Originally published on Swizzle-Stick.com (Sept. 15, 2004)
Chicago, Illinois doesn’t exactly churn out sunny, Summer-sounding CDs on a regular basis but the sophomore release by Caviar, one of the Windy City’s finest power-pop bands, conjures up images of the last days of summer, the ones right before the kids head back to school. The songs on The Thin Mercury Sound (Aezra Records) aren’t the kind of tunes you’ll hear as kids play volleyball on the beach or blaring from dad’s borrowed convertible. They are deeper than the standard summer pop-rock fare with gleeful choruses that will undoubtedly be used in soft drink commercials a few months later.
These are the songs that are meant to serve as a soundtrack to a high school kid’s final “free” night before heading off to his first year of college – the night that starts off with a bunch of buddies sitting around in a basement drinking (“Aloha”, “On the DL”), then heading out in search of a good party (“Clean Getaway”, “Deep Down I’m Shallow”). Upon arriving at the party (“666”), the high school kid that we’re following around spies the girl he’s had a crush on for the last four years (“Lioness”) and finally confesses his love to her. The two sneak away from the party and their passion is unleashed (“Last of the Gold”), kisses are exchanged and the sexual energy is thick – both knowing that in 12 hours, they will be heading off to different colleges in different states, probably never to see each other again (“Where Are You?”). Before anything happens, the kid’s buddies catch up to the couple and drag the kid away (“Ego Trippin’”), it’s off to the neighborhood bar, the one where fake IDs are never questioned and where the older, exotic women (“10% November”, “Last Rays of the Sun”) hang out, hoping to be propositioned by younger men. After spending all the money in their pockets, the kids take off (“Light Up the Sky”) and drive around town, sharing high school memories and dreaming about their futures as the night slowly gives away to morning. As our main character is dropped off at his house, he finds his crush waiting in his driveway for him (“Hey Let Go”) and the two share a tender embrace as the sun slowly rises above the horizon.
Yeah, The Thin Mercury Sound is the perfect soundtrack to the dying days of summer.
I’ve had the great pleasure of knowing Caviar’s Blake Smith (vocals/guitar) and Mike Willison (bassist) for nearly 10 years, since their days in the underappreciated Fig Dish (Mike and I even share the same birthday). The dreams of being major label rock stars are no longer a main priority for the two – they’ve been through their fair share of major labels in both Fig Dish (A&M;, Polydor) and Caviar (Island). The Thin Mercury Sound was released on Aezra Records, a small label that is home to bands like Magna-Fi and Chomsky (and, I guess it should be noted, does have some major label ties), in August and while it’s not burning up the charts, it is receiving favorable reviews (how can it not???).
I hit up Mike with some questions – mostly dealing with summer since, as you’ve just read, I consider The Thin Mercury Sound to be such a great summer album. Now, if only I can convince somebody at the WB or, better yet, John Hughes, to write a script based on the songs from the album …
What songs/albums make you think of summer?
You know how there are some bands that have a pretty good run at it, make some respectable albums and then lose the plot entirely? Eventually, these bands will put together a “Greatest Hits” collection to lure you back in to their fetid grasp and attach a “new” single on to the end of it in an attempt to create a freshly smelling buzz for themselves. This happens at live shows a lot too, where, you know, Creedence will open with a “few things we’ve been kicking around on the 747” before handing you “Suzie Q” or “Run through the Jungle.” Like Tears For Fears (who added the sublime “Sowing the Seeds of Love” to their Greatest Hits package), War, on their 1976 Greatest Hits compilation, slipped in the greasy, slinky groove “Summer,” as an album ender to make certain their sonata form would recapitulate as it should; this a nod to both classical basso continuum, pop smithy songwriting craftsmanship and a stroke of raw genius as it is one of their best. This entire album is a paean to the dog days of the 1970’s: Stingray Corvettes, cut-off Levi’s, bikini tops, canned beer, sweat, and shoeless, shirtless, sinewy dudes with thin mustaches, wavy blonde hair and cool nicknames like “Pistol Pete.”
What was the first outdoor concert you can remember attending? What is the best outdoor concert you’ve attended?
The first outdoor concert I attended was something like the Chicago Brass Ensemble performs Holst’s “Jupiter’s theme from ‘The Planets’” at this awesome outdoor concert shell we have in Chicago called Ravinia.
The first outdoor concert I attended without my mom attached to me was probably Van Halen in 1983, when the t-shirt was that penguin wearing a tuxedo and top hat holding a huge wooden mallet. I went with a friend’s older brother and his friends. They smoked their special cigarettes and drank their special drinks and I marveled at myriad bouncy protuberances as they passed in front of my pre-pubescent eyes.
While that concert certainly had its many and waggling merits, the best I have ever seen was Richard Ashcroft solo at the V Festival, Chelmsford, in 2000. This was his first public appearance after leaving the Verve and the English fans were not digging his solo album as it no longer embraced the working class values of grayness and mirthless, shabby living, but was rather a collection of songs about love and mushy goo. As they announced him, all 150,000 of us sort-of braced for a chorus of boos, but no one booed, no one really did much of anything but watch his wan slightness cross the huge stage with an acoustic guitar, sit demurely on a stool, and look rather afraid for a moment. Picture if you will a mammoth stage, giant screens on both sides bringing you up close to the action, the sun setting directly behind, sort of adding a blinding, crepuscular radiance around its borders, and a tiny figure sitting in the dark center, probably pooping his pants.
