Mercury Rev feature from Nov 98 NME
The Untold History Of America's Most Pioneering Band: - 'We went through hell, but we're not going to let you down'. By Keith Cameron.
In the days when he still played bass on tour with Mercury Rev, Dave Fridmann
would come up to his bandmates as they prepared to go onstage. 'See you on the
other side,' he'd say, and they all laughed.
Back then, some six or seven years ago, Rev gigs were trips into uncharted territory, where not even the six protagonists themselves could be sure what would happen. This was a band who never rehearsed, who didn't regard themselves as a band in the proper sense. Accordingly, a song plucked from their baffling, brilliant debut 'Yerself Is Steam' could just as easily last five minutes or twenty five. Their then-singer David Baker might be singing, or might be in the audience heckling his own group. Melodious and visceral; controlled one minute and deranged the next. They were a beautiful mess, the ghosts of music past, present and future playing an endless round of piggy-in-the-middle, a noise like aliens re-inventing rock'n'roll.
On ancient maps, cartographers would inscribe the legend 'here be monsters' at the point where man's drive for discovery was compromised by his fear of falling off the edge of the world. Sea serpents were depicted emerging from the depths to devour anyone foolish enough to venture so far from the known world in the vain hope of reaching 'the other side'. As explorers in another era, Mercury Rev were not to be deterred. Here Be Monsters might as well have been their motto, their creed. It was, however, to become their way of life. And it very nearly cost them their lives.
Late on October 20th, 1998, Mercury Rev are backstage at the Mean Fiddler
in Dublin, having just finished their first European gig for three years.
Dave Fridmann isn't there, but then he hasn't toured with the band (whose records he still produces) since the process of recording sophomore album 'Boces' nearly drove him insane. Drummer Jimmy Chambers is absent also.
He walked out in January 96 upon completion of the touring to promote 'See You On The Other Side' tour, the band's majestic third album. Nor is flautist Suzanne Thrope here, now dedicating herself to a Forensic Science Degree. And of course, David Baker isn't anywhere near: the man whose chaotic stage presence came to embody the group's inner turmoil left Mercury Rev by what you can only call mutual disagreement some five years ago.
Thus, Mercury Rev currently comprise singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Jonathan Donahue and guitarist Sean 'Grasshopper' Mackiowiak, plus some friends from the closeknit musical community in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains. And right now, they are being chided by their tour manager. For smiling too much onstage.
'Don't smile' their manager says 'The kids don't like it when you smile' Jonathan is unrepentant. 'We can't help it. We've never smiled in our whole lives, let us smile now'.
This is the story of a band who came in from the cold to revive rock's redemptive
At the beginning of 1998, Mercury Rev were missing, presumed inactive, and rumoured
to be 'unwell'. Since 1995's 'See you on the other side', there had been the occasional
twitch of life; a collaboration with the Chemical Brothers produced 'The Private
Psychedelic Reel', the grandiloquent peak to 'Dig Your Own Hole'; under the Harmony
Rockets name, Jonathan and Grasshopper recorded a beatific cover of 'I've got a
golden ticket' from Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory film; Grasshopper's solo
album. But other than that, the trail of Mercury Rev went dead.
Then in midsummer, word began to filter through that the Rev were alive. Better still,
they had just finished recording a new album and it was good. Chemical Brother Ed
Simons reckoned it was quite a bit better than that, actually, as he accosted this
correspondent at Pulp's Finsbury Park bash, mouth foaming with words to the effect
that Mercury Rev had just nailed the album of the year. In fact, so smitten were he and
fellow Brother Tom Rowlands that when invited to do a remix of an album track, they
asked if they could do two. As Ed pointed out, for the Chemicals to ask for extra
work was proof that something very special was going on.
By now, you ought to know that Brother Ed was right. 'Deserter's Songs', the
fourth Mercury Rev album, is above and beyond anything else released in 1998. It
transcends genre; owing as much to Cole Porter and George Gerschwin as it does to
modern classicists like Van Dyke Parks, or the gunk rock maelstrom from which
Mercury Rev originally emerged. It crackles with echoes from the past - The Band's
Levon Helm and Garth Hudson appear - and portents for the future: though obviously
rooted in historical tradition, it feels unprecedented, as if this band had just discovered
a new way to breathe.
