All Is Lost And You Find All Is Dream: A Conversation With Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue.

Mercury Rev

 

 

“You plan, and God laughs,” goes an old Jewish maxim. At moments of personal certainty, life has a way of derailing. For Mercury Rev, the morning of September 11, 2001 should have been the start of an exciting new chapter. That day saw the release of their fifth album, All Is Dream,. Normally, an album release can be a mere formality. In fact, the album had  already seen release in Europe a few weeks prior.

Mercury Rev deserved to be excited for the day. Their previous release, 1998’s superb Deserter’s Songs, had surprised the band; the album proved a qualified critical and commercial success. As he stated below, Jonathan Donahue believed his fourth album to be the final statement of a group long unappreciated for their efforts. Instead, it received the respect and admiration it deserved, setting up favorable conditions for the band to build and expand upon that newfound success.

And then, the unimaginable.

Much could be said about the ironies and the creepy foreshadowing within the lyrics of All Is Dream. Yet doing so feels like an exercise in retroactive prophecy, and it distracts from the greater story of one of the best albums of the decade. At the time, fears that the album would be lost in the shadow of no towers might have been justified. Yet the album’s reputation grew, with All Is Dream rightly considered the band’s magnum opus.  

Late last year, Cherry Red released a deluxe four-disc expanded edition of All Is Dream, and earlier this month they released deluxe vinyl edition of the album as well. Furthermore, a new boxed set documenting the All Is Dream follow-up, 2005’s The Secret Migration will be released this month.

Purchase Mercury Rev All Is Dream (Expanded Edition):  Cherry Red

 

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Last night I was telling a friend of mine about All Is Dream and the day it was released.  I got it the day it came out and that evening I was emotionally drained,  just absolutely spent. I listened to the album and it really provided a healing balm, it offered a warm and loving feeling at a time I needed it most. When I listen to it now, every time I hear it I feel it with the same intensity I did that night.

It’s hard to say exactly what we remember about albums or music we like, because to me  I think we’re remembering more ourselves at that moment than the music itself. My own little theory is music is like the candlelight at a romantic dinner. It’s not the conversation itself, it’s this little beacon, this little momentary memory sort of sticky note that says, “This is me at this moment,” or something like that. You remember yourself the way you were.  That’s kind of the way I recall listening to some of my own favorite records or even records I didn’t get the first time around and maybe 20 years, 30 years later I pick up on something about it I may not have caught and I say, My God, I can’t believe I missed this the first time.

Looking back as you do when you do these box sets, it’s inevitable you try to recall what you thought and felt at the time, either about the music or listening back to what you’d done during the final mix. I recall much more how I felt and my state of being at the time, rather than the music itself. Maybe that’s what a lot of my own records are–little mile markers for me, Obviously I can’t speak for Grasshopper or anybody else involved, but just for me as the music rather than the music itself. Anything you would ask me about this album or my other albums,  I’m likely seeing it through a filter of how I picture myself then looking back than what I can say about the music.

The music is its own creation, its own being. Something you interpret and you mold, but ultimately it’s beyond you.

Absolutely. You’re a writer, so you understand a lot of your writings are the water;  you’re merely the faucet, tapped out of you from what is happening at the moment. All Is Dream came out in America with quite a bit going on at that one moment. It is difficult to divorce how I felt at that time it was released from the music itself. Separating the feelings now from what the feelings were on September 10th–that’s hard to do, understandably. But in retrospect, when you look at the feelings surrounding the impending release of the album–they were very different from any of our previous records, most especially before Deserter’s Songs.

When last we spoke, you said that when the band began working on Deserter’s Songs, you went into it thinking that this is it, this is your last chance. Obviously, the album’s success surprised everyone–not least of which yourself. After all, in the music industry, you never know what will resonate.

I didn’t even think the album had a chance–I thought that was it. I just didn’t think it was going to happen for us. It felt like the last statement, it was like writing on your tombstone. I never thought we’d make another album, period. So going into All Is Dream, you can imagine feeling like a resurrected man, someone breathing the life of God back into you while you were stone cold out. You don’t know who did it, you don’t even know why they did it or how they did it, but suddenly you are back to life.

That’s how I felt going into All Is Dream, feeling as if the world was brand new again. Not in terms of musically what I was thinking or feeling, not in terms of money, but actually in terms of people wanting to hear something new from Mercury Rev. That was the life that was breathed in. It had nothing to do with money or charts or record sales, it was the fact that, “Hey, I think there are some people out there now who would actually looking forward to a Mercury Rev record.” (Laughs) Considering our history, we couldn’t be more excited.

A royalty check’s nice, but the satisfaction of knowing that people care–that’s much more rewarding.

