Features | Interviews

Frog Eyes

By Dom Sinacola | 15 June 2007

Before a packed show at Schuba’s Tavern in Chicago, I came across Frog Eyes lead singer and songwriter Carey Mercer, an encounter I’d later be informed was a slightly lucky one. We spent the glut of the encounter walking leisurely through Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, avoiding beanbag games and lots of dog walkers. He spoke carefully and a bit plaintively, and the harshness of the surrounding street noise only seemed to calm him further. I’d be lying if his amiable demeanor wasn’t slightly unexpected; my love for his band is a hyper one, devoted completely to its paroxysms and bristling cadence.

But there I go again messing with my sacred critical distance. I liked talking to the guy. His opinion on the matter, I’m not sure.


CMG’s Dom Sinacola (CMG): How’s the tour been going so far?

Carey Mercer (CM): Good, good, very good…you know, very good, for us.

CMG: So you’re aware of the reception that the new album’s getting?

CM: I’m aware that it seems to be well received. But it’s still all kind of Fantasy Land.

CMG: Doesn’t seem quite real?

CM: No, I don’t mean it to sound that way, like, Oh my God, I have to pinch myself…I guess there’s more people coming to our shows. What I mean to say is that there doesn’t seem to be any tangible difference in.my life. You know what I mean right?

CMG: Yeah, I do…

CM: Yeah.

CMG: …actually

CM: I can show my grandma that Spin magazine reviewed us, or something. So yeah, I am aware of it.

CMG: That sort of is a typical question to ask. If you look at the reviews or the response there seems to be a thread running through all of it as far as, Oh maybe this is the most accessible Frog Eyes album yet…

CM: Sure, yeah. I’d probably agree with that. I think it’s our best record; I think it’s accessible in a way, though, that runs contrary to what we perceive as accessible in terms of modern records. I think the things that make it kind of a cool record to my ears are like.the approach that we took was trying to make it maybe less fixed in this particular time. Our hope was that in five years you could listen to it and not know that it was made exactly in 2006. When I listen to our other records, or lots of peoples’ records, you really know when it was made. It’s funny, there’s this weird narrative of fidelity that runs through a lot of peoples’ work, and through the Collective Underground Music for the past ten or fifteen years, for as long as I’ve been paying attention.

So, when we decided to work with Daryl Smith.I’d be surprised if he knows who the Arcade Fire are, you know? I mean, he did a Godspeed record, though, so it’s not like he doesn’t resonate with a preferred kind of weird music…

CMG: But he had that distance.

CM: Right, and that’s what I mean. I don’t mean to diss any bands, but I think we just wanted to try to make something you could listen to and then listen to immediately after. Because I find a lot of the blistering techniques — what people call “going really hard to tape,” which gives you that really raw compression — you kind of get ear fatigue, too, you know? So, there were things that we tried to do that all make it more accessible, but in a way that implies that accessi…[laughs] In agreeing to that, I also have to say that I don’t know what accessibility means and there’s no objective fixed point for accessibility. Californication? Or.I dunno, whatever, I don’t think about that to tell you the truth. I just wanted to make the record and put it out to sea, [laughs] hope that it floats. I do hope it floats, I mean, I hope people like it.

There is a dialogue, but it’s really paradoxical because in order for the dialogue to take place and be effective you have to almost pretend that the dialogue isn’t taking place. I find music fascinating because there’s so much tight-rope walking.performing is really odd. You want to come across as real and you want your shows to feel good and fresh and pure to you, so you almost can’t feel like you’re performing, like you’re donning this actor’s garb. Sometimes you just feel so ridiculous. Not like a charlatan, I mean, more like an entertainer. But at the same time you are an entertainer.

CMG: Well, compared to the live experience, what about the studio? Are you more tired by it, more self-conscious?

CM: They’re completely different things. And there’s a constant balance. Again, it’s like a tight-rope walking feeling that I always have. You have to push through so much muck and occasionally you find that sweet balance. With playing live, I feel like it’s a total balance every night. You have to wage [chuckles] new wars every night, basically. For a long time I felt a kind of negative capability in music. Pummeling people: going out and playing the songs as fast as possible with little to no dynamics. I haven’t used monitors for years, so not singing but really belting it out; basically so I could hear myself. But, the reason I didn’t use monitors was so I had to belt it out. Just, like, coming out and pressing a button that starts this tornado that happens for thirty-five minutes. I mean, I’m not saying that that was what it was like, but that’s what I wanted it to be like. Then when I started this tour I felt completely different. I wanted to go with the audience. I think that has something to do with not working as a musician anymore. It not being my primary income. All of a sudden I felt this sense of pure escape again.I dunno if it’s a good thing to pay your bills from music.

CMG: Why is that? It taints the experience?

