The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Mercury Rev

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“… but actually it was one of the lowest; one of the darkest points because when you are at the bottom you can’t even see which way is up; all you feel is this silt beneath your feet and it’s almost like landing on the moon: everything is silent, there is no sound…”

—Jonathan Donahue 

Words: Mark Carry


On the opening line of ‘Tonite It Shows’, Jonathan Donahue sings “Into a dream, I took a turn and promised to return” beneath slowly plucked guitar strings and an ethereal classical backdrop. Somehow this lyric encapsulates the magical and highly emotive sound world of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ – Mercury Rev’s cherished classic record from precisely twenty years ago – where the listener gets beautifully lost in the tear-stained remnants of faded dreams and a sea of anguish and pain. A cosmic ballad such as this seeps “into your soul” and from this journey into the heart of darkness, shimmering light of hope ultimately floats to the surface. We all have cherished records, ones that come along in your life and unknowingly becomes a part of you – or more specifically, your own self – ‘Deserter’s Songs’ is one of those transcendental artistic works whose significance only heightens with the tides of the moon.

The fragile, near-whisper voice of Jonathan Donahue on  album opener ‘Holes’ immediately casts a hypnotic spell. The orchestral arrangements capture an unfathomable beauty. As Donahue asks “How does that old song go?” on the closing refrain, feelings of doubt and uncertainty comes flooding in. The prayer-like lament ‘Endlessly’ is steeped in child-like wonder: the gorgeous sonic tapestries somehow weave our innermost dreams into formidable shapes and patterns akin to constellations across star-lit skies. ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ remains as a truly anthemic tour-de-force whose striking immediacy forever stops you in your tracks.

The band’s current 20th Anniversary ‘Deserter’s Songs’ tour offers beautiful insight into the making of what at the time they considered the last Mercury Rev record. The fragile “whisper and strum” of these songs during (their recently played) Dolan’s show – led by frontman Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper – unfolded a truly unique experience (just like those eleven tracks captured on tape). The choice of cover songs such as Pavement’s ‘Here’ resonated powerfully, with Malkumus’ lyric of “I was dressed for success/But success it never comes” reflecting the period of time circa ‘See You On The Other Side’ in 1995. Also, their touching rendition of The Flaming Lips cosmic piano ballad ‘Love Yer Brain’ (the band whose early albums of course Donahue played a significant part in) nestled perfectly among the drifting planes of ‘Opus 40’ and ‘Hudson Line’s psychedelic pop sphere.

For remaining dates of the band’s current 20th Anniversary ‘Deserter’s Songs’ European tour (and October U.S. dates) visit HERE.


Interview with Jonathan Donahue.


Firstly, I’d love for you to go back to the time of making ‘Deserter’s Songs’, I know it was a dark period in your life but particularly to the writing of these songs?

Jonathan Donahue: It’s hard to unwind one thread of history without unravelling the entire sweater itself. But I suppose the period before ‘Deserter’s Songs’ for the most part it had actually more roots than actually in the album itself, it had its roots much earlier; probably on the album before, ‘See You On The Other Side’, an album that we were really so happy with – myself, Grasshopper and Dave Fridmann. I thought we had a lot of wonderful orchestral ideas and things that weren’t popular at the time and you have to remember back in ‘95 what came in with such a heavy cloud was Britpop and everything went automatically to a three-minute pop song, jangly guitars, boisterous choruses and very little ornamentation. And here we were putting out an album that had flutes, strings, horn sections and very emotive material in it and we were so happy with ‘See You On The Other Side’ when it was released. And then no one bought it. And that wonderful sound that we had imagined and worked so hard for; it just disappeared into the mist right before our eyes and we were left basically in the darkness for three years. And there was no one to blame, it wasn’t the record company’s fault, it wasn’t our fans’ fault or anything, it was just the music itself had gotten lost in the thunder-cloud of Britpop and the idea of a sensationalized music industry where all of a sudden it wasn’t about music; it became about the celebrity of music and we were lost.

We went into the early writings of ‘Deserter’s Songs’, we didn’t think of it as we were writing ‘Deserter’s Songs’ and it’s going to be this masterpiece and all these things are going to finally come together for us, it was actually the opposite: the fact that we were writing thinking very much that it was going to be our last record. We didn’t have a record deal at the time, we didn’t have a manager, and we just didn’t have anything. And so myself and Grasshopper and Dave Fridmann went into it by and large under the idea that this is our last album as Mercury Rev. And that was basically the fundamental tone to the resonating frequencies that would later become the album that we’re talking about.

