Seemingly out of nowhere Mercury Boys arrived on the scene. Early May the Dutch-German foursome dropped ‘Apollo Phoenix Rising’, a track that was immediately picked up on by JJ from The Obelisk, with Walter Roadburn premiering the second track on the Roadburn website. And that was probably not even a surprise considering they ticked all the boxes for: heavy 70ies rock, Blue Cheer feel, MC5 (covering ‘The American Ruse’), all-out rawkness and Guy Tavares recording it. Hell, The Hague Motorwolf and acid legend Tavares is even on it! The vocalist is accompanied by Janik Ruß on guitar and Christian Dräger on drums (both from German blues punks Ragged Barracudas) and fellow-townsman Timothy Aarbodem of Supersonic Blues (and OZMA) fame on bass and guitar.
Their debut EP Return To Cinders is out today on Who Can You Trust? Records, which is (conveniently) run by Dräger. Anxious to learn more about the story behind this remarkable border-crossing project, NMTH got in touch with Timothy Aarbodem and Christian Dräger. We somehow managed to timewarp from the age of corona to the age of Mercury Boys and to learn all we could about this gathering of kindred spirits, the legacy of Orange Sunshine and why the debut is dedicated to OS-guitarist Arthur van Berkel, who passed away June 2018.
By Ingmar Griffioen
So, how did this international band of gypsys get together?
Timothy: “We met way back in 2017, when Chris released our first Supersonic Blues 7″single, which we recorded with Guy as well. Chris found us via Guy I guess.”
Christian: “Yeah, he told me about ‘the new Orange Sunshine’ and in 2016 had already sent me a demo of the freshly recorded tracks.”
Timothy: “Most of their releases are joint collaborations where both partners exchange ideas naturally.”
Christian: “That’s the core idea of the label: to bring people together and work something out. Not just: ‘send me your music and your artwork, and I will put it out and sell it’. It has to be a collaborative effort.”
Christian, you run the label actually?
“Yes, I have been running it for 10 years now. In April it was our 10 year ‘anniversary’, if you can call it that. I am happy this record came out that I am part of, not just releasing it.”
Timothy: “What first attracted us was that we really, really like the bands you already released. It is great to be on the same label. I guess you started out by releasing cassettes?”
Christian: “Yes indeed. In 2009 I went to the Orange Sunshine & Dzjenghis Khan tour. I talked to Guy and the Khan guys about releasing a tape of some unreleased live show recordings and both were into it. It was decided to put out the Roadburn 2007 performance of Orange Sunshine. Unfortunately it took a bit longer so we did some other releases first. Otherwise I would be able to say that ten years later I did an album with Guy. But it became catalog number 3 and we’ve been in contact ever since.”
“A couple years later I asked Guy if I could record in his studio with my band Ragged Barracudas. He actually didn’t do much recording at the time, I think Santa Cruz was the last one he did and then he rearranged his studio. So it took some time. But from there on we’ve been regular visitors every second year.”
The Mercury Boys EP was recorded in 2018 already. Why is it coming out now?
Christian: “Partly because I had other releases lined up, that had to come out earlier. Also because I was tweaking the album artwork and imagery a couple of times, I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to get it out of my head, and to see if it would stand the test of time. And it did. Then the pressing took another half a year.”
Timothy: “There was actually a lot of care for the whole package. The artwork is done by Adam Burke from a band called Pushy from Portland. We asked him to do the artwork for the album cover and he made portraits of us four, which you can find on the back sleeve.”
Ah yes, it looks really good. Instant classic, your faces could be up in the rocks on a mountain top.
Timothy: “Like Deep Purple, yeah. I also saw a Rainbow record with Ritchie Blackmore and these faces…”
Christian adds: “That’s the Long Live Rock ’n Roll album. Definitely a classic.”
Timothy: “There wasn’t any pressure for this record. Maybe, I have to admit, I was a little hesitant at first whether I would like to join this studio project. Because at the beginning it was a bit more loose, not really defined what we would do. But as we started to send music back and forth it really began to take shape. Because Chris and Janik could rehearse together in their hometown and I also sent them one or two riffs and they built on that. It was an exchange by e-mail and such. We also decided to do one cover of MC5, ‘The American Ruse’ is a favourite for all of us. I also knew it is one of Guy’s favourite MC5 tracks.”
Christian: “After a couple of takes we decided to take this version that is just a lot slower and more heavy than the original.”
Timothy: “The three original songs were recorded pretty quick, in two or maybe three takes. It was actually when we first met in the studio, I had just rehearsed at home – unfortunately I broke my leg around that time, but I had lots of time on my hands. So I was trying to figure out some interesting bass parts, because I am a guitar player first and not really a bass player. So that was interesting as well. It’s not that I was exactly nervous, but still… you don’t know how it will turn out in the end. But when we started to play these songs, there was this good energy in the studio and a real connection! It actually turned out way better than I expected, so I am really proud of it.”
Christian: “Once you have that idea that you can manage something like that just by sending e-mails and you meet in person again, you still have to see if those ideas really lock into a groove as a group. And we just played it, we had those tapes pretty quick and could use the rest of the time… I think it took like 11 hours to just find the right lead guitar sound. Since Tim had to sit down most of the time, we had to put all those cabinets and amplifiers into this one little recording room, and all the walls were covered with cabinets and amplifiers on top. We had to switch from one tower to the other and afterwards nobody knew which was the sound we preferred the most, which connection we decided on… Finally, in the middle of the night the right guitar sound was chosen and we started to record the overdubs.”
Timothy: “I think I did the lead bits in like 2 hours. That is, when everything was set after a whole day of testing the right amps and cabinets. We did the four tracks in two days. Guy and Christian had some ideas about the lyrics, like a theme for the EP. Guy wrote the lyrics to fit his style. It has to sink in with him, but once he’s got it he really goes for it and records it in one night.”
