Mercury Rev interview

Mar 16, 2009

Dreamy US popsters Mercury Rev are supporting Coldplay on their current tour across Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi. We called up frontman Jonathan Donahue to find out how they’re getting on.

Hello Jonathan. How’s the tour going?
It’s going really, really well. Obviously the shows are all sold out and they’ve had really enthusiastic crowds, but we’re having the time of our lives as well. We’re being treated really well by everybody and we’re having a great time.

Presumably Mercury Rev have played a few support tours in their two decades together. How does this one compare?
It’s different in a lot of ways. I don’t think we’ve played with another band as large as Coldplay. And maybe there’s also a musical bond in terms of the inspiration that we’ve in some way imparted to Coldplay themselves. And it’s a weird feedback route because they certainly inspire us these days with their music. I was having hot chocolate with Chris today and we were speaking about the feedback loop of music as a whole, of one band influencing another, and then it coming right back and influencing them again. It’s really quite special to see in person.

How did you come to be involved in this tour?
Well, I think our band is quite well-liked by the members of Coldplay. I guess they drew quite a bit of inspiration from Deserter’s Songs, our fourth record, in the late ’90s. So, I think our name just wound up rising to the surface, as it were.

Had you played with them before?
No, this is the first time.

Had you met them?
No, I don’t think we had. They may have seen us play, but I haven’t met them. Although we do know quite a few of their crew.

You’re touring around five countries with them; is it quite weird when you first meet a band that you’re going to be spending so much time with?

Well, it certainly helped when we hit it off really well, like we all have. It would really be hell if you didn’t get on. They seem to be very well-grounded individuals. Y’know, a lot of opening bands can be treated very poorly.

How so?
There can just be a great disconnect between them and the headline band, or they’re affected by internal turbulence within the headline band itself. But there has been none of that with Coldplay. This has been a pleasurable experience, to say the least. But it actually has been quite a while since we’ve supported anyone else. I think the last time might’ve been Nick Cave about four years ago.

Have you played Australia much before?
This is our fifth time here, so we’ve been here quite a bit, playing various size places from theatres to clubs. But I think there’s a lot of people here each night who may have only heard of us by name only and maybe only then sort of fleetingly. So this may be their first introduction to the world of Mercury Rev.

Do you approach support shows differently to headline sets?
Yeah, you have to throw your best ball! But again Coldplay’s been really generous, we get a 40-minute set and we’ve been taking a little bit from each record, especially four or five of the past records.

You’re quite a few shows into the tour now, how have the gigs been going?
By and large it’s been going really, really well. Each one has been a little bit different, but we’ve been getting a solidly endearing and enthusiastic response.

Do you play your most well-known songs?
Well, certainly some nights there’s Holes in there and Goddess On A Highway and things like that. Our songs are longer than most bands, so we’re getting 7-8 in a 40-minute set.

How many songs do you have rehearsed up and ready to go?
Jeez, maybe 25 or 30. We did nine weeks of touring in the fall, where we’d do our own 100-minute sets. We certainly have an awful lot of material to choose from.

Have you noticed any hardcore Mercury Rev fans at the Coldplay shows?
Oh yeah, they make themselves known by singing along and shouting for songs. It’s nice to see them sprinkled out there in the nether reaches of some of these big domes.

And they’ll probably have bought their tickets before it was announced that you were supporting.
Yeah, I think there must be an overlap there. When you hear songs like Car Wash Hair being yelled out from the upper deck, you know that person must be into both bands.

Have you managed to do some sightseeing in Australia?
Oh yes. We’ve been doing a lot, particularly in Sydney. It’s quite unusual to get this many days in each city and we’ve always been a band that loves to get out. We don’t really sit very well at the hotel; things get very messy, self-destructive and expensive! So the boys have been going to a lot of art museums or the zoos, the aquariums, the gardens, just getting the full experience. To us, that’s what touring is about; not just the show, but the whole thing.

