Two decades after its original release Mercyland’s sole full-length album, No Feet On The Cowling, is finally seeing a proper reissue. Based in Athens, GA, comprised of David Barbe (vocals/bass), Andrew Donaldson (vocals/guitar) and Joel Suttles (drums), the seminal southern blast of post-punk that was Mercyland’s run lasted from 1985-1991. Below I catch up with founder, David Barbe, who has since gone on to produce a number of records likely found in your collection, act as 1/3 of Bob Mould’s Sugar and co-found Chase park Transduction studios. Barbe is now the director of the University of Georgia’s music business program. His thoughts on that, and much more, below.
Aquarium Drunkard: Two plus decades later…what has it been like revisiting the reissue of No Feet On The Cowling?
David Barbe: It was interesting. I had initially discarded the idea. I thought that my initial problems with the record were too great to overcome. Once I got into the tracks, I realized that it was really just a mix issue. The original mixes were just too slick. Too much dated 80’s processing. We weren’t into that at the time, but we were using an outside producer, Fred LeBlanc, and wanted to trust his instincts, let him do his job. Fred was experienced and an enthusiastic fan of the band. At the end of the day, his vision of the finished product just wound up being a little different than ours. At the time, without that much experience, we didn’t recognize that. I probably just should have produced it myself, but I wanted the band to be more of a democracy and didn’t want to dominate the proceedings. When I pulled up the tracks to remix, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. John Keane’s tracks were well-cut, and he had, interestingly enough, printed some effects on open tracks so I was able to follow his thought process. Between that and the track sheets, it was like having a road map of how it started out. My reason for wanting to remix was to put things back as we intended. Strip away affects. There was nothing very complicated about what we were doing at the time. The shows we were playing were packed small rooms late at night. The best ones were pretty explosive. Hopefully, the new mixes bring some of that back to life.
AD: I’m curious, do you still readily identify with the young man singing, or does it almost feel as if you yourself are now a spectator?
David Barbe: Probably a little bit of both. There are some songs, like “Guessing Time is Gone,” and “Chains,” that I felt strongly about at the time, and still hold up fairly well. There are some others that, let’s just say aren’t quite as timeless to me. You can’t go back and change who you were. Not yesterday and certainly not 20 years ago. I don’t worry about that. It is more of a snapshot of a period of time to me than anything else. In some ways, I suppose that does make me more of a spectator now, but hey, I was there. I still remember.
AD: Aside from the Spillage compilation that Ryko released during your stint playing with Sugar, this is the first Mercyland project re-release, correct?
David Barbe: Yes, other than Spillage, everything else we released are 7″s and comps. There are many of both.
AD: Why now? (did it seem time to reissue it)
David Barbe: We had never gotten back together. I was always not so much against it directly, as I was against the concept of an artist sacrificing current momentum to re-live the past. We were a punk band. It’s something that was completely appropriate for me to be doing in my early 20’s, but I have never been as interested in reverse as forward. What happened was this. Last year there were 2 nights of shows at the 40 watt in Athens as a memorial tribute to our dear friend, Vic Chesnut. Vic was Andrew Donaldson’s roommate for a while during the Mercyland years, and even served as our van driver on a tour. Our van had died, and our second option was my small Datsun King Cab pickup, which we actually ended up using on a few later tours. Vic had a pretty nice handicap van, and had 3 weeks of spare time, and the next thing you know, we’re on tour together. This is before he had made any records. Anyway, he was our bud, and when Barrie Buck put together the shows, we immediately agreed to play in his honor. We knew that since we had never reunited, that it would be sort of special if we did, so doing it in honor of Vic seemed right. It was our first gig in 19 years, and it actually was pretty great. We played 6 songs, took about 20 minutes, which might be the perfect length band reunion, if you think about it. All you get is the adrenaline rush part of the set. Nobody has time to notice anything subpar because it’s so exciting. And everybody says, “Aw, you should have played longer.” Better one too few than one too many. After the show we started talking about the possibility of the reissue. Andrew and Joel were all about it, but I had reservations about the sound and was only willing to re-release it if I could personally mix it and decide whether I thought it was something we could stand behind.
AD: Let’s talk a bit about what was happening behind the scenes at the time of the original release. What was happening with the band?
