January 1, 2009

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King of pain
Mercuryhat singer mines personal turmoil
By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

Though he creates catchy, upbeat songs in the alt-rock and pop vein, Mercuryhat singer Eric Ott prefers to keep his music solidly on the darker side of life.

“I’ve had people come up and say that I must be a fan of Barenaked Ladies because of our sound, but it’s way too happy for me. I’m not a fan of happy music.”

Though the subject matter of the Seacoast-based group’s songs is distinctly downbeat, it gives Ott a chance to explore his own experiences with loss, and through that, for listeners to explore their own demons. Mercuryhat released their new album, Blinding Blues and Stinging Bees, in November 2008, and though it is the third release for the band, it is also perhaps their most darkly personal work, mining the untimely loss of Ott’s brother and the breakup of his 15-year marriage.

“The songs that were written after these things, and even the ones written before that, all have the same shallow, empty feeling to them,” Ott said. “I think the ones I wrote before my marriage ended were subconsciously telling me that my relationship was at its end, but I never came to the realization until the recording of the album. Every song is very personal and autobiographical. It was cathartic to write this.”

Formed back in 2001, Mercuryhat consists of Ott on vocals and guitar, guitarist Mark Edgerly, drummer Steve Jacques, keyboardist Tom Ferry and bassist Chris Shaw. With Ott’s vocals containing traces of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, and the band’s sound mirroring groups like The Jayhawks, Wilco, Son Volt and even ’80s groups like The Plimsouls and The Rave-Ups, Mercuryhat’s sound reflects Ott’s early influences.

“As a kid in the ’70s, I was always listening to the radio — people like Warren Zevon and the Eagles,” Ott said. “In the ’80s, it was Rush, Yes, and then I was turned on to R.E.M. and The Cure. After that, I really started getting into the college alternative bands, liking stuff because I liked it, not because my friends did. I used to work as a private investigator, so I spent a lot of time in my car listening to music. It was then that I discovered bands like Wilco and Uncle Tupelo, really diving into the alt-country genre.”

Ott’s songs are a mix of what he calls “cowboy chords” and darkly edged lyrics, designed not merely to vent his own personal turmoil but to express the struggles of everybody.

“People tend to like songs that are personal because they can relate to them,” Ott said. “There’s at least one song on this album that someone will be able to relate to. It may bother me to talk about some of this stuff, but I think everyone can learn from it, can share in the feeling of it. When I went to a psychiatrist after the breakup of my marriage, he was essentially just validating my feelings, and I think these songs can do the same for others.”

Though many bands sing sad songs to sad tunes, Mercuryhat takes a different route with their pop-laced sounds.

“It’s easier to deliver a sad song this way,” Ott said. “It’s not making light of it, it’s just the way it comes out. It makes it less of a bitter pill to swallow.”

Ott wants the music of Mercuryhat to constantly evolve.

“I really want to push the envelope, like bands like Radiohead and Wilco do,” Ott said. “I like being all over the place, but it’s a different playing field now with music. With iTunes, you can pick and choose, and that kind of makes me sad because I’m an album person, and now producers and execs seem to just be tailoring to target audiences.”

With the New Hampshire music scene, Ott sees the seeds of a musical revolution being sown.

“I’ve seen a lot of recycled bands,” Ott said. “I’m from one of them myself in the early ’90s, when people were calling Portsmouth the next Seattle. But now I think this is a new era for music here, with some amazing acts coming out of this area.”

Now at the beginning of a new year, Ott’s focus remains on the band he loves and crafting songs both painful and honest out of loss.

“I read an interview with Sting a while back, talking with him about the Synchronicity song, ‘King of Pain,’ which was The Police’s last album before they broke up,” Ott said. “He said that turmoil was great for writing. I feel like I’d be lying to myself and the audience if I wrote about things I have no clue about. But saying that, I’d rather not have a good song than to lose somebody.”