Mercy House
Show review:
Tio Leo's Lounge - Bay Park
June 8th 2002
CD review: Full Throttle
Band interview

By Isaac Lassiter
©Copyright 2021 Lassiter

One of the great tests in imitating rock 'n' roll legends comes down to a question of whether you try to imitate their on-stage fashions and costumes and copy their music verbatim; or as the best of past-facing bands do, model yourself on the original rhythms and licks while writing and performing new music. Good music. Music that you feel from your heart and play hard. If you were in the band Mercy House, you'd certainly spend a lot of time playing hard-rocking music that dwells on a 70s and 80s foundation. Who can blame them? Some of the guys went to Claremont High-School, which gained worldwide celebrity as its alter ego in the movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." That made this writer think first off of Camaros and loads of Zeppelin, a California-cated rocker version of the one of the great stoner high-school flicks.
It wasn't all good love and booze for these guys though, as they met at a common church and spent a lot of time playing at the house of prayer. Mercy House's genuine roots and dedication to furthering rock 'n' roll have over the course of 13 years kept them rocking and loving a good time without staying stuck in the late-80s. The big-hair era sound belies the real fetish for towering guitar solos of Van Halen, not Def Leppard. Shawn , the lead singer, croons without playing an instrument, but he pulls it off by hitting solid high and low notes and keeping the Mick Jagger-esque stage maneuvers in check. The pair of guitars, played by original MH members Brian O'Keefe and Jon Jump, kept up solid rounds of solos and call-and-response throughout, and sound like these guys have spent a ton of hours trading their back-yard licks. The new rhythm section, a crucial and oft dangerous personnel decision, has delivered for MH. Mike Santangelo and Bennett Taylor may be a couple of years younger than Jon and Brian, but they certainly get it, and play like they understand where where MH has been but want to step it up to 2002. Bennett said that, "I definitely feel like it is an older sound, but with a new kick to it. They've been together for a while, like thirteen years, with new players now that have the influences of a lot modern music. We give it a little bit of new flavor, yet they still have that older stuff, and it combines really well."
The best thing that the folks in San Diego should know is that for today, we've got a tight new Mercy House line-up that we need to get out and see. Whether you've been a fan since the days when they opened for the Blue Oyster Cult, or just want to go check out some fun rock 'n' roll music in a more chill setting, these guys will deliver the goods. Jon really set the tone for you if you decide to go check out Mercy House. "I call us a 70's-based, current rock alternative. The music we grew up with, we emulate. I'm hoping that rock will come back around stronger than it is now. I want songwriting to come back, and I want to be part of that. We want to have simplicity, well-crafted songs, be a rock band, and expose people to rock. The Cult said that 'We put an album out that we want to save rock 'n' roll'. I really liked that. That is how I feel about our band."
The Gig
Tio Lio's is a mellow lounge that supports live music here in San Diego, on Morena Blvd. in the area below USD and Linda Vista. I arrived early enough to catch a quirky little solo guitar player that saved some face by covering Pink Floyd fairly well. Mercy House came on to a basically full lounge, and though the dance floor only got moving at a few points, the crowd was attentive and ready to see what the boys had put together. The 60 minute set opened with a couple of guitar driven tunes that I hadn't heard, but had their moments. Jon Jump and his rude-boy style set a stylish tone for the band onstage, but none of them overdid it with their costumes. He played a lighter song that he had written called "I Remember", and then covered "Its Been A While." They stayed focused on the blinding pace, hard drum hits, and full charges that ended and freeze-frame, cut-off ends to the songs. They didn't chore us with laborious cymbal crashing and drawn-out song closers, but rather spent the limited time they had churning out 12 highly energetic tunes that finally got the crowd on their feet and dancing by the end. While that was to the crowd-pleasing cover "Play that Funky Music (White Boy)," to be honest, getting these older folks on their dancing feet at all was pretty incredible. I think that Mike's punishing whallops on the bass made for an awakening of long retired feelings of that deep, dark, funky thump. The walking wounded from the 70s and 80s get moving only for the real thing, and MH has it. Hot guitar trade-offs between Brian and Jon in "Highway 69" combined with Shawn's voice to really make me picture the sad life of the 'Truck-driving woman' and how her dad said "don't live your life, I'm having mine." These guys were bringing out emotions of sadness. They dedicated "Better Days" to fallen rocker Darryl Deloach, and told about a benefit show they were playing the following Monday at the Whiskey on Sunset Strip to help with Darryl's families medical bills. Then they got back to the happy side that Darryl would have wanted, keeping it fresh, kept the feet moving and fingers tapping. They even found a way to fit in a super-tight version of the Beastie Boys, "You Gotta Fight, For Your Right, To Party". While the music really stayed harder edged throughout the show, you really wouldn't feel blown away listening to Mercy House if you were an Indigo Girls fan. They slowed it down, didn't all crush their instruments at the same time, and let professional instrumental work stand out more than anything. I had a good time checking out Mercy House, and not just because they rock out. They keep it real, real toward the past, real with themselves and their spirituality, and real with each other. Anyone who has survived for 11 years in the Southern California music biz, well, we should tip our caps to them. Go check out Mercy House, and don't thank me, thank the boys that keep us connected to the roots that so many of us hold dear. I'll leave you with a quote from bassist Mike Santangelo. "To me, Mercy House, is good old straight forward, rock 'n' roll. Classic rock 'n' roll. That is really all I can say about that."

