Interview: Mercury Rev On The Record That Brought Them Back From The Brink
For those of us now pushing thirty here at Ragged Words (not wanting to name any names or anything!), Deserter’s Songs was a Very Special Record when it first reached our ears. After the fag end of Britpop had spat out the likes of Travis, Embrace and Stereophonics, Mercury Rev’s glorious fourth LP showed there was a very different road out there. It was justifiably voted album of the year in a number of publications upon its release in 1998, and still retains its magic some thirteen years later. Inspired by the sudden unearthing of the album's original demo tapes, the band have now decided to reissue it – as well as perform it from start to finish across The UK and Ireland this week. Ahead of the tour, we were fortunate to have the chance to chat about the album with Sean Mackowiak – better known as 'Rev guitarist Grasshopper – who told us all about how ‘Goddess on A Hiway’ nearly missed the cut, how he used to stay up all night with The Band’s Garth Hudson and how the record succeeded in pulling the band back from the brink.
Hi, Sean. Thanks a lot for taking time out to speak to us. Can I begin by asking why Deserter’s Songs is such a special record to yourself and the rest of the band?
I think it’s special because that was the one that brought us back from the brink. Up to that point, we had enjoyed some limited success with both (1991 debut LP) Yerself Is Steam and ('93's) Boces, but then ('95's) See You On The Other Side, which we all loved, kind of just went by the way side for whatever reason. It was at the height of Britpop... We’d just switched record companies, and so it felt a bit like a fresh start; we had no idea whether it was going to be popular or anything, so then when it was we were really pleasantly surprised. We hadn’t been expecting that at all.
Like you say, See You On The Other Side, for one reason or another, had been somewhat overlooked in the press; as has been well documented, Jonathan (Donahue, 'Rev vocalist/guitarist) was also going through a difficult period personally at that time. Might it be fair to say that the band was in a pretty rough place as the nineties wore on?
It was a really tough time for the band, no question. (Founding member and lead singer) David Baker had recently left; there were a lot of drugs going on at the time and we were trying to get off all that; Jonathan and myself were both encountering relationship problems with different women. So yeah, I think all that came into play for the lyrics and feel of Deserter's.
Is it true that you spent some time at a Jesuit retreat house around that time?
Yeah. It was in upstate New York, and I went there for about four weeks just to get away a little bit. It was pretty good for me... At the time I was living in New York City, and up there in The Catskills and ‘The Hudson Line’ is kind of about that, about leaving the city behind - even though I love it - but getting away from all the temptations and just getting back into music.
How did it go from there then? Did you just sit down and start writing stuff together, or were you and Jonathan working separately? What was the main impetus that got things going?
We toured quite a bit after releasing See You On The Other Side - we did a European tour with Pavement and then a really long, gruelling two-month tour in The US. Then we took some time off before we both started writing songs. I think one of the first ones was ‘Opus 40’, and I wrote ‘Hudson Line’ right at the start as well. Those were a couple of the first ones, and after that it kinda just flowed from there really. Jonathan was writing stuff all the time and bringing it to me... Actually, ‘Goddess on A Hiway’ was originally a really old song that had been written in 1989 - around the time of Yerself Is Steam. Jonathan had thrown it on a cassette and forgotten about it, but I always really liked that song and wanted to try and do it. I convinced him eventually, but I don’t think he really wanted to have it on there... He said ‘We’ll try it and see what happens’ - luckily it came out really well in the end.
You recorded the album up in The Catskill Mountains; was that the first time you had recorded there - and if so, how did it differ from your previous recording environments?
It was kinda different from before alright... At the time we were writing See You On The Other Side, we had been living in Poughkeepsie, which is closer to New York City. Then we moved further upstate and started recording a lot. I think it was (different) just being away from the chaos that we had been living in in the city - all the craziness and going out all the time...we were living full-on with our foot on the gas pedal. Taking it off a little was good, and those first couple of songs - ‘Opus 40’ and ‘ Hudson Line’ - were about The Catskills themselves, about being here, and that set the stage almost for the whole album. I suppose we were trying to capture the feeling here... It’s hard to describe the vibe of The Catskills and The Hudson Valley, it’s kinda got this sleepy, foggy, late-night feeling all the time! (laughs)
How long did you end up spending there? Was it an enjoyable period, or was it pretty full-on and stressful?
It was full-on for sure, and full of ups and downs... It was over a long period of maybe six months of writing and recording, followed by probably a couple of months doing string arrangements and mixing it with Dave (Fridmann) in Buffalo. But a lot of it was pretty intense, yeah.
Levon Helm and Garth Hudson from The Band are both credited on Deserter's Songs. How did you manage to get the pair of them involved? And what was it like working with them?
It was amazing just meeting those guys, never them playing alongside them. When we first moved up there, we used to see them around quite often, and we'd be bumping into Rick Danko (also of The Band) down at the butcher and stuff like that. We knew their manager, and so just asked... We didn’t know whether they’d want to do it or not, but it turned out they really liked the songs. Levon just comes in and does his own thing. With Garth, that guy is just strange... He’s great and all, but he doesn’t doesn't usually wake up 'til maybe 6 or 7 at night on account of his narcolepsy; then he records from midnight 'til 6am - and when he’s playing, he just plays these little pieces, keeps overdubbing constantly. At first, you’re like "What the hell is he doing?!?", but they all eventually come out of his head and make total sense. We had some great conversations... Garth’s a big polka fan, and I knew about polka from my childhood in Buffalo, so we got on and clicked about that. It was great, and those guys were so gracious and nice to us.
