INTERVIEW BY MICHAEL SEMAN
I first heard the song “Chasing a Bee” from Mercury Rev’s debut album, Yerself Is Steam, in the early '90s. The song finds symphonic grandeur in a droning, looping psychedelic wash of noise that intermittently envelopes instruments such as acoustic guitar and flute creating a seven-minute capsule of blissed-out experimental rock. Two and a half decades later, Mercury Rev continues to release albums that veer stylistically from the dense, sonic explorations found on Yerself Is Steam and Boces to the often stunning, orchestral statements found on Deserter’s Songs and their recent, The Light in You. In preparation for their upcoming "Oaktopia Presents" show with Josh T. Pearson at Dan’s Silverleaf on Sunday, March 20th, I had a chance to talk with one of the band’s founding members, guitarist/clarinetist, Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak. Read on to hear what he had to say.
WDDI: Mercury Rev albums cover a lot of ground aesthetically, from warped noise rock to sparse, yet orchestral compositions. What should an audience expect when you play live?
Sean Mackowiak: We’ve definitely morphed over the years from orchestrating noise on the earlier albums to orchestrating instruments on later ones. Live, it incorporates both those avenues. We do old songs and new, but it’s a lot more guitar-driven. (The live show) bridges the gap between the old and new songs.
What is it like to work with Jesse Chandler of Midlake?
It’s great working with him – he is an amazing musician. We did a concert with an orchestra in Holland in September and he helped us orchestrate all of the parts from our records for the orchestra to play because previously we had only used smaller, four-piece quartets, woodwinds, small sections and such, and this time it was a 40-piece orchestra. It was great because Jesse has that background from when he attended the New School in New York City for composition. He’s just an amazing musician, also kind of a human jukebox. You can call out, like, a Zombies tune, or an Elliot Smith song, or a song from the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special,” or anything and he just starts playing it. He was a big fan of ours and knew all of our songs anyway, so it’s great.
There are some, including me, that suggest place and factors such as economics, the built environment, and even weather influence how music is created. How did the environments of Buffalo and Upstate New York influence Mercury Rev’s songwriting?
Living in Buffalo, just being in a Rust Belt area, there was this post-industrial mindset. All the factories had shut down and there was a certain bleakness there, but there were all these people getting by. It was really cheap to live there so it was great in the way that you could get by on little bits of money.
Did that allow you to experiment more with your sound?
Yes. A bunch of us were in the Media Studies program there (SUNY Buffalo) and Tony Conrad was our professor. I took a lot of courses from him. He was a big influence on everything we did because he was so smart; and, besides playing with La Monte Young and being in the early version of the Velvet Underground, he was into experimental film, minimalism, and performance art. In the early days, we took a lot of that into the band – the first few albums were almost like performance art pieces for us.
Did your move to the comparatively pastoral Hudson River Valley in Upstate New York have an effect on your sound?
That was the reason for the change in sound after the first two albums. We moved from Buffalo to Woodstock, which is about six hours away from Buffalo and it’s where The Band recorded Music from Big Pink. A shift in your location changes how you live, the music you make. It’s exactly what you are talking about. Moving out to a rural, open space, this kind of Aaron Copeland feeling came over the band and we expanded on that to incorporate so many American composers and people like Billie Holliday, Frank Sinatra’s work with Gordon Jenkins, Jack Nitzsche’s arrangements for Neil Young.
The Basilica Soundscape festival is one of the few music festivals that I am still excited about. Do you interact with it at all as a resident of the Hudson River Valley? Can you describe it for someone who might be unfamiliar with it?
Yes! They have this old space in Hudson and host a lot of great music there that would have been in New York City at places like the Knitting Factory in the early-90s. It’s just a great scene where they’re bringing in all of this cool, experimental music and things that you wouldn’t ordinarily see unless you were traveling to New York City or somewhere like that, so it’s great to have that right here in the Valley.
I have several friends who are successful musicians that see songwriting as an extension of their primary interest in film. Songwriting for them is often the act of scoring films in their head. Do work in a similar manner?
We were originally film students and to this day, even on the latest album, we kind of see the songs as little soundtracks to films, or maybe soundtracks to scenes in a film that is the whole album. A lot of it too was the money aspect. Back then film was so expensive, you needed to get into an editing room, make negatives, you just needed so much money, so we were just kind of making these sound films because it was a lot cheaper. We recorded on cassettes, 8 tracks, and reel-to-reels that we bought and still use.
Is there anything you are looking forward to in Denton, like getting barbeque or going to Recycled Books?
Exactly! All of that. I’m friends with Eric Pulido (of Midlake) and Josh Pearson (Lift to Experience) and I’m hoping those guys will show me around the town. I love the Texas barbeque and the beer… I’m looking forward to it.
Mercury Rev plays Dan’s Silverleaf on Sunday, March 20th with Josh Pearson as presented by Oaktopia. You can buy tickets by clicking here.
Michael Seman holds a doctorate in urban planning and public policy. When not working at UNT’s Economics Research Group, he can be found playing in Shiny Around the Edges or working on his book about music scenes and economic development for the University of Texas Press. His co-edited volume concerning the production and consumption of music in the digital age will be released this spring by Routledge.