A casual follow-up conversation with the Mercury Tree from May 2019

When The Mercury Tree were here in Chicago to do a semi-private show, I met up with them in a restaurant, and we had this great, spontaneous chat over the loud restaurant noise. And Ben Spees was just crazy enough to transcribe it from the video for us. Enjoy! -Aaron Krister Johnson

I was listening to some of the [Spidermilk] tracks on my way over, and I noticed the aspect of —
a lot of prog bands do this — the additive rhythms of prog music. Prime numbered meters, for
instance, being a strong thing. Classic prog bands, and math bands, there’s an obsession with
doing that. And so I think part of that obsession is the realization that there are these rhythms
that are asymmetrical, that happen, when they’re prime, or whatever. And so I think prog is
inherently tuned into that. The disorienting aspect of those rhythms, the aspect of, you can’t
divide this, so... as biped creatures, left-right, left-right dancing, this gets disrupted by prime
numbered meters, and there’s a nerdy aspect to additive rhythms that progressive rock... some
eastern european folk music, some 20th century, even some Tchaikovsky, did that, he has a 5/4
meter in his Sixth Symphony...

As far as time signatures go, I don’t really necessarily think of it as prime numbers most of the
time, so much as I like odd rhythms in general. But I feel like the prime numbers end up being
more interesting time signatures, because they’re so hard to divide... Because you don’t have to
divide it evenly, you can still cut it up into all these different chunks, and that’s more the thing I
get obsessed with personally...

So the additive aspect of it.

So you know you have, however many measures of 13, and you throw in however many 5s and
7s that you throw in to make it add up to that, and you have that against the more straight
version of that rhythm...

So asymmetry. Let’s dig deeper into that, it doesn’t have to be prime. I mentioned prime
because prime is a good way to conjure asymmetry. But it doesn’t have to be, we realize. Then
what is it aesthetically that is appealing about asymmetry, a priori? What is the primal aspect of
asymmetry that makes you attracted to it?

Well, to break the symmetry that is so conventionally used in modern music. Doing something
that breaks the norm. Like, what’s the mainstream, go-to strategy to make music that people

So does that mean that if the norm became doing this, doing asymmetrical rhythms, would we
all of a sudden want to be doing symmetrical rhythms?


I kinda think so.

Not me.

It’s a weird premise, because the world is not that way currently.

If the world was all into microtonality, would we all run back to 12? No, cause that’s just more
open doors...

So it is more a priori attractive then.

But also what if 7/8 was the norm, and 90% of everything that was on the radio was in 7/8,
would 4/4 be more interesting?

Well, things that weren’t 7/8 would be more interesting, and that would be one of them.

I forget who said this, someone on the Xenharmonic Alliance, but they said a composer is just a
really demanding listener, and the main thing that has always driven me as a musician is that I
just want to hear things that I’m not hearing. And maybe I’m a bit of a narcissist, because I listen
to a lot of my own music. Why I’ve made so much music is just because I have things that I
want to hear, and no one else is doing them, and why would I waste my time doing things that
other people are already doing? I’m not gonna be the best at it...

When you’re doing what everyone else is doing, you’re gonna get lost in the crowd, so you have
to do something to set yourself apart.

Right, but that goes back to what I was asking. It’s not just to stand apart from the crowd, but
there’s something aesthetically appealing about it, a priori, in itself.

It’s less intuitive immediately. The thing about 12 and the thing about 4/4 is that they are
common for a reason, because there are a lot of mathematical reasons, you can cut up 4/4 in a
lot of ways and it still grooves. 12 has a very in-tune intervals. There’s a reason those are easy
to use, and make music with. The point is it’s more challenging to step outside of that. At some
point it becomes more entertaining to be challenged than to not be challenged, than to do the
thing that’s expected.

I think that’s a valid perspective. But I also think asymmetry can be completely natural. For
example, in the flow of spoken language. That is not necessarily conforming to a regular grid, or
at least one that’s in 4/4 or 6/8 or something standard. And a way of creating very natural time
changes is, not necessarily directly following the flow of a sentence, but having that sort of
thought process, where the pieces fit together in a natural way. You’re not just arbitrarily... like
someone mentioned the other day, as an exercise, putting together meters from a phone
number. Now that’s a fun experiment, but that’s a very artificial way of creating a sequence of
time changes. Whereas, if you have a melody that just of its own nature, of the sequences of
pitches and rests, it has a certain flow. There is a meter than naturally fits that flow. So that’s a
different approach. You’re not necessarily trying to be disorienting, you’re actually just
completely supporting the melody.

