Band Booking: Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes and Blackout Beach

Interview by Tobias Carroll

If your tastes in music run towards the eccentric, the literate, the highly compelling, and the surreally energetic, odds are good that you’ve encountered the work of Carey Mercer. Mercer’s latest work is Fuck Death, the newest album from Blackout Beach. It takes his own deeply focused style of songwriting and expands it somewhat, veering into interesting spatial territory and expanding much of what one might expect. (Mercer’s penchant for vivid song titles remains very much present, however, as “Hornet’s Fury into the Bandit’s Mouth” and “Broken Braying Sound of the Donkey’s Cry” might suggest.) Given that his work encompasses multiple bands as well as prose, he seemed a logical choice to reach out to with some questions about books and music.

A few years ago, you had a short story appear in McSweeney’s; are you working on anything else, either short- or longform?
I have two novels in me. One is inane, and one is deeply emotional and true, if such a description can be squeezed through a bullshit screen (it surely must not). One is about a philanthropist who tries to make an arts camp for homeless people (moonlight sonata, Hegelian lectures, beef wellington), and fails at this task magnificently. The other is too personal to speak about until I actually begin to write it. But will either of them be written? Will the writing of one embolden me to write the other? Can the writing of both create a hybrid between deep solemnity and inane foolishness within that constructed life that is my biography? In fact, can my whole body of work be characterized as some bridge between deep solemnity and inane foolishness?

How does the process of writing a song for Blackout Beach differ from writing on for Frog Eyes (or, for that matter, Swan Lake)?
Blackout Beach: staring at a screen and thinking, “Why isn’t this working”? Hours, months later, feeling like things are working. Then I sing.

Frog Eyes: sitting down, playing a guitar, the chords or the riff making me feel like I want to get up. Sometimes when I am playing something new I can close my eyes and feel/hear the song being played out in real time, in front of an actual audience. This is a good sign.

When an idea comes to you, whether for a song or a story, do you generally know from the outset where it’ll end up, or have certain concepts, themes, or images wound up recurring across multiple works?
I only write stories if I am asked–it’s almost a social act. I was writing more in Victoria, because many of my friends had moved away, and I think I was actually quite lonely. So I was writing my blog, and writing stories to swap with friends. Now I live in a city where more of my friends live, and I am not so lonely. So I never have an idea, or concept; it’s more like an emotion, a feeling that is in the proximity of what we could call an emotion, and it is related to the desire to feel connected to the people you are interested in.

I don’t think there’s much of a relation between the songs and the occasional story, but the odd thing is that the songs have more of a imagistic relationship with what I am reading, and the stories are more just little nuggets that occur in the late silence of the day.

I also don’t really have conceptual/thematic ideas for songs that come to me as I’m walking around or dreaming or waking up or cooking or drawing. The images and themes come from the music. I write the music first, and then listen. Sometimes it’s immediately apparent, and sometimes I have to listen for a long time before I start to hear things. Either way, I always start to “hear” ideas. I had to listen for a long time for Fuck Death, but now when I think of it, it’s so obvious that it should be, and in fact more works should be, about war.

But perhaps music does not provide the right architecture for speaking about omnipotent banalities.

The press release for Fuck Death mentions Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as having an influence on the album; what appealed to you about this particular book?
Orwell in the hills, knowing the dream is about to slip away into shit, but still taking time to notice the cracking end of winter, the first winds of spring: the solitary man, hiding in the hills, looking for a spring breeze; wishing to feel the lather of cream on cold and sunken cheeks, wanting a smoke…it’s a good image, isn’t it?

What have you been reading lately?
Here are a few of my favourite books from the recent past:

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall Berman

Zone, Mathias Enard

Unforgiving Years, Victor Serge

Inferno, Eileen Myles

Male Fantasies (a really cool academic book about the literature of the Freikorps and the links between misogyny and fascism), Klaus Theweleit

War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges

(Photo: Shawn McDonald)

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