Like any special album, it’s amazing just how timeless ‘Deserter’s Songs’ is and how out of the place it is but in a beautiful way; it has its own unique world.

JD: I mean for us it does but at the time we weren’t actually thinking timeless to be bluntly honest, we were just thinking that it was the last thing we were ever going to do. And with that, we went into it thinking well if we are so out-of-place with the music and we are so out of fashion that all we can do is what’s really inside of us at this point because there was no chance we were going to be able to compete with the sensationalism of Britpop and the celebrity of musicians that became that din of noise during that period of time. And so we went to the only place that we knew and that was that fairytale-children’s record-golden sound. You can actually hear it on a song like ‘The Funny Bird’ there’s a lyric in there – I’m going through lyrics because we’ll be playing some of these songs again on tour – “Farewell golden sound/No one wants to hear you now” and that was me I guess saying out loud what was going on inside of me – that no one wanted to hear that sound anymore, it seemed that it was just so out of phase. And from that we simply went deeper into a place that was the only safe place that we had, almost like a child: you run and hide into this place that no one can find you for a period of time just to collect what little wits you have about you. For us, that was that fairytale children’s record, what people later would call the Disney sound.

You’re able to combine that so beautifully in the songs themselves. Even just to think of the opening song ‘Holes’ it really leads you in. I wonder if you have strong memories of seeing this song develop from a sketch on guitar or piano and then with all the intricate arrangements that go over it with the gorgeous strings?

JD: That would only come later, when it hit people and when it was released and when they were sent around in physical form to journalists and people at the label and stuff. But at the time when we were done with ‘Deserter’s Songs’ and the recording with it, I don’t think we thought that it was going to be released. We had no reason to – it’s not just a figment of my imagination; I had no reason; if you looked at the track record of ‘See You On The Other Side’, it sold zero and there wasn’t anybody waiting for a Mercury Rev record in 1998. Most people had thought that we had broken up because back then waiting three years to do a record seemed like an eternity and of course now bands take longer the older you get but back then it was an eternity.

We didn’t have a label, we left Columbia, we didn’t have a manager; we just didn’t have anything at all. And still there was nothing attracting or to be in some sort of pose to be ready to listen to a new Mercury Rev record. And some of the very first interviews I remember doing about ‘Deserter’s Songs’ people just couldn’t believe that we were still a band given all the stories that went on during the first parts of our career I suppose and a lot of the sensational things that were written that weren’t true: people thought I was dead, people thought Grasshopper had disappeared off the face of the earth and all of these things had happened. So there was no giant anticipation that some masterpiece was coming – there was no anticipation at all, not even the record company.

There is a funny story to go with that is around the time that ‘Deserter’s Songs’ was finally being done at the mastering stage, we found a label at the time called V2 that would put it out in England and they had a giant label opening party with all the bands that they had signed and the president went up there and everyone was seated around and people were drinking and lounging in champagne and saying this was going to be a great label and he listed off all the bands on the label and he didn’t even mention us, and Grasshopper and I were just sitting there embarrassed. And I thought well, it’s going to come out in some cassette form or something but even the label that we were just signed to – a new small label – they don’t know we’re on the label itself so we thought well that’s it, here we go, it goes right into the lost and unwelcomed albums of the year.

It must have really surprised you, needless to say when you found there was such a reaction to the album over time?

JD: One of the first places was Ireland because it was one of the first places we played and it wasn’t until then that we saw that not only had people heard it but that there was a deep connection to it. And it wasn’t just one or two people saying ‘Hey that’s a great record, congratulations’, Ireland was one of the first countries where we noticed that something different was happening. It’s funny because even the label at the time was so surprised because they had put all this money in all these other bands but I remember when ‘Deserter’s Songs’ finally started kicking in, in terms of journalistic acclaim and the people coming out of the woodwork to buy the album and when it went into the charts, the label was mystified and even the president of the label didn’t even know who we were. We’d be brought into meetings like ‘Hey this is Mercury Rev’ and it would be like ‘Which one is Mercury Rev?’ It was almost like that quote from Pink Floyd – ‘Which one of them is Pink?’ because the label itself were caught so off guard at this band that had this chequered history all of a sudden was being asked for and not these other bands that they had been cultivating in a pop way.

