Chatting with The Mercury Tree

The Mercury Tree are an adventurous progressive rock quartet from Portland, consisting of Ben Spees (guitar, voice, keyboards), Igliashon Jones (guitar, keyboards), Oliver Campbell (bass, vocals), and Connor Reilly (drums). They are known for their amazingly intricate compositions (which might be called Math Rock), tight live performance, and use of the 17-edo alternate tuning system. I first caught a performance of them at the Microtonal Adventures Festival in May of 2018, which UnTwelve helped co-organize. We at UnTwelve were immediately impressed with the Mercury Tree's performance, prog-rock ethos, and compositional vision, and wanted for some time now to reach out to them to have an interview discussion. Over the course of the last several weeks, we finally hammered out the time and work to do so, and we are delighted to now present this interview to you. -Aaron Krister Johnson

L. to R.: Ben Spees, Igliashon Jones, Oliver Campbell, Connor Reilly

UnTwelve: Ben, it was a pleasure hearing your amazing band last May in Bellingham at the Microtonal Adventures Festival, and to met you and the rest of the band in person! Tell us what you have been up to lately since that time, and what projects you have planned for the near future.

Ben: The festival was an amazing experience. It was really a trip to meet so many microtonalists whose work we have admired online and many who had sort of taken on a mythic status in our minds, and find them to be friendly, down-to-earth people. It can feel very isolating to work on this stuff, and while the online community is great, there's nothing like actually connecting in person. It brought the reality of the possibilities home, and made it all feel less like just some nutty eccentric hobby. I definitely think the more people can get together and actually spur each other on, the faster I think things will keep progressing. Some of the minds working on theory right now are just beyond mortal level.

It's hard to believe it's been almost a year since then, and in that time the band's collaboration with Igliashon Jones has continued to flourish. In a head-spinning decision he's not only moved from Seattle to our hometown of Portland, but also become a full band member. Before this started, we had almost a full album's worth of songs in 17-edo ready to record. Upon his joining us, all of this material was rearranged and reworked for live performance with two guitars, with Igs' extensive input, and in addition to writing a bunch of new guitar parts, he also contributed a new song. The new album, almost done as of this writing, is called Spidermilk and comes out in early April. Working with Igs has been a lot of fun -- he's such a wizard at this stuff, and it's been a really enriching experience for everybody. After the album release we will be on tour for most of the month of May. Hard to think too far beyond that, but we hope to continue writing a lot more!

UnTwelve: Your band is unique in the musical landscape, in that you've gathered musicians who are dedicated to studying the microtonal resources of 17-edo. Can you tell us about the process of arriving at that tuning? Did you all start out with the unified will to use 17-edo? Or was it a kind-of-trial and error thing? What did you find about 17-edo that made it work so well for the band, and can you tell us about the typical creative process for the band members when it comes to writing your material, esp. with regard to your choosing 17-edo?

Oliver: We actually started with 19edo, and it was a bit of a rocky start. We only ever saw one 19edo song come to fruition and played it live 1 time. Going back to when we first started though, 19 seemed to be the recommended introductory tuning. The 3rds and 6ths sounded great, so we went with it. As a bass player, the first thing I had to do was get comfortable with playing. I went in with a graphic of the names of the intervals on a fretboard and started with the major and minor scales. This was useful for my own understanding, but not necessarily immediately useful for writing with Mercury Tree. After a bit of work I became competent enough to play the root notes of the chords Ben was playing, but not much more than that. The song we were working on never really got finished, and I never really wrote any bass parts I liked for it. Turns out I wasn't alone. We had been noticeably less productive trying to work through figuring out this tuning. When Ben brought up the idea of trying a new tuning I honestly thought it was crazy. We'd already worked so hard to figure out 19! He showed me the neutral intervals and I was intrigued, so I agreed to give it a try. When we started playing in 17, the difference was monumental. The familiar intervals were easy to identify, and the neutral intervals had a new and distinctive flavor. It was clear at that point there was a lot we could do with this for Mercury Tree.

Ben: Some people have done great work in 19, but everyone has a different personal experience with tunings, and my own experience was that the "normal" notes of 19 were too normal, and the weird notes were way too far out there -- they didn't seem to gel as much. In 17, you've still got a version of the diatonic scale available, but it has more wonkiness built into it "by default", and it just felt to me like all the sweet and sour notes meshed better. You could say it had a more of a smooth continuum of xen-ness. I love the neutral second intervals, which we've found to be so effective for creating novel-sounding melodic lines, and the "third-tone way" of thinking of things is useful and intuitive. Three versions of every interval (almost), minor, neutral, and major, then the two versions of the tritone. It felt like a very natural extension of the music theory I was already used to, but with way more options and permutations available. When I started writing in 17, it just seemed like everything fell into place, and really cool parts started taking shape, almost by themselves.