Above all it is the culmination of a journey spanning ten years and embracing fist
fights, drug abuse, alcoholism, nervous breakdowns, more fist fights, recriminations,
rehabilitation and now - finally - those sweetly successful smiles.
'For other bands, it's probably very common' says Jonathan, sat now with
Grasshopper in a busy London pub and pondering their new-found sunny demeanour.
'But for us, it's like a whole new world has just opened up. That's been the biggest
discovery for us - it's like Wow, being in awe of the whole thing. You feel good about
yourself, finally. It's nice to have a little self-esteem, it goes a long way'.
Mercury Rev have smiled before, but it was a long, long time ago. In 1998, the
principal characters were living and studying near Buffalo, near the US-Canadian
border. One day, for fun, they decided to make soundtracks for nature films they taped
off TV. As elephants appeared on screen, they would make music for he elephants,
recording onto a four-track or onto the video itself through the VCR. Another film
featured duck-billed platypuses so they played along with the platypuses. At he end of
the film, they had a song called 'Very Sleepy Rivers'. Thus was Mercury Rev born. A
pair of low-budget local filmmakers saw the nature films and asked the band to do
likewise on some of their work. During the same period, Jonathan Donahue had begun
to work with a group of starry-eyed Oklahaoman psychedelicists called The Flaming
Lips, first as a roadie but shortly promoted to second guitarist. He played live with the
Lips for two years, appearing on their 1990 album 'In a priest driven ambulance' which
was co-produced by Dave Fridmann. Whenever the Flaming Lips took a day off from
recording, Mercury Rev would nip in and flesh out their primitive four-track recordings.
Eventually, these became the first Mercury Rev album.
'We were both learning, I mean both bands' says Jonathan, doubtless aware of the -
quite fatuous - conspiracy theory that they borrowed more than a little studio time from
The Flaming Lips. 'If you listen to their first three records compared to the ones that
Dave and Grasshopper and I played on, there is a difference. There was certainly an
overlap, not in terms of the music itself but in terms of the influences. We were all
friends, learning about instrumentation and orchestration and arrangement and
experimentation in the studio'.
'I was doing a lot of tape loops and they used them' adds Grasshopper.
'Trying to find identities within identities' continues Jonathan 'It was a good period of
time. It was fresh. In the late 80's, there was some good music made, some classic
albums like Dinosaur Jr. It wasn't hard to find inspiration around you.'
As was the case with most US bands releasing records on independent labels
very start of the decade, 'Yerself Is Steam' brought Mercury Rev more critical acclaim
in Britain and Europe than in their native country. Released in '91, it was hailed as a
visionary work and led to invitations to play abroad. And so, their troubles began.
Having existed in an ad hoc form for nearly three years, Mercury Rev hadn't done too
many of the things that most bands do. Like play live. Their debut London gig was only
their second ever. They followed that by playing the Reading Festival. Gig number
seven and they were supporting Bob Dylan at Yale University. Their next was in
Newcastle, the start of their first British tour, and rifts were already evident.
Essentially, David Baker was incompatible with the rest of the group. If his fitful
presence - sometimes singing, sometimes screaming, sometimes rolling around on
the floor knocking over beer bottles - was calculated to wind up his mates, it worked.
Each show teetered on the brink of genius and disaster. REM guitarist, a noted fan,
would later tell NME 'that line-up was more an experiment in terror'. From a
punter's point of view, it was thrilling. On stage, however, the perspective was different.
'We made 'Yerself Is Steam' for just us' says Jonathan 'so it never had any pressure.
I wrote a song, 'Frittering', and David wrote 'Very Sleepy Rivers' and we just put them
together as something we could listen to at our house. And then suddenly, we had to
make choices'. Jonathan strongly emphasis this last word, and rolls his eyes. 'What
would go on a record, what we would play each night, the set list. And it became this
weird thing. When you have time constraints in the set you say 'We can't do 'sleepy
rivers' tonight'. Well, that's David's epic song, so he feels robbed. Yet if we do '..sleepy
rivers' it's twenty minutes long which means we can only play maybe three other songs.
