Creating the Soundtrack For the Movies in Your Head: An Interview with Sean “Grasshopper” Mackiowiak of
Life imitates art, or so they say. And as the story of a musician’s random mugging – wrong place, wrong time – unfolds, it’s almost no surprise that it unfolds like a scene from Behind The Music. “I was at the Jazz Festival in New Orleans, in this bar watching a Cuban band, with a friend of mine. We were the last ones there. We walked out and we just went around the wrong corner. It happened really fast. There were two guys. They had a gun on my friend and they cut me, and took our wallets. I was bleeding pretty badly. When I went to the hospital, the doctor said, “I don’t think this is very good; three of your fingers might be paralyzed.” At this point, our storyteller, Sean “Grasshopper” Mackiowiak, who makes a living as the guitarist for Mercury Rev, started to freak out. “Then the doctor put on a magnifying lens, looked in the wound, and said, ‘No, you’re alright.’ Luckily, it just missed cutting my tendons.” Ten stitches later, what can only be considered a very fortunate close call has transformed into a not-entirely-unpleasant memory. Speaking about “Little Rhymes,” one of his favorite tracks on Mercury Rev’s fifth album, All Is Dream, he laughs to himself. “When I was recording ‘Little Rhymes’ – the middle solo – I was playing it with my arm in a sling. Just that memory makes me chuckle,” he says. “And, I’ve got a nice little scar.”
The trick to having a sense of humor is being able to laugh when you’re the one paying. For the members of upstate New York’s ethereal art-rockers, Mercury Rev, a sense of humor is central to everything they do. Realizing that, in the current hyper-dysfunctional climate of commercial rock radio, a band can either generate a critical (read: cult) following, or appeal to the mass market, but not both, these guys continue to forge ahead, creating the type of music that – as the critics love to point out – defies genre-identification. Like its predecessor, Deserter’s Songs (which was almost universally critically acclaimed as the number one album of 1998), All Is Dream, (V2 Records) continues to walk the shoulder of the mainstream highway.
Grasshopper’s bandmates include vocalist/chief lyricist Jonathan Donahue, drummer Jeff Mercel, and bassist Dave Fridmann (who no longer tours with the band, but acts as chief engineer and producer of Mercury Rev’s records). On the phone from his home in Kingston, New York (“It’s a little more lo-fi than Woodstock, not so many hippies,” he jokes) Grasshopper spoke with Ink 19 about the inspiration behind and making of All Is Dream; including the influence of enigmatic composer/arranger, Jack Nitzsche, and the secret of why Mercury Rev’s music has such a dynamic, visual quality.
When writers say that Mercury Rev’s music transcends genre, do you consider that to be a positive comment?
I think it’s a positive thing, because anytime you pigeonhole [music] and put it into neat little categories, I guess it helps people sell things, but we don’t like to draw those lines. My record collection isn’t really separated into jazz, country, rock• it’s all laying all together. Rock & roll, in the beginning, came from all those different types of music.
Why is it that Dave Fridmann stopped touring with the band?
Around the time we toured with BOCES, he got married. After we did Yerself Is Steam he did a few Flaming Lips records and started doing more engineering. We were touring more and more, then his wife was pregnant. So I think he wanted to have a family and a studio and everything. When he said he didn’t want to tour anymore, at first it was kind of a shock. We didn’t talk for a few months, but we got over it. We called him up and said, “This is fine, let’s just keep doing this. We still want to work with you, and you don’t have to tour.”
When you’re not working with the band or recording, what do you do with your time?
I’ve done a bunch of travelling. I went to Norway. I’m dating a girl there so I went to visit her. Priceline.com (laughs). I also went down south and took a few road trips. I also write. I’m trying to write book, a semi-fictional thing. It’s about a person’s really fucked-up wedding and the events leading up to it. I was involved with that as the Best Man [laughs]. I’m trying to work on that and I have a few other short stories I want to have published, but I’m just working on getting them shaped-up. Then there’s the Grasshopper & the Golden Crickets stuff and The Harmony Rockets.
The past few years I’ve been pretty much working with the band. When Deserter’s Songs was unexpectedly so well-received, especially in Europe, we took maybe six months off after we toured and didn’t even want to see each other. We just went and did our own things. This time, just [from] the natural high of the momentum, we kept going and we started recording All Is Dream right after touring. In a way, you know, we didn’t record that whole time. We’d record maybe ten days a month, but there’s a lot of discussion in between. Even in that time off, you still feel like you’re working, because the record isn’t done and you’re still thinking about arrangements or little parts. So, it was a full year involvement.
