- Shawn Macdonald
- Frog Eyes (left to right: Ryan Beattie, Megan Boddy, Melanie Campbell, Carey Mercer)
Be sure to check out this week's article on Frog Eyes, which contained a tiny portion of the lengthy interview I had with frontman Carey Mercer. The new Frog Eyes record, Paul's Tomb: A Triumph, is a wonderful, weird, woolly, and densely packed record with plenty of guitar shredding, highlighted by Mercer's unique vocals and his spiraling, arcane lyrics. It's music that appeals to the emotions and intellect at the same time, and although that sounds unbearably pretentious, Frog Eyes is pretty amazing.
Anyway, the interview with Mercer turned out to be one of the most interesting conversations I've had in a while, so we're posting the whole thing for you after the jump. Very big thanks to intern Brianne Turner who plowed through the thankless transcription duties despite being hopped up on painkillers.
Frog Eyes play Sunday, May 23 at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison, w/Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band & Typhoon, 8:30 pm, $8
MERCURY: Does the cover artwork for Paul's Tomb: A Triumph have a special significance, or was it just an arbitrary image?
CAREY MERCER: Probably somewhere in between. I never took the photo. The photo is one of the first color photographs ever taken, actually. I think it's from 1909. It's this beautiful, really lush, luminous look into the past in a way that you never thought you would get. I've stopped short of saying our record does the same. [laughs]
Your record's from 1909?!
Yeah, we used all 1909 microphones! [laughs] No, the farthest I'll go is to say that, sonically, we were trying to make a record that kind of sounded out of time. It's kind of hard to pin exactly what the fidelity is on the record. I think we succeeded in that sense, so that's what we wanted to do. The very simple and most honest answer is that I just find the photos to be really beautiful, and I just thought, wow, let's use 'em.
Yeah, actually there are hundreds of this guy's [Sergei Pokudin-Gorskii] photographs that are archived in really high resolution on the Smithsonian website. He never actually got to see his photos, because he would take three monochromes. He'd take a red monochrome, a blue monochrome and a yellow monochrome, and that's why there's that kind of blurry quality to it. It's a compressed image of—the space is about a minute, right? Yeah, so he would've added them all together, but I don't think he had the technology to do that. Kind of interesting, kind of like there's a bit of a romantic, art for art's sake aspect to that that certainly tugs at my soul.
You had mentioned that you wanted the album to have a sort of lost-in-time feel, and thing it evokes for me is Super 8 film quality, somehow with the guitar sounds. And that's the sort of thing where you can't really tell when it was taken.
That's good because, actually, the fidelity of the record, it's Pro Tools. But what you're hearing is some really funny old guitar amplifiers that have somewhere between fuzz and distortion. It's not a pedal, you just turn them up and that's what they do. That would've been a very defective sound in its day, which is kind of funny. The speakers in those amps—I've since blown them. It was just a nice little window of a couple months where they just kind of sounded like that, which is good because it's a very specific sound. If the guitar sound is actually coloring the fidelity, then that's a pretty bold move for the guitar sound, and you could get stuck in that and become a kind of, like, one of these Howlin' Wolf kind of bands... which is cool. You know, that's cool, but it's not where I want to live forever.
What about recreating that sound on the road? Are you going to lug around this rickety old amp that doesn't work properly? Or do you have a trick?
I've been lugging rickety old amps around for a couple years now and it's always fun. I call it my Tower of No Power. [laughs] It's like three old junkers kind of cabled together, and you always get shocked. But when it sounds good, man it sounds really good, you know? It's very convincing. I have one kind of more reliable one and then one mystery amp.
Have you always been much of a gearhead?
I am. For as long as I can remember, you couldn't follow the path of my guitars and amps. I couldn't sit down and write it out. I couldn't remember how many—not nice guitars, either, just kind of 300 dollar… If I took all of the money I spent on the myriad of $300 guitars, then I could've bought one nice one pretty early on. I don't know, I like them. For me, it's like, if you have to spend $300 to feel kind of invigorated again and have a slightly new sound, and if you end up writing 10 songs, that's like 30 bucks a song. That's pretty good to me. It's not a bad deal.
So you're not gunning for a sponsorship or anything.
No, no, nope. No sponsorship for me. Although I recently got pretty into recording which is a bad thing to do because it's so expensive, and it's not like guitars where you can be like, wow this $300 guitar is ripper. It's kind of more like you have to pay $2,000 or you have the best kind of sound.
I recently talked to Jace Lasek, from the Besnard Lakes in Montreal, and he runs what sounds like a pretty high-end studio, which is sort of the opposite approach…
Yeah, they really did it right. Good for them... I say through the, like, most jealous... [laughs]
I'm sure you get asked about your unique vocal approach, and I'm curious as to the origin of that. Was there a particular time when you actively decided to sing that way, or was it a natural progression?
