The Mercury Program
“It’s like driving on the yellow brick road…”
The Mercury Program released their first 7″ on Boxcar in 1998, but these four musicians have a longer history than that. Working together in bands like Yusef’s Well and Darkhalf, Tom Reno, Dave Lebleu, Sander Travisano, and Whitney Travisano have slowly shed their influences and transformed into one of the most effective ensembles creating music today.
By tracing a line through their discography, one may not expect the musical jump from the self-titled full-length album on Boxcar to the new record From the Vapor of Gasoline on Tiger Style Records. The self titled album, which featured the trio of Tom Reno, Sander Travisano, and Dave Lebleu was a spacious affair, but the addition of Whitney Travisano has filled in many of those spaces with cascading vibraphones and the pulse of the Fender Rhodes. As lush and lofty as the new album is, live performance shows a band rooted to the pulse of the drums and bass. The music grows steadily, twisting and coiling itself within the audience. Listening to the Mercury Program is like staring down into the horizon. There seems to be no end, but roads can only stretch so far, and so the songs must end after the tunes have been given a stretch.
I spoke to Tom, Dave, Sander and Whitney inside their van/sauna before their show with Orlando natives Beat Science, and they revealed themselves as genuine, articulate folk who are ver in tune with one another. Often during the conversation, one person would start a sentence and another would end it. They tossed ideas back and forth, expanding on one another’s ideas, making my job much more interesting.
I thought it was interesting that you titled your new album after a Basquiat painting, because I picture Basquiat as very spontaneous, very spur of the moment, while I think of the Mercury Program as much more calculated.
Tom: Well, not necessarily. I think it may come across as that way, that our sound is more calculated, but it really isn’t. It may seem like a lot of [the music] is very well planned out, when in fact, it just kind of comes together. And that’s the same way I view his stuff. I think everyone has a misconception that his work was very random, that it seems that he threw together whatever when in fact, from what I know of him, I think it was very methodical. So the title wasn’t necessarily meant to represent all of the works on the record… it wasn’t trying to be a summary of all that was there.
Dave: The title wasn’t solely based on the artwork, I would say it came more from what he scrawled out on [the work.] The piece is actually called… what?
Tom: “Peruvian Made.”
Dave: “From the Vapor of Gasoline” was just what was scrawled across his medium.
Tom: For me, personally, that statement is what the music seems like, just because our style is kind of organic, and the music comes organically. I thought, “From the Vapor of Gasoline”, those wavy lines you see… that’s what I liked about it. I’m really into Basquiat’s stuff, but I didn’t completely try to relate his style of art, or what he meant by that, to the music. It was something that kind of stood out when inspiring… it originally started out as a song title, and it just seemed right to name the record that as well. That influenced some of the songwriting, that feeling that [the painting] gave off.
Sander: It has that same atmosphere, from the title to the other tracks.
Do you try to keep a tangible sense of flow within your songs, going along with that organic idea?
Tom: Sort of, I don’t know if it’s quite a conscious effort. Is that what you mean?
Tom: No, not really.
Sander: Almost all of our stuff is written through just one of us going in there and starting to play a part, and everything just evolves around that. Sometimes the part you started with won’t even end up being what you had.
Tom: To be honest, I really think that all of the songs are what happens when, what used to be the three of us played, and now is the four of us. It’s not really conscious. Well, there are things we exclude because they’re not right, or other things that try to work out. So we’ll work on little aspects of the songs, and make it have the feel we’re going for… but that just really… we used to have to think about it initially, we’d have to be like, “That doesn’t feel like the Mercury Program.” But not really anymore at all. Especially now. The new album was written… pretty much like it just happened. We second-guessed a little bit of it, because we wrote it in such a short period of time.
Sander: How many songs did we have a week before recording? We were writing a majority of our album within two or three weeks…
Tom: It was like three weeks worth of material.
Sander: Yeah, because I was living back in Stuart at the time, and Tom… all of us were living down south, and he was living up here [Gainesville]. So we weren’t together much to write. We’d make trips once or twice a week, for two days out of every week for three weeks. So that’s pretty much how we came up with our album.
So it has become easier to write the songs?
