It was only ten or so years ago that pop fanatics relied on the likes of ‘Smash Hits’ and ‘Rage’ to get their pop music fix. It was a great time for the Australian pop music industry, with major labels preparing budding stars for global domination.
One such act to experience this level of support was Melbourne boyband Mercury4. They enjoyed three top 30 singles, including the top five hit ‘Get Me Some’. Our resident reviewer Brad recently sat down with former member Rien Low to discuss the group’s successes, wide-legged jeans and tips for wannabe singers.
Rien and band mate Brad Johnston had been already been working on demos with some local production companies in 2001 when they were approached to be in the band. “Finding the others, recording and seeing how the voices all blended took us a year.” Rien tells us. They soon picked Cole Rintoul and Jarvier Perez to fill the last two spots in the as-yet unnamed group. “The management then organised meetings with the record labels and we did showcases for them at the Mercury Lounge (hence the name).”
The group signed under Ian Dickson (‘Australian Idol’ judge ‘Dicko’) with BMG and soon hit the road. “We spent a lot of time going around Australia, going to different high schools, performing and building a fan base which was good fun!” he says. “We wrote a lot of songs and the record label were sourcing songs for us through their A&R. We had The Matrix and some other really good people, like Take That’s Gary Barlow, write for us.”
When it came to picking their debut single, the band was a big part of the process. “We’d have writing sessions. We’d go in and have a week where we’d just do our own songs and then we (Mercury4, with management and the label) would look at all the songs. We would have a discussion with the record label and they would pitch us a single and we’d say cool or we would say no if we didn’t want to do that.”
If shows like ‘The Big Reunion’ over in the UK have taught us anything, it’s that the studio can be a warzone when it comes to who sings what on any particular song. Rien admits that it could be testy sometimes.
“You’re always going to want to sing as much as you can. When we were given a song, we’d all go into the studio and sing it, then we’d sit with the producers and decide who sounded best in what, who harmonises where etc. At the end of the day, we just wanted a really great sounding song. If that meant I didn’t sing on half the song, that was cool. With ‘Get Me Some’ I sang on the chorus but not really the verses. But then on the second and third single I got quite a bit. Through the whole album, it all evened out.”
First single ‘Get Me Some’ was an R&B/pop track inspired by the likes of Blue, but the boys abruptly changed course on the distinctly more pop-oriented second single ‘5 Years From Now’.
“When we did the first single, we hadn’t finished off our album so we were more going for a sound and seeing what the public liked,” Ryan explains. “We were rapt when it went to number five but the next single (‘5 Years From Now’) got played a lot more on radio and stayed in the charts a lot longer.” Indeed, though it peaked at No.16, it stayed in the top 20 for a month, whereas ‘Get Me Some’ fell from No.5 to No.26 in its second week.
It was around this time that Mercury4 was in every pop magazine and appearing regularly on shows such as ‘Video Hits’ and ‘Rove’, so what was it like being ‘famous’?
“I think the main thing that I was always taught is that you should never take anything for granted. There are some people now on reality TV that are in one magazine or on some TV show and they think they are the next big thing and then they just disappear. I knew that at any point in time it could disappear, and it does. So when you’re in a magazine, you just really enjoy it. “
Soon, cracks began to show when Jarvier abruptly left the group. To this day, Rien still doesn’t know why. “He just left,” he reveals. ”(One day) we had a meeting, and then we were informed afterwards that he decided to leave and I never spoke to him again.” Although this may sound like a classic boyband feud, Rien is quick to clarify that the lack of contact is simply circumstantial, not because of any bad blood. “There’s no malice there at all, we just haven’t kept in touch.”
Kevin Layton filled his spot (“extremely fast. It was just ‘Bang’!”) and soon the boys were back with their third single… a cover of Bobby Brown’s ‘Every Little Step’. “The way BMG presented it to us with the video clip made it sound like a great idea. There were quite a few options for a single, but we all agreed that this was the best one so we went to the studio and recorded it.”
Sadly, the song under-performed, charting at No.27. Rien is diplomatic about its fortunes. “Not every single’s going to do well, and doing a cover was risky. We still liked it, but it just didn’t do as well as the others.”
We suggest that the sudden and unexplained lineup change may have been a factor. Rien agrees. “Sometimes it takes a while to warm to someone new. You could second guess forever but sometimes people just don’t buy it!”
