PSYCHEDELIC ROCK IS A LOT like obscenity: It's hard to define, but you know it when you hear it. If you were describing the music of modern-day "psychedelic" bands like the Flaming Lips, you'd probably mention non-traditional rock instrumentation, lyrics that either refer to drugs or sound like they were written under the influence of drugs, and a penchant for effects pedals. Yet these elements appear in the music of a lot of current bands that no one would ever tag with the "P" word—an adjective tainted in certain circles by its hippie association.
ARO.space, Sunday, April 11
Until last year, Mercury Rev resided in the "psychedelic" ghetto with musicians like the Lips (with whom Rev singer Jonathan Donahue used to play), the Bevis Frond, and Robyn Hitchcock. Then Mercury Rev pulled a Radiohead. This 10-year-old rock band with a devoted but cult-sized following suddenly blew up big, courtesy of a near-perfect, unexpectedly accessible record, Deserter's Songs. The acclaim poured in, including testimonials from fellow musicians Robert Plant, Shirley Manson, Cheap Trick, the Cardigans' Nina Persson, and of course the Chemical Brothers, whose hit album Dig Your Own Hole contained a collaboration with the Rev, and who last fall remixed the Deserter's track "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp."
The upstate New York five-piece—singer-guitarist Donahue, guitarist Sean "Grasshopper" Mackiowiak, flute player Suzanne Thorpe, drummer Jimy Chambers, and non-touring bass player Dave Fridmann—traveled a long, hard road to reach critics' 1998 Top 10 lists. Renowned for their tempestuous working relationship, band members finally eked out some common ground. "That's a big thing," Grasshopper said over the phone recently. "This tour's been really nice—in the past, we've had engines breaking down, and mental health breaking down." Or, as Donahue sings plainly on Deserter's Songs' opening song "Holes": "Bands/Those funny little plans/That never work quite right."
FORMED IN THE LATE '80s at the University of Buffalo, Mercury Rev took three years to finish its first record, Yerself Is Steam. Then it programmed the CD version so that the tracks would skip forward every three seconds. Grasshopper's explanation of this trick—"It's just one of those things, you're sitting around and you've had too many joints—y'know, it seemed like a good idea"—says more than a pile of press clippings about Mercury Rev's early career
Tension (and chemical substances) might enhance creativity, but before 1994, when original singer David Baker finally left the band to pursue a solo career (under the name Shady), Mercury Rev was trapped in a noisy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. With the 1995 release of See You on the Other Side, light finally appeared at the end of the tunnel. Still, before the release of Deserter's Songs, Donahue is reported to have suffered a nervous breakdown, and Grasshopper spent some time in a Marist Brothers' monastery.
"As you do what you keep doing, you learn who you are," Grasshopper opines. For he and his bandmates, this means kicking back in the Catskills, indulging in their love of old-time blues and experimental jazz, and letting the creative juices simmer. "A lot of people who live in New York City, they're concerned with what's hip and what's cool—they don't even know who they are anymore. Sometimes it's better to sit back and let things breeze by."
Whatever the origins of the Rev's newly acquired focus, the end result is a melodic song cycle with the impact of a symphony. Deserter's Songs is pared down in comparison with previous Mercury Rev records, yet it encompasses disco orch pop, prog rock, arty noise, ragtime blues, and fuzz-tone ambiance. Grasshopper's contribution, "Hudson Line," is like a Lou Reed song sprinkled with orchestral fairy dust. Levon Helm (who met Grasshopper through his barber) plays drums on "Opus 40," which appropriately enough sounds like a glam-rock version of the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." And it's hard to argue with any pop record that contains a bowed-saw solo.
Live, Mercury Rev's quietest record gets the full R-O-C-K treatment. This is, after all, the band that was kicked off the Lollapalooza Tour for playing too loud. "Our sound man was taken away in a headlock," Grasshopper recalls. "[But] some days it's very—not mellow, but you're more relaxed. It goes show by show."
The final lesson of this long-suffering band's triumph: You can't rush greatness.
"We love each album, and they're each a step in a series," Grasshopper says thoughtfully. "Each time we get closer to our initial goal—to make timeless music."