INTERVIEW: Mercury Rev | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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After seven years in the wilderness (literally) you could be forgiven for thinking that Mercury Rev had disappeared off the face of the earth, so where have they been? “Well, I’ve personally been on the top of a mountain having a grand old time!” Says Jonathan Donahue. Taking this into consideration, it’s a lot easier to see where Mercury Rev’s musical inspiration comes from. “I live in the Catskill Mountains about two hours north of NYC, so it’s very rural and they’re not mountains that look like the Rockies, they look more like Wales; sleepy, spooky, mist covered, and time goes by very differently. It’s not an excuse, I think it’s a blessing, at least for my band. It doesn’t enter your consciousness until you’re swept back into the whirlpools of NYC and London.”

The Rev’s lead singer and prime composer is not a man burdened by the need to rush, like an incubator the self-imposed exile has borne succulent fruit (or musical chickens) in the form of the band’s eighth studio album, The Light In You, released last month via Bella Union. “The songs were in the subconscious aisle for a while and I wish they would have come up maybe two or three years ago, that’s for sure, but they didn’t, and I didn’t do any screaming or any giant rain dancing at midnight around them. I had to trust that the right things would just shoot up at the right time, and for me they did. So it doesn’t feel that long to me, maybe a few seasons rather than years.” He goes on, in his reassuring and contemplative manner. “I guess we’re not a band, or I’m not one of those people, who has a great need to see myself on the cover to know that I exist.

“I’m really quite fine in trusting that the songs will be right when they’re done. I’d rather sleep well after seven years than toss and turn after four knowing that they came out pulled by the roots prematurely.”

It seems a longer gestation period has also given birth to an evolution of sound. There’s more than a hint of acid jazz on Sunflower , with a horn section and jaunty, upbeat riffs coming on much faster than the band’s usual style, although it appears to have been a happy accident. “When we started playing it we were all smiles and laughing from the beginning to the end, I didn’t see it coming, I’m not an RnB singer, or late 60s Italian porn soundtrack thing, I was just as surprised as everyone else that it came out of us.  It was one of those where you just couldn’t put the guitars and the drums down, we kept playing and smiling the whole time. It took us completely from left field, as much as it might take a lot of our natural listeners by surprise, but its one of those things where if you’ve been in the business as long as we have, you have the confidence to say ‘y’know what, this is us, it’s coming out of us sincerely let’s record it’. You don’t think twice, you don’t premeditate it, you don’t think, ‘boy this isn’t en vogue now’, so it really was very organic  .”  It must work, because the album is receiving wide and exultant praise, the ‘sound’ of Mercury Rev is unmistakable, but the range of instrumentation and depth of feeling, not to mention its cohesiveness, seems to have taken them to a new level.

One thing that hasn’t changed though, is Mr Donahue’s voice, which is surely one of the most unique in the business. “It just comes out that way, and I fall asleep each night thinking I sound like Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby and then I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and go ‘oh good heavens, it’s Jonathan’, so in the mind’s ear I have a much softer crooning voice, but when it comes out of me its fragile, it cracks on the high notes, it is what comes out and it’s something I’ve accepted and on a good night I’ll even embrace it.”

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As our conversation drew to a close we revisited their length of absence and I wanted to know how it felt to return to ‘the scene’ after such a long ramble in the Catskills, and how the abstract musical landscape had changed. Jonathan’s answer was honest and a little sad, but delivered as poetically as any of his songs.  “The musical landscape for me is like the landscape of New York. I can find myself in some very old familiar neighbourhoods and not know where I am.  You look around on each corner and there’s a Starbucks, there’s a GAP, so it’s actually quite disorienting if you’ve been away for a while and you come back because yes, there’s a thousand bands but it’s very hard to tell them apart. I’m not saying that as a slight, but just from a ‘coming down the mountain’ kind of thing. I think that’s the way I feel the landscape is. I know where I am, but I don’t recognise anything. I’m sure the bewilderment is just the speed of the way things are happening and some of it is just the nature of modern music and the way young people are making music. I do feel for younger bands because it’s quite a struggle for them to stand out as something unique.”

Speaking of respect for older bands, which Mercury Rev may now be able to class themselves as, I had gained a fair amount in the process of this interview, in particular in Jonathan’s ethos of letting nature take its course, of not forcing things, and most importantly of not being afraid to exit your comfort zone and roll with whatever feels good at the time.

Mercury Rev play Sage Gateshead on Thursday 19th November.

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