It was only January when we last wrote about Paul Taylor's then-latest release, but that seems like eons ago. More and more in these quarantine days, musicians are starting and finishing projects in their home studios — or sorting through their archives. In the case of Merry Mobile, whose debut album, Surprise Attack, went live on Bandcamp last Friday, it's very much the latter. And though the group has a tinker toy name, there was precious little tinkering involved — setting it apart from other projects tagged as New Memphis Colorways, which usually follow the one-man-band model.
“We recorded that stuff over two days at Zebra Ranch in 2013, live on the floor,” recalls Taylor. “It was such a departure from me sitting in front of a personal session and editing and overdubbing by myself. To have just done it and been done with it was quite a relief, in a lot of ways. I would have loved to have fixed the guitar solos and to have resung everything, but making the decision to leave it as it was was super liberating.”
Indeed, a feeling of liberation pervades the record, making it a welcome curative to the shut-in blues of 2020. This is partly due to the chemistry between the three players. The power trio tacks back and forth between tightly arranged song structures and open-ended breakdowns — often more atmospheric than typical “solos” — yet built around some very evocative guitar textures from Taylor.
But beyond any forgivability, it explores new territory in terms of mashing up genres. “I used to joke at the time that we were the world's first indie rock jam band,” laughs Taylor. “We had a lot of instrumentals and a lot of jammy stuff, but then also my more power-pop-influenced songs as well. All mixed together. You know, Memphis music!”
As with so many great Memphis bands, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. “There's an interesting combination of players,” says Taylor. “I'd given bass lessons to Daniel McKee, the bass player, when he was a teenager and I was in my mid-20s. Then he and I struck up a friendship for a couple years before we formed the band. And then I just randomly put up a post on Facebook looking for a drummer, and Brian Wells was like, ‘I’d love to do it.’ He and Daniel already made a bunch of music together. And Brian, to me, was the secret ingredient, because he plays in a really old-school way that's not super gratuitous. And stylistically, it was such an interesting fit. I feel like he's what made it.”
There were others involved as well, of course. “It was co-produced by Luther Dickinson and recorded by Kevin Houston. It's got some really killer horn arrangements by Marc Franklin. It's an interesting artifact of a band that I'm super proud of. It was my first-ever band-leading experience.”
Taylor carefully chose the name for his first project as a leader. “I named the band the Merry Mobile in the fine tradition of Memphis bands co-opting the names of old Memphis institutions — such as Big Star. Easy Way was another great one. Coach and Four was really good.”
And what was the Merry Mobile? “Ha! It was an ice cream truck in the ’50s and ’60s that had a lawnmower engine with this circular thing, and it went down the street. It was just a Memphis and Louisville thing, strangely enough. And by the ’70s, so I've heard, if it was in certain neighborhoods you could go and buy, possibly, other things, besides ice cream? Just your friendly neighborhood Merry Mobile!”