"We thought we had a top ten hit and we listen to it now and think 'What the fuck were we thinking!'"
Grasshopper and singer Jonathan Donahue have been at the core of Mercury Rev from the very beginning, enduring multiple line-up changes and a constant refinement of their expansive sound. Their new album, The Light In You, comes out shortly before they head our way for festival and headline shows and the new collection comes out of particularly turbulent recent times for both musicians.
"The arc of the album is the story of a person in a desperate or lonely kind of way and then by the end of the record, with the song Rainy Day Record, it's the redemption or illumination that comes from slapping on a vinyl record and falling in love with the music you grew up with all over again. That was kind of what the two of us were going through and the music got us through that. The tough stuff was that Jonathan lost his house and pretty much everything he owned in Hurricane Irene and with me after Snowflake Midnight (2008), my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease and so she's been living with my wife and I and she's got worse and worse with her memory. Jonathan has known her for twenty years so it's just been hard on everybody when that happens and you see somebody losing it."
"It's the redemption or illumination that comes from slapping on a vinyl record and falling in love with the music you grew up with all over again."
As important as the lyrical narrative is the widescreen psychedelic sound of Mercury Rev which, as Grasshopper explains, is present in the detail and arrangements right at the start of the songwriting process.
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"Jonathan is like the director and I'm the cinematographer trying to capture it. We talk about in film language and visually how we see the songs. When we're sitting around with two guitars and singing melodies we create what we envisage the strings sounding like or the bells or glockenspiel. It's in the back of our mind all the time."
1998's Deserter's Songs was a landmark album for Mercury Rev that took them from underground status to heroes of some cosmic Americana, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Its success also caught the band by surprise.
"It was really special to us. With Everlasting Arm on See You On The Other Side we thought we had a top ten hit and we listen to it now and think 'What the fuck were we thinking!' When you're in the middle of it you don't really know. You just try to stay true to yourself and try to get out the core of what's inside of you. When we started Deserter's Songs we didn't have a label and halfway through we signed to V2 Records and then we had a deadline to finish it. We did it and thought we'd just have to wait and see what happens. We listened to it and were both elated and scared and then it took off and had a life of its own which was strange. Six months later we're in England and hearing it in cabs, on the radio and in Sainsbury's. It was surreal and unexpected. It's hard to know what's going to connect with people. A lot of it is timing I guess, it hits a part of people's lives or it hits the zeitgeist of the time."