THE MERCURY TREE: For The Pursuit Of Progress

Portland experimentalists The Mercury Tree emerged as a solo project of Ben Spees in 2004 and became a full band in 2006. The band is now: Ben Spees (vocals, guitar, keyboard), Aaron Clark (bass, backing vocals) and Connor Reilly (drums, backing vocals). They have released three albums and two EPs. The newest release, a full-length called Freeze in Phantom Form, sees the band shifting from everything previously released while still keeping their recognizable chemistry. The trio contributed a song to our latest Progstravaganza sampler. Here is what Ben, Aaron and Clark have to say about the new album, and some other things as well.

Nick: Hello there, guys! So it seems that summer 2012 was pretty busy for you, no? You gigged and finished a new album, so how do you keep yourselves sane meanwhile, hehe?

Connor: It’s funny, working with this band is exactly what keeps me sane sometimes. I think we’re moving at a good pace; we’ve been working hard, exercising our musical muscles and all that. We’ve been getting some great opportunities coming our way; we’re playing a live radio show this Sunday, we got an awesome movement called PDXperimental going, we’re mastering the album this Friday with an extraordinary producer, we’re playing gigs in new places to uplifting response… and we’ve just been having a blast with it all. It wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t work our asses off on it.

Aaron: Well, on top of all of that, Ben and I have started an experimental artist collective called PDXperimental, with the goal of putting together strong bills for experimental artists and fans of experimental music. We’ve been putting a few shows on at my house, which we’ve dubbed “Porch Couch.” It’s been oodles of funsies, and has kept Ben especially busy on top of trying to finish mixing our record and doing shows. It’s not hard to stay sane when you’re having this much fun…although Ben’s eyes are probably a little more heavy and bloodshot than mine are.

Ben: We’ve been having an amazing time, we feel like the music has been coming together so easily, and our performances have been gelling in a really organic way. Honestly I don’t know how I would live without being able to be in this band.

Nick: As I mentioned, you finished your new, third album called Freeze in Phantom Form and it will be released in just a few days from now. How did the creating/recording process go this time? Has anything change since the debut/Pterodactyls sessions in terms of how you approach the whole process?

Connor: I think the primary difference is the addition of Aaron on bass. He has a very different playing/writing style from Alan, and a different work ethic as well. And that was sort of a breath of fresh air, after losing Alan; we kinda didn’t know what to do for a while, and then we found Aaron, and we just knew where we wanted to go all of a sudden. It just felt right.

The biggest thing that’s changed is our writing process; the new songs are a lot more jam-based, less rigidly structured then Pterodactyls. We wrote most of our parts together, as they came to us. As a result, the actual writing process turned out to be much easier than it was for that album. In fact, we recorded our parts simultaneously on the majority of the tracks as well, which we had never done before, and it made songs such as Zeta, which is one of our “jammiest” songs, much easier to record than it would have been had we done each instrument individually. We could play off of what each other were doing in the moment, rather than having to play to some kind of demo track. It made the whole thing go unbelievably smoothly; we hammered down 3 songs in about 2-3 hours on one occasion.

Ben: Aside from the change in bass players, I wanted to make a lot more use of live looping on this album. We are very much a trio, but I love lush, layered soundscapes, so looping was really the only way to make this happen live without heavy use of backing tracks. I dug myself quite a hole with the layers I came up with on some songs and it was fun figuring out a way to actually make some of these ridiculous scenarios achievable live. Another benefit of the looping was that it allowed me to play more keyboard parts than before, which have sometimes taken a back seat in the past, even though I was originally a keyboard player rather than a guitarist!

Aaron: The whole process has been so fun. I had to do some catching up because I was used to playing in 3, 4, 5 and 7 but some of the weirder times like 11 and 13 were a bit intimidating at first. But there were several songs on this record that were born from jams and improvisation, and I think that made us pay attention to each other a lot more and grow together. It all evolved very naturally…none of this writing was forced. It’s just what came out.

Nick: With Pterodactyls, released in 2011, you managed to set up your own guidelines, but the evolution factor brings you to a different level when it comes to Freeze in Phantom Form. Is it something you intended to do, is it down in your core that with every new release you partially abandon what you did on a previous effort?

Ben: We don’t ever want to repeat ourselves when beginning a new project. It’s inevitable that some elements of style will be carried over, but really, with every song we are always trying to do something different and explore some kind of fresh new ground. It’s as much to keep ourselves interested as other people! You have to keep challenging yourself constantly to grow as a musician and songwriter.