CD Review - Full Throttle
1. Fear - It sounds like a full-throttle drive through a wind-tunnel. You could scare the bones off a chicken playing the guitar that hot, and the vocals spin you in circles and leave you little room to breathe. This song is not one that you play for your mom, unless your mom has pink hair and more tattoos than the guys that hang out at Mission Beach.
2. Highway 69 - while still scalding, the lyrics are more engaging and bring up images of younger, harder days, family problems, and love probably lost. You can really feel this song, and it isn't just because of the tight vocal harmonies. It might be that you couldn't hide in a bomb shelter from the assault of metal guitars.
3. The softer, more pleasantly engaging "Ordinary", sounds like the sort of tunes that Mercy House needs to keep making more of. An overall slowdown of pace makes the music work, and likely would accentuate the highs to even loftier bounds. The subtlety of the guitar work allowed the deft inner workings of Santangelo on the bass to shine through without overpowering solid lyrics.
Overall, the CD is a pleasing and endurable hard-rocking version of their music, harkening back to the overdone rock of Def Leppard without actually going there, yet still giving us an 80s sandwich of towering solos and hard-driving drums. I think that Robert Plant and Ozzy would be proud that there were bands like Mercy House still playing and spreading the vibe of things they started decades ago. Go out and get some of Mercy House's music and turn your stereo up loud, open your windows, and get started on your next warning from the landlord.

Interview 1 - Brian and Jon

I guess, first of all, tell me your names and what you play in the band...

J: I'm John Jump, and I play guitar.
B: I'm Brian O'Keefe, and I play guitar.

And we also have sitting with us...

JW: Jeff Wilson, their manager.

Cool. So the first thing I'd like to ask you guys is, how did y'all start playing music together, how did it come together?

B: Me and Johnny knew each other since the 12th grade in high school. I went to Madison High School together with my manager Jeff, and John went to Claremont...
J: Yeah, I went to Claremont High, or Ridgemont High (both laugh), yep, we lived it.
B: Me and him were in all kinds of different bands together, through high-school and college . Mercy House formed in 1991. And this is our 3rd CD
J: We were getting together a when we were around 20, playing a lot of music together, and it just clicked. We still share that now, and musically we are now more in tune with each other, we can read each other, and it is really cool to play together.

When you first started playing together, what sort of music were you into?

B: U2, The Cult, Zeppelin, Sabbath, kinda like that.
J: He went off into the middle direction, and I went kinda the other way, I was listening to a lot of stuff coming out of England, Ireland, European kind of stuff, with F lead guitar. But he was into that as well. I didn't even know what it was, I just had friends that would kind of turn me on to stuff, stuff from England. I was really into U2 a lot, and he was too.
B: The Celtic stuff
J: But he had a lot of metal influence, so we've been able to put it all together.

Where did the name Mercy House come from?

B: Believe it or not, when we started, we all used to go to the same church together. The first line-up, so we thought of the name, like a church, Mercy House. Through the years, we have three new members, John and I are the only original members left, and the sound has changed, and the words have changed a lot, its a little different
J: We were all Christians in the band. We played churches, but we weren't a ministry type of band. A lot of what we write about comes from stuff deep inside, about how we feel, like it does with any band.
B: Don't let this song right here (from the demo), "Highway 69", don't let it fool you (the seeming sexual innuendo).

