I still remember the day in April, 1996, when Jonathan Donahue popped round for tea. I’d only been living in Woodstock, NY, for a month when the High Llamas ‘Sean O’Hagan came by with the Mercury Rev singer in tow.
There was something so coolly charismatic about Donahue as he sat in my kitchen that I instantly decided to renew my acquaintance with Mercury Rev’s oeuvre. Perhaps it was the fact that – like Donahue himself – I was now living in the Catskill Mountains that made 1995′s See You On The Other Side so entrancing. Certainly I began to listen to Mercury Rev in a new way.
Listening, 15 years on, to the band’s 1991 single “Car Wash Hair,” I can easily pick out the melodic thread that winds through their cosmic Americana. I hear the dark beauty straining through the chaos of their early tension, when Donahue and his chief accomplice Grasshopper fought rearguard melodic actions against the group’s unhinged frontman David Baker.
Mercury Rev had come together in a desultory fashion at the University of Buffalo, recording noisenik soundtracks for experimental student films. A loose affiliation with Oklahoma’s Flaming Lips – themselves pursuing a parallel line straddling beauty and mayhem – began after Donahue booked the Butthole Surfers for a Buffalo show with the Lips as support act.
Consisting of Donahue, Grasshopper, Baker, Dave Fridmann, flautist Suzanne Thorpe and drummer Jimy Chambers, Mercury Rev unexpectedly found their debut album, Yerself Is Steam, drooled upon by the British press. By the summer of 1991 they were playing to 30,000 indie-rock groovers at the UK’s Reading Festival. Unfortunately things only got more fractious within the group, culminating in the sessions for second album Boces. Baker’s departure in February, 1994, signalled the birth of Mercury Rev Mark 2.
See You On The Other Side, the first true manifestation of the Donahue/Grasshopper sound, was thrilling, radical in its melding of Krautrock abandon with pre-rock instrumentation: harps, bowed saws, Chamberlin strings, flugelhorns, glockenspiel. “Sean and I have demos we did before Yerself is Steam,” Donahue told me. “But at the time there was no blueprint for a record company to embrace the fact that you wanted to hire a string section or a trumpet player.”
When the album failed, Mercury Rev scattered to the four corners of the North American northeast. Back in their native Kingston, a sleepy upstate town at the best of times, the now-label-less Donahue and Grasshopper returned to their musical drawing board. The result was Deserter’s Songs, a record that stepped back into a cobwebbed world of front-parlor Americana while still fearlessly pushing the envelope of neo-psychedelic art-rock. The album took the influences of Cole Porter and Bing Crosby and filtered them through the tumbledown Americana of The Band, of Van Dyke Parks ‘Song Cycle and Jack Nitzsche’s arrangements on the Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting to Fly” and “Broken Arrow.”
To the Rev’s astonishment, “Holes,” “Opus 40″ and hit single “Goddess On A Hiway” became overnight classics. A new American orch-rock was born as the Flaming Lips and Grandaddy achieved similar fusions of melody and power. The fact that Deserter’s Songs featured cameo appearances from Woostock residents Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of the Band, whose biography I had written six years before (and who had really drawn me to the Catskills in the first place), only made it the more resonant for me.
When I next met the indomitable duo, I had moved back to London from Woodstock. On a damp summer day in August, 2001, Donahue sat semi-supine in V2′s offices on Holland Park Avenue, every bit the goth-glam magus with dyed black hair and runic jewellery. His appearance suited the occult subject-matter of All Is Dream, a sonic journey through a Jungian forest of scary monsters and sinister visions that began with the bravura overture “The Dark Is Rising.”
To Donahue’s and Grasshopper’s mild irritation, journalists only seemed interested in Deserter’s Songs, as if the album had already become canonical. “One minute you’re a maverick breaking all the rules”" Donahue grouched. “The next you are the rule.”
The spectre of Deserter’s Songs still hung over Mercury Rev when I spoke to Donahue before the release of The Secret Migration. Yet this was the band’s finest album yet: a 13-track hymn to nature featuring the pastoral bling of “Diamonds,” the Spectoresque gallop of “In a Funny Way” and the shimmering glide of “Black Forest (Lorelei).”
By the time The Secret Migration concluded with the virtual hymn that was “Down Poured the Heavens,” you felt you’d undergone a mildly life-changing experience. Donahue and Grasshopper, abetted by drummer/keyboardist Jeff Mercel, had pulled us back into their unapologetically lush dreamworld. “On a wave of emotion, sending ships across yer ocean,” Donahue warbled on the ecstatic second track, “I’ve lost all my reasons.”
Mercury Rev has given us a decade and a half of magic and ritual, of swirling orchestral emotion and intense dream beats. Their songs celebrate the irrational, the domain of feelings beyond words, reaching for something ineffable on the other side of human existence. Where they go from here is anybody’s guess.
Barney Hoskyns is the author of Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters & Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons (Fourth Estate) and the co-founder of online rock library www.rocksbackpages.com, which includes a selection of Mercury Rev reviews and interviews.