Mercury Rev: Interview
Mercury Rev are that rare breed of artist that combine both longevity and musical evolution. Since shaping the American alt-rock scene over twenty five years ago, the band have become synonymous with exploring the boundaries of what rock music actually means.
After their triumphant return in 2015 and their critically acclaimed album The Light in You, Mercury Rev are back in the studio and working on new projects – including a three-date UK tour to coincide with Bella Union’s 20th anniversary.
We caught up with guitarist Sean Thomas Mackowiak (aka Grasshopper) to discuss his methods of keeping sane on tour, the hurricane that curtailed Mercury Rev’s album recording, his relationship with Mark Linkous and drinking hard cider on a desert island.
Q. Hello Sean, how are you? Can you offer a picture of where you are right now and what you’ve been doing today?
Getting over a bad cold and flu that’s been going around the Catskills just outside New York. I’ve just been reading Robyn Hitchcock [The Soft Boys] is touring right now and that he has the flu so it must be going around – especially musicians!
In terms of today’s action, I’ve got a studio at home here so I’ve been cleaning up and getting things ready for Jonathan [Donahue and Mercury Rev’s lead singer] and Jesse Chandler from Midlake who are coming here tomorrow and we’re gonna do some work together. Since I’m recovering from flu it’s been a bigger challenge than I first thought!
Q. You’re coming to the UK this summer and will be performing with the Royal Northern Sinfonia. How did this come about and what were the challenges in bringing a classical orchestra to play your music?
We played a show about a year ago with another orchestra and Simon Raymonde from Bella Union saw it. We got talking afterwards and we said we’d love to do something in the UK with an orchestra backing us and Simon took it seriously. We then set it up to coincide with Bella Union’s 20th anniversary celebrations.
There were many challenges. For example, when we record, we record a lot of the material separately so we’ll lay something down and then add a horn section or a woodwind section or whatever. But to do it all together and all at once is a bit crazy and something we’ve never done. It’s very exciting but also terrifying at the same time.
We’re coming over to the UK a few days before the show and we’ll meet the orchestra and spend some time rehearsing with them to give us every chance of getting it right. As a child, I played in an orchestra so I know that there’s a lot that can go wrong. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the stars will align and everything will turn out ok.
Q. You’ve been touring for over 25 years now. What are you likes and dislikes of going tour and do you have a system to keep you sane?
I still love travelling and going to different places and meeting different people. I love trying different foods and different beers and wines from different towns and different regions – that’s the big upside and something I’ll never get tired of. Talking with new people and playing the music is just great and really really fun to do.
The downsides are just all of the logistics and organisation that goes into it. I mean when we first starting touring you could just bring water on the plane, you could bring ten guitars on the plane – you could bring pretty much anything you wanted. I remember us buying knives in Hamburg – we’d have switch-blades on us and just carry them onto the plane in our back pockets. Now it’s such a huge pain in the arse – all the pat downs, all the rub downs and all so we can just get on a plane to go somewhere.
In terms of keeping myself sane, I like to keep a routine when I’m away so I like to get up in the morning and walk around the places I’m in. I just walk around all these places like Newcastle and Bristol just taking it in, looking for somewhere cool to go for breakfast and a place to have a few beers – that’s what keeps me going!
Q. Your last album, The Light in You ended a seven-year hiatus. Can you just talk about what you were doing during this time and the reasons for the unusual gap in your output?
We did a couple of things in that seven-year period like a re-issue and a tour to go alongside that which brought us up to 2011. But in 2012 me and Jonathan got together to start writing songs for the The Light in You and we ended up getting this huge hurricane up here and Jonathan lost his whole house. When the river bank broke, his whole house was just washed away. I was on higher ground so it didn’t impact on me too much – I just mainly saw a couple of trees fall down.
Jonathan initially managed to get his guitars and amps out but when he returned to the house everything else was gone. He saw his records and couch and tape machine just floating down the stream. It was kind of hard to comfort him as he’d seen all his stuff floating away from him and I’d only witnessed a tree falling down! It was just crazy.
Needless to say, this had a bit of an impact on the writing and recording process and goes someway to explaining the gap.
Q. That’s a pretty seismic life event. What was the process of coming back together and getting the album recorded?
We’d always worked with Dave Fridmann who produced our albums but he lives about a three hour drive away so there were some logistical problems. We ended up writing stuff at my place and I built a little studio. We just got on with recording and it went really well so we ended up staying up in the Catskills. It was intense but it felt right and was, just thinking about it, a lot easier than the other album recordings – despite the hurricane! We had about double the material we needed so there wasn’t pressure to write to a deadline. It was just about finessing the songs we had and whittling them down into an album.
