Gig on the
They’ve gone from inspiration to self-destruction and back again. And this time round, MERCURY REV are back with an album that matches their greatest work. Words: Neil Ferguson
wondrous Mercury Rev. ‘Sometimes it‘s pretty strange being me.‘
As well as being a supremely entertaining interviewee, Donahue is a master of understatement. This is a man and a band who for years were regarded as a bunch of flaked-out fuck-ups. capable one minute of producing ﬂawed. yet fantastic records (check out their debut. 1991‘s heroically frazzled Yerself Is Steam) and appearing to teeter on the edge of self destruction the next.
It‘s a situation that came to a head during 1995‘s aptly titled See You On The Other Side tour. which climaxed with most of the band walking away from self- induced carnage. leaving Donahue to deal with a nervous breakdown while guitarist Grasshopper opted to temporarily relocate to a Jesuit monastery.
That they managed to pull themselves together and record another album. let alone one as breathtakingly glorious as l998‘s Deserter's Songs was nothing short of a miracle. It‘s a record that truly deserves the accolade ‘timeless’, that weaves through the ghosts of America‘s musical past. yet somehow manages to sound as if it had been beamed in from a parallel universe. It also became widely acclaimed as one of the finest albums in recent memory. A hard act to follow then. yet with the imminent release ofA/l ls Dream. Mercury Rev have come up trumps again. with a record that easily matches. if not surpasses. the ethereal splendour of Deserter 's Son gs.
Donahue. however. remains adamant that he and his fellow band members never really felt under pressure to deliver another classic. ‘We knew it would be daft to fall urxm those cars again and to say “Well if they like this. how do we top it? Do we do the same thing again?“‘ he says. ‘I think the only thing I had in my mind was to simply do what I needed to do in the studio and not worry about meeting anybody else‘s bottom line financially. I simply wanted to just make another record that meant I could sleep well at night and let the chips fall where they may.‘
All Is Dream. like its predecessor. is a terrifically ambitious record. a collection of warped adult lullabics. dream-like. disturbed. but above all. heart- wrenchingly beautiful. The sheer scope of sound is nothing short of awe- inspiring. a factor which was inﬂuenced. in part. by the work of Jack Nitzche. the legendary arranger who‘d collaborated with Phil Spector. Neil Young and The Rolling Stones. Mercury Rev had. in fact. planned to work with Nitzche but then just as they were about to commence work last year. Nitzche died of a heart attack.
It hit the group hard. yet Nitzche certainly left a lasting impression upon them. “We loved Jack‘s work as a whole.‘ says Donahue. ‘The man was a mystery. He was like a hologram you could stick your hand through. I mean. we‘ve met a lot of famous people and he was nothing like any of them. y‘know? Jack was otherworldly
. a very nice man. charming. fragile but it was as if you were almost touching some other plane of existence with Jack. The record company was hesitant to sign off on this. they thought. well. Jack has a very bad reputation in the studio and so do you guys and this is just going to be a huge waste of money. But we said. well in the long run. it‘s our ass in the sling. l was prepared. 1 mean. if we were gonna go down in ﬂames. I didn‘t want to go down with a whimper.
‘And when he passed. it wasn‘t a case of well now we can‘t record. what will we do? It was more. well what it? What would it have been like?
‘Actually. y‘know. the same thing happened with Rick Danko from The Band. We‘d wanted him to do some singing and literally. about a few weeks after we‘d spoken to him. he was gone and we just thought. God we‘re not going to ask anybody else. this isjust too weird.‘
Today. the group seem more stable than ever and are about to hit the road with an auxiliary core of touring musicians to ﬂesh out and embroider their sound live. They‘re playing the Gig on the Green at the end of this month and a full UK tour is promised for some time in September. It‘s a prospect to savour. yet in the freewheeling. unpredictable world of Mercury Rev. just what. if anything. can audiences expect?
‘Mmm. you should come with a good feeling that everything‘s just gonna be alright.‘ laughs Donahue softly. ‘Expect the unexpected. y‘know?‘
‘ Y ‘know something?‘ ponders Jonathan Donahue. leader of the ever-
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Mercury Rev play the Budweiser True Music Stage on Sat 25 Aug. All Is Dream is released 27 August on V2 Records.
Blood and Steam
Their debut album. Yrself Is Steam was originally a college
-- project for Jonathan Donahue. To raise funds to make it. band members sold their plasma and blood. while guitarist Grasshopper underwent g psychological experiments at a ; university where he had to watch car é crash videos while drinking alcohol.
Keen to extend the live experience. some early shows involved then lead vocalist Dave Baker being chased ' about by the stage by tiny children dressed in full bee costumes during ‘Chasing A Bee'.
By 1993, the tension within the band was tangible. particularly because of Baker's increasingly erratic behaviour. This included him often leaving the stage to go for a drink mid-song. He subsequently left in February 1994 and engaged in a solo career under the name Shady.
Things came to a spectacular head with an onstage ﬁght between band members at King Tut's in Glasgow. “It's very difﬁcult to sing. play guitar and throw punches at the same time. No one told us you were supposed to practice.‘ The band split soon after and Donahue suffered a nervous breakdown. They reconvened two years later to make Deserter's Songs.
The band shot an elaborate video for the single ‘Something For Joey' with the special guest being none other than notorious US porn superstar Ron Jeremy. Laden with double entendres and sleazy overtones. the video did the band little good on the MTV rotation stakes.
Got it covered
Fond of the occasional cover version. the band made a full-scale assault in Sly Stone’s classic funk ditty ‘If You Want Me To Stay’ for a 1992 single. They also tackled ‘l've Got A Golden Ticket' from the Willy Wonka '5 Chocolate Factory ﬁlm soundtrack in 1995. such was their eclectic tastes.
(Mark Robertson and Neil Ferguson)
16-23 Aug 2001 THE LIST 7