(Laughs) Absolutely! The royalty checks were something we had never seen. We were already humbled because we were already at the bottom of the well, so there was nothing. When checks came in or money came in, we were already so grounded, With our previous album See You On The Other Side selling like five copies worldwide, we didn’t have any sense of entitlement.  “Oh, yeah, we deserve this, we put our time in. Hell yeah, give us the money.” There was none of that. I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to contend with that element of ego, of feeling like I deserved it or in some way was due this massive success of Deserter’s Songs.

When a band has a successful record, they face a crossroads in regards to the follow-up; “Do we make Chapter Two of the same story or do we go into a different path?” When listening to the demos  in All Is Dream box set, it feels as if you initially started tapping into the same sort of rustic kind of psychedelic country rock vibe that you had on Deserter’s Songs, but obviously the final album was nothing like that. Was there a decision early on to avoid going that route?

Yes, I think you sort of hit it right on the head. That was more of a residue of what we were doing not only with Deserter’s Songs but with the nature of the music business. Do you remember how, in the mid-late 90s,  when you put out an album, you put out multiple singles, right? (Confirms.)  You had to have six or seven B sides for each single, and All Is Dream‘s gestation began with our  European label saying, “Okay, boys, you need three more B sides.”

So I started looking through songs I just loved to play, music I listen to on my own. Some of that very organic American sort of singer/songwriter stuff came out, something we hadn’t really delved into on earlier records. If you’ve heard some of the very early ones with David Baker or See You On The Other Side, they really aren’t singer/songwriter based. And that was a big difference with Deserter’s Songs, it was accidental, but it did happen, so an outpouring of all those kind of B sides from Deserter’s Songs sort of served as the initial dock we were swimming towards for All Is Dream. Now some of that went by the wayside or got colored in with different color palettes, but initially there was probably a little bit more of a singer/songwriter element on All Is Dream than even I would’ve considered I could conjure myself.

All Is Dream came out of rediscovering ourselves. I can’t explain to you what we did on Deserter’s that hit a cord with everybody.  Even today, I can’t tell you what it is.  Going into All Is Dream, I just did not know what people liked about Deserter’s. We had strings and flutes and choirs on See You On The Other Side and, again, five people bought that album. When so many people turned on to Deserter’s Songs it was a mystery to me, I couldn’t understand. Hey, we just did this same sort of thing three years ago in 1995–and even earlier than that to a lesser extent–and nobody cared. When all of a sudden people sort of switched onto it, it stunned us.  I was bewildered by Deserter’s reception.

I’m sure it added some extra pressure that you had never felt before in the creative process.

Yeah, it automatically does, but honestly, for me the pressure was more internal. We lucked out and had a supportive team; our record company never said, “Hey, we need three more ‘Goddess On A Hiway’ and two ‘Opus 40,’ style rockers, please”. The nature of my pressure came as I wanted to continue going forward. I wanted to avoid repeating the atmosphere that Deserter’s had, but at the same I wanted some of the coherent songwriting underneath it that I felt I could conjure. I don’t consider myself to be Willie Nelson, and I do the best I can with the singer/songwriter’s part of it all.  But you do hear the beginnings of someone actively engaging in that singer/songwriter mindset.

Yet after All Is Dream came an album called The Secret Migration. For Migration we focused on composing focused and concise songs three and a half to five minutes in length. And nobody loved it, at all. (Sighs) I love it ,but people just, they  just didn’t buy it at all. They didn’t like that element of it.

In a way, All Is Dream is a strange transition from the midnight atmosphere of Deserter’s into an atmosphere that would eventually culminate in The Secret Migration.

Deserter’s Songs, it’s a very stark sort of black and white. I don’t want to say bleak because there’s optimism within the music.  All Is Dream is like the sequence in The Wizard of Oz where the door opens from the black and white world and it’s just this amazing blast of technicolor, sound, and arrangement.

Well, I think we did grow a little bit deeper into the arranging parts of things. To be honest, much of that was unconscious, and I don’t mean just purely accidental or random. Of all the records I’ve made, it’s probably the one from my unconscious the most, It stems from that deeper right hemisphere part of me. Not the part of the thought, but much more the part of feeling of all of them. I believe that element is what causes All Is Dream to resonate on that emotional level. It’s a very emotional album and I think that’s why it’s so strange it came out when it did.

And talking about that day, I just remember feeling captivated and shell shocked. I  lived in a mid-size city in West Texas, but I had friends in New York. At one point I realized I need to escape all of this.  I drove around this empty city. Honestly, I can’t remember if I bought the record at Best Buy or if I preordered it on Amazon and got it in the mail, I don’t remember how it got there, but it got there. That’s how numbing the day was.

