A little over a year ago, I stood in the midst of a packed crowd at the Fireside Bowl in Chicago waiting for Hey Mercedes to take the stage for their first show ever. A friend and I conjectured, just as everyone else did, about the Hey Mercedes sound that was soon to be unveiled. Three members of the band, Bob Nanna, Damon Atkinson, and Todd Bell, were part of recently split-up Braid, so we assumed we were in for something Braid-like.
We weren’t completely wrong, but still something was different, and it wasn’t just a new face in guitarist Mark Dawursk. What stood before me was no longer the worn-out road warriors who had played over 500 shows in five short years. The group was refreshed, perhaps a little nervous, but something they definitely weren’t was Braid.
Any fan knew it instantly. There were more than a few quizzical looks about the room from those who had expected Braid II. But by the end of the show, everyone was all smiles, rocking out to a new band that, over the course of a nine-song set, we had grown to love.
A little over a year later, after a successful stint with the Vagrant America tour and a forthcoming album Everynight Fireworks, I had a chance to talk with drummer Damon Atkinson about sugar-coating, ditching day jobs and being the ex-Braid band.
BH: How was the Vagrant America tour different from tours you have done in the past?
DA: First of all, every other tour that I have ever done has been in one van with all the equipment, all of our bags, us, merchandise, everything in one van. The Vagrant tour was four tour buses, an eighteen-wheeler and a full crew of people to set up our equipment. So pretty much all we had to do was worry about playing music, as opposed to driving there, booking a hotel, and all the stuff that goes along with setting up a tour. On the Vagrant tour they set it up for all the bands and they took care of all of us, and it was overwhelming at first, but you kind of get used to it. But now with the Jimmy Eat World tour, it’s just two bands, and we’re back to the old school, doing it ourselves.
BH: Is that the kind of treatment you have come to expect from Vagrant Records in general?
DA: Whatever you need done, they’ll try as hard as they can to fulfill it. Everyone who works at Vagrant is in a band or has been in bands so they understand what it’s like to be on the road and what it’s like to be a working band. So they try to do as much as they can to help us.
BH: Why has the release of the new album been delayed so much in the past months?
DA: There were some legal issues with Vagrant and one of the distributors they had been with, but now they just worked everything out, and they’re back in L.A. and they’re ready to start everything up again. Everything was on hold, but now the wheels are turning again, the floodgates are ready to be opened.
BH: How does the new album compare to the EP and past projects you have been involved with?
DA: The EP was obviously four songs compared to the album’s 11. Those four songs were all we had when we went into the studio. We had a full year to write the album; we actually recorded 17 songs, but only 11 are going on the record. We worked really hard on the full-length. We kind of gave ourselves a time schedule like, “Here’s when all these songs need to be done,” and we put ourselves in this mode that I’ve never been in personally as a musician in any band. That was our lives for the whole year, just writing these songs and taking everything we had and putting it into these songs. So then we went on tour to perfect the songs, so we would know that these are the songs we are going to put on the record and that’s exactly how they’re going to be. We fine-tune them after touring.
Then there’s the whole recording process. The EP was done in four days with one guy at one studio, which was great. But the album was recorded in two weeks at an amazing studio called Pachyderm in Minnesota, and it was engineered and co-produced by J. Robins (Jawbox, Burning Airlines), so it was amazing and we love that guy to death. We’re just so comfortable working with him and then the whole atmosphere of the studio. We had forty acres of land, a huge house, a beautiful state-of-the-art studio all to ourselves for two weeks straight, so we locked ourselves in. There [was] nothing to do, and it was so ideal for any serious musician who’s going to record a record, and it was perfect for us. Then we had two full weeks to mix at Smart Studios with the guy who did the EP (Mark Haines) because he’s amazing and we love him and we wanted to work with him. So that whole experience, the recording and mixing, was unbelievable. It was nearly flawless. And the time we took to write those songs and the people we were working with, Jay and Mark, it was amazing.
BH: Do you think with this tour you have started to get away from being labeled as the “ex-Braid” band?
DA: At first we would tell people, even interviewers, we don’t want to talk about Braid too much, and please don’t bill us as ex-Braid. We used to say that when we first started this band because we wanted to prove to ourselves as musicians that we can pull it off without having to use that marketing tool. But it has helped; it’s been a built-in audience for us since day one, obviously being who we are. But we have definitely gotten away from it, and I think when the album comes out especially, I’m assuming that it’s just going to go away. And there have been so many kind reviews, and a lot of kind people that we meet after playing shows, or friends of ours or people we don’t even know, and they’ll say, “You know what, I loved Braid,” and whether they saw us or not, they would say, “but I love this new band so much more.” And just to hear that and get e-mails like that, it’s amazing. I love that. It’s perfect.
