Frog Eyes: Interview
Not Casey, Not Cabaret, Not Neutral Milk Hotel
I imagine there are a lot of you out there who haven't heard Frog Eyes yet,
despite the fact we gave their newest album The Golden River a PERFECT
SCORE. Let me just say you're doing yourself a real disservice if that's true.
Delivering an album that absolutely floors you with its daring originality and
sheer genius, Frog Eyes is one of the most exciting bands to emerge in recent
years. I was lucky enough to ask Frog Eyes' mastermind Carey Mercer some
questions, and you're even luckier that you get to read the results. I was
unlucky enough to accidentally call him "Casey."
What is your formal training?
Drinks. Hard booze. Four years at Cambridge, three at Oxford. That was a
different life though...
The Golden River is one of my favorite albums of the
year, and easily the most interesting. I think it's best received as a piece of
art, rather than just entertainment. How much of your motivation is to make
people react in that way? How much do you consider the audience when you're
creating your songs?
Well... just saying "I want it to be heard as art" sort of diminishes the
experience of listening or appreciating a work. I know this is a platitude often
trumpeted by today's "artist," but in truth I have no concern for the audience
when I am putting the album together. In fact, my only comparison point is my
own body of work: in this sense I torture myself, because the albums are all
different in important ways, and I always have to scrape myself raw until I
realize (a sort of medieval process of enlightenment through self-flagellation)
that there is a new quality in the present work, and things cannot be everything
at once. Sounds terribly vague to me, but leveer... I don't want to give it all
P.S.: Please don't think that I don't care about the audience's reaction once
the record is released...I don't want to give anyone the impression that I am
one of these denim-wearing alt-county ruffians, enmeshed in eternal
self-compromising posture (i.e.: Ryan Adams or any of his laughable
knock-offs). I do care.
The sound on the album is incredibly raw and
unmitigated, which brings to mind Neutral Milk Hotel in its brutality. What do
you think of that comparison, if anything?
Let me tell you a story: a few years ago, my friend was trying to sleep in one
of these houses where a great many people lived. While he slept, some other
denizens were partying, drinking, and yelling to various kinds of ironic
music. Then one of those Neutral Milk Hotel songs came on the CD player, and
everyone hushed up, joined in a circle, and started singing along, crying and
hugging. It was serious time; time to share in the transcendent beauty and
sadness of the lived life: through the tears, and the hugging, and the terrible
EARNESTNESS of it all, these partiers entered into a new salvation as a result
of those songs, a sort of secret fellowship that the early Christians must have
This is my nightmare. I am not interested in some kind of holy fool veneration
(my guess is that neither was/is he [Jef Mangum, the NMH singer]). I also lament
the manner in which "the world" makes a cruel mockery or cheap facsimile of
things that start out self-contained. In this corruption we see the manner in
which things so quickly become their own orthodoxy.
I suppose what I mean is that, since I have enjoyed those two NMH albums, I am
simultaneously flattered (though I see little resemblance in the music); and I
am also a bit concerned that at some point some savvy marketing scheme will push
us as "the new Neutral Milk Hotel." Of course, this would be not only tasteless
but also quite foolish: I am far too bitter to affect people in the way that
neutral milk hotel has.
"When a person says I am a "Renaissance" man, I always hope that
he or she is suggesting that I synthesize early Greek epistemology and
Judeo-Christian sensibilities into a new humanism that reconciles Platonism and
Christianity. Alas, this is never the case."
Your vocals on this album fully realize what you merely
hinted at on The Bloody Hand. To me, they're very much an approximation of the
rest of the band's sound in human voice. What allowed you to unleash the
delivery you utilize to great effect on this album?
Well (having taken no offence to your question), I feel that there is no great
progression from The Bloody Hand to The Golden River; however, any
such progress would occur so gradually to me that I might not notice. I am
pleased though, if my singing can be seen as a microcosm of the macrocosm; my
hope is that one could (like the much-heralded Henry James story "Turn of the
Screw") take any little sliver of sound and allow it to represent the totality
of Frog Eyes.