I guess that schedule kept you from getting too burned out?
There were a few times where we did wear ourselves to nubs anyway [laughs]. Some of that was due to the horrendous winter up in Buffalo last year. There was more than a few times [where] we were trapped up in the studio. There was record snow in Fredonia, and literally, we had to go on the roof of Dave’s studio and shovel off like three feet of snow, because he was really afraid the roof was going to cave in over the room we record in. It was pretty intense. Every time we’d drive up there it would be like, “I can’t believe there’s more snow than three weeks ago.” It just kept piling up and not melting. Finally, we would drive up and there were six feet high mountains of snow around the driveway. It was unbelievable.
Does being in those extreme weather conditions have an unexpected affect on the creative process?
I think so. There were, literally, times when we couldn’t leave the studio. My parents live around there, so usually I’d leave at night and go sleep at their house, but I couldn’t even go the few miles, because it was so bad, some of the blizzards. Dave’s wife was near there and even he had to stay at the studio. So yeah, sometimes it’s just cabin fever, like The Shining or something. But in those moments sometimes is when the spark happens. I mean, sometimes [there’s] arguing but then out of that comes a different idea or approach you wouldn’t think of.
Mercury Rev developed out of you guys doing some music for experimental films, and that same visual quality has always stayed with your music. It’s very visual music. Is that a conscious objective for the band?
It’s conscious and it’s unconscious. It’s just so much a part of our connection with music and images and films. Over the years, we’ve learned a lot more about music and how you’re supposed to talk about it, in an academic way or whatever. But in the beginning it came from just explaining things in images. Like, if Jonathan said “I want this part to sound like a smoky, yellow bar in Morocco,” then that would give me a better picture than him saying, “Okay, this goes from C Sharp Minor to D.” And the lyrics have so much imagery, something like “Lincoln’s Eyes,” that it lends to the music.
The way All Is Dream starts out, with the song, “The Dark is Rising,” it has this amazing epic feel. It’s like watching some old western. Did you have the intention to kick it off with that epic feel?
Yeah. Not in a way of, “Oh, here we are, we’re back with the new Mercury Rev record,” but more like, “This is a record, All Is Dream•” I mean, we thought of it as the opening of a film, yeah, like a John Huston film, where there’s just the wide landscape of the Grand Canyon or something and it just kicks in with that epic sound. But then, very quickly, it shrinks down into Jonathan’s voice and piano, very fragile. In the same way, we wanted “Hercules,” the last song, to be like the ending credits. So we had that in mind, and there’s themes that run throughout all the songs, and we just thought of them as little scenes in this film. We’re making the soundtrack and the film is in the listener’s head. Whatever image you get out of it [is appropriate].
Can you tell me about the influence or effect the late soundtrack composer/arranger Jack Nitzsche had on the band?
When I first met Jonathan, we were talking and I was telling him about Jack Nitzsche and the Phil Spector stuff that he did all the arrangements for. Jonathan was like, “I’m not sure, but I think that’s the same guy who did One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” We checked it out, and it was the same man, and we both liked him for different reasons. We checked out other things he did, like The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and Neil Young – he did some of the arrangements on Harvest. One time as a birthday present, Jonathan gave me the album of The Hot Spot soundtrack, which was John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis, and Jack Nitzsche sort of produced it. We talked about his arrangements a lot, especially going back to See You On the Other Side – the record before Deserter’s Songs. We got in contact with him during [the promoting of] Deserter’s Songs and sent him a copy. He called us back and said he really liked it, so we were counting on working with him on a few songs [for our next record]. Basically, we wanted him to arrange some strings – to work with him in that way – but he said, “I don’t arrange anymore, I’d rather produce.” And we were like, “well, whatever you want to call it, we just want to work with you.” We ended up meeting with him last August and we played him a few of the rough ideas for “Dark Is Rising” and for “Spiders And Flies,” and he goes, “OK, I really like this.”
He was going to start working on the arrangements and he called Jonathan about a week later and said “I’ve worked on a little bit of it. I’m going to go down to Mexico and then I’ll send you some of [what I’ve done].” A day later, his son called us and said that he passed away. So, it was never to be, I guess. We asked his son if he could find the scores laying around, but he didn’t find anything.
What kind of person was he?
