Experimental pop band
Although the members of Mercury Rev initially came together to record soundtracks for experimental student films and to make tapes for friends, the band from rural upstate New York would become one of America’s most successful experimental groups. Mercury Rev’s 1991 debut became a favorite in Great Britain. Many established publications in Britain, including Melody Maker and the Independent, hailed the album as one of the year’s best. Although personal conflicts plagued the band from the onset, Mercury Rev survived the odds, recording a list of acclaimed albums throughout the 1990s, including 1998’s Deserter’s Songs, the group’s best-selling effort.
“We’ve always tried to achieve something that’s timeless with our music,” Mercury Rev’s lead singer and guitarist Jonathan Donahue told Jud Cost in a 1999 interview with Magnet magazine. “Where if you hear it, you would say, ‘I have no idea when that record was made. It doesn’t sound like something from 1998.’,” More than this, however, Deserter’s Songs was a triumph of will, a comeback of sorts for a band that was at one time virtually defunct because of substance abuse, staggering debt, and emotional warfare. “Because of the state we were in,” guitarist Sean “Grasshopper,” Mackiowiak revealed in 1999 to Rolling Stone writer David Fricke, “we wanted the album to be emotional, to have that longing and hopefulness, but also catch the desperation.,”
Mercury Rev formed in 1989 in Buffalo, New York, as a wildly chaotic, avant-pop sextet. Originally, the psychedelically-inclined group consisted of vocalist David Baker; vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter Jonathan Donahue; guitarist and clarinetist Grasshopper (born Sean Mackiowiak); flutist Suzanne Thorpe (who also played other woodwind instruments); bassist Dave Fridmann; and drummer Jimmy Chambers. Personality conflicts plagued the group in the beginning, and unlike most young bands, the members interacted with one another as little as necessary. Fridmann, who stopped touring with the band in 1994 but stayed on as a studio member, engineer, and producer, held doubts immediately. “I felt it was never a good thing for the band to tour,” he admitted to Cost. “Most bands get together because they’re friends. We just weren’t that group of people. Being together weeks on end wasn’t good for us. It made us not like each other.,”
Thus, never intending early on to spend the next decade making music together, Mercury Rev’s first recordings evolved simply as a means of creating soundtracks for their individual student films and to occasionally make
For the Record…
Members include David Baker (left band in 1993), vocals; Jimmy Chambers, drums; Jonathan Donahue, vocals, guitar; Dave Fridmann, bass, producer, engineer; Grasshopper (born Sean Mackiowiak), guitar, clarinet; Jeff Mercel, drums; Jayson Russo, guitar; Justin Russo, keyboards; Adam Snyder, organ; Suzanne Thorpe, flute, woodwind instruments.
Formed band in 1989 in Buffalo, NY; debuted with Yerself Is Steam, 1991; released Boces, toured with Lollapalooza, 1993; released “comeback,” album Deserter’s Songs, 1998.
Addresses: Record company; —V2 Records (BMG) 14 E. 4th St., New YorkCity, NY 10012, phone: (212) 320-8500, fax: (212) 320-8600, website: http://www.V2music.com. Website —Mercury Rev official website: http://www.mercuryrev.net.
tapes for friends. However, encouraged to expand their musical pursuits by academic mentor Tony Conrad, a fabled minimalist composer and multimedia artist who had performed with John Cale, LaMonte Young, and Faust, Mercury Rev started to take shape. Baker, Grasshopper, and Thorpe had all taken classes with Conrad at the University of Buffalo. “The most important thing we learned from him was that anything counts,” Grasshopper recalled, as quoted in a 1993 Rolling Stone feature by Glenn Kenny. The article appeared after the band was removed mid-performance from the Lollapalooza tour in Denver, Colorado, for playing too loud.
Meanwhile, Fridmann was enrolled in the musical engineering program at SUNY-Fredonia, some 50 miles to the southwest of Buffalo, giving him free access to the college’s studio from midnight until six in the morning. Here, the band recorded their first demo tape as Mercury Rev. “Every time Jon [Donahue] would come into the studio, whatever name was on the track sheet the last time was scratched out and some other name would be there instead,” Fridmann told Cost, revealing how the group came up with an official name. “Eventually ‘Mercury Rev’ appeared—I’m not even sure that name came from us—and it kept staying.,” Later on, according to the band’s website, the name was attributed to various sources, from an imaginary Russian ballet dancer to a sharp rise in temperature, to a revved-up automobile engine.