Compared to Yerself Is Steam, Deserter's Songs signals a clear move away from that noisier strand of psychedelic rock towards something more conventionally melodic and ornate. For you, was that shift simply a continuation of the sound you explored on See You On The Other Side, or was there a more explicit change of direction with Deserter’s?. If so, what brought this about?
That’s how it progressed really. Even for Yerself Is Steam and Boces, a lot of the songs started out almost like folk songs and then we'd orchestrate everything by adding the fuzz guitars and freakouts and stuff like that. With ...Other Side, we wanted to use different things like mellotrons and horns, and when you hear the second disc of the rough demos for what would become became Deserter’s Songs, some of them sound very similar in style to that. But I think after that - when we went in with Dave, we said we wanted to do more lush arrangements with more strings - it changed direction and we pulled out a lot of the guitars and substituted a lot of instruments in. So we basically worked the same way as before in a way, but instead of writing a song and then orchestrating it with fuzz guitars, now we were orchestrating it with strings, french horns and oboes.
Reading back over some of your old interviews, it seemed at the time that you considered Deserter's to be your last chance, and that you kind of expected to break up after it came out. Was that really how it was, or is that embellishing things maybe a little?
No, that’s really how it was, man! (laughs) ...Other Side didn’t do great, and we just didn’t know... I think we probably would have continued on in some way regardless, but it was getting harder and harder because we both had to get jobs again. But then after Deserter’s we were able to concentrate more on the music; so yeah, at the time things were getting pretty desperate alright.
Looking back, the album yielded no fewer than three top-forty hits on this side of The Atlantic - a pretty remarkable feat for a band that wasn't exactly churning out pop songs. Was there a point when it suddenly struck you that this was going to be a bit of a game-changer for you guys?
I think it was probably at the beginning of a tour for Deserter’s; I was in one of those supermarkets you guys have over there (like, a Sainsburys or something), and our music was being played in the store. I’d never even heard one of our songs on the radio or anything, and now all of a sudden here it is being played in a British supermarket! I really freaked out at first, and I remember thinking "Someone’s copied us! That melody sounds a lot like ‘Goddess On A Hiway’...", and of course it turned out it was actually ‘Goddess On A Hiway’, and I just remember thinking "Holy shit, that’s crazy!"
And what was the impact, like did the size of crowds you were playing to grow quite quickly?
It was kind of immediate. You know The Chemical Brothers really helped us too because we had sent them a copy and they started talking about it in the press so I remember Jonathan and I went over to do some press for the Reading festival before the record had come or before we’d even played anywhere and everybody was coming up to us in that back area and saying how much they loved it. We were just blown away, we didn’t know it was going to get that kind of reaction and from that point it just kind of grew organically. It came out in September of ‘98 and then by December it was best record of the year in a bunch of magazines so within those few months, it was just insane from going from total anxiety and despair in August to a total emotional flip flop of euphoria a couple of months later.
How do you guys feel about topping those end of year polls - is it really gratifying or do you try not to take too much notice?
You try to say you’re not going to take too much notice but then when it is in the top 10 or number one or something you can’t not think wow that’s kind of cool. It made Pitchfork’s top albums of the 90s recently so it’s kinda cool to know it had that sort of impact on people.
To fast forward 13 years - why now decide to re-issue it?
Yeah it’s been 13 years so we thought 13 was a lucky number (laughs). That and Barry from ATP has been asking us for years to play the record, and we were saying no for a long time because we just weren’t ready and I don’t know, it just felt like it was time. We had found all those eight track versions of the songs about a year ago and we found a bunch of photographs when we had to move studios so we thought maybe it’s time to revisit them.
Are you looking forward to playing the record live start to finish?
Yeah. I mean, it’s going to be weird. We’ve pretty much played ‘Holes’ and ‘Goddess’ all down through the years but we haven’t played a lot of the other one’s like ‘Funny Bird’ and ‘Hudson Line’ since maybe 2001 so it’ll be weird playing those and playing them in the order of the album because we’ve never done that. I was always sceptical of that too but then I saw The Feelies, Iggy Pop and Suicide do their albums and I got it more, it was a really great experience and particularly with Suicide, getting to see them do their first album and Iggy too so that was kind of inspiring.
Before I let you go, I gotta ask - are you guys recording any new stuff right now?
We’ve been working a lot remastering this and getting all the artwork and stuff ready for the past four or five months but Jonathan and I have been writing songs for something new so hopefully next year we’ll get that out too.
We’ll look forward to that too and as massive fans of Deserter’s Songs, we can’t wait to hear it live.
Cool, thanks a lot.
Mercury Rev play Deserter’s Songs in the following venues this week:
Monday, May 16 - Cork, Cypress Avenue
Tuesday, May 17 - Cork, Cypress Avenue
Wednesday, May 18 - Dublin, Vicar St.
Thursday, May 19 - Edinburgh, The Queen’s Hall
Friday, May 20 - Manchester, Bridgewater Hall
Saturday, May 21 - London, Roundhouse