Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mercury Dime interview, 1997

Mercury Dime: From Faith To Darkling
written and photographed by Daniel Coston
Originally published in Tangents Magazine, fall 1997

"Hey, check this out," Cliff Retallick calls to me from across the room. He and the rest of Mercury Dime are setting up for practice, but Retallick, the band’s lead singer and keyboardist, can’t resist playing Darkling, the band’s phenomenal second album. The band has only had the completed CD for a couple of days, and their excitement is nearly uncontainable.

As Darkling’s sparkling first track, "The Virgin Of The Road," comes through the speakers, Retallick moves and air-guitars along with the song, acting out its every layer and nuance. As you watch him, you might even think that he is not even listening to his own record, but that special record in our collection that we all have. That album that completely envelops our senses and emotions, and changes the way we think about music and ourselves.

For others, Darkling might just become that album. Mixing elements of rock and country into a menagerie of other influences and ideas, Mercury Dime has made an album that possesses many strong musical echoes from the past forty years, and in turn produced an alchemic sound that is their own.

"Chris Stamey [former member of the dbs, who also mastered Darkling] said something to the effect of, ‘When I heard the record for the first time, I knew what it must have been like for the Wright Brothers when they first flew at Kitty Hawk,’" says Retallick.

From the gospel-inspired background vocals (provided by Charlottean Daryle Ryce) on "Peace Comes Dropping Slow," to the chamberlin strings that embrace "Lighthouse On Driftwood," each song seems to possess its own distinctive voice and character.

Another key voice in Darkling’s chorus is the work of producer extraordinare Mitch Easter, with whom the band recorded the album over several days late last year. "He was somebody that we’d always wanted to work with," says Retallick. "Years ago, I sent him our first demo, and I would invite him out to our shows." Easter eventually mixed five songs on the band’s debut album, Baffled Ghosts, in 1996.

"He basically cut all of the rhythm tracks live," says Retallick. "We’d cut the rhythm tracks, and then I would cut the vocal track to the song right after that. It’s got a real live feel to it, unlike a lot of records these days, which have a piecemeal click-track feel.

"Everyone had written their own part and gotten their parts [to sound] they wanted on stage, so everybody knew what they were doing by the time we got in the studio."

"They were really well-organized," adds Easter, speaking from his home in Kernersville, NC. "Although we had to make this record relatively fast, its quality was not compromised. They came in and nailed the essence of their music."

However, before the band could begin recording the album, they had to wait two additional weeks while Easter finished other projects. During that time, Retallick presented five new songs to the band, all of which found their way onto Darkling.

"There’s a strange cycle we have that revolves around five songs," says guitarist Alan Wyrick. "Before we did Baffled Ghosts, Cliff brought in five new songs. And the same thing happened right before Darkling."

However, the inclusion of the new songs worked to the band’s advantage. "When you’re working songs up, there’s a peak performance that you never really get to again," says Retallick. "And it comes fairly soon. I think that the performance of those five songs peaked as we were recording them. That’s why those songs, and this album, are so alive. That’s a rare thing. You couldn’t engineer it if you wanted to."

Darkling also explores territory that goes far beyond the band’s rock and country roots, as well as the "alt-country" label that the band dislikes. "That used to work to our advantage, but now it’s like we’re paddocked in it, or shackled," says Retallick.

"I don’t want people to not listen to [Darkling] because it’s associated with country, or Garth Brooks, or something else."

One reason that Easter sites as a source from the band’s willingness to explore different sounds is their hometown of Faith, NC, a rural area just East of Salisbury. It was in Faith that Retallick, steel guitarist Darryl Jones and bassist Eric Webster first formed what eventually became Mercury Dime in 1991, and where the band still lives today.

"Unlike other bands, they didn’t start as part of a larger scene, where a lot of bands tend to sound like each other," says Easter. "They kind of invented their own scene. I can’t think of any other band that sounds like them around here, or anywhere, for that matter," says Easter.

"For me, this album harkens back to an earlier time when record companies didn’t worry about labeling the music," adds Easter. They just cared about making great music. The album sounds very familiar, in that respect. It’s very organic, and real."

The band has also found a strong ally in Tor Hansen, who runs the Chapel Hill-based independent label Yep Roc Records, which is distributing Darkling. "I feel safe and comfortable with Tor," says Jones. "Nobody’s going to push us around or tell us what to do."

"What people don’t know about all those bands that are getting a lot of money [from major labels], is that they owe all that money back to that stupid-ass record company," adds Retallick. "You’re always paying to play, and I want to circumvent getting into debt as much as humanly possible."

For Mercury Dime, the future is now ripe with possibilities and potential. But for now, the band is proud to just have Darkling within their grasp. "We paid our dues to get this record made," says Retallick. "No one can ever take this album away from us."

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