THE MERCURY TREE: Progressive Music Done Right

The Mercury Tree interview

The Mercury Tree returned this year with their third studio album entitled “Countenance.” On my first listen, somewhere half-through the album I realized that the album is one of the top contenders for the album of the year. To put it simply, “Countenance” is progressive music done right.

Prog Sphere talked with the band about their recent endeavour, influences and more.

What types of change do you feel The Mercury Tree’s music can initiate?

Oliver: The kinds of change that lead to erratic and unexpected life decisions.

Aaron: Well, preferably it inspires a manned mission to Mars, but if it doesn’t do that then I hope it at least helps people segue into other thought provoking and experimental music.

Connor: We definitely have lots of avant-garde tendencies and influences, but there’s also a quality to our music that I think makes us more accessible than a lot of “experimental” bands.  In that sense, I think that a lot of people who listen to us are inclined to dig deeper into that musical world beneath the surface.  Our music really is kind of like a bridge between those two worlds; I love weird, bizarre music that makes me think and grows on me, but I also really love a good, clever hook.  My hope is that people who discover us will consequently discover other unique underground artists, many of whom have really inspired us as musicians over the years.

What drove you to shape “Countenance” the way it turned out to be?

The Mercury Tree - CountenanceOliver: A desire for complexity that is unexpected yet totally digestible.

Connor: “Countenance” was the result of a lot of work over a relatively long period of time, compared to previous albums. The songs were composed over a two-year period and recorded sporadically over about a year, so the final product on the record certainly came out very differently from how we originally imagined it. There are songs we wrote two years ago, songs we wrote two months before the album was released, songs we barely played live, and songs we’d played at nearly every show and which evolved through that experience.

Aaron: This album is very much what it sounds like — us wanting to try a million different things. Shortly after we released “Freeze in Phantom Form“, I started working really hard on the fretless bass and Ben started focusing heavily on keys and putting together a more complex and capable looping system. I wanted my bass playing to be more expressive and atmospheric, and Ben and Connor wanted to focus on creating interesting, textural polyrhythms. Oliver and his tastes had been influencing us since before he even joined the band, so when he did join, it made everything even more eclectic. Songs that I started writing with the band, he finished and then added elements that are entirely new to this band. It was a really unique, fun (and occasionally tumultuous) experience and I’m incredibly proud of how it turned out.

Connor: Putting all those songs into the same context was risky; we knew we were walking the line between eclecticism and lack of cohesion. Our #1 fear was that people would listen to it and not see the thread connecting everything. But in the end, I think the thread actually became the evolution of the band itself; it’s a representation of our journey over the past couple of years.

Countenance” seems to be the most ambitious undertaking of The Mercury Tree’s career. Tell me about the complexities of creating it.

Connor: “Countenance” was the result of a lot of work over a relatively long period of time, compared to previous albums. The songs were composed over a two-year period and recorded sporadically over about a year, so the final product on the record certainly came out very differently from how we originally imagined it. There are songs we wrote two years ago, songs we wrote two months before the album was released, songs we barely played live, and songs we’d played at nearly every show and which evolved through that experience. Putting all those songs into the same context was risky; we knew we were walking the line between eclecticism and lack of cohesion. Our fear was that people would listen to it and not see the thread connecting everything. But in the end, I think the thread actually became the evolution of the band itself; it’s a representation of our journey over the past couple of years.

Oliver: I joined the band 3 months before recording this album. Lots of odd time signatures, fast changes, chromatic key changes, and loops that keep me on my toes!

Describe the elements you explore on the album.

Oliver: Math, progressive, psychedelic, doom… lots of very cerebral and spooky sounds.

Connor: We are all hugely influenced by progressive rock, both classic and modern. We often describe ourselves more specifically as math rock because of our focus on odd time signatures. Beyond that, we incorporate characteristics of jazz, metal, electronica, alternative, psychedelic, industrial, avant-prog, and others. Sometimes we intentionally try to incorporate these styles, sometimes they just kind of come out.

Can you elaborate on the creative process that informed the new record?

Connor: Whereas “Freeze in Phantom Form” was highly jam-based, we returned to a more structure-oriented approach with “Countenance.” While some of the stuff came from jams, a lot of it was also people coming in with ideas they had outside of the studio, sometimes a riff or two, sometimes half the song, and then everyone built off of that. We were also driven by a desire to do stuff that was way different from our previous work, such as the instrumental “jazz” tracks and “The Ellsberg Cycle“. “Rappel” was also a big departure for us, especially structurally. It was originally a short piece that Ben had written on ukulele, and then one day he and I sat down with the intention of finishing it and the whole spacey bridge section and the climax just fell out. It’s a very restrained song for us; I’d like to do more stuff like that in the future.

