Interesting Direction: David Barbe’s Mercyland Revival

Mercyland formed in 1985, pistoning out of the eclectic Athens, Georgia zeitgeist responsible for Flat Duo Jets, Pylon, B-52’s, R.E.M., and more left-of-dial stalwarts. Teaming up with engineer John Keane (Widespread Panic, Indigo Girls, Vic Chestnutt), the band released a series of 7-inches as well as the Fred LeBlanc-produced (Cowboy Mouth) full-length No Feet On The Cowling in 1989, but by 1990, the post-punk three-piece, though unbowed, was resigned to the plateau. The longtime lineup of bassist/vocalist David Barbe, guitarist Andrew Donaldson, and drummer Joel Suttles developed a devastatingly simple plan to secretly call it quits, embrace the end, create like the sun might not rise again, and tour for the sheer bliss of the moment. Now, three decades later, Mercyland is resurrected.

“We planned our demise about six months in advance and didn’t tell anybody,” says David Barbe, who in 1990 was still a few years away from becoming the new architect of the Classic City’s sound through his Chase Park Transduction studio. “Andrew was gonna move to New Orleans– he just wanted to– and he was still gonna pursue creativity down there. Joel had gotten back in school and really wanted to finish. I had a baby and a pregnant wife and drove a delivery truck… I just knew that I thought [Mercyland] had run its course and it was time to move on to something new.

The band’s output, though lean, was nevertheless influential– Mercyland was a must-see in a town almost embarrassed with talent. But when the time arrived, Mercyland sold its van to fund a swan song and booked a surprise farewell/EP release show on Valentine’s Day 1991– and that was it. Uncertain about but open to the future, Barbe didn’t have to wait long for fate to pick up the phone.

“About a week or two after it was public that Mercyland had broken up, John Keane called me and asked me if I wanted to learn to be an engineer because I was already goin’ over there [and] producing records– but I didn’t really know that much about the gear,” remembers Barbe. “He asked me if I wanted to be an engineer, and at the time, I was makin’ $5 an hour drivin’ a delivery truck, and I was like, ‘Yeah! I wanna learn to be an engineer,’ which of course completely changed my career! And then within a few months, Bob [Mould] started talkin’ to me seriously about tryin’ to play some music together. By the fall, he had asked me to be in Sugar, so really by the fall of ’91, I was workin’ at John Keane’s primarily, and then freelancing at other studios and Bob had asked me to be in Sugar. Frankly, none of those things would’ve happened if I was still in Mercyland– and I don’t think I would have gotten the offer to do those two things had I not been in Mercyland.”

Barbe’s contributions since have been considerable. In addition to joining Mould for Sugar in 1992, releasing music solo, and performing with the Quick Hooks, (he’s also the director of UGA’s Music Business program) David has been behind the board for The Drive-By Truckers (from Southern Rock Opera onward), Son Volt, The Glands, Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires, the Starroom Boys, Macon’s own Hank Vegas, and many, many, more. As the years unfolded, however, Mercyland’s legend endured, and if a bonafide reunion was ten-foot pole territory (the trio would reassemble for Vic Chestnutt’s memorial and Barbe’s 5oth birthday), the prospect of reissues seemed even more remote.

“My entire career has been spent movin’ forward,” declares Barbe. “When it was time to be done with Mercyland, I moved forward, I didn’t look back. When it was time to be done with Sugar, I moved forward, I didn’t look back. I’ve played with a lot o’ different people in a lot o’ different combinations, I have made a billion records with people in different combinations, and it’s just because forward is always the more interesting direction to me.”

Last September Propeller Sound Recordings released We Never Lost A Single Game, the long-imagined true second Mercyland album that never was. Expanding on the band’s final EP and mining cuts from 1994’s Spillage compilation, the album features fresh mixes by Barbe in the spirit of the original intent– enhanced by David’s three decades of innovative experience.

“What I really wanted was for it to be more like it was in my head at the time, but I lacked the technical ability to do it, to convey that to engineers,” says Barbe. “As an engineer, I can tell you that getting somebody’s music to a point where they say, ‘Well, that’s what I hear in my head…’ I love it! It’s a great moment– it’s what we all wanna do! But it’s not always easy to find that. The job that John Keane and Mark Maxwell did recording our stuff was great! The stuff, now, sounds just like I wanted it to then. I had a concept of what it sounded like to me but that I just couldn’t adequately convey to anybody else. So when I had a chance to do it again, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

But make no mistake– this is no reinterpretation of post-punk scripture or New Coke chicanery.

“The basics of it sonically are less processing– like reverb and things. There’s nothin’ wrong with how those guys did it at the time, and they were workin’ with me as best as they could with my chaotic and relatively naive explanations of things! I think what I was really goin’ for was I wanted something that was a more hi-fi version of the explosive quality I would get out of recording my demos on four-track cassette,” says Barbe. “It’s funny– I’ve had somebody describe my more modern recordings as, ‘Man, sometimes you have that sound of like you get the explosion off the cassette, but it just sounds bigger and more hi-fi!’ And yeah, that’s it, I suppose!”

The release of We Never Lost A Single Game prompted an official Mercyland reunion, and on Thursday, March 30th, Barbe, Donaldson, and Suttles will join Five Eight and McKendrick Bearden at Grant’s Lounge for more than a nostalgic romp through a beloved back catalog.

“We got back together the day the record was released, September 16th of 2022. We got together a couple times over the summer to practice, and then we just had it all targeted! ‘The record comes out September 16th, we’re playin’ that day!’ We played Athens and Atlanta the weekend the record came out, we played a New Year’s Eve show with Five Eight in Athens, and now we’ve got a couple o’ shows comin’ up– one in Macon, and then the next night opening for Drive-By Truckers at the 40 Watt,” says Barbe. “You grow, you change, you develop, so I feel like I’m a better bass player and a better singer now than I was then. Andrew’s guitar playing has evolved and changed to me and Joel– Andrew feels like it’s exactly the same! To me and Joel, we feel like it has evolved and changed in a really cool way. He’s played with all these swampy, roots-based bands down in Louisiana and I think it’s had a cool influence on his playing. Joel’s drumming is like the unsinkable battleship that cruises the seas as it ever did! We’ve all changed a bit, but at the same time, when we do the thing together, you’ll have these little brief moments that feel exactly the same! So I can’t really define it– the spirit’s there and hopefully, the playing and singing is a little bit better!”

For those concerned about what comes next for Mercyland, Barbe confirms more music in the not-too-distant future.

“There’s actually two more reissues! We had a lot of recorded material! No Feet On The Cowling comes out– depending on the pace of vinyl production, which always takes a while nowadays– later this year. Then there is one more album that’s going to come out which is the earliest phase of the band, most of which never came out on any album,” Barbe reveals. “I’ve got all these recordings and Jay Coyle at [Propeller Sound] was an OG Mercyland fan so he knows all this stuff, and frankly, we could put out five or six old albums– but we’re not going to! We’re just kinda culling the stuff that feels right. And then we’ll just have to see if new material develops. Right now, it’s fun to go back and play these songs because [they] were originally written from a good place in time to be writing songs. That point of my life in my early 20s– when you write it, you mean it and it feels good to play those songs again.”

See Mercyland LIVE at Grant’s Lounge, Thursday, March 30th! Tickets are available now at!