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Group Members: Grasshopper And The Golden Crickets
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Not so much a band as a long, strange trip, the chaotic avant pop pranksters Mercury Rev formed in Buffalo, NY, in the late '80s. Originally comprised of vocalist David Baker, vocalist/silver pickup guitarist Jonathan Donahue, guitar shaper/single-exhaust clarinetist Grasshopper (born Sean Mackowiak), rooster-tail bass flutist Suzanne Thorpe, bass explorer Dave Fridmann, and mojo stick drummer Jimy Chambers, the sextet -- always rife with personality conflicts -- interacted with one another infrequently, and their first recordings evolved simply as a means of creating soundtracks for the members' experimental student films as well as for Howard Nelson's Lite-Brite and Marco Fogg's Sugardaddy Sea.
Encouraged to further their music by academic mentor Tony Conrad -- a minimalist composer and multimedia artist who had performed with John Cale, La Monte Young, and Faust -- the loosely connected aggregate dubbed Mercury Rev (a name whose inspiration was variously attributed to an imaginary Russian ballet dancer, a sharp rise in temperature, or a revved-up auto) began to emerge, and eventually the group recorded a demo onto a reel of 35mm magnetic film. At the same time, Donahue was working as a concert promoter and scheduled a Butthole Surfers gig; after the show, he befriended the support act, Oklahoma's likeminded Flaming Lips, and soon joined the tour as a guitar technician. Ultimately, Donahue -- under the alias "Dingus" -- became the Lips' lead guitarist, and with them recorded 1990's In a Priest Driven Ambulance, an album produced by Fridmann.
With Mercury Rev effectively in limbo and its members scattered across the country, their demo tape somehow made its way to the British offices of the Rough Trade label, which contacted Baker about signing the group. Soon, the band convened to record their debut, Yerself Is Steam, an LP cut at the same time Donahue and Fridmann were also working on the Flaming Lips' major-label bow, Hit to Death in the Future Head. A brilliantly melodic and free-form set highlighted by distorted art pop epics like "Chasing a Bee," "Coney Island Cyclone," and "Frittering," Yerself Is Steam was issued to widespread acclaim in 1991; however, within weeks of the LP's release Rough Trade's American branch declared bankruptcy, aborting any hopes of proper distribution or promotion.
Still, a British tour followed, and not without incident; the performances, mounted without any practice sessions, constantly teetered on the brink of disintegration -- set lists were nonexistent, and Baker frequently hopped off the stage (in midsong, no less) to grab a drink. Additionally, the group was reportedly banned from air travel after Donahue attempted to gouge out Grasshopper's eye with a spoon in mid-flight. Following the tour, Mercury Rev again went their separate ways; the members found menial jobs, moved in with their parents, or earned money by participating in medical experiments. Finally, Sony signed the group and reissued Yerself Is Steam along with an extra track, the sublime single "Car Wash Hair" (recorded with the aid of Luna's Dean Wareham after Fridmann -- much to his bandmates' dismay -- spent all of their advance money to fund a Bermuda vacation package for his mother).
Amid considerable tension, Mercury Rev set up studio space in a barn to craft their second album; after completing the principal recording sessions, the group collected samples from sites as far-ranging as Times Square and NASA's Cape Canaveral to flesh out the music's dense, prismatic sound. Following the release of the stunning 1993 LP, dubbed Boces for a New York special education program (BOCES), Mercury Rev again toured, even playing the second stage at Lollapalooza; ultimately, the band was kicked off the bill during the festival's Denver stop due to excessive noise -- the electricity to the stage was cut off in mid-performance, and concert security removed their soundman in a headlock. Additionally, an elaborate video for the single "Something for Joey" was shot with the notorious porn star Ron Jeremy, but the clip's suggestive space-age sexcapades and visual double-entendres made mainstream airplay a moot point.