Igliashon: I've always been really into 17edo; to make a very long story short, I've tried every EDO between 1 and 24 on guitar, as well as 31edo, and I think 17edo is the sweet spot as far as having not too many notes, but still a good mix of familiar and unfamiliar intervals that all work well together and sound concordant but "zonky". It's really intuitive and actually really easy to conceptualize in terms relative to 12edo. I'd already been playing in it for 10 years when Ben approached me about a Cryptic Ruse/Mercury Tree collaboration, and when I found out they were already working in 17edo, I was thrilled! Of course, I quickly discovered that Ben and Oliver had a very different approach to the tuning; I'm a walking encyclopedia of temperament theory, MOS scales, notational approaches, etc., whereas Ben and Oliver mostly write by ear. It was also a challenge because the Mercury Tree has been a 3-piece for a long time, and the majority of the material for Spidermilk was written before I joined, using looping pedals to fill a lot of space with extra guitar and synth layers. I definitely struggled a lot in the beginning, being uncertain of how to approach the heavily-chromatic parts and where to fit my parts in the overall arrangement. My parts on the album are very understated for the most part, focusing more on support, texture, and the occasional counter-melody or harmonization, and I use a lot of pitch-shifting to get into a really high register that's out of the way of the other instruments and voice. Sometimes I outright double Ben's parts or Oliver's parts. There are exceptions, of course; I wrote and played all the guitar parts on "Tides of the Spine", for example. But generally I'm just trying to keep up with what everyone else is doing!

UnTwelve: You just released your new album, Spidermilk. Can you give us some interesting insights into the genesis of these tracks? For an audience, how close is the recorded experience to the live experience, would you say?

Ben: The very earliest two songs to be written were "Brake for Genius" and "Superposition of Silhouettes", written the same week. Getting these two songs together was a turning point for me in figuring out how to make the tuning musical and not a gimmick. It can be too easy to get super weird and alien (I felt in retrospect, our earlier 19-edo efforts had been guilty of being excessively chromatic and random) and I was consciously making an effort to let the songs be songs first, and microtonal compositions second -- they needed to be melodic and have vocals from the start, and not sacrifice any emotional content for the sake of "tuning-geek" type concerns. Because of this, these two songs are definitely a little poppier than the others, but having this grounding set sort of a baseline that allowed me to get more experimental with the writing for there. Some of the later compositions, like "Disremembered" for example, get quite a bit weirder, but at the same time, are still very "song-y" for lack of a better word!

Igliashon: So, the only track on this album that I can take writing credit for is "Tides of the Spine", the album's last track. It was also one of the last to be written, and is one of only a few tracks that were not written prior to my joining the band. The impetus behind it was, I took a step back to look at all the songs that were going on the album up to that point, and realized that the album felt like it skewed in more of quiet and moody direction, especially compared with both past Mercury Tree releases as well as my work as Cryptic Ruse. I wanted to tip the balance a wee bit back in the "aggressive" direction, and at first "Tides" was just kind of a straight-ahead banger, with a dynamic arc I quickly realized was reminiscent of the song "Diffractions and Halos" off the Cryptic Tree EP. Since Ben was suggesting the song be the album closer, and since I didn't want to come off as being too similar to "Diffractions", I rewrote the whole 2nd half as something that kind of gradually loses energy instead of having a big climax. The more spaced-out ending also provided opportunity to play with some quasi-functional (micro)chromatic harmony, which is not something I'd really done with 17edo before, so that was fun.

Oliver: As far as songs go, Interglacial was my contribution to this album. It's based on a chord progression I originally wrote in 12 but never used. I realized the chord I was playing at the end of "I'll Pay" had the same shape as the first chord in that sequence, so I thought it would be fun to translate it to 17 and see what it sounded like. I also had been wanting to try odd n-tuplet values like quintuplets and septuplets so I arranged the song to sound like it speeds up and slows down without changing the tempo, and played with superimposing different "tuplets" against each other. As far as the rest of the album, I tried to bring a lot of polyrhythmic structures and counterpoint to the songs while still supporting their flow. I like to put a lot of emphasis on song arrangement even when I'm not writing the songs myself.

UnTwelve: Another question: your amazing drummer, Connor Reilly -- is he an alien from a drum planet? He may be one of the most hyperkinetic drummers I have seen!

Connor: Yeah I’ve gotten similar comments before. Complicated music generally leads to complicated drum parts. I think that my parts for Mercury Tree have gotten, on average, less spastic over the years, though. I think Spidermilk is our moodiest album to date; there are many ambient atmospheric sections where drums are minimal or nonexistent. Especially with the new microtonal direction, I elected to mostly play more stripped down drum parts on this album to give more focus to the melodies and harmonies.

Ben: I think Connor really outdid himself on this album. While the parts may be a little more stripped down than some of his truly frenzied drumming on earlier albums, there is ample opportunity for craziness! Some of my favorite parts of his are the insane intentionally off-time drum fills in "Disremembered", and the creative use of scraping the sides of of the cymbals for a spooky creaky-door noise, in the ambient section of the same song. I believe this latter technique was inspired by Kayo Dot. We also worked really hard on the overall drum sound for this album. We used a giant snare drum called the DW Ballad Snare on about half the tracks. This is practically a floor tom with snare wires on it, it has its own legs and everything, and when properly tuned gives you a super deep, thuddy sound, which you can hear on songs like "I Am A Husk".

UnTwelve: Thank you for a most enjoyable discussing, gents. I know I'm not alone in looking forward with great interest to watching and hearing your work evolve!