Interview with Carey Mercer on Frog Eyes’ Ecological Lament

Frog Eyes Frog Eyes

Article Sean Feinstein.

Carey’s Cold Spring, Frog Eyes latest record, carries on where Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph left off. The songs are shorter and Carey Mercer’s unique voice appears even more distinct, and possibly more sure of itself. The latest record is concise and the songs flow organically into each other. The album was longlisted for the 2014 Polaris Prize, four years after their previous record had the same honour.

I spoke to Carey, the creative force behind Frog Eyes, about the ups and downs of the past four years. To say Carey has been though a lot, is well, an understatement. He had a child, battled throat cancer (and is now in the clear), and lost his father, all while trying to complete Carey’s Cold Spring, an album he eventually released on bandcamp. But surprisingly, none of those life events entered the record lyrically. The record, if anything, is an “ecological lament” that reflects the political landscape of today’s Canada as well as Carey’s own musings on the human struggle.

Saul Feinstein (SF): It’s great to know that you are well and playing music again!

Carey Mercer (CM): It’s great – I pinch myself. It still hasn’t been an accepted part of everyday life. When we practice I can say, “Wow, I can do this again.”

SF: What led up to Carey’s Cold Spring?

CM: I’d been working on an album since 2010 very slowly since a lot happened to the band. In that time, my wife and I had a son. He was ten months when we were touring. We didn’t have a bus, we had a minivan, and it was a trying time. [After touring] we came back and moved form Victoria to Vancouver. We had had a house to play music in, but now we had to play at a jam space on Tuesday night and it really slowed down the songwriting process. Sitting in the apartment, frustrated, writing songs. I slowly banged out this latest record, Carey’s Cold Spring. It took three years. Shortly after, the doctor told me I had to come in to talk about my neck scans, after I had discovered a little lump there. Initially they thought there was nothing wrong. They were quite shocked when the results came back.

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SF: What was the experience like? How long did you need treatment?

CM: There was a time when I wasn’t able to speak or even drink water [laughs]. The funny thing is that I kind of disconnected from everything, including my family. I went into a place of extreme solitude. I’m one of those people who speak my thoughts, so my wife said the weirdest thing was that period of silence. I wrote on a pad for a bit but I mostly stopped communicating. All I could do was lie there and the only thing that kept me occupied throughout the day was music. A friend brought over a hard drive of 20,000 songs and I burnt through them all! [In all] it lasted about two months and three weeks in the middle of those months were really intense.

SF: So it has been a whirlpool for a few years. Did any of these events wind up on the record?

CM: My cancer and my Dad dying had nothing to do with the songwriting or the lyrics. With exception to the last song, “Claxxon’s Lament” which was a song I had written for about ten years. I decided to put it on this record last minute since I played it to my Dad as he passed out of this world. I was just thinking the other day, now that I’m getting my health back, that it’s very hard for me to imagine my life going any differently. This is just how things happened. Some revelations came out of the experience, such as the importance of music in my life. When I released this record by myself, there was such an outpouring of really intense support from people who follow the band. It made me realize that this actually means a lot to people. I was grateful that the economy of music [the business, marketing aspect] got the music to people’s ears. It was also a weird revelation, the thought of the fundamental delivery system for the music you make.

SF: Music is quite accessible these days.

CM: Yeah, it seems music’s not as special anymore. So the outpouring of support re-specialized it for me [laughs]. What more could you ask for? Every record I get closer to the record I’ve always imagined I would make. I’m enjoying my evolution.

SF: How does this album compare to Paul’s Tomb: A Triumph?

CM: Was the record a triumph in retrospect when it first came out? [laughs]. I thought that there were some things with it that were a little hazy and un-edited. It goes on a little bit too long. In the end I don’t think it was a triumph. It was a missed opportunity. I wish I could put some of those seven minute songs into four minute songs. So my latest record is a bit of a reaction to Paul’s Tomb. I think every record is a reaction to some of the missed marks of the record before it.

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SF: Would you say that you use a poetic style? Some of your lyrics remind me of an epic.

CM: I would totally agree with that. That is 100% something that I try and do, to be poetic. But, I’m not a poet. To say, “yes I am a poet,” is to negate all the other stuff in my music, because the other stuff is the bedrock. It’s a full package.

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SF: Can you talk a bit about the song, “Needle in the Sun”? It’s one of my favourites on the record.

CM: Like you said, that song has an element of epic poetry. There is an architecture of woe and ruin that is invoked in that song. That song came out of the writing of a Blackout Beach record called “Fuck Death”. That song was a war song that was possibly going to be on that record. The song sort of came about from reading 1960’s first hand accounts of the Vietnam War. There is a theme of doing wrong; the violence you commit unto others is the violence you commit unto yourself. There are things you can do in the world that can prevent you from returning to any kind of domesticity. And that’s inherent in the Odyssey as much as it is in these Vietnam stories. These are things I was thinking about when I was writing the “Fuck Death” songs.

SF: >How do these songs relate to your political beliefs?

CM: Well, I think we’re seeing the true face of the state. The destruction of our liberal capitalist state has always been heading towards this, the Harper petro-state. This has always been where Canada is headed.

SF: Hopefully we’re getting out; people are fed up with Harper.

CM: Yeah, that’s right. Now we have to ask ourselves what kind of a state do we want? Is there such a difference between Trudeau and Harper? If the Liberals win, will the pipe-line be reversed? Personally, I don’t think so. Even if Mulcair won he would say it’s too late, too many jobs are at stake, although at least there would be a dialogue. I think this is Harper’s legacy; everything has been building up to this pipeline. Lies, violence, deception, destruction of land, eradication of education – this is the true face of the state now.

SF: So what is Carey’s Cold Spring record about?

CM: The latest record is about how to be. You know, how to act. I’m so soft. It’s easy for me to say all this stuff but I’m not taking the baton to the face. I’m not up North to actually throw myself in the path of the bulldozers. There’s a dissonance between you’re lived life and your ideals. So part of the record is trying to explore that. Some of the songs were written during the Occupy movement. It was something simultaneously inspiring and funny, you know? I was interested in exploring the gulf between the ideas that inspire us and the execution of these ideas and how the execution can be less than inspirational.

SF: Well the problem with Occupy was that it turned into a bit of a hippy-fest and the seriousness of the matter was lost.

CM: Yeah, there were no career-minded people [who represented] the laborers and the whole thing kind of turned into half-meaninglessness. That’s why I found the Idle No More movement so inspiring. It was the best political movement I have seen. It’s a beacon of hope. My role is to support it in whatever way I can. The resistance to Enbridge is led by Indigenous communities and I take cues from that.

SF: What are your plans for the future after touring this record?

CM: We’re back in the studio in November. Finishing up the next record by spring or summer of 2015 hopefully!

SF: Maybe a brighter political future will bring bright songs as well?

CM: Hopefully! We’ll see.

SF: Could people look back on Frog Eyes and see that it came from a time when the Harper regime was in power?

CM: I’d say so. There is an ecological lament in lots of my songs.

SF: Final question. Living the dream life as a musician?

CM: Yes. Definitely. It’s not a life of hot tubs and jets but it’s a life full of meaning!

Frog Eyes is playing with PS I Love You at Piccolo Rialto (5723 Parc) on August 21. $10/13