Summertime Sips and Summertime Sounds: Mercury Girls

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It’s been a brutal summer this year, the type of brutal that makes me wanna curl up on the couch in the air conditioning with my cat and watch re-runs while sipping a (whiskey) lemonade. (Some call it the dog days of summer, I call it the cat days). One thing that’s been helping me survive? Making playlists of my favorite songs, just like I did back in high school, when summers were alll about cruising through in town my ‘93 Taurus, windows down and cool jams on the tape deck. (Some of my friends had CD players, but I kept it old skool).

Philly five piece Mercury Girls are essential mix-tape material. The band burst onto the scene just 2 years ago, but has already morphed into one of the city’s brightest up-and-comers, thanks to a sparkling mix of warm vocals, playful guitars, and plenty of fuzz—earning props from everyone from Brooklyn Vegan to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s Kip Berman, and sharing stages with Fear of Men, Beverly, and Allo Darlin’ (during Pop Fest ‘16). Earlier this year, their 7” “Ariana”/”All That Heaven Allows” dropped on Slumberland Records; later this fall, they will hit the road with Balance and Composure for a North American tour.

The indie pop band is driven by nostalgia, writing tunes that reference past dramas with a wistful sigh and knowing nod. Singer Sarah Schimeneck (Pet Milk) calls it music for the fall and explains that autumn makes her feel nostalgic—back-to-school sales and early sunsets reminding her of her own days as a student. For me though, nostalgia hits hardest in the summer, the endless nights conjuring memories of days without school, when the Taurus and the tape deck were my only agenda, and passing curfew my only test.

Schimeneck too drove a ‘93 Taurus, and though we lived in different suburbs, it’s cool to find out we shared many of the same experiences, from trying not to get grounded to accidentally getting into accidents while driving to a rock show. I meet Schimeneck, plus the band’s two Kevin’s—Attics (Literature) and O’Halloran (Little Big League)—at the El Bar, where we talk mischief and wild nights (bassist Andrew Hagiwara and drummer Chris Schackerman are unavailable). Over the course of the interview, many gin and tonics are consumed, and after a round or two we don’t even notice that everything in the bar smells, a product of high humidity on 90-degree nights. Read on to hear about Schimeneck’s quest for Savage Garden, that time Attics snuck out of the house to interview Explosions in the Sky, and why O’Halloran once ran for his life from a New Pornographers show.

The Key: We’re ⅔ of the way through summer. What is one thing you have been meaning to do this summer that you haven’t done yet?

Kevin Attics: There’s this drive-in outside of Philly that does horror movie sleepovers. I’ve been meaning to go all summer, but I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had a chance. Next weekend though I’m going to drive out there and camp, and watch all of the Friday the 13th movies back-to-back for 2 days straight.

Sarah Schimeneck: I guess I’d like to go home and visit my mom. She lives in the country, in an old house built in the 1700’s. It’s like in the middle of a cornfield, with fire pits all around, and an old water pump you need to hand-crank. I bring my dogs, and it’s so relaxing and vacation-y there.

Kevin O’Halloran: I haven’t had one of those stupid summer nights yet this year—you know, one of those nights where you’re outside all night and just get way too drunk, and maybe set things on fire. This year has been tame—even 4th of July this year I stayed in. I’m hoping I’ll have at least one of those nights before the summer is over.

TK: What’s your favorite musical memory from summers in Philadelphia?

SS: I remember when I was 14 and got to play last at my piano rehearsal. It was the first time where I was the best one. Of course, I was also definitely the oldest, nerdiest one, and not the coolest one by any means, but I felt cool, playing last. I played some DeBussy. The piano hall was this giant, echo-y place with great acoustics.

KO: For me, my favorite memories were going to shows in the summer and just being so hot and sweaty. I remember in particular the Cap’n Jazz reunion—I think in summer 2010 or 2011. I remember standing outside the Starlight Ballroom waiting in line: I was sunburned and miserable and going into a 150-degree room packed with other sweaty people—but at the same time everyone had so much energy.

