Written By James Barry
Jared Hart is a punk guitarist gifted with a golden voice who crafts anthems like a musical blacksmith. And unlike his gifts, his skills weren’t acquired swiftly. He has spent decades at the forge. He is a lifelong student. And in his school, the students make the curriculum. His passion for music and his openness to genre fuel an undying quest for tomorrow’s soundtrack. He studies what he loves. And his curiosity extends beyond music; watching documentaries, reading true crime, and tumbling down Wikipedia rabbit holes provides Hart a deep pool of content to fish in. He can cast his hook into it without waiting long for inspiration to bite.
Mercy Union’s latest record, White Tiger, is an amalgam of various ores; from permanent sources like Rancid and Gin Blossoms to the radioactive rubble of Chernobyl. This raw inspirational material is melted down and cast into 11 fine blades; 11 sharp, finely polished tracks shining with brilliant refrains.
As the group’s first wholly collaborative project, the album showcases Mercy Union’s unique chemistry. Hart and co-vocalist Rocky Catanese go back and forth over massive songs, delivering dynamic, charged performances teeming with quotable lyrics. They have found the sound they’ve been searching for, and their confidence in it shows. As Hart notes, on White Tiger, Mercy Union feels like a band comfortable in its own skin.
As the band toured with The Menzingers throughout the Midwest in August, I was lucky enough to chat with Hart over the phone. He reflected on White Tiger, The Quarry, and the years when his love for music was just burgeoning as he savored the tranquility of vast open space, watching cornfields sway in the breeze under silver skies. And among the many kernels of truth I gleaned was this: there was a time, not too long ago; a simpler, purer time, when music was shared hand-to-hand like a flame and burnt CDs changed lives.
How’s the tour going so far?
It’s been awesome. Great shows so far in some really cool towns we don’t get to hit so often. And seeing The Menzingers every night is a treat, so I can’t complain.
How do you like the Midwest?
I really like it out here. I feel like I’ve lived in Iowa in a past life. When I get out here, I just feel comfortable. It’s probably just because there’s a little bit of space and I can actually breathe. I’m not on top of people to my left and right. It’s refreshing.
Do you think you could live on a farm?
I don’t know about full-time. It’s one of those things where I’d take a full year of it, just so I could really get into it. It’d be cool to have a farm for all of the senior dogs to hang out. I don’t know about doing the whole crop thing, though. That might be a little tough.
Thinking about taking a year to do something like that, would you do that between records? How much time do you need to decompress after recording a new album?
It used to be a long time. I would put a record out and feel totally drained from it, creatively and mentally. But one of the few good things about the pandemic was it put me in a songwriting routine. It became more ingrained in my daily life to where I didn’t feel like I was cutting time out to do it. So, now I’m just consistently writing. We did White Tiger, and tracks kept going. I surprised myself. I hope that doesn’t stop. Because it used to be a full year before I could start thinking of anything new again. And that sucks.
Now that you’re writing every day, do you find yourself moving on to the next song more quickly?
It’s kind of the opposite. To me, the song is never finished until it’s fully recorded. So up until that point, I’m still working on it. And when I say a daily routine, it’s more of me making sure I’m picking up a guitar and playing every day. It’s not regimented. I’m just playing guitar, and if a melody comes out of it, then that’s great. Most importantly, I’m just having fun the way I used to as a kid learning how to play.
Were all of the songs on White Tiger written through the routine you found?
I would say about half of them. There were a couple of songs on White Tiger, like “The Weekend,” I had that one laid out for years. The moment for it just hadn’t presented itself until that point. And there were a lot of songs on that record that just came from a riff that me and Rocky had playing the guitar pedal. Those are usually the more fun ones. We all like those the most.
What about this record seemed like the right place for “The Weekend”?
Our performance level could handle it. There’s a nuance to it, where if it went one way it would be a totally different song. I think we were finally able to see it clearly. A lot of times with songs, the moment you write them, you don’t seem them the way you should. You’ve gotta turn the box a couple of times, and sometimes that takes a day and sometimes that takes a couple of years, apparently. I’m still trying to figure it out.
I think you found a good place for it within the record as well. It leads neatly into “Red Eye” in both theme and sound.
I appreciate that. It was purposefully put at the end of Side A, and then “Red Eye” starts Side B. So it’s a Friday to Sunday night kind of thing.
When I listen to “Red Eye,” I think of a relationship entering a long distance phase, or separation from something you’ve been close to for a long time. Is there anything to that?
Well, “Red Eye” is one of those songs that’s about a bunch of things that become one. I don’t delve into the direct meaning of lyrics because I love it when the context stays with the listener. There are a lot of songs I’ve loved over the years where once I heard what they were actually about, they weren’t as cool as what I thought. But “Red Eye” is definitely a song dealing with human connection, and the push and pull within it.
I read the title of the record comes from a ceramic white tiger your grandpa brought back from Japan. Does White Tiger have any further symbolism to it for you?