Dave: Well, when the three of us started, the three of us had a definite connection where everything just clicked, and it made it really easy to write songs. That’s when I knew we had a good thing. And, to only further that along, when Whit [Whitney Travisano] joined along, we knew that the same connection was going to be there because they’re [Whitney and Sander] brothers, and plus Whit is a musical genius.
Tom: Well, Whit had been there the whole time, since any of us had really begin playing music, Whit had been around. In other bands we would always bounce everything off of Whit. If Whit thought it was okay, we would stick with it.
Sander: Even when he wasn’t originally in the band he’d say, “I think…” whatever, and we’d be like, “Yeah, right.”
Tom: We’ve always valued his opinions. It made sense.
Has your direction changed since Whit has joined the band?
Sander: I think that we can do a lot more that we’ve wanted to do originally, because we have more hands.
Dave: Just the effect of the Rhodes and the vibraphone help out a lot. It’s more live than anything.
Tom: Where before we would take a part like that, and we knew we couldn’t pull it off live, so we would deliberately not incorporate it, like a vibe part. That’s where we decided we needed to add a fourth person. When we were leaving things out because we couldn’t do them… that became really necessary.
Sander: Even still, we want, not more people, but more hands. We [would] attach another arm to each other so we could do something else.
Do you see in the progression of the Mercury Program, more sounds, more layers?
Sander: Yeah, definitely.
Tom: Maybe different… not necessarily more cluttered, because we wouldn’t want it to be… the space will be there, maybe different tones of different instruments. And all of us playing different things.
Dave: All to further the effect of what we’re doing.
Tom: I don’t see the band progressing as far as… we’re not going to sound like a completely different band on the next record. We’ll just incorporate more of these instruments and some other instrumentation we’re discussing. I think that there’s still a lot we feel we can do within what we’re doing. The first record just kind of happened, this record was the first step from there in another direction. Now that we have a fourth member, it opens a whole new area in which we see the band going. Whereas before I think it was a bit more narrow focused when it was just the three of us, only because we were confined to the framework of just three people.
Dave: And once we started to stretch it out by adding extra instrumentation, and the need for having a fourth member, once that arose, we knew that, “Here’s a whole new direction that we can take.”
Sander: And it kind of just happened, it wasn’t like we were looking for a new direction.
Dave: Yeah, that’s just what happens when we have played together for four years. You can only do, well I guess I shouldn’t say that you can only do three things…
Sander: No, it’s just that everyone grew into writing… it just matched up perfectly.
Tom: Plus we needed to give Whit something to do since he dropped out of college.
Sander: Yeah, Whitney dropped out of school. We felt bad for him and we had a rock ‘n’ roll band, so we hired him.
Where’d you go?
Whit: Florida State University.
Sander: He went there for music.
How is the Mercury Program’s approach to writing a song different than that of Yusef’s Well?
Sander: They aren’t really?
Tom: Well, yeah, I think it is.
Dave: You have to think of which part of Yusef’s Well.
Tom: As a whole, well really…
Whit: Musically, you guys have matured. The instrumentation, the different types of instruments used.
Sander: I think we have more freedom now that we’ve all become more comfortable with our instruments, and other instruments at the same time. So where it’s like, now that I have a part in my head, whether it be a bass line or a drumbeat, I can sit down on the drums and I can tap out a drumbeat, and Dave’ll write something to it. Or say I have a bass line. I’ll play something and….we can all come and do different things now. Tom’ll have a guitar part and he’ll want to play bells and I want to play drums, or whatever.
Tom: And I think Yusef’s Well was a bit… I think that we were…
Sander: Shooting for technicality.
Tom: No, I think it showed our immaturity in the sense that we didn’t know how to use space. That we just sort of crammed everything up. In an immature sense that everybody had to be kind of a soloist of the band. Everyone was trying to do the focal part, and it kind of was a clusterfuck at times. Whereas now…
Sander: Can you say that word?
Tom: I think that the tape recorder will record “clusterfuck.” I mean it’s not a parental guidance tape.
Sander: Just fuckin’ go for it.
Sander: I’m just kind of sketchy because last time Rob [called]…
Tom: You were on the radio.
