As far as band origin stories go, Mercury Rocket is one of the strangest you're likely to find. The way that members Ben Fleming and Graham Brotherton met wasn't notable so much for the fact that they met as it was for the fact that Brotherton blew Fleming off — even though he was wearing Fleming's band's T-shirt. As for Fleming and the third Mercury Rocket member, Krissy Arnold — well, they met on Tinder.
They were destined to get on well. Eventually.
Despite those inauspicious beginnings, the trio — formed by Fleming and Brotherton after they reconnected a decade later — is a remarkably well-functioning unit. Playing psychedelic rock with a shoegaze sound using a free jazz approach, they have incredible live performances; the improvisation is such that no two performances are the same. Their upcoming debut album is somehow very accessible, sounding great at first glance and rewarding repeat listens.
Fleming and Brotherton formed Mercury Rocket in March 2012. Fleming is known for his work with the surf rock Ape Hangars and Pale Dian, the band formerly known as the Blackstone Rangers. Brotherton spent five years in a Butthole Surfers cover band called Sweatloaf. He credits Sweatloaf with teaching him how to understand music and structure, but got tired of playing the same songs.
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The two's first encounter came back in the early 2000s. Brotherton was a fan of Fleming’s old band, Black Heart Society. Fleming was outside smoking a cigarette before a show at The Cavern (now Crown & Harp) one night and saw Brotherton approaching with a Black Heart Society shirt. Fleming enthusiastically greeted Brotherton, who — not recognizing Fleming — responded by ignoring him and walking away. “What was that all about?” Fleming asks Brotherton. “I was on a mission of some sort,” Brotherton responds, and starts laughing. Someone had given him the shirt.
Now they consider it a good idea for a future prank. “I want to wear a band’s t-shirt and show up at their show and act like I don’t know what shirt I’m wearing,” says Fleming. But after years after that first encounter, Brotherton was responding to Fleming’s Craigslist ad looking for a drummer. When they met, they looked at each other and started laughing. They sort of knew each other, but hadn’t seen each other in ten years. Fleming figured it would be someone he knew. “Craiglist ads for musicians,” Fleming says, with a sigh. “It’s like, ‘Must have pro gear and pro attitude.’”
Arnold left her band, Giraffes Eating Lions, behind in Indianapolis after moving to Dallas in 2013. “I sold all my shit to help pay for the move down here,” says Arnold. She was playing a lot of doom metal at the time so she bought a bass amp. But playing her guitar through the bass amp sounded “like ass” so she decided to buy a cheap bass.
Arnold also turned to Craigslist to find a new band. “Every fucking person who would ever respond…” she says, shaking her head. “I was just trying to do either shoegaze or doom metal. I’d get something like, ‘Yeah I want to do something that’s kind of like grindcore with a little bit of Pantera in there.’ Nah, fuck off.”
Brotherton had performed at the Melody Inn, a venue in Indianapolis that Arnold often played, so she knew him before the move. “It was a shitty old bar,” says Brotherton. “But it has a lot of history. It’s been there since the '30s.” As a duo, Fleming was happy to find someone who didn’t want to be in a cover band and Brotherton was relieved to escape from people who just wanted to make speed metal. But they were also looking for a bass player that didn’t really play bass. They wanted more of a punk rock or metal sound from their bass player.
Then Arnold found Fleming on Tinder. “I was like, ‘Well this motherfucker seems pretty weird,’” says Arnold. Fleming says that Arnold also got his attention: “I was like, ‘Hey wait. Here’s not a bleached blonde with a fake tan. This seems interesting.” Nothing romantic happened, but they started talking about music and Fleming quickly realized she was exactly what they had in mind for bass.
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“All the bass players I’ve ever known in my life,” says Fleming. “They usually don’t have an amp. They just show up and want to plug in. But Krissy has a big old board with like nine pedals.” She adds a lot of atmosphere to the mix and sometimes sounds that resemble not only a bass or guitar but also an organ or keyboard.
Mercury Rocket has become a unique project for all involved. Arnold was transplanted from a scene that was focused on punk. “But I like a lot of other shit too. It’s fun to do something like this, just get in the grooves.” Mercury Rocket typically creates a new song every time they practice. They never go into shows with set lists and the first half is usually improvised. The band just recorded their first album at Aqua Lab Studios, which they plan to release by the end of the year.
This is a band of experienced musicians with different backgrounds who needed to make music. From their first practice they were using somewhat of a free jazz approach to create trippy shoegaze. The great trick here is how effortlessly catchy something so strange could sound. “Oh Yeah” is a song that starts out spacey before rocking out with Fleming singing verses in a voice feminine enough for glam rock. And this band gets a lot out of very little. Repeating the words “Oh yeah” several times for a chorus shouldn’t be this effective. But this is a sound — and a band — that totally works.