Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes talks sense about singing like a nutcase
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When the poet Walt Whitman bragged about sounding his "barbaric yawp," he probably didn't anticipate all the sounds that wrench forth from vocalist-guitarist Carey Mercer's throat over the course of a single Frog Eyes song. To try and describe the British Columbia band's music is to risk drowning in a figurative-language toybox—one Allmusic review called it "a poetry slam for the criminally insane"—or at least to fixate helplessly on Mercer's vocals. Songs like "Bushels," the 9-minute home stretch of 2007's Tears Of The Valedictorian, seem to really live for the stage, where they become sweaty, partly improvised showcases for Mercer's toolbox of abrasive wails, jabbering falsetto, and almost-stately melodic charges. The band's new album, Paul's Tomb: A Triumph, casts Frog Eyes as a road-battered rock outfit, though admittedly one with a penchant for long, ungainly song structures and verbal madness. Ahead of Frog Eyes' show tonight at the 7th Street Entry, The A.V. Club asked Mercer (whose voice becomes incredibly mild and reasonable when he's just talking) about his vocal performances on a few specific songs, and found him almost keen to downplay the eccentricity of it all.
"Lear In Love" (from Paul's Tomb)
The A.V. Club: When people think of King Lear, they think of this guy going crazy, running through the forest and raving, but this song has a lot of tender parts, too.
Carey Mercer: That's right. Well, Lear is tender at times. There's no evil men. There's just moments of clarity and moments when you're lost in the fury of things. That's one of the things that's always at work when I'm singing—just acknowledging the dualism in all of us, that kind of thing. The other thing is, I like to throw clichés in. I think when a cliché comes after something so odd as, you know, this idea that a bear hunter has gone out and enraged a bear and the wife is terrified that the claws will tear through her home, and that kind of thing—what's scarier, the bear, or the bear hunter returning? An image like that is very specific to that song. You're not gonna hear that image in a Celine Dion song. But the clichés that come after—she's all right, it's all right, baby, it's all right, that kind of thing—you will hear that in a Celine Dion song. To say to your lover, "It's all right," is actually the most intense and real thing you could say to this person. I think very specific images and often very tense, perilous images can somehow [redeem the cliché].
"Styled By Dr. Roberts" (from Paul's Tomb)
AVC: This feels like a centerpiece of the album, almost. Around the middle of the song, you have this mix of whispering, rambling, and going, "Oh no no no no no." Are you planning out how all those different parts are delivered?
CM: I have really concrete parts and very loose parts. That's a very loose part. This is after the guitar solo, and there's some stuff about a dwarf? Is this the part we're talking about?
CM: Okay, because that's kind of a loose part. There's key words—you always get the dwarf—but then there's a lot of flexibility in where the lines go and how they're uttered, and the cadence of them. It's actually really nice and really refreshing to sing it in a different way each time. When things are really fast and really tight, you don't have that flexibility. One of the worst things in making a record is actually doing the singing, going into this booth after you've assembled everything and putting headphones on. It's so terrible, because, for Frog Eyes, the whole idea of it is—it's kind of embarrassing to say—a very intense performance. When you put the headphones on in the studio, you're mimicking what you're doing live. The nice thing is, most of these songs [on Paul's Tomb] were sung off the floor, which just means you just keep the vocal track that you sung when the whole band was recording the song. We got as many tries as we wanted, but I think it really worked well in giving that sense of spontaneity and a kind of freedom to the singing, because it actually is happening in real time.
"Bushels" (from Tears Of The Valedictorian)
AVC: Sometimes when you're singing, you have this catch or squeak in your voice. It's not a note, but just this weird breath thing.
CM: I think actually more people have it than you know, but they edit it out. That's the first thing you're supposed to do—pops and squeaks and breaths get taken out. I might be wrong about that. It's the soft squeak of the door.
AVC: It's like this involuntary gasp. Is it something you court, or does it just happen when it happens?
CM: Oh, I let it happen, absolutely. I don't court anything. Maybe I should. Maybe I should start courting things a bit. Every singer has—if only every singer had—more peculiarities. So many singers sound the same. It's sad. For me, when I listen to Frog Eyes, it just sounds like music. It doesn't sound like some kind of rabid preacher dog, or whatever the fuck people say. It just sounds like rock 'n' roll to me. I think the problem is that so much popular music is so processed and has so little peculiarity or oddity to it that what we call the norm is so fuckin' dull that something a little outside the norm sounds so wild. When I listen to, even Mick Jagger, all the popular music from yesteryear has a lot of eccentricity.
AVC: That's true—it's really surprising to listen to some old Otis Redding single and realize that it's pop music, yet the vocal performance is actually really raw.
CM: In my heart, I believe that the things we're trying to draw out of people, the touchstones we're trying to hit, are the same ones you hear on your oldies station. They're actually very normal things. It's not like we come out and slash ourselves and take a dump onstage. But because of all those eccentricities and the vocal squeaks or whatever, it's like, "Oh! Oh my god, I'm not listening to this! Next!"
AVC: How do you think your singing has evolved?
CM: I can't remember how it was when I started, because it was a long time ago, and I was always really, really drunk, which I think was great, you know! Everyone was drunk. I had no idea what the music sounded like, but I have very fond and fuzzy remembrances. ... I felt that the only way to do it respectfully was to do it in a disrespectful way and play in the most abrasive manner and just have the harshest sounds. At some point I was like, "I don't think I would really like to see our own band," which is a funny realization. I have this completely antithetical idea of playing now, where I feel like there is a kind of otherworldly potential. I don't mean that in a religious sense, I mean that in an epiphanous sense.
AVC: Is there anything you'd like to try as a vocalist that you haven't gotten to yet?
CM: I think I'm really happy to go low, to sing low. Before, singing low just meant sounding like Eddie Vedder. The other thing that I really enjoy lately is not being such a wild dog. Going back to the idea of getting to this wicked zone, this otherworldly place, part of that comes from actually enunciating, letting the lyrics ring out in a more understandable way. I've been taking a lot of pleasure from that. It's funny. I think that I deliberately don't gravitate toward the most obvious things as a singer, so that maybe I can have a long career, so that something as elementary as enunciating your lyrics so they can be understood—which is, like, Singer 101—can become, after a decade of singing live, something interesting, right? Because it is. "I can't wait to go out and play a bunch of shows so I can enunciate."