When Carey Mercer was diagnosed with throat cancer, he was almost relieved. As the lead singer, main songwriter, and instigating force behind Frog Eyes, Mercer has long forged an unrelenting and rather curious path through indie rock’s back channels. His voice is often described as idiosyncratic, but that description doesn’t cut it; he bellows, he whoops, he howls, and he hisses his way through cryptic poetry and extended lyrical metaphors, stamping each of his musical projects with an enduring trademark. That’s true of his solo work with Blackout Beach, but even when sharing vocal duties with two equally distinctive singers – namely, Dan Bejar of Destoyer and Spencer Krug of Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown – in supergroup Swan Lake, Mercer’s voice is utterly remarkable. He and his wife Melanie Campbell have been Frog Eyes’ sole permanent members, joined in recent years by Shyla Seller on keys and bassist Terri Upton.
There was a time, however, just after the release of Frog Eyes’ 2013 LP Carey’s Cold Spring, in which Mercer’s future as a vocalist was uncertain. The level of obscurity at which Frog Eyes had hovered for over a decade was tiring; the machinations of the music industry even more so. Dreading the month-long tour that had been scheduled to promote the album, Mercer contemplated simply giving it up. Once cancer threatened the very thing that made his music so distinct, no one could’ve faulted him for it.
“There’s something that I think musicians don’t really talk about, which is that we secretly yearn for something to block us, some force to say, ‘You cannot make music anymore,’” Mercer confides. “[Music] is a destructive addiction. Honestly, it’s so horrible to put all this energy into a record, release it, and have this feeling of a collective shrug. The strongest [musicians] I know still confess to this kind of medieval self-flagellation for each cycle of release. I think there was a part of me that was like, ‘Finally, a way out! I’ll be able to work, I’ll do something else, I’ll write.’”
Mercer didn’t need the reminder of his own mortality – his father had passed away just as he’d finished writing Cold Spring, giving the record two morbid bookends. Death, decay, and elements of the sinister had long been stylistic fodder for Frog Eyes’ fantastical, fable-like songs; as his father lay in a hospice bed, Mercer sang “Claxxon’s Lament” to him, written in 2000 but never recorded. With this memory adding greater levity, it wound up as the last track on that record.
In his will, Mercer’s father left him an acoustic guitar, a concrete symbol of a practically genetic appreciation for music. Mercer challenged himself to write at least ten songs on it, in solitude, which differed drastically from his usual method of composing with a full band and adding (or improvising) lyrics after. Four songs were done before Mercer began radiation therapy for his throat cancer. The rest followed shortly after completing treatment. “I had a lot of personal fire. I felt inspired, almost like I needed to write songs, so they came really easily, and they seemed really good when I was writing them,” Mercer says. “I became a little precious about it. It became a burden, almost. I was like, ‘I really need to premeditate before I start and not be haphazard. That’s completely different from how I [usually] make records.’”
The result is Pickpocket’s Locket, released in August via Paper Bag Records. It is a surprisingly upbeat record, whether examining it through the lens of Frog Eyes’ back catalogue or the context of its backstory. “Melancholy should always be sweet,” Mercer reasons. “The sinister and the dark and the grief should be there in every work, but so should laughter. I feel like that’s always been a part of what I do.”
Spencer Krug contributed gorgeous, uplifting string arrangements, played by Jesse Zubot; there’s also pedal steel, saxophone, and lilting piano melodies throughout, all added after Mercer labored over lyrics and structure. Within the challenges he set for himself and the departures from his usual writing methods, there was a learning curve. “There were some really cool breakthroughs, and then there are other things where I wish I would’ve infused a little bit of the old approach,” Mercer says. “The record could maybe be a bit more electric and [have] more improvisation. But that’s regret. You should always have some regret, I think, because regret is the thing that makes you make another record.” Mercer’s voice is unchanged, swooping through kinetic lead single “Joe With the Jam,” whispering urgently on “Rejoinders in a Storm,” yelping maniacally at the climax of “Crystal Blip.”
Ironically, most of the acoustic strumming has been obliterated; the only track that distinctly maintains it is “I Ain’t Around Much.” Mercer admits that this is his most autobiographical piece, examining his role as a father while saying goodbye, quite literally, to his own. In one poignant verse, Mercer sings, “My voice is everywhere, my voice is nowhere. My voice is in the air – that’s what I wanted to hear.” Wanting to hear his own voice, realizing there was intrinsic value in using it – these are the realities that surviving cancer helped him to understand, even if it’s something of a cliché to say that his illness was a catalyst in realigning his priorities.
“In going through that and looking in its ugly face, the profound realization was that, in truth, I don’t ever want [to stop making music]. As brutal and sad and painful and pointless as it can feel, it’s still so wonderful. [There’s] that idea of one door closes, other doors open, but the idea of that particular closing, when I started really thinking about it, filled me with a kind of icy terror.
“I don’t want to sound like I have some kind of wisdom, but the cliché is true: cherish the things that are special and ignore everything else,” he adds. He’s given up the extended touring he so loathed, even if that means that his band isn’t “commercially viable.” Frog Eyes, as Mercer says, has always been a “risky proposition.” They recently opened for Destroyer on a few weeks’ worth of West Coast dates, but Frog Eyes’ show at Baby’s All Right on November 13 is the only gig they currently have scheduled. Unmoored from typical touring commitments, the band is unsure when they’ll be back, making this a singular opportunity to catch them playing their latest. “Pickpocket’s Locket was a transitional record for me that allowed me to really recognize that I shouldn’t be ashamed of singing. This is what gives the project its distinction, so [now I’m] digging into that,” Mercer says. “It’s like a wave that I built that I can now surf on. It’s very exhilarating. There are things learned, but there are also things to learn.”
Frog Eyes plays Baby’s All Right November 13. For ticket information, click here.