How Throat Cancer Helped the Frontman of Frog Eyes Make a Better Album

The band also premiere their new track "Two Eyes (One for Heaven and The Other One for Rome)."

06 August 2015, 2:10pm

Photo courtesy of band's Facebook

Frog Eyes’ 2013 album, Carey’s Cold Spring, was released amidst personal tragedy. Frontman Carey Mercer’s father passed away during the making of the album, and two days after the mixes had been finalized, the singer-guitarist was diagnosed with throat cancer. In the wake of these harrowing circumstances, their new record Pickpocket’s Locket represents a rebirth for the Vancouver-based band. “Just the very fact that I could do it was so wicked. I think four-tenths of it was done right before I had radiation treatment—so four of ten songs,” Mercer says while sipping iced tea at Vancouver’s Our Town Cafe. Chuckling in spite of the serious subject matter, he continues, “I think I did that so that we’d get about half of it done, and maybe subconsciously, it was something that would inspire me to get back to good health. It really did hang over me. I’d be like, ‘Agh, I’ve got to be alive and be a dad and be a person, but I’ve also got to fucking finish this record.’ I don’t know if it’s the thing that got me through it, but it’s one of the things. Leaving an unraveled thread, I think, was a good idea.”

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Once Mercer completed radiation treatment, he and his bandmates finished up the final six cuts that make up the LP. He explains that the songs on Pickpocket’s Locket “represent life,” simply by virtue of the fact that he was healthy enough to record them. They also function as a tribute to his father, since Mercer wrote them on a Martin D-18 acoustic guitar that he inherited upon his dad’s passing. “I was kind of sad, so I was probably listening to a lot of Townes [Van Zandt], Leonard Cohen, and all of the other great 60s, 70s acoustic guitar troubadours that my dad also really liked. And then these songs started to pour out of me,” Mercer remembers. This was a radical change of process for the songwriter, who doesn’t consider himself an accomplished acoustic guitar player and typically prefers to compose in a full-band setting. But even though he regards the resulting material as coffee-shop appropriate, Pickpocket’s Locket is anything but your average folk record: the songs bristle with urgent art-rock energy, as live-off-the-floor arrangements are flecked with stately piano, purring sax, and string arrangements composed by Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown/Moonface polymath Spencer Krug. Despite the fact that Mercer was suffering from throat cancer, his vocal chords sound as strong as ever, and he belts out the songs in a powerfully theatrical, hiccupy warble. He projects emphatically on the “do-doola-doot” refrains of the tensely simmering opener “Two Girls (One for Heaven and the Other One for Rome),” croons intimately on the organ-purring ballad “I Ain’t Around Much,” and wraps his tongue around some dizzying internal rhymes on the slippery standout “Joe with the Jam.”

Mercer is now back to full health and bicycles regularly, and the future is looking bright. He’s started writing songs for a new Frog Eyes record, even though he had previously thought that Pickpocket’s Locket might be the band’s swan song. One thing fans shouldn’t expect, however, is any extensive touring. “I won’t do it,” he says emphatically. “I won’t be away from my son for 40 days just to go play to 40 people in Iowa. It’s a farce.” Then, with a wry laugh and a moment’s reflection for the people of Iowa, he adds, “No offense.” On top of talking to us about life and True Detective, Mercer also gifted us with the premiere of Pickpocket’s Locket’s opening track, “Two Girls (One for Heaven and the Other One for Rome)” which features fidgety acoustic strums and dramatic vocal declarations that give depth to the album’s multifaceted sound.

Noisey: Did the throat cancer have any physical impact on your vocals?
Carey Mercer: I have less spit, which actually might be a good thing because I had a lot of saliva to begin with. No, I feel like I’m a stronger singer now than I ever was, actually. It’s quite funny. There was a transition period of getting back into it; I don’t know if it was the treatment, or if it was just that I hadn’t sung for probably a year. Either a way, you’d be a bit croaky getting back into it. I was quite healthy before—that was the irony of getting the bad news. When we moved to Vancouver [from Victoria], we got rid of our car and got bikes. We have a kid, so I would be hauling my kid around, and I was Mr. Mom, and the only way to get a little break for myself would be to throw him into the trailer. He’s safe back there, but he’s also not crawling all over me. I became quite obsessed with riding a bike. The weird irony was, I can’t remember when I felt healthier, and then I got [sick]. But they don’t correlate. So when I got sick, I lost a lot of muscle, and then when I started playing music again, I made sure that I started riding a bike again.

So there wasn’t any difference between the songs you recorded before the treatment and the ones you sang after?
If the radiation didn’t work, they would have had to do throat surgery, that was the next step. And I was like, “Well why don’t you just do throat surgery right now?” They were like, ‘Because it could seriously impact your voice and probably would.’ So it was very odd to go in and sing these songs and think, “I might be saying goodbye to this voice.” In fact, I remember being kind of excited. Who wouldn’t want a new voice? Especially eight or nine records in. It seemed like a great opportunity to me.

Do any of the songs on Pickpocket’s Locket address your illness?
I don’t know if I ever stop and say, ‘Man I was really sick and now I’m not,’ or, ‘There is wisdom to be obtained from sickness.’ Because in fact it’s actually quite boring. It’s very hard to talk about pain, because as soon as you stop experiencing pain, even the people who have gone through it can’t really remember it. It’s an odd experience because, more and more, people that I know or are acquaintances or friends of friends are being diagnosed with cancer. So people turn to me because I was one of the first to go through it. And it’s very hard to give any kind of advice or guidance because it’s all so specific. It’s like, “Well, what kind of cancer did you have?” It’s very hard for someone who had radiation treatment to give advice to someone who might have stage four cancer, because it doesn’t seem appropriate.

More to the point, I actually can’t really remember [being sick]. I can’t put it into words. It’s so banal. It’s just a big long dead time of being on morphine. I think the only good thing that I can say about it is I listened to a lot of music. I wasn’t such an intense listener before. Because I had nothing to do—I was an invalid. I would just lie on the couch on morphine and bliss out to whatever was on the stereo. That created a habit. Coming out of that now, I have to have music all of the time, which is awesome. I’m turning into an obsessive music person, which is wonderful.

It seems like most of my friends, as we get older, just want to listen to podcasts and TV.
Right, exactly! It’s totally the opposite trend. It makes me so mad. It actually fills me with disgust for my peers who continue to watch True Detective but don’t have time for music. Like, fuck you.

Have you seen True Detective?
No, but I know it’s shit compared to Moondog. I mean, if you have time for both that’s fine, but if you’re going to cut one out, let it be HBO.

Alex Hudson is a writer living in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter