Thursday, November 16, 2006

Swan Lake: Carey Mercer

Swan Lake is the much-anticipated meeting of the minds between Dan Bejar of Destroyer, Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown/Wolf Parade, and Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes--three men that the editor of Exclaim jokingly referred to as "the three most annoying male voices in Canada, together at last."

I'd wax poetic about the record now, but I've already written a review for Eye that will run next Thursday and an article for Exclaim that comes out in the December issue; I had the chance to interview each of the three men for said piece. And I'm running off to Montreal for the weekend, so today's time is tight.

But I will say that I found Swan Lake's Beast Moans to be totally baffling and impenetrable upon first listen; I initially considered turning down the assignment. Because I'm such a fan of everyone involved, I threw it on ultra-high rotation for the next week, and only around the 12th listen did everything start to come clear. It's enriched with mystery, which means it's easily going to be misunderstood. Hopefully these interviews will illuminate the process and intentions behind it and will pre-empt questions before people hear it for themselves.

Quick side note: I saw Handsome Furs last night at the Drake in Toronto. This is the new band for Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade, a duo with his new wife, who handles all drum programming, keyboards and electronics. I'm happy to report that this exceeded any expectations I had; I was worried that Dan was simply playing catch-up to his ever-prolific writing partner Spencer in Wolf Parade. Instead, Handsome Furs has a whole aesthetic unto itself--with the exception of one two-chord rocker that descends from "This Heart's On Fire." Dan is singing his ass off, his pained howl having been tastefully refined after a full year of touring, though it still gets deliciously raw when necessary.

I guess I was also skeptical because of my evolving appreciation of Wolf Parade. When I first saw them three years ago, I loved Dan's songs and hated Spencer's; now I'm firmly in the Spencer camp, and until last night I had started underestimating Dan's own writing. The electronics also add a welcome difference in texture, whereas the first time I saw Sunset Rubdown as a band (a very rough early gig) it simply sounded like a weirder Wolf Parade unplugged (it's obviously become much more than that).

Handsome Furs' debut album for Sub Pop is expected in the new year.

In the meantime, back to Swan Lake...

Carey Mercer

November 7, 2006

Via phone in Victoria, BC

I don’t know what I was thinking Beast Moans would sound like, and yet it does and doesn’t sound like I thought it would. Did you have expectations of what would happen when the three of you got together?

Nope. That was the nice thing about it. It makes it difficult to talk about, like we wanted a mixture of this sound and that—which we never spoke about. We wanted to see if we could make a record. When it’s all on one songwriter or some context with prior records, you’re more aware. But to use the over-used organic cliché, it was pretty much head-to-the-monitor.

For some reason, I expected it to be more of a band record, but because it’s just the three of you and none of you are drummers by trade, it’s more three guys singing with lots of keyboards and weird sounds.

I think so, yeah. There’s the danger too of having it be really folkie, which feels a little hamfisted. At the same time, you’re right, the thing about Swan Lake that’s really peculiar in the context of the three of us is that all the songs are rooted in acoustic guitar. Especially for me and Spencer—if we could have looked into a crystal ball ten years ago and seen that, we would have cried in horror.

Such was your repulsion at that stage in your life?

I guess so! And none of us are powerhouse drummers. Even if we were, I don’t think we would have necessarily wanted to have rocked it out. There’s a bit of that on the record, though.

Who is drumming, then?

Dan didn’t do too much drumming, so it’s mostly me and Spencer. But we did it mostly individually: I would do a hi-hat, and then Spencer would hit a snare.

Wow, that is collaborative!

It makes the drums really tight in a way in that they’re to a metronome, but they’re loose too, in that it’s very hard to do. It’s counterproductive, I suppose, but it gives it a neat kind of feel. There’s something about those drums I really like. Dan described the drums as really early electronica, when things were still pretty stupid.

Like what, 70s, late 60s electronic music?

I guess so. I don’t actually know what he’s talking about.

Dan in particular, and certainly yourself, and to a somewhat lesser degree Spencer—you all have an emphasis on lyrics, wordplay and words in your writing. And yet I find it really hard to distinguish words in the vocal tracks here. The way the record is mixed seems to obscure that. Is that just my deafness, or is that deliberate?

No, I think it’s because it wasn’t pre-meditated, and it was really done on the fly, so texture became more important than succinct ‘this-is-the-bass,’ ‘this-is-the-guitar,’ ‘we-are-here-to-document-our-sound’—well, we didn’t really have a sound when we started out. Because of that, it really is a studio thing. Maybe also the fact that we all tend to put our vocals up pretty high on our own records, Spencer probably the least and Dan probably the most. It’s not like we’re going to blow people’s expectations by mixing the vocals low. I think it felt right to bring them down a bit.

Listening to it, you’re all singing in your usual styles—actually, you, less so—so there’s a certain amount of words per meter, yet I can’t make out what you’re saying.

Yeah, well, there is a lyric sheet.

Ah yes, right. So, uh, you obviously played in Destroyer for a while…

And Spencer did too, in Europe.

When Destroyer and Frog Eyes went to Europe, right?

Yeah, the four of us: Swan Lake and Melanie, the Frog Eyes drummer. It felt really good. I don’t know if Europe was turned on its ear or anything, but it felt really good to me, and we felt like it would be awesome if we could provide ourselves with a more formal atmosphere. I never got to attack one of Dan’s songs fresh; there’s always context of this other record that sounds really different. That was the stressful part of it. It wasn’t the sounds or the songs themselves, but it was the preconceptions. When I knew Spencer here, he wasn’t so much a songwriter, he was more of a bedroom guy, more like, ‘this is my song, but you’re lucky if you’re allowed to hear it.’

Sunset Rubdown at that point was just a cassette-only project, wasn’t it?

Exactly. It was kept quite close. It was also not the kind of thing that would lend itself to someone else contributing.

It was very private.

Totally. But obviously over the years he’s become a more public songwriter, so I think it seemed right to me to get together and try to make a record. We’re really lucky that Jagjaguwar was into it.

Why specifically do you find a kindred spirit in these two men?

There’s a lot of things, and it’s kind of weird to talk about in terms of friendship. You would never have an interview about a friend, and then the friend would read it. That would be horrible, right?

Usually we wait for funerals before that kind of discourse.

But musically, there’s a pretty similar sense of struggle and commitment to the idea of an album as high art, and also the contradictions and the dilemmas that brings. The fact that even in doing that you make just as much of a mockery and a pompous cliché as the rocker does. That kind of struggle: no matter what you do, you’re kind of a hollow mockery of what you started out to do. But you do it nonetheless. You keep going on. Then there’s the natural, organic friendship, too, which has an effect on the music. In some ways it’s very masculine. I have no idea what they’re singing about. We don’t sit around and some topics are very off-limits. It’s as if we’re a couple of mechanics, not fey songwriters.

How collaborative was the writing?

The idea was that there would be no collaboration on the songs themselves. The premise was that everyone would bring in three or four songs and we’d flesh them out together, and that’s what we did. It was a little weird at the start, because no one wanted to be the keener: ‘I’ve got a great one!’ Once we got started it was really neat, because Spencer had been in Japan for a month and a half and he’d written these songs there, so it’s not like any of us brought a song that was like: ‘I’ve been singing this song in the shower since I was eight.’ At the beginning there was some trepidation, but once it bloomed it was really neat to be in the control room and hear the song for the first time.

What’s odd about the project is that in my experience, recording is the last phase of the song. Usually you’ve played them on the road. I felt privileged in a way when I heard these songs for the first time. It’s one of my more memorable experiences playing music, was hearing this unfold and recognizing that you can integrate yourself into a song at the same time it’s integrating itself into you.

I hear discovery on the record, and three men feeling each other out—or feeling each other up, as the case may be. It’s more exploratory than your other projects, which sound a bit more readymade.

Yeah, more realized. That’s what I like about the record. I also like that it’s not all me, so it’s easier to talk about. It felt very private and outside of the scope of response or the public forum. For one, we laid the foundations even outside of Victoria, in a barn in the country, so it made it feel like you were out of time. And Victoria itself is a bit removed.

Considering those interiors and the private nature, what do you hope that a listener takes from it? Someone who pays for the album, takes it home and says, ‘I don’t really know what these three guys are doing!’

I don’t really know. That’s always a really difficult question. It blows my mind that people shell out money. (30 seconds lost due to battery failure). I hope people can hear it without context, without bloggery…

That sounds like buggery.

That might be a better word. But it’s a hard one to answer, because I can’t imagine what hearing it for the first time would be like.

It was baffling at first, for me, but knowing where the three of you come from individually, more things rise to the surface with each listen.

That’s good, because that’s what I like in a record, when you’re not sure about a record the first few times, and then you go back to it and you feel rewarded. We’re not trying to be willfully obscure or repelling the listener. I would love to make a record that is butter to the ears on first listen, but this one was not going to work out like that. We’ve all learned to let the collection of songs take you where they want to, and try not to force their hand.