I think the honest answer will paint me as kind of mad or insane, but to me my singing is just my singing. I don't hear the tones of the world in such stark dissonant or consonant [terms], and this is sonorous and this is displeasing. For me it's like, does it have heart? I guess. Does it convey that which is trying to be conveyed? I think that's the only thing I ask of myself: Am I trying to convey something, if so what, and am I?
I guess the answer is no. There was never a day when I was like, I'm going to be weird! [laughs] Time to eat my weird pills. Because that is a fucking arbitrary construction. It's a big lie. It's a miserable lie too, because it keeps us all from a small but very real measure of happiness. There are people out there who, if they could just kind of free themselves of this vice, they would really enjoy Frog Eyes because I think the emotions that we're trying to convey are fairly universal. Terror, and pain, and happiness, and joy, and the goodness in people, the sadness in people... This is no different than Van Morrison, really. But then I know, it's a bit much, isn't it? But then on the other hand, everything else is so milquetoast—I think that's the term. Maybe "a bit much" is like a shot in the arm. Maybe people need a booster of "a bit much." I don't know. I can't speak for other people. I can only suggest to them that they try and appreciate things a bit more, because at the end of the day, we really only have the works. Our friends leave us, our parents die. We only have that collected archive of expression. That's the one stable force for me, so limited yourself from entry points into that, you know, "This novel's too long," or "This guy writes weird," or "This guy sings weird"—sorry. I'm "guy, guy, guy…" Woman! "Her sculptures are off-putting." It's an honest reaction, but what else? There's gotta be more to that. That's when things get interesting is: What else? There's always more.
Thinking back to the first time I heard Frog Eyes, you were opening for another band and I didn't know any of the music. At first, I didn't get it, and I thought, "okay, I'm going to sit down and wait this out." But over the course of the set, it ended up growing on me in a major way.
Well, good. You're one of the few success stories.
It took some work, though—it's not as if I'm the perfect music fan who is immediately able to get rid of any preconceived notions.
No, I do it too, all the time. It's not a judgmental prescription, it's kind of a plea. [laughs] If not for Frog Eyes, then the next kind of under-the-radar artist. Go see a poet speak. That kind of thing, you know?
Do you think Frog Eyes attracts a certain kind of music fan? You're obviously well regarded by critics, and I wonder if the kinds of people who respond to the music are more literary, analytic types—the eggheads, as opposed to a more typical music fan who just wants something that sounds good on the drive to work.
I don't know, to be honest. It's demanding music. You're not going to get anything out of it if you're not going to wrestle with it. But there are parts of the music that sometimes I feel is almost judgmental. It's like, Where is your listener? Where is your place in the world? Who are you? What kind of side of the spectrum are you on? Especially the last couple records have seemed to me to be more and more concerned with external affairs. So my feeling is that, in a generalized sense, the kind of person who's going to like Frog Eyes is not going to vote for Sarah Palin, for example. And is probably going to be pretty interested in ideas of art and expression. Sensitive people, really. What could be better? We don't have a ton of fans, but when we play a concert, it's usually a very respectful audience, for example. And that makes me think that there are sensitive people in the audience who aren't, you know, slipping roofies into people's drinks. [laughs] You know, it's not that kind of a show.
Or maybe everyone at your show is on roofies.
[laughs] There are some weird people for sure. There are people who will confuse the art and the artist. Psycho dudes who want to paint the town red and go get wild. My god, what a nightmare… for me—I'm kind of old. It's a polyphony, I guess, of listeners. But I think "sensitive people" is the right answer.
Did Paul's Tomb: A Triumph truly take the full three years to record?
It was done in really productive little bursts. I think we spent three days in the studio actually making this record, like actually recording. Daryl Smith did a lot of the mixing by himself, and then we'd come in and be like, yeah, sounds good. Which is the nice thing about the computer, is that you can say, it sounds good but could this little noodling guitar just come up just for 10 seconds here? And he does that right away. But that only works if you trust your engineer, which we really do. But the reason that it was three years was really just—I feel that reducing one's cultural footprint is the way to go. As much physical waste that we pump into the world, there's just as much media waste. There's too much music. There's too much blog writing, there's too much... I don't know. But it's not for me to judge someone else, so therefore the better thing to do is to take it upon myself to put out a little less. Which is kind of weird, kind of hard to do for me. I mean, I still put out two records—well, 1.3 records during that time, too. The way I work is I fluctuate between writing music—not writing on the computer, but using the computer as kind of the catchall. That will be more my solo work as opposed to just writing things that immediately are so kind of evocative in a really energetic sense. If I kind of am, like, rising from my chair [laughs]—the old lord, rising from his chair—then I feel like I have something for Frog Eyes, and then Melanie [Campbell, drummer for Frog Eyes and Carey's wife] and I will work on that and chisel something out, then the rest of the band comes in, and that's basically done. It's quite easy. So that's the other reason that it took three years, just that kind of fluctuating process, and I also wanted to put out a solo record in that time.