Sander: That’s different. That’s what I mean. Anyways, go ahead.
Tom: So that would probably be the main difference. Also, I don’t think we play…a lot of that stuff is a lot faster. That band was much more…there was a different drummer, there was a time when Dave was playing guitar, so the whole feel was different, it wasn’t so much about the groove of it, it was about the technicality of it. When we play 13 different time signatures in one song, and make it sound not that noticeable. Most everything that the Mercury Program does is in pretty straightforward time. Now we would more take something that is straightforward, and make it sound not… as opposed to the other way around. And I think that came with us maturing.
With all the crazy math-y stuff around, do you see people wanting to move into a more technical direction, like more “progressive” stuff I suppose?
Tom: Well, I guess there’s a lot more people… which is good, because it makes you a lot better of a musician, whether you want to be or not. If you want to play music like that, you’ve got to be… you know, it’s like the guys who used to play metal… you have to be somewhat technically proficient to do it.
Sander: And remember, that kind of music can be really ambient and atmospheric. If done correctly a lot…
Tom: A lot of people are saying that you get stuck with thinking of math-rock [to be] Don Caballero and Rumah Sakit, like really crazy and all insane, but I think that there’s lots of room for the term “math-rock” to be applied to bands that are doing things like very technically based, except that it is more ambient, you could get into something spacious, but in a different time signature. I think the term “math-rock” is getting thrown around. We get called “math-rock”, but the whole album is in 4/4. We play in the same time signature as the whole Rolling Stones album, and nobody calls them math-rock. So, I think it’s one of those terms that is becoming overly used, and I think that people have lost the original meaning of it. From a personal standpoint, I don’t really care what people think anymore, say what you want to say, everybody needs to come up with something to call a band, to come up with some label for it. Just call the Mercury Program whatever you need to call it.
Dave: I think that “math-rock” is just ridiculous. All music is in some time signature of some sort, whether conscious or not. So the term “math-rock” gets projected onto bands that typically play in a different time signature. All bands play in different time signature, even if they don’t really know it. So you can’t just single that out as a term anymore.
What do you think of post-rock then?
Dave: Post-rock? I never understood the term “post-rock.” Does post-rock mean…
Whit: Before rock?
Entire band: After rock!
Tom: Good thing you dropped out of college, pal!
[Entire band laughs]
Whit: Well, I’m thinking “pre” and “post”… hey, that’s arguing my point worse, isn’t it.
Dave: I always thought that “post-rock” was a term used for bands after that ’70s rock period, all that kind of stuff that came out before the ’80s
Whit: You mean like Journey and stuff?
Tom: It’s somewhat synonymous to me with progressive rock. Not necessarily progressive rock of the ’70s, but what people would call that now. A lot of the same type thing like post-rock…
Sander: You mean like Journey and Foreigner and all that?
Tom: No! That was rock, son.
Like Tortoise and Fridge and…
Dave: The bands that took… that came from some rock roots.
Sander: I gotcha.
Dave: You know, where we all came from in the bands we played in before, and what we’re doing now.
I kind of see it as opening things up. It opened bands up to different elements, to just break out of that mold.
Sander: Yeah, because basically things change and people change, and everything in your life changes, and your music is going to change along with you. You don’t seek older guys playing the same three-chord punk anymore, like they were 14 years old.
Dave: That’s why I thought attaching nametags to music was kind of silly… but it has to happen, otherwise nobody knows what you’re playing. Or what the hell you’re talking about.
Tom: It’s just another way of describing something with language, which sometimes doesn’t do the job. I don’t know if it bothers you guys, but I couldn’t care less. I mean if people say that, “The Mercury Program is emo,” I just chuckle. That’s funny to me, because you’re so ridiculously off base that it’s kind of a joke. People have actually said that. Some reviews of the new record said that, “This band sounds like Tortoise with some emo thrown in.” And I just thought that that was pretty cool because sir, you are a moron. So, I actually get a laugh out of it when I read that stuff, it’s kind of sad that someone is really that uninformed.
