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Mercury Rev: The Sound Of Free Sounds

The relationship between a rock band and a producer is an intimate one; consider how long The Beatles insisted on working with George Martin. But a new trend is emerging: For its latest record, Snowflake Midnight, Mercury Rev got production help from thousands of strangers. Mercury Rev, in a way, outsourced the mixing of its new album to people on the Internet. Members of the band — Jonathan Donahue, Jeff Mercel and Sean "Grasshopper" Mackowiak — recently described their creative process in an interview with All Things Considered host Andrea Seabrook.

Turning To Technology For New Sounds

Aided by a software application called Reaktor — which allows a framework for users to create their own electronic instruments and effects — people were able to post their work in online forums. Those instrument creations were then made available for anyone to use. Mercury Rev looked to those forums for sounds and ideas it could then employ to make its own music.

"We found ourselves using and employing some of these electronic creations and instruments that were contributed by people from all over the world," Mercel says. "You'd see software instruments created by a guy in Venezuela and somebody else from France. So that's sort of how we took a lot of inspiration; we found a lot of new ideas in some of this software that was out there for us."

So how did a band like Mercury Rev go about working on a new album in this way? Mackowiak says that the diversity of programmed sounds helped to push the boundaries of what the band could devise in the studio.

"I don't even know how you work that way," Mackowiak says. "Each one is vastly different. So anywhere your imagination can take you, you can find a program that can hook into that imagination, and then you create all these strange sounds."

Mercel says that this method was used in bits on practically every track — and often isn't easily identifiable.

"Often times, we'd take regular tracks that we would've recorded on any other record — for example, a sound of a piano — and pipe it through one of these creations, one of these programs, and what you'd end up with is a sound that resembles nothing like a piano," Mercel says. "It's hard-pressed to find a sound that wasn't touched by this program: Once we grabbed a hold of it, we found ourselves using it left, right and center."

Mercel points to the track "Dream of a Young Girl As a Flower" as a perfect example of these sonic elements, from the processing on the vocals to the instrumentation itself. Mercel says that they often weren't sure what the programs were supposed to sound like.

"They had knobs and buttons on them," Mercel says, "and you couldn't tell if they were actually performing the way they were meant to, or if they were malfunctioning. And sometimes the malfunctioning ones were infinitely more interesting to us."

Going Open-Source

Because of the open-source nature of the software — much like Mozilla's Firefox Web browser, for which people create their own additions and plugins — the band felt encouraged to experiment with the creations of others.

"It's not the kind of thing that would be forbidden," Mackowiak says. "It's not like you're incorporating somebody else's copyrighted work. That's part and parcel of it; you know that there are other people that are going to use it, and it will be used on recordings. That's the whole point."

Mackowiak adds that in each person's hands, the results will always be different.

"I could use the same program, and Jonathan could use the same one, and Jeff could use the same one," he says, "and we'll all come out with three completely different sounds or ideas. It's that flexible."

Liberation Through Performance

Mercury Rev's members say that when it came to writing the music itself, they were not thinking originally in terms of writing songs, but simply playing. Gathering for sometimes hours at a time each night, they often sat down without talking about what they were going to do, and just played and experimented.

"Over time, it began to create its own resonance between the three of us," Donahue says. "You began to lose ownership of what you were doing individually, and you began to embrace the whole. At some point, this beautiful thing happened where we just stepped out of ourselves. And that led to that liberation. One of the beautiful uses of the Internet [is that] you're in touch with people across the world — Einstein called it 'spooky action at a distance' — and they don't know they're working with you on your record. But there's some sort of resonance built up there, and that was something that really did turn us on."

While Mercury Rev has made a career out of looking for new ideas to incorporate into its music — whether through self-made devices such as what they call the "Tetrics Wave Accumulator," or through collected samples of Cape Canaveral and Times Square — Donahue says that the band never consciously searches for anything in particular when constructing its music.

"It's what happens when you just let things happen," Donahue says. "When you get out of the way ... you let go of the knowledge base that you've accumulated over time, and you stop leaning on the crutches that, certainly in rock 'n' roll, are there. I don't know if we're ever really looking for something, because then you're always chasing this dragon and always missing it. I think we're really open to the unpredictable side of life."

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