Hanging with Mercury Girls at El Bar | Photo via BookishKate's Instagram
Hanging with Mercury Girls at El Bar | Photo via BookishKate’s Instagram

TK: I definitely remember shows like that at the Church, where you’re just dripping sweat, and the floor is sopping wet—

KO: Yes! I remember seeing Lifetime at the Church and it was super hot like that…

SS: I remember driving in my ‘93 Taurus from the Lehigh Valley to see Atom and His Package play, and it was really hot. And the air conditioning didn’t work, the windows were down, and we were all like, “Oh my god, we’re doing to die.”  And we ended up getting stuck in traffic and the engine overheated. We tried turning on the heat to cool down the engine, but it was already a million degrees out so we were just so hot and sweaty. By the time we arrived, the car was completely fucked and wouldn’t go anywhere, so we just abandoned it in a parking lot and went to the show. We were young, and weren’t really thinking about the consequences. Then after the show we ended up getting it to a gas station and convinced some guy wearing a Fix it shirt to take a look. He fixed it with zip-ties…

[General discussion breaks about vehicles overheating in the summer; O’Halloran recollects a tour van without AC, and Attics tells about zooming down a mountain in British Columbia while on tour with Literature. The boys caution “Never travel without zip ties”].

KA: It got so bad [on tour with Literature] that we got to the point where we literally could not stop the van because we were afraid it wouldn’t start again. So for like 4 days straight, we made sure someone was driving at all times: we would roll through gas stations without stopping the car. There were be plumes of smoke coming out of the hood, and like, demon faces in the smoke…  We finally parked it outside the drummer’s house, and it never turned on again.

TK: What music do you associate with summer?

SS: I like to listen to Joanna Newsom in the summer, and Bjork in the winter. Religiously.

KA: Even As We Speak, The Go-Betweens, The Millennium, Begin, The Beach Boys, The Chills, XTC—I feel like summer is so short and there is so little time but so much I want to listen to. Yesterday I heard this song by Andy Shauf—he had a new record come out this year, and I was listening to it all the way through, and this one song just stopped me in my tracks. It hit me really hard—I listened to it like 5 times in a row.

KO: [Like Sarah], I tend to obsess over one thing in the summer and just listen to it over and over again. This summer it’s been basically just Big Star and the Silver Jews. I’m like a serial monogamist—every band I love I have listened to obsessively at some point. .

SS: I’m the same way—it’s like when you finally listen to something that makes you feel something, you want to listen to it again and again and just squeeze everything you can out of it. It’s nice to repeat though, to revisit back through the years. If there is something that was an old favorite, listening to it again is like a form of time travel.

TK: Listening to Mercury Girls reminds me of a lot of the punk and emo bands I used to listen to growing up, and most of the time when I was listening to that music I was misbehavingmissing curfew, smoking in a parking lot somewhere, etc. What were some of the ways you got into trouble in the summer?

KA: When I was in high school, I got a gig writing for Pitchfork—around 2001, 2002’ish. I remember sending them a review I wrote and they hired me—I think they thought I was much older than I was. It was kinda an Almost Famous situation. I could barely drive, and I would be sent out on assignment to see a show, or go interview Explosions in the Sky. Technically I didn’t even have permission to leave the house.

KO: The summer after I graduated high school I remember the New Pornographers were playing a free show in Brooklyn at Prospect Park, and I had made plans to go meet my future college roommate there. I actually never ended up seeing the band—I took the train in from my parent’s house with a Poland Spring bottle full of vodka, and by the time I arrived I was already super drunk. I remember wandering through the crowd desperately trying to find my roommate, who I had never met before—and I was like “Oh man, I shouldn’t have gotten so drunk, this kid is going to hate me.” Then all of a sudden I see this super doofy kid who is just as drunk as I am trying to find me.

So we found each other and sat down for the first set, and I ended up passing out completely. When I woke up I was super sick, and threw up in a garbage can. Eventually the cops came—that sobered me up real fast. I ended up running out out of the park. They started chasing me and I just bolted—I ran all the way to the subway station and ended up curling up in a ball waiting for the subway.

I never saw The New Pornographers, but I read the next morning in the New York Times that they put on a good show.

