The masters of melancholic beauty are back after seven years with new, sparkling and highly praised full length opus ‘The Light In You’. Some months ago majestic first single ‘The Queen Of Swans’ announced the return of the symphonic orchestra of Buffalo, New York. The return of the two 1989 original members: singer/frontman Jonathan Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper (born Sean Thomas Mackowiak). Both are natural born music lovers, both are poetic survivors, both are creators of captivating psychedelic stillness…
Mercury Rev have a special place in countless hearts and souls, including mine, since their 1998 masterpiece ‘Deserter’s Songs’, their pièce de résistance. Being loved especially in Europe they toured a zillion times over there. So, as a Belgian citizen I was privileged to watch them perform many times. I even followed them to Paris and Amsterdam. Every single concert was a special experience, a spiritual happening, a sonic demonstration of what lyrical dream pop is all about. Finally, next Sunday, they will be back, playing Brussels. And what a thrill to talk about that and so much more with the band’s musical centipede…
What’s the story behind your nickname ‘Grasshopper’
“When I was a little boy, about four or five, me and my family were on a vacation trip in Ohio on our way to Virgina. We stopped for lunch at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant and Mickey Rooney, the film star, was there. I was a small kid running around and at one point Rooney called me over and he took me on his knee while my father asked for an autograph and took a picture of the both of us. “You’re nothing but a grasshopper, knee-high” he said. My brother started making fun of me because of that and grasshopper stuck and became my nickname from then on.“
You have Polish roots. Did you ever went to Poland to investigate your family tree?
“I looked into just a little bit but most of the background information came from my family, mostly from my father’s brother. My father was Polish and his family we are all in the undertaker business for generations. My last name is Mackowiak, but I have also an Italian side as my mother is Sicilian and eventually part Swiss. Furthermore I have several cousins living in Australia and there’s also some Irish in me. There’s much more than only Polish roots.”
What does the band’s name ‘Mercury Rev’ actually means?
“Jonathan and me just wanted a name with Mercury in. It’s an American car, it’s a planet and also it’s like liquid metal with strange qualities and always changing. Then one day Jonathan came up to me and asked my opinion on Mercury Rev. I thought that was great because the car and the planet were still in there like in ‘revving the engine’ and in ‘the planets revolving around the sun’. It had so many different meanings, it was perfect.”
Last year – mid 2014 – you, Jonathan Donahue and Ken Stringfellow (note JL: singer/songwriter/musician best known for his work with The Posies, R.E.M. and the reformed Big Star) did some acoustic shows. Were you already working on the new album at that time?
“Some of it was already done, yes. At one point we were in Ken’s studio in Paris working on some harmonies and male vocals for The Light In You and at one point we decided to do some shows together just for fun. We played a mix of our songs, some of Ken’s, some Big Star’s and some Neil Young songs.”
The new album is titled ‘The Light In You’. Who is ‘You’? A friend, a lover, the listener?
“It’s the light in each one of us, in everybody. The light is the divine spark that creates awakeness, that stimulates your creativity inside and that you tap in to make whatever
you do whether it’s art or music. The light is everybody’s creative inside.“
Is the ‘You’ the walking person on the album sleeve?
“Yeah, it’s an image from a German photographer that we really liked. It definitely evokes the sort of lonely boy on a quest trying to find the light and walking towards it. Although it’s actually a woman in that picture, the whole thing for us was the idea of a quest and the idea of the lonely boy who can be anybody of us.”
Some of the new songs have an angelic sound – most prominent in ‘Are You Ready’ – with choirs of children. Has becoming a father for the first time something to do with it?
“I think so, unconsciously, yes. Also, Jonathan is the godfather of my boy, so that connection too influenced our work in a sort of way. The whole thing ties to the child in us, in everybody. That is part of the light in you too. Getting back to the innocence of a child, seeing anything for the first time and being curious of everything, discovering everything.”
Mercury Rev’s music feels very spiritual at times, even religious. Are you a religious person?
“I grew up a Catholic but as most people do in their teens I rebelled against it. I became more interested spiritually. I got into Zen Buddhism and I started to read books by Beat writers like Keruoac, Ginsberg and William Burroughs and they led me into exploring lots of other things. But deep down my Catholic education is still in there as I go to church with my wife and the baby. Although for me religion is not about what is said in church, which is very service level. For me religion is about the deeper meanings, about what’s going on at a deeper level, the mysticism, the stories about the early Christians, gnosticism and that sort of things.”
