Six albums in, with a career that has expanded and contracted over more than a decade, Mercury Rev have almost overcome the music industry. From the fractured brilliance of Boces (1993) to the scene-stealing Deserter’s Songs (1998) through to the glistening confidence of their latest, The Secret Migration, this is a band with nothing to prove anymore. For the last two years, while Migration was on the boil, they’ve been knocking about in their homemade studio set-up in the Catskill mountain ranges of New York State, happy to take their time and see what came up. If nothing came up, they went fly-fishing.
Fresh from the fish hunt, Mercel’s voice ambles with quiet confidence down the phone line, singing the praises of their inspirational countryside backwater.
“It’s a sleepy area. I spend a lot of time outdoors, and that’s one of the reasons why I live in this area, because I can appreciate the natural beauty of it and the slower pace of life. We do a lot of running around on tour, always in cities and that can get quite crazy. It’s nice to have a place like this to come back to, moving at a slower pace. It keeps you grounded.”
You could argue that the sounds of a slower pace are lost in the frenetic and joyful bursts of Migration, as dense and soaring as Deserter’s Songs, but altogether more upbeat. As far as the band is concerned, however, the move away from a city studio has made all the difference. That if you can’t hear babbling brooks and crickets in their orchestral rock swell, you can at least trace the sounds of three very contented men.
“Some days, you’re forcing it in the studio because you’ve paid for the time.” Mercel explains, “You feel obliged to keep grinding it out even though nothing good is coming of it. With your own studio, you can just make the call and say ‘you know what, it’s just not happening today and we’ll come back tomorrow’. Sometimes grinding it out can lead to something amazing, but some days it’s just better to stay in bed, I guess.”
“Some days, you’re forcing it in the studio because you’ve paid for the time.”
If Mercel, who has been Mercury Rev’s drummer since 1997, has merely hit a very gentle kind of jackpot, the rest of the band have earned their piece of self-indulgence. This laid-back country calm is surely the nirvana of rock stardom, hard won by singer Jonathan Donahue, guitarist Grasshopper and producer David Fridmann, who held tight during the storm that saw founding band members David Baker, Jimy Chambers and Suzanne Thorpe jump ship in the late nineties. They struggled through the implosion that threatened their 1993/94 Boces tour and emerged stronger and musically ripe. Deserter’s Songs made them superstars. Now they can relax.
For the drummer at least, the new album is very much an album about who this band is, who they have been and where they live. “The title, Secret Migration, it suggests a lot of things,” Mercel reflects, “There’s a lot of songs on the record that are about the cyclical nature of things, that are about the changing of the seasons, the seasons within a person, about how you change as a person and then after years and years and years you come back around to old familiar ground again.”
Mercel sees the optimism of their sound, caught in glittering xylophones and trembling drums, as a quiet rejection of the “doom and gloom” surrounding them in the United States. Not a specific political tract, but a choice to think positively and leave their hearts wide open.
“We try to see good in the world. I prefer to see things that way rather than be the pessimist. I think this album sounds like a band coming to terms with some things. Some things about nature, some things about human nature, a band learning a bit more about itself. A band learning to be a bit more vulnerable than some rock bands think it’s a good idea to be. It’s not necessarily the most macho thing to do to bare your soul in a song, but, you know, it… there’s a lot of songs on this album that are about that vulnerability, that fragility, about asking another person for help.”
It’s been a while now, that The Secret Migration has been on our shelves. The band is proud of the result, happy with the process. The only thing left is to face their fans and find out if the good life in the Catskills has come across in the music.
“Despite trying to take it easy, it doesn’t always come easy for us. It takes a long time for us to make records so when we finally finish one, we want to get out and play it to as many people as possible, get their reaction. We hope the fans like it as much as we do.” On tour in support of the Finn brothers with an appearance at Splendor in the Grass, Mercury Rev are eager enough to get back on the road that they don’t mind taking the backseat on the Finn brother’s tour. Mercel sees it as an opportunity to play some venues they would never get to as a headline act, not to mention a chance to win a few more hearts.
“It’s always a challenge to play for someone else’s crowd and see where you stand. I think it’s a good indicator of what you’re doing if you can convert people who’ve never heard your music before. Every now and again, we certainly like to get out there as the opening act. The pressure is not on us, it’s just a matter of whether or not we can surprise a few people.”
— Simone Ubaldi