If I were tasked to give you a “good place to start” with Canadian band Frog Eyes (or any of Carey Mercer’s projects) I would flounder about and sputter and blurt out a stream of albums and songs that probably span a course of almost 2 decades. You will end up more confused than you started out. I will refrain from making recommendations beyond this; Listen to Frog Eyes.
Listen to them often. They scratch a particular itch. It’s hard to describe the hair-raising effect Carey Mercer’s voice had on me the first time I heard it. I believe it was a song called “Spanish Gold, 2044” by Swan Lake.
This sent me on a desperate search for anything he ever sang over. I had to consume more of this sort of stuff immediately. All other interests ceased. The fever spread to a friend of mine named Chandler. It was all we could talk about. We traversed this terrain without a guide and thus honestly and accurately. There is no compass. We fumbled, blinded, through Frog Eyes’ impressive discography and compared notes.
This music put me in a mind to conquer. It put me in a mind to be defeated.
We only partially digested the messages being transmitted here and that was okay. We weren’t sure we wanted to fully understand a mind that birthed these alien psalms.
I want to take extra care not to understate the enormity of the music itself. We have a rotating cast of characters playing in this band, the constant core of which is Carey and his wife, Melanie Campbell, whose unique approach to a drum kit is a perfect perversion of convention. If you listen to her patterns, with a drummer’s ear, you will perceive something seemingly simplistic that is, upon further interpretation, anything but.
Also part of the early crew was keyboard virtuoso Spencer Krugg (Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown/Swan Lake). Spencer shines in his own right and probably owes a lot of his success and technique to his time with Mercer but that is a matter I will approach at another time. Probably not.
Frog eyes was around for about 17 years. I’m constantly astounded by the number of self-proclaimed audiophiles that have never heard them. They are essential. I can’t stress this enough. Give them a fair shake. Play them for your friends. They’ll either thank you profusely or likely stay the hell away from you. We are, after all, dealing with some bizarre stuff. It’s a risk worth taking. When it clicks with you, you’ll understand. There’s nothing else like this out there, search as you might. I haven’t dropped any specific genres here because that would be a useless act and a farce. You, the reader, deserve better than that. They are unclassifiable
I’m finding it difficult to talk about a masterful writer who happens to have, with his band, made some of the best recorded sound in history. A man who, Himself, is a Professor of English. A man who has battled cancer and, at one time, played an intimate show for a dying man in his own basement.
Frog Eyes disbanded gracefully and quietly last year and instead of continuing to do them the disservice of rambling about how profound and wonderful they are to me, I will present you with an interview with Carey. As an aside, I will say that the path to actually opening up a communique with him was a rocky one. Most artists are on social media and very easy to get in touch with. That wasn’t the case here. For this reason (and many others), this one means a lot to me. Fruits of actual labor are the tastiest, it turns out.
Enjoy this ride. For it is, predictably, a strange and satisfying one;
What precipitated your desire to be a writer and performer of music?
I think my interior identity is somewhat partitioned and in conflict–there’s an “aspirational Carey” hovering over the day to day me, judging, cajoling, encouraging, all with the end goal of making something truly astonishing, which is a fine and defendable goal for any artist.
The day to day me, full of resentment and exhaustion, engages in self-sabotage while the aspirational me has to watch in fury. The aspirational me sets the destination, but the day to day me decides the route. The combustion from these constant antithetical forces creates the fuel of my life. Music is just the outcome of this combustion.
I like this idea of aspirational self hovering over (and annoying) drudge-self. I recently tried the Criterion streaming service, but it wouldn’t work on our TV. I cancelled it, and then was furious and in a black mood. Aspirational self had visions of deep-film immersion, a practice that would surely inform and shape a new set of songs (good films are just…so good for that). Drudge-self couldn’t be bothered to get a new box that would allow this immersion.
Sorry about this answer. I am always weird with the first question.
Where did you draw your lyrical thematics from? Literature, as is normally assumed?
They come only from images. Images are everywhere, and of course they seep into my mind. They combine and cluster in exciting ways in some hallway behind my eyes. Songs should sound like dreams, not ideas.
What works inspired you?
Shakespeare, Dune (the movie). And Dune (the book).
Tell me a bit about the first time you fleshed out your tunes with a band? Was it Blue Pine? How did that feel?
When I was young, I played really loud music. I was on the dole–we all were, and we jammed for two hours every day. That’s still the zenith of musical commitment for me. So I had some experience with musical fleshing prior to Blue Pine. And now I have tinnitus. When a song “comes together” for the first time, it’s exhilarating. But this is rare–usually it takes some time before the song is as rich and gripping when played live and all together as it is on the record.
Your body of music is so original, so it’s difficult to glean any sort of precursor. What musical artists would you cite as inspirational to you?
I am sidestepping the compliment and interpreting the question as asking about my deep marrow influences, as in the bands that have been with me since I was 8 years old: Talking Heads, The Clash, Patti Smith–my dad’s favourite bands. For me: Fugazi, Public Enemy, a band from England that I won’t name because their singer has turned into a cretin…Slint.
Were you teaching before Frog Eyes?
No, teaching is a thing that I came to once Frog Eyes was an established act. If my chronology is correct, I started teaching at the pinnacle of Frog Eyes’ potential for success. This might seem like a blow for the aspirational spirit who had lofty ideas of fame, but MY aspirational spirit has always thought to preserve the desperate, precious flame of artistic desire and intent. Teaching actually extends my musical life–it might have seemed like self-sabotage, but it’s not, it’s a refuge from grinding one’s essence into frustrated dust.
Would you consider most Frog Eyes records “concept albums”? If so which is your favorite “tale”, as it were?
No, “concept” as a concept is weak, but image clusters spawned from specific thoughts or interests or problems can be lyrically interesting.
How did you discover your voice? Meaning, instead of just approaching a song by singing in a restrained, normal, parroting manner, what possessed you to throw your voice in such a distinct way?
Nothing possessed me, but if you think as our instruments as a big wall of sound, you need to sing in a way that gets you over the wall. I want to be on top of the wall, to scale the wall. There’s only a few ways to get up and over it.
Why did Frog Eyes not catch on with the masses like some of their compatriots, in your summation?
I guess I cling to an aspirational definition that success is something other that what you are talking about. And efficacy, or a lack of efficacy. My compatriots must have, at some sense, believed that they should “catch on”, that this is a just and correct thing to happen. I only feel like that now, that I should have a larger audience. Perhaps I will have one in the future.
What was your favorite thing about playing in a rock band? Why so?
How do you spend your time these days?
Listening to music and reading, teaching young people how to read and write, riding a bicycle and, of course, writing songs. I spend too much time by myself.
I talk with my son a lot. He’s an excellent conversationalist, as well as an excellent human being.
What have you been listening to recently?
Are you still painting? Where can your art be seen, outside of album sleeves?
No, I was never really or even plain unqualified good at it; in 2002 I was pretty good at music and pretty good at painting and I think I chose music and sent a python into the crib of painting.
Do any copies of your book, “Cloud of Evil”, still exist? If not, will you ever do another run of them?
They exist but not for commercial consumption. We sold 300 of 300 copies. 300/300. All sold out.
Is Blackout Beach still active?
No. But I am.
Any parting words for your fans?
Thank you. I love how you are.