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Sean (Grasshopper) Mackowiak was hoping to find a turkey sandwich somewhere. The guitarist and sometimes-clarinetist for American indie-rockers Mercury Rev found himself in turkey-challenged Bilbao, Spain last week for Thanksgiving in the midst of the band's European tour, and he wasn't optimistic about locating the required ingredients for the long distance observance of the holiday.
"It doesn't really matter, we've got a show tonight so I'll be busy," he told The Jerusalem Post during an afternoon phone conversation to promote the band's upcoming concert in Tel Aviv on December 5 at the Hangar in Tel Aviv.
While his mono-nickname is unlikely to join the ranks of household icons like Sting, Madonna, Flea and Prince - Grasshopper is not displeased at living below the "celebrity" bar.
"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.
The band he co-founded in the late 1980s in Buffalo, New York with Jonathan Donahue has deliberately avoided the push for mass acceptance - to the extent that their sixth full-length CD The Secret Migration was released in Europe before their native country.
"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," he said.
"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."
Mercury Rev's music reflects the ideals of "art first, commercial second". Described by Rolling Stone as "rural psychedelia", their spacey harmonics and Seventies rootsiness-meets-college radio cool is reminiscent of the like-minded Flaming Lips, who Donahue joined in the 1990s during one of Rev's occasional hiatuses. Grasshopper credits their difficult-to-pigeonhole kaleidoscope of sounds to his various influences growing up.
"I was lucky. We lived close to the Canadian border and there were great stations there, and also college stations like the one at SUNY Fredonia. It was there that I first heard people like Television, The Ramones, and X. And from England, bands like Echo and the Bunnymen.
"At the same time, we had a classic rock station in Buffalo, where I became familiar with people like Neil Young and The Band, who came to be big influences. I also listened to tons of jazz," Grasshopper said.
The connection with The Band became more concrete when Grasshopper's neighbors in the Catskill Mountains - Levon Helm and Garth Hudson - put in guest appearances on the group's 1999 artistic peak, Deserter's Song.
"Both Garth and Levon live around the area, and they're both sweethearts and great guys. Levon holds concerts in his house every month and invites guests to play. Last month it was Dr. John, and before that it was Emmylou Harris. It's pretty cool," said Grasshopper.
While Mercury Rev has weathered many personnel changes over the years, the core of Donahue and Grasshopper has provided the band with a strong identity. Today, the band officially numbers three: Donahue, Grasshopper and keyboardist Jeff Mercel. However original bass player Dave Fridmann has continued to produce all their albums and according to the band's official bio, remains a key creative element in their music. On their current tour, the band is augmented by Jason Miranda on drums and Carlos Anthony Molina on bass.
Back when the band made their Israeli debut in 1999 at an alternative rock festival in Tel Aviv, Donahue told The Jerusalem Post that they had been begging their manager for years to play here, and praised Israelis for being "a lot more courageous and willing to listen to newer music." Grasshopper explained that the sentiment has only strengthened in the ensuing years.
"I think you find real lovers of music in Israel - people who maybe take their cue from the British music press. I've met some great music fans here. I don't know why a lot more bands don't come here," he said.
Grasshopper cited the band's friendship with local musical icon Aviv Geffen as bolstering their affinity to the country. The Israeli singer-songwriter filled the warm up slot on a number of Mercury Rev's dates in France earlier this year, and Grasshopper doesn't negate the possibility that Geffen will make an appearance with the band in Tel Aviv.
"We're definitely going to see Aviv, and he might come onstage for a song or two - we're working on that now. The first time we were here, we met him and struck up a friendship. He showed us around Tel Aviv. So when an opening slot appeared on our shows in France, we invited him to play," he said.
Having become acclimated to Israel through the connection with Geffen, Grasshopper and the rest of the band have no qualms about tooling around the country. He said that for them, it's not really different than being anywhere in Europe.
"I suppose [the security situation] is always in the back of our minds, but it's really just another place for us. There are subtle things which pop up - like getting searched before you go into the grocery store - that's a bit different."
But it's not much different than looking for a turkey sandwich in Bilbao, Spain.
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