As a listener, I’d love to gain an insight into the songs being written and as you say, you and Grasshopper were together. It must have been a case that you both felt alone and you were just making this music together?

JD: Well even he and I weren’t together for a lot of the time. We were coming off of a very turbulent time after ‘See You On The Other Side’ tours and I was coming off of heroine but it wasn’t the drug itself it was just more the darkness that came: I don’t know where the darkness came from any more than I know where the light came from that would become the lighthouse that would lead us out of it. And it was a very alone time for me: Grasshopper had disappeared completely off of the face of the earth and the other guys and girl in the band (who is Anne from that time of ‘See You On The Other Side’) they had all gone into very deep retreats, some of them couldn’t even function in the band anymore, they had just had enough. And so I didn’t have a master plan like OK I’m bringing in ten or eleven songs; the songs weren’t like that at all; they were just these tiny, half-remembered lyrical phrases or a moment of a chord in almost the way that you would wake up and remember a dream where there isn’t really a time to it, it’s just a feeling you have and I would do what I could to preserve that feeling for as long as I could to get to a piano or a guitar and scribble something down.

Even in the way that the album itself became material out of the immaterial was much more just me describing using emotional phrases and metaphors than it was any concrete musical notion. And I think that’s what people hear – especially on the first side of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ – you’re hearing possibly something like a dream and maybe some of that timeless state was not to do with something conscious, it has to do with something much more unconscious; the way dreams are timeless in that way – the way the fourth astral dimension has to reverse time and space that our own three-dimensional space and time has. So what you hear on the first side especially and what you are describing in ‘Holes’ was very much the way it came to be; it wasn’t a giant sleight of hand and smoke and mirrors.



That’s precisely the feeling you get Jonathan; you find yourself asking how is this created. The album certainly has this otherworldly dimension to it. The album  feels like one canvas with all these beautifully interludes where it’s like one flow of a feeling nearly?

JD: Yeah and that’s why it’s so hard to describe the process or the writing because it has nothing to do with mentally constructing a record. And sometimes every band has a record or two that is very much constructed: we know what we want to do, we know how we’ll do it and here we go. And there are ones like that where  it was very emotional and unfortunately the emotions at the time were quite melancholy; there was loss and rejection and abandonment and dislocation and none of those are very promising words when you are arriving into a studio. And even at the time we didn’t have money to pay for a studio so much of it was done in my attic with just an eight track Tascam reel to reel and at times we would gather together some money and we would do some recording in a more proper studio but for the most part it’s exactly like the people say, it’s a very late night record and that’s when it was recorded – it was recorded very late at night and I didn’t want to wake up my girlfriend at the time so I wouldn’t put any drums on it, I couldn’t stamp my feet because I would wake her up so I had to do everything very quietly and that’s why there’s very little drums on it (especially the first side).

It’s very fragile this journey the music takes you on. The fact that the music was borne from a very dark time I wonder even as you were playing these songs in the attic did you find that you were improving in any way or feeling better as you were making the music in a way?

JD: I wish I could tell you that there was a healing quality to the writing but there wasn’t at the time – maybe that came later at some point. But at the time you’re not thinking ‘Hey I’m at the bottom of the ocean of despair and a masterpiece is on its way’, all you’re thinking is that I’m on the bottom of the ocean of despair and everything is dark and everything is highly pressurized just like being at the bottom of a real sea: it’s dark and the creatures around you don’t look like shiny dolphins that live on the top surface, they are all these prehistoric looking creatures with very strange and otherworldly features. And that’s what I remember of that period. It gets confusing to fans sometimes because they want to ask you ‘what was it like? It must have been magical? Writing this masterpiece must have been the best time in your life?’ but actually it was one of the lowest; one of the darkest because when you are at the bottom you can’t even see which way is up; all you feel is this silt beneath your feet and it’s almost like landing on the moon: everything is silent, there is no sound, you get the impression of these footsteps that are going [making thudding noise], there is no air around you to make a sound, there is no oxygen to breathe in, everything is internal at that point. Everything is within your own space helmet.

