What follows is my interview with State of Mercury, a YouTuber who reinvents Metallica songs. Check out his channel, here. I often analyze Mercury's work (which is superb), and you can read about that in my Two Cents compendium (which also has all of my interviews about metal remixers).
State of Mercury, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Mercury: So my name is Calvin Cox. I'm a guitar player from Canada. Right now, I guess I'm mostly known for my "Metallica What if..." series on YouTube.
Nick: In our recent interview, Bryce Barilla said you've been playing guitar for at least 10 years?
Including but not limited to Metallica, what are some of your influences that made you pick up the guitar?
Mercury: Yeah it’s been about 10 years now since I got my first electric guitar. Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, Motley Crüe, Zeppelin, AC/DC, Def Leppard, and The Scorpions were all huge influences for me (the whole list is much larger). Punk bands were my main inspiration when I was in my high school band, though.
Nick: Do you have a favorite guitarist, one whose been more influential to you as a player than anyone else?
Mercury: Brian May from Queen. I remember listening to "Killer Queen" when I was young and it was a real game changer. From his guitar sound, to his riffs and licks, I discovered that there were so many different things you could do with a guitar. I've learned a lot about phrasing and technique from playing Queen songs.
Nick: Do you like St. Anger or Lulu?
Mercury: St. Anger was massively over played in my house. My dad, my brothers and I all enjoyed it. It might have been because it was the first Metallica record for a while, or perhaps we were all angry. I'm not sure. But we all loved it. Over the years I've definitely leaned away from it, but there are some songs on there that I just love.
Nick: Do you have a favorite Metallica riff? Guitar solo? Album sound?
Mercury: I love the riffs in "The Shortest Straw." They just sound scary, and I love the song. For guitar solos I love "Battery," "Master of Puppets," "Blackened," and "The Unforgiven." They all just have kind of unique solos for their respective albums, and they're pretty technical I guess. Album sound is really hard for me because I like different elements from each album. But I’m going to pick AJfA. Love the sound of the guitar and drums, and believe it or not, the bass tone. James Hetfield's voice is so raw and angry on that album, too—he kills it.
Nick: What made you start to do "What if?" style videos on YouTube? Was there anyone who inspired you to try this particular activity—say, GuitarRazze or Creblestar?
Mercury: Honestly, I had never heard of anyone else doing the "what if " videos before I started doing it; that really wasn't the content I was watching on YouTube back then. I picked up Steven Slate Drums 4 (midi drum machine) and it came with a Black Album preset. I made "What if Master Of Puppets Was On The Black Album?" And about a year after posting it jumped to 100 000 views, and then I started making more.
Nick: Do you and Bryce Barilla ever feel like you're in competition with each other? Is there anything about his work that inspires you to try harder?
Mercury: I think there definitely is some healthy competition going on. I know from talking to Bryce that we both feel a small insecurity toward the other. I know we both get nervous when then other posts, especially if it’s really good, or well-received. At the end of 2019 we were both putting out so many videos, it was fun to kind of bounce back and forth, and to wait and see what was coming next. It was a lot of fun.
Nick: Do you have a favorite video by Bryce?
Mercury: "Metallica's And Justice for All Album... But It's in the Major Key." Every time I listen I laugh my ass off. It’s so damn good, and the music sounds hilarious. He hits that Justice tone right in the balls.
Nick: As a content creator, I'd say your strongest qualities are your impeccable chops and songwriting skills. However, your audio production is solid, as well.
Mercury: [The first version of that video] was the first video (that wasn’t a troll post) that I actually lost subscribers for, and received almost 50/50 comments, good and bad. I just thought if people are investing time in my channel, they deserve a little better. Up until recently, I hadn’t really let comments change my content much. Not that I hadn’t listened to fans or viewers. It's just that I hadn’t given it much thought.
Nick: Between your playing, compositions, production or anything else, is there anything about your own content that you feel needs work or otherwise gives you trouble?
Mercury: [The video production]. I’ve just started learning how to actually edit well. So hopefully I see some improvement this year. I want things to look as professional as possible.
Nick: Apart from your tutorials, your channel seems based mostly on rewriting/-performing Metallica songs. What made you decide to focus on Metallica in particular?
Mercury: Honestly, [it's for] the attention. They seem to be one of the bands that like everyone pays attention to online. I post some other videos, they really don’t get the views (not that everything is about views). But yeah, [Metallica] really seem to make people happy.
Nick: A lot of your early videos emulate the Black Album. Is that your favorite album “style” to play in, or do you have another album that’s just as fun?
Mercury: The Black Album is fun because you have to undress all of the albums before it to make them sound like the Black Album. It’s also a lot easier of an album to cover for my process. I love coming up with riffs for [the Black Album] sound.
Nick: Is there a Metallica album that, in your opinion, desperately needs to be played in another albums’ style to sound better than it currently does?
Mercury: Death Magnetic. I'm working on some stuff as we speak.
Nick: You’ve played songs in the style of MoP, AJfA and the Black Album. Is there a reason you haven’t tried songs in the style of KEM or RtL?
Mercury: Well, I did “The Shortest Straw” on KEM, but as for RtL I’ve got a couple that I just haven’t posted; I want to make sure my tone is down, because Bryce has such a good tone going. I would be doing my viewers a disservice to [release them] as they are.