The silence lasted just long enough for us to wonder if he was going to faint, and then the familiar strains of the opening chords of “Bittersweet Symphony” begin and the crowd is reminded that yes, indeed, this is the same man that got me shagged in ’98 that night when I dropped “Sonnet” on an unwitting lass. United, the mob is pleasantly singing along, smiling, drinking lager, and enjoying the performance. As the song nears its end, and the sun is reaching ever further for the other side of the earth, Richard begins to smile, ever so slightly. Perhaps he is pleased at himself for controlling the crowd like he did- it was a good idea to give the people what they wanted after all- or perhaps he didn’t poop in his pants.
As he rings out the final chord there is another short pause, a rest note only, and then all of the stage lights come on to reveal a five piece band and a thirty piece orchestra and they play it again. The whole song. An E that I took in 1992 finally kicked in and I was a puddle of goo covered in sweaty goose bumps. My heart soared. I was holding someone’s hand. People were crying. Am I crying? Best Outdoor Concert Ever.
As performers, you’ve played many festival type shows (street festivals, radio station festivals, etc). What are your thoughts about playing at 3pm? Are you more of a nighttime band?
3pm is bad. We excel when people are at their dipsomaniacal peak. At three the sun is abrasive and angry, and even on a cloudy day an SPF of at least 15 is recommended during peak hours for us fair folk and our porcelain skin. At night its okay to have mustard on your shirt or not understand what the person next to you said and respond, “Totally,” partly because the music is loud but mostly because you have had seven Lowenbrau and a shot of peach schnapps (or whatever crud it is that you drink). 3pm is for “Puff the Magic Dragon” in the park, not a puff of the magic dragon.
Was Sixteen Candles and/or Breakfast Club filmed at one of your high schools? Was that strange seeing your school in those movies? Any chance is we go frame-by-frame through either of those movies we’ll catch a cameo by a future member of Caviar?
Sort of. All of those films were shot where we grew up, the closest being “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” which was shot at our rival high school to the north. The main connection, notwithstanding the geography, was that they painted a pretty vivid picture of what it was like to grow up here during the late 80’s. My parents live down the street from John Hughes’ house during those days, and so much of what that neighborhood looks like is evident through all of those pictures. Hughes was a geek himself, and loves particularly the transformation of geek to god that is a big piece of the puzzle that he creates. That shit all really happened at my school, man. Just like that.
You’ve said that you wrote “Hey Let Go” for the next John Hughes movie should John Hughes ever come out of retirement. Describe the scene in which you think that song would fit in perfectly. And, who would the actors/actresses in the scene be?
Sixteen Candles. End Credits, just like “If you were here,” by the Thompson Twins. Same actors (or maybe put me in the Michael Schoeffling part, I’d like that).
What is the ideal summertime alcoholic beverage?
This is tough. See, right this second, I would argue that a can of Tecate with lime is the right answer. A few hours ago, though, it might have been a vodka and lemonade. Still, a shot of Maker’s and a bottle of ice cold Miller Lite hits the spot every now and again. When I am feeling fancy, a Franz Hirtzberger, Smarard Gruner Veltliner will do nicely, or even the sweet cool of the J. Bookwalter Chenin Blanc. Sublime. I guess the right answer is that there is not a wrong answer provided you didn’t just look the drink up in Cosmo or something.
Describe the ultimate BBQ? Who is bringing what? What can I bring? What time and where?
This would start at noon or so. The police will arrive around 4am and make everyone go home. The rest I cannot quite remember.
How do you beat the summertime blues?
I attend group therapy sessions most days and some nights at 1060 W. Addison in Chicago.
Beach or Pool?
Pool and beach (lakes preferably, I hate the salt water).
Journey or Foreigner?
If I am on a Journey, than I am usually a Foreigner. Whether it be in Asia, Europe, Japan, Kansas, or other parts of America it never feels quite like me. I guess I only feel at home in Chicago.
You almost always manage to slip a cover into your set. What band would you like to hear cover a Caviar song and what song would it be?
I would like to have heard Zeppelin cover anything they wanted to by us. I bet they could have covered my 8th grade speech on holograms and made it a stone jam.
If you could cover one album from the ’70, one album from the ‘80s, and one album from the ‘90s in their entireties, what albums would they be?
70’s Boston, Boston; 80’s New Order, Power, Corruption and Lies; 90’s Oasis, Definitely, Maybe
Finally, what would your life be like without an iPod?
Life without an iPod is barely worth living. I am glad all of you millions of people have finally realized, to an extent, that Apple stuff is worth paying a bit extra for because of how much more fully realized you will become by doing so. I sleep with mine all cuddled upon the pillow next to me for warmth and safety.