We Have Liftoff
Tom Reno is laughing in the face of music journalism. Hapless scribes try to describe the music he makes with his band, the Mercury Program, and none of them is getting it right. Reno may not have a pat answer when it comes to name-tagging the Gainesville band he's captained since 1997, but he is adamant about what the Mercury Program is not.
The term postrock or math-rock would seem to be as accurate a handle as any after a brief encounter with All the Suits Began to Fall Off, the band's newest record. Completely instrumental, the songs are complex, jazzy, and intricate, with layers of multitracked guitars, vibraphones, cellos, and electric keyboards. But Reno won't hear of it.
"Math-rock I think is kind of silly," he says during a break from his job printing T-shirts in Gainesville. "We usually laugh at that one, because nobody's counting anything -- it's not like we're counting in our heads when we play. Anytime you move outside the realm of straight 4/4 time, people think it's more complicated than it really is. Maybe they think we know too much about music and it shows."
Actually the time signature most frequently encountered in the Mercury Program's music is 3/4: swing time. But busy arrangements and aloof, all-instrumental density give the songs an unmistakable cerebral air. They sound smart, and so does Reno, but he says it's by accident.
"We just write music, and that's what happens," he insists. "We try not to seem overly technical. We're just playing." But the sound of All the Suits Began to Fall Off does not sound like the four twentysomethings just turned up for an informal jam session. The songs are too formal, carefully measured, with each instrument doled out with precision, each section studiously composed. Again Reno claims innocence.
"We groove together, for lack of a better term, in this way," he says simply.
Perhaps that's why the band can't help but sound brainy. Percussionist Dave Lebleu majored in music in college, infecting his bandmates-to-be with the adventurous works of Steve Reich and John Cage. Reno and Lebleu met up with bassist Sander Travisano while growing up in Stuart, where the three began creating their clever-sounding formula.
"We were always in and out of the most solid bands in town," he relates. "We were lucky there were four people in such a little small town that even knew of the same type of music, let alone wanted to play it."
But greener grass -- in this case Gainesville's -- called the quartet. "It has a lot more happening for people in their early twenties," Reno says. After tiring of the three-and-a-half-hour commute between the two towns, the band relocated to the collegiate city. The Mercury Program's initial offerings were seven-inch singles; the group finally released an album in 1998 on Boxcar Records. Central Florida shows provided enough interest to land the group its first East Coast tour. Late the following year, the band added Sander's brother, keyboardist Whit Travisano, and signed to the New York indie label Tiger Style Records.
The addition of Whit Travisano introduced a new dimension and brought electric pianos and vibraphones to the fore. Reno wasn't surprised when fans and rock writers alike began drawing connections to Tortoise, the Chicago postrock outfit that basically created the template for jazzy, complicated music -- and also prominently features vibes. With the imminent issue of the all-instrumental All the Suits, that comparison is certain to be overused. As it stands Reno says that nearly every review of From the Vapor of Gasoline, the band's previous album, referenced Tortoise.
"It's laziness," he claims. "It looks cool for young writers to say "Tortoise.' They're dying to use it. Our typical statement to that is that we don't wish that we sounded like Tortoise. If playing vibes makes you sound like Tortoise," he huffs, "then going into a garage must make you sound like a car."
Noting that other bands using a similar palette -- Macha, American Analog Set, and Japancakes, to name a few -- are hardly ever mentioned in the same breath as the Mercury Program, Reno wonders if a conspiracy is afoot: "Maybe it's just lazy journalism. There's an epidemic right now."
Truth be told, though, All the Suits will garner turtlelike comments from any savvy listener -- the similarities are just too great to ignore. Add to that the fact that the song "There Are Thousands Sleeping in Peace" echoes Tortoise's Millions Now Living Will Never Die more than just titularly, and such comparisons become inevitable.
"It does make us think and re-evaluate the music," Reno says of the incessant reptilian parallels. "If everyone who hears it thinks that, then maybe they're hearing something you're not." And he adds that he's slightly jealous that the Tortoise similarities haven't added up to the critical notoriety the Chicago band enjoys.
Reno also points to the fact that the Mercury Program is not, by definition, an instrumental outfit. In fact several of the tunes on All the Suits began life with Reno's whispery singing. "But after a while we said, "We're really forcing these vocals to be in here -- they don't really need to be.' But it was scary to leave them off, since a lot of people need vocals or they can't relate to the music. There's nothing else for them then. They can't latch on to the lyrics."
However, All the Suits' compositions don't sound half-finished or naked without Reno's voice. Actually the fact that his singing is missing is not even immediately obvious. The leadoff track, "The Secret to Quiet," repeats a circular vibes/Rhodes phrase that's joined by Reno's pinprick guitar figure. As that pattern is repeated, it become twisted and inverted, while Sander Travisano's intricate drumming stays in perfect alignment. "Marianas" also begins slowly, with different vibraphone lines finally converging into a melodic swell that's joined by Reno's stinging notes. "A Delicate Answer" sustains itself for almost nine minutes by carefully compartmentalizing and slowly doling out each instrument, letting random empty spaces gradually tint the near-ambient flow.
"We all listened to jazz or classical music growing up, which had no vocals," says Reno. "So it was easy for us as a band to transition there. But that's not to say we've gone and turned into an instrumental band. We know we'll have vocals again!"
Reno's pre-Mercury Program project, Yusef's Well, maintained a South Florida connection, releasing a single on Miami's Space Cadette Records and maintaining ties with Al Galvez from A Kite Is a Victim and Juan Montoya of Disconnect. Reno recalls memorable performances at Cheers and Churchill's.
"But Florida is not known for this kind of music," he says. "People are surprised that we're from Gainesville. They think everyone from Gainesville should sound like Sister Hazel or Hot Water Music or Less Than Jake. But Gainesville has a lot more than that, and so does Florida. Of course the state is known for pumping out crappy pop music. And that's an inaccurate representation of what's happening here."
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