The vocals, meanwhile, don't sing the lyrics one might
expect; personal content would seem du rigeur. But your subject matter of choice
is often fantastic. It would seem to be hard to sing in the manner you choose
without strong attachment to the words. What relation do you have to the imagery
you create in your songs?
Again, I don't want to talk in great length about these elements, because they
are best understood and experienced outside of an explanation. Maybe I can
sidestep the question and turn some readers on to the incredible writing of W.G.
Sebald by inserting the following quotation (if you are aware of Sebald,
please do not be insulted by the notion of an "introduction."):
But I never liked
doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically.
It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt
that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which,
say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of
his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And
he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I've always had
dogs, I've learned from them how to do this. So you then have a small amount of
material and you accumulate things, and it grows, and one thing takes you to
another, and you make something out of these haphazardly assembled materials.
And, as they have been assembled in this random fashion, you have to strain your
imagination in order to create a connection between the two things. If you look
for things that are like the things that you have looked for before, then,
obviously, they'll connect up. But they'll only connect up in an obvious sort of
way, which actually isn't, in terms of writing something new, very productive.
You have to take heterogeneous materials in order to get your mind to do
something that it hasn't done before. That's how I thought about it. Then, of
course, curiosity gets the better of you.
words, not mine... and just because he uses an animal analogy to relate his own
experience, no one calls him "fantastic."
True enough, but your lyrics are markedly more detached
from reality than Sebald's metaphor. I don't mean to call you "fantastic,"
rather just your lyrics. I meant to ask if your approach to lyrics is directly a
processing of observed reality, rather than dreamed up fantasies, which I would
think of as an indirect process.
Oh, I know it doesn't work perfectly; in fact, maybe the inclusion of the
quotation is a bit inappropriate... I love the idea of "traversing the land in a
completely unplottable manner" though, and eventually arriving upon something
"tangible." Maybe things will become a bit more tangible (as is certainly the
case with Sebald) as I grow older, and become a bit more adept at organizing my
own ruminations. I hope not.
You're quite the Renaissance man, being the man behind
the albums artwork, and apparently a playwright. What compels you to create?
When a person says I am a "Renaissance" man, I always hope that he or she is
suggesting that I synthesize early Greek epistemology and Judeo-Christian
sensibilities into a new humanism that reconciles Platonism and Christianity.
Alas, this is never the case.
Maybe I'm being presumptuous, but Thomas Aquinas
formulated just such a reconciliation to satisfying ends, and I think you'll
better serve humanity with your aesthetic creations than with ruminations on
that topic. So, the question becomes what do you feel you reveal about humanity
with your music, or any of your other art?
Imagine if I answered this question: "I think I serve humanity by moaning and
cooing about rivers and foxes." I would be in big trouble! I don't know...
saying something about or for humanity is quite ridiculous... unless it is along
the lines of "we are all neurotic animals." Don't forget: cracks and fissures,
cracks and fissures!
"So, if you see me, and I am bleeding out of my eyes, and I am
weeping and slurping up vodka or scum (scope and rum), please understand that I
am not enjoying myself, but am dutifully calling attention to the ridiculousness
of 'the new decadence.'"
There is a good deal of dissonance on the album, and
pieces that at first don't seem to fit. But, at the same time, the music is at
its heart melodious and in the end concise. In a way, a contrasting of
darkness/heaviness and light. How did you intend the dissonance and messiness to
affect the listener?
