Features | Interviews

Mercury Rev

By David Abravanel | 29 January 2009

Mercury Rev’s latest albums, Snowflake Midnight and Strange Attractor, represent a new stage for the group. Following early albums soaked in the noisy neo-psychedelia of friendly rivals (and sometimes collaborators) The Flaming Lips, the Rev withdrew and turned a gorgeous new leaf with 1998’s surprise hit, Deserter’s Songs. MR mark III introduces more synthesizers into the mix for a sound that retains the icy delicacy of All Is Dream (2001), while coming closer to the freak-outs of Boces (1993) than we’ve seen in a long while.

Befitting of their eccentric storytelling, Mercury Rev have also embraced a cadre of unusual instruments and controllers, from the mellotron to on its most recent tour, brain waves. Direct from the bus of their Fall European tour, Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak, Mercury Rev’s lead guitarist, took time out to discuss nature, synthesis, and what exactly the Tettix Wave Accumulator is.

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CMG’s David Abravanel (CMG): First off, thanks for talking to Cokemachineglow! How has this tour been going?

Mercury Rev’s Grasshopper (MR): The summer tour was great. We did a lot of festival shows in Europe, then ATP in the Catskills (which was incredible) and right after that we did a club show in Mexico City. It was our first time there and it was a magical mescally trip. We’ll be touring from Halloween until Christmas in Europe and the US.

CMG: I’ve read some about the electroencephalograph you’re using on tour. How exactly does it work? Is it anything like Alvin Lucier’s “Music For Solo Performer,” a piece crafted using extremely amplified alpha waves?

MR: Alvin Lucier’s “Music For Solo Performer” used amplified alpha waves to vibrate percussion instruments in the space where the piece was being performed. In our case, we collaborated with musician Alex Chechile who used Alpha, Beta, and Theta brain waves to mix, manipulate, oscillate, and add effects to the music that we were creating. This, in turn, produced a brain feedback loop, because the music that we created was then constantly being further changed by Alex’s brain’s reaction to what was being heard by Alex. Alex has been developing his EEG and computer interface for over five years now. Jonathan first saw him at a music performance at RPI.

CMG: How have you incorporated the EEG into your live shows? Does it clash with the songs you’re performing that were written on, say, guitars and pianos and not brain waves?

MR: We exclusively use the EEG on special performances. At this point it can’t really go on the road full time yet. The EEG equipment kind of looks like a bomb, so it is a huge hassle to take it through airport security. When we utilize it in performance, it manipulates the sounds we are making on guitars, pianos, etc., as well as their spatial relationship to the audience.

CMG: Speaking of unique instruments, how about the Tettix Wave Accumulator? How exactly does that instrument work? I’ve read rumors that it takes up the better part of someone’s basement.

MR: The Tettix Wave Accumulator is basically a huge bank of oscillators, high and low pass filters, and wave shape manipulators. It can use any sound source to manipulate sounds. It also can then sample the manipulated sound and then store the sound on discs. It is still a very wonderful instrument. In 1994, when it was developed, we threw together a bunch of existing technology that hadn’t been used together in quite that way before. Now of course, you can achieve many of these sounds with computer programs like Reaktor. The Tettix Wave Accumulator is now housed in the basement of a bar. We were trying to develop a smaller version, but the funds have recently dried up. You could say that Tettix Inc. has been acquired by the Carlyle Group.

CMG: Does the Tettix appear anywhere on Snowflake Midnight or Strange Attractor? Have you ever been able to tour with it?

MR: Some of the pieces of the Tettix Wave Accumulator are used on Strange Attractor. If you listen, you can hear the oscillators and some of the high and low pass filters. We never toured with it. We’d have to borrow a truck from the Allman Brothers to carry it.

CMG: You’re releasing Snowflake Midnight commercially, while its companion, Strange Attractor, is available as a free download. What made you decide to do this? Were you inspired by other artists’ decisions to release material for free?

MR: We realize that in these times many people get the music they listen to by downloading it. When The Secret Migration first came out in Europe, it was available in the US for the first few months as download only through itunes and Rhapsody. In other words, we’re no strangers to downloading. Strange Attractor is a gift to anyone who wants to listen and it is totally free to download. We just wanted it get it out in a very immediate way. Free is one way to get it out there.

CMG: Snowflake Midnight features more emphasized synthesizers than I can remember hearing on other Mercury Rev albums. Some of the percussion even sounds synthesized. How did this come about? Have you been listening to much synthesizer music? Would you consider this a new phase for Mercury Rev?

