Last year we got to hear an unusual album from Blackout Beach entitled Fuck Death. Unusual because it set out to deal with the theme of war. Like PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, Fuck Death is a gratifying listen, and special since it’s so connected to our immediate history. When so much contemporary music deals with history only in the sense of stolen styles, Blackout Beach’s Carey Mercer has instead articulated a meditative response to the violent struggle for power that we have seen all around us – be it in Afghanistan, Syria or on the streets of your own city in the form of the Occupy movement.
Bowlegs: Making an album that’s a response to war is surprisingly unusual – are there any other precedents you know of?
CM: Let England Shake came out while I was working on Fuck Death. I did a dance of joy. I had hoped that FD would be one of many explicit rejections of war (explicit in the sense that the creators would label their works as anti-war). I had a hope that Let England Shake might be the proverbial tip of the iceberg. But records take time to make, so maybe there is a whack of music coming around the bend. And, it must be said, all music is a kind of anti-war statement, because, of course, music can’t really be made while invading territory or defending one’s home against violent marauders. Popular songs might be sung, or at least this is an image from war films and novels, but albums aren’t written and recorded after a hard day of shooting at people.
War, as a concept, is also a bit vague. But I wanted to be blank, and specific themes can be too conceptual (a song-cycle about the Boer War would be awful). I think I have been accused of being too ‘conceptual’, and I actually take accusations seriously. And by that I mean that I do read and think about press for my records, because to not do so would be a deeply misanthropic and selfish act. So working away at a big, blank theme with little sketches seemed to be a ‘true’ way to work.
Bowlegs: Listening to this album felt like a quiet contemplation of fragments, photographs and notes. It’s an archipelago of small parts. I wondered if it’s more appropriate now to deal with war in this close up, non-grandiose way?
CM: I’m not sure if that’s right or not, as I haven’t really given it that much thought, which is to say that I never specifically focused on small song-sketches in order to suggest an antithesis to the pro-war traditions of the martial epic (a form I will forever love). But I did write small sketches because I wanted to suggest a formlessness – a lack of stability or place from which one could build an edifice. Also, half the time I work blind and fish things out later on, and this is why also any kind of reaction from other people (formal press or a friend’s reaction over a beer) can be very valuable.
Bowlegs: It seems that there’s a generational problem connecting with historic trauma; a lot of social networking is inane despite us being surrounded by these huge historic schisms…
CM: And yet the occupy movements seem to be fundamentally connected to social networking – of course, the occupy movements might be blissfully unaware (as a whole) of what you are calling historic schisms, and it’s possible that it might be the radical arm of an inane age (but I don’t think so). Or, maybe the occupy movement is a product of years of intense focus on the relationship between capital and the violent displacement of indigenous peoples, poor folk, women, anyone that doesn’t look like Anderson Cooper. I have hope, of course, that all of this intense focus will produce some situation that trumps the one that we are presently in.
Bowlegs: It feels like you were quite isolated while recording the album – would you agree, and where does that come from?
CM: The paradox of having a son (an event that occurred during FD and one that accounts for it taking a long time to finish) is that at the same time you feel supremely connected to other people, you also feel a little out of time. I also lived in a small island city where long-time friends were leaving every year. It was a convenient place for me, and I kept waiting for them to return. Of course, they never did come back, and I think I realized this a bit too late. So I did feel a sense of loneliness.
I also have never felt immersed in a ‘scene’ in my day-to-day life. Maybe if I had moved to Montreal, where many of my friends moved to, I might have felt that. I did get glimpses of that community when we visited Montreal, but I would tell myself that to be surrounded by supporters and peers was somehow negative, somehow crippling. The West is much harsher: your friends are more likely to throw piss in your face (false) or throw pint glasses into your teeth (true) than come to your show and tell you how you moved them. Now I think my art might have been better if I might have had a support network, instead of blankness and interiority. But all of that doesn’t matter anymore – you get to the same place if you just keep on making stuff. And eventually you just move and find your friends again, which is what I have done.
Bowlegs: In terms of the work, there seem to be lots of competing voices within the songs, and the song structures are unstable, always evolving. For instance, four-minutes into the bleak opener Beautiful Burning Desire there is an overwhelming evocation of daybreak. Moods aren’t sustained – they break throughout the album. Is this part of getting across your response to war?
CM: Yep. This fleetingness is one of the sonic elements that suggest impermanence, shifting sands, the lack of a root or even fertile soil to plant that root. I think we blanket ourselves in abstractions as to how fucked up the actual soil gets in modern warfare: the ability to plant and harvest crops, to flush toilets, to swim in unpolluted streams. These unacknowledged (or perhaps unappreciated) foundations of civil society are treaded on and ground into nothing under the rot of the miasma of invasion and skirmish. But, like I said before, I didn’t have a master plan from the start, wherein I specifically charted out the form and flow of the songs as to correlate with this idea of rootlessness. It was much more organic.
War weighs heavy on the mind of those that live through it, and it became pretty easy for me to hear what was happening, how these ideas or perceptions of war (faulty or constructed they may be) were being transmuted into song structure. Also, I am pretty deliberate not to name any particular conflict, because, basically, we don’t have world wars, or big wars, not really in my lifetime, just an unending wash of conflict. Also, as the state turns in on itself, the binary of army and policing becomes a bit blurred. Many people who live through cities that host Olympics or G8 summits describe their city as being transformed into a ‘war zone’. People describe gentrification and neo-liberal social policy as a ‘war on the poor’. So it really is all around us – the idea of a peaceful existence untouched by conflict seems a bit hard to imagine at this point.
Bowlegs: Finally, does the album ultimately have a positive feel for you as the songwriter? How do you feel about it now?
CM: There is a true point somewhere after mastering and before the label hears the record (and responds) where I think my feelings on the record are unpolluted by people’s reactions. I mean, it’s hard to separate my own feelings from other people’s reactions, both informal and formal. The dialogue creates some amalgam of my own feelings and everything else. So, thinking back to that short and pure period, I felt like I made something blank and empty, full of voids and barren valleys. I was proud of the textures and the tones of the record. I am not an engineer, but I care a lot about how things sound. I thought it sounded good. I wished it was a little firmer in parts, a little less focused on theme – you can always give the listener a little more, but this is usually an after-the-fact consideration, unless you want to go chasing your tail.
I am happiest if I hear that the record has some personal meaning for a listener. This is a success that sustains me. Why? I think because it places me into a chain of meaning, because I have cherished other people’s art, so I know what it is to clutch a work to your breast and sigh (not really, but it would be nice), or more accurately to have your waking life infected by a melody or a paragraph or turn of phrase.
I do believe that art brings us together: we might all be waiting for Godot or whatever, or waiting in a lobby for someone to call out our name, pointlessly returning day after day to hear our name called into the eve of our lives, but at least we can wait together.
-Interview by Julian Tardo-