Frog Eyes – Eye Weekly (5.24.07)

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STARING CONTEST
Frog Eyes’ tumultuous rock challenges listeners, but this BC quartet aren’t about to blink

Carey Mercer doesn’t have an ideal audience. “I definitely enjoy playing to what I’m lazily referring to as ‘our people’ more,” he confesses, adding an infectious chuckle while speaking to me from just outside Waco, Texas. But the Frog Eyes singer/guitarist/leader still gets immense enjoyment from playing a free noontime gig in relative anonymity at the University of Berkeley to an outdoor crowd dotted with “acid-casualty physics professors.” He adds, “I’ll play to 50-year-olds any time.”

What kind of impression Frog Eyes made on the professors’ scarred psyches remains a mystery, but with Mercer’s wailing, apocalyptic vocals riding an antagonistic tidal wave of densely packed melodies and full-bore rhythms, nasty flashbacks are a distinct possibility. “We’re a band that the average listener doesn’t find especially appealing on the first listen,” Mercer acknowledges. “But usually after the first couple listens, something clicks.”

Setting out from their Victoria, BC home in support of Frog Eyes’ fourth album Tears of the Valedictorian, Mercer – along with his drummer and better half Melanie Campbell, keyboardist Spencer Krug and bassist Michael Rak – has happily found himself greeted by people who seem more prepared for the band this time around. “There haven’t been lines around the block,” says Mercer, “but people have been coming to our shows and it seems like a nice responsive audience.” He laughs, adding that “I don’t want to sound like one of these really-excited-for-the-future guys.”

Which might seem surprising for a band that has routinely found ecstatic endorsements from the likes of Pitchfork. Mercer is quick to point out “there’s a certain kind of press that you can get that’s positive but also doesn’t turn into an actual audience.” Rather, he thinks that record-store staff picks still have an underappreciated influence. “It’s kind of cool that there are so many avenues and ways to get people to hear your music, that there isn’t one hegemonic force.”

He admits, of course, that without the press, there might not be anyone at the shows at all. And though he’s reluctant to either praise or negate the reviews, his sense of their effects make a cautionary tale. “Most of the positive criticism that we get is done in a way that’s like, ‘We really like this, but you probably won’t.’”

Not that Frog Eyes is something you can go around recommending to just anyone. It’s difficult music. I admit to Mercer that even after two weeks of listening to Tears, I’m pretty sure I still don’t get it all. But he’s encouraged, saying: “That’s good though, right? That’s the kind of art that I like most. And that’s probably what [other] people who make stuff do: make something that you would want to enjoy yourself.”

In fact, that’s the goal producer Daryl Smith proposed to the band when they set to work on Tears. According to Mercer, “He kind of said, ‘Let’s try to make a record that doesn’t sound like Californication, but that you might feel like listening to six months from now, or even a year.’”

Mercer gives the Toronto producer a lot of credit for helping Frog Eyes achieve a less confrontational sound that “acknowledges the listener a little more.” And although Mercer is still into “sewing little nuggets of mystery into the weave,” he says, “I’m happy that we even tried to make a record that would reveal itself over multiple listens.”

With multiple layers come multiple interpretations. Read any review of a Frog Eyes album and you’ll find writers drawing the most elaborate references and similes just to describe what it is that they’re hearing. Partly the result of their unique sound, the central interpretive magnet is of course the lyrics. And while associative and allegorical free verses about “Eagle Energy” and its bizarro twin “Evil Energy” might suggest some kind of overarching theoretical continuity, Mercer insists only that “the whole thing is dedicated to the power of mystery.”

“It’s definitely not didactic,” he says. “I mean that’s an understatement, but I never enjoyed didactic works whatsoever because I think that one of the big truths is that we’re psychotic, neurotic animals. We’re not suited to make universal statements because in every word we contradict ourselves.”

Which is not an easy notion for me to accept, given that it came at the end of our interview. But as a universal statement, it sounds like a clean-slate approach to creativity well-suited to Mercer’s ambitions. “I really cherish people who buck the commonly held notion that you make your best records when you’re 19 and slowly fade into self-parody.”

Originally published in EYE WEEKLY (5.24.07)

Photo: Patrick Kerby

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