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Mercury Rev found magic in UB professor Tony Conrad's alchemy

Mercury Rev makes music that sounds like it has always existed, as if it was plucked from the silver-blue ether fully formed, a perfect, reverb-laden kaleidoscope of transformative sound.

Of course, that's not how it actually happened. In fact, this seminal alternative band was formed right here on planet earth, by mere mortals who happened to be attending the University at Buffalo at the same time that genre-busting, multi-idiomatic artist Tony Conrad was a member of the university's faculty.

Conrad – who is the subject of a retrospective at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery titled "Introducing Tony Conrad," running through May 27 – can be credited with many innovations in the worlds of art and music. His gifts to music in particular are considerable, and they range from the use of drones and the tenets of minimalism in rock music, to the overarching belief that stasis spells the death of artistic endeavor, writ large.

Conrad's musical influence runs the gamut from the Velvet Underground to Beck, Sonic Youth to Radiohead, and all points between that might reasonably raise a flag labeled "alternative music." One of his greatest gifts to fans of late-20th century alternative and experimental rock music is surely his alchemist's role in the formation of Mercury Rev, a band I've repeatedly referred to as the finest alternative music export Buffalo has ever produced.

I spoke with Rev co-founder Grasshopper – aka Sean Mackowiak – about Conrad's influence on his band, his life and his artistic output, as he and co-founder Jonathan Donahue were wrapping up work on a collaborative project with members of Wilco and Sonic Youth in a New Jersey recording studio. That seemed wholly appropriate and completely "Conrad-esque." Here's how it went.

Question: The legend is that you started auditing Tony Conrad's media studies class at UB, and it pretty much changed the direction of your life. What was it about him that spoke to the budding artist in you?

Answer: Tony Conrad was a very intelligent and amazingly funny person. He seemed to know a little bit about everything and he could spin a good yarn. He was involved with music, performance art, film, video, painting. He had a vast knowledge of the history of Western art movements, as well as Eastern arts traditions and how this history was affected by politics, economics, culture, etc. Meanwhile, he was a math major at Harvard, a genius at mathematics and an early computer programmer.

This really resonated with me.  I went to (UB) to be a math major, but I was also gravitating toward the arts and got swept up in the punk and "No Wave" scenes of music and film, and wanted to travel down that path. I felt he was a person who had dedicated his life to being an artist and that's what was intriguing to me. I switched my major to Media Studies after the first semester.

Tony Conrad is the subject of a retrospective at the Albright-Knox. (News archives)

Q: It seemed like Tony was a walking embodiment of multi-disciplinary wisdom. He willfully crossed lines between disciplines and encouraged new hybrids and new fusions of thought and art. How did this alchemy he embodied affect your approach to creating music?

A: One of the first assignments he gave to my class was to pick a film or musical piece that we really enjoyed, but write a very negative review of it – to basically trash something we held dear. Then the next week, we did the opposite, we picked a film or piece of music that we strongly disliked, and wrote about it in a very positive light.

This was groundbreaking for me, because it broke down the barrier between what is considered "good" or "bad," between "high-brow" and "low brow." It was a very Zen approach. Once you throw all judgment and preconceived notions out the window, your mind is clear to pursue your imagination as freely as possible when creating music – or anything else, really.

Q: Part of Tony's influence can be traced to the perceived borders between "high-brow" and "low-brow" art. He didn’t seem to have any use for those perceived borders. What effect did this have on your thinking?

A: When you throw away any labels and boundaries, it is a liberating experience. Tony was not just working outside the box, he smashed the box and burned the tissue paper inside.

He told me, "As soon as you get labeled, it's the worst thing in the world. Who wants to be labeled? Every time I'm labeled, I move on to something else."

In a way, I think that influenced Mercury Rev because at first we were labeled "space-rock" or "shoe-gaze," then we changed. Then we were labeled "Americana" or "dream-pop," and so we changed again. The thing is, Tony emphasized that you need to change, change is a good thing, but at your core you don't change. At your core, you are the same person you have always been, but you are exploring the many facets of that core.

Mercury Rev formed in Buffalo in 1989, and is now considered one of the most enduring alternative bands of its era. (News archives)

Q: Speaking specifically of Tony's musical work, how did his use of drones, for example, work its way into Mercury Rev's music, particularly in the beginning?

A: Jonathan and (flutist) Suzanne (Thorpe) and I had been interested in drones in Indian music and in Irish music and in rock 'n' roll, with Velvet Underground and Husker Du and Sonic Youth. When I read Victor Bockris' (Velvet Underground biography) "Uptight" the summer before going to (UB), Tony is in the book, talking about drones, etc. I thought, "Here was the guy who helped bring it into the mainstream."

At the time, I was playing in a weird open guitar tuning – EAEABE. Tony urged me to go see (avant garde/minimalist composer) Rhys Chatham play at Hallwalls and it was very hypnotic, with lots of overtones. I spoke with Rhys afterward and he was playing in a very similar tuning – so yes, it worked its way into Mercury Rev music and still does, to this day.

Q: So much of my favorite Mercury Rev music blends elements of the avant garde with more conventional song structures. A beautiful melody will have a bracing atonal guitar solo in the middle, for example, or a minimalist pulse will explode into a gorgeous, grandiose chorus. Is this Tony's influence at work?

A: I think Tony's influence is definitely in there. We were also influenced by Velvet Underground, Can, Brian Eno, the Who, and many others, in that respect. But I think much of that music was also probably directly or indirectly influenced by things Tony did with LaMonte Young, Terry Riley and minimalism in general. So the answer is, yes.

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