We had no idea what to name it. I think it was Benny actually who brought it up. Every record we’ve made, we’ve had a little votive. During The Quarry, there was this glass pyramid that lit up that our buddy Brad Clifford made us. And every practice everyone had to make an offering to the pyramid. Then we came in on the last day of recording, and someone had stepped on it and broken it. So, it was destroyed right at the end of the record. And then it was only right that we had a new one for the second record. So, I had found this a long time ago, and I knew it would be perfect. And we were in the studio at the end of tracking, and I was like I don’t know what we’re supposed to name this record. And Benny said, “White Tiger. Let’s roll with that. It’s cool.” I did a deep dive into its symbolism, and it just happened to be the Year of the Tiger, so it was just too cool of a title to pass up. And I’m big on graphic design when it comes to album covers, so I already saw the whole thing in my head. The rarity of the white tiger, the mystique around it, it just felt cool.
Did you immediately have blue in mind for the album cover? And was “Prussian Blue” involved in that thought process at all?
100%. Yes. When we put out The Quarry, it was the first time I realized it was all brand new. And I always loved bands who thought so far ahead in their discography to make a constant visual theme. And I leaned into the color theme with The Quarry; everything was in that shell pink. So, coming up with the colors for this one, with “Prussian Blue”, it was kind of obvious. And it was a cool, deep color I hadn’t seen too much; a lot of good contrast with the different vinyl colors.
And how did you come across Prussian blue? Reading you were inspired to write “Silver Dollars” by true crime books, I get the feeling you enjoy nonfiction.
“Prussian Blue” is a song I’ll get into. I wrote that one after watching the Chernobyl series on HBO. I was fascinated by the fact that a handful of humans could be so incompetent they could completely ruin the lives and futures of tens of thousands of people. And that idea of humans being so fallible, so set up for that. It’s probably the most human quality there is. So I went into a deep dive after the series, just reading about it and getting into it.
And I found out Prussian blue was a pill, a powder, and a natural dye. The connection with art was cool too. Blue dyes in paint used to never hold on a canvas. Prussian blue was one of the first ones they found that held and didn’t crack or fade over time. And people found out that if you ingested it, it would attach to radioactive particles your body had absorbed and push it out through your waste. So it’s kind of a miracle pill in case you’re in any kind of fallout zone. So the line “I need you like a Prussian blue” gets its meaning from that. I need you like my life depends on it. So, that line started the song, and then me and Rocky wrote our own verses about human incompetence. We’re all at the end of the rope with the rest of humanity.
And how many ideas or lyrics emerge from what you’re watching or reading? As opposed to experience.
A lot. I would say it’s 50/50. If anything, they’re props to get to the human experience. And there’s never a full, direct reference to someone else’s work, but there are definitely a lot of little threads in there that I pull on and try to weave into something that’s my own.
How does White Tiger differ sonically from The Quarry? And how do those differences speak to the group’s growth?
The first record started as us writing my second solo record. And as we were doing that, we coalesced as a group and started writing songs together instead of me bringing songs to the table that were finished. And there’s a real progression because of that on The Quarry. There’s a lot of different sounds and different styles of songs. And while writing White Tiger, we all came together, and we were able to mold the sound to our desires. We were all on the same page of trying to get into a lot of late 90s and early 2000s post-hardcore and emo. And sonically, we really loved the bands of that era who popped, who were given a chance to have a crazy major label budget, like Samiam, being able to spend the money they spent, and go into a studio and make this awesome record that couldn’t have happened otherwise. I always liked those jumps when bands tried a lot of things and used that to their benefit. Obviously, we didn’t have a major label budget, but we really found the right team with this one. It’s the first time a record sounds the way it sounded in my head. With The Quarry, we didn’t know what we sounded like yet, even while we were making it. I think we felt comfortable in our own skin with White Tiger.
Was it challenging to become a more collaborative songwriter?
No. I’m always pushing for it, because you can only circle the drain in your own head so many times. You need another set of eyes and ears on things, just to throw a chord that you would never use, throw a hook in that you would never use. All four of us, Rocky, Nick, and Benny, are good at bouncing those things off of each other. The conversation is always natural.
Did you guys spend more time together in the years between records? Did that contribute to this new collaborative process?
At first we did. We probably had half of the record written. And then the pandemic happened. And we were just not together at all. It got to the point where songs were just sitting in a folder for a while. And I set a routine to start getting up everyday and doing the same thing, working out, and when I was done I would sit and write for six hours straight. I started working on whatever would come up, it wasn’t meant for anything. Rocky would call me and say, “We have these songs, what are we doing with them?” And I really didn’t know. Rocky was the one who really pushed to get the record done. He invested in learning how to track and mix and get songs sent back and forth. He spent a ton of time on it. He knew we could finish those songs remotely and when things lightened up, we could hit the studio. Without Rocky lighting that fire under everyone’s ass, that record never would have been made. Big props to the R-Dog.
Did you have an exercise routine before the pandemic?
Not like that. And I’ve got to get back into it. On tour, with late nights and pizza, it isn’t easy. I got into touring and music because I hated routine. I hated everything about the routine you’re forced into. And I loved the randomness of touring, the sporadic insanity of it. And then, during the pandemic, I accidentally fell into a really healthy, creative routine. I didn’t even know it until a month or two in. It was kind of nice. So I’ve tried to implement some of it as life’s gotten crazier again. But sometimes it’s hard to keep it going.
