December 21st, 2009 | Interviews

photo courtesy mere mortals

Download: Mere Mortals “Sunspots”


(from Rebel Radio out now on Zeami Stars)

Mere Mortals are a classic L.A convergence of musicians from all across the world. When taken in high doses, their autobahn guitar pop may unsettle a stomach full of exotic sushi. Steve Jones told someone to sign them and in Japan someone listened, and they are in residency at Spaceland every monday this month. This interview by Erik Ehlert.

You’re a band that’s been playing L.A. for years—how does it feel to finally get a Spaceland Monday Night Residency?

Axel Steuerwald (guitar/vocals): Feels great. It’s about time! [laughs] No, but it is great synchronicity that it happened right after our Japanese tour.
Will you miss the festival crowds?
Axel Steuerwald: We played clubs and in-stores and we played big crowds. It was a mixed bag. One night we would play our own show at a Spaceland-sized club and the next play to thousands as a support band for a Japanese act. But it will be different—we won’t have our road crew of five people. That was nice.
When Steve Jones had his radio show and told record execs to get smart, open their checkbooks, and sign you, did you expect the phone to ring?
Axel Steuerwald: It did actually ring. A few majors showed interest, Atlantic and Rick Rubin’s label American came to see us, but they’re all so fickle and wanted a chart band. I wanted some cool indie label to sign us… but it didn’t pan out.
So you went to Japan to get a deal?
Axel Steuerwald: The wheels had been in motion since the CEO of the label Zeami Stars came over in April and went on the road with us to Vegas and San Diego. He already made his mind up. So we went to Japan to support the Rebel Radio album release.
Bassist Mimi Star is from Japan—did she help you navigate everything?
Axel Steuerwald: Yes, and we were made aware of how important that was. I thought it would be like Europe where you could get through with bit of English—that I could use the words of Japanese I had learned. But no—it was very impenetrable, and I’m alright with languages and open to learning other people’s languages and make an effort to make myself understood. It was so hard. Without Mimi we couldn’t have done it—you need a permanent translator. They’re very polite and sometimes shy as a people. Maybe reluctant to practice the English they know. For example, a radio DJ did a whole interview with us at one of those karaoke rooms—total Lost in Translation moment. Mimi translated every single word and after the show he comes up to us and in fluent English says, ‘That was a great show, guys!’
Did you eat horse sushi in Japan?
Axel Steuerwald: No. But I had raw cow liver sushi—does that count? That’s where I drew the line.
Favorite line of broken English you came across?
Axel Steuerwald: Well, we played with a band called ‘Base Ball Bear.’ And on the road we would stop at ‘Highway Style of Mini Stop.’ Oh, and on a beer can it said, ‘Stylish Beer With Fiber For Happiness And Well Being Of Younger Generation.’
On one can?
Axel Steuerwald: On one can—it’s beer. It’s for your happiness and well-being. We always knew that in Germany.
You’re from Germany originally and lived in England so maybe a German label next? Then you can tour your homeland.
Axel Steuerwald: Some English labels are interested and having a listen. That would be great. A couple years ago we came close with a German one but again didn’t pan out.
Is L.A. unsustainable for you?
Axel Steuerwald: No L.A. will come around. The music infrastructure is so weak. Bands in this town you think have made it get signed and in three months the ball drops. It’s just such a commitment to sign a band.
How did the demise of Indie 103 hurt local music?
Axel Steuerwald: I think it hurt the L.A. music scene a lot. I really miss it everyday. It had a healthy influence on L.A—just made the music scene more diverse. There were more strains of new music around when Indie was our forum and platform.
You’ve placed a lot of songs on TV. That helps.
Axel Steuerwald: L.A. is really good for that. We’re in the middle of that capital. We’ve had luck with placements on TV and on some smaller movies. I haven’t seen this new shlocky horror movie we’re on. That may be it. But the strangest use so far is on the ‘Bad Girls Club.’ Have you seen that? A bunch of bad women. Definitely troubled individuals. Soap opera reality style show and they can be really bad to each other. Almost beat each other up. And they picked our only acoustic song—‘All the Rumors are True.’ I even got to see it again in Germany. ‘Club der Bösen Mädchen’.
How long you been in Los Angeles?
Axel Steuerwald: Nine years.
But you go to Germany to get your teeth worked on?
Axel Steuerwald: Yes. A side-effect of going home—I’m able to get fixed-up. It’s—almost—free.
Your early songs seem to have more structure and newer stuff like ‘Sunspots’ is really playing with atmospherics.
Axel Steuerwald: I have a lot more faith in the band now. The first songs were written practically without a band and then I recruited people to record. It wasn’t bad—just more pop structure. We have more mind-melt connection in the band now. Todd Demma on drums. A great new guitar player that I really vibe with—Jason O—who has been a godsend. Great addition.
But you still have some roots-y stuff too.
Axel Steuerwald: There will always be a pop song in-between. Something tight structured. There’s ‘Kites’ on the new album—pretty Kinks-y with a bop to it. I’ve always had a big love for the psyhedelica as well, but the thing is if you want to do that, you need to be a well-oiled band. Otherwise you will bore people. But now we can do that without seeming directionless.
Does krautrock really mean you sample accordions and band members sport lederhosen?
Axel Steuerwald: Kraftwerk did sport knickerbockers at least.
More accordion—more accordion!
Axel Steuerwald: Yeah, more accordion—we used one in the studio recently but it didn’t make it on there. But the krautrock thing is fun to come back to. There is so much stuff that’s not as discovered or stripped-mined as much as other influence—autobahn guitar music. That relentless beat.
You’ve been a guitar tech for Morrissey and opened for Frank Black. Who would you rather karaoke one of your songs?
Axel Steuerwald: Those two should have a weekly phone call session. Like the Queen of England calling Bill Clinton ranting about the state of music. But I think Morrissey. Frank Black would be amazing but Morrissey would be funnier.