Aaron: We all wanted to get really next level after we finished “Freeze.” We all spent a lot of time upgrading our gear and buying fun sounding toys. Ben got a Boomerang loop pedal which is an incredible looping unit, and wound up really having an impact on shaping the sound of the album. Connor worked on becoming more articulate and calculating, which I think you can really hear on the new record. After I figured out that I didn’t really like touring, I felt like the only fair thing to do was to work with the guys on finding my replacement. Luckily, Oliver, who had been a very good friend and was the first person we asked, was stoked to join and help finish the album. There were a couple of months where there was some overlap between the two of us, and he finished out the album and came up with some really sexy bass lines and some really cool vocal parts as well. So when people ask about why there are two bassists, that’s what it was. We all love each other and worked in some sort of highly functional polyamory to make something that would’ve been impossible to make without all of the components.

The Mercury Tree

The term “countenance” refers to a facial expression, or to a behavior in a wider meaning. How does the name of the album reflect on the material showcased on it?

Oliver: It’s a pun about counting. We’re in a math band, get it?

Connor: I kind of relate it to the varied scope of material on the album. They feel like different faces of the band, to me.  Each is identifiably distinct, but it is all very much our aesthetic.

Ben: The album was almost titled “Otoliths” (after the epic song of the album) but shortly before we finished recording, the word “countenance” popped into my head, and we all liked the multiple interpretations and puns packed into that single word. Also, sometimes I think naming an album after one of the songs draws excessive attention or focus onto that particular track, and we didn’t want that to overshadow the diversity of the other songs.

Do you agree that “Countenance” is your most popular album in terms of exposure it gained and still gaining?

Oliver: As far as I can tell. It’s very exciting!

Connor: Definitely. We are honestly blown away by how much attention we have gotten over the past few months since its release. We’ve gotten many really cool opportunities too; we played a new festival called Progtoberfest with some of our biggest idols in Chicago last month, and we played SeaProg in Seattle in June. Meanwhile we’ve been getting reviews and interviews from many websites, a significant number of which are based in other parts of the world! It’s all really amazing; I feel so lucky to be a part of something that people are really starting to notice.

This new album feels much more free in spirit, compared with your previous effort “Freeze in Phantom Form.” Do you think that it’s that freedom that makes it more accessible by audiences?

Aaron: I think our personalities are a little more accessible on “Countenance.” I also think “Freeze” was a little more thematic sounding, where on Countenance each song really stands on their own as their own unique piece.

Connor: “Freeze” was a very dark, bleak album. There was a lot of personal frustration and angst that was channeled into it. It’s where we were at the time.  On this album, we wanted to lighten up a little bit. The dark energy is still there, but it’s balanced out with something a bit more positive. Not really optimism, but more a sense of fun. It’s a quirky album.

I understand that bands such King Crimson and The Mars Volta has a huge impact on The Mercury Tree’s music. Is that correct?

Connor: Definitely, those are two of our biggest influences. Some other artists that have had a huge impact on me, personally, are Tool, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Primus, Rush, Porcupine Tree, Nine Inch Nails, and Frank Zappa. There are lots of other, lesser-known bands that have been huge influences on both my playing style and compositional aesthetic; some of the most notable ones are Kayo Dot, Extra Life, Dead Rider, Thinking Plague, CHEER-ACCIDENT, Bearcubbin’!, Qui, These Arms Are Snakes, and lots of avant-prog bands.

Describe your working relationship within the band.

Oliver: An intellectual and artistic musical orgy.

Connor: Overall, we get along very well; we each have different viewpoints and aesthetics, but they complement each other and mesh. Frequently we will argue over structures or sections for new songs, but the levels of creative tension are rarely above mild to moderate.

Aaron: It varied wildly when I was in the band. Sometimes we’d all be on the same page and sometimes we couldn’t have had opinions or ideas that were more different from each other’s. Where “Freeze” had a very streamlined writing process, the new album was considerably more tumultuous at times, but in retrospect I think that’s why I’m so happy with how it came out. We’re all pretty headstrong and I think that actually wound up being a really good thing. We all grew a lot as musicians and learned from each other because of it.

What is your viewpoint on the struggle bands are facing today as they try to monetize their output?

Connor: That is a very tricky and controversial issue, for good reason. A lot of people are worried that music is “dying” because the music industry is in shambles, but honestly I think that system is obsolete and that it’s time to move on. The sooner we are able to realize that, the sooner people will be able to adapt. I personally am a strong believer that exposure must come before profit, especially with the industry on its deathbed. People won’t pay for something if they aren’t pretty sure they’ll like it.

Oliver: Play DIY shows for donations and they will pay well if people like you and you do it enough.

Aaron: It’s so hard to monetize these days. There is an enormous supply of recorded music out there and an ever-decreasing amount of expendable income to pay for it, along with a change in the perception of what music is worth. My theory is that it’s hard for people to place value on something that doesn’t immediately register as having inherent costs, like a physical medium. In the minds of the consumer, the monetary value of something is tied to the cost of its physical production, which is one big reason why I think vinyl is doing so well these days. People can’t see or touch the implicit costs that it takes to make an album, so they don’t value digital media as much as they maybe should. It’s not really anyone’s fault, but like any industry during a time of innovation, musicians have to figure out how to adapt.

The Mercury Tree’s “Countenance” is out now, buy it from Bandcamp.

Nikola Savić is a prog enthusiast, blogger and author, in addition to being the founder of Prog Sphere, Progify, ProgLyrics and the ongoing Progstravaganza compilation series.

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