The Valedictorian Speaks

After years of toiling in (relative) obscurity while friends (Destroyer's Dan Bejar) and pupils (Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown's Spencer Krug) were launched into hipster heaven, that all-important "moment" seems to be rapidly approaching for Carey Mercer and his endlessly intense and combustive Victoria-based band Frog Eyes. Maybe. With the success of Swan Lake's Beast Moans (the excellent, gauze-laden album produced in collaboration by the three aforementioned songwriters) and the arrival of the blistering new Frog Eyes epic Tears of the Valedictorian (out last week on Absolutely Kosher), it would seem if there is any time for a breakthrough, it would be now. And any kind of breakthrough would be enough: Frog Eyes might be the only band in history to pull a 9.1 from Pitchfork and still see half their audience evaporate before their second song ends (the Sunset Rubdown show last May at the Mercury Lounge, for instance).

To Mercer's credit, most of this is his fault. He's just too goddamn ballsy to tone it down at all -- to try to be likeable. Even though Tears of the Valedictorian, the cleanest and most digestible Frog Eyes record to date, it is in essence the same glorious lunatic, filthy gutter-glam (like David Bowie and Tom Waits struggling in an alley over who gets to fuck Werner Herzog's dancing chicken, I've always said) they've been producing their whole careers -- only refined. And condensed. At eight songs and 40 minutes, it is their shortest record to date, though it contains two songs ("Caravan Breakers" and "Bushels," the bands two best songs -- songs that both encapsulate their work to date and look forward to a gothier, grander future -- that are longer than anything they've done.

The way Mercer's arranged it, any breakout that comes will be achieved on his own terms. And that seems to be exactly how he wants it. I sat down with Mercer to talk about his new record and the vision-first approach to his career. In the end, we spent way too much time discussing how much of a badass Neil Young is.

Lucas Hanft: People seem to be really hyped about the new record -- are you noticing anything on your end?

Carey Mercer: Yeah, definitely. I'm doing more interviews and that kind of thing, so if you can quantify the buzz, I suppose... there seems to be a little bit more interest. I think it's our best record.

LH: My only criticism is that it's too short.

CM: I wanted to make a short record, though.

LH: But with incredibly long songs.

CM: Yeah. I know. That's just the way it worked out. It doesn't feel like an EP, though. It's a short record. I'm not sure why it ended up that way. When we put all the songs together, it felt done. When something feels done, there's no need to push it... It's not like we had any extra songs. There isn't a minute we recorded that we didn't use. It was kind of pieced together over a couple of years. When we set out to make this record, we wanted to go slow and make something that maybe... maybe had a little more shelf life. A little less temporal. I think I wrote "Caravan Breakers"... pretty close to the end of the last record. I think that song has the most connection to [2004's] The Folded Palm -- both in the way that it's like it, and the way that it isn't.

LH: Did "Caravan Breakers" represent a kind of breakthrough then? Something so long and sprawling coming after The Folded Palm, which had so many short songs?

CM: I wouldn't say breakthrough... I was really unsatisfied with the way the last record came out. It was... I think it was either we'll stop... be the baby, and say fuck it and walk away from music. But I didn't want to do that.

LH: That sincerely crossed your mind?

CM: No. Well... it's always crossing your mind. There's no law that says you must keep making music. You should always be questioning why you're doing something or if you should keep on doing something... because if you're not, you won't know. You won't have a chance of knowing.

LH: In a creative field, it's important to keep challenging yourself.

CM: I think so. In a way, the dissatisfaction with the record was really helpful. I might make a real dud of a next record cause I feel kind of satisfied with this one. Hard to say, but I still have some dissatisfaction left to work with.

LH: Lyrically, I always tend to think of you as a lover of the mock-heroics the mix of references, kind of like Alexander Pope.

CM: That's right. It's true. I'm really interested in pomp and ceremony and the ways that that relate to own my life ... in some ways a rock concert is as ridiculous and full of pomp and premeditated hurrahs as a high school graduation -- where the valedictorian's the hero. I read a lot and thought a lot about the speeches of heroes. It's very interesting.

