Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes): Interview
“I think there is an emotional intensity to ‘keeping it together’ that rivals the oh-man-I’m-losing-it wild person style of yesteryear, too.”
Carey Mercer is a voice of fury, an intellectual fury that transcends the things we are meant to understand on a cultural level. As frontman of Frog Eyes, Mercer lets his fury come out in a voice that lashes out at the mind of what could or could not be reprehensible toward ourselves and others. The approach is different this time; his new self-released album, Carey’s Cold Spring, is a more restrained fury, as though clarity rather than emotion are necessary to play one’s hand in these times, especially given that it lacks the narrative approach of either Paul’s Tomb (A Triumph) or Tears of the Valedictorian. Remaining, however, is the intelligence and the ground shaking beneath your feet that carved a space in your head in prior albums.
Carey’s Cold Spring dropped just after two things affected Mercer’s life greatly: his father’s passing, and the discovery of cancer in his throat. He chatted with us about these situations, the mood of the new record, and the role of narrative in music.
The first thing that people will notice about Carey’s Cold Spring is that it is a lot more solemn than previous records. What would you say was the mood going in?
It’s hard to answer this question, because the songwriting for Carey’s Cold Spring seems like a lifetime ago. My wife Mel plays drums with me; sometime around Paul’s Tomb we decided to have a baby. We toured with our son when he was 8 months old. I don’t recommend spending eight to 10 hours a day in a van with a creature that you can’t reason with, a creature that just wants to suckle and doesn’t care that we are late for sound-check, can’t comprehend why we’ve been driving for five hours straight. It burnt me. I love my son, and it burnt me deeply to hear him crying for his mom as he thrashed in his car-seat, all in the name of getting to soundcheck. When we got home from five weeks of touring, truly frazzled, truly done, I was ready to stop making music.
Except that I kept writing songs.
Melanie and I just couldn’t find the time to get together, and after some months these songs started to weigh me down, to poison my system. So, out of love, I think, she bowed out for a record, and I asked my friend Matty [Skillings] to play some drums with me.
The actual writing of the songs had nothing to do with my dad’s passing; I think they are more focused on a question like, with apologies to Sheila Heti, who I haven’t read, but mean to, “How can a person exist?” How should a person exist (be)? Complacent? Radicalized? In a “political” sense: head-up, or head-down? I am, at heart, a head-down person, as most of us are. But the problem with head-down seems to be that many of our captains are mad; they keep taking, keep defiling, keep bringing about our own collective ruin. They don’t give a shit if we work with them or against them. They want our labor, and then they want the value of our labor returned to them.
At the same time, of course, my songs are very important to some people. I know this because people write me to tell me this. And my songs are very important to me; it is important to my mental health and well-being to produce the songs, to turn them into sonic artifacts that can be consumed by people. It’s what keeps me going, I suppose: better to be 50 people’s favorite band in the universe than to have your handlers grease your tunes onto 50,000 people’s iTunes libraries, where they languish, unlistened, with all of the other disposable music that litters our lives.
I love my son, and it burnt me deeply to hear him crying for his mom as he thrashed in his car-seat, all in the name of getting to soundcheck. When we got home from five weeks of touring, truly frazzled, truly done, I was ready to stop making music.
I think a song like “Don’t Give Up Your Dreams” explores my inertia, the gulf between the shimmering, far-off beauty of one’s ideals and the flabby, inarticulate banality of the succession of our days. The title is both deeply, viciously self-mocking and cynical, but also absolutely earnest. And maybe that’s an aspect of the well-developed gaze: the one that sees the futility of dreams, dreams both personal and political, but the gaze also sees the unbearable alternative, the one where we actually have NO dreams or hopes, NO aspirations: it’s the very nadir of a good, meaningful life.
So the mood going in to the studio was absolutely desperate. To use a nautical metaphor: the mood was stuffed with conflicting desires to keep on sailing on, and, conversely, the deep desire to just try and find some safe harbor to rest, to throw anchor and just retire from movement. Songwriting, for me, is a kind of journey, a passage to some unknown place. You never, ever know where you are going, but you must always be on the frontier: the Star Trek dream.
I’m glad I kept going. I’m starting to feel like the wind is on my back and not in my face.