David Barbe: Oh man, it was a crazy time. See, we really blew it. We started playing in October ’85. We should have released an album in early ’86, another one in ’87 and No Feet should have been third, but like lots of bands, we spent too much time looking for an outside label, even a small one, instead of just pressing them up ourselves. The south at that time, though, wasn’t much in the way of punk rock labels for bands like ours. The Atlanta scene had splintered into the remnants of straight hardcore and a college rock scene. Athens only label was Dog Gone, which was not interested in a band like ours. Communion, which was run by Gary Held and had just released the Bar-B-Q Killers ‘Comely’ was the best fit. Unfortunately for us there were some problems getting it out. First, Gary wasn’t crazy about the record for exactly the kind of things that bothered me over the years. I guess it never occurred to any of us at the time to remix it or find somebody more appropriate to do it like Lou Giordano or Sean Slade, neither of whom we knew. The other problem was the artwork. Every month it was about to be released, and every month there was a new screw up with the artwork. I think the biggest screw up was trusting people we didnt’ actually know to do it because they had done some other cool stuff. We were on everybody’s back burner. Anyway, originally it was going to be released in late 88 or early 89, and we kept booking these record release tours, except with no record. I mean, we’d still go play, we just looked like fools doing it. In the meantime, we got pregnant with our daughter Annabelle, and by the time the record was finally released is was the summer of 89 and we had a baby due in August. The timing was terrible. On the one hand, I had to greatly cut back on any touring for the time being. On the other hand, since the record didn’t sound very good at the time it might not have made much difference. The funny thing now about the artwork is how unexceptional it really was. It had good colors, and was one of the first I remember to have gone to the thick, grainy paper stock, so it had a good look, but the image itself was some house on the the Russian plains or something. Everybody that saw it said how great it was, but I mean, really? It’s a fine looking image of what? Anyway, it’s what took so long to get it out in the first place. We didn’t use the same artwork this time because we don’t have the original and frankly, as you can tell, I don’t really care that much about it anyway. It had even less to do with what we were all about than the original mixes did.
So what else were we up to? Well, we always played a lot. We loved it, the whole shebang. The shows, traveling, hanging out together. Really, we had a great friendship. When we decided to break up we kept it a secret for about 6 months to creatively plot our exit. We parted as, and remain to this day, friends.
AD: Athens has long fostered a an exceptional, supportive, local scene. Who were some of your contemporaries during Mercyland’s run?
David Barbe: The Athens scene has generally been extremely supportive. More so than most other places, I think. We don’t really have a whole lot of negative back-biting type stuff here. I think that is what sets it apart.
The locals at that time with whom we most identified were Bar-B-Q Killers, Jack-O-Nuts, Liquor Cabinet (Jack Logan), the Primates, Skin Pops, Eat America, Time Toy. You know what’s really interesting is that we only played one show with Bloodkin, who I have now made about 10 records with, and I love them. We knew each other, liked each other’s bands, but really never were linked up at all. It’s funny because they are one of the few who has survived here since that time. And Widespread Panic, pretty different music than our scene, but we used to run across each other on the road a lot, and there was always the mutual respect among fellow travelers. There were lots of other ones, of course, probably close to 100 in Athens at that time, but like anything else, a lot of it doesn’t really stand the test of time or stick in the mind. From Atlanta, we played with Dirt from time to time.
AD: What records/bands were you guys listening to at the time? What was informing your tastes back then?
David Barbe: The Mercyland van stereo heavy rotation at various times included: Minutemen Double Nickels on the Dime, Husker Du Metal Circus, Meat Puppets 2, Dino’s Yr Living All Over Me, the first few Sonic Youth records (up through Sister or Daydream Nation), Volcano Suns, Mission of Burma, all 3 Scratch Acid records, Squirrel Bait, Naked Raygun, Pontiac Brothers, Public Enemy, The Fall’s Perverted By Language, Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, The Gun Club, plus oldies like Exile on Main St, Physical Graffiti, mid 60’s Dylan, James Brown, the Beatles, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams. Sometimes I would veer off into symphonic music, generally Romantics like Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky; we discovered the cool 50’s jazz, Miles, Coltrane, etc. We would also get into indie bands we would meet up with on tour like Next Generation, and like lots of punk scene folks at that time, there was a certain degree of brand loyalty where you might check out a new record on Dutch East or SST because you liked so much of the catalog. With SST, that really worked for a while, then they just got too splintered with regard to their releases to trust it.
Looking back on it, we were pretty open minded about most music. Other than funk-metal. We never were into any of that late 80’s backwards baseball cap music.
AD: The past several years have seen a huge influx of 80s/90s bands reuniting for tours/festivals/what-have-you. Any chance of a Mercyland reunion? If so, with all of your varied schedules/lives, what would that look like in 2011…local shows? Regional tour?
David Barbe: Ah….unlikely. We weren’t that well known in the first place for one thing. Who would come out? The local Vic show was fun and I would not rule out the possibility of playing a show down the road. Furthermore, I am more interested in doing Quick Hooks shows now than spending too much time looking back. So maybe a little if the time was right and people were actually interested. I don’t need to do it for my ego or anything. I’ve already done my 20’s. It was cool, but it’s done.
AD: Would the David Barbe of 1989 believe you if you had told him he would be the head of the Music biz program at UGA in 20 years?
David Barbe: Hell no.