LH: The approach makes the subject matter more tragic -- more pathetic -- in a way.

CM: It's true. Rock stars are heroes I think -- as much as any other hero is a hero anyway. And that's so ridiculous. In every song, I'm making fun of myself and the position that I occupy -- why do I do this if I have so little respect for rock music? Why do I like to rock out so much? If I think that pomp and ceremony are ridiculous and negate our real desires, which is to let everything fall apart, why do I attend the ceremony? Why do I play in a rock club? Whywhywhywhywhy? (laughs)

LH: It's interesting, because the times I've seen you perform, you seem at times hostile to the crowd -- as if you're asking the audience why they're there.

CM: Sometimes I do... Something broke in me, though, recently -- in a good way. I hope it lasts. When I first started playing music, I felt so ripping and ready to go, and so not appreciative of the audience, but willing to take them on. I think maybe you have to go through this, the journey to the underworld, to get back to the mock heroic... but I just became ... not hostile toward the audience, but hostile to my role, to what I was doing. I got uncomfortable with giving.

My friends, they're like, "Here comes fucking Bono." When you hear that, it hits you and you start to second guess yourself and feel a pompous fool for trying to give people a good show. It's not like I was like, "Punk rock -- fuck all these people," but I was not willing to allow myself to enjoy it. Which I do -- it's all subconscious. I don't know what I'm thinking when I'm up there. It's scary -- it can be exhilarating, but I'm never like, "it's time to don some attitude." Or the opposite: "Time to be the pied piper to the land of euphoric cathartic celebration." It's a very odd thing to do, to get up in front of 150 people and sing. I think my nature is to be critical of things. It's a real bummer. The great victory of rock music for me is that I can abandon my critical faculties for an hour and get lost in music. And for a while, that wasn't happening. But I'm really happy to say, at South by Southwest, it was just... so much fun to go play for my band.

LH: Another high-falutin literary reference that came to mind when I was thinking about your music was Rimbaud's rant about the derangement of the senses.

CM: Maybe that's the state the music's intended to inspire. When we play live, I feel like that. I feel really fucked up. That can go in a couple of ways. It can be really good and it can be really bad. But I gotta say, we don't do drugs before we play or anything. That'd be a bit too much.

LH: Do you use drugs as a writing tool?

CM: God no. I don't actually do drugs. Not that I have anything against it. My nature is too critical -- I'm never able to just enjoy it. It's always "There it is, affecting my nervous system." It's not enjoyable to me. But obviously I drink. Alcohol -- it's importance waxes and wanes. Sometimes it's really important to me: What it means to drink.

LH: I like that a Frog Eyes show can go either way... I like bands that seem combustible on stage. Like Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

CM: It's funny you should say it. The CD is loosely assembled around the structure of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, with those kind of book-ending long songs. There are a few "Cinnamon Girls" on there, a few quieter ones. It's not a song-for-song mirroring, but I think that record more than anything else really hit me. I could listen to it over and over again. When I said I wanted to make a record with a bit of shelf life, I think that's what I mean. That record was the beacon for me. His approach and his career is really inspiring.

LH: He's one of the official badasses of rock n' roll. Him and Tom Waits -- maybe the only two dudes to never sell-out.

CM: Yeah -- never ever did a commercial, did they. And they sued people.

LH: It was funny the way Swan Lake kind of got caught up in the whole Canadian Super Band thing... kind of putting you in the context of all the Montreal indie behemoths.

CM: No we're not. Totally not. But we're not part of any scene. That was what was so interesting about South by Southwest. I realized I have no place in the music industry. There's no realm or genre or room for me. My reaction to that is it motivates me. What I was talking about before -- about being embarrassed about my role as a musician, or "Victoria's Bono," as my friend's called me -- having a realization like "Well no, but I'm not part of the industry," has emboldened me.

LH: Is there a reason you don't maintain a website for the band, really?

CM: Yeah, if someone else did that, I'd be happy to have it happen. You only have so much energy in a day. You have to go to work -- you ought to listen to music -- you gotta read, then you have to make music, you have to eat and hang out with your woman. There's just not enough time in the day for that stuff.

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