No, not at all, I really enjoyed that song. So there is a lot of spirituality in how you guys are fused together?

J: Absolutely. And plus we write about other things, broken hearts, pain, feelings, happiness...
B: Death, our cats...
J: Our cats, we love our cats (both laugh)
B: I have a cat, she is 17, she is starting to piss on the rug, she is a senior cat.

Tell me a story about how one of the songs was written or where it came from...

B: John, Why don't you do that, I'm not really sure what the songs mean.
J: What we kind of do, for instance "Fear", Shawn and Brian were at rehersal, and I walked in, I heard his riff, heard what he was doing, and I kind of copped something, came up with a chorus, we go back and forth, he may have a verse, or a hook, I hear something and come up with a bridge. I take it as not letting your fears hold you back. Maybe you should ask Shawn. We used to write words and songs, but we let Shawn take care of that now.

Do you guys lead off, get the musical groove going, and let him take over, and he fills in the words?

B: We usually write the music first, we write the groove first, Shawn comes in, looks at his lyrics, and it goes from there. We write the words with the music
J: I hear the vocal hook, I hear the words, I give him the framework, I want the chorus, I'm hearing this. Same thing with Brian, I might come in, or vice-versa, with a whole song idea. We come in and present it, and it is done.
B: This is the song. It's done. You play it this way, nothing changes (laughter).
J: We do that sometimes. There are times that he will say, this is the way it is gonna be, and I'll listen to it, and say ok. Whoever writes, we always give that guy the authority, if he really has something to say.

I like all sorts of bands; from some that play precisely the same thing every night, to improv-rock and jazz bands that play almost anything at any time. Where would you put yourselves on that spectrum?

J: Lately, once we get the parts set, it stays.
B: It is usually real close to the CD. There are some songs we'll expand, but probably what you hear on the CD is what you'll here tonight.
J: We admire bands like the Stones, Zeppelin, they have a framework that can change, you can see bootlegs or underground stuff, but really it is the same, its Blues.

If you guys had to pay your own hard earned money to see a national recording act, who would it be?

B: It would be four bands, The Cult, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, but they're never going to do it again, and Van Halen, the original line-up.
J: I'm in agreement there, we love the Cult, we're Cult freaks. We saw Stabbing Westward...I like Train, Lenny Kravitz, Oasis, newer stuff I haven't been listening to lately, I come from a different school, I come from a different generation, where people could really play their instruments. I'm not trying to cut down the newer stuff, but there were really skilled players, who could craft their songs. A lot of stuff is really simplified. I'll feel like listening to a lot of the newer stuff, and out of five bands, I'll hear one that I think, "Wow, they are really on, something is really cool," and the rest of the stuff really sounds the same. I know that is kind of negative.

How do you guys feel about heavily produced stuff from digital recording studios. Is that something that you want to use in your music, or do you try to shy away from the overproduction?

B: No, we try to keep it as raw as we can. I like the analog sound better, because it is warmer. The digital sound is good, because you can manipulate it, but I like the analog sound better.
J: I agree, I'm in the same place there. I'm open to try anything though. Plus, in our situation, we go in and knock this stuff out quickly because of our budget. Maybe if we had more to work with in our budget, and more time, I'd be open to try anything.

Since I'm here with, I'd like to know who your favorite San Diego local bands are...

B: I like The Dragons, because they remind me of the Ramones, and we used to do a lot of shows with them. I think they should be signed. I used to like Earl's Son, and I like Joker's Wild a lot. That is my favorite band.
J: I just got back to San Diego. I went back to Iowa for a while, to do something different, so I have to claim a little bit of ignorance. I dug the Dragons, and a band called Patsy's Valdez, that went into another band. Also, The Voices, who was signed on MCA back in the 80s.

If you were going to describe your band's styles, what would you say? I hate pigeonholing, so I'm not looking for a genre as much as I am for what you feel about the style of music you play.

J: I call us a 70's based, current rock alternative. The music we grew up with, we emulate. I'm hoping that rock will come back around stronger than it is now. I want songwriting to come back, and I want to be part of that. We want to have simplicity, well-crafted songs, and be a rock band, and expose people to rock. The Cult said that "We put an album out that we want to save rock 'n' roll."
JI really liked that. That is how I feel about our band. With our newer members, we are taking on some newer sounds, but I want to stay true to what we are doing, stay true to Rock. You see bands doing it now, like Kravitz, who are sticking to what they want to do...Sticking to instrumentation, writing, stick to rock, and try to catch the next wave.
B: And me, I think we sound like Zeppelin, Sabbath, The Cult. Short answer, that is how I think we sound.