Your songs on here sound the most different from your “day job,” if you will.

Maybe. On the other hand, it’s been a while since there’s been a Frog Eyes record.

It’s been what, two years?

I think so. Maybe people will think the new one sounds different.

It’s en route, yes?

Yeah, it’s done and should be out in March. When I listen to a song like ‘Widow’s Walk,’ I haven’t heard that in Destroyer; it doesn’t sound like a Destroyer song. Or the last song, that’s really far from Dan’s territory. Also, the fact that Spencer played acoustic guitar makes it quite a bit more folkie than the synth-heavy stuff he’s most at home with.

Really? I hear a lot of acoustic guitar in his work, on the new Sunset Rubdown album and especially on the EP before that.

That’s true. I think the acoustic guitar on his EP is more of an effect than it is the foundation. If you reduced the songs to just him and one instrument, it probably wouldn’t be the acoustic. It just kind of happened that we would randomly go around and attack the songs and then take things away. His songs probably ended up having the least on them, which is definitely to the album’s benefit. You need to hear all the songs in the context of the record. I talk like that’s an abnormality, but it shouldn’t be.

If your songs sound the least like your main band, then his songs sound the most like Sunset Rubdown. That’s also because I hear you and Dan singing on each other’s songs more than either of you appear on Spencer’s.

Sure, yeah. But there is some trading of voices, and Spencer’s and my voices can by quite similar if it’s done together. But I hear you. It might be more noticeable, the way that Dan’s and my voice work together—or doesn’t work together. I haven’t really thought about that.

Were all three of you present for the entire process, or just the recording?

No, Dan had to go in and out, as did Spencer.

Were you steering it?

It was my computer, so I guess I was always there, but I wouldn’t say that I made it or that I’m responsible for it. Every idea was okayed or made by everyone. I might have done a bit more clean-up stuff and the boring parts of making a record, but in terms of the important stuff everyone was there.

Did this record illuminate anything in your own work that you hadn’t realized before?

No, nothing every illuminates anything for me, to tell you the truth. It’s a dark process. I really enjoyed it. There probably are lessons learned, but ones that I don’t want to actively look upon.

Do the three of you share any similar work habits, good or bad?

It didn’t feel like work, to tell you the truth. We’re all pretty mellow. No one was really like, ‘WHAT THE… FUCK! Bejar, get in there!’ It was more, ‘Yeah, sure, dude.’ Very supportive. No freak-outs. It’s odd, too, because we are all tyrants in our own way—very controlling of how our records sound. I know it’s been leveled at Spencer that he sounds a lot like me, or vice versa, but I think we both felt that our aesthetic was quite different. That has been an illumination for both of us, that each one is right in our own way. It has influenced me in a way, because I have this idea of weaving 20 different melodies into one kind of cohesive one, and he’s very much the opposite. He wants everything to turn into one very cohesive whole. I think that had an effect on me in our little battles, which were always civil. I really like the parts where he convinced me to go this way, and I especially like the parts on the record where you can feel all of our wills murking about. Sometimes one radical cohesive statement can be very effective, especially when put in the context of bouncing off a chaotic weave.

Is it easier to take advice from another tyrant than it is someone in your own band?

(laughs) I guess so, I don’t know. Probably! But I wouldn’t want anyone from the band to read that!

By the language you’re using, I’m assuming this won’t be the last we hear of Swan Lake, then.

No, we have an agreement to have a discussion about touring.

Really? You got Dan to agree to that?

I said ‘discuss touring.’ I can’t say anything, but I would really love it. It would be really neat to take those songs and go the exact opposite direction with them. You only get to play the songs once a night, so it has to have a lot more cohesion and less texture.

Obviously when you were making the record you weren’t envisioning having to play these songs live, though.

No. It doesn’t really matter anyway, especially coming from our history of turning Your Blues into a thrashing rock onslaught. If we wanted to do it, we could. But we’re definitely going to make another record. That was the one promise we made to the label. I don’t like the suggestion that it’s a side project, because that implies that these are the doggerel songs. It’s another project. Wolf Parade is the side project! These songs were written for Swan Lake.

You’ve often done the paintings for your own album covers, so why did you pick Shary Boyle to do this one?

Because they were really awesome, and they seemed appropriate. And I haven’t painted in a really long time. There was talk of me doing it, and then I suggested her, because Dan’s good friends with her too. He wrote her and she said she wanted to hear the music first and then agreed to do it. I’m extremely grateful to her. Especially because it’s so easy to download records now, I think it’s more important to create a beautiful package.

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