Friction was there, it became very mean on tour. And it wasn't just David, it was just
that the situation imploded on itself. Especially during 'Boces' which was just
Named with some irony after a New York State juvenile rehabilitation scheme, 'Boces'
saw the Rev given a large budget for the first time. With it, they recorded the sound of a
band disintegrating. Donahue had written some luminous pop songs in the vein of his
early tour de force, 'Car Wash Hair'. Grasshopper loved them, but both knew that they
wouldn't suit Baker. The songs were therefore abandoned and the band started writing
from scratch, with Donahue struggling to come up with anything he thought Baker
would approve of. Increasingly fractious tours were interspersed with unproductive
studio sessions, racking the tension even further. By the time 'Boces' was released
and they were touring Britain supporting Spiritualized in the autumn of '93, the situation
'David was drinking heavily, we were involved with substances, and it just
recalls Jonathan grimly. 'It was just collapsing, and every night it collapsed worse and
harder and faster and deeper and more painful. Every show was like a dagger in
At the gig in Glasgow, even by heir own standards, Mercury Rev were chaotic. David,
Grasshopper and Jonathan had a huge ruck.
'That was pretty much the end, that night. What you saw onstage was the truth. It
wasn't a joke. It was very painful for us to have these large-scale fights in front
of hundreds and sometimes thousands of people every night. Most bands do it once
but for us it was almost constant, every night'. Jonathan explains, thinking back to
the bitter recriminations that followed. 'And backstage, it was worse. If you saw us
fighting onstage, let me tell you it was nothing compared to the shit that
happened backstage'. Johnathan pauses, then solemnly adds, 'It nearly killed us'.
After the Spiritualized tour ended, Mercury Rev returned home and decided to ask
Baker to leave.
'We phoned him up and said 'we all know this can't go on' ' Jonathan recalls 'And he
said 'Yeah, I know'. And that was the end of the conversation. There was no swearing,
and no insults. A sense of weight being lifted, but I was really sad 'cos he was our
best friend.' It was basically done to survive life, never mind the band, without killing
ourselves. Or each other.'
The crux of the matter was explained to Jonathan recently in Chicago, by none
other than the deposed David Baker himself.
'He told us the difference was he drank before the show, and this showed itself
absolutely on stage. Whereas the rest of us drank after the show. So no-one was ever
on the same wavelength. He showed up and we were ready to play and he was out of
his mind, y'know, smashing mic stands or crawling on the floor. And then later we'd be
backstage and pounding the beers because we were so bummed at what just
happened onstage. So it was a constant rolling circus of alcoholism fueled by
One week after Baker's departure, the band recorded 'Everlasting Arm', one of
the songs that had been intended for the follow-up to 'Yerself Is Steam', then scrapped
to placate Baker. Confidence was low, but Jonathan and Grasshopper felt at least
they could complete the record they had wanted to make the previous year.
Throughout 1994, the band worked on the album that would see the light of day
'See You On The Other Side'. When it was released, the world was astounded to
discover the new Mercury Rev: a fantastically ambitious amalgam of 'Smile'-era Beach
Boys, free jazz and,er, the old Mercury Rev. The impact of Baker's absence was
'It was very peaceful' says Jonathan of the sessions 'Very musical. Which was
something we had never had. It used to be like (throws imaginary punch) 'F**k you, I'm
leaving' whereas now it was just pure music. It was a good feeling'.
Yet, by the time they took to the road in 1995 for what should have been a joyous
traveling experience - playing their fantastic new songs in a newly harmonious
environment - the dark clouds were beginning to gather again over Mercury Rev. They
were without management, and - in Sony - faced a US record company who wondered
why the songs were so long and couldn't they sound a bit more like Soul Asylum and
while they were at it could they possibly lose the flugelhorns? Bluntly, Mercury Rev
were broke, and in hindsight, they probably chose the wrong way to try and fix the
'Things went awry on the tours. The record was fantastic, wonderful, but then we went
on tour and there was heavy abuse. Heavy substance abuse. We got caught up. We
were freaking out 'cause there was so much debt. We'd come home and he
(Grasshopper) and I would have no money, literally zero, to pay the rent. We made a
good record but got no support (from Sony). It was crushing. And so we turned to the
things that try to deaden the pain. Which was a mistake'
Grasshopper: 'During the making of that record, I had an uncle who was dying slowly,
and when we finished the album he died. That just emotionally devastated me. And,
the record was done, we had finished working, there was a great big void of
nothingness. That was when I personally lost it for a while'.