So the environment you are walking around in from day-to-day – and this is the same for anyone who has been through depression certainly – is everything is internal whether you are in a crowd or in a room by yourself; everything is inside you and everything on the outside just sounds like it’s being muffled – underwater or in a space trying to break through a helmet on the moon. I wish I could be more upbeat but that’s what was there at the time. Of course I try to look back on it with a much more upbeat feeling but at the time it wasn’t. Even when the album was done, Dave and I and Grasshopper looked at each other and said ‘Well that’s it’ we might as well put it on cassette because that’s the only way it’s coming out and give it to our friends (on cassette). And even – I think Dave told me this – on the master 2” tapes (the giant multi-track tapes that you record on) it never said Mercury Rev, it said Harmony Rockets which was a side project so we weren’t even calling what would become ‘Deserter’s Songs’ Mercury Rev, it was under the name Harmony Rockets because we thought that it wasn’t going to come out. So all the 2” tapes until they were lost in the flood that I had here in the Catskills seven years ago or so, they all said Harmony Rockets on the master tapes.

Do you remember the times when the members of The Band who were neighbours in the area, when they would join you for some of the recordings (and all the added players)?

JD: Strangely enough when we had asked Levon Helm to play on the song ‘Opus 40’, looking back it was actually – and even for Garth [Hudson] as well – quite dark times for them too here in the Catskills. It was before Levon’s Midnight Rambles took off and so in the mid 90’s when we had asked them to play, strangely enough they were in a very dark space themselves just as we were. I don’t know all the specifics of their lives but I know that in a way there were parallels between what Levon and Garth were going through and with what we were: no one was waiting for a new record from The Band, people thought they were lost in the ether and even they themselves were going through some very dark times individually. So there we both were in the studio recording but neither band nor individuals were at a high point. This was before the Midnight Rambles and before Levon started doing records again and gaining a renewed accolade for not only The Band but Levon Helm himself and so from my own recollection there were a number of wounded animals playing together.

Levon didn’t come in with some great go and walked everybody around – he carried himself just like a man should: very subtlety, very silently. And we were quite at the same temperature as well; fragile like you say, almost like a trout – too much sunlight in the stream, you’re just looking for shade, the slightest flash and you scurry somewhere. In that way there wasn’t any great fanfare; we were over the moon to play with Levon and Garth but even the label had to recall ‘Who is Levon Helm? Who is Garth Hudson? Oh yeah, we kind of remember them, they played Woodstock’. But it wasn’t like some saviours coming in and all of a sudden everyone is saying like ‘Oh my gosh you have some famous musicians, this is going to be fantastic’. At the time we were all on the very strange dark feed that didn’t have a wind to it, we were just floating there, windless. Fortunately years to come, Levon started the Midnight Rambles and things just went in such a great direction for him but at the time it wasn’t like that at all.


You already mentioned the Disney records and how it was coming from your childhood sounds and records that you grew up with?

JD: Looking back it was us going back – using that crazy little Guns N’ Roses phrase – to the one safe place as a child you would hide. And for us that was children’s records, I didn’t grow up with rock on the tip of my tongue; I grew up in the mountains far away from it. I didn’t grow up thinking that I would be in the Ramones and wanting to reject society and walk around and spit into older people’s faces, I didn’t grow up like that; I grew up in the woods and I grew up with children’s records and Disney on every Sunday night at 7 o’ clock and that was the place we went back to. It’s one of the forms of music that myself and Grasshopper and Dave Fridmann actually all do feel quite close to: we don’t bond over Sex Pistols records or some heavy rock band. We bond with this subtle, silent, fairytale swimming around and I think that’s why we’ve worked so well together in the past is we didn’t have to do a lot of explaining about that sound. And again it would come into vogue later, after ‘Deserter’s Songs’ but at the time it wasn’t in the collective conscience.

It was actually the wrong thing to do; ‘Deserters’ was the commercially wrong record to make at the time, everything was three-and-a-half minutes with jangly rickenbackers and anthemic choruses and big drums. And here we are releasing ‘Opus 40’ as a single and the drums are very slow and very quiet in a way. Fortunately we had ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ on the record which was a much older song that Grasshopper had found that I had long since forgotten about. And we were running out of material to even make a full album and he said ‘Well there is this one I remember we did back in the 80’s as a demo’ and I said ‘I don’t know’ and he pushed for it. And fortunately that was a song that would find its way into some of the waiting hands of pop and radio at that point. Other than that there is nothing on the album that is that way. Commercially it was not the album that even the record company felt they could do anything with. If it wasn’t for the fans buying it, if it wasn’t for the journalists at the time saying ‘Hey give this a listen from a band we all thought was dead’ it never would have made it out of the gates according to the record company (they would have never put anything behind it at all).

