Interview — Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes
AMF had the chance to interview Carey Mercer, the mastermind behind Frog Eyes, Blackout Beach, and, on occasion, Swan Lake. Below Mercer discusses his influences, amplifiers, literature, and the characters in his lyrics. If you do not yet know of Frog Eyes, their teetering instrumentals and brilliantly composed lyrics will sink their teeth into you. Recently released Frog Eyes’ gem Paul’s Tomb has been on heavy rotation on all of our stereos. This video captures only a fraction of the beauty that Mercer’s projects exude and surely if you buy one new record this year, a Frog Eyes or Blackout Beach record should be it.
Here at AMF we have featured the Raphael Nostos (Carey Mercer) Twitter account in order to add some poetic/comedic moments to our site. What are your thoughts about Twitter as a poetic medium?
Twitter is not a poetic medium, though it does house Greek Fragments well.
I have to be honest: whenever I publish any words I feel a terrible hollowing-out, and a precursor to something terrible. Pure dread. It’s not nice. I don’t feel this dread when I publish music, which, to the great sorrow of my detractors, means that I will continue to make music as my primary mode of getting the demons out.
Like most internet publishing, it’s fun for a little while and then it’s a bit of a drag, unless you are in love with your own career, and only the most destructive and unthinking fools are in love with their own career.
Beware their example.
Can we expect a new Blackout Beach album soon? What are you doing differently for future Blackout Beach songs?
I am very close to being done [with] something and moving on to something else. I look forward to this transition.
What is the depth of the characters that you choose to employ in your songs and albums? Donna is featured often on Blackout Beach and Frog Eyes albums: who is Donna? What is the purpose of the thematic repetition of characters?
There is no depth to the characters in my songs—to allow them depth would be to allow fiction (or the intentionally fictitious) into my songs, which is a juvenile approach. Names are powerful words, and usually phonetically strong words. Words are placeholders for ideas, or conduits to link these placeholders, and in this case Donna has been a placeholder for working through some very sad ideas that I have about our nature, and especially the ways in which men “deal” with women.
Part of the attraction to Donna is its close phonetic relationship to “dawn”, a word that makes its way into my songs quite a bit. Donna is interesting then, because the immediate and primary association I have with the word is always steeped in night, in darkness, in aloneness and anonymity (all conditions of illness), so a kind of inverted Dawn, I suppose. The doppelganger of dawn, I suppose.
Who are your literary heroes? What role do mythos and literature play in influencing the lyrics of Frog Eyes and Blackout Beach?
No literature actually influences the sonics of my work—not directly or consciously, at least. Like: I won’t have a 24 song record that loosely mirrors the chapters of the Iliad. To people who work like this, I might say: you just don’t believe enough in your own music, the power of big chords or diminished hushes or flickering snares or all that makes music turn and wheel. No one cares about how rad you thought the Iceland sagas are. I am talking to myself here.
Some literature likely impacts the words I sing, and if a record has a theme it might be related to the big books that hit me hard during the construction of the record, but literature is just words, and so too are lyrics, so it’s not like this big, interesting transference is taking place: it’s just poetry making more poetry. Nice? I think so.
I am also not autobiographical, so good writers’ themes (like Bolaño) become helpful tools for singing about myself without really singing about myself. There are two Careys, at least two, more like five. You get to know the palest ghost of the five.
I’m reading 2666 right now. “Peace” references The Savage Detectives. I sometimes feel like Bolaño’s long, referential sentences (especially some of the beautiful last sentences found at the end of the short sections in 2666) and 2666’s page length are reminiscent of your self-referential lyrics and long song structures. How has Bolaño’s work influenced your recent music (if at all)?
Bolaño’s 2666 was a huge push thematically, in that I think the dire and unthinkable shroud of women-killing in his Santa Teresa (Juarez) are at least relatable to what has occurred in Vancouver, a city that began to interest me a few years ago and one that I eventually did move to some months ago. One of the ideas of Paul’s Tomb is trying to work through the paradox of loving a place (and, geographically, I do love the Pacific Northwest) that also murders its women and looks the other way. I don’t think I did a great job with this, but I am weak and relatively young and it became too brutal for me so I backed off a bit.
Are you enjoying it? It’s a bit of a grind (the violence, not the prose), but the payoff is the way that it continues to resonate within you (me) for months to come.