Sander: Some people that review records should not be doing it. It’s like you go to Denny’s and you get a bad waitress, and you go into other places, like the guy’s a dick at the gas station, those people shouldn’t be doing their jobs.
How has the reception to the new album been?
Dave: I’d say it’s been exceptionally well. Well received, to be sure.
Tom: Besides the emo comments.
Dave: All the reviews I’ve read have been really good. There’s been one bad one but… one bad one, wow.
Tom: At the same time, totally relying on the press to determine how well your album is received… I think is wrong. I think it’s better received when you see how people are responding when you are performing, or radio play, things like that. Like I tell Andrew [Chadwick, of Boxcar Records and Ink 19] “No offense to you, but people who review records are a bit off-kilter at times.” So you can’t always take someone’s opinion who listens to music all day and critiques it as gospel. You just have to take that with a grain of salt. For me, the better reception is when we perform and somebody who is 45 years old says, “Hey I like your band, it’s great.” To me that is better than someone in some great big magazine saying that they love our record. That’s good press, and that will get people interested, but that’s not making some kind of connection. I think, more importantly, it’s [about] making the connection with people. I’ve made a lot of connections with people, because I’m the one dealing with email, telephone and all that. Making connections with people in France, or somewhere in Europe, Australia; to have those people emailing you and telling you that, “Hey, I really like this record.” That’s the best response.
Sander: Just getting like different, funny comments… like people who wouldn’t normally listen to your record, and stuff like that… it can be really rewarding to hear funny comments. Like that one guy who said, “Your band makes me want to do drugs.” Like my brother’s friend’s mom who said the other day, “This sounds like something I used to listen to in the ’60s.”
Dave: Stuff like that, I like that, as opposed to something you see in a magazine. I think I speak for all of us when I say that I don’t avidly look in magazines to read reviews, and use that to decide whether or not we’re going to check out that record. You hear about music just by word-of-mouth, somebody you know has heard it. I never read reviews.
Sander: I don’t keep up on that too much.
Tom: It’s cool to feel like we are just over [and done with] caring. Over caring whether the review is good or bad. We know that, “Oh, there is going to be a review in this magazine.” Cool, if there’s going to be a review, than that’s press. That’s the bottom line. They can say that it is the worst thing on the face of the earth.
When you are on the road, do you get a diverse crowd?
Tom: I don’t know necessarily on the road….
Sander: Well, when we went on tour with Discount.
Tom: That was only because of who we were with. When we are playing at home, certainly in Gainesville, the crowd is incredibly diverse. A lot of people show up who don’t show up to other shows of bands who are considered similar to us. Those people just aren’t there. I don’t think it hurts that I do live sound in town, so I end up meeting a different element of people and exposing them to the band. That kind of helps too, to expose those people who are playing in the rock bands. They listen to it and they come check us out. We haven’t really been on the road as the Mercury Program. We went out with Discount, that was a diverse crowd because it was their crowd. So they would show up, and they would turn their heads sideways like dogs do when they hear a weird noise. They were just kind of like, “What the hell is this?” It was cool… a couple kids out of the crowd would come out and buy the record. For the most part, though, I think going out with them was just strange, just a really weird vibe for us. But it was still fun.
On the new album, on a few songs you used the Rhodes to play the bass part. What makes you use the Rhodes then?
Dave: If Sander is playing the drums!
Sander: Because then Dave is playing vibes, there is no one to play bass.
Dave: It became something that had to happen in order to incorporate the other sounds that we wanted to have go in the song and still perform as a four piece.
Tom: It would sound really thin with no bass line.
Sander: Plus, we always wanted to work with a Rhodes and vibraphone together.
Tom: Yeah, we really like that sound. It’s really a matter of practicality until we get another person, or a fifth arm.
Sander: Another monkey slave for the Mercury Program [laughs.]Plus, my dad was a roadie for the Doors…
Tom: Shut up.
Okay, I have to ask the influences question. Influences?
Sander: Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of… well, you know, everything influences me. I’ve been listening to Jim Croche, the Who…
Tom: I wouldn’t say that those influences showed up in our music at all.
