by Andrew Lewis
Good morning Jonathan, I hope you’re well?
Good morning England. Hi Andy. It’s nice to speak.
That’s good to hear. I’ll admit that I’m a little nervous…
Don’t tell anybody.
So, this is a huge honour for me. I have been a huge Mercury Rev fan for over 20 years now, so being given this opportunity is rather special. But I know you’re a very modest man, so I won’t embarrass you further…
So before we discuss your latest LP, can I ask how you, Grasshopper and the band felt about the recent Deserter’s Songs tour? How did it go down from an inside perspective?
It went really well, it was a lot of fun and it sort of opened up a lot of stuff about songs that you thought you’d known for the past twenty-odd years. Which you don’t.
Yep. That was certainly the impression that I got. As a fan in the 5th or 6th row, it felt more like a “happening” in somebody’s living room than a theatre gig. It was very honest and certainly a humbling experience for everybody in that room…
Sometimes the eye can’t see itself. And sometimes you need that reflection. And the reflection in people’s eyes to see exactly what it is you have done, undone and become in that time. And it was a lot more fulfilling than we honestly ever hoped for.
I don’t know if you’ll remember, but I saw you in Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street in New York City a few years ago and the crowd there seemed very similar to the kind of punters you see in this country. Do you feel that you appeal more to the UK public, or do you think you appeal to a very specific sort of music fan?
I remember it well. It was a Bella Union night which automatically makes things more “Anglophile”.
You probably remember it better than me..
So, the new record… I’ll be honest, I was sceptical. The majority of the time, this kind of project doesn’t go down particularly well, but I have to hand it to you – it’s incredible. It really is.
Did you enjoy making a record without the added pressure of having to put a vocal down?
It really made everything so much more subjective. Without thinking “that’s the song I love to sing” or “I can’t stand this song”, I could see the whole island, rather than the tiny little ports. For a lot of artists it is probably difficult to step away from your usual role, but on the other hand, it allows you to get deeper in to the mine.
You’ve got some pretty big hitters on there. Norah Jones being my personal favourite. Do you guys know each other or did you have to jump through hoops to get her on-board?
It was all very easy. We are all friends, connected through music, so it all just fell in to place.
In terms of the decision, did you have this kind of project already in mind, or did you one day turn around and say, “this is what we need to do next!”?
It was really just something that I found mysterious and engaging, without talking about Ode to Billy Joe being on there. As young children in the late 60’s and early 70’s, that was the way in to Bobby Gentry. As it was for just about everybody. So the idea to try and re-imagine an entire album – we’re not a country band, we are kids from the mountains in upstate New York – it was only ever going to be this album. We didn’t think “let’s cover Motorhead because it will be fun.”
The music was all done very, very quickly. Before we got all the ‘kittens in the basket’, as it were. It was all a lot of fun and very playful. And I think that that was when we understood that we may be on to something. It is much, much bigger than Mercury Rev itself.
It doesn’t feel like Mercury Rev playing Country. It could be any genre..
It’s ‘home’ music. Bobby is from a place in America where you really have to be from there to be able to speak about it. With ‘The South’ you have everything else that goes with it. Bobby always wrote in a very playful way. She never tried to politicise it and that was something that made that album in particular, very special.
I know it sounds corny, but she sang songs about men for men, and feminised it. And we wanted to magnify that. And we wanted to make it sincere and not weird or abstract.
America has produced so many female superstars but I imagine Bobby is rarely spoken about. Is there a reason?
She is an enigma. That is something that is very hard to achieve in America. Everyone’s first impulse is “I want more!”. In my eyes, she didn’t appear to embrace or attract that.
Putting you on the spot – what is your favourite song on the album?
For myself, and probably Grasshopper, it’s Ode to Billy Joe. It’s ’in there’ in your musical DNA. Very few songs have stuck with me from childhood like that one did. It has such a deeper theatrical art than a lot of the crap that was coming out at that time.
On Deserter’s Songs, you’ll hear a lot of Ode to Billy Joe. Not musically, but you’ll hear the skittering strains.
So you didn’t fancy singing that one yourself?
Initially I did, and the band suggested it, but I soon realised that the way in to the album was with the female voice. I really wanted to sing on these songs, but the better part of me understood that to unlock this vault, we would need the twelve combinations, like on a safe.
I really appreciate how open you have been. These things must be boring after all of these years. So I am going to ask you a very obvious question – what was the last album you listened to?
Y’know – and this really annoys my girlfriend – I don’t really listen to music. Probably the last thing I listened to through choice was something by Vangelis. All that Bladerunner synth type stuff. I’m not really a listener anymore.
I never had you down as a Vangelis fan. That’s very interesting. I presume you have a synth-driven album in the pipeline?
We are in the studio and it is left, left field.
I can’t wait!
Jonathan, it has been a pleasure. See you soon!