Overall the album has a full symphonic orchestra sound, yet it has a warm, intimate feel. Like the brilliant title of a 2006 compilation ‘Stillness Breathes’. Is that what Rev’s music is about today?
“ Yeah, I think so. Our first two records Yerself Is Steam and Boces were very chaotic. They sounded like the Big Bang, like the world being born, like volcanoes going off. With the next album See You On The Other Side we already went for a change and afterwards the Stillness Breathes feeling came in. We literally wanted things to breathe. The Zen Buddism thing, you know, waiting for things to happen naturally. Everybody says it’s been seven years since the last record, but it’s not like we were sitting around doing nothing. We re-released Deserter’s Songs and toured with that. In the mean time The Light In You was shaped. We let things breathe, we let things just happen. It took a while, but we felt like the album was only ready to come out when it was really ready.”
On the occasion of this interview I listened to 1991 debut album ‘Yerself Is Steam’ for the first time in years. What struck me the most were the huge melodies hidden underneath the psychedelic noise. Was that already Grasshopper at work?
“It was actually me, Jonathan, Dave Fridmann and Suzanne Thorpe who played flute in the band at the time. When we started the band we all loved The Velvet Underground. We liked the chaotic stuff like Sister Ray but we also liked the kind of ballad songs like Sunday Morning and also Can’s She Brings The Rain. Softer songs with great melodies affected us. And eventually in later years those kind of melodies would come more out in our music too.”
In the beginning…
On the other hand I can’t imagine a Mercury Rev concert without the electrifying, hypnotic wall-of-sound jams. Will those be history now?
“No, certainly not. In fact those jams remind Jonathan and me of those days way back when we met in Buffalo, New York. We sat in our room and we used to plug our instruments into our radios because we had no amps and we cranked the volume up to ten. So when we’re getting into these electrifying parts on stage we look at each other and smile because it takes us back to those days.”
How would you describe your lifelong relationship with Jonathan? As friendship, family, marriage or just as a professional collaboration?
“It’s certainly deep friendship and also a sort of family. Maybe within the band it’s been like a marriage, although the band has been around longer than most of the marriages probably because we still love playing and making music. There’s definitely a deep friendship between us like in that movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where they watch each other’s backs. There are so many young bands going on the road for only two, three weeks and when they come back they say they don’t want to talk to each other no more, like a kind of disaster happened. That’s not us. Jonathan and me have something special going. It’s just connects.”
How do you compose songs together. Face to face or separately?
“It’s quite simple. He writes songs, I write songs and we send them to each other on cassette. Yes, we still use cassettes. We trade ideas also the same way. Then we ‘re both sitting together seeing which parts fit, finding the right key to sing in comfortably and making everything go. We both write the music but most lyrics, about eighty percent, are Jonathan’s. Sometimes I give him some lines and then we exchange ideas on them or he shows me what he has written or we just collaborate on some lyrics.”
You grew up as a youngster with jazz icons, all horn players, such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and John Gilmore. How did you get into pop and rock?
“When I was very young I played clarinet and saxophone. My uncle worked at Atlantic Records and he send me lots of Miles records, John Coltrane and others. Later on in my teens he send me records of Led Zeppelin and The Stones and I remember well when I was sixteen he send me a sort of compilation cassette with all kinds of punk music on like The Clash, The Pretenders, Ramones, Squeeze and all that kind of stuff. I really got into that and into new wave . Before that my older brother listened to all those prog rock bands like Genesis, Gentle Giant and Yes. We used to share a bedroom and he couldn’t stand my jazz records and we would fight about it. He liked it better when I got into The Clash. So that way we actually exposed each other to a lot of different music. But I still listen to jazz. Like when I’m alone with my son I listen to Chet Baker and that sort of stuff. And when in my car I listen regularly to a New York City jazz station. They play a lot of crazy things like Albert Ayler and Farrell Sanders. I love that kind of music, especially when I’m driving in New York City. It makes you feel ecstatic.”
Are Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd from seventies new wave band ‘Television’ still among your favorite guitar players?
