Mercury Rev: The incredible journey

Mercury Rev's new album of transcendent songs continues their climb back from rock oblivion. Kevin Harley meets them
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The Independent Culture

As US rock's foremost symphonic romantics, Mercury Rev have earned the right to attach a sense of mystique to the strange routes creativity can take. Their career certainly suggests so: 10 years ago, any guess where it would lead them would surely have been way off target. Musically, too, they've always pursued the elusive and unpredictable, straining for a sense of something transcendent.

It feels right, then, to hear their singer, Jonathan Donahue, happily embracing open spaces ahead on "Across Yer Ocean", the second track on their sixth album, The Secret Migration: "And where we go from here is anybody's guess."

"I don't know that we've ever experienced it otherwise," Donahue says over lunch in London. "It seems to be the truest expression flowing through us: that not-knowing; that mystery. I don't know that it would be art in any other way if there wasn't the mystery of allowing yourself to observe where it's leading you, not trying to control where you lead it. You're not necessarily born with that patience. But with a few records under your belt, you realise that it flows a lot smoother, it's a lot truer to your imagination, when you're letting it do its thing and being a conduit for it."

From a youth tethered to an unruly muse, Mercury Rev have arrived at something sublime. Emerging from Buffalo in the late 1980s, the band gained a reputation for psych-rock chaos thanks to some wild live shows and off-stage excesses. Having toured their third album, 1995's rapturous but ill-received See You on the Other Side, made after the split with their popular but troublesome singer, David Baker, they went missing, presumed dead, as a band. On the back of the album's cover, Donahue, the singer-guitarist who replaced Baker on vocals, glumly loads a gun.

Then they did something amazing, emerging from their Catskills base, upstate of New York, in 1998 with the album Deserter's Songs. With an all-or-nothing approach stoked by the band's implosion, it swept up wondrous fragments from the history of American popular music to lend their unique experience a sense of great scope. Its centrepiece was surely "The Funny Bird", with Donahue's frail delivery of the lyric, "Farewell, golden sound/ No one wants to hear you now," in the thick of elemental guitars. We could have lost them, is the sense, but if the funny little band with the vivid name were going down, they were going to go soaring.

With All Is Dream, the follow-up to Deserter's, Mercury Rev proved they could grow as a band, by delivering a set of grandiose paeans to arcane imaginative processes as a rock album. That was a bold pitch, and they've done something similar but nicely fresh with The Secret Migration. It opens with Donahue offering an invitation on "Secret for a Song" ("We're going on a dark country ride") before swooping off through the sights and sounds of nature with a shamanic flourish. Warm and bright where Dream was shadowy and spooked, it's an album of pastoral lustre and of romance.

Chatting to Donahue, his old friend Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak (guitars, shyer than Donahue but with a warm, ready smile) and Jeff Mercel (keyboards/drums), their fascination with the idea of nature as a metaphor for the revelations of romance and creativity is clear.

The naturally charismatic Donahue puts a rich spin on the subject. "It's not original to Mercury Rev, the use of nature as metaphor. We can find it in William Blake, in Plato, in the Hindu Vedas. It's a process of revealment. On the surface, there's a boy-meets-girl aspect on the record. A thread of, 'Hey, the seasons are changing; gee, so am I.' But it's the deeper layers that, hopefully, awaken a universal thread that connects my experiences, Jeff's, Grasshopper's, with yours. We don't have to give the name of the girl or the bar where an event happened. What we're dealing with is something that subsumes that: the archetypes.

"We were just in Florence looking at Botticelli's Allegory of Spring. Beautiful painting, with the Fates and the Virtues and Mercury there. Everyone in the museum is going, 'It's such a beautiful rendition of the female form,' and this and that. But there's something deeper, another language through the use of allegory, that I enjoy exploring. Does this make it obvious for most listeners to jump into a Mercury Rev record? Probably not. But we don't make excuses for that." Pause. "We're not obvious people."

