 26.5 seconds in, as chance would have it, there's the most exhilarating musical moments of the Nineties.

"I don't know anything about guitar pedals. My mom will come to a store and say, 'Snookie, what does this one do?' She calls me Snookie. And I say, 'Mom, that one sounds like a machine gun'. She'll say, 'Oh, and Snookie, what does this purple one do?' and I say, 'Mom, that'll make me sound like babies crying'. And she'll say, 'Snookie, what does this one do, this big orange silver thing?' I say, 'Momma, that'll put a man on the moon'.
"And she'll just say, 'Oh, I remember that. Yes, let's get that one. That's a good one'."

Mercury Rev are beautiful.

"Oh, we're losers," says Jonathan Donahoe [sic]. "We are losers. Every person in the world is either fuel, grease or gravel. Either they drive you to do something, or they make it easy for you to slide well, or they slow you down. Being losers is what fuels us. We're not geniuses. And, in a way, we are. Mercury Rev is something small but to us it blows everything up. It's a magnifying glass, it's epic."

"In the same way that an idiot savant can make you cry," say Dave Fridmann, "just by your knowing they exist, let alone being in their presence. There's no way out but every aspect of it is such a joy at the same time."

"People who are retarded," adds Jonathan, "you always see them smiling. There's some sort of grace in there. These people are totally fucked, but there's this thing inside them that makes them smile. And I guess that's what a loser is. He smiles at the joys that exist inside his head."

"Hey," says Dave, "if we could be winners we would. I just don't see where it's possible."

Mercury Rev are beautiful. Mercury Rev are in Fredonia, upstate New York. Mercury Rev have just finished an ugly lovely mess of noise masquerading as a set, telling the truth, and I ask Grasshopper's mother, who must be about 50-odd, if she enjoyed the show.

"Oh yes," she beams, "it induced orgasm." I'm sorry? "It induced orgasm."

After 36 hours in the vicinity of Mercury Rev, nothing on earth should throw me. This does. "Can I take your photograph?" she asks. I run away and tell Grasshopper that his band has just sexually aroused his mother. "Uh-huh," he says, like I've just asked him if he wants a beer. "She's kinda cool. And she smokes a lotta dope."

Mercury Rev love their mothers. Mercury Rev's first and glorious album, "Yerself Is Steam", surely the smart scruffy pundit's dark horse of the year even if the song titles and running times are all completely (deliberately and perversely) out to lunch, is about mothers and bees and icefloes.

"Yeah, that's the vision going through our heads," says Jonathan and Dave between them. "Moms and glaciers and cars and stuff. To us it's grandiose, it's a symphony. If it's limited to bees and icefloes and girls it's because we care about the things that are crystallised and concentrated at the bottom of the test-tube. We care about the crystals, not the solution. We don't write about things we don't think about, like the perspective of a person in a wheelchair or a black man in inner city Chicago or Russian politics. We only think about three things. Bees and icefloes and mothers. Everything else we're pretty oblivious to. We have enough problems concentrating on icefloes."

Jonathan met Grasshopper at a reform school camp for delinquents when he was 10. It was called Camp Sunshine. He can't remember what he was in for. Or, yes he can. He was building a treehouse and he dropped a hammer and it landed on a girl's head. I tell Jonathan I threw a stone at a girl when I was nine but got off scot-free. Me and Jonathan, we get along fine.

Grasshopper was throwing dead squirrels and rats into a lawnmower when Jonathan met him. The blood spattered over a watching group of retarded kids and they screamed and yelled. They yelled, "Now throw the possum in! The Possum! The possum too!" Muses Jonathan, "When you're younger, these things make a more vivid impression. I remember huge adrenaline rushes as the guts flew and hit people on the legs. I don't know what Grasshopper had done to get in there. He doesn't talk about it much."

Later, Jonathan and Dave leave my absurdly picturesque hotel room, the interview done. There's a knock on the door and it's Grasshopper. A realisation dawns: he thinks I'm going to interview him too.

So the guys were telling me the songs are always about mothers and bees and icefloes.


Do you love your mother?

"We all love our mothers. Mine'll be there tonight."

Do you think of yourself as normal?

"Uh, kinda volatile. This room is not normal. You gotta do something, y'know? We had these little motorcycles and we'd fly down hills and get all scraped up. You have to mess around, see what's goin' on. I guess the band's about sex and outer space and cars and women and chocolate. Those few things, there's so much you can do with them. Ashes to ashes. Dust to vapour."

The phone rings and Jonathan says that if Grasshopper's in my room I should tell him to get the hell out.

Grasshopper and I talk about Eskimos.

There's a knock on the door and it's at least three of the band. They shout anxiously to Grasshopper that he is to get the hell out of the man's room, now.

David Baker is a gentle giant who reckons the (American) posters for Camel cigarettes subliminally resemble the male genitals. He is entirely correct and has just ruined my enjoyment of Times Square. We decide Fredonia resembles the set of the first "Halloween" movie and go for a walk at two in the morning, only to turn back after 60 yards because we're suddenly irrationally petrified. Flute player Suzanne glares stonily at me for 24 hours until she realises I am still speaking to the band after the show, and therefore I must understand the poetry of mayhem. It is always reassuring to be congratulated for understanding the poetry of mayhem. The people from the record company are a little worried before the gig and stutter that it might be, er, a bit like, er, early Jesus & Mary Chain. We consider saying we're banking on a nice rendition of "Sultans Of Swing" but haven't the heart to bring it off.

Jonathan is definitely, definitely, obsessed with his mother.

"It's a son's duty to protect his mother. Most of all, from himself. So for years I told her I was in the navy. I mean-- guitars? I could care less. The best thing you could do would be to amplify the sound of someone rolling over and whispering to you in the middle of the night. That's something that can't be replaced, and usually is amplified in your brain. Mercury Rev is the only channel we have to get back to mother and there's a lot of distance to retrace. Hopefully we will somehow get back before we've whittled away to nothing. Because as people we're just shells. But mothers care. Mothers love Richard Burton and give you a hug. I imagine this is not a cool thing to say-- 'Oh, Mercury Rev, that pussy band with a huge Oedipal complex'. But that's what it's all about. We're cavalier and we can't play, but the intensity is in the emotion and the absolute desperation. Our brains are filled with moms, whispers, girlfriends. Everything else goes over our heads."

I consider breaking into an aria from "La Traviata".

"Y'know, you're always chasing something? Like you'd get a bee in a jar but you don't wanna suffocate it, the thrill is in letting it go, and that's what mother's do. And that's what girlfriends and boyfriends should be all about. You catch something to let it go, and that's the beauty, that's where the love comes in. That people might like Mercury Rev is beyond me. It's a rose. It's a good thing. Or a bad thing. There's nothing more beautiful."

Mercury Rev come to Britain for the first time this week. The words "historic" and "unmissable" threatened to set fire to my legs if I didn't give them a whirl instantly. Mercury Rev could put a man on the moon.

Mercury Rev play The Mean Fiddler on Friday, June 7.