What was the theme you thought about Chris?
“That whole theme is present in the artwork and the lyrics, it’s basically that old story about birth and death. Nothing goes without the other. When something is gone, that is the seed for something new. The cover art is like a basic representation of that, it’s a continuous story in those tracks. There are two originals with lyrics and one instrumental part, that is like the calm before the storm. Take ‘Apollo Phoenix Rising’ for example, with the line ‘PLEASE – BURN – ME!’. The song starts with imploring the heavens to have man burned by the Sun God’s Love, his Light, Fire, etc., so the man could be reborn, rise from his ashes, thus granting eternal life through the eternal recycling of Life and Death. Man actually gotta keep hoping anyway, gotta keep believing against all odds, for otherwise Man has no reason to live, and most of all, no survival chance at all to exist in the first place, hence ending the song by imploring the heavens again.
Btw: ‘Apollo’ means in very ancient Greek: ‘Total Destroyer’! for the Sun may guarantee Life on Earth, but is surely also it’s greatest potential threat.”
Right on. The EP is dedicated to the memory of Arthur van Berkel, legendary guitarist of Orange Sunshine who passed away just two years ago. Timothy can you shed some light on that?
- “When I was just 18 I saw Guy, Arthur, Dorien, Selwyn (ex-Monomyth, now OZMA, IG.) and Bart (ex-Monomyth, now The Howl Ensemble, OZMA, IG.) perform for the first time as Santa Cruz. I didn’t know them at first, I was just tagging along as sound guy. They played TodaysArt festival here in The Hague, in the then Club 7 which was actually a trendy club. Selwyn and Bart also performed as Lucid. That night has been really life-changing for me. I was overwhelmed by it all. It offered me a new perspective and alternative, looking at these guys who were just making music without compromises. Santa Cruz especially was like a firm beating. I was also impressed by this wall of old amps.
- “That’s how I got in touch with them. As a 18-year-old squirt I went with my dad to Guy to buy a speaker cabinet and thereby ended up in a previously unknown underground scene. Guy also organised shows in Dystopia, in the same old school building where his studio is. The first time I attended had an immediate impact: Lecherous Gaze and Danava played. I also asked Guy whether I could come along as a roadie of sorts, first with Santa Cruz, and then with Orange Sunshine when they started playing again. I still regularly try to explain what the thing with Orange Sunshine is, why it means so much to us: Look, they might not be the most technical, theoretically trained kind of musicians, not at all, but it is one of those bands where 1+1+1=4. Together they could go far beyond their individual skills.
- “Especially Guy and Arthur had some magic connection going on. Off stage Arthur was this kind-hearted, thoughtful, sometimes even insecure person, but on stage… They played a legendary show at Speedfest, one of the first since they started again, and he would ask: ‘Are all these people really coming to see us?’ The Dwarves were also playing Speedfest, at the exact same time, and their bassist – who was a huge OS fan – was really disappointed he couldn’t see them. But Orange Sunshine played so loud he could hear them in the other hall! It was one of those times where Arthur had a problem with his amp, I think it was down to a wrong cable, so he had to turn it up continuously. During the last song a speaker caught fire and this thick black smoke rose from the stage. Like it was meant to be.
- Unfortunately Arthur didn’t have any luck with his health. He died in June 2018, at only 47 years old. That had a huge impact on everyone.”
So it was kind of obvious this first EP would be dedicated to Arthur?
“Yes. Arthur was first struck with Crohn’s disease, which prooved a major setback. But after a while they started playing again, albeit very cautious, and totally focussed on Arthur’s health situation. After a few years he developed leukemia and the ‘recovery’ lasted for a year. But afterwards his body was broken down. We recorded this EP in January and he died in June the same year. So Chris immediately said: ‘This record is for Arthur’. Everybody was completely cut up and devastated by his passing. And still… He left behind a girfriend and a son.”
About Orange Sunshine: it seems there is still some of that vibe around in The Hague.
Timothy: “Well… I know that Walter Roadburn and Scott Heller (Dr. Space) were really glad to see that ‘Guy was at it again’. Supersonic Blues is certainly no Orange Sunshine, even though Guy sometimes says ‘This is het new OS’ about. Ha ha. When I play, I always try to capture some of that spirit in the solo’s. I think that everybody who saw Orange Sunshine for the first time is greatly impressed. If they had a good show, it was truly magical. It was really like stepping into a time machine. This is arguably their best recorded performance in terms of image and sound quality:”
Let’s move back to Mercury Boys: I was wondering about the title Return To Cinders. Had to look ‘cinders’ up and it means something like ‘a piece of burnt choal or wood’. Is that what we see in the scorching part of the artwork?
Christian: “It is. We had the idea of a little nameplay like taking the title of the famous Elvis song ‘Return To Sender’. ‘Return To Cinders’ sounds the same, but actually only one person until now has asked us if it is a reference to Elvis. It is also present in the cover art, through that man on the front that has got ash running from his hands.”
Guy Tavares’ studio still carries this legendary status. Can you put it into words Chris? Is there some magic to it, or is it all just myth?
“I would say that most of the myth is true and I wouldn’t want to ruin any of the magic. You can hear it in the music: there is something in his recordings that nobody else can transport. That is if you talk about his production work, like a fingerprint. It wouldn’t be possible to capture any magic in the studio if it would only come from the machines, it is also the surrounding area that influences you and has a certain effect on the musicians and everyone involved. When I listen to music that is recorded in his studio I always have pictures of the surroundings in my head and pick up on a kind of class and mood that the music conveys.”
So the EP is out through Who Can You Trust? Records and best ordered via the webshop. Alternatively; stream the whole raw and groovy affair on Bandcamp: