Mercury Rev - Original soundtracks
They've refused to stand still musically in their 20 year career, and with this latest chapter Mercury Rev are pushing their music farther out than ever. Doug Johnstone revels in their sonic adventures
Describing what Mercury Rev sound like is a tricky business. This is probably exactly how the band like it, but it's a pain in the arse for us hacks. The indie veterans from Buffalo, New York create a unique kind of psychedelic, ethereal, dreamlike spacerock which has writers reaching for the thesaurus and sounding like they're describing a fairy picnic on a rocket ride to Jupiter.
It's something the band are clearly all too aware of. Take this snippet from their own website, describing their seventh studio album Snowflake Midnight, out in September:
'[The album] reveals the forces of symmetry and chaos at play, shimmering, vibrating close-ups and vistas of life driving itself onward, bursting with patterns and mandala-like forms pushed to the brink of incredible pressures then lost in an instant . . . '
Quite. Mandala-like forms or not, Snowflake Midnight is a remarkable and moving piece of work, and another distinct departure from a band with a history of defying expectation.
Originally a kind of shambling art-rock noise-jazz indie fusion meltdown of a band, the Rev produced three albums of experimental noise in the early 90s, but their reputation for excess, both musically and physically, seemed to rule out any kind of commercial success. Then, in 1998, they emerged as if from a cocoon with Deserter's Songs, a sumptuous and dreamy collection of leftfield pop-flecked rock which grabbed the mainstream with both hands.
Two increasingly dense orchestral rock records followed, but Snowflake Midnight sees the band once more reinventing themselves, embracing electronic and beat-orientated musical influences to create a soundtrack for the trippiest film in your head.
'We totally did things differently this time,' explains guitarist Grasshopper. 'We went into the studio with no plan and just recorded a lot of stuff, a lot of different styles. We were using a lot of synthesisers, which we hadn't done in a long time, and we stretched ourselves and started using other instruments, programming a lot of music. We were trying to do a lot of sound design, trying to just make sonic spaces, and this album ended up coming out of that.'
Grasshopper is one of only two remaining original members, alongside singer Jonathan Donahue, but the line-up is fairly stable these days, with longtime drummer and keyboardist Jeff Mercel still onboard, and über-producer Dave Fridmann on bass and co-production duties.
That stability has clearly made for a productive music-making environment, because, alongside Snowflake Midnight, the band are giving away a second album, Strange Attractor, free to anyone who signs up to their mailing list.
'We just came up with a lot of songs as we were working,' says Grasshopper. 'Most of the Strange Attractor tracks are ambient; they mostly don't have words either. It's a bit like a soundtrack. It has a similar feel to Snowflake Midnight, so we wanted to get it out at the same time. It makes a nice present to our fans.'
Mercury Rev's recent change in direction can be traced to two recent projects. The band were asked by their record company to put together a retrospective of their work, the double CD Essential Mercury Rev: Stillness Breathes 1991-2006. They've never been the most nostalgic of guys, preferring to look forwards than backwards, and Grasshopper admits that that process led to a desire to do something musically different.
'Yeah, it was weird going back over the old records,' he says. 'Even though there are really different styles in there, there's this thread running through our stuff, almost like on each record we created this little Mercury Rev world, a place where things are different. It's a world we create and the listener enters into, like a wrinkle in time or a special bubble of reality.'
On top of that, two years ago the band released Hello Blackbird, the soundtrack to Bye Bye Blackbird, a Hollywood movie about circus life in the early 20th century. That experience has clearly fed into the overall feel of the two new albums, both of which have an organic continuous quality lacking in conventional rock records.
'We started out doing soundtracks when Jonathan and I first met, but Hello Blackbird was totally different,' says Grasshopper. 'It was a real narrative film with really specific instructions from the director, instead of the avant garde stuff we used to do.'
Grasshopper admits to being as much influenced by art and writing as he is by other music, citing the surrealism movement and the cut-and-paste work of William Burroughs as two things which he and Donahue find inspirational. He also finds himself going back to his early musical influences for inspiration these days.
'I've been listening to a lot of New York punk and No Wave stuff again,' he says. 'There was that spirit in No Wave of breaking down the barriers, and that plays into what we do.'
While Mercury Rev find themselves these days in the unlikely position of being indie veterans, the band are not quite in the pipe and slippers brigade yet. Grasshopper admits to being as excited by TV on the Radio and Boards of Canada as he is by his old Dylan and Miles Davis records.
'Plus, both me and Jonathan have younger girlfriends who listen to stuff like The Raveonettes and The Ting Tings,' he laughs. 'So we hear that stuff around the house. Then there's usually a fight over the stereo – "Hey, I want to listen to Bitches Brew!" Somehow it all mashes together.'
Indeed it does, into one undescribable but brilliant band.
Mercury Rev headline the Guitars and Other Machines Stage, Fri.