Connor: Absolutely. A band is like a shark; if it’s not moving forward, it dies. Sure, we could have made another album like Pterodactyls, but why would we want to? We’ve done that already, that’s the past, and as an artist you have to look to the future and say “okay, that was good, what’s next?”. Artists who repeat themselves grow stale and are forgotten, it’s been proven time and time again. Besides, we’re in a very different place, both as a band and individually, musically and personally. The new album is a reflection of that; it’s the natural next step. It wouldn’t be experimental music if we didn’t try new things.

Nick: You said that the evolution led you towards a more space, jam-oriented, shoegazey mood – does it mean that you improvised a lot more on Freeze in Phantom Form when comparing with Pterodactyls?

Connor: Definitely. Like I said, Pterodactyls was a very rigidly structured album. Each part was tailor-made, it was very much set in stone. FIPF is the Yang to that Yin; it’s loose, it’s jam-based, it’s less poppy, it’s even devoid of the occasionally tongue-in-cheek lyrics of its predecessor. The writing process was different, and therefore the product is different.

Aaron: We did a lot of improvisation to write the songs on this record. We eventually boiled the best parts down into real songs. But songs like Zeta…we recorded that bridge section live with some skeleton parts in mind, but it was largely improvised. We just picked up on cues from each other to know when to change the vibe. It was a shit ton of fun!

Ben: I definitely think recording the basic tracks live made a big difference. I had noticed some time ago that the bass and drums tend to lock in a lot better when recorded at the same time, so we extended this idea to the whole band and I think the result just ended up feeling a lot more band-like, for lack of a better word! Even though there was plenty of overdubbing and experimentation after the basic tracks were finished, that live energy still carries through. The ending of Zeta is a great example of this, it’s always a lot of fun to play live because we never know exactly what’s going to happen and it comes out differently each time.

Nick: Pterodactyls received really good reviews, what are your expectations from the new album?

Connor: You never know. All I know is that we all like it; we’re proud of it, and that’s what’s most important. As an artist, you can’t really afford to have expectations like that; you can’t write in fear of how your work will be received. If it comes from you, that’s all that matters.

Ben: I couldn’t have said it better. I’m proud of Pterodactyls too, but I do think this album is the best thing we’ve done yet. It’s more open, more spacious, and it just goes to wider variety of places, and I think because of that it’s a more affecting experience. Regardless of critical reactions, which you can never predict, I think within the band we’re all pretty confident that we’re moving in the right direction.

Nick: Have you already played any of the songs from Freeze in Phantom Form live? Are you satisfied with the audience response?

Connor: That’s pretty much all we’ve been playing live *laughs*. I guess that’s partially because we don’t want to look back, we’re avidly pursuing this new sound. Fortunately, we’ve been getting encouraging reactions from people; even better than we did for Pterodactyls I think. Which is a good sign that the critics will like it too, I suppose.

Aaron: We’ve played all of the songs live at some point. Usually we’d write the song, play it live a few times and then let it rest for a while so we could take some time to let it breathe and grow in our minds, and then come back to it. The songs always come back a lot stronger when we do this. We’ve had mostly very positive reactions to these new songs, especially after we’ve really nailed them down.

Ben: Even though we are pretty confident in a song the first time we play it live, we have definitely learned a lot from playing early versions of the new songs live. Maybe they drag a bit in one place or another, or a certain section just isn’t working. I think every time that happened we took a hard look and came up with a creative solution to make that song better. We wouldn’t have had the chance to do that if we’d waited until after the recording process to play the new songs live, and I think the songs are much stronger for going through that gauntlet.

Nick: As King Crimson is one of the bands that shaped your sound, I have to ask, what’s your comment on recent news that Robert Fripp quits music over rights fight?

Connor: I don’t know the full story on that, but I would take his “resignation” with a grain of salt. This isn’t the first time he’s disbanded King Crimson. In fact, it’s more like the fourth. The chances that he’s actually quit forever aren’t quite as good as they might look right now.

As for the cause, he retains every right to refuse permission for his music to be streamed. Of course, being an unsigned band, WE would LOVE to have people distributing our music online. But I can understand why an established act such as King Crimson, and a musical mastermind such as Robert Fripp, would prefer their material to be listened to as it was originally intended, as opposed to track-by-track in a low quality streaming format.

Ben: I would definitely take everything that guy says with a grain of salt! Nonetheless, he’s an undeniable genius and architect of possibly the greatest prog-rock juggernaut that ever was, so he’ll always have my respect whether he’s actively making music or not.

