Porn soundtracks, Lou Reed shine a ‘Light’ on Mercury Rev

'The Light in You'
‘The Light in You’

TOKYO (TR) – Mercury Rev exploded in the late 1990s when their album “Deserter’s Songs” garnered critical acclaim and radio airplay in much of the world.

Around 15 years on, the American band continues to stick to a unique songwriting style — creating soundtracks for movies that will never be made — and are revisiting the sound of “Deserter’s Songs.”

“The Light in You,” the band’s first album in seven years, is a straightforward record about being miserable and getting happier.

Prior to two shows in Tokyo and Osaka next month, Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak recently spoke to The Tokyo Reporter about the Mercury Rev sound, porn influences and the strangeness of becoming a big band.

How do you see your role in Mercury Rev?

We think of it as making a film each time we make a record. In a lot of ways Jonathan (Donahue) is the director and I’m like the cinematographer. I try and get it into the shape, the way we really want it. I can read music and I played the clarinet and saxophone since I was a little boy. So I help with the arrangements and getting some of the instruments in the right range so that they can play the parts. A lot of the time I and Jonathan write a lot of the parts on guitars and then we switch the melodies and pick different instruments.

That’s why the sound is so rich on the records…

Yeah, we come up with all these melodies and then we try and decide what instrument fits best, whether its a glockenspiel or oboe or whatever.

How does that translate live?

Obviously, there’s a lot more guitar and drums. Our new keyboard player, Jesse Chandler, is a great arranger. He played in Midlake. He plays keyboards, but he also plays the flute, clarinet, saxophone and stuff like that. So live, he’ll play a keyboard part and then loop it, then he’ll pull out a flute or a saxophone or something like that. So that’s how we get some of those bigger sounds.

How seminal was “Deserter’s Songs” for the band?

“See You on the Other Side,” the record before “Deserter’s Songs,” got a lot of critical acclaim but it didn’t reach that wider audience. If “Deserter’s Songs” hadn’t made it, I don’t know what would have happened. Even when we finished it, we were like, ‘You know what, we did what we wanted and made a honest record and if this is the last one then we’re really happy with it.’

But then stuff like “Goddess on a Hiway” and “Holes” started getting radio play. Within a month of it coming out, we had all these great reviews and things got really crazy, especially in the U.K. I was in the U.K. more than I was at home for months. We would go to like Sainsbury’s (grocery chain) and it would be on. We would be in a taxi and it was on. It was just a mind-melder for us, it was surreal.

If your new album is soundtrack for a movie, then what would that movie be about?

It’s about someone or a group of people going through rough times as far as trying to figure out their place in the world. Kind of like Mercury Rev. On the album, the character is in a desperate mood, with turbulent things happening. By side two, the light in you, the creative spark, starts coming out. You find it within you to move on and pull yourself out of the doldrums, I guess with the gifts you have.

The new album has a distinct Rev sound but there are a few other things I hear on there: “Berlin”-era Lou Reed, “Fantasma”-era Cornelius. Is that intentional?

We loved “Berlin” and [John Cale’s] “Paris 1919.” Those two albums came out in the same year, and we love those albums. And we played with Cornelius a bunch back from 1998-2005 and we loved that group’s wall of sound. And Fantastic Plastic Machine, how that music drew on sort of soundtracks from the 1970s.

We have all these soundtracks to 1970s porn films and they are actually these really great albums of music. So we are trying to just mash together a lot of those influences. “Berlin” is a very filmmaker album.

'Deserter's Songs'
‘Deserter’s Songs’

Who was writing the porn music?

I think it was Italian studio musicians. It was the 1970s so a lot of it is waa-waa. Some of it is like “Shaft” or Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield. And some of it is psychedelic. There’s also an element of Ennio Morricone, which we love. I don’t know. These compilation records you can buy, some of the musicians might have been the same people…It’s really cool stuff.

I bought three of the records in Italy in 2007. Then once I saw the series, I went online and bought the rest of the CDs.

On the last track on “The Light in You,” you mention the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore characters (in the comedy act) Derek and Clive, among a list of favorite bands. How did they manage to get on there?

That was Jonathan. His father listened to it a lot when he was a little kid. When the band was on tour, we would listen to it on the tour bus and have a laugh. A lot of the time, we would be exhausted after being on the road for two or three weeks, everything’s surreal, in a different town every day. Putting on Derek and Clive just lightened the mood, gave some levity to the situation. It was always a savior… if we were in a bummed out mood it would make us feel better.

Do you have a favorite sketch?

Erm…What’s the one where there swearing like, ‘fucking, fucking… you cunt, you cunt’…Do you know that one?

I think that’s most of their sketches. Anyway, to be honest, I’m listening to your new album on Apple Music. How do you feel about that?

In one way it’s great because it’s very accessible. But the rates they pay the artists are so small. There was this James Blunt (@jamesblunt) tweet where he said, ‘I get paid £00.0004499368 per stream. Beers are on me! Cheers @Spotify.’ It pays so little. I think that needs to be worked out a little better. It was better when the mafia was running the record companies. They paid more than you are paid now. But it’s a great way to find different music. I’ll use Pandora and play something like Miles Davis and then it starts playing related songs and you find new things. It’s a great tool, but I just think the artists should be paid more. A lot of money is going somewhere, but not to the artists.

Note: Mercury Rev play at Liquidroom in Tokyo on December 1 and the following night at Soma in Osaka.

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