Touching on the Disney sound, a song that really so magically comes together is ‘Pick Up If You’re There’, I love the spoken word that comes in towards the end and just how it’s all interwoven together.

JD: It’s another of the dream states with Garth Hudson talking at the end. It’s funny you mention it because probably if I’m honest with myself that song is closest to the way that time was swimming around inside me. I love ‘Holes’ and the other songs very much but if there is one overarching sympathetic drone through the emotional content in me for that album it’s ‘Pick Up If You’re There’ which was really just a phrase that was on an answering machine that I remember leaving for a friend, ‘Hey if you’re there, pick up’ and of course they didn’t but it stuck with me because I think I said it like four or five times on this person’s answering machine. And it seemed to sum up the entire sky from that period of time, it seemed to have all the constellations and of the emotional star twinklings.

On the following album ‘All Is Dream’ did you find this was a happier time and that it was easier for you to create (especially after playing so many well received shows)?

JD: I won’t say ‘All Is Dream’ was a happier place but it was a place of healing in a way. But the time surrounding ‘Deserters’ and before it left such an emotional cavity in me – and for Grasshopper as well – that anything was healing after ‘Deserter’s Songs’ by and large, you know just any amount of light on the band, on our music was healing compared to the bottom of the sea and just the lack of direction in any sense. It’s still with me and at times I wish it wasn’t: I would like to be ‘Oh Deserter’s was the best time of my life’ and like ‘Oh my God I’d love to go back there’ but I wouldn’t. As much as fans would like to hear ‘Holes’ #2 or ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ #14 I wouldn’t go back there willingly. It was dark, devoid of light and sound.

For the shows coming up, you wrote beautifully about your thoughts of these particular shows around Europe and these versions of the songs are how they really began?

JD: In a way it’s almost going to be the attic where they were written. And of course there are differences but in a way it might be a way to find some sense of closure perhaps and maybe to open up to people a bit of the ways the songs really came about. There wasn’t a confidence in the songs and in the song-writing back in ‘96/’97, I can’t pretend or I can’t whitewash it into saying that I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I was always sure of it – I wasn’t. So these songs will have a very whisper and strum because that was what it was like at two in the morning in my attic not wanting to wake someone up so I was humming into a little cassette tape recorder and I’m hoping that people will come with open ears towards that element of these songs.

It will be such a special experience because it’s one of those albums that’s such a defining moment in the musical landscape as a whole.

JD: We’re looking forward too, myself and Grasshopper. In a way we get to perform the songs where it’s not in a festival in front of 25,000 people and you don’t have to play through loud amplifiers with the drummer smashing away just to keep people’s attention. We can perform the songs in the way that they first were revealed to us, these were the way they emerged in my consciousness. So I’ll do what I can throughout the evening to let the listener in on the sort of inner dialogue that was going on. And for your own reference, we’re not playing the album front-to-back, what we’re doing is trying to lead the listener along the journey that created the album (not the final album sequence itself). And so there will not only be a lot of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ but there will be a few very special songs that led to some of the ‘Deserters’ period of time or reflected where we were at that time of time because no one lives in a bubble, ‘Deserters’ wasn’t created in some biosphere that was not in contact with anything else.

These Irish shows will be very special indeed.

JD: It’s funny because we’re doing a lot of these shows in Ireland and again it was one of the very first countries that gave us a shot in the arm, it brought us back to life because it was one of the very first places we played where all of a sudden we could see it in people’s eyes – and it wasn’t just journalists or some A&R guy, this was actually fans and we could see it in their eyes. I remember some of the first places we played in Dublin, larger places than we had ever played before, it was the Red Box: you could just feel it and in a way that was more electrifying to us psychologically than any ticket buyer at the time had an inkling.

For remaining dates of the band’s current 20th Anniversary ‘Deserter’s Songs’ European tour (and October U.S. dates) visit HERE.

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April 23, 2018 at 7:56 pm

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