Aug 18 2011: Mercury Rev on the Crooked Path: An Interview with Jonathan Donahue (Big Issue in the North, 2002)
This interview was done by phone while Mercury Rev were on their European tour in support of All Is Dream in early April 2002: Donahue called from the dressing room as the band were waiting to perform that evening, possibly in Germany, but as we overran the allotted time, our somewhat rambling discussion (Donahue in conversation followed the principles he describes in relation to his songwriting, not so much answering particular questions as exploring a territory at leisure) had to be cut very slightly short when it came close to the time for them to go onstage and play.
No problem, as these things happen, and by then there was more than enough material for the piece: the problem was going to be editing it down rather than filling the space. Yet several hours later the phone rang and Donahue was on the other end, just checking we didn’t need to cover anything else. As the copy had already been filed by then, nothing further was needed – but that small (and as it turned out unnecessary) courtesy has always stayed with me as somehow very suggestive of the band’s open and – despite their high profile at this point – very grounded ethos.
William Blake claimed genius always preferred the crooked path, leaving the straight roads to mediocrity. By that reckoning, Mercury Rev’s tortuous journey from college in Buffalo, New York, to the present European tour in support of the band’s fifth album, All is Dream, makes them something like Leonardo da Vinci with a penchant for soaring guitars, gorgeous harmonies and oblique lyrics.
Formed by guitarists Jonathan Donahue and Grasshopper (born Sean Mackowiak), bassist Dave Fridmann, flautist Suzanne Thorpe, drummer Jimmy Chambers and vocalist David Baker in the late Eighties, Mercury Rev have never done anything by the book. The band’s first demos were recorded on reels of 35mm film and although almost archetypally American in sensibility, they were first signed by the London-based label Rough Trade for their striking debut Yerself is Steam in 1991. An utterly unique helter-skelter of a record which sounded torn between taking flight into the cosmos and disintegrating, Yerself is Steam announced a striking but unstable collective to the world at large.
‘Unstable’, it turned out, in many more ways than one. Despite critical acclaim and a dedicated underground following, it took seven years of bad luck, infighting, line-up changes and general chaos, plus two more albums – 1993’s Boces, Baker’s last with the band, and 1995’s See You On The Other Side, which introduced Donahue’s distinctive wavering falsetto and a much more cohesive, if no less ambitious, set of songs – before the band finally reached a wider audience with 1998’s Deserter’s Songs.
“Our early years had their fair share of tribulations,” says Donahue with the serene understatement of someone who knows – or perhaps just hopes – it’s behind him. “I guess that was reflected in the music we were making on those early records. If I listen to them in sequence I can definitely hear people who are in the process of changing as they go along. I hear directions we took or pulled away from taking, things we experimented with, then dropped again to try something else. But that’s how we’ve always worked, really. We allow things to happen, don’t try to force it, let it come together in some way that’s a bit out of our control. Usually I don’t know what it all means myself until much later.”
Things certainly seem to have calmed down since the days when, legend has it, Donahue attempted to gouge out Mackowiak’s eye with a spoon during a transatlantic flight, the security team at an early Nineties Lollapalooza date in Denver headlocked the band’s soundman because they were playing too loud, and Dave Fridmann blew a Sony advance on a package holiday for his elderly mother, jeopardising the recording of a follow up and the future viability of the band.
Today, Donahue is happily describing sight-seeing excursions and the galleries he’s visited during the current European tour, making the whole process sound almost sedate, a pretext for some heavy cultural tourism. “We’ve seen a lot of Renaissance painting, things from the classic Italian schools, the Venetian schools,” he says. “It’s been a bit like taking an eighteenth century Grand Tour round the great capitals and cultural centres, on our days off, anyway”.
But then, that reference to visual art isn’t wholly irrelevant, as Donahue had already noted, of the Mercury Rev writing process, that “we often find ourselves intuiting songs, which come to us visually.” Perhaps this explains why so much in Mercury Rev’s music has a filmic dimension. Donahue himself describes the sound they’re often seeking as “a kind of epic John Ford Western feel” and the atmospheres of Ford’s chosen settings, from Monument Valley to the iconic deserts of Arizona, have coloured much of the imaginitive landscape suggested by Mercury Rev’s output to date.
“A lot of it comes from the way I heard music as I was growing up,” explains Donahue. “My parents would play music, and I never differentiated the genres, so my father might play country or my mother might put on classical stuff and in my mind I guess it all blended together as this one thing called ‘music’. I assumed it was all the same thing, whether it was a symphony, a soundtrack or some sparse set of acoustic songs, and that’s always stayed with me. Even today – maybe especially today – I still blur it all together and find it hard to pigeonhole things in the way I guess you’re supposed to.”
Nowhere is this more evident than on Mercury Rev’s most recent album. Last year’s All Is Dream moved from the wide open spaces of songs like Goddess On A Hiway and Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp to a dream-like, hermetic world of Tides Of The Moon, Nite and Fog and Spiders and Flies. If Deserter’s Songs drew its archetypes from John Ford and classic US country-blues, All Is Dream seemed to have taken something of a swerve in mood, delving into the darker corners of Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson for inspiration.
“I don’t know what it all means in a literal sense,” says Donahue, considering the compellingly strange lyrics he’s written for the record, “but I think it makes sense, just not in the usual linear way we’re used to hearing in most songs. It’s not literally written down in the mornings or taken directly from any actual dreams I’ve had but it does follow a kind of dream logic, I guess – it taps into the unconscious in some way I’m not sure I quite understand myself. There’s definitely a nocturnal feel and a lot of archetypes in there…but I’m trying to work this stuff out for myself as well, really, so I’ll only unravel it over time and even then I doubt I’d be able to give a definitive answer as to what it all actually means.”
“The thing is,” he continues, “when I’m writing – or when I’m writing and it’s going well, anyway – it flows through me like a waterfall and I just go with it wherever it seems to want to go. There’s all sorts of implicit meaning but I don’t try to impose myself on it, just allow it to flow out. That’s one reason why we take so long to make albums, I suppose, maybe two or three years each time. We need to allow the songs to work themselves out through us and we’ve never gone into the studio thinking ‘we’re going to write some songs’, we’ve always waited until the songs are all ready and only then gone into the studio to start recording them.”
It’s an attitude which links Mercury Rev with a handful of other current bands making music on the kind of ambitious scale critics often, until recently, liked to claim was no longer possible. Like the Flaming Lips (with whom both Donahue and Dave Fridmann have more than passing connections) and Spiritualized, or the home-recorded ethos of the Elephant 6 collective gathered around Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, Mercury Rev seem bent on not only defying rock music’s supposed status as product but actually going all-out to top some of the monuments of the past.
“I guess what we have in common with those kinds of bands is a similar passion, for music and for life,” says Donahue, considering the point. “I hope listeners get out of our music some of the same emotions which go into making it, some of the realisations we’ve come to about not retreading old paths, letting go of obstacles, letting ourselves go – and even if it sounds a bit uncool, a lot of love. Not just the boy/girl kind, though that’s in there too, I guess, but love within one person, between different aspects of yourself, and in a much less personal or romantic sense. We need that sense of awe and wonder at what’s going on in this wild and crazy world around us.”
“Besides,” he says cheerily, “there are always so many new mistakes out there to make. Nobody really has an excuse to keep making the same ones over and over again.”