Mercury Rev: The Sound Of Free Sounds When recording its latest album, Snowflake Midnight, Mercury Rev turned to publicly created and shared electronic instruments and software to create ethereal and deeply textured layers of sound. The band's members discuss their process of incorporating technology and losing themselves in music.
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Mercury Rev: The Sound Of Free Sounds

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Mercury Rev: The Sound Of Free Sounds

Mercury Rev: The Sound Of Free Sounds

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Now a band that's pushed a lot of musical boundaries, Mercury Rev. For the better part of 20 years, the band has been mixing trippy sounds with all sorts of studio trickery. Here's a new one, though. For the recording of its latest CD, "Snowflake Midnight," Mercury Rev got production help from a bunch of strangers.

(Soundbite of song "Butterfly's Wing")

MERCURY REV: (Singing) I'm beating like a butterfly's wing, unable to sleep.

SEABROOK: The band had hundreds, maybe thousands of collaborators, people all over the world, through the musical magic of the Internet. That weird guitar sound? It could have been created by some kid in Germany. That vocal effect? A woman in Japan. Well, who knows? I spoke with band members Jonathan Donahue and Jeff Mercel from WDST in Woodstock, New York. Mercel says a lot of the interesting effects you'll hear on "Snowflake Midnight" came through a piece of software called Reaktor.

Mr. JEFF MERCEL (Band Member, Mercury Rev): It's a framework that allows users to create their own electronic instruments, effects, and things of that nature, and then contribute or post these creations online in the users' forum. And then those pieces of software are then free for anyone to use.

SEABROOK: OK, Jonathan Donahue?

Mr. JONATHAN DONAHUE (Band Member, Mercury Rev): We're really accessing brains all over the world. One of the beautiful uses of the Internet, at least, is in this way for music. We are sort of in touch - Einstein called it spooky action at a distance - with people all across the world. And they don't know they're working with you on your record. But there's some sort of resonance built up there, and that was something that really did turn us on.

SEABROOK: Jeff Mercel, where on this new CD can we hear a good example of what came out of this?

Mr. MERCEL: Well, "Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower," for example. It's all over the place from things like the vocals, as well as the drums and instrumentation. You'd find programs that do things as commonplace to a reverb or a delay, to other things that would have German names that you couldn't even pronounce, that they'd have knobs and buttons on them that you didn't even know what they were meant to do. And on some of these you couldn't tell if they were actually performing the way that they were meant to or if they were malfunctioning. And sometimes the malfunctioning ones were infinitely more interesting to us than the ones that were actually doing what they were meant to do.

SEABROOK: Let's listen.

(Soundbite of song "Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower")

MERCURY REV: (Singing) Under bright stars a young boy dreams. He's walking on the moon. In my dream we are too. And whatever happens now, they say, is whatever we choose.

SEABROOK: Can you hear a sound on this track, this track being "Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower," that you remember manipulating through this program?

Mr. MERCEL: I mean, I think we just heard a little thing where the sound is sort of almost sucked up into a vacuum, that sort of whoosh, you know, that's one example. But I mean, it's hard for us to find a sound that wasn't touched by this. I mean, once we grabbed a hold of it, we found ourselves using it left, right and center. So, it's almost hard to discern at this point which tracks we used it on and which tracks we didn't.

(Soundbite of song "Dream of a Young Girl as a Flower")

MERCURY REV: (Singing) In the hot sun a young girl dreams of night and making love. Well in my dreams we are too. And whatever happens now I'll leave it all up to you.

Mr. MERCEL: I just heard it there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: I have to say, the effect of all of this work is such a deep album. There's so many layers of sound. Jonathan?

Mr. DONAHUE: We spent a lot of time late at night just playing. Many of the songs on "Snowflake Midnight" have 40 or 50-minute versions of them in their first sort of incarnation where we just sat down, and we didn't talk, and we didn't wonder about what kind of music we wanted to make. And we just played. We put our heads down, and we just played for a few hours almost every night. And over time this sort of had its own - it began to sort of lose ownership of what you were doing individually, and you sort of began to embrace the whole. .TEXT: And at times, I can't tell you what I did, or if Jeff did that drum part, or if I did the drum part. To be honest, I don't care. At some point this beautiful thing happened where we just sort of stepped out of ourselves. It certainly led to some of the experiences you're sort of describing of the depth. But it happened personally. And then it came through in the music.

(Soundbite of song "Snowflake in a Hot World")

MERCURY REV: (Singing) Melting into something bigger than you. Melting into someone, someone new.

SEABROOK: When I think of Mercury Rev and all its incarnations, I think of, sort of, this hunger for new experience, sort of a Hunter S. Thompson almost. It's like Gonzo music. How important is that search for that new experience in your music?

Mr. DONAHUE: I don't know if we ever think of it so much as a search as it's what happens when you just let things happen, when you get out of the way, you know, and when you sort of let go. You stop always leaning on the crutches that certainly in rock and roll are there, like, well, I'm the singer so I sit at a piano and I scratch some chords and a couple words out. And then we all flesh it in. And somewhere along the line, probably quite early on, that was abandoned.

It is a very striking thing when you're just very quiet, you know, in the mind, and you're not looking ahead to whether it's a pop song, or where the verse comes in, or how many times you can do a chorus, or will people like this? And you just had three, sort of, men just playing at night and just, sort of, listening to what was coming through them.

SEABROOK: Let's listen to "People Are So Unpredictable," one of the tracks in the CD.

(Soundbite of song "People Are So Unpredictable")

MERCURY REV: (Singing) Opened up by a stranger at an uncertain hour. You opened yourself like a curious flower opens herself wide to the moon. Life is uncertain, and people are so unpredictable.

SEABROOK: It sounds just like what you're talking about, this track, sort of not being able to control anything. It's all controlling you, like the music.

Mr. DONAHUE: It's letting go, you know. And it's very bewildering at times, make no mistake about it, because one of the tendencies of any artist is control. I don't care what form of art you're making. And it's only after something snaps in you and burns up, that you decide to jump. And somewhere along the line, we all jumped.

SEABROOK: Jonathan Donahue and Jeff Mercel from the band Mercury Rev. Their new CD is called "Snowflake Midnight." It comes out Tuesday. You can hear full tracks from the album. Go to the music section of our Web site,

(Soundbite of song "People Are So Unpredictable")

MERCURY REV: (Singing) One moon, and one you, one chance to kiss you. One moon, and one you, one chance to kiss you. One moon, and one you, and one chance.

SEABROOK: We'll give the last words of the show tonight to Socrates. He wrote, "I decided that it is not wisdom that enables poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean."

(Soundbite of song "People Are So Unpredictable")

MERCURY REV: (Singing) There's no bliss like home. There's no bliss like home.

SEABROOK: And that's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a great week.

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