Matty and I did three night sessions of drum tracking, spread out over a year. I think my dad died shortly after the second session, and then shortly after this happened, we went in and tracked the last three songs, one of which was “Claxxon’s Lament.” So my dad passing was not a part of the actual songwriting (this happens on the next record), but probably informs the mood of the record, though I could never tell you how, because I don’t know how to capture such abstract elements of music, even when they are plainly there.
It is fascinating that you bring up the issue of the market not caring. Is that at least part of the reason why you went with a self-release, rather than going through Dead Oceans?
The record was made for Dead Oceans, from a recording advance from them, and accepted by them. Then I was diagnosed with cancer, and I had to think about whether or not I wanted to hand them a massive debt. Why would I be handing them a debt? Because I am not sure if I will be able to tour with it. I have done my treatment, but I don’t know what happens next; I won’t know for a few months. Maybe, hopefully, nothing: I just get better? But I can’t be sure of that. So I can’t sign off on a tour, and without a tour, a record doesn’t really exist as an economic entity. There’s just no point in a big operation like Dead Oceans getting behind a record that is missing such a central part of “the package.”
And in the case of Carey’s Cold Spring, there is no package. There is only the least important/most important part of the package: nine songs.
Anyways, to get back to the market: the market doesn’t care, the market would have me die or go mute, until I can figure out a more wholesale way to commodify pain or sadness or anxiety. But people do care about my music. But alas, they are only people. The market is NOT a coalescence of people’s desires or wishes; it is something far more slippery.
There is a certain restraint in your vocals this time around. The passion is still there, but you seem more intent on being clear than being emotional. What drove that element of the recording?
I don’t know. Maybe the way I assembled the music, the way these songs felt or sounded when it came time to sing them, created the need for some restraint. The drums are busier, the guitars and keys are tracked in stereo: maybe there just wasn’t room for that kind of delivery. There is only so much room in those speakers, right? And I think I had left myself a restraint-sized hole for the singing.
I did the singing at the very end of the work on the record. I wasn’t getting good vocal sounds, and I was broke. I was attending university last year, and in an act of committed lunacy, I spent my student loan on a really beautiful microphone, instead of tuition, and once I plugged it in, I sang the vocals in a few days.
I know what you mean by slightly more restrained, but I think there is an emotional intensity to “keeping it together” that rivals the oh-man-I’m-losing-it wild person style of yesteryear, too.
Oh yeah: having said all that: the volume of my headphones when I’m tracking vocals isn’t so blistering anymore.
What was it like stepping away from creating a grander narrative in your song-writing, like you did with Paul’s Tomb?
Liberating. Concepts and narratives are interesting, I guess, but there’s also an element of “added bonus” too — like, “Even if the music isn’t that good, you do know there’s an accompanying concept, right?” I am quite taken with Callahan’s Dream River, which is kind of connected, it has a narrative feel, the soft, not-deep articulations of someone floating on the top of one’s days, the not-deep reflections and observations somehow creating this massive depth. But these ideas are backed up by the music, surrounded by the music, enveloped in the music.
Fuck, even calling Paul’s Tomb a “triumph” is probably an unconscious “tell” that I do not, in fact, consider it to be a triumph.
But, after suggesting that conceptual works actually doth protest too much, I do think songwriters need to be smart when they aren’t writing songs, and also when they are. They do not need to be educated, they do not need to know [Gilles] Deleuze from [Félix] Guattari, but they need to have a sense of what the shape and weight of the world is. Reading is one way to get a sense of this shape — it seems to me to be the quickest way. But it’s not the only way.
We songwriters also should have new and old music playing every second of our waking lives.
The title of this album, Carey’s Cold Spring sounds introspective. How personal was this recording to you, especially in comparison to Paul’s Tomb or even Tears of the Valedictorian?
I actually think this record was, in truth, less personal than past records; it’s more about the motions of keeping moving, of not withering, of just ejecting the songs from my system, just keeping active and alive: treading water, I guess. I think the reason that I think of it as “less personal” is that I don’t have a lot of social memories attached to the making of it. Three nights in Matty’s truck, hauling the gear at 10 p.m. out to the suburbs of Vancouver so we got a good rate on the studio. Then sending the tracks to my friend Dante [DeCaro], who recorded bass. Then doing guitars by myself, for seemingly ever, and then singing, by myself, and then sending it off to my friend Daryl to mix. No label meetings, no producer, no band solidarity, not even the fun of hanging out with the guy that mixed it. Kind of a lonely time, to be honest.
