By Taylor Burgess
If you think not giving a damn and relentless self-expression can only come in the shape of a rowdy four-piece punk band, how shattered you will be when Alana Mercer takes the stage by her lonesome as The Gunness.
Since she’s already played major roles in The Quiffs and The Blowholes, handfuls of bands today are looking to share a bill with Mercer’s new solo act, especially if her bass drum, guitar, and throaty voice bring a rowdy night to a sombre, brooding halt.
Mercer explains, “Specifically [the bands] have explained to me—what they like so much about what it is I do—it’s just not giving a god damn, and playing whatever I want. Like, I’ll play in the middle of a night after two full bands. I don’t care.”
It’s an attitude that she’s carrying over into recording her upcoming album which will be released on Transistor 66 Records. Together with engineers Craig Boychuk (L’viv) and Joel Mierau (Self Interest), they’re deliberately avoiding studio perfection for The Gunness’ debut, opting to capture Mercer’s buoyant aura and to keep true to her solo performance.
“Craig and I, we’ve had long discussions about our love for PJ Harvey and Rid of Me. Not just the album itself, but the way it was recorded,” Mercer explains dutifully. “You know, there’s coughing in the background, and she screws up a couple times but she keeps it because the whole take itself is good. It was that kind of element that I knew Craig totally got.”
This ethos of theirs was really put to the test once they set Mercer’s instruments plus recording gear in the street-facing gallery of Negative Space. The engineers set up in the back, leaving Mercer all by herself. Well, she was sort of left alone.
“People would walk by the window occasionally and peer their faces in at me as I’m trying to play and keep beat. They’re just cracking me up—you can hear traffic going by and a train at some point. It’s awesome! I just want to keep it all.”
Mercer has laid down all of the bed tracks of her album so far, leaving just the vocals to be done later this summer, once Boychuk comes back into town. Throughout recording her solo debut, Mercer says it has been helpful that Boychuk and Mierau are musicians, and have been acting as more than just engineers.
“It’s weird to have been in so many bands with so many people, and now to play by myself I don’t really have anyone to bounce ideas off of. Craig and Joel were really awesome in that way. I’d be like, ‘Feedback! Is this too much? How does this sound?’”
Every band that Alana Mercer takes part in, whether it be the ones no longer with us (The Quiffs, The Blowholes, and The Gorgon are all now defunct) or any of the five which she’s currently in, they have this awesome feeling of immediacy, the total opposite of sterility, regardless of how slick or how shit they’re recorded. It’s like these songs have been bounced off a number of friends’ heads before ending up at the stage.
So it might be a bit of a surprise that Mercer started The Gunness, but it’s really stuck. “I would play my kick on my practice pad at home just to keep the beat. And one day I said, screw it. I’ll put on a show. C’mon were coming through town, so they played too. It was at the Death Trap. It was really great. It was a good start.” That first show was only about a year ago, but it has worked out well for her—she earned a top spot in Uptown Magazine’s Best of Winnipeg 2012 as Best New Local Solo Artist.
So Mercer has proved that she doesn’t necessarily need a band behind her, leaving her alone with her determination and her particular tastes. However, taking a page from the golden era of rock ‘n’ roll, she admits she’s human—and even revels in it.
“I’m kind of notoriously not perfect in my timing,” she admits, with a bit of a grin. “Not like crazy, but it has been known to happen, if I’ve had a couple drinks, the song will end up a lot faster than it started.”
And even though she likes dance music, it just doesn’t have that same unspeakable charm as records that let their flaws show.
“Like early Stones recordings, where Mick Jagger screwed up his tambourine, and he has to count himself back in. And there’s wavers in the beat. Or the Shirelles were off key a little bit. I miss it!”
That extends back to the first Winnipeg band she was in, The Quiffs. She says part of what made The Quiffs so appealing was how raw they were, yelling at one another mid-song to figure out what they were playing.
But in the present day, Alana Mercer’s human passion is paying off in spades. Besides The Gunness’ album which will drop in the fall, she’s in four bands which are releasing albums this year. The High Thunderers have released a cover of the 1987 album Trio, originally by Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris. Mercer has just replaced Bill Northcott as the drummer for the Angry Dragons, who are recording and releasing a full length. Phlegm Fatale, Mercer’s dance band which is named after an Archagathus song, are all done recording their album which just needs some mastering. And finally, Lazy Horse, in which she plays bass, has a 10-song record coming out on Eat Em Up Records, but needs a few more guitar solos first.
“Yeah,” says Mercer, “after three years of hibernation, it’s all going to burst out at once, like a horror film.”