After relations soured to the point where Baker was traveling to gigs apart from his bandmates, he was dismissed from Mercury Rev's ranks; under the name Shady, he returned in 1994 with World, an excellent solo LP recorded with luminaries from the Boo Radleys, Rollerskate Skinny, and St. Johnny. With their newly perfected Tettix Wave Accumulator (patent pending) in tow, the remaining quintet returned to the studio to record 1995's See You on the Other Side, a beautiful, shimmering effort that found the group -- newly freed of Baker's darker impulses -- exploring increasingly diverse stylistic territory with newfound emotional depth. Under the name Harmony Rockets, Mercury Rev also issued 1995's Paralyzed Mind of the Archangel Void, a 40-minute improvisational excursion into ambient noise.
The lovely Deserter's Songs followed in the fall of 1998, and the album's appearance on dozens of best-of lists sparked a renaissance of sorts for Mercury Rev, especially in England. For their next album, the band was slated to work with Jack Nitzsche -- famous for his arrangements on many classics of the Phil Spector canon -- until Nitzsche passed away a week before recording began. Expanding on the dramatic blueprint of Deserter's Songs (in a way Nitzsche would surely have been proud of), Mercury Rev released All Is Dream on September 11, 2001. Secret Migration arrived in 2005; reflecting the band's popularity in the U.K., it was released there that winter and in the U.S. that spring. Late 2006/early 2007 was a busy time for the band, with the best-of Essential: Stillness Breathes 1991-2006, the soundtrack Hello Blackbird, and the mix album Back to Mine all arriving at that time. For 2008's delicate, largely electronic Snowflake Midnight, Mercury Rev moved to Yep Rock; they also released a companion album, Strange Attractor, as a free online download.
Mercury Rev is an American alternative rock group, that formed in the late 1980s in Buffalo, New York. Original personnel were David Baker (vocals), Jonathan Donahue (vocals, guitars), Sean Mackowiak, a.k.a. "Grasshopper" (guitars, clarinet), Suzanne Thorpe (flute), Dave Fridmann (bass) and Jimy Chambers (drums).
The first years with David Baker 
With their early records, Mercury Rev offered experimental, psychedelic rock, which gradually shifted to a melodic, ornate sound. Mercury Rev is often compared to The Flaming Lips, and in fact share close ties: soon after the band's formation, Donahue also joined the Flaming Lips as second guitarist and appeared on two of their albums; and since the 1990 album In a Priest Driven Ambulance, Dave Fridmann has co-produced every Flaming Lips studio album to date except 1993's Transmissions from the Satellite Heart.
Despite considerable critical acclaim, their early releases never gave Mercury Rev more than cult popularity, though they appeared on the smaller second stage at some 1993 Lollapalooza stops. Baker left after their second record, Boces (1993), citing musical and personal disputes; he later recorded an album as Shady. With his departure, the thematically darker and musically experimental features of the band began to disappear.
Transitional period 
The band's first post-Baker album, See You on the Other Side (1995), found them in transition. The album was varied: Like the first releases, it still featured a sprawling psychedelic opening track and noise rock numbers like Young Man's Stride (for which a music video released), but also more melodic songs, such as Sudden Ray of Hope.
The same year the group also recorded and released the album Paralyzed Mind Of The Archangel Void under the moniker "Harmony Rockets". This album features a single forty minutes track of mostly instrumental psychedelic improvised music. It was rated four and half stars, out of five, by AllMusic. The group performed it again in the Don't Look Back concert series in 2009.
Wide critical and commercial success 
The 1998 release of the acclaimed Deserter's Songs (which featured appearances by Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band) made Mercury Rev unexpected pop stars. In the UK, NME magazine made Deserter's Songs their Album of the Year. Donahue's earnest, high-pitched vocals and concentration on relatively concise, melodic songs gave the band's material an entirely new feel and much increased popularity (Deserter's Songs spawned three UK Top 40 singles).
All Is Dream was issued in 2001. It included, "The Dark is Rising," which reached No. 16 in the UK Singles Chart.
Later years 
Mercury Rev's The Secret Migration was released on January 24, 2005. This was followed up in 2006, by a compilation album, The Essential Mercury Rev: Stillness Breathes 1991-2006 and the film soundtrack album Hello Blackbird. More recently, the band released a pair of albums on September 29, 2008: Snowflake Midnight, and a free MP3 album of instrumentals, Strange Attractor.