Mercury Radio Theater: The Next Episode.
Buddy Mercury is the alter ego of mild-mannered criminologist Kurt Fowler, the guitarist in the band Mercury Radio Theater. He’s a real-life Batman moonlighting as a rock star. Or maybe vice-versa.
He sits at a bar table inside West Philadelphia’s Local 44, across from fellow guitarist and writing partner F. Woods, chatting excitedly about the band’s new album, Oh, This Can’t be Good, their fourth studio album.
Fowler, 38, who recently moved to the neighborhood after many years in Fishtown, wears a black T-shirt with a giant red star and banner advertising a Communist Party of China rally. Retro communist propaganda also served as the basis for the three-part concert series the band performed in 2014 and 2015, entitled “The Fabulous Red Menace.” They debuted several of the songs on the new album during the series.
The story of Mercury Radio Theater, Fowler explains, began 16 years ago and it has all the usual ingredients: three friends, a lot of empty bars, a van, the road, a few albums, personnel additions and subtractions, etc.
The band on Oh, This Can’t be Good is much different from the one that recorded 2011’s Kilroy, let alone the trio that released their debut album in 2003. There are more musicians now, including a brass section, and after years honing a distinctive, instrumental sound that blended surf rock and horror shows, they now feature vocals and crowd sing-alongs.
“I actually believe that good art comes from restraint,” Fowler says. “I believe that. But I felt that there comes a time where restraint becomes stifling.”
Mercury Radio Theater started playing as a trio in 2000. The band played a unique blend of surf punk (“Monster Freak Twilight Hour”), exotica (“The Hypno-Eye”) and a little pop-punk (“Dejected, adj. Depressed in spirits; disheartened”). They set a daunting task in the beginning, coming out with a brand new “episode” for every big concert. They created new music, flashed new visuals and wrote new spoken-word horror stories that played between their instrumental songs. Their first three albums followed that same mix of narration and music.
Woods, 37, says theatrics were always part of the show. Though he isn’t a founding member of the band, he has been around on-and-off since the beginning. He initially provided the live sound effects for the radio play segments of their first show, an idea they immediately abandoned for being too difficult and unreliable.
“We tried to make it a spectacle on stage,” Woods says. “We were tired of seeing four guys on the stage, playing guitars real low by their knees, not moving around. It wasn’t much to look at, so what can we do to make this interesting?”
A Mercury Radio Theater concert was a show in every proper sense but they didn’t draw much of a crowd in their native Philadelphia. So they spent many of their early years on the road.
“It became a years-long whirlwind of being on the road and not being in Philly,” Fowler says. “We would draw crowds by the thousands in Arkansas but no one at home knew who we were.”
How did the band go from the instrumental horror shows of their early days to lyrics and chanting and farfisa organ now? The excitable Fowler can tell you when the change started but his answer changes every few minutes.
It could have been the arrival of a steady bassist in Jason Todd or the process of putting together their third album, Kilroy. But it seems to always go back to their return from the road after 2006. Fowler went back to school and other members got into different music projects or day jobs. The band still existed but they performed less frequently, and mostly in the Philly region.
Mercury Radio Theater was playing to a growing audience of repeat customers and found it to be a different experience. Woods had been away from the band for a few years and got to see what it was like to be in the audience. He says people liked the music but they were playing a strict format and instrumental music did not give people a lot to get excited about.
Fowler took it more personally.
“I recall being at a show and I overheard somebody saying, ‘I’ve seen this episode already so it’s nothing new to me,’ and it was just like, ‘Agh!’ It was like a dagger,” Fowler says, clutching his side where the metaphorical blade had been slipped through his ribs.
Kilroy retained many of the surface elements of the earlier albums but the story was kept to a few interludes — instead of one story track for
every song — and new instruments were brought in. Tom Scheponik contributed to that album on the vibraphone and accordion.
The numerous musicians who contributed to Kilroy were invited to play the album release party.
“That was just a lot of fun,” Scheponik says. “You got eight musicians together who can play and feed off each other. You can see different little influences coming in. And we’ve been going since then.”
The new lineup for Mercury Radio Theater started that night.
The band now features a vibraphone, saxophone, trumpet and that farfisa organ. That allowed for a lot of room to experiment with new sounds and traditions on Oh, This Can’t be Good, which was recorded in a studio The Black Keys have used and was mastered by the guy who did David Bowie’s last album.
Songs like “I Don’t Owe You Know More” strike a note somewhere between Woodie Guthrie and Bob Hoskins’ big musical number at the end of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” But their roots still shine through in a few moments, like in “A Reasonable Suspicion,” which comes from the same framework the band used 13 years ago.
Things have changed thematically, too. Fowler says he started seeing past the boy-girl themes and he started looking at the people around him.
“My dad always said to write what you know – one of the only pieces of advice that my dad ever gave me that made any fucking sense,” says Fowler. “What I know is that I work really hard, my friends who are brilliant and amazing work really hard, and everybody is scraping by all the time. So, let’s write some fucking music about it!”
That economic disaffection found expression in the music and story used in Mercury Radio Theater’s “The Fabulous Red Menace” concerts. The band had moved away from the werewolves and mad scientists of their early albums and looked at communism. Performed as three concerts over the course of about 18 months, “The Fabulous Red Menace” included narrated story segments and was built around the look of old communist propaganda.
This opened the door for Mercury Radio Theater to write songs about larger themes of money and community, which Fowler was wrestling with in his own life, and to do so in a way more playful than preachy.
Todd remembers Fowler, who was then completing his doctorate in criminal justice, composing fun beer songs for everyone to sing together at an annual “Friendsgiving” party.
“In one of the classes he was taking, he was working on a project which was basically about different forms of community,” Todd says. “Being a musician for so long, he was talking about how writing songs with your friends and singing together is a very therapeutic thing and also a way to build community.”
The new music is meant to be more engaging, Fowler says. Some of the songs have Fowler singing — something previously unheard of in Mercury Radio Theater songs, and nearly all have a part where the audience is supposed to join in.
This affection for community can be seen beyond the music too. When they are booked at a venue, Fowler says they book the entire night, bringing openers they love to work with, like Big Lazy and Scheponik’s other band, Gringo Motel. For the bands, it means you work with friends and know the crowd you’re going to get. It’s a perk of being a steady draw.
“I am always a fan of when local bands own their shows,” says Chris Ward, who handles booking and promotion at Johnny Brenda’s.
Ward has been booking Mercury Radio Theater since 2008. The next show at the Fishtown venue is on December 2nd.
“They’re a rarity in Philadelphia – they don’t play enough,” Ward says. “They make every show that they do special, and that is awesome.”
He says they remind him of his days touring in a band and the comfort of being invited to play with local bands in different cities. Ward says he knew the local guys cared about putting on a good show.
“In some ways [the band members] become like the promoter that night,” he adds. “They get to own the room that night and if they own it and respect the room, like they do, then it’s amazing.”
Oh, This Can’t be Good is in many ways a homecoming, and it sounds like one too. The songs feel like the band is back in front of its home crowd and having a great time.
And at Local 44, Fowler and Woods are having a good time too, busting chops with the bartenders. Until, without warning, Fowler suddenly picks up the tab and disappears into the night.