He was just a strange [character]. I don’t know, he had this magnetism about him. You couldn’t tell how old he was. Some say he was in his sixties, some say he was 70, you couldn’t tell, though. He had dyed, jet black, long hair, and [when we met him] he was wearing a derby hat that had a little Jack of Hearts card stuck into the brim. He was a total character. Also, we liked the fact that he did such diverse arrangements for film and for rock & roll – both of which we’re interested in – and [we were intrigued by] his life, which was often turbulent with drugs and women and things. You can read all that in his bio on the Internet, but we felt close to him in that way, too. It’s usually those sort of characters that we’re drawn to.
I don’t know what he would have done, [but] we went ahead and worked with him in mind. When we were recording, we sort of felt like his spirit was around. At least, we were thinking of him.
Jonathan has such an unusual voice. I guess it might bother some people, but I like to think of it as having the type of character that’s appropriate to the music.
Yeah, it’s that kind of voice. Ornette Coleman once said about Chet Baker, he said something like, “Chet Baker has that kind of voice that’s not technically correct, but it just does something to you emotionally.” I don’t know, I’ve always liked singers like that. When I played Bob Dylan – Neil Young or Tom Waits – at home when I was younger, my Mom would always say, “Who is that squawking?” I like singers with some character, [who are] emoting something else, rather than being technically operatic.
Your guitar playing is very evocative and often melancholy. I was wondering who some of your influences are?
I started out playing clarinet and, I think when I was younger, a lot of my influences were horn players – like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or John Gillmore, who played with Sun Ra. Then as I started playing more and more guitar, as a kid I liked [laughs] The Allman Brothers and Neil Young’s guitar playing. Then I got into, obviously, Sterling Morrison of The Velvet Underground, and Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd – I love that stuff. I like Robert Quine, who played with Richard Hell, and Lou Reed. I’ve also got some jazz and punk rock influences, but Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd [are the big ones]. I like those first couple of Television albums.
There are also some classical feels on the record, especially on “Chains” – the piano has a very classical feel. Are you and Jonathan influenced by many classical composers?
I am, and our drummer, Jeff, plays piano, and he’s really into classical. I think for a long time I was much more into 20th century classical – like minimalism and John Cage – but I guess all of us have been getting more and more into listening to a lot of different stuff. We have a friend who’s a painter and he has this huge classical record collection – he just knows everything – and he keeps lending us records. So, yeah I think that’s something we’ve been getting into more and more, giving a listen to Brahms or even some of the Polish composers. Jonathan’s into a lot of modern, early 20th century stuff.
If you can do a little genre-bending, take a little melody in your head and put it with something from the 18th century – you’ve got something completely different. All that music influences us, maybe without even thinking about it, in subtle ways. But to just be open and to listen to all that different music, it just sort of comes out [in what we’re doing].
When we meet fans on the road, and they ask me what’s any advice I could give them, I’m like, “Go walk into a section [in the record store], like the classical section, and even if you like the cover of the record, buy a record that you [normally wouldn’t buy]. Or go to the library and just take some music out and listen to it. Even if at first you don’t like it, listen to it a few more times. If you don’t like it, then you’ll know what you don’t like about it, which makes you better appreciate what you do like in other music. Or maybe you’ll learn to like something that you thought you never would. That’s happened to me. When I was young, I couldn’t stand Eric Clapton because of the way people worshipped him. Now I go back and listen to Derek and the Dominos, and there’s some great stuff on there.
How do you think the band’s music has progressed since the last album, and how does that show up on All Is Dream?
I think there’s more confidence in what we’re doing. After See You On the Other Side, we were pretty bummed out that [that album] didn’t reach as far and didn’t connect with people. Then, when Deserter’s Songs [became so popular], it made us smile and say, “OK, we’re doing something worthwhile.” The difference is that there was a little more confidence in the studio and more comfort with each other. There’s still moments of desperation and questioning, like “Is this any good?” But on a general level we were a lot more comfortable with what we were doing and not so afraid [laughs].
You guys seem so fearless to me.
[Laughs] In a way, we are, and we go for it, but then there’s a lot of self-doubt. I guess all of us have so many ideas and it’s picking which ones [to pursue] and being comfortable enough to let some of your ideas go [that’s a challenge]. [It’s important] to know that the songs need that space and that you don’t have to play 100% of the time. The parts you don’t play are just as important as what you do play. Then, when you do shine, it makes it shine that much brighter.
I have to ask, how did you get your nickname?
Grasshopper? I don’t know. As a kid I guess I liked to hop through the grass [laughs]. It was just a nickname I got when I was really young, I guess because I was always happy and jumping around and maybe a little hyperactive. I’ve mellowed out a little.