The last time Mercury Rev guitarist Jonathan Donahue saw Denver, it was in the rear-view mirror of a bus speeding out of town.
Flash back to summer 1994 and Mercury Rev's appearance on the second stage at Fiddler's Green as part of the annual Lollapalooza festival. At first the combo's set seemed to be going smoothly; the crowd gathered in front of it wasn't huge, but it was enthusiastic. But then, Donahue relates, "Our road manager ran on the stage yelling that they were going to shut the entire festival down because of us--because we were too loud, or too weird, or too...something.
"We kind of laughed and kept playing. But then the power went out, and I looked over and saw our sound man being lifted up in a chokehold by the cops or the security or whoever. I was pretty drunk at the time, so I don't remember everything that clearly, but I do remember somebody saying, `You're off the tour. Get the fuck out of here.' And then I remember roadies trying to kick our asses and chasing our bus out of the parking lot."
To this day, Donahue claims not to know whether the band violated local noise ordinances (the official explanation for the altercation, but a loony one), or if other factors led to Mercury Rev's expulsion from the fest. He guesses the latter. With a hint of pride in his voice, he says, "I guess they thought we were some kind of cancer in the healthy body of alternative rock."
Hardly. In fact, the music of Mercury Rev could help cure a style that's become increasingly staid and redundant over the past several years. The act's members (Donahue, drummer Jimy Chambers, guitarist Grasshopper, bassist Suzanne Thorpe and multi-instrumentalist Dave Fridmann) have been together since 1989, and throughout their three albums and assorted singles, they've created sometimes psychedelic, often melodic and always stirring tones that have precious little in common with what's selling to the MTV generation. And yet Mercury Rev has released three albums under the auspices of Columbia, among the most gigantic of the major record labels. To Donahue, who was part of Flaming Lips prior to joining Mercury Rev, Columbia's continued support of his group is a mystery best not explored too closely.
"Some years are better than others," he says. "They have a high turnover at Columbia, so one year we might have a really good person working our record, and then six months later he or she is gone and the person who takes their place wishes you sounded like Ned's Atomic Dustbin or Soul Asylum. So it's always changing.
"We don't sell very many records, but I think we help Columbia attract other bands. A lot of bands call them up and say, `Wow, you guys have Mercury Rev. We're going to consider you now.' And maybe some of those bands are the ones that are taking what we do and are making it more accessible--and selling more records. Whatever's the case, they've been pretty supportive. Besides, they know they can't get blood from a stone. They signed us for what we were, and now they have to live with it."
On their 1991 Columbia debut, Yerself Is Steam, the musicians certainly didn't shy away from expressing themselves in non-mainstream ways; the disc is loud, erratic and pleasantly pixilated, in part because of the twisted vocals of Rev co-founder David Baker. Boces, a 1993 opus featuring the songs "Meth of a Rockette's Kick," "Downs Are Feminine Balloons" and "Continuous Drunks and Blunders" is equally nutty. But in spite of the fun that the bandmates seemed to be having, the tension behind the scenes between Baker and his cohorts was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Eventually, the singer was asked to depart, and Donahue took over lead vocal duties.
"There was a lot of conflict when David was in the band," Donahue allows. "Not putting him down like it was his fault, but there were a lot of personality issues and a lot of fistfights during records and tours. After a while it didn't seem productive. If you're spending half the time throwing a punch, you can't be recording a guitar part."
The effect Baker's absence had on the act can be felt throughout this year's See You on the Other Side, on the Columbia subsidiary Work. The platter is in many ways the sunniest, most inviting of the Mercury Rev offerings, in large part because Donahue's relatively plain, unaffected voice blends into the sonic maelstrom, whereas Baker's was frequently at war with it. As Donahue puts it, "David generally liked to do a lot more screaming, and he did perhaps more weird vocal stuff than I'm capable of. I generally stick to what I can do, for better or worse. So if you heard this album after listening to the others, you might think, `Hmmm, where's that other guy who babbled?'
"But for us, making the change left us feeling pretty positive, like a large weight had been lifted off our shoulders. There's a lot of sadness in the record, but I understand why people don't necessarily pick up on it--because the music is pretty upbeat as opposed to some of our other stuff. I'd say the record is about hope: hope dashed and hope rekindled."
The CD is a treat jammed with auditory surprises. French horns, clarinets and something called the Tettix Wave Accumulator are used to supplement intriguing tunes such as "Empire State (Son House in Excelsis)," "Everlasting Arm" and the joyfully cryptic "Close Encounters of the 3rd Grade." To Donahue, the players' various axes aren't mere accoutrements; they're intrinsic to the concept of the band. "We always thought that rock and roll was about juxtapositions--combining a lot of different kinds of music and ideas under this large umbrella called rock and roll," he says. "And I suppose that's what sets us apart from some people--because rock and roll has become so narrow-minded. To use anything other than guitar, bass and drums means that you get put in these other categories: strange, avant-garde, left field. But for us, we never thought, `Let's put a trumpet in here just to be odd.' It was more like, `We like trumpets, we like distortion, we like noise, we like melodies. Let's try to combine them as much as we can.'"
This approach, which seems so simple as to be self-evident, is rare these days, and according to Donahue, "That's a shame, because rock and roll has always represented the leading edge of music. Jazz progresses, but in a slow, cyclical way, and country and blues move in the same way. But rock and roll has been the one to push forward, whether it's been into ambient, techno, or whatever. These days, though, young kids seem to think that whatever Nirvana was doing was the only way to do rock and roll. And I think the members of Nirvana would be the first ones to admit that when they started, they were trying to break the rules that were in force then."
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By the same token, Donahue insists that Mercury Rev isn't so fixated on art that it ignores listenability. "The idea of going on stage and making shit up for 45 minutes--that's never been very thrilling to us," he says. "People do come to hear some of the better moments of your recorded career, and it would be cheating them if we just went up there and started wanking off, thinking we're all cool and art-damaged. We like songs as much as anyone."
And if those ditties strike folks like the security guards at Fiddler's Green as too bizarre?
"Then they can go home to the suburbs," Donahue suggests, "and not be threatened by us anymore."
Mercury Rev. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, November 11, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California, $6, 294-9281 or 1-800-444-