Dave: I think that we all as individuals have very, very different musics that we listen to. And I think all of that weeds its way in one way or another. I that that’s what gives our sound it’s uniqueness, because we listen to and have heard all of the indie rock bands that were supposed to have influenced us, and that we are compared to.
Tom: And I think that some of our core record collection when we met each other was that similar stuff. But now, if you looked at any of our influences or what we listen to… Dave, nothing he listens to I even know of.
Dave: I listen to purely classical.
Sander: Half the time we’re in his car I ask, “What the fuck are we listening to?” [everyone laughs]
Tom: I listen to lots of bands that come through Gainesville because I do live sound, so I listen to lots of stuff that these guys don’t even know of, because they’re not really well known bands. They come through, and I pick up their CDs or whatever.
Do you think that a band will eventually develop a voice independent of their influences?
Tom: We still get reviews, and people think that we still sound like certain bands, Tortoise and Slint are the big ones. The Slint one is just kind of a joke.
Dave: When we get reviews and they say those things in there, that’s just kind of negligence on the reviewer’s part. It’s definitely not a pertinent influence on any of us, because none of have really listened to any of those bands in years.
Sander: I don’t think I’ve listened to any Slint album all the way through.
Dave: No, I have heard Spiderland. I’ve listened to it like 6 times, and I got it about 4 years ago. So, for that to have some kind of influence on our records, that’s just a joke.
Sander: I guess I’m out of the loop, I don’t even buy music lately.
Tom: We’re all too poor to really be into it. [everyone laughs] But we all like Tortoise very much.
Dave: To your question of outgrowing your influences, I think, back to the question about Yusef’s Well, I think that that is a good point. We were able to do that. We don’t listen to our own songs anymore and think about how they sound like something else. Whereas, when we first started in Yusef’s Well, we had a very narrow niche of what we wanted to sound like, and we made sure that the songs sounded that way. Now it’s just like “anything goes.” What happens when we are playing happens. If it feels like what the Mercury Program is about, then we go with it.
Sander: Everything is the Mercury Program to us lately.
Tom: We have our own disagreements when parts are being written, but we are open to, musically, anything really. I don’t think that any band can ever, I mean, there are probably very few that can ever outgrow what people perceive to be their influences. Even for bands like Fugazi, who have been around forever, people try to figure out what the are influenced by right now. I think that that is ridiculous, they’re not, they are just doing what they do. And that’s kind of where we are, we just do what we do… and because we play vibraphones, Tortoise is probably the only other post-rock/indie-rock band that use the vibraphones, it’s just the easiest label to slap on there. Because the tonal qualities are the same. “Oh, I hear a sound, that chiming sound, and that’s the kind of sound that Tortoise uses, so we must sound like Tortoise.”
Dave: And they’ve got that kind of jazz drums style so… Tortoise.
Do you think that there is a jazz quality to your music?
Dave: I don’t really see too much jazz in our style. I think the traditional term of jazz being a music that is very out there, and on it’s own, and a very expressive music, that’s where I’d say jazz comes into our music. As far as any technical jazz, we don’t read charts, or we don’t improvise through charts. That’s what most people, when they say jazz… jazz musicians are schooled in that area. You’re reading a standard, most of the time, unless you are some new music group in jazz. Like Beat Science is playing, from what I’ve heard, some “covers” or charts of music… James Brown or whatever. They are going to have more of a technical element in their music than we will for sure.
How much improvisation goes into the Mercury Program live, or on record?
Sander: Live? Not much improv at all.
Tom: Mostly live, we don’t [improvise] anymore, because we don’t rehearse together as much, because they were living separately, and now they are living in Gainesville together. I think that that comes when you get more comfortable with the songs, you get to play around in the structure with them. Right now, I think we are really confined to the structure because we get such a short amount of time to rehearse.
Sander: Like today. It was like, “Okay we’re here, we’re going to rehearse, and we’re going to play the show.” And usually, when we go on tour, we practice for two days before, or whatever we have.
Tom: But most, if not all of our material, is a completely structured form, and whatever improvisation that goes on within there is just interplay between us.
Whitney: Kind of like a prompter in classical music.
Sander: It’s like improv, jam together, get this part down, and now we’ve got what we want, now we want to structure it and make it something solid.