“Oh, yes, they are. It was the way their guitars were intertwined and for me there was also something in there that connected into jazz and that made it quite different. Their intervals, their stretching out. Television was not CBGB’s punk rock. Later on reading interviews with them I learned that Tom Verlaine listened a lot to jazz. Also Lou Reed referred to songs like Sister Ray where he tried to play his guitar like saxophonist Ornette Coleman played. It was rock stuff I liked anyway but that jazz connection made it special. Even with Neil Young and Willie Nelson you hear jazz there in the mix. Not that they sounded like something new because in the beginning rock and roll was actually a mix of R & B, folk, country and jazz. But people like The Velvet Underground, Neil Young and Television tried to step out of that sort of pentatonic structured blues technique which was characteristic for rock and roll and so they all learned from those jazz musicians. Story goes that Lou Reed said if anyone in the band played blues he got fined.”
I saw the band performing classic album ‘Deserter’s Songs’ in full in Brussels 2011. Were you following the trend or were just curious for the experience?
“We were asked to do it for years and years. We said no for a long time because we were always busy moving on to a next stage. Several songs on our albums are just made for the album and not to be played live. But later on it became like a challenge and we said “since we don’t wanna do it let’s just do it.” Also I saw others doing it. Sometimes it didn’t work, but seeing Suicide and The Feelies playing their first record in full was so amazing and helped us to made the decision to do it ourselves. And actually playing the songs in sequence like on the album, with several songs performed for the first time, turned out to be a great experience. We saw grown men crying in the audience and women came to us after the show and telling stories like “I played Deserter’s Songs when having my first baby”. It was really special. And in a way that tour, after playing in so many cities, influenced subconsciously some parts of The Light In You, especially the orchestrations.”
‘Secret For A Song’ is one my favorite Rev symphonies (note JL: from their ‘The Secret Migration’ album). The chorus line ‘I sell you a secret for a song’ is top. Suppose Edward Snowdon was a huge fan of the band and offered you a secret in exchange for a Mercury Rev song, would you go for it?
“I would, there are so many secrets out there. What I want to know is what the government really knew the day of 9/11. It’s a kind of mystery and caused a lot of confusion. It was like War Games being played and somebody knew it was all gonna happen that day. It would be really interesting to know who exactly was involved and who knew certain secrets. So, yeah, I will give him a song for that.”
If you could travel to the past who would you pick to jam with ?
“I would knock on John Cale’s door but then again we already met and we played together on some Nico tributes. That was like a dream come true. So I’ll try to think of somebody else. Well, it would be cool to meet Johnny Cash. I don’t know if I would jam with him. Just sitting with him, playing, and hearing some of his stories would be great.”
At one point, with the success of ‘Deserter’s Songs and ‘All Is Dream’, it seemed like Mercury Rev was living in Europe. For several years you played Europe constantly.
“In Europe people are more open to different kinds of music and newer things. When our first record Yerself Is Steam came out it was praised by British magazines NME and Melody Maker, we went over and did John Peel Sessions and played several festivals in Europe. In America the record came out via Rough Trade, but they went out of business about a week later. Without a label and any sort of support in America we started to concentrate on Europe. One of our first shows was in Belgium. Then France, Italy, Germany and many more countries followed. Yeah, I had a sort of feeling living in Europe as we were playing over there so much which was certainly not a bad feeling.”
You play Belgium for the umpteenth time November 8th (Botanique, Brussels). Is Belgium just one of the European countries or do you have special memories?
“Yeah, we have a connection with Belgium. We’ve made lots of friends over there over the years. Once we had a tour manager who was from Ghent (note JL: my hometown). He worked for us and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion for some time. It was the first country we played outside of Britain and it never forgot about us and of course we love your beer.”
American singer/songwriter Nicole Atkins will be the support act. Did you choose her?
“Yes, we did. I met her once in London and it seemed we had mutual friends in New York and were both half Sicilian. We became friends and she’s doing backing vocals on some songs on The Light In You. We like to have a singer/songwriter to open for us and set the mood. Afterwards she will join us for some backing vocals. She’s a great singer and great fun.”
Many thanks for taking time for this interview, Grasshopper. It was great fun to talk to you. See you in Brussels on Sunday…
“Fine. Show me a beer I never had before.”
Here’s the divine ‘The Light In You’ in full…