Have you ever used those programs that print out the notes as sheet music?
This is why I wanted to stress that it's not really computer composition, it's just recording. It's just me recording by myself. It could just be me and a tape machine. It's just using the computer basically as a tape machine. I'm really not into computer wizardry at all. In fact, I kind of despise it. The worst things that bands do now is they play their music over a click track. Unless you're very seriously vying for a club hit, it makes no sense to me. Tempo fluctuations are the dynamic soul of a song. Why you would want to be singing your heart out with a "ding! ding!" [imitates click track], you know, those grating things needling into your mind. Bands, don't do it! Because your song is not going to be a club hit anyway [laughs]. Just accept it.
The computer's just an acknowledgment that I don't have enough money for a big, fat tape machine, and nor do I really need one.
You're in Victoria, which is close to Portland, but I've never been up there.
Yeah, that's quite common to be in Seattle and people are like, "Where are you from?" I'm like, "Victoria, you can probably see it from here," and they're like, "Never heard of it." [laughs]
I think the perception is that Vancouver is further north, and therefore Victoria must be even further north than that.
That's the funny thing. If you were to continue the 54°40'—I think? Is that it? That's the borderline?—we would actually be part of America. That's funny because Victoria has the more—how could I put it? These kind of West Coast, coffee-lovin' bike dudes…
There's plenty of those in Portland, too.
Yeah, they think that Victoria and Portland are joined at the hip and they're sister cities. But you go to Portland and people are like, "Never heard of it, man."
Does being in Victoria influence your music?
Yeah, for sure. I think living in Victoria has one thousand times more influence than living in Canada. I mean, people talk to me about, so, uh, say hi to Broken Social Scene! [laughs] I have no idea what you're talking about. That's so far away from, not just me geographically, but culturally. Nothing against anything or anyone, but I'm not really a patriot. But I am a person who's into the very specific geography of a place. In fact, I feel more comfortable talking to you than I would talking to someone from Toronto. I feel like there's more of a Cascadia—who knows, maybe I'd be saying the opposite to the Toronto guy. "Go Canada! Come to our show!" [laughs]
I originally grew up on the East Coast, which feels very far away to me now.
So where do you feel like you're from?
Well, still the East Coast. But I do feel like the town where I grew up is gone, it's gone through so many changes that the place no longer exists as I knew it.
Victoria's been kind of decimated recently, too. People are always moving to Montreal, or Vancouver, which makes it hard. It's kind of like Olympia in some ways, I guess. It has little, brief kind of renaissance moments, and then people move away. To Portland.
Victoria is important, though. It's an interesting place. Just the ocean and the trees, that kind of thing.
Is it a relatively peaceful place? I imagine that the landscape is rugged...
It's so peaceful. If I wasn't able to leave here, I don't think I could live here because it's so tranquil and so sensual in a kind of weird way. People do a lot of, like, hippie drugs here and they're really into food. They're kind of into the pleasures of the body as opposed to what I perceive to be the more... You know, in Vancouver a lot of my friends are like political philosophers, for example. The very rigid world of the mind—which definitely seems attractive if you stick around here for too long. But a nice balance of the two is pretty awesome, I think. But yeah, it's incredibly peaceful. It's amazing. I remember when Baghdad fell, just driving around and being like, oh my god. Just—not guilty, but just in shock at how much we have here in the sense of utter peace. And how quickly marauding fuckin' invaders hopped up on Red Bull and who knows what else could completely destroy everything about that sense of peace. I don't know… It's not a very profound thought.
Where does the sense of turmoil in your songs come from, then? There's usually more than one emotion going on in a Frog Eyes song, and it's not always a peaceful one.
