Originally published in The Irish Times, May 13th 2011
HOW DO you define a ‘modern classic’? The criteria for such an accolade is so wide-ranging and subjective that it’s rare for records to be conferred with such an esteemed label.
Jonathan Donahue certainly doesn’t have the answer, but that won’t stop the mild-mannered Mercury Rev man from enjoying his moment in the spotlight. Earlier this year, the band were approached by the organisers of ATP’s ‘Don’t Look Back’ concert series to recreate their 1998 album ‘Deserter’s Songs’ live in its entirety. Previous albums deemed ‘seminal’ enough to have been given the same treatment over the past six years include John Martyn’s ‘Solid Air’, Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions…’ and Slint’s ‘Spiderland’.
There’s no doubt that Deserter’s Songs was a significant marker for the band. The album signalled a watershed in their career, which at the time, was teetering on the brink of collapse. They had released three albums that hovered somewhere between alt-rock and dark, dreamy experimental wig-outs, but which had attained them a level of popularity barely beyond cult status. There had been fractures in the line-up, morale between band members was at an all-time low, and Donahue, the chief songwriter, was in the grip of a depression. When the album went Top 30 in the UK charts and spawned several hit singles in ‘Goddess on a Hiway’ and ‘Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp’, he was as surprised as anyone.
“I’m as mystified as anyone as to how that actually happened. I never expected it, I never saw it coming,” he says from his home in the Catskill Mountains, upstate New York. “It was this orchestral record jumping onto the airwaves in the midst of Oasis vs. Blur, but I think people just felt the heartwaves just pounding off the vinyl. When someone hears that, it’s quite undeniable. For myself, I feel it coming off records by other people – like Billie Holliday’s ‘Lady in Satin’. There’s a sorrow in that, and when you hear it you’re instantly almost paralysed by it. I won’t say that’s what led to the commercial success, but I think that’s what led to people really listening to it.”
The triumphant sales performance of Deserter’s Songs was made all the sweeter, considering the singer’s emotional state at the time.
“It was definitely the hardest album to make,” he agrees. “Not necessarily music-wise, but simply… how can I put it? Simply waking up each day. As much as I love music, it wasn’t foremost in front of me when I opened my eyes each morning. Much more was a great sense of sadness, a great sense of loneliness. When you’re at the bottom, the last thing you’re thinking about is writing a masterpiece, or even writing music at all. What got me out of bed on those days? Perhaps desperation. I don’t think it was that far away from reality that I thought it would be the last record I did. There was nothing to say that it wasn’t going to be. I was hoping that I’d be able to finish it, and maybe play it for a few friends over a period of time, and that might be it. From there, it was back to working a job in the mountains, somewhere, digging holes. At the time, no one was looking forward to another Mercury Rev record. Our previous one, See You On the Other Side, had sold five copies worldwide. We didn’t have a manager, we didn’t have a lawyer, or a record label. Grasshopper and I were estranged for quite a bit of it – we weren’t even close to resonating with each other. There was a sense of ‘Well, if this is it, I’m going down swinging, and I’m gonna make a record that I wanna make’. I was quite aware at the time that for a band who wanted to have commercial success, writing five minute orchestral torch songs was not the way to get back on the radio at the time. It was the height of Britpop, but this was the last way to reincarnate a band that was on the brink of destruction, or maybe disillusion.”
Although these songs are packed with emotional baggage – the melancholy positively drips off songs like Opus 40 and Hudson Line, tracks that feature guest appearances from their Catskills neighbours Garth Hudson and Levon Helm – it doesn’t necessarily mean that revisiting them will be difficult. Thirteen years is a long time for a band as evolutionary as Mercury Rev.
“I suppose it’s the same sort of way that you might run into an ex-boyfriend from ten year ago in a bar; you don’t necessarily want to just drudge up all the things that went between you in the hour and a half that you might be sharing a few drinks, or something. You tend to focus on the positive, otherwise you might go insane, y’know?” he says with a smile. “Deserter’s, for me, was a very melancholy, lonely time. And I’m very fortunate that I emerged from it, and it revealed something quite positive in my life, and many others’. But I certainly wouldn’t wanna drag that sadness on stage with me every night, I would be crushed underneath the weight of it. I guess in that way, when I go back now, it’s almost as if I’m covering another band. It has that sort of eerie feeling to it; when you’re approaching some of these songs, you’ve detached from them for such a long period of time, even from the person who was dreaming them up many years ago.”
Playing the album from start to finish will be a new undertaking for Mercury Rev, although Donahue says that sticking to a strictly ordered setlist can be cathartic in a way, too.
“With the album structured the way it is for the Don’t Look Back thing, you’re there in the moment, and I have to respect that – because that’s why people are coming to these shows, to hear the songs in sequence. In a way, I’m like a weird Polaroid snapshot for them on stage. The music is there, but I’m more like the candlelight at the dinner, rather than the conversation. The conversation is actually going on between the audience themselves, and inside them. You’re going back for 90 minutes to revisit a period of time – hopefully in a positive way, for most people. But the amount of people who’ve told me that Deserter’s Songs got them through a bad relationship break-up – I have no idea what our audience is going to be thinking on this tour,” he laughs.
Although there’s a new Mercury Rev album in the pipeline – the quartet have been working on the follow-up to 2008’s ‘Snowflake Midnight’ for the past year – the next few months will see further ruminations on their colourful past. As well as the re-release of Deserter’s Songs and its instrumental counterpart, there are further resissues in the pipeline.
“You can imagine when you’re re-releasing old material, you have to go through all the old vaults. Myself, Grasshopper and Dave Fridmann have been going through all the old boxes of stuff, saying ‘Holy shit, did you see this? Do you remember this?!’ – ‘I don’t remember that!’ – ‘Is that me?!’ ‘That’s you!’ – ‘Oh my God, we can’t release that, that’s horrible!’ – ‘No! Put it out!’. These are the conversations going on. In a way, it’s like a giant emotional feng shui of your career.”
Spending so much time prising open the dusty door to the past must provide ample time for reflection on the band’s fortunes and misfortunes, too. With over twenty years of experience, are there any unrealised ambitions or regrets at this stage? Mercury Rev may not quite be a ‘cult’ band these days, but nor are they stadium-fillers.
“To me, when we say ‘cult status’, it means that you’ve never played to 60,000 people,” he says, after a moment’s pause. “And I would say… well, that was never the point. The point was simply to make music. And to me, that I’ve been able to do that for more than twenty years now, I’m really very humbled by it. So to say that I’ve never played a stadium somewhere – well, it’s true! And I may not. I’m sure that there are a lot of bands who, even though they do play stadiums, in their own hearts, they’re still the band that was in the bedroom making the music so many years ago. So I would never apologise for not being filthy rich. I’m not!,” he says with a generous chuckle. “But I wouldn’t apologise if I was, either. If I wanted to be, there are many other musical ways to make a ton of money. But then I wouldn’t sleep at night. And I do, now. I sleep like a child.”