That morning the news captured the world’s attention. All this buoyancy has led up to this one moment, and then the most tragic thing that our generation has every experienced happens within hours. That colored the record for me, in a way that I don’t know that I’ve recovered from. I loved the songs, we play a lot of them when we play for live shows. We play as many as we can fit in within reason because I love to sing and perform them.

You can’t help having a sense of pride about your work–but then, when you turn on the news….Even though you know the events of the day had nothing to do with you personally, I could imagine it might be easy to fall into the trap with thinking, well, you know, I got a little bit prideful there…

I know what you’re saying. No, I think it wasn’t the pride of that we had made the best record since Sgt. Pepper’s that we were going to. I think it was the reaffirming of our own music.  It was reaffirming just to know that we were doing something of value and I know that sounds hard to imagine when you’re, like yourself, a writer or an artist; of course you always want to think your creations are of value. But when you get kicked hard enough you don’t have that sense anymore, you don’t have that self-esteem that even says what you’re doing is good. On the buildup to the release of Deserter’s Songs–Mercury Rev, we were hollowed out people.

Going into All Is Dream, there was a sense that people wanted to hear it. We didn’t have to speculate or wonder about any of it. It’s a odd feeling, especially after previous disappointments. I didn’t know what they would think of it, but knowing someone out there was waiting for it opened armed–that made all the difference to me. The one time I think I felt that same sort of excitement was when the Chemical Brothers called me and they said, “Hey, we like what you guys are doing and would you do something on Dig Your Own Hole?”  It was that someone out there was willing to listen.

And that’s what I was so excited for–that someone out there was ready to listen. Whether they judged it harshly or not, I didn’t mind. I was happy that they were ready to give it a listen. It’s good to know your creation will not be met with complete apathy like some of the earlier records. So when it came out and, obviously, everything was put on hold for a while after 9/11, I think that’s where the air got sucked out of the room. It wasn’t that what we had done would be lost forever, I just figured it was overwhelmed by what had gone on on 9/11 and that no one would ever get back to that open armed part again, not just for All Is Dream but for every other record that came out after that.

 

Even though the day overshadowed its release, it obviously didn’t hurt the record, as many consider it your magnum opus. And like you were saying, whenever you play live twenty years later, you still play most of the songs from All Is Dream because you want to hear them and people want to hear them, too. All Is Dream stands as an amazing and beautiful record in spite of the day you released it, not because of it. It’s just a matter of patience.

It took me twenty years to get to that level of understanding that you already have. It took me quite a while to come to that acceptance.

Does it give you a certain sense of satisfaction to know that people found healing in your music? Or do you even try to comprehend that?

I relate to it in the way that I find healing in other people’s music. People do come up and say that album saved their life.  When I hear that, my own heart says, Yeah, I could name you albums that saved my life. Maybe a Chameleons album or something from the mid-seventies or late sixties or something growing up. I understand what they mean, so if they said, “Hey that All Is Dream healed me in a way,” I can say, “Yes, I have records that did the same for me. I’m right there with you as a music listener.” I’m grateful when people say that, because I have albums that have done that for me. It’s a big deal. You can’t discount it. It’s very personal.

Did Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete fall into that category?

(Laughs) Let’s see. The Chameleons’ first long playing album, Script Of The Bridge, really altered my life at the time. I’ve said it many times and I stand by it, that changed me. Son House and Mississippi John Hurt, some of those albums changed me. They were a reflection of where I was at the time and maybe they gave me the encouragement, the strength, or a little hint of direction to go to in music as opposed to finding my way in the world of business or something else. They said things I didn’t have the lexicon to say or to play. I think that’s what music does;, it’s someone saying or playing something we’ve yet to fully be able to pronounce ourselves.

The deluxe edition offers an amazing scrapbook of where you guys were and what you were doing. I think it’s just a fantastic document.

Thank you. That’s why I love doing these reissues, especially the way the set allows us to document its birth, it’s me being able to point out the DNA of the album. Yes, “Tides Of The Moon” is on the album; you may not get where Tides exactly came from. That’s what is great about this set. You get to hear  all of these sides and the demos that hint towards the scaffolding that supports the final songs. Sometimes that’s what writers and artists and painters enjoy more than the final product–the chance to examine the underlying tissue of the organism,  the underlying pulse from where everything comes. That the album as a finished product just didn’t descend in one piece, it’s all these elements together that led to this,

It’s that which makes these box sets so fulfilling. I spent a great deal of work on it; you don’t simply want to dump out extra songs and ideas. You want it to tell your story. This project gave me a chance to offer the archives with as much care as I did the original album, I like that I can say to people, hey, check out some of these moments that went into an album that means so much to you.

I like the song “The Brook Room,” because it sounds like the band playing in a room together and you improvising lyrics. Or perhaps playing around with a new idea.  It shows the spark of creation. Although not the greatest song, and probably one that never even went anywhere beyond that one take, it shows the creative process.