That said, a really tight, ‘together’ touring unit of a band can make a horrible record. It’s all about the final product; no one cares how it was made, as long as it sounds good.
But yeah, on the other hand, to negate everything that I’ve just said: this record is more about myself than any other, I think.
The market doesn’t care, the market would have me die or go mute, until I can figure out a more wholesale way to commodify pain or sadness or anxiety. But people do care about my music. But alas, they are only people. The market is NOT a coalescence of people’s desires or wishes; it is something far more slippery.
The fact that it is both impersonal yet about yourself… Would you say it comes from a detached view of what you have been witnessing about your life and your work? As in, looking at what has happened to you from an outsider’s perspective?
The record is very much about my reactions, my confusion, my contradictions: it is about me, but does not originate within me. The record is NOT about what happened to me when I was five. It is about me as a reaction to the world that we lived through during the making of the record. It’s about me sitting on my back patio in my old apartment watching the sky grow pink and purple, watching the mountains glow from the sunset, watching the smoke over the city and hearing the buzz of helicopters on the night that my city rioted because some millionaires on skates couldn’t slap a hockey puck into a net. It’s about feeling alone in the face of awesome stupidity. And it’s about the sneaking feeling that I am complicit in this stupidity. To judge, and be judged, in the same moment.
In relation to that, did this feel more a solo record than a Frog Eyes record?
Well: if I was to listen to the record, I will most likely hear everyone else’s parts: the finesse of Matty’s drumming, the beautiful bass from Dante. I told you that this wasn’t a social record, but I kind of forgot about a very important thing that happened. One night, at a party, I asked my old friend Shyla [Seller], who was a very prodigious piano player in her teens but had never played in a band, if she would be interested in playing a little piano on my songs. So I do have a social memory, and kind of a dear one: Shyla and I, in my recording room, singing out her piano melodies, finding the space for keys. This was one of the last things that happened before I sent the record away to mix, and actually was a powerful tonic or cleanser for me. I had felt kind of low about the record, found it to be a bunch of parts and not one sum, but her playing and parts kind of sowed everything together for me, and changed how I heard the record. Sometimes I just need to be there when things go down, I guess.
What has always fascinated me about your songwriting is the intellectual and prose-based cadence of these songs, enough that they could almost be spoken aloud and the impact would still be the same. The only other songwriters I know who do something similar are Spencer Krug and Dan Bejar. I understand from what you are reading that specific styles of writing affect how you write your songs, but how much does prose or poetry play a role?
But that’s just not true! You COULD physically speak my songs aloud, but some massive deficit would reveal itself. One night a few years ago I was having beers with Bejar and a few friends, and I threw an accusation in smug Bejar’s face: He is not a poet. He’s a songwriter. Our friends looked at me, aghast: Surely, if anyone is a poet, it is Bejar! His songs drip with poetic devices, call attention to language itself, blah, blah. I nodded and smiled as I do now, remembering the loyalty and earnestness of their protests, but I still insist: If he is a poet, he must write poetry. He writes songs. Think of the stereo speaker: How much of that speaker is actually filled up with words? One half? A half is actually a lot: a half means the mixer has cranked the vocal! But what about the other half? That’s not silence, not a void, not negative space. It’s filled up with music. Take the music away, and you don’t have a poem! You just have a song without music, the saddest thing that I can think of.
As for the other question: yep, I like books. I also like songs. I like movies, I like TV, I like my son, the sea, my wife’s face in the morning, my mom’s laugh, I like or love all of these things. Take it all in, put it up against the darkness, and listen to what you’ve got. Do it again and again and you are finally sure that you are indeed fucking alive.
Still, regardless of the lack of a poetic nature to it, there is still this intellect to your lyrics that pushes your readers to digest things a little more. From what do you draw when using such language?