At the same time Mercury Rev began recording, Donahue worked as a local concert promoter. Following a scheduled Butthole Surfers gig, he befriended the supporting act, a band called the Flaming Lips from Oklahoma. Initiating a working relationship with the band, Donahue soon joined the Flaming Lips tour as a guitar technician and soundman. Ultimately, under the alias “Dingus,” Donahue worked his way up to lead guitarist for the Flaming Lips and recorded with the band on 1990’s In a Priest Driven Ambulance, an album co-produced by Fridmann. Fridmann went on to produce other albums for the Flaming Lips, including Hit to Death in the Future Head in 1992, and the four-CD set Zaireeka in 1997.
Although the future of Mercury Rev, with members scattered across the country and involved in various other projects, appeared uncertain, an early demo tape came into the hands of officials at the Rough Trade label in Britain, who approached Baker about signing the band. After securing the record deal, Mercury Rev entered the studio to record their debut album, Yerself Is Steam, at the same time Fridmann and Donahue continued to work with the Flaming Lips. First released in 1991, Yerself Is Steam was largely overlooked in the United States, but became a hit in the United Kingdom. Several British publications cited the debut as one of the year’s best records; Melody Maker, for one, named Yerself Is Steam one of the top four albums of 1991. Examples of the most compelling songs from Mercury Rev’s first outing, which Rough Guide to Rock contributor Chris Tighe hailed an “essential,” included the aggressively challenging “Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell. Th’ Center of Yer Heart,” “Chasing a Bee,” and “Coney Island Cyclone.,”
However, Mercury Rev would again experience uncertainty when, within weeks of the LP’s release, the American branch of Rough Trade filed for bankruptcy, halting any hope of proper promotion and distribution. Nevertheless, the band fulfilled a prior obligation to tour Britain, though not without incident. These early live shows, performed without practice sessions or predetermined set lists, saw Mercury Rev on the verge of disintegration. On stage, the band was at once fascinating, volatile, and unpredictable. Baker frequently left the stage in the middle of songs to grab a drink, and reports circulated that the band was banned from air travel after Donahue and Grasshopper had a brawl during a flight. Following the Yerself Is Steam tour, the members of Mercury Rev went their separate ways until Columbia Records, a Sony subsidiary, picked up the band and re-issued their first release.
Amid the internal strife, Mercury Rev entered a makeshift studio in a barn to record a second album, 1993’s Boces, which included samples taken from sites such as New York’s Times Square and NASA’s Cape Canaveral. The unexpected record, which took its name from an upstate New York program designed to train the unskilled labor force for the future, again astounded critics with its acute sense of melody. However, tension within the band continued to persist. Mercury Rev toured in support of the album with the same results; concert security removed the band during the Lollapalooza 1993 stop in Denver, and Baker, because of his soured relations with his bandmates, was traveling to gigs apart from Mercury Rev. In late 1993, Baker departed from the band after months of conflict. While some sources called his departure a mutual agreement, others claimed Baker was, in fact, dismissed from the band. Rebounding from his departure under the name Shady, Baker released a well-received solo album in 1994 entitled World, a project recorded with guest musicians from the Boo Radleys, Rollerskate Skinny (the band’s former guitarist Jimi Shields), and St. Johnny (Bill Whitten).
Continuing to record as a quintet, Mercury Rev defied speculations again with the release of 1995’s See You on the Other Side, an album marking Donahue’s role as an unchallenged leader. More accessible than prior efforts, the album featured echoes of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, New Orleans brass band sounds, and acid jazz. A huge leap for the band and an exhilarating success, See You on the Other Sidewas “a record of high-wire wit and elegantly twisted poignancy,” concluded David Fricke in Rolling Stone in 1995. Notable tracks from the album included the brass-lined “Sudden Ray of Hope,”the blisspop tune “Young Man’s Stride,” and the darker closing song “Peaceful Night.,” Also in 1995, Mercury Rev released an album as their alter ego, the Harmony Rockets, entitled Paralyzed Mind of the Archangel Void. The pseudonym enabled them to digress from their Mercury Rev formula, and the recording consisted of a single 45-minute ambient/noise piece that recalled late 1960s trance-rock meditations.
