Upstate of mind

Mercury Rev dig out of Buffalo
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  December 3, 2008

DIGITIZED: For Mackowiak, Donahue, and Mercel, it was “kind of cool to just put down the guitar and work . . .with a beginner’s mind.”

A different Empire: The many sounds of Upstate. By Daniel Brockman.
If music is a celebration of freedom, that's especially true of psychedelic music, where the artist longs to throw off the shackles of verses and choruses and expectations and just luxuriate in the challenges and emotions of sound. So what do you do when your successful psychedelic rock band have been at it for almost 20 years and you need inspiration and you already have every effects pedal known to man?

If you are Mercury Rev, and beginning to work on what would become 2008's double-album assault of the song-based Snowflake Midnight (Yep Roc) and the instrumental-wandering Strange Attractor — well, let multi-instrumentalist Sean Mackowiak a/k/a Grasshopper explain. "The three of us all got MacBooks when we were touring for our last [in 2005] record, Secret Migration. I had gone to this conference in Miami on electronic music, and I was really intrigued by some of these programs, like FM8, Absinthe, and Reactor, and Jonathan [Donahue, vocalist] and Jeff [Mercel, drummer] also started working on it. Sure, Reactor is easy to use and anybody can make music with it, but I think the beauty of it is that it shows your individuality and creativity. Because if you work with Reactor and I work with Reactor, they're the same program but we'd probably come up with two completely different types of music. It was kind of cool, for me, to just put down the guitar and work in a totally different way, like with a beginner's mind."

This explains the overtly electronic pulse of their new album, but it also illustrates the attitude that has defined Mercury Rev since their inception in late-'80s Buffalo. Begun as a collaboration between Donahue and Mackowiak, undergrads who studied at SUNY-Buffalo under legendary minimalist composer and multimedia artist Tony Conrad (see "A different Empire," below), Mercury Rev initially existed as the soundtrack to student films. "We were definitely influenced by Conrad," says Mackowiak. "He had made these great soundtracks in the '60s with John Cale and La Monte Young for all these experimental films, and they were all sort of drone-based, a lot like Terry Riley."

Things came full circle for Mercury Rev when, seeking inspiration after an exhausting session for Secret Migration, they were asked to do a soundtrack for Robinson Savary's 2005 period drama Bye Bye Blackbird. "Doing that soundtrack sort of broke us out of some patterns we'd fallen into where you do the same thing, writing songs with verse-chorus-bridge, etc. Writing for a film is completely different, when you have time cues and you're writing music that doesn't have a verse and chorus, and that subconsciously influenced the new record. When we went in to start recording Snowflake Midnight, it was really open-ended and just like 'Let's see what happens and go anywhere and we'll figure it out later!' "

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Related: A different Empire, Listen up, Nicolai Dunger, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Dave Fridmann, Miles Davis, John Cale,  More more >
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