If you guys were going to hang out together in another city besides San Diego, to play music and hang out, where would you go?

J: I would like to go to New York, Chicago. I heard Dallas has a cool scene, and also Atlanta. Any major city. Hopefully we will get that opportunity soon. If I ever had the opportunity, I would like to record in New York. Easterners seem to be a different kind of breed, and it would be cool to be in a different environment. Or something southern, a very different region, where there would be different influences because of the music there.
B: My hometown is Chicago, so I would like to play there. I love the weather, the music, everything. I was born there, and I would like to play there. They have a bitchin' Blues festival there in July.

OK, this is my last question, before you guys go. Is there anything else that I haven't asked that you would like for people to know about the band?

R: We believe in God.
J: I've been playing music since I was 12 years old, and it is all I ever wanted to do. I want to play, I have a passion, and I'm not going to give up. It just means that much to me. I'm always going to be playing. I want to get the music out to people...It just takes the right person to help move us along.

Interview 2 with:
Shawn Salerno- Vocals
Bennett Taylor- Drums
Mike Santangelo - Bass

Bennett and Shawn, How long have y'all been with Mercy House?

B: We've been together with Mercy House for about 6 months. Shawn and I were in a band together before, a band called "Velvet 6"...
S: Which was the aftermath of a band called "Doghouse". Basically we are really good friends, and we are good musicians together...
B: Yeah, we definitely play well together...
S: So I wanted to bring him in with us.
{Mike Enters}
S: This is Mike Santangelo, the bass player.

He looks like a bass player.

M: We have that mystique, definitely.

So it was a friends relationship...

S: I joined Mercy House first, and they told me they were trying out bass players, and Mike was one of the guys that they tried, but he took off.
M: Yeah, I had to go back east.
S: So when it came down to asking me who I wanted, I wanted Mike. And after that they said, "We're looking for a solid drummer," and I said, "I know a killer drummer," and that is Bennett.
M: We have really good chemistry together.
S: We're hoping to better what Mercy House has already established. They had a really good following in the early to mid-90s.

I'm sure you guys have a different set of influences than the other guys, so tell me some of the musicians/ bands that you really love and can feel...

B: The drummers that I've been most influenced by are John Bonham, Tommy Lee, and Neal Peart, as far as the rock drummers, of the older drummers, I like Gene Croupa, Buddy Richards, and Louie Velson. I like the older Jazz drummers.

So you feel the jazz/improv drumming style in your rock?

B: Yeah, I just like the way they influence their music. They put so many feels in their stuff. They've influenced so many rock drummers today, that they've made rock so much better because of it.
S: Jazz and blues, that is the base. When I was younger, I liked everything that was heavy and dark. I liked Robert Plant and Black Sabbath. I like bands that go against the grain, and then become the sensation. When Zeppelin was told they were basically going to bomb, that is the kinda stuff I like, that challenge. I went back and listened to some of the old blues singers, Paul Rogers, I love him, think he is one of the best. I like people like David Lee Roth. I like Chris Cornell. He is probably one of the better vocalist out there today. In metal I love Ronny James Dio.
M: Basically myself, I try to listen to everything from jazz, to country, rap and metal. I'm really well rounded. As far as like influences, I'd have to say, John Paul Jones, Geddy Lee, Flea, Roger Glover, John Entwistle, you know, all those big heavy hitters, Billy Sheehan, I like to keep myself well rounded, Iron Maiden, I'm a huge Maiden fan, that is all that I used to play.

Since you're a bass player, I'd like to know who is the coolest looking bass player while they are performing?

M: Oh, man. I'd have to say Flea. He is the craziest, coolest, off the wall. Definitely Flea.

If you guys had to pay your hard earned money to see a national touring band, who would it be.