CM: Yeah, I think it does, I really do. It’s so clichéd to say, obviously, but if you’re not aware of the dire implications of not making enough money on tour, which is not being able to pay your rent, you become free in a way that I haven’t felt in a few years, that really made me excited about playing again.

I felt this real sense of communion, I guess, with the people. And I really love that, actually. Often you notice things after their absence, and that absence of antagonism I don’t miss.So, here we go, back to what I was trying to say: in order for it to work, to be able to hold on to that, every night I have to wage some new friendly war. And it’s really difficult. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it sounds so good that I’m not even aware that I’m in front of people, and sometimes it sounds god awful. You just hope that peoples’ critical analyses were kinda numbed, you know [laughs], that you got a pass.

Part of what I’m saying is that I feel really good on this tour playing live in a way that I haven’t really felt in a long time.

CMG: And this is counting every tour up to the one before this?

CM: No, this one. This one. Not the one before this. We toured with Wolf Parade and that was the most depressing tour I’ve ever been on. When you have a crummy tour and no one comes, you go, well, I feel really good tonight, but there was like ten people there who were really into it, and that was cool — but I felt no connection at all with any of those people at any of those concerts. Except one night, one night in Portland was great, one of the better shows we’ve ever played, I thought, certainly one of the better shows that we’ve played with Spencer. So then this [recent tour] we roll through town and open up the weekly and see if there’s anything written about us or see if there’s anything to, uh, read, period. I’m always curious about the tangible effects of press, you know?

CMG: Yeah.

CM: Because people go, Wow, you got written in the paper. Then we’re like, Wow. And nothing ever happens. There’s still like three people there. Anyways, the paper said, “Last time they played in Portland, gah, what a snooze-fest” and then it was like, “I love this band.” They were a fan of Frog Eyes, sure. It wasn’t a negative dismissal of the band wholesale, but they just thought last time we kinda sucked. Which is totally fine to say, I just thought it was funny because that was the one show that I thought was really dead-on. You never know what it sounds like or what’s going on live. I guess the studio’s the opposite. You know too much. That’s one of the big goals of this record, to not have itself be discernible. To not have its essential nature revealed to the listener on the first listen. To try to put little nuggets of mystery into the record; you can get a couple listens out of it. It is a bit of a gamble. The first listen is important and if you don’t like the first there’s a great possibility you will never attempt a second. So, whatever. That’s the way it goes.

CMG: Keeping in mind this mystery. Thematically: I don’t think it’s a big leap to say that there is something to pick through, lyrically…

CM: That there is something there?

CMG: More than that. That it’s a very cohesive thematic record.

CM: Yeah, but when people ask me what it’s about I don’t know what to say, because it was written over the course of a couple years. Because it was written for the live set. “Bushels” is a perfect example. That was the last song that we actually wrote for the record. Actually, it was the last song that was written that went on the record, but it wasn’t totally written for the record because it allowed our live set to lead towards the pummeling. I wanted a song that you could open up a little bit to have just drums or just singing.

There’s a really neat tension between a band having a live identity and a studio identity and the ways that those tensions can push and pull is pretty interesting. I had this song I’d been playing just as a little ditty I planned to record — a minute-long ditty — to just throw into some future record somewhere. But [drummer Melanie Campbell] had always liked it and I thought that maybe the song would actually work. I think that when we first started playing it it was only four or five minutes long, and then you really got the sense playing it live that you could push it, push it and push it and it ended up being a nine-minute song, which is really long for us. If we had gone into the studio and written it in the studio.You almost have to credit the audience, not like: [Mimics audience in gruff voice] “Play it! You could add another minute on to it! Some kind of key change!” But it’s just the fact that it was played in front of an audience that allowed it to kind of mutate and morph. That’s happening with our new songs.

CMG: You’ve been writing a lot lately?

CM: Oh yeah. You’ve got to keep going. It’s not good to stop.

Again there’s that tension between having a live song and having a studio song; what is the song? What’s the identity of the song? Is it on the record, because the record’s a permanent testament to it, right?

CMG: Uh-huh.

CM: But then every night that we play it live it seems that the beauty of it is that it’s temporal and happens in real time, that you really can’t go back.

CMG: Would you say then that trusting in that intimacy with the audience…I guess this is sort of asking how you feel about critics. Critics go out of their way to dissect the music, or to explain it. Do you think that’s a disservice to it?

CM: No. Not at all. I think it’s a disservice to any music if you’re doing a critical review after listening to it once. Or, or, half.

CMG: Do you get that impression though?

CM: Well, isn’t that the way music criticism is going? Things happen so quickly, do you really have time to ponder a record for six months? [Laughs] I dunno. And are records being made that deserve pondering for six months? I dunno. I just. Don’t. Know. I kinda don’t care either. You can’t think about that stuff too much. I think music critics are people who like music who get a paycheck…

CMG: …uh.

CM: …or some kinda something. A free drink. What do you get?

CMG: …hate mail.