You can organically, just like Janacek, organically derived pitch contours from human
speech, you can derive, say, additive units of rhythm from the cadence of a certain spoken

Absolutely. We’ve been experimenting, especially on this new album, with more free-time
sections. And that’s really given me an appreciation for how much effect you can have, for
example, by drawing out a rest. And I see, when we play these parts, I see people sort of
leaning forward, expecting the next part, but they’re not getting it yet. And that’s very delicious to
me. So in free time, that’s something you can change for performance, but that’s also a
demonstration of how the meter’s not even really that important. There might be a break of 5
beats, 10 beats, or 8 beats, but the main thing is it’s not coming quite when you expect it, so it’s
creating that tension. So that’s another way of thinking of unusual groupings of beats in a
natural way.

Well as a classical performer I often get that kind of thing, there’s certain times when you want
to apply rubato to an otherwise metrical passage. You’re still doing it in a meter, but you’re
displacing the arrival of a beat for an expressive purpose. Especially, typically, at a slower

It might reflect something in the lyrics. You might drop some beats because the lyrics are
propulsive. You might add some beats because you’ve raised a question. And you’re gonna
answer it, but not quite yet.

What does the song want? What does the narrative of the song call for?

So all these elements of the song can play into influencing what’s happening with the meter.

But I think the interesting thing about it is, there seems to be this sense that there’s this
dichotomy between free time, free expression, free intonation, and regimented or strict time,
strict intonation. But if you look at Harry Partch, or composers of the New Complexity, they have
these extremely complex and detailed systems of organizing rhythm or organizing pitch, but the
end goal of that ends up creating these pieces of music that sound, basically, free. Partch’s big
thing was that he wanted to simulate the intonation of the human spoken voice. His whole 43-
tone system wasn’t about playing these big consonant chords that fill the room with sound, like
huge harmonies... it was about these melodic contours. And you look at composers like Ferdio,
you see all these nested tuplets under nested tuplets, and think how does anyone ever play
this? But I think the ultimate reason to have the intonation systematized is to coordinate multiple
performers. Cause if everyone is doing their own thing, you’re not gonna be able to repeat it...
So you come out the other side with this complexity and strictness where actually you sound
totally free, but it’s completely strict and regimented, and I’ve always been fascinated by that.

Controlled chaos.

So let’s talk about the collaboration, the newer collaboration with Igs. You mentioned something
in the written interview where Igs mentioned that the others of you tend to be more intuitive
about your approach to microtonality, and whether you thought that was a fair statement...

I thought it was a little overstated. Maybe compared to you it’s true. But I definitely write a lot by
ear, but not entirely by ear, as you know, and definitely in 17 I have a clear idea...

I don’t think it was the implication of not knowing, but let me try and frame it so you guys don’t
have a fistfight...

No, I think you should let them have a fistfight...

That would definitely be fun... Here’s how I’d put it... The way I read that statement that you
made, Igs, is that you might have a structural basis to start the genesis of an idea...

Let me put it this way. Before I joined The Mercury Tree, going back several years, I had this
album called Winter in Tumultua. All in 17. First album I ever wrote in a single tuning system.
Every single one of those tracks, with the exception of maybe a couple of the acoustic guitar
tracks, is written in a single Moment of Symmetry scale with 12 notes or fewer. So I would pick a
scale, and a key, and I would write the entire piece in that one scale and key. I wouldn’t go
outside the lines at all. Cause that was just how I thought about this. We don’t ever have
conversations in this band like, OK, this part is in the MODMOS of Maqamic[10]...

Thank God...

This is in the three up, six down of whatever...

That’s a more formalistic approach, and to me that’s like... I have these 20 colors on the
palette... I’m gonna pick 7 colors and I’m only gonna use those, because that’s my experiment
with those 7 colors. And I appreciate the results of that approach, and you’ve made a bunch of
cool stuff with it. But as you know, I like to use all the notes. So if I feel like using another note, if
I start out in one scale and want to use one that’s outside, I’m gonna go ahead and do that,
cause that’s what I did in 12...

That’s what I was trying to convey with my comment. Cause I choose the box and stick in there,
and you’re like, I want this other note to go in there, I know it’s gonna sound good and I’m gonna
do it... whereas I’m closed off to that possibility entirely.