What does allegory excite in him? "What I enjoy is the mystery behind that, the wonderment, the bewilderment. The childlike fascination of, 'What's that, Dad?' 'It's a star.' 'What's it made of?' 'Well, carbon and nitrogen and collapsed helium.' Then the third question: 'Why is it there?' And the mother throws up her hands and says, 'Well, I don't know.' She has to give a story. 'At one time, God spread fairy-dust' - whatever you want to go with. It's that approach of the human condition to answers we know are within us: we have to start somewhere."

The album's enigmatic title hints at this. Donahue says: "The Secret Migration refers to that starting somewhere, that change of perspective. My use of lyricism, it's not in a heavy sense. It's not trying to be the second Walt Whitman. It's simply a valuable oral tradition, to try to express that mystery, to try to connect with people who might also be curious about these things."

"I wanted to call the album The Quantum Migration," he says, grinning, "but I understood this would send people for such a loop that I would go hoarse trying to explain. But The Secret Migration is close. It's not secret from the audience, only available to us; it means that within us, the only way to see yourself is reflected. Principle of light. You can't see it until it bounces off something. And those perceptions are always changing."

For Donahue, capturing the process of making an album is a key to The Secret Migration, implied in its fascination with travel, journeys, spaces to be charted - a lyrical trope that stretches back through Mercury Rev's career. The subtext is of forging fresh routes through music.

If each Mercury Rev album has marked another leap forward, another change of route, the band attribute that in part to a maturity that enables them to feed off each other and embrace happy accidents. "That's one of [the producer] Dave Fridmann's little sayings," Grasshopper says. "The happy accidents are the things that make it more human and open to discovery. You build on it or react to it."

"Whether they are actually accidents, though," Donahue says, "I'm not convinced. I think it has to do with your ability for perception. Whether it's been trying to nudge you, and you didn't recognise it, or tried to block it out. That unseen world within, without, whichever way you look at it, keeps knocking you over your head. It may be through your dream state. It may be through meeting someone over and over again that you realise there's some connection you have to follow.

"The songs work like that. They'll keep hinting until you open up to what they're trying to say, instead of trying to stamp your imprint on them. They don't take kindly to that, in general. Those unexpected sounds, those turns in structure or lyrics or melody, where you say, 'Gosh, that came out of nowhere...'" He shakes his head. "I'm not sure they do. I feel that it's always there; it's just down to your ability to subtly change your viewpoint and notice them."

Long-term followers of the band might agree. Deserter's took people unawares but, in retrospect, it's difficult not to see the seeds of it in See You. As Donahue says: "We couldn't have made Deserter's without See You. Most people didn't want to hear that. They would say, 'I didn't listen to that record; I just listened to Deserter's. When did it fall on you from the sky?' It didn't. It was a process."

On reflection, the troubles the band endured on the See You tour were part of the making of them. On top of playing to dwindling audiences, on one day from hell, their saxophonist was mugged, their van was broken into and their T-shirt seller left their merchandising takings - living expenses - in a cab. Some band members left once the tour was over, Donahue had a heroin-enhanced breakdown and Grasshopper retreated to a monastery.

But regrets? Never. "Well," says Donahue, shrugging, "you're the sum of your experiences. All your past girlfriends led you to the one you're with now. Was it easy to swallow at the time? No. Of course not."

"If you try to keep that childlike innocence," says Grasshopper, "going through those experiences toughens you up."

Donahue nods: "You learn to temporise. It's like steel: you have to keep putting it in the fire. Take it out, hammer it, it gets stronger. Part of the nature of that album was a trial by fire. There were a lot of burns, but when they healed... Now, man, we don't flinch. Now you can hold your hand right over the candle."

One of the great things about Mercury Rev is that, having survived, they know they have something too precious to waste. If Donahue talks of his band and their audience with a sense of near-awe, you can't blame him. "When people look deeper than the surface," he says, "that's what turns us on. That's what we got out of music when we were being" - pause - "impregnated with those other artists we listened to, with their imaginations and their perseverance.

"It doesn't mean we're saying the answer to the universe is in a Mercury Rev record. It's simply about exalting that mystery, that ability of the human condition to question and wonder. In the best moments, you can see that there are many people who are more than curious, more than just searching for something. That's the best part for me."

The single 'In a Funny Way' is out now and 'The Secret Migration' on Monday, both on V2. Mercury Rev tour the UK from 5 March

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