MR: For as long as I can remember we have been interested in all means of creating music. We have used synthesizers and electronic instruments since Yerself is Steam, but yes, they became a very big part of this album. Jonathan, Jeff and myself each got new Mac books at the beginning of recording Snowflake Midnight. I was very interested in the Native Instruments programs Absynth and FM8 after seeing some demos about them at an Electronic music conference I attended in Miami. Jeff was very much into Reason and Jonathan got all of us into Reaktor. We also dusted off some of our old Moogs and Korgs. It wasn’t really very conscious. It just sort of drifted in that direction. Every day is a new phase for Mercury Rev.

CMG: Much of the lyrics on Snowflake Midnight suggests vulnerable beauty vs. an unfair world—“snowflake in a hot world,” buzzards vs. wolves. It seems like every Mercury Rev album since Deserter’s Songs has alluded to themes of retreat and escape. Does Snowflake Midnight fit in with this motif? Or am I way off the mark?

MR: Rather than “retreat” or “escape,” it is about what William Burroughs refers to as “exposing the reality film.” To poke holes in “reality.” Burroughs talks and writes about travel, drugs, sex, dreams and music as ways of breaking through the ‘reality film.” Recently, many younger writers have described The Secret Migration album as being “new age” or “hippie” and I believe that is a mischaracterization. To my mind, Mercury Rev try to further the continuing work of dada, the Surrealists Sun Ra, and the Beats with our own brand of hallucinogenic gnostic enthusiasm.

CMG: Animal and fantasy imagery has also figured increasingly in your music. Both The Secret Migration and your latest two releases feature animals on the covers, while songs like “Black Forest (Lorelei)” and “The Squirrel and I” suggest a spiritual reverence for nature. Or, are you just fond of rabbits?

MR: Just as in the work of Dali or Burroughs, the animal world is another reality for us, existing though not as something spiritually reverential, but as a world trying to co-exist with and in the technological age.

CMG: A recent feature in the New York Times quoted Jay Babcock’s thoughts, that you’ve been “at war,” in a way, with the Flaming Lips. You both have an entwined history, but is there any enmity—or friendly rivalry—between you two?

MR: We just played the Pukklepop Festival with the Flaming Lips in Belgium a few weeks back and let me tell you there were lots of hugs and smiles backstage.

CMG: Your last release was Hello Blackbird, a soundtrack, which harks back to the origins of Shady Crady songs as soundtracks to short films. Is this an avenue you’d like to pursue more?

MR: We are always up for doing soundtrack work, because it opens up our minds to another way of working and making music. In a way, working on Hello Blackbird really influenced Snowflake Midnight by taking us out of writing in traditional linear song structures and treating the music itself more as little films. Back to the basics.

CMG: Speaking of Hello Blackbird, the music reminded me of Harmony Rockets. Can we expect any more output from that project?

MR: We actually did a few Harmony Rockets shows the last few years during recording Snowflake Midnight and Strange Attractor. We played some of the songs that later developed into the songs on the new albums. We’d love to do a new Harmony Rockets album soon.

CMG: Your live sets tend to include material from every album since Deserter’s Songs, along with a couple selections from Yerself Is Steam. Is there any reason for the absence of material from Boces and See You On The Other Side? Can we expect to hear “Boys Peel Out” at a show anytime soon?

MR: This time out, we’ll be doing some songs from See You On the Other Side but I don’t see us doing too much of Boces unless we get our hands on a bunch of Rohypnol, cause that’s what we were on when we made Boces!

CMG: Are you still in touch with former Mercury Rev members? Have you considered working with Dave Baker or Suzanne Thorpe again? How do you think the Mercury Revs of 1993 and 2008 would react to one another?

MR: Jonathan and I talk to David Baker, Suzanne Thorpe and Jimy Chambers now and again. We talked with Suzanne about playing on a few of the songs on Snowflake Midnight, but our schedules didn’t coincide. The Mercury Rev of 2008 would beat the Mercury Rev of 1993 in a softball game, but the Mercury Rev of 1993 would be better at stealing the bases (and anything else not nailed down).

CMG: Say you were forced to pick one Mercury Rev song to send to shoot into space, as a representative to any of the possible other life forms out there. Which would it be? Or, can you at least think of some finalists?

MR: I’d send them “Continuous Trucks and Thunder” from Yerself is Steam. Hey Space Patrol…it’s out there!