Tom: But, live, Dave and Sander will do some little things here and there. I don’t think that improv is a whole part, we don’t make a part and say that, “Ok, this whole part of the song is going to be improv.” We never do that. The fills are [improvised], maybe I’ll change a little guitar part here or there. Probably nothing different than any other bands that have played together for a while. Nothing extraordinary at all.
How long did the new album take to record?
Tom: Two weeks. Which before we went into the studio seemed like an incredible amount of time, but once you get there, it’s like “Holy shit, we could have used double the time.” I think a lot of that was that we felt initially we had so much time, I think that maybe we whittled it away.
Dave: But we worked hard in there, we made sure that we wouldn’t run short.
Tom: It was really cool doing it with Andy [engineer on the record] because we did nine-hour days, so nobody was exhausted. There were no sixteen-hour days every day, after the third day of that, you just don’t want to do it anymore.
Dave: We would take a break and go out and see the town…
Sander: And harass Andy.
Dave: And things like that made it really easy to record.
How’d you get hooked up with Tiger Style [Records, the Mercury Program’s current home]?
Tom: Through Insound[.com] When the first record came out, Andrew sent it to Pillowfight [.com, online music magazine] for review, the guys from Insound saw it, and wanted to carry the record for the annex section they have there. When they started Tiger Style, they had a list of bands which they wanted to work with, and they were contacting them to see what their situations were. They didn’t know if we had a contract with Andrew, or if we were going to work with somebody else. We talked with them for a bit and got a good feel for what they wanted to do. Moving on to them was a good step at the time. We needed that at the time. It would have been nice to stay working with Andrew, someone that close as a friend, but at the same time, we made good friends with the guys at Tiger Style. We’ll probably feel the same about them. I don’t really foresee a point of growing out of that label.
Sander: Ari, Mike and all those guys, they’re the greatest.
You’re going to Europe soon….
Tom: Maybe. It’s still being talked about. We’re talking about the fall, if worthwhile. I know we’re going to do the whole US again in the fall. We’re pretty much on our own ’till the end off the year. We’ll be home for little breaks like a week or two weeks here and there.
Dave: We’ll be road pigs.
Sander: You’ll be a road pig. [laughs]
So I’ll assume that you like touring.
Sander: I love it.
Tom: Well, really at the same time, you can’t really do it right unless you’re touring. Until you become like R.E.M. and say, “Hey, we’re not fucking touring,” and you can still sell records that way.
Sander: Even when they started, they still toured.
Tom: Yeah. You really have to lay the groundwork, and we’re at that stage where we have to tour as much as possible, to establish ourselves.
I was told to ask about Ian of the Make Up.
Dave: Oh my god.
Tom: We’re… no. Decline comment. David, shut up.
[a lot of groaning and talking simultaneously]
Sander: David… I’ll just explain that… David was drunk…
Dave: Let me see that [takes questions]. What’s the exact question.
Andrew told me, “Dude, ask them about Ian of the Make-Up!”
Tom: Oh, that’s because Andrew was there. Dave was in a drunken stupor outside of CBGB’s, shooting his mouth off.
Sander: He was dumb, and he was taken out of context.
Dave: No, but that was a completely joking setting anyway, there wasn’t anything [unintelligible because of cars passing by] said, Anyone who actually would listen to the full tape would see that, so…
Sander: I think that’s clear.
Tom: [joking] That’s it, this fucking interview is over.
Sander: I think Andrew’s out of the band.
Tom: That’s it, Andrew’s telling on us.
Dave: He’s just trying to create tension.
Tom: He’d like to see that, that’d be good for Ink 19 …
Dave: Even if Ian actually saw that video from Insound, we were fucking picking that guy up in the front row of Chapel Hill.
Tom: If he had any type of problems, he’d have told us then.
Sander: He told us he was cool and everything. No, but we’re going to take Andrew on our next tour and leave him.
Dave: We’re going to leave him in the bowelry.
Sander: We’re going to make sure he goes in a really nasty shitter, and we’re going to leave him. “OK, we’re just going to get some Mentos, so why don’t you go in the bathroom.” And we’re going to leave him.