Nick: Your videos are pretty experimental, and tend to change a given song’s structure. What made you decide to take this approach?
Mercury: When I started, no one else was doing it this way. Everyone was just taking one song, playing it the exact same way, but with different guitar tones and bass and drums. Even my first video was kind of this way. When I gained some momentum and discovered some of the other channels like Bryce, Guitar Razze, and Creblestar, I knew [I] would have to do something a little different, a little crazier.
Nick: Your songs tend to veer away from the original song length. Your video "What If Nothing Else Matters Was On Master Of Puppets?" is over two minutes longer than the original song. Another video, “What If Sad But True Was On ...And Justice For All?”, is three minutes longer than the Black Album version.
You really excel at creating new Metallica-sounding riffs. Is this what makes you more willing to try different song lengths? Or is there a different reason?
Mercury: Yeah, that’s definitely part of it. The creative inside me starts getting really excited so I just start piling on ideas. But the main reason is I just want everything to be over-the-top. YouTube, and the internet in general, is so oversaturated with plain, old covers and plain, old mash-ups. I want to give people a reason to come back, and I think adding or removing certain elements from songs is the way to do this.
Nick: Your channel has many videos teaching people how to play riffs, and videos that prove you can play difficult riffs. Are there any Metallica songs that you dread having to cover on account of their difficulty?
Mercury: Not really. I think I can play every song, so it should just be good fun.
Nick: In your opinion, what is the hardest Metallica riff and guitar solo?
Mercury: "Frayed Ends of Sanity" for the riff... I think? I don’t know, really. Guitar solo-wise I would say “One” or “Ride The Lightning.”
Nick: How easy is it for you to come up with guitar riffs, yourself?
Mercury: Oh, God, super easy! I play my guitar all day, and have for years. I better be good at it!
Nick: If you had to give it a ratio, how much of a riff do you borrow, and how much do you come up with on your own?
Mercury: It depends on the albums I’m doing. There are songs like “What If The Memory Remains was on the Black Album?” where I hardly use any of the original riff (or song). Then there are songs like “What If Battery Was on ...And Justice For All?” where it’s just a modified riff. [In terms of an exact ratio] it’s hard to put a number value on it.
Nick: Your guitar solos can be pretty dazzling. What makes you decide to try a particular technique when writing a solo? Do you generally refer to Kirk’s solos? How much of you is in them on average?
Mercury: I always sit down and "wing" sections of solos, and record those sections. It’s usually random until I find something cool. Then, when I have the whole solo pieced together, I go back and record it. When I’m doing this, I just have the solos from all of the songs on that particular album either running through my head, or playing on my computer for reference. This way, I can keep the feel of each album throughout the whole song.
Nick: Playing-wise (not audio production), what’s your favorite album to write guitar solos in the style of?
Mercury: MoP is great. The Black Album is easier. Justice takes the cake; I have so much [fun] doing the Justice solos/ harmonies.
Nick: Because of its complexity, is AJfA generally the hardest to try and recreate within different Metallica albums? Or can styling a song after KEM, MoP or the Black Album be just as challenging?
Mercury: Honestly, the AJfA ones come easier now because I have a formula, and a ton of homemade presets for things. So at this point the AJfA stuff kind of writes itself. MoP can be very challenging—probably the hardest for me so far (of the videos I’ve posted). The Black Album is another one that kind of writes itself at this point, unless I’m making major changes.
Nick: What’s the hardest part of making your remixes? The playing? The audio production? The compositions?
Mercury: The audio production. It’s very hard to start from zero. From gathering the tools you need, to getting tones, to recording, to post production. It’s just a big learning curve. As you learn more, you find out there how much more there is to know. It’s a constant switch between learning and application.
Nick: Apart from vocals, have you ever considered collaborating with Bryce Barilla or another YouTube musician?
Mercury: Definitely, but I suck at working with others: I’m a control freak. Bryce would be my first pick to reach out to for a collaboration, though.
Nick: In his interview, Bryce mentions how he thinks that your drums are cut-and pasted-samples from the original stem tracks. Is this true, or do you find another way to recreate them in your music?
Mercury: For some of my songs, yes he’s correct. It’s a little more than that, but basically yeah. It’s always some form of sample cut from the original stems, supplemented with MIDI drums.
Nick: Can you play the drums yourself?
Mercury: Yes I can.
Nick: Generally the vocals sound like you alter the pitch, making James sound older or younger. Have you ever considered collaborating with a YouTube vocalist (a la Raphael Mendes and his Bruce Dickenson/Iron Maiden cover work)?
Mercury: I have. I would love to do this.
Nick: Do you play the bass in your songs yourself?
Mercury: As of August last year, I do.
Nick: Do you think AJfA should have bass, or does it sound fine the way it was originally produced?
Mercury: I like both versions. I think I prefer the original production, but it’s hard to say.
Nick: Burton, Newsted, or Trujillo?
Mercury: Burton 100%. He was an actual musical genius.
Nick: Do you make your own music, or have plans to? Are you currently in a band?
Mercury: I’m not currently in a band, but I write and record tons of music by myself. I’m thinking of doing another channel where I just post original work.
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