And it’s not a right or wrong thing, it’s a basis for starting. It’s sort of a framework by which you
might... Almost like, maybe it’s a cliche analogy, but it’s like Apollonian vs. Dionysian to a slight

I’m afraid to admit it on video, I don’t know something, I’m sorry!

Apollo, the god of reason, and Dionysus, the god of wine... so structural logic vs. intuition.

Right, right. I definitely have an appreciation for that, and I think that way sometimes. But I did
spend a long time composing in 12, as you did too (Igs) you got into microtonality earlier... But
one of the ways I would always try to come up with melodies that were more interesting than the
standard pop melodies, would just be to use all 12 notes... Because it’s amazing how weird you
can make a 12 tone melody. Like we were listening to the Craig Wedren album (“Adult Desire”),
and he had a particular descending melody where it descended in one scale, ascends in a
different scale, and comes back down. And I was like, wow, it’s still possible to create an
exciting melody in 12 if you really work at it.

Yeah, and I was never really very good at that in 12. I was very formalistic in my approach to
music, because I didn’t have a lot of formal musical education. I learned the diatonic scale, the
harmonic minor scale, and after that... I still remember the very first band that I was ever in,
telling the bass player that we couldn’t use that riff because it didn’t fit any scale. Like, you’ve
got two minor thirds a half-step apart... that doesn’t fit a major scale! We can’t do that!

There’s rock songs from the 60s that are like that, just because the players didn’t know what
they were doing. We’re gonna have our chord progression be C major, G major, D major, A
major... not thinking about the fact that that’s not diatonic... but they wrote the song that way, so
that’s how it goes!

I want to rotate around, I’ll start to my right with Connor, who’s by the way a fantastic drummer. I
was super pumped when I first encountered this band, and I was also super pumped at their
drummer, this guy. Let’s start with you, and I’m gonna ask the same question to all of you, so
Connor’s at a disadvantage cause he doesn’t have time to think as much. What values, what
aesthetic values do you admire in prog, math rock, any kind of music, and in particular The
Mercury Tree... what kind of things, as a band and a drummer, do you value, and are you trying
to capture in your music making?

Well that’s a complicated question, but I’ll do my best. I look for stuff that sticks out to me. That’s
kind of the first and foremost thing that I look for. If it reminds me too much of something else
I’ve heard, I tend to scrap it. But if there’s something about it that’s like, oh, I haven’t heard this
combination of things before, that tends to get my attention. And it doesn’t have to happen in
one way or another, it’s not time signatures alone, or scales alone, or song structure alone. It’s
the combination of those things in healthy doses, to convey a musical thought that I don’t hear
as much. So it’s kind of hard to put into words, but really, I’m always looking for that mystery
element that I can’t get quite get anywhere else. And I think that’s kinda my approach to
Mercury Tree as well, but with Mercury Tree it is more specifically, at least recently, more
specifically about the melodies and the chord progressions because of the microtonality. In the
earlier days we focused relatively more on rhythm, crazy time signature changes and fast
tempos and things like that. With Spidermilk, I feel like there’s been more attention put... still
doing weird time signatures and things like that... but more attention put on the microtonal
aspect. Since microtonality is something that is not commonly heard in mainstream music, a lot
of people have difficulty adjusting their ear to it. It’s not necessarily that these people don’t have
good musical taste, just that they’re not accustomed to it. So for our more recent stuff, I’ve been
trying to pull myself back a little more and give more focus to what is happening with the
melodies. Not play as crazy as I used to when we were more focused on rhythms. So that
people who have more difficulty getting into that part can find something to latch onto. That was
a very long answer...

Would you say the short version of that is that one of the primary driving elements for you is that

Yeah, well novelty is kind of a loaded word to me. People call certain acts novelty bands, if they
have this one schtick... I don’t think of the microtonality or the mathiness as a schtick... I think
they’re tools to spice things up. We try to be careful to not sound pretentious or show-offy with
our music, because we don’t want to be some tech-metal band that just kinda... “look how fast
we can play these scales and time signatures...”

In a minute or less, what are the things you value in yourself as a drummer and in other

Things that I value are focus, knowing when to play a lot and knowing when to pull back, and
play restrained... and also knowing how to play a good drum hook. Because everyone’s always
trying to find that big guitar riff that will be in the next Crazy Train or Enter Sandman or whatever
it is, and not enough people are trying to find a drum hook. So when I hear a drum part that’s,
that drum part in isolation, I could listen to it for 5 minutes straight, that’s another level of skill
that is not honed-on enough.

Well said. We’ll turn to you, Ben...