Zack F: I am enjoying it immensely. But the violence in “The Part About The Crimes”—200 pages of it—does become a bit of a grind. I’m suspicious that Bolaño is conditioning me to really, really appreciate those little parts where he describes something else besides the next murder. It’s almost as if he means to suffocate us with violence in order to treat the reader like the maquiladora worker, so we desperately await those 15 minutes of fresh air before the next brutal work shift begins.
As Frog Eyes continue to release albums, the songs have become longer and less frenetic, as though the 2 minute manic bursts of older songs like “World’s Greatest Concertos” have been pulled & stretched out to make the longer and more contemplative newer songs like “Odetta’s War” or “A Flower in a Glove.” What inspired this stylistic change?
I think our instruments sound better, and I wanted to stretch things out and actually hear them a bit—a conceit, I suppose.
I love the songs you wrote for Enemy Mine (especially the deep, distorted bass tone that runs through them). Seeing as how it’s unlikely we will ever see Swan Lake tour, any chance you’d consider playing “Spanish Gold, 2044” or “Warlock Psychologist” live with Frog Eyes? Or are those songs somehow different?
I play “Peace” occasionally, because I love the line “no suicide”. The distorted bass tone was Krug’s magic.
What is the normal breakdown of Carey Mercer media consumption? Do you favor books over the internet?
I try and read a book a week. The internet has a hold on too much of my time, but what the fuck? Who doesn’t feel this?
Your Wikipedia page says that you are an English teacher. Do your students admire your songs and guitar work?
I was an English Teacher, but only for a short time. I quite enjoyed it. I will pursue it again in the future. I taught two classes: the first was onto my other life in 15 seconds, and badgered me about it relentlessly, and the second could have cared less about me. I really enjoyed the way one gets to know one’s students through their writing.
On the last tour you played through a guitar amp smaller than any I have ever seen but the guitar tone was phenomenal. What kind of amp was that? What are your thoughts on analog versus digital?
I was playing a 5-watt Gretsch-branded (Supro) 6150 amp. I really love amplifiers, much more than guitars. I might have also been chained into a brown-face Fender Princeton amp. Small amps sound better, and microphones like them, so to me it makes sense to play them. But I have a new amp, called a Swart Atomic Space Tone, which is the best amp I have ever played, without a doubt. The notes have this spectral, 3d quality to them. The builder is alive and you don’t have to buy it from collector scum who never actually played the amp to begin with. I play it as much as I can, which means I have more songs right now that I’ve had in years. Which is good.
Until microphones become digital, then everything will be a hybrid between analog and digital, which is true of our lived lives, and actually renders the analog vs. Digital debate kind of meaningless. It is very rare and very expensive to have an all-analog recording. And many of the very interesting records that have been made in recent years have nothing to do with the all-analog approach. I think a new debate might be framed roughly as “played vs. edited”—Is a record better if it involves the antiquated idea of people playing at the same time, or does the freedom of digital editing bust down doors and make new art? I don’t know, I don’t know…if a song is truly brilliant it will shine through whatever format it’s captured on, right? This “all-analog” sticker on the cover is a bit of a sales tactic, as these records actually tend to be pretty boring.
On the other hand, analog does actually sound better, at least to my ears. It’s kind of sad that we are devolving into mp3s, but then this is nothing new, right? We are all swept up in the energy of the mass, and the mass right now prefers to assess music on crappy bit rates through laptop speakers. That being said, who am I to say if anyone loves their music any less just because it’s not blasting out of two-thousand speakers projecting 180-gram vinyl. At a certain point, bourgeois fetishism becomes boring.
What are the chances we hear any Spencer Krug piano on the next Frog Eyes album?
I don’t know, I don’t know. I love Spencer’s playing. Things (records) have their own fate, and I try not to get too wrapped up in plans.
Bonus Question: Is the relation of Paul’s Tomb to the Beatles coincidental? In “Violent Psalms” the phrase “Paul is Alive” appears to be the antithesis of the Beatles’ hoax “Paul is Dead.” There is another connection. An excerpt from King Lear is heard in “I Am the Walrus” and Lear is referenced on Paul’s Tomb. What’s the deal?
Thank you to Carey Mercer for his patience with a bunch of good-for-nothing Californians. Please buy his records, more than one copy of Skin of Evil/Paul’s Tomb is encouraged. Also thank you to B. Levaton, Skinner, Zack F., and J.D. Phillips for contributing their ideas and questions.