KA: I played in bands in high school and used to sneak out of the house to play shows. One time during a show things got a little wild and I ended up smacking myself in the head with my guitar. It left a huge knot in my head. The next morning my mom sees me in the kitchen asked me what had happened. So I told her I fell out of bed.

SS: I remember in the summer when I had my junior license, so I wasn’t supposed to be driving after 11 p.m., … which I completely disregarded because I wanted to see Savage Garden play MusicFest, which is a giant, corporate music festival in Bethlehem, PA. I ended up not actually going, but sitting on my friend’s porch who lived nearby and watching the band play on the big screen. On the way back, there was a huge traffic jam, and someone ran a stop sign and rammed into my car and smashed it. It was a complete nightmare. I ended up being grounded for the rest of the summer.

TK: That sounds terrible! I am so sorry to hear.  Shifting gears a little here: If Mercury Girls are like other bands I’ve talked to, I’m guessing your practice space is sweltering hot. How do you survive such heat?

KO: Our practice space is about 1,000 degrees.

KA: It’s true—last night I almost stopped practice early because we were sweating so hard I thought we would short-circuit something. When I walked out of the space, people were like, afraid to me near me because I looked insane. I was drenched, like I just crawled out of a swamp.

SS: I dumped water on myself then sat in my car playing Pokemon soaking wet. It’s definitely unpleasant. But when it’s that hot, I can hit super-high notes.

Mercury Girls
Mercury Girls | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

TK: What is your favorite thing about summer in Philly? / Your least favorite thing?

KO: The best thing is just hanging out in my backyard in Fishtown. It’s so peaceful there, and I love having grass. The worst thing for me is definitely the mosquitoes… [General chatter breaks out about how they are the worst this year; I share my personal bite-prevention method, which is the Mosquit-No bracelets].

SS: The worst thing for me is definitely the smells. And also the homeless people—I feel so bad for homeless people in the summer because they’re suffering.  The best thing is just Philly in general—I really like this city. I’m not a patriotic person in general and I don’t normally have like, city pride or team spirit or anything. But I love Philly for some reason. It’s the only place I’ve ever lived that feels like home.

KA: I agree. The thing I love about Philly is there’s a great infrastructure here to help bands succeed. Before I moved to Philly with Literature, we were based in Austin, TX. In Austin, I feel like it’s harder for bands to get national attention—which is unfortunate, because there are so many great bands there [some of his faves: Sweet Talk, Tres Oui, The Zoltars, Rose Sélavy, Xetas, and Polio Club]. Here you can gain steam more easily. In Austin, if you want to tour, you have to drive miles to the next city. With Literature now, we can play New York once a month; from Austin we would be lucky to play there twice or three times a year.

KO: It’s true—from Philly you can easily tour the east coast without breaking the bank.

TK: So what is coming up next for Mercury Girls?

SS: Well, we have an album coming out…

KA: We’re working on it now; it should be completed by October 1.

KO: It should be out 2017.

KA: Then we have our U.S. and Canadian tour with Balance & Composure, which is our first big tour.

SS: We’re playing a lot of cool spots, and we will be in the town that Twin Peaks is based on on Halloween.  We don’t actually have a show that night, so we will just be eating pie in the Twin Peaks diner…

[The group reminisces about watching Twin Peaks; Attics share how he would sneak downstairs to watch it at 3 a.m., and O’Halloran agrees that late night TV is quintessential summer. Schimeneck adds that in the summer she would sneak downstairs to sign on to AOL Instant Messenger, the hum of the air conditioner drowning out the modem connection sounds]

KO: We also have a split coming out with Wildhoney, The Spook School, and Tigercats—it’s a collaboration between Slumberland and Fortuna Pop.

KA: Mostly we are psyched to see what happens next. I was at a show in London earlier this summer and there was a guy in the crowd wearing a Mercury Girls shirt. I didn’t know him, and I don’t think he realized I was in the band—but it was so cool.

TK: Sounds like a sign of great things to come!

Mercury Girls play Boot & Saddle with Free Cake for Every Creature on September 8, and Everybody Hits with Japanese Breakfast on October 7. Their split with Wildhoney, The Spook School, and Tigers Cats is out now.

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