CM: Oh, I know what you get. You get to go into it. I went to University, I loved it; I value the critical process, I do. Also, sometimes, I don’t like doing interviews too much; I’m not like, Yeah! I’m being interviewed, I get to talk about myself! And these are the worst interviews, because.you’re here, so I find it really hard to be distant. And what I mean by the “worst” is I end up saying too much. I think it’s bad to say too much.

CMG: The music should speak for itself?

CM: Well, yeah, not exactly that it should speak for itself but that it should be shrouded in at least a near-darkness.

Were you asking me if I like music critics or something?

CMG: No, I don’t think you should even answer that question.

CM: It’s hard to think of music critics as a whole because it’s kinda like asking if you like musicians. You like some, you loathe others. Maybe not “loathe,” but I do think it’s a sully on the whole notion and lineage of criticism to listen to something once, and then publish an article about it. You just don’t do that in a lot of the other disciplines. To me it’s a paradox. For I think a lot of music writing and in ways the whole music scene it’s like, “This is Art. We want it to be art.There’s fucking poetry in here.” [Guffaws] But then at the same time, if the critical response is going to be kind of lazy, maybe it doesn’t deserve to have university courses on it. Then again, maybe some records are unbearable to listen to more than once. Then, just don’t write about them, you know?

CMG: Yeah, I think the fact that you brought up this paradox means a lot coming from the perspective of a lot of critics when there’s just not enough time to listen to all the music that you want to listen to.

CM: Oh yeah, there’s just so much music to swallow.

CMG: But on the other hand, if you become that involved in a record, develop that kind of love for this “Art,” what does that mean about your critical standpoint? Have you bridged this distance that shouldn’t have been bridged?

CM: No, no. That’s crazy.

CMG: But it is piercing that mystery.

CM: You’d never write a book on Shakespeare if you wouldn’t kill to have lunch with Shakespeare. No, NO! I totally disagree with that. I think enthusiasm is awesome.Who gives a shit about the critical standpoint? I mean, it’s one thing if you’re like, OK, this record sucks but the bass player is so good looking and maybe we could hook up? So I’ll write a good review of it. Or, this record sucks but these guys have great cocaine in their dressing room, right? It’s a cynical age, I know, and I’m cynical too. It’s a cynical age, but to feel real enthusiasm for something should be cherished. It’s a hard one to feel. That’s the thing. People are like, What records do you like? The same ones I liked last year. But I love them. I just love them. Maybe you don’t sound as sophisticated if you’re enthusiastic about something, but sophistry is negative, I think.

CMG: So what’s the touring band like?

CM: It’s all guitars. It’s kinda neat. The guitar is a wonderful thing, you know? In terms of its dynamics and the way it can sing. It works better for us, I think, to not have an electric piano in there, or something that doesn’t add those dynamics. The band feels a little tighter.

Back to how there’s been a shift in my mood, and how the warmth of the guitar correlates with that? As opposed to really cold keyboard tones that we’ve had before, literally floppy discs. I would love to have a real piano. That would be one of those real tangible effects of having a successful record, being able to tour with a real piano.

CMG: Is that possible?

CM: Well, we probably could. You can’t help when someone is like, Cool man! Your blah-blah-blah is on blah-blah-blah. But what does it mean? It means something, otherwise I wouldn’t give it a second thought. Eventually you get closer to having a trailer with a real piano. Hire some brutes to move it up the stairs.

CMG: How involved are you in the commercial aspects of the band? The promotions?

CM: I know what’s going on. I mean, when I started playing music there were these models: Neko Case, Carl Newman, basically the New Pornographers; you have to know what’s going on. You quote-unquote manage your own career, I guess. My music career is much more manageable. More and more I couldn’t care less, though. I’m turning into the opposite. But the problem is because I feel like I’ve liberated myself from wanting to be a working musician, it’s just falling apart. I’m the manager but I quit. There’s not going to be anyone filling the role. It’s nice. We don’t even have a cell phone. For this to happen is a sort of miracle. You have to come find me, you can’t call me. You’ll have to walk around the corner of the venue with a sign that says, “MERCER.” Then again, we don’t saturate the press either. That’s annoying. When you see a band everywhere.

CMG: How much experience with Chicago have you had?

CM: Well, it’s one of the tough towns for us. I don’t know if we’ve ever had a good show here, and we’ve played here maybe five times? But Bloomington has been the same, and we had a pretty good show last night. Maybe the Midwest curse is lifted.

CMG: How much of the tour is left?

CM: Probably a fifth I think. We’ve been gone a little over five weeks and we have a little over a week left.

CMG: And then back to the non-musician life?

CM: Well it’s not as if after I come back from tour I put my tie on and my wingtips, forget about the band. It’s just that the money that I make on this tour, I don’t know, I could give it away and still pay my rent.

CMG: There’s always a place for money to go.

CM: There’s always a place for American dollars.