Touring again posed problems within the band, in spite of Baker’s departure and Mercury Rev’s 1995 successes. During the See You on the Other Side tour, drummer Chambers quit the band several times. At one point, Grasshopper physically removed Chambers from a train in an attempt to talk him out of leaving. Upon returning to New York, Donahue took refuge at his house in the Catskills, while Grasshopper retreated to a Jesuit monastery near Saratoga for several weeks. When Donahue and Grasshopper reconvened at their homes in Kingston, New York, in 1997 to record a new Mercury Rev album, they called upon their two famous neighbors Levon Helm and Garth Hudson (both lived in nearby Woodstock) of the legendary group the Band to perform on some songs. Chambers and Thorpe also returned for studio work but did not participate in subsequent touring.
The resulting Deserter’s Song, released in 1998 on the group’s new label V2, captured the pain and yearning of the past, evidenced in songs such as “Holes,” “Tonite It Shows,” and “The Funny Bird.” “There’s a lot of emotions tied up in the record,” said Donahue to Steve Appleford in a 1999 interview for the Los Angeles Times. “We went through a few tough years. It’s just a very genuine, honest record. You can’t buy that or fake it in the studio. I think that’s what people pick up on, the sincerity there.,” The album, another critical achievement, also earned substantial sales as well. It went gold in England and Ireland, and as of the fall of 1999, had sold over 250,000 copies.
Fortouring purposes, Mercury Rev revealed a new lineup to support Deserter’s Songs. The most recent performance version of the band consisted of, in addition to Donahue and Grasshopper, guitarist Jayson Russo, his keyboardist brother Justin Russo, organist Adam Snyder, and drummer Jeff Mercel. During 1998 and 1999, Mercury Rev headlined dates in Australia, New Zealand, and Britain. The band also supported the Jesus & Mary Chain for their United States tour, as well as Bob Mould’s farewell tour of the United Kingdom. In the United States, Mercury Rev opened for acts such as Buffalo Tom and R.E.M. Back in Britain, they played at the V99 music festival in Staffordshire, England, along with bands like the Cardigans, Gomez, Cast, (London) Suede, Gay Dad, Massive Attack, and Orbital. From his studio in Cassadaga, New York, a small Lake Erie town close to Buffalo and his home in Fredonia, Fridmann continued to record with and produce for Mercury Rev and for other groups, including Jane’s Addiction, the Flaming Lips, Mogwai, and Elf Power.
Yerself Is Steam, Rough Trade, 1991; reissued, Columbia, 1992.
The Hum Is Coming From Her, (EP), Columbia, 1993.
Boces, Columbia, 1993.
Something for Joey, (EP), Columbia, 1993.
Everlasting Arm, (EP), Big Cat, 1994.
(As the Harmony Rockets) Paralyzed Mind of the Archangel Void, Big Cat, 1995.
See You on the Other Side, Work, 1995.
Deserter’s Songs, V2, 1998.
MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Boston Globe, December 31, 1999.
Guitar Player, April 1993.
Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1995; August 8, 1999.
Magnet, January/February 1999, pp. 33-35; August/September 1999, p. 104.
Melody Maker, June 8, 1991; August 24, 1991; March 28, 1992; February 12, 1994; August 28, 1999; September 18, 1999.
Rolling Stone, September 2, 1993; December 28, 1995; August 19, 1999; September 2, 1999.
Mercury Rev, http://www.mercuryrev.net (March 6, 2000).
“Mercury Rev,” Rough Guide to Rock, http://www.roughguides.com/rock/entries/entries-m/MERCURY_REV.html (March 6, 2000).
Music365, http://www.music365.com/autocontent/news_010423.htm (March 6, 2000).
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