IF YOU’VE NEVER heard
of The Mercury Program, no one would blame you. Unless you were
obsessing over experimental instrumental bands in the early part of this
decade, you very well could have missed it. But despite an absence from
the music scene for more than five years, this mesmerizing postrock
quartet has continued to intrigue a devoted group of fans and has
finally returned to the road to give them what they’ve been waiting for.
The foursome, with its
members now divided between Bed-Stuy, Long Island City and Gainesville,
Fla., recorded and toured relentlessly from 1999 to 2003. In doing so,
the group built a devoted following among those with a penchant for
hypnotic, jazzinfluenced rock with its angular structures of searching
guitars, sparkling vibraphone and atmospheric electronics floating on a
bed of buoyant drumming.
But after the 2003 release of the Confines of Heat EP (a
split with likeminded post-rockers Maserati), the band’s fifth record in
as many years, and the ensuing tour in support of it, both of the
labels that had put out most of its music, Kindercore and Tiger Style,
folded. Road weary and beholden to no one for another record, The
Mercury Program decided to declare a much-deserved hiatus and quietly
dispersed for what its members imagined would be several months to a
year off. But as they focused on building relationships, relocating and
other less-intensive musical pursuits, it became clear that full-time
touring was no longer on the agenda.
“The priority of doing the band definitely
evaporated,” explains Dave LeBleu, who handles drums, vibraphone and
electronics in The Mercury Program, as we sit in a Williamsburg cafe.
“We just knew that we weren’t going to ever be this band that got huge
and that’s all we did. And I don’t know if everybody wanted that
anyway… Once we got a taste of it, it was like, ‘OK, maybe not.’” The
grind of a perpetually nomadic life on the road became less and less
appealing as band members married, started families and set down roots
in new locations. But the guys did continue to play music with bands
like the sprawling folk outfit Holopaw and Rain Phoenix’s pop band
Papercranes (both based in Gainesville), and even assembled an album in
2006 after three-fourths of the band had moved from Florida to New York.
They converged in Athens, Ga., at the studio of producer Andy Baker,
with whom they’d always recorded, and laid down tracks that LeBleu says
flowed from a spirit of non-conformity to their past work, and as a
result were more straightforward and simply arranged.
“We went in musically with
the vibe of ‘We don’t have to answer to anyone,’” LeBleu says. “I think
we had sort of gone in a lot of times with the vibe ‘How experimental
can we be?’ and this time we didn’t go in with any of that.”
D.C. indie-punk label
Lovitt Records signed on to release it, and The Mercury Program enlisted
Jeremy Scott (who’s worked with Woods and Vivian Girls, among others,
at his Williamsburg studio The Civil Defense) to mix it and the
legendary Bob Weston (bass player in the mammoth post-hardcore band
Shellac and producer and engineer for numerous lauded indie groups) to
the end of last year, Chez Viking (a reference to a cafe in
Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast) finally surfaced, displaying the
group’s vibrant dynamic, which sways from the shimmering guitar mixed
with reflective vibraphone of “Backseat Blackout” to the moody
intricacies of “Katos” and the hypnotic ambience and jazz-influenced
drumming of “Stand & Sing.”
With a new album to support, The Mercury Program set
out in March for its first tour since 2006 and was surprised to be
playing to bigger audiences than it did then. The band met scores of
fans that had learned about it in the interim, and were among the
hundreds of thousands who had tracked it down through a MySpace page.
“Once we sort of
vanished, as a lot of people think… the early groundwork just kept
creating more fans,” LeBleu says.
And now the band is ready to embark on a Northeast
tour, with plans to venture out west later this year. And it’s already
talking about getting together at the end of the year to work on new
material, since playing together again has reminded the bandmates what
they’ve been missing all this time.
“I think all of us would admit that our collective is
the most significant musical thing that any of us has done,” LeBleu
says. “When we get together and make a piece of music… our
communication with each other, without having to say anything, is just
there, as an energy. And I think that’s a unique thing to find as a
musician. It’s what it’s all about.”
THE MERCURY PROGRAM
June 4, The Knitting
Factory, 361 Metropolitan Ave. (at Havemeyer St.), Brooklyn,
347-529-6696; 7, $10.
Also June 8 at Santos Party House.