Mercury rising: How Mercury Rev have mellowed

A decade ago, they made the album of the year, after drugs and in-fighting had taken their toll. Now Mercury Rev have mellowed, they tell Elisa Bray
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The Independent Culture

Mercury Rev are stuffing Hallowe'en-themed party bags to give to their fans. At their show that night they sport fantastical costumes; singer Jonathan Donahue is led on stage in blood red velour trousers and a jacket with devil horns. Fans know that Mercury Rev never fail to surprise with a creativity that has seen them reinvent their sound several times over the course of their 20-plus-year career.

For Donahue, whose childhood consisted of a musical diet of classical music and The Clancy Brothers in the Catskills, New York, Hallowe'en is traditionally one of the biggest holidays of the year. "It wasn't like I grew up in a city and had to picture the spookiness of it all. I enjoy seeing people be themselves – plural. I like seeing other people that are very crystallised in who they really think they are, and pushing them a little bit, saying: 'Put on that Frankenstein mask.' I know it's a gimmick, but there's something more to this.... I don't think there's just one of me. I enjoy that, I seek it. It's almost like the facets on a diamond. It just depends on where the light can hit."

It's all part of Mercury Rev's quest to experiment with musical styles and explore the theme of transformation, all through the curious child-like quality of Donahue's voice. Donahue, the band's intense principal songwriter and guitarist, displays a poeticism not just confined to his lyrics. He extends the analogy of the many selves to the band's music, which has seen them shift to a blend of electronica, ambience and rock in their new album Snowflake Midnight. "I think everybody has that hard image of themselves. And then it gets shattered through a job or a relationship breaking up, but that's when the best stuff comes again – it's born from that emptiness. It's not coming from holding on to something very iron-clad. I think something new should be born from that. Hopefully. Otherwise you start trying to recreate the past and write 'Holes #2' or 'Goddess on a Hiway #4'."

He is referring to two of the band's most famous songs from their breakthrough fourth album Deserter's Songs, which soared up the UK charts in 1998 and was named best album of the year by NME. But its success came hard on the heels of the lowest point of the band's career. After 1991's Yerself is Steam and 1993's Boces, the band had gone on a tempestuous journey, during which they struggled with fractious relations, drug addiction and general chaos – culminating in gigs lacking setlists and former singer David Baker leaving the stage mid-show for the bar. Donahue took over lead singer responsibilities from the departed Baker, but their third album, 1995's See You on the Other Side, was a commercial flop.

"Everything was becoming so desperately lonely and empty. We had sold no records of See You on the Other Side; no one was looking forward to another one, there were no labels that were even halfway interested; it was the height of Britpop. Management left, the lawyer left, the accountant left, and we were down to just me and Grasshopper [Sean Mackowiak, the band's guitarist]. For whatever reasons he went off for months at a time without saying anything [in fact, he spent six months in a monastery], so it was just me talking to a wall saying: 'I don't know where to go.' There's no one boosting you up, nothing, and that's when the emptiness hits. Where the songs came from I don't know."

Watching the band's performance today, the musicians communicating with taut precision as they play songs from all corners of their musical career, it's a wonder that for a time things were so very chaotic. But there are no regrets about the past. For Mackowiak and Donahue, the past is all part of how they got to this point in their long, adventurous journey. "In some ways it burned really intensely. At times, early on, it was like a brilliant, blinding light, but more often there was a black hole and you could see it on stage – six people just being sucked into this vortex that none of them controlled, until one left because of the chaos.

"It wasn't like it was a fire and these two phoenixes rose out. Everyone was burned to a crisp, beyond recognition. We were going in a way that enjoyed what the incineration created, which was totally different from what was there before."

For the writing of the latest album they arrived at another hurdle. "It's one thing to do something different; it's another to know what to do," says Donahue. "There was a lot of the two of us just staring at each other, saying, 'I don't know.' At some point we just stopped and changed ideas, because the only way through this was to abandon the old ways.

"In songwriting, the old me would have been saying: 'Jonathan brings in the chords and words; it goes like this, fellows – back me up.' That's the way it would work for the last 20 years. This time there was no beginning. I knew I wasn't so interested in sitting at the piano any more for the writing, so we started bringing out a load of old synthesisers we had from See You on the Other Side. Most of them wouldn't work properly and again that was part of the charm."

During the making of Snowflake Midnight, both Mackowiak and the drummer and keyboardist Jeff Mercel lost their fathers, further shaping the need to create a new sound. "When something like that happens, you obviously think of the great times you had, but also the fragility of your own life. Every day is like a magical experience if you make it that way," Mackowiak says.

Mackowiak had attended an electronic music conference where he learnt new programmes, prompting the band to use computers for the first time in their songwriting, revealing a new perspective to their playing. "When you use programmes and go back to playing traditional instruments like piano and guitar, you approach it in a different, more open, childlike way and in a way that's not schooled – maybe more unconscious or innate. The childlike quality keeps things fresh. We get bored doing the same thing and we like to change constantly. I think that's the way of the world. If you get too rigid or too tied into anything you're just setting yourself up for some kind of loss or a depression."

So the pair of them, along with Mercel, changed the approach and kept the tape rolling while they wrote and recorded the songs. "Some of the songs, like 'Senses on Fire', were 20 minutes long and we distilled them. It was very different to the way we did [2005's] Secret Migration or [2001's] All is Dream or even Deserter's Songs. Jonathan and Jeff kept the tape rolling and we kept playing together," recalls Mackowiak, who was revisiting his old Miles Davis records at the time and listening to Aphex Twin. But he also puts the difference down to the soundtrack Hello Blackbird that they'd made for the film Bye Bye Blackbird, which forced them to depart from the typical verse/chorus format of pop songs.

The title Snowflake Midnight itself is a pointer to individuality (that's what the snowflake represents – every snowflake is different, just as every person is different). And this album has been more successful than its predecessor, The Secret Migration. But being avant-garde has not always helped the band. Does Donahue feel that it has been positive, having a sound that remains outside the mainstream? "For the heart yes; for the mind sometimes not. It gets a little lonely. Often you hear people say: 'We love you guys, we'd love to put you on our radio station, but how can we fit it in between Foo Fighters and Gwen Stefani? You guys are so different sounding to every other band, how come you're not huge?' People put you on the outside. I guess we're our own light – maybe that's just a different light."

'Snowflake Midnight' is out now on V2 Co-Operative Music; Mercury Rev tour the UK until 14 November (