MusicMusic Features

Mercyland, Together Again

Younger folks in town who know David Barbe as the mild-mannered and cheerful director of the University of Georgia’s Music Business Certificate Program or as the head of local recording studio Chase Park Transduction might be surprised to learn of his punk rock past as the bassist and co-lead singer of Athens power trio Mercyland. In fact, Barbe was a key figure in the deep underground of Athens’ music scene in the 1980s.

This weekend, Barbe will reunite with three of his Mercyland bandmates—drummer Joel Suttles and guitarists Andrew Donaldson and Mark Craig—offering music fans who missed out the first time around a chance to experience a bit of the punk-fueled sound and spirit of that heyday.

When Barbe moved to Athens in 1981 to attend UGA, it wasn’t a very punk-heavy scene, he says. “The Atlanta bands always made fun of the Athens bands, because they were punks from the big city and we were some sort of art school scene,” Barbe recalls. “But, to me, those years from ’81 through ’83 were the most exciting times.”

Barbe assembled the first version of Mercyland in the fall of 1985 with Craig (previously of the Kilkenny Cats) and hard-hitting drummer Harry Joiner. The band’s earliest material was rowdy and aggressive, but a hint of melodic power-pop snuck in amidst the punkish energy (imagine the Clash and the Buzzcocks crossed with Minutemen and Hüsker Dü).

In early 1986, Mercyland entered engineer and musician John Keane’s new studio in Cobbham. The high-speed “Fall of the City” was one of three songs to land on the Proud o’ Me Gluttony compilation, a collection of songs by underground Athens bands released on cassette by Barbe’s DRG (aka Dominant Rock Gods) Records. Released in 1986, the tape also included songs by the Primates, Bar-B-Q Killers, Time Toy, Porn Orchard, Eat America and the La-Di-Da’s.

Both Donaldson and Suttles had joined in the lineup when Mercyland recorded its first full-length, 1989’s No Feet On the Cowling, released on Communion Records. The melodic pop elements on songs like “Guessing Time is Gone” and “Rotten on the Vine” balanced the high-speed thrash of tunes like “Proceed with Discretion.” Power-chord anthems “Chains” and “Gets My Soul to Vigor” added depth to the mix.

Cowling earned positive reviews, but as the band members worked on new projects, careers, and families, Mercyland gradually slowed down.

“We planned our break-up six months in advance without telling anybody,” Barbe says. “We wanted to release the Enter the Crafty Bear EP on Valentine’s Day 1991, and play our last show on the same day. We wanted to part happily as friends. We said, ‘We’ve enjoyed doing this; let’s enjoy ending it, too.'”

After Mercyland’s split, Barbe remained in the music business, playing bass and guitar and producing albums for numerous artists, including Sugar (a band that also featured former Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould). In 1997, Barbe partnered with Andy Baker and Andy LeMaster to establish Chase Park Transduction as one of Athens’ main recording spots.

Mercyland’s music made its way into the mixing console at Chase Park in 2010, when Barbe brought the original reels from the Cowling sessions in for a remix.

“Andrew and Joel and I had been talking about the band after we got together to play a set at Vic Chesnutt’s memorial service at the 40 Watt,” Barbe says. “Vic was a great friend of Mercyland. That memorial gig is what led to us discussing doing a remix and rerelease.”

Mercyland had originally tracked Cowling at Keane’s studio with Cowboy Mouth’s Fred LeBlanc co-producing. Barbe wasn’t involved in the production process, and he had reservations about the final mix.

“It had too much of that ’80s production: too trebly, too much digital reverb, too clicky on the drums, not enough bass,” he says. “When we got done [remixing] it, it was actually pretty smokin’. I think it sounds way better than anything else we ever recorded or released. It sounds like what we believed we sounded like at that time.”

Barbe released the enhanced version of the record online in 2010. Not long after, organizers from AthFest approached Barbe about having Mercyland perform at the 40 Watt as part of that year’s showcase, but the plan fell through.

“We kept talking about it, and we thought, ‘If we’re into the idea of doing a show, why don’t we just do it when we’d like to do it?'” Barbe says. “That turned into the idea of putting all of the lineups of the band on stage at the 40 Watt. Mark hadn’t picked up a guitar in 15 years, but he was totally into it, so Andrew and Joel and I will play, and Mark will join us for a few.

“We’re only playing songs that we still have emotional connections to,” he adds. “Putting this together has been really fun, because there has been no disagreement about anything. We always got along great, so that’s no surprise.”

WHO: Mercyland, Bloodkin
WHERE: 40 Watt Club
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 5, 9 p.m.