Getting to see a place properly must be so much nicer that turning up, playing the gig and leaving.
Absolutely. That happens a lot more than you’d want it to, but when there’s an opportunity, we always get out and about. And that’s why we play all around the world, as well. We play in very far away places that most bands won’t go to for the simple reason that it’s a chance for us to go there. Life is short, so you don’t know when you’ll be back to a place. Or if.

Are you a big souvenir buyer?
Well, I have a definite shopping streak in me, a mile wide, and it’s for shoes. Some of the boys bought some more cultural things, but this is my fifth time here, so I’ve already bought enough koala bears to make most people at home quite sick.

Have you bought any shoes on this trip?
I did, yep. Some men’s dress shoes by small designers here in Australia. That was what I did yesterday on our day off. And we went to Bondi Beach. Somebody saw a big stingray and one of our guys got sucked out to the sea and almost had to be rescued by the lifeguard. A lot of interesting things happened. Some of the guys tried their hand at surfing, but they didn’t do very well at all. In fact, they downright sucked.

It sounds like you’re having a lot of fun.
Oh yeah, really good. And last night we did a DJ set along to the film Lucifer Rising, by Kenneth Anger. That was really interesting and different.

So, you’re off to New Zealand next week, then Singapore, Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi. Have you been to those places before?

We’ve been to New Zealand and Singapore, but not Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi. Get a load of this; in New Zealand the eight of us are renting a catamaran to go out on the open ocean, alone. Do you think that’s a good idea?

Is it something you have experience in?
Um, no. It sounds like some sort of weird Gilligan’s Island meets Open Water thing. I don’t know what to make of it, but I can’t back down now. I’m sort of the default leader of the group, and the captain can’t pull out of it. But I’m just picturing myself floating in open water, hanging onto a jug of orange juice from the rider three days before.

How long will this expedition last?
Well, it started out like a three hour tour, then it went to "Let’s do eight hours!" and then suddenly it was "Let’s go overnight!". And that’s where we’re at now. I think it could go Lord of the Flies pretty quickly. We could get stranded and start eating the fat ones.

Do you have similar plans for Singapore and Hong Kong?
I’ve heard some of the boys are going to have their own adventures eating Peking Duck and other local delicacies. But I’m a vegetarian, so I won’t be doing that.

And then in Abu Dhabi, you’re playing in a palace.
I know! We have never played a show in the Arab world, so I have no idea what to expect. I’m guessing there will quite a lot of British or American expatriates there, but I really don’t know. Maybe it will be locals too.

It must be nice to be having new experiences 20 years into your band’s career.
Yeah, that is the momentum at this point, new experiences; just like playing to an arena of 14,000 people a night who may never have heard of you. It can be daunting at times, but as long as you go into it without any expectations, it’s generally really rewarding.

And anyone who enjoys your set can currently go onto your website and download a whole album, Strange Attractor, for free.

Yeah, one of the two records we released in the fall is up there for free, at

They also have the option of paying for the other one, Snowflake Midnight.
They do indeed. It’s done well in the end-of-the-year polls in things like Uncut and Mojo, so we’re on a pretty good roll at the moment. We’re very grateful.

Have you been watching Coldplay’s sets on this tour?
Yeah, I think I’ve seen 3 or 4 in their entirety and parts of others.

How have they been?
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them, top to bottom. The set’s very exuberant; there’s points that it’s very exhilarating and there’s points it’s quite sentimental and all these things combine to leave one feeling uplifted at the end, in a really heartfelt, sincere way. I think that’s why there’s so many nights that are sold out.

Finally, what is your favourite Coldplay song?
I’m going to say Trouble. They’re not playing on this tour, but I have heard it at soundchecks. It also should be mentioned that Jonny knows more Welsh than I do. There was a moment there where I thought I had him, but, no, I don’t.

Do you have Welsh heritage too?
No. I just enjoyed the language, so for a while I tried to speak it. But Jonny completely overwhelmed me.

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