Well there is, hopefully, moments of peace. There's supposed to be. The Frog Eyes formula is kind of: storm, and then the clouds clear. Storm, and then the clouds clear. Paul's Tomb is a different record, though. Thematically, there's only one thing, I think, that really kind of lived within me, and that was just to go to the darkest thing you can imagine, which was the killing of all of the women in the downtown east side of Vancouver. I don't know if you even heard about this in Portland. There was like a pig farmer [Robert Pickton] who—they discovered 60 women had gone missing and they think this guy had killed them all, but… I don't want to say that the record is about a serial killer, because it's absolutely not, but what the record is about is our inability to recognize how deep that impulse runs within all of us, within the bloodlines of our society, basically. I mean, we have a stretch of road up in Northern BC called the Highway of Tears where over a dozen Aboriginal women have been killed on this road, and it took finally, whoever's doing this, it took the disappearance of a white woman for their to be any notice paid to it. It's just so incredibly abysmal, and it's still there. But it's something that's almost impossible to speak about. All you can do is kind of lend your support.
But that is the darkness of Paul's Tomb, absolutely. It leaves me tongue-tied. And sometimes when you don't live in a place, you can see it better. So Vancouver, for me, is the absolute worst city in the world in some ways because it's the biggest capitalist fraud. Its high rise towers over the graves of these missing women, basically, and all kinds of other people go missing and die all the time, and it's just like, "Whatever! We got the Olympics! Whatever!" [laughs] "We're going to build some new condos for yuppies!" And it's such a lie because those condos are kind of sold on this idea of the romanticism of misery. You know, like, "Come explore the downtown East Side!" Gentrification is like... I think nowhere is it worse than in Vancouver.
It's kind of a farce that the music has just dropped the ball in responding to these kinds of things, I think. And for an understandable reason. I mean, George Bush for eight years, right? [laughs] You just want to go crank MGMT. You just want to be stupid and in bliss for a couple hours, I understand that. Also the very didactic, kind of heavy-handed political music of the '90s didn't help either, right? I mean, it doesn't work, right? So I don't know. Maybe we need a new kind of political arc or something. I don't know. To me it's very depressing that the children who know about something called "indie rock" because they went to Wal-Mart and bought some indie rock shoes or whatever. [laughs] This is not what I signed up for. It's tough, and I'm sure that I am not alone in this. It's like, how can I escape? And the escape sucks too because the only escape, really, is down the rabbit hole into the world of fine art. So I could become, like, a noise guy who gets paid to go play artist-run centers, and maybe I could read a poem. But that doesn't seem as appealing to me as playing in front of 30 awkward teenagers in Boise, Idaho.
And you're going to get people there for more than one reason.
That's what I mean. It's its own kind of ivory tower, the fine art or the high art scene, you know? I guess. I don't know. What do I know about anything? These are my factless assumptions. [laughs]
Well, maybe in that way, rock is still kind of a subversive medium—if it's able to contain the message that it needs to, rather than be some useless art project for those already in the know.
That's true. Yeah, that's the problem, isn't it? It's such a fine line to straddle between—as soon as the kind of lumbering, bourgeois beasts get a whiff of the money that could be made in something that is quote-unquote authentic, they kind of descend. It's really, really hard to fight that, and it's happening right now. And then the very real traditions that might've existed... So we're playing in a place called Holocene, right? That's, like—from what I know—a pretty important place in Portland, right? It serves a very specific function and there's a tradition there, so me playing at Holocene, I know where I am. Does that make sense? But when that bourgeois lumbering beast descends, it blots out the light and it's very hard to remember those traditions I think, after that. Because kids are just like, "Whatever. Check out my shoes. I got 'em at Wal-Mart. [laughs] I'm at an indie club, awesome! I'm so indie." Indie indie indie, you know?
I was trying to say something positive there about Holocene. Did that make sense? I just don't want to be too gung-ho.
The record is called Paul's Tomb: A Triumph. Who's Paul? Is it St. Paul?
Paul's Tomb is actually a geographical place. It's very close to where my wife grew up. It's a tomb that's built on a lake [Okanagan Lake], and the lake is beautiful in some parts and—it's a huge lake—in some parts, it's kind of saw mill and that kind of thing. A lot of it is being developed, so there's not a lot of private space, but one of the places that is really well protected is Paul's Tomb, and you have to walk about three kilometers to get there in the blazing heat. It's like 40 degrees [Celsius] in the summer. And you get there and all of a sudden, the water's aquamarine, and you feel like you're swimming in the Mediterranean maybe off of Italy. It's just absolutely beautiful. But we've never been able to find Paul's Tomb. So we get to the beach called Paul's Tomb, and there's a big plaque: "Paul built the tomb," blah blah blah, but I'm always like, where is the actual tomb? Where are the doors? We want to find that place. The most honest answer to maybe your next question, "Why did you name it Paul's Tomb?" is there is something phonetically pleasing about those two words together and they're very mysterious and maybe quasi-religious, which Frog Eyes has an element of that, for sure. But really, we just think it's funny that we can never find Paul's Tomb. It's this mysterious, beautiful place where you never find that which you are seeking, I guess.