Generally, just being up here in the Catskills makes everything saner for us – it’s home, it’s peaceful and we’re not distracted by things such as horse racing and other crazy things that we may or may not get up to!
Q. In the early years you enjoyed a cult status before breaking through to a wider audience. You must have seen a lot of changes in the industry. How difficult is it for alternative acts to break through in this day and age?
I think it’s hard to break through in a big way. It’s very fragmented – like most of culture right now. In TV there’s a million channels, a million different ways to get your music. In some respects, technology is a good thing and those developments are a good thing because anyone can make a record and get it out there. The downside to that is not a lot of the stuff I hear is necessarily that creative. I guess it’s a bit like the old days where you have to search for little gems or stuff that has some quality to it. The difference is that you’re not shuffling around dusty old record stores but scrolling through SoundCloud because you’re not going to hear anything good on the TV or radio.
I was watching MTV the other day – sort of accidentally and it was just a lot of rubbish. There was something by Thurston Moore [Sonic Youth] on there at some point which was cool but the rest was just awful.
It’s hard to sum it up but it’s like people’s attention spans are so short. It’s hard to imagine too many Jim Jarmusch films being made right now. My friend was complaining to me about one of his films saying it just moved too slow and that nothing happened. I was kind of arguing with him saying it’s the quiet, it’s the silence and the still moment where some of the most beautiful and exciting things happen and you need to be able to pay attention and reflect to be able to appreciate that.
Q. It’s an interesting time in America right now. In terms of Trump’s America, what are your thoughts on the role of the artist in such times?
There’s a quote by Jack Kerouac and their asking him about politics and he said that just the act of getting up in the morning and putting pen to paper was a political act in itself. I think it’s the same with music. To keep the freedom within to allow yourself to create and to continue to do that – perhaps even more bombastically so in these especially dark times.
Q. Yourself and Jonathan Donahue contributed to the recent documentary about Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. It’s both inspiring and very sad at the same time. Can you please tell us about your relationship with Mark, his music and what lessons can be learned from his untimely death.
It was maybe 1994-5 I was touring with Joe Henry playing guitar and we were opening up for Mark and Sparklehorse. It was that point when he was in London shortly after he lost the use of his legs and he was in a wheelchair. When I met him he was this sweet, soft spoken guy and the things that had happened to him were just wild. We had all stayed at this hotel where he had passed out on his legs and he was expressing how he hoped he’d make a full recovery. We kept in touch after that and Sparklehorse ended up opening for us on our American tour and that was really great – he was just amazing and we became really good friends.
The last time we saw him was right before his death. We were playing with John Cale in Italy and we were doing a tribute to Nico and Mark was there and he was in good spirits – so funny and so full of life. But he could also be very dark too. After that, Jonathan went down to see him in Virginia and I think he was having a really bad time with some stuff; relationships and he was trying to make a new record and things. It wasn’t long after that when me and Jonathan were driving up to New York and we got the call to say that Mark had shot himself – that was just unbelievable. He’d talked about stuff like that before but it was one of those things were you thought he’d never do it. I mean, I think everyone can have those thoughts at times so it’s just so shocking when it does actually happen.
It was interesting after Trump got elected and he tried to repeal Obamacare and the adverse effects this would potentially have on people with depression and other mental and physical health problems. There was actually a tweet that went out that said right before Obamacare had come out Mark Linkous had died and Alex Chilton had died and Vic Chesnutt had died and how all of those deaths could have possibly been prevented if help had been available. I think it’s completely inhumane to take away help and support for people – we need to be there in every conceivable way for people going through dark times.
Q. Thank you for sharing that. On a slightly lighter note, we are now going to spirit you away you to Coney’s deserted island. What three things would you want to have with to survive?
I’d probably want to have a guitar and it would have to be an acoustic guitar as I’m not sure of my access to electricity there. That would provide a lot of inner peace for myself. And then I think I’d take my wife and kids – they’re like my little ‘mini-mes’ and they all make me very happy. Then I’ve got to be honest and say that I’d take an endless supply of hard cider. That would be paradise!
Q. What’s next for Mercury Rev?
We are working on a big project at the moment which should be very exciting. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal anything about it!
Other than that, we are also working on releasing Mercury Rev stuff so keep watching this space.
Mercury Rev will be playing the following UK dates:
Wednesday 12th July – GATESHEAD – Sage Gateshead
Thursday 13th July – BRISTOL – Colston Hall
Friday 14th July – LONDON – Barbican