From their beginnings as avant-pop pranksters to their evolution into purveyors of rootsy, majestic psych-pop, Mercury Rev weren't so much a band as a long, strange trip.
Formed in Buffalo, New York, in the late '80s, the band originally featured 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 members of 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 their 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 like-minded 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, the members of Mercury Rev again went their separate ways; they 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, they were 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 Mercury Rev: 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 Roc; they also released a companion album, Strange Attractor, as a free online download. After a period of change and reflection that saw the band pursuing experimental projects such as performances of Mercury Rev's Cinematic Sound Tettix BrainWave Concerto Experiment at John Zorn's New York City venue The Stone and headlining the 2014 Green Man festival with a performance of Deserter's Songs, the band returned with new music in 2015. The Light in You, a collection of songs Donahue and Grasshopper largely recorded at their Catskills home base with bassist Anthony Molina and engineer Scott Petito, arrived in September of that year. ~ Jason Ankeny, Rovi