Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Secret Migration – Mercury Rev in interview

Lyrics wise Grasshopper does not make reference to any ecological concerns that might underpin the album. Instead the inspiration seems to be mostly a result of the band's surroundings during the writing and recording of the songs. For several years now Donohue and Grasshopper have lived in the Catskill mountains north of New York, “quite a rural area, a small town” as he describes it, and he agrees that it’s this physical environment that has had perhaps the most influence on the songs' imagery, given, he says, that what you see every day is usually what is most on your mind when it comes to writing.

Lyrics as it turns out came very much second to the music in the early days of Mercury Rev. The group began as a means of composing soundtracks for experimental student films, Grasshopper having studied film under Tony Conrad (minimalist composer and the man who gave Lou Reed the S&M book from where the band derived its name) at the University of Buffalo. This volatile troupe created music for films in New York and Canada before gradually evolving to the point where “we became a proper band […] we progressed to writing lyrics.” Despite their critical and popular successes since then, soundtracks are something that the band still engage in during periods between albums. Other projects undertaken by the band during their recent 'down time' include contributing pieces to a Daniel Johnston tribute and unusually, putting music to a sonnet from James Joyce's 'Chamber Music' poem/song cycle.

So how did this come about? “I have a section on our website where I write about books and movies that I like,” says Grasshopper, “Fire Records contacted me and asked if we would be interested in this project.” Asked whether the band are fans of the Irish author he informs me that yes, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and all that stuff” – although there is no mention of whether any of them have ever finished Ulysses. They ultimately decided to soundtrack sonnet 23 “because we like that number,” he jokes “and we like the sonnet too”. There are 36 other artists involved in the project include Lee Ranaldo and The Silent League. The release date had been delayed due to the record company having run into some difficulties with obtaining permission from Joyce's grandson to use the author's work. However this has finally been sorted out and the project has been scheduled to see the light of day later this year.

Songs with such titles as Black Forest (Lorelei) and First Time Mother's Joy (Flying) and forays into creating soundtracks for works by James Joyce are somewhat unusual pursuits for the modern band and, despite their obligatory rock star shades and black clothing, it is very apparent that Mercury Rev are poles apart from most of the bands gracing the charts at the moment. Like their contemporaries The Flaming Lips (with whom Donahue played guitar in the early ’90s), Mercury Rev's musical catalog is like a surrealist film reel on a shelf of Hollywood blockbusters. Asked whether the band pays any attention to current musical trends, Grasshopper concedes that “we exist in our own little bubble really”. Despite this unsurprising indication that the band are not going to be growing designer mullets and renaming themselves The Mercury Rev, he is quick to say that “I do like some of those bands like the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs”. Admiration may be one thing, but the band look unlikely to stray from their set musical course at the moment. Mercury Rev have found their way and are sticking to it.

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