In 1999 Merz popped up, apparently out of nowhere, with the Many Weathers Apart single. It was delightfully bizarre – there were deck scratches, a warbling rubber-guitar lick, a screaming soul sample. Merz himself was a crowy, androgynous pop squawk riding on a reverbed conga boom as big as the circling horizon. A hippy priest with a boombox, plugged into the metaphysical mainline, he sang in fluttering scraps about separation, connection and rainstorms and somehow tied them all together. The equally out-there follow-up, Lovely Daughter, was a sideswipe at subjugation and exploitation – ostensibly about young brides, but perhaps also about outflanked cultures. It sounded like Anthony Newley trapped in a tropical aviary, sprinkled with reggae-dust while tussling with Prince and Beck. Refreshingly, both songs were modest hits.
A bold debut album followed, on a Sony subsidiary. Merz surrounded the darting, hummingbird heart of his songcraft with paper-chain folk guitar, string orchestras and rain-dewed colliery brass bands, as well as what sounded like tips of the hat to Public Enemy, Sinatra and Van Morrison. He also added psychedelic flourishes, looted with elan, from a range of sources (be they worldbeat, Eurodance, the buccaneering edges of late-‘90s club culture, or acid-fuzzed corners of the Incredible String Band’s cottage). Unfortunately, 1999 wasn’t the best year for innovative eclectic-pop. However unfairly, Merz seemed to be at the tail end of a wave of experimentalists riding in Björk’s cooling wake. In the face of a much bigger wave of Latin disco and lighter entertainment, the hoped-for bigger hits didn’t happen for him. The album sold indifferently, the record deal foundered, and Merz walked. In music business terms that should have been the end of a familiar and often-repeated story. A&R takes a punt on something unusual; it rapidly runs out of steam; and the pet eccentric promptly drops back into obscurity, a footnote for geeks.
For Merz, in fact, all of this was simply one chapter of work; and it hadn’t even been the first chapter. Under his real name, Conrad Lambert, he’d been recording and releasing songs for over a decade before Many Weathers Apart broke cover. Even though that stage monicker turns out to have been a chance appropriation (rather than a nod to Kurt Schwitters), Merz had, from an early age, followed the connective prompts of a Bahá’í upbringing and a personal artistic bent (which had had him picking up the bagpipes as a first instrument at the age of six). His own restless nature spurred him on to early travelling, and would later drive the adult Conrad to make homes from town to town and from country to country. Ultimately, parting company with Sony and with an audience of turn-of-the-millennium hipsters just seems to have been another thing to shrug off. Merz had different things to do. Even if he didn’t quite know what they were yet. Then, as now, open possibilities beckoned… and security was a straitjacket.
As for the obscurity, that’s a matter of perspective. Merz seems to been quietly and steadily embraced by continental Europe (perhaps one of the reasons why he now makes his home in the Swiss Alps). His albums – including last year’s ‘Thinking Like A Mountain’ – are persistently and publically hailed across magazines and online review sites as the welcome surfacings of an inventive, tuneful and touching mind. If, in spite of this, he still remains cult it’s partly because it seems to suit him. Musically, he’s mellowed without slackening. As with Geddy Lee, what was once a strident corvine vocal has matured into a warmer, more human sound without losing its fundamental chirp. Across time he’s delivered songs which might only rarely touch the earth but which flutter and roost in stray corners of the mind for years; from the Northern-brass love-call of Lotus to the offset rhythms and flamenco fairing of Goodbye My Chimera, the melding of baroque harpsichord waltz and bubbling phuture-pop on Dangerous Heady Love Scheme, and the melding of Buckleylalia with blootering, breakneck industrial techno in the recent Ten Gorgeous Blocks.