I suppose I have a few options here: I can discuss the usefulness of terms like
dissonance, or darkness/heaviness (which are both necessary descriptive terms
and, at the same time, totally subjective constructions). I might mention that
this aforementioned dichotomy between the rational and some swirling, unknowable
chaos that pulsates beneath the "knowable" exists in every worthy song or poem
or film or painting. It is the primary tension, and the beautiful thing to me is
that it is right there in Homer, and in Shakespeare, and in Faust and so on and
so forth, up into all of the "minor" (I use this term with derision) works that
suffer in the darkness of the outer rings of the canon. I think the best thing
to say, to get back to your question, is to point out that the last utterances
on The Golden River suggest the dawn again; that point in which the
artist or singer always compromises the ending towards emerging out of the
Very much so, and the last songs' titles indicate this
phenomenon. "Picture Framing the Gigantic Men Who Fought On Steam Boats" being
the distilling of the unknowable into the concrete and knowable, but, as picture
framing suggests, sacrificing totality for poignancy, and "The Secret Map Flees
From Plurality" a delightfully suggestive image of emerging from the pluralistic
chaos of truth to the polite abstraction of human experience, hopefully taking
something worthwhile along. I believe your music is a relative success in
achieving this aim, relative only in that there can be no absolute success. As
opposed to pure noise, which strives to present us with the chaos unadulterated,
you have very ably bent the beast to your will and in doing so have presented us
with your interpretation.
You should write our press releases.
Almost ubiquitous in any mention of Frog Eyes is the
word "cabaret." But it was a characterization that was furthest from my mind
listening to the album. It seems grossly reductionist to me, being that the
sound is much larger than just you and the piano. Just curious what your
reaction is to people drawing that connection.
I get embarrassed by "cabaret." I think about that champagne commercial with the
woman in the fishnet stockings and the top hat..."Hochtaler!" Anyway...We live,
as Epstein has so correctly pointed out, in the aftermath of the Rabelisation
decades, in the bitter self-effacing dregs of the carnival's hangover. Maybe I
am the person in the morning who is immediately doing vodka shots, in a pathetic
gesture designed to throw the pounding headache into abeyance. In this sense
there is something wholly ridiculous about returning to "cabaret."
Yes. Cabaret has always seemed to stand near the apex
of decadence to me, while Frog Eyes would be anti-decadence. Do you think we're
heading into another period of wild, unchecked excess?
Anti-decadence... hmmm... it is true, in a sense. On the other hand, I have been
known to huff vodka... If we are headed towards a sort of new decadence, then
the best thing to do is to fuck yourself up to the point that people recognize
the total inappropriateness of decadence, a sort of trans-decadence, again, I
owe a debt here to the Russians. So, if you see me, and I am bleeding out of my
eyes, and I am weeping and slurping up vodka or scum (scope and rum), please
understand that I am not enjoying myself, but am dutifully calling attention to
the ridiculousness of "the new decadence."
How do you feel your sound translates from the album to
the live performance? Do you enjoy playing live?
I am one of those people who enjoy both processes.
You've recently signed to Absolutely Kosher and are
reportedly working on a new album. With the assumption that this grants you
access to substantially greater quality recording capabilities, how much easier
(or harder) does it make it for you to fashion the end result that you want?
If I answered questions such as this one it would make it immeasurably harder to
fashion a satisfactory end result.
What are your thoughts on the increasingly recognized
Vancouver music scene?
I have no thoughts on the "increasingly recognized Vancouver
music scene." Absolutely none. Actually, one just popped into my head: this kind
of regional buzz-building is never good; it spawns imitators and people who talk
about demographics (I am sure my part of the world will soon be subjected to
hordes of Hot Hot Heat and New Pornographers imitations, comprised of dudes who
shaved their Nickelback goatees in favor of studded belts [which I don't think
those hotters wear anymore] and...umm...jeans and shirts?)
This probably sounds as dishonest as is possible, but I
actually agree fully with those sentiments. Rather, I was angling for your
thoughts on the
Vancouver is a wonderful city; everywhere you look you find some great brain or
talent. It is true; I find it a little dizzying at times. I don't live there
though. I live on an island. If you are "angling" for the bands that I like...
hmmm... sorry: I made a list, but I just can't write it here, because I am
listening to Moondog right now... Let's just say that all of the bands
you know about plus a few more are right on!
Another writer for our site asked this question, and I liked it, so I'll ask
it of you: Is there a question that you've always wanted to be asked in an
interview? Feel free to answer it, as well.
Actually, I am feeling questioned out right now. Goodbye.
Thanks for the interview, your time, and Frog Eyes.
Good luck with all your endeavors.
Thank you as well, leveer. Good questions. It actually seems like you care!