What he said. Can we revisit the original question?

So I basically think I asked, what are the musical values of you as an individual, and as Mercury
Tree the band. What comes to mind when I ask the question, what kind of things turn you on,
what are your musical values, what’s the ethos at heart?

I think the ethos is... I want to make something that’s interesting, that sounds new, that uses
all... there’s so many tools at your disposal to make music, and you want to not forget about any
of them. And there are so many ways to do that, so many ways to put the tools together.
Microtonality is exciting because it’s a new tool... we can quibble with that, if it’s historically
new... or the oldest tool! But in any case, not something you hear a lot. And it’s also a
challenge, because it takes some getting used to for people. You’re embarking on a hard road
by deciding you’re gonna work with it. So I’ve been writing songs for a long time. With the last
album Permutations, we pushed ourselves to find the weirdest scales, use the full resources of
the 12 note system, and when looking for the next step to take, this was the only thing I could
find that really seemed like it would be a big step forward. This was the only way to do it. So,
apart from that, I want to make music that has real emotional content. I think a lot of music, and
for some reason particularly progressive music, they don’t take proper advantage of the power
of words and language, in lyrics. You know, they shouldn’t be an afterthought. They could be
the key to an entire song, and they can inspire so many melodies, harmonies, rhythms. I think
that’s something that doesn’t happen often enough. Same thing about virtuosity. I’ve never been
a virtuoso, I’ve certainly tried to be as good as I can, but that’s clearly not the part that’s gonna
distinguish my own performance. And the kind of music I enjoy, it’s always been the best
compositions. I feel like if you compose really well, that’ll make up for everything else. So, I like
music that is unpredictable, and exciting, but not random. One of the things I heard that I really
liked, sort of a way I work when composing, is you can do anything you want as long as there’s
some kind of logic to it. And that logic may not be immediately apparent to everyone else, but if
it exists, and it’s real, it’ll make sense on some level...

In other words, the unconscious will pick up on that, and somehow pull someone into that

Yeah. And that element is what’s the difference between throwing a bunch of random notes
together, like a computer could do, and as a human, bringing my entire life, human experience,
all the music I’ve ever listened to... that’s something that can never be replaced. If you’re really
taking advantage of all that to create music, you can’t help but create something that is new, is
worthwhile, has something to say, and is worth someone’s time. Cause there’s not that much
time in the world, or in life, and there’s a lot of things that can go in your ears. So if someone’s
gonna take the time to listen to what I make, I want them to get something out of it. Out of the
stuff we all make. How’s that?

That’s good. I applaud you, sir. All right, Oliver? You have something to add to that?

Musical ethos. For me, it’s all about the visceral reaction that you get from the music. In general,
I’m one who feels things in intense ways, and it’s always a big rush of feelings when I feel
things, so it’s important for me to find and make music that creates a full emotional experience.
Without anything padding it or making it more easy. I want it to be as intense... like if something
is uncomfortable, I want it to put you on the edge of your seat, and if it’s blissful, I want you to
feel amazing... I don’t like dialing things back too much. I like to amp things up when it comes to
the message and the narrative of the song. At the same time I like to find ways to reconfigure
things to sort of subtly take parts of things that you might not necessarily be actively listening to,
and just make it so that there’s something you might notice after you listen to something five or
six times. Because it’s always, my favorite albums you can listen to over and over, and there’s
always something you didn’t realize was there. You enjoyed it, you appreciated it, without even
realizing that it existed. And I like to put things like that into songs, because that’s what I love so
much about music. As a bass player, I try to task myself with just reinforcing everything, but also
reframing the things that are presented to me as a bass player. Like, you have this chord
progression, what if I incorporate that chord progression into a different rhythmic structure.
Rhythmic counterpoint, and all these different things, I like to just mess around with it until I can
find a way to really make it pop. That’s what I really like in the composition process with this
band specifically. It’s a little different when I’m writing my own songs, just because it’s different
when you’re generating the source material. As somebody who is a co-writer in this band, that’s
kind of the role I take. I really like to be able to do that with this band because the source
material that’s presented to me is very interesting, and there’s a lot of cool things I feel like I can
do with it, and I feel like I have a unique opportunity to let that aspect of my musical
understanding shine as a bass player. In most bands you wouldn’t be able to do that.

Yeah, excellent. In the interest of time let’s turn to the final question. Thank you guys again for
talking to us.