David Lynch has a strict daily routine where he does the same things, he eats the same food at the same places. He thinks having that routine and its monotony frees his mind to be more creative.
I can definitely see that. And I think about that a lot. I read a lot about creative people, and how they work. I’ve read things like that, and they make me feel like I’m doing everything wrong. But it’s cool to realize every creative human being has their own thing. Whatever gets them moving and gets the brain working in the way they need. And it can take a really long time to find those things. Working on this record was the first time I felt like I had found a few of those things that really work for me. I remember reading a Questlove book, how he gets a lot of his creativity through learning the parts of other songs he loves. And I realized that’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid. I would figure out a song and I would learn a new chord from it. And then I would take that chord and try to put it in something else. I’m not sure I could do the David Lynch thing, though.
It does seem true in every creative field that when people are first discovering their voice or their style, they start by emulating their favorites.
I tell people when they ask me, “How do I get my kid to start playing guitar? How do I get them excited about it?” I say, have them learn what they love to listen to. When I started taking guitar lessons, I was being forced to play stuff I didn’t care about. And finally, Nick and I found Vin Downes. He’s an amazing new age guitar player who does all of his own tuning and plays some of the most beautiful stuff you could ever hear. If you’re looking for something mellow to check out, he’s unbelievable. But he used to be a thrash metal guy. And I would come in, and he’d ask me what I wanted to learn that day. And that’s what we did for two years, and by the end of it I had trained my ear to hear parts. It got me excited about playing because I felt like I could do the thing the people I loved were doing a little bit better each time. I think it’s really important to get kids into playing what they want to play. You can’t force them into learning what you want them to learn. That sucks.
That’s what school is.
That is exactly what school is. And that shit sucks.
When Hunter S. Thompson was starting to write, he would take an F. Scott Fitzgeral novel and copy it word for word just to see how it felt to write those sentences.
Coming up, figuring out how to write a song was such an insane concept. You’ve never seen anyone do it and no one has explained it to you. So you try to deconstruct the songs you love. And I was always aware, even at 14 years old, that you don’t want to put it back together and have it be the same song. So I was always conscious of not photocopying, but just borrowing here and there until I finally felt comfortable rolling with it on my own. It’s a long process.
How did you discover your favorite artists when you were a kid?
That was tough. I didn’t get cable until pretty late. But stuff would be on MTV 2. I watched a lot of Ed Banger’s Ball. It was mostly kids in school. When I was really young, everyone was into the new metal thing and all that. My older sister was into a lot of 90s alternative, so that was where I got the whole Wallflowers, Goo Goo Dolls, Gin Blossoms thing from. And then in elementary school, my best friend Sam had the cool cousin who burned him an Operation Ivy CD and the Rancid/NOFX split. And I’ll never forget the day. We were all trying to cover System of a Down and no one could play it. It sounded terrible. And he showed up with the Rancid/NOFX split and put his headphones on my head and said, “Just listen to this.” And it changed my life.
It was always friends sharing stuff with each other. And a big part of it was reading the liner notes on records and seeing the bands my favorite bands shouted out, and then going and finding them. And in punk, for me, a big thing was looking at people’s guitars and vests and jackets and seeing what patches and stickers they put on things. I figured, if you’re rocking that on your chest, you must love this band. I found a lot of my favorite bands that way. I think if Spotify existed when I was 15 I probably never would have left the house. I would have just been delving into it.
Do you find yourself diving into Spotify nowadays?
Absolutely. I have a routine where I head onto the porch around 1 a.m. to end my night by picking a new record to listen to. And I’ve found a lot of really great music that way. I’ll just browse through the new releases; I like to do that Thursday night at midnight, pick a name I’ve never heard of or cover art that looks cool. Just flipping through genres. That’s one of the awesome things about streaming: how accessible it is at any time.
What are some of your favorite records you’ve found this year through that routine?
The number one right now is The Japanese House. I am absolutely obsessed with that record. I’ve listened to it a couple hundred times. I found the new Bully record that way. I had never heard of Bully before. The new Soft Kill record. Militarie Gun I found that way. And there’s this Church of Misery record that’s absolutely brutal. It’s this Japanese grimy metal band. It’s really fun to find something and get in the van and make everybody listen to it.
So you’ve got this tour in August. What else is planned for the rest of 2023?
We’re doing a big hometown show September 16th at Crossroads with Shades Apart, Calling Hours and The Big Easy. It’s a lineup I’m insanely stoked about. We’re doing Philly in September, too. We have some shows in October, we’re doing Brooklyn on the 20th. And I’m supposed to roll out to Europe for a little acoustic run in November. We’re going to put out some new music in the next couple of months and keep the train rolling through the end of the year.
You and I agree the essence of music, and all art, is connection through human experience. What is one record that has helped you through tough times?
Man, that’s a deep cut. I’m going to go with recent events and say Mac Miller’s Swimming. The whole record was an important part of me getting through a tough time over the last year. I lost one of my best friends. And that record was a big pillar there. It was very unexpected, because I had never listened to him before. It came to me at the right time. And now it will forever be a connection there.