Mercury rises over Tel Aviv

American indie-rockers Mercury Rev are back to perform instrumental show set against the backdrop of avant-garde silent films.

November 21, 2010 22:00

MERCURY REV. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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One never knows the protocol of greeting someone named Grasshopper. Unlike Madonna, Sting or even Slash, which you could probably use with a modicum of awkwardness, calling someone Grasshopper is just never going to sound comfortable.

That’s why it was relief when his wife answered the phone in their upstate New York home and said, “I’ll go get Sean,” referring to Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak, the resident guitarist/flautist/electronic adventurer in Mercury Rev, a band itself of music adventurers.

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“Yeah, this is Grasshopper,” he said when he came on the line, casting confusion once again over how to address him. But the potential embarrassment faded away as Grasshopper (“I don’t know why it hasn’t caught on like Sting – maybe I drink too much, or maybe he doesn’t drink enough”) cheerfully explains the latest chapter in the revered psychedelic indie band’s always evolving life.

When the band last played here at Tel Aviv’s Hangar 11 in 2005, the band – founded by Grasshopper and childhood friend Jonathan Donahue almost two decades ago in Buffalo – were at the height of their underground playfulness, playing ornate, surrealistic music that often sounded Brian Wilson fronting The Flaming Lips.

This time around, there are some changes. Their show on Friday at Reading 3 will feature two halves – the first being an acoustic portion where the quartet provides stripped down arrangements from their vast repertoire.

A posting on their MySpace page promised “lots of buried treasure in this set for sure” which will enable fans to “shout out those rare b-sides you always wanted to hear.”

“We’ve done a few acoustic shows, and they’re totally different than our usual set,” said Grasshopper, saying that he finds the format change refreshing.

“Some of the songs were written that way, so it’s back to the basics in a sense.”

It’s following a short break in the show after that feel-good set that things will start getting wonderfully weird, in Mercury Rev tradition. That’s when Mercury Rev’s Clear Light Ensemble will rear it’s head – the same band, but playing instrumental, improvised music they call “soundscape explorations” against the backdrop of avant garde silent films from the 1920s and 30s.

The notion is not so far-fetched, considering that Mercury Rev initially banded together near Buffalo in 1989 as films students who needed soundtrack music to complement their film projects for school. But the latter-day band tends to take things farther into the stratosphere than they ever envisioned back in college.

“We sort of have a preconceived idea about some things, like what key it’s going to be in, but what basically happens is that while we’re watching the movie, often for the first time, we’ll just create music for it. It’s basically improvised,” said the 43-year-old Grasshopper, who received a master’s degree in Media Studies from the New School in 1993.

THE BAND launched the idea during a tour of Europe this past summer, and according to Grasshopper, the experiment hit its peak in Denmark, where the Danish Film Institute provided rare silent films from the 1920s and avant garde films from the 1940s and 1950s for the band to collaborate on.

“The Danish government gave us access to all these great, old films, some of them which hadn’t been seen in years. They were just in the process of finally transferring them to DVDs. It was a really amazing experience,” he said.

The band has their own stash of films they travel with, which provide the backdrop at most presentations of the Clear Light Ensemble, and Grasshopper promised they’d pick some choice offerings for Tel Aviv. One unexpected benefit to the free flowing format of riffing on soundtrack music is the occasional spark that results in a song.

“Sometimes, snippets emerge from the evening, little themes that we hear that wind up to be songs later. We set limits for ourselves, so its not complete chaos, and sometimes some nice melodies come out of it,” said Grasshopper.

Captivating melodies drenched in layers of mood-inducing washes of sound and constant reinvention have been the foundations of Mercury Rev from the beginning. According to Grasshopper, that style emerged from the amalgam of music he was hearing growing up – including the punk and new wave of Television, X and Echo and the Bunnymen, classic rock like Neil Young and The Band and a healthy dollop of jazz.

Grasshopper met Donahue on a schoolyard playground (contrary to reports that they met at a reform school), and remained friends through school and into college. The original lineup of the band featured the duo, along with Jeff Mercel on drums and keyboards and Dave Fridmann on bass. Carlos Antony Molina has since replaced Fridmann, and aside from some long hiatuses due to health problems and outside projects (Grasshopper once spent six months at a Jesuit monastery in Spain), the band has been relatively intact along their way to releasing 10 albums.

WHEN GRASSHOPPER spoke to The Jerusalem Post in 2005, he expressed satisfaction at the band’s low-key success.

”We never set out to be big on that kind of level. All of our heroes – whether in film, literature or music – were more modular, and that’s what we've attempted to do. You can make a living doing what you want, and express your individuality without being huge,” he said.

Because of that philosophy, Mercury Rev has actually become more respected in Europe, and Israel, where record sales and popularity more often take a back seat in music fans’ eyes to originality and inspiration.

“I would agree with the assessment that we’re more popular outside of the States than at home. I think it's because Europeans are a lot more open to new kinds of music. It’s always been that way, going back to jazz, people like Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk. It’s just a different mindset than in America – which is much more focused on the media, and where the music industry is corporate-driven and greedy,” he said.

Since debuting in Israel at an alternative music festival in 2000, Mercury Rev has built a steady following here, and the band has become more comfortable with each visit. Their MySpace page vows to “hits the beaches, visit the Holy Land, swim in humous” and Grasshopper is definitely looking forward to leaving the already-wintery weather of upstate New York and the haplessness of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills for the Mediterranean landscape.

“We were in Tel Aviv last time on the beaches for two or three days, the city was so alive,” he said, adding that the band was equally taken on their trips to Jerusalem and Masada.

“You can’t even describe the drive down to Masada, going to the desert through the mountains. It’s so beautiful that it’s impossible to explain it to someone back home.”

As the conversation winds down, the trepidation over calling someone Grasshopper fades as well. According to various explanations, the name derives from his last name Mackiowiak, which means “poppy” in Polish, and was mutated into “Hoppy” and finally “Grasshopper” by childhood friends.

However Grasshopper once told an online chat once that the name stuck because he was hyperactive as a child and used to jump around a lot.

On the afternoon of their show on Friday, the members of the band will be appearing at the Ozen Bar in Tel Aviv at 1 pm. to meet fans, sign CDs, and answer musical questions. If you approach Mackiowiak, we now know that he’ll answer to just about any name. But after a couple decades of sterling musical accomplishments, he might have finally earned the moniker of Mr. Grasshopper.

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