So, musical ethos, huh? I guess the way I’ve always felt about music is that it’s essentially an
immersive experience. It’s not like art where you have to look at it in order to experience it, it
surrounds you. And it’s not like a movie where it plays out over time, and you have to just sit
there and exist, motionless, while you experience that time going by. Music is sort of a way to
tell a story and to build a world, you can actually as a listener kind of walk around in and inhabit.
You can find different parts of it, nooks and crannies of it, in your own way, you can find your
own perspectives on it. For me, the best music is the sort of music that actually understands
that potential that music can have, and sets out to build a world, that it’s not just about sounding
good or using some specific melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic device. It’s about creating a world,
capturing a time in the composer’s life, or creating a hypothetical alternate reality... There’s all
kinds of ways to go about it. But for myself, I’m a very confused person, I’m not somebody who
has a lot of strong beliefs or opinions. I’m more interested in questions than I am answers. So in
my music, I really am trying to create things that make other people feel that sense of, er,
“confusioning...” So there’s all kinds of ways to do that, and a lot of them involve subverting
expectations, or creating things that are difficult to follow, or taking things in unusual directions.
But there’s other ways to do it too. Like I’ve written a lot of just straight pop music, stuff that’s
very basic, four chord, straight ahead rock and roll in 4/4. But it inhabits this larger context of
this world... Like this restaurant! This is a microcosm of my entire musical philosophy,

I’ve written 48, or something, albums, of which many are available online. And it’s part of this
world that I’ve been trying to build. That I hope somebody will be interested enough to kinda
wander in and walk around in it. But how that translates to the Mercury Tree is a whole story
that I’m trying to figure out myself. Because this band existed before I came along to it. So in a
way the band itself is a world that I’m coming into and trying to inhabit. And of course I’m as
confused as I ever am, poking and prodding here trying to figure out the logic and the direction,
which way is north, and that kind of stuff. But it’s been a really fascinating experience to
immerse myself in the discography, and get to know the guys and what their philosophies are,
get to learn their musical tastes. Like I have literally not played any music on the drive for this
tour so far, because I’m mostly curious about what everybody else wants to listen to, and this
helps me learn about them as human beings. This interview is great, because I haven’t gotten to
hear anybody get to talk about this deep level musical philosophy stuff.

All right, you’re welcome!

Well I want to mention if I can, that I have been an Igliashon Jones fanboy for several years,
and I’ve played Chains of Smoke for many people, and listened to as many of your albums as I
could. So even when I was too intimidated to contact you directly, I felt like i was already
exploring your world and being influenced by it. So by the time you did start working with us, I
felt like some of your ethos, however you define it, had already been filtered into us, or into me,
and then to everybody else. I felt like it was very different, yet compatible, with us, which is why I
got so excited about the prospect of working together.

That is something we all share, that our approach to the technical aspects of music is not driven
by this need to be like, the fastest or the craziest or the most polished or precise or whatever...
but we all have these very visceral attachments to these strange musical structures, and so we
are very detail-oriented... like you should see us in the studio, like “I think that one note was
rushed a little bit, you need to go back and take that over...” but we’re not trying to break the
world speed record for Pagnini’s Fifth Caprece or something like that. None of us are interested
in that kind of stuff to my knowledge.

Isn’t that a Ron Sword thing, he mentions teaching kids some Pagnini piece...

That’s actually from my roommate in college, but I guess it’s a common piece... But anyway we
play technical weird music because we like it, not because we all went to professional music
schools and spent six hours a day practicing our scales and whatnot. So I think we’re not taking
an academic approach, even though we’re using things that people consider very academic.

Often if you spend six hours a day practicing scales, you go to play and what comes out is...
scales! I don’t need to hear a friggin’ scale. I want to hear music.

Really? Cause for me, it’s like 24/7 scales. I just like scales. I have this whole rack of CDs,
where it’s like Scales Vol. 1, and I put it on and I walk around the house...

“Now That’s What I Call Scales... volume 16...”

I love to just listen to like an hour of just random rudiments.

Ooh. All perididdles, all the time...

I like Jaco Pastorius.

I’m getting through, I’ve now reached Scales Vol. 53, so I’m gonna keep going...

There’s some hot scales in that one.

Is that prime??

Prime number-itis!

And he brings it back around.

Part of prime-itis is knowing immediately when a number is prime.

What’s the highest prime number you can name off the top of your head?

I’ve memorized all the primes up to 109, so...

There you go. That’s higher than I went.

Anyway this has been a fascinating conversation. I think I’ll make part 2 another time...