That’s exactly how I felt about it, too. “The Brook Room,” and a number of other songs, they show us in a playful moment where we’re just playing, so of course it doesn’t have the atmosphere other songs have. The way I see them, Deserter’s Songs was an album with atmosphere that intermingled with moments of song, while All Is Dream is a moment of songs that intermingled with atmosphere. The atmosphere hung heavy during Deserter’s Songs, the ]atmosphere dominated and then we put some song-like elements into it, and the album developed in that dark. But on All Is Dream the songs were well in the light,  then we developed the atmosphere around them.

What you’re probably hearing–and I didn’t even think of this until now, all these years later–you’re hearing the atmosphere peeled back a bit from Deserter’s Songs. There’s less atmosphere on All Is Dream, and it’s almost at the bare minimum on The Secret Migration.

People look back and say, “Well, we love your atmosphere, Jonathan.” Okay, I’ll take that. It hasn’t been until this phone call that I realized this  progression happening on record. Maybe it was happening in me. Maybe some part of me wanted to say, “But here’s the song, people”.  Perhaps, when people heard Secret Migration, they said, “Well, we like the songs, we want more atmosphere, bring that back.” Okay. I understand that.

I couldn’t see myself clearly, I’ve always been honest in the way’ I’ll admit I am not a professional singer/songwriter. I’m a guy who just comes out and I try to capture it. It’s a process. I’m not a professional at this. The moment that I feel that I am, I know I’ll lose it, whatever it is I might  have had.

I recently watched your conversation with Iain McNay.

Yes. The lamp went on.

The conversation proved thought-provoking.

Thank you.

You can find quite a bit of that philosophy in All Is Dream. The album contains this sub-text that I don’t usually talk about because people don’t want to hear it. I get that. But lyrically, the songs relate to the idea of that lamp going on. That concept developed a long time ago, during my earliest days with The Flaming Lips as well. You’re always reaching for something you can’t see. You’re not reaching for gold records, you’re not reaching for a paycheck. We always reach for something that seems to be greater that us and maybe more effervescent, a little harder to grab, more intangible.

When I was in The Flaming Lips, I really cherished our adventurous spirit. Wayne never said let’s not do this, or let’s scale this back.  Never once.  If we had an idea on the table of something that we didn’t even know how to do, that’s what turns everybody on. That stuck with me.  The Flaming Lips, my time in the band–those weren’t the halcyon days. They were in one of their lowest points.

Remember, this version of Flaming Lips, this was not the band everyone’s come to know and love since the late 90s. We barely scratched it out, but we always had that love of shooting for the stars. Not just musically, or in some weird jazz sort of way,. We wanted to convey an idea that was much bigger than the lexicon we had available to us. That stuck with me back then and it was something that I vowed to continue in Mercury Rev.

If you tell yourself “It can’t be done,” and then not do it, you’ll never know. You have to do it and if it doesn’t work that’s okay because you’ve learned what doesn’t work. If you don’t even try, you’ll never know.

We saw that as the writing on the wall when we created some of those early Flaming Lips records. We didn’t worry about achieving some great Sgt Pepper moment. Wayne and the band sought to understand the paths others laid down, then following to our own ends. We didn’t know what that end was, but we knew it could be greater than what we had known. We worked really hard to achieve that. And even now, Wayne can still conjure that; he is able to protect that innocence and curiosity and not become complacent. You have to be very vigilant; you should never assume that you hit the perfect idea on the first stroke.

But people will tell you differently. They’ll say your first idea is the best. I get that to a certain level, but sometimes you want to go further. You want to go up a mountain where there isn’t a trail. It’s easy to get disheartened and say, Well, that’s a thorn bush, I’m not going through that.  But you have to soldier on. We tried to do that way back then, and thirty years later I still try to do that.

And always follow the road, as the road will lead to where it’s led.

You’re traveling down the road. But then you pull off to the side. You say to yourself, I’m not taking this road, I’m going to go into the woods.  And that’s the part where you try to strike a balance in art. If you’re just walking around in the woods, it’s easy to walk in circles when it gets dark so you won’t have little landmarks that you could say are points, little lighthouses that orient you when it gets really dark. By going off the beaten path to see what can be found.  I’ve always found the joy is in striking out something new for you. It doesn’t mean I’ve reinvented sliced bread. It simply means I’ve learned to see it always with new eyes.

Without tooting my own horn too much, that’s something only Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev and maybe a handful of other bands as old as us have been able to do.  Not many groups have stayed true to the sound they had in 1986. Maybe the length of the song changes. Maybe the songs have more complex arrangements.  Yet I’ll sleep well in my grave, knowing we never gave up trying to expand and grow and make new mistakes.

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