We don’t have any shame that we were in Braid. It was a cool thing, it was fun experience and it was a fun time in our lives, and we learned a lot as musicians and as people, but the future is ahead of us, so we’re pushing forward.
BH: What bands do you think Hey Mercedes has the most in common with?
DA: That’s a good question. I don’t know, there’s so many different influences that we all have that I think some of our sound comes from the influences, like the CD’s we’re all individually listening to, or some of the stuff that we like collectively. But one band I can think of in particular is Jawbox, and even when some of us were in Braid and we’d get a similar question in an interview, we’d still say that, but that’s one of the bands that kind of sticks out. We’ve been compared to the Foo Fighters too. And we all love that band, but when you think about it, the Foo Fighters are huge and they’re pretty mainstream, and then there’s us. But if our booking agent called us up and said, “Hey, Foo Fighters wants to take you out on tour,” we would drop everything we were doing and go do that. That would be amazing. Some of the other bands we toured with on the Vagrant tour, and the new Saves the Day record ? we all love that record, and some of that might rub off on us. But it’s hard for me to say, being in the band and playing the music, what band we sound like or what band we think we’re influenced by.
BH: Do you think there will ever be a niche for bands like Hey Mercedes in the popular/MTV music culture of today?
DA: I think so. I think there’s definitely a possibility. It’s not anything I’d like to see ruled out. I’ve been in that position in my life where I was like, “Screw MTV, and screw that,” but I play music for a couple reasons: one, because I love playing music, and twom because I want nothing more than to put a smile on someone’s face because they heard our music, they like our songs, they love our album, they like the kind of people we are. We try to be as interactive with the audience and the fans as much as possible. And if putting a video on MTV or playing live on Letterman or Conan O’Brien is going to put us out to a broader audience so more people can see us and hear us and get a chance to like our music, then that’s awesome.
BH: A lot of bands like The Promise Ring, Jimmy Eat World and The Get Up Kids have become progressively more poppy with their last couple albums. What do you think of this trend, and do you see Hey Mercedes fitting into it?
DA: I know what you mean about the poppy. It could be a number of things. Those bands you just mentioned, I don’t know the answer to why they’ve all gone poppy, but it could be because they’re more happy now, or they want to try to cater to the mainstream and maybe they think by being more poppy, that will help them. And it obviously has helped them, but I don’t know. As for us, with this band there’s a decent amount of kind of heavier stuff, but when you get the record and read the lyrics it’s not totally the most poppy thing. But compared to Braid, I think it’s probably a little more poppy. With some of the newer stuff we’ve been dabbling around with, I don’t see ourselves going in a more poppy direction.
BH: Before you left for the Vagrant America tour you all had day jobs. Do you see that not being a necessity anytime soon?
DA: It got a little spooky there for a little while because we weren’t sure when the record was coming out. And if the record wasn’t coming out, we didn’t want to tour, and touring is where most of our income comes from, 95 percent of it. Especially now because our record is not out, so we can’t collect royalties on that, and it will be a while before that happens. I don’t think any of us plan on getting jobs ? I think we’ll be OK after this tour. Obviously no one likes to work, nobody does. So there’s that, but the biggest thing for us was when we were writing the record we had to work, so we had this crazy schedule on trying to write songs. Bob (Nanna, singer/guitarist) would have to take the train up from Chicago after he gets off work, come up, we practice at night, he’d stay over at my house, get up at, like, 5:30 in the morning, catch a train back down to Chicago, and go right to work. So he’d go from work to practice to work, and he’d have to sit in the train for three hours round-trip. So if we didn’t have to have jobs, we could write all day long, any day of the week. We could start at ten in the morning, take a break for lunch, go back, and this is fun because we love playing music and we get along so well. That’s the biggest thing: it’s not just that we don’t want jobs, we’re lazy, we want to sit around and play PlayStation all day. If we don’t have to work, Bob can sit at home and write songs on his guitar, I can do the same, Mark (Dawursk) can do the same. That would make the band a full-time job, which, when that can actually happen and I can say for sure that, no, we don’t need day jobs, that’ll be a bright day for me, for all of us. As it looks now, if we do have to go back and get jobs, it will be temp jobs. I’ll go back to the coffee shop.
Hey Mercedes performs with Jimmy Eat World and Reubens Accomplice on Friday at the Barrymore. Call 241-2345 for tickets.