At the core, today’s Merz is a roaming twenty-first century folk troubadour – centred around voice, a keyboard or laptop and a single fingerpicked guitar, making the most of both local ingredients and things intercepted en route. He’s based around instinctive heart rather than roots, and around spontaneous initiative rather than the solidity of tradition; spurred on by intuitive choices of collaborators, such as British electro-concrète producer Matthew Herbert. His current musical foil, wingman and licensed disruptor is Swiss drummer and sound artist Julian Sartorius, whom Merz met while recording his ‘No Compass Will Find Home’ album, and whom he subsequently allowed to strip out and repurpose his songs to form a further album’s-worth of startling drum-and-vocal renditions
As for his tours, they manage to be both quietly exhilarating and easy to miss. Ducking around and under the radar, they mount a clear challenge to the business of tired pop promotion. He seeks to make concerts – like live art works – unique and permanently memorable to the attendees, taking care over matters like time, place and involvement. In addition to fairly familiar arty venue types (picture galleries, music churches and house concerts), last year’s ‘In Intimate’ tour took in a village chapel, a working-men’s club and an Air Force Legion hall: even a cow barn, a Scottish castle, a yurt, a forest clearing, a railway arch, and a snooker club. This season’s tour isn’t quite as unusual, although it returns to a couple of In Intimate venues (in Middlesbrough and Oswestry). Elsewhere, Merz seems to have gone where he was invited… and made sure that it was either somewhere interesting or somewhere that strives (sprouting rock clubs in transient locations, or the sites of hopeful songwriter nights).
- Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), Centre Square, Middlesbrough, TS1 2AZ, England, Sunday 12th June 2016, 2:00 pm (Merz solo show & discussion) – information
- Praha Bar, 22-24 The Borough, Hinckley, LE10 1NL, England, Monday 13th June 2016, 7.00pm (Merz solo show + Megan Carlile) – information
- Sonic Imperfections @ The Montague Arms, 289 Queens Road, Peckham, London, SE15 2PA, England, Tuesday 14th June 2016, 7.00pm (with Julian Sartorius) – information
- The Green Door Store, 2-4 Trafalgar Arches, Lower Goods Yard, Brighton Train Station, Brighton BN1 4FQ, England, Wednesday 15th June 2016, 7.00pm (with Hayley Ross + Julian Sartorius) – information here and here
- Cafe Kino, 108 Stokes Croft, Bristol, BS1 3RU, England, Thursday 16th June 2016, 7.00pm (with Julian Sartorius) – information
- Hermon Chapel Arts Centre, Chapel Street, Oswestry, SY11 1LF, England, Friday 17th June 2016, 7.30pm (with Julian Sartorius + The Sound Book Project) – information here and here
- Hey! Manchester @ The Eagle Inn, 18-19 Collier Street, Salford, M3 7DW, England, Saturday 18th June 2016, 7.30pm (with Julian Sartorius) – information
- The Cumberland Arms, James Place Street, Byker, Newcastle-upon- Tyne, NE6 1LD, England, Sunday 19th June 2016, time t.b.c. (with Julian Sartorius + Christopher Anderson) – information
For many of the shows Merz will be playing as a duo alongside Julian Sartorius, who’ll also be playing a solo drumkit set to open the concert. On some evenings, support acts will be drawn from more straightforward singer-songwriter turf – in Hinckley, sixteen-year-old local open-mic promoter Megan Carlile; in Newcastle, local acoustic bard-of-observations Christopher Anderson; in Brighton, Hayley Ross (who leans towards a classic ‘70s style and expression but with a darker, cruel-hinting edge and occasional bursts of garage rock).
To counterbalance, at Oswestry support comes from the altogether stranger Sound Book Project, a sextet of multimedia artists and musicians (including a pair of Pram members) who use books as noisemakers and instruments – “wound, sprung, strummed, slapped and thrown” as well as being modified or miked-up – in an experimental, slightly fetishistic celebration of the sensuality of bound text as opposed to digital media, and the way in which sounds trigger memories and associations.
Similarly, the opening show at Middlesbrough’s MIMA is somewhat different from the others: it marks the closure of ‘When Now Becomes Then: Three Decades’, MIMA’s exhibition of the work of British abstract/gestural painter and printmaker Basil Beattie. Over two hours spread across the ground floor galleries, Merz will play songs from his repertoire which “allude to Beattie’s paintings both from a visual and spiritual point of view” and promises “a roving and impressionistic solo set.”