My mom really likes words; she likes puns and making up striking word combinations. She also likes collecting garbage from the street. Honestly: we grew up wearing sweatshirts she hauled out of creeks. We were attired in what was probably evidence from a violent crime. She would bring it home and wash it: “like new!” Recently we were walking down one of Vancouver’s more gnarly streets, a street peppered with needles and feces and condoms, and she saw this shoe under a hedge, and I swear she was going to go root around under the hedge for this one shoe. I yelled “NO!” She agreed not to grab the soaking-wet, ripped solo Reebok, but I heard her muttering to herself afterwards, absolutely amazed at her own powers of perception. She was like, “It’s so amazing what I see! No one else could spot the little treasures that are just everywhere.” And then she looked at me, and said, “It’s like I have Solar Elliptical Garbage Eyes.”
So that’s where I come from, where I am coming from, a woman that just spits out phrases like, “Solar Elliptical Garbage Eyes.” You see that I have a kind of unholy advantage over many of my peers in this respect.
It’s about me sitting on my back patio in my old apartment watching the sky grow pink and purple, watching the mountains glow from the sunset, watching the smoke over the city and hearing the buzz of helicopters on the night that my city rioted because some millionaires on skates couldn’t slap a hockey puck into a net. It’s about feeling alone in the face of awesome stupidity. And it’s about the sneaking feeling that I am complicit in this stupidity. To judge, and be judged, in the same moment.
Going back to Bejar and Spencer, I am probably the only person outside of Vancouver who thinks this, but I always thought that Swan Lake got a bad rep, and was remarkable in its own unique ways. Do you feel Krug, Bejar, and you got what you wanted out of that project, regardless of what the market and the critics thought?
Hmmm. It’s hard to say. I’m happy to hear you hear its uniqueness. A lot of people liked Beast Moans. There is a spirit in that record, you know? The market even dug it in its own way, and I’m noting that the market dug almost everything in that pre-recession age. Critics? I think some of them liked it and some of them called bullshit: not enough either way to leave me with an impression of failure or… “triumph.”
It’s kind of cool to split critical consensus though. I am wary and weary of works that get universal praise. I guess Swan Lake is an oddity: for both records, lots of killer songs got thrown down that hole; a good producer could have spun some kind of gold out of those tunes. But the records wouldn’t exist if we didn’t make them how we made them; that hypothetical producer just doesn’t exist. Maybe there will never be another Swan Lake record, because when we made those records, we were all operating on a kind of youthful, prodigious rush: songs came fast, and songs came easy. Now, maybe not so much; maybe it’s harder to throw your songs down a hole. That’s how I feel these days. Treat a song like an only child, not some field beast.
By the way, Dan is not smug, not at all. I was just kidding, I guess. Lots of days he drove me to my radiation treatments and waited in the family room, reading a book of 20th century poetry or watching women play vicious, grunting tennis on the TV. A smug person would have surely just tapped an iPhone or read a novel, not a book of poetry. Spencer would have done the same if he lived here.
Do you feel that Vancouver itself plays a role in how you look at the world in your songwriting, even indirectly?
Yes. Directly. But I was just thinking something, just about a half an hour ago: all cities are becoming the same; at least, the world-cities that attract artists seem to be producing very similar, hilarious, self-strangulating conditions for the artists and musicians and sessional instructors and people who infuse ideas into objects, but aren’t part of the cursed, not-creative “creative class” that takes those ideas and objects and peddles them to that other class that hovers above the creative class. This is to say nothing of the actual working class: they are out on the rings, on the trains and the buses, shuttled in and shuttled out. Even the restaurateurs and graphic designers are being squeezed out! Vancouver is not unique in this self-strangulation, but it is on the cutting edge of it.
That said: people are digging in, working together; it’s not “class consciousness,” it’s just a realization that the condo-developers’ stranglehold on a city like Vancouver is so intense and throttling, that we have to somehow help each other.
I know I sound like the most insufferable Marxist, and for that I apologize.
Going into your throat cancer, what extent does this cancer impact your voice?
It has impacted my voice, but it won’t impact it in the long run, so long as the treatments were successful. I will find that out in a few months.
Do you worry this will end your ability to sing?
I did panic, and, like I said, took the band to the studio in case I never get my voice back. To be honest, I took it as a kind of chance for a new voice? As in: I might lose an octave, but gain some gravel. Anyone that can speak can sing, right? But it might not be the old voice you hear. Very interesting, the speculative possibilities…
How has treatment affected you, and your outlook, at least from a musical standpoint?
Any answer I give will sound a bit clichéd, but it really shook me up, actually. But I don’t want to talk about my resolves until they actually come to pass.