And how long did it take for you to emerge from this period of 'abuse'?
Jonathan: 'You mean after the 'Other side...' tours? Two years'.
That's up to last year.
'Yeah, we just moved to the mountains, had breakdowns, things like that. Went into
Mercury Rev effectively ceased to exist. Donahue attempted to wean himself off hard
narcotics by 'drinking myself into a stupor'. Grasshopper notoriously booked himself
into a monastery for six months. It was a while before they spoke again, but when they
did they were just trying to sort things out. 'We tried to forget about the catastrophes,
began laughing again. The best thing out of this whole thing is that he and I are still
friends. I didn't give a f**k about making a record, I wanted to save our friendship.
That was so much more important, and the record is a by-product of our friendship.
The record didn't bring us together, it was bringing us together that made the record'
'And that' Grasshopper smiles 'is what a lot of it is about'.
For the genesis of 'Deserter's Songs', Jonathan once again returned to that
post-'Yerself Is Steam' demo. There he found, among others, a song called 'Goddess
On A Hiway', a song written while he was still playing with the Flaming Lips, some
eight years ago. Before it could ever see the light of day, though, Mercury Rev needed
some wherewithal having effectively ostracized themselves from the music industry
(they asked to be dropped by Sony and then they dumped their lawyers). But one thing
led to another and emerging UK label V2 said they were interested - if the band
themselves still were. Piecing together their lives and still bereft of
confidence, Grasshopper and Jonathan decided that even if they weren't going to get
a deal they may as well do something.
'There was never any huge ceremony, they (V2 Records) just began filtering money to
us'. says Jonathan 'Cos I don't think they had a lot of confidence that if they sent us
a large cheque they'd ever see us again. They knew our history. So they would give us
a little bit here and there, and say 'See what you boys can do with this...' '
What they did was hunker down with Dave Fridmann and the other erstwhile Revsters,
and some other Catskill friends, and pieced together the melodic KO that is 'Deserter's
Songs'. And suddenly, everyone loves Mercury Rev.
'Let me tell you, v2 are as surprised as anybody is with the success'
Jonathan chuckles 'They just thought 'Mercury Rev, a very highly influential and
respected group but they are a bunch of mountain fuck-ups, so we'll have them but
they aren't ever gonna sell anything' '.
Are you surprised by the success?
Grasshopper: 'Definitely. I remember when we finished it, we looked at each other and
we were like 'is it gonna get dragged over the coals? Are people gonna like this?' But
then...well, we made it from our hearts'
'Yeah, we still don't understand it, but it's from the heart. We tried'.
Has the sudden recognition bothered you, or is it an irrelevance?
Jonathan: 'I think what hurt was that people saw us as purposely trying to stay small,
cultish, avant-experimental thing, deliberately trying to not be successful and shoot
ourselves in the foot and not sell any records. Why would we want to do that? We like
bowed saws! That doesn't mean we're experimental. We thought 'Everlasting Arm'
could have been really popular, and maybe it would have been in, like, the 1940's, but
still we always thought we were making music for everybody. Maybe I'm just deluded,
but I thought we were making timeless music. Sometimes we succeeded, sometimes
we failed, but we were always trying'.
Jonathan and Grasshopper are plainly scarred by their dalliance with the monsters,
their humility no doubt a byproduct of having to live daily with the pain they caused
others, as well as themselves. They are now leaders of a band poised for endless
flight. Mercury Rev now impart the demanour of gentlemen who have been offered a
third and final chance, and they don't intend to blow it.
'I think people want to believe in rock bands today more than ever' states a quietly
impassioned Donahue, 'they just don't get the chance. They hear a single they like and
the band gets dropped or breaks up or it turns out that band don't have any other great
songs. I think a lot of people gravitate towards us because everyone wants something
to believe in, to say 'I bought this record and I can't wait for the next'. I think that's why
a lot of people are as happy we're back as we are. We're not going to let you down. We
went through hell, but we're really glad to be here. We would never pump ourselves up
and say 'Of course it's an amazing album, we always knew we had it in us, we knew it
was perfect...' . No. We were scared shitless. But we're happy to be back. It's a cliché,
but it's true.'
Welcome to the other side, guys. Better late than never.
(big thanks to Craig for typing this up)