Things came to a complete halt when BMG merged with Sony Music and the boys were dropped from their album deal. It was particularly bad timing considering the boys had started planning a second album and promotional tour through Asia and New Zealand.
“There was never really a decision to break up. We got dropped and then we thought, ‘ok cool … so we’ll all just have a break’. We probably should have been a bit more proactive about getting another deal, but we were also very sad. It’s very disappointing and you get a bit disheartened about the industry.”
Not one to focus on the negative, Rien is quick to express his appreciation despite things ending so suddenly. “We never took it for granted. There are so many people and bands out there that have never been given the opportunity that we had or experienced anything like what we did. Even though in music industry terms it was quite short-lived, we still got to do it!”
The singer has nothing but good things to say about the team at BMG. “I’m sure there are a lot of artists that didn’t have much say in their career but I think since we were all in our early 20s and our management were very respectful with us, they’d always ask for our opinion on things. BMG were amazing towards us but we’d always hear stories from the music reality show singers who would tell you to watch out for this or that.”
So what should aspiring pop stars look out for?
“They need to make sure what is being paid for by the record label completely and what is being paid for by the record label that the artist then has to pay back later… a ‘recoupable’ cost.”
We ask Rien how often these costs would come up. “Well, for example, someone might say to you, ‘Let’s take you in a limo’ and we would be say, ‘We don’t think that’s necessary, who’s paying for it?’. They’d say, ‘That would be a recoupable cost’ so we’d just respond with ‘We’re happy to get a cab or be dropped off’. All those little things if you go overboard with it all, can bite you in the arse. It all adds up so were very articulate about all that stuff before we signed any contract!”
Rien went on to work on solo material with Stock Aitken Waterman producers Austin & Corbin, but timing was not on his side. “We put together some really good stuff but we never released it. On my behalf, it was probably just poor timing because labels were interested, but it was about the time other artists were coming out of Westlife, so labels lost interest.”
He then tried his luck as a solo singer on ‘X Factor Australia’, making it to the top 12 of the over-25s category in the 2011 season. He also tried out for ‘The Voice’ last year and was thrilled to be seen as a solo singer rather than an ex-boyband member. “They were very respectful. They didn’t touch on the band much at all; I think at the interview stage I was asked three questions and then it was all about my own stuff.”
Rien might not have made the judges turn around during his blind audition, but he wasn’t too fazed. “It was disappointing not to get through but it just didn’t happen. You can overanalyse it and go crazy or you can just go it just didn’t happen that time. I’m sure any singer has done a concert where it doesn’t sound exactly as they had planned, that just happens. It can happen every day with anyone in whatever they do.”
We were eager to learn what he remembers most fondly of his time as a teen idol. “Whenever we were at the airport or if it was the four of us, it was crazy. There were a lot of teenage girls! Touring with Shaggy was pretty fun, going to award shows, performing on TV shows, performing anywhere was fun! At one point BMG flew us to conferences where we’d be with other artists on a charter flight, how can you not like that?”
Rien tells us that whilst most fan attention was flattering, some fans could get a little… personal. “Someone once sent me a photo of my armpit with a blurb saying ‘you look extremely sweaty there’. I was shocked! Given that it was 37 degrees in Brisbane, one would be sweaty, but to have a photo of my armpits with a blurb underneath to highlight the fact that I was sweaty was unusual!”
Rien is pretty proud of Mercury4 and his mum even has a bunch of memorabilia from his time in the band. The fashion on the other hand… “If you look back at some of those things… there were some items, especially the jeans that we all had to wear, which were very wide-legged, which probably wouldn’t be so in trend right now. Then again, I’m sure that in ten years time, when I look back at what I’m wearing today I’d be like ‘what the hell was I thinking?!”
Fans of the band will be thrilled to know that the guys are still in touch and Rien even sang at Cole’s wedding last year (No, he didn’t sing ‘Get Me Some’. We did ask though!) When the obligatory reunion question comes up, Rien has good news for any lurking Mercury4 fans. “Yeah sure! We’ve spoken about how it would be good to do a one-off gig if anyone was interested to come and watch. It’d probably be more acoustic kind of stuff ’cause we’re a bit older and it would be with Kevin.”
Don’t expect any dancing though. “I can’t do any of the dance moves anymore; I’m not a very good dancer!” he laughs. “There’s a reason why I’m up in the back in most of our film clips!”