Aaron: I think he’ll get over it after a while. Music and creativity things that live in you, they are a part of your life, ingrained into your DNA. The politics can be frustrating, but the act of playing and creating music is what it really comes down to and with a guy like Fripp, especially…I think he has to play music.

Nick: Speaking of influences, please let us know any other bands that are the base for The Mercury Tree sound!

Connor: I’m personally heavily influenced by Rush, Tool, and Pink Floyd. More recently, I’ve been listening to Zappa, Radiohead, and a bunch of local bands, such as Bearcubbin’!, LORD, and U Sco. I recommend looking them up.

Aaron: well of course King Crimson…John Whetton is my biggest influence on bass. We’ve been listening to the Mars Volta, Rush, Extra Life, XTC, Consider The Source, and Big Country quite a bit on car rides. I’ve been into Every Time I Die, The Chariot, Tears for Fears and These Arms Are Snakes here lately.

Ben: The other guys already mentioned many of my favorites but I want to really draw people’s attention to XTC, who I feel don’t get nearly enough recognition. While they may not be considered classically “prog” they bridge pop, insane melodies, and a general spirit of experimentalism in a really unique and mind-blowing way that has been a huge influence on me.

Nick: We premiered a new track from the upcoming album and this song, called Frontera, is also the part of Progstravaganza 11. You previously wrote that Frontera went through many mutations. How often, while working on a song, is it hard to keep the original idea? I guess there are always changes, but how does it look for The Mercury Tree?

Connor: I don’t know how much priority we put on “keeping the original idea”; if it feels natural for a song to become something else, then that’s exactly what happens. It’s kinda like in Harry Potter; you don’t choose the wand, it chooses you. The songs get to a point where they just have a life of their own.

With that piece, it was a lot of fumbling around in the dark for a while, just jamming for like 10-20 minutes around the main riff. Some songs start like that. And then the rest just kind of slowly fell together. We tweeked a few things, and that was it. We’ve been building these songs like computers; as a team, gradually, and always finding new ways to make them even better.

Aaron: Frontera was originally a guitar riff in 7, that became the bass riff, that I used to loop and masturbate over endlessly with guitar solos. One day me and Connor were jamming on it and Ben threw an extra 8th note in, which zipped it up and gave it really cool feel. We jammed on that shit for over a month before we finally started to really pick out the best parts from practice recordings. It was a really collaborative song. The drum and bass section after the bridge was Ben’s idea. To me it’s a testament to how much we’ve grown as a unit, as friends.

Ben: We didn’t know what to do with the end of “Frontera” and I suggested the basic idea of having some drum & bass “salvos” in a counter-rhythmic pattern to the main loop, which to me reminded me of certain breaks in Rush songs. I went to get a drink of water and when I came back Aaron and Connor had come up with basically the part you hear on the album. I just about died, it was perfect and it just came out of nowhere, really a magical moment.

Nick: What are your plans after the album is released?

Connor: Make another *laughs*. Seriously though, we’re already looking in a new direction, peering into the haze for what’s next. I won’t give away too much about it, especially since we don’t even know exactly what lies beyond that fog yet, but suffice to say that it will be an even more drastic change in artistic priorities than this album was.
Beyond that, we’re looking at some of our older songs and considering bringing them back for our live shows. There’s even one unreleased song we wrote for Pterodactyls that we’re retooling. Again, more fumbling in the dark, feeling around for where to go next.

Ben: I think by this point maybe we have progressed to fumbling around in a dimly lit room full of cool-looking shapes that we can maybe partially discern. I know we want to do do more acoustic stuff, more electronic stuff, let stuff get even more ambient, and conversely even more heavy — and overall, never be boring!

Aaron: Play a ton of shows and write more! We have a lot of ideas already!

Nick: Is there anything you would love to add to this interview, that I didn’t cover in my questions?

Connor: This album is a journey. It’s a very bleak journey I would say, even a haunting one at times. You have to have patience and an open mind to enjoy it to its fullest extent, but I believe the reward is worth it. It’s meant to be listened to straight through, from beginning to end, in good headphones, while lying in bed, isolated from life’s stresses.

Aaron: I’d just like to thank you guys. You’ve been beyond amazing to us over the last
few months and we are truly grateful.

Ben: Agreed, we really appreciate it!

Nick: Thanks for your time, guys! Keep up good work!

Connor: Our pleasure. Thanks for having us!

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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