B: To be honest, it would probably be the Dixie Chicks. They are from my hometown, and I saw what they had to go through, and they only play 7 or 8 dates a year... As far as rock, it would definitely be Rush, because I heard their new stuff, and they are definitely reborn...They walk on stage in their t-shirts, flannels, and they just rock. They are just everyday guys. To me they are the best at what they play, every one of them.
S: That is a tough one. I would have loved to see Zeppelin in their heyday. When a lot of the general public got to see them, they were touring for two and a half years, and they were tired, but, to them, you know, The Song Remains the Same...
[MH groupie interrupts interview with a "Hey, aren't you guys in Mercy House"] know what, I would have like to have seen Elvis, that would have been unique for me. I think he was one of the pivotal people in music. It turned into what music is today, no rules...if you look at it, music today, like everyone comes from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, but, there were actually unsung heroes, old blues players, that were the models for the old heavyweights. To see those people, in an intimate setting like tonight's venue, that would blow my doors off. I've seen so many bands, that I have a lot to go on. I never had a chance to see them. I have seen the Who, Bad Company, Styx, Journey, a lot of big bands. Van Halen, with the original line-up. That was insane, it was another facet of rock 'n' roll that brought a certain energy and fun-ness to the music, music is an interpretation and an emotion, and if it clicks, it is magical. Without some of those bands a lot of bands wouldn't be what they are today.
M: Me, first of all, I've seen so many great shows. I loved Soundgarden. I saw Soundgarden, and I thought that they kicked ass. As far as a band that is playing now, I'd have to say Creed. I saw them live and they were one of the best sounding live bands I've heard in a long time, they are so well produced, they really have it together...They sounded just like their album live. Sometime you go to a show, and they sound like shit. They sounded great. Also AC/DC, Ozzy, Black Sabbath, you know, stuff like that.

Just because it sounds like you guys have seen a lot of great shows, could we go around and tell what your favorite show ever was?

B: Mine is gonna be a cross between three. First, Monsters of Rock, with Metallica, Scorpions, Van Halen, Kindgom Come, and Daka, at the LA Coliseum. The other one was Living Colour, Guns'N'Roses, and the Rolling Stones. And my favorite of all time, was the The Who's farewell tour. I was like seven, or eight, and my dad took me, and that is when I started wanting to get into music.
S: well, this wasn't too long ago, at the Universal Ampitheater up in LA, the headliner was Deep Purple, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Dream Theater, it was a triple bill, just unmercifull, filled with great music. You have to be a musician lover to appreciate how good the music was, and how they make everything click. They original Van Halen was real special, and believe it or not, the original Journey. In their heyday, they were unreal. Plus, if you wanted to get laid, oh my gosh, just be there.
M: I will simply say, Iron Maiden...In '84, or '85, I was about 14, I just love Steve Harris, the triplet master, the triplet king. That is it, Iron Maiden

If you guys could pick a couple of years that frame your musical influences, what would you say?

B: I would have to say the mid 80s...the Police, one of the first bands I really started listening to, Stewart Copeland.
S: I love music from the 60s because there wasn't a lot of production, and the 70s also. I like a lot of today's music, with where they are taking the music...
M: I would have to say the early 80s, the late 70s, again, Zeppelin, John Paul Jones, Geezer Butler, I mean, come on. Nicki Sixx, Steve Harris, that were such big influence on me, John Entwistle from The Who.

If you were going to describe Mercy House's sound, what do you feel about where you are going as musicians together.

B: I definitely feel like it is an older sound, but with a new kick to it. They've been together for a while, like thirteen years, with new players now that have the influences of a lot modern music, we give it a little bit of new flavor, yet they still have that older stuff, and it combines really well, and the chemistry is awesome
S: Two words to sum up Mercy House's music, Zeppelin meets The Cult.
M: Definitely a lot of The Cult influence.
S: Zeppelin, the way they like to play together [John & Brian], they've had a big influence on John, when he wants to sounds like Jimmy Page, he can.

That is a good person to sound like.

S: Yes it is. The three of us give it a whole different flavor, we draw from so many different influences. We like the old stuff, but if you want to cross over and be a marketable product, you have to be with the sign of the times. You can't be something you're not, but you have to still draw on some of the influences out there. I think that is something that we are bringing to the table.

So you think that there is something that you are bringing to the table, you are bringing the dynamics in line, and helping Mercy House go forward?

S: Yes...Because you can't sound like yesterday's news if you want to be today's news. You only get one chance to be the best piece of white bread. At least we are giving ourselves an opportunity. Classic rock 'n' roll will never go away, and when you play classic rock, and you soup it up, there is always going to be an appeal for it. It might not be in your own hometown, it might be somewhere else, but if you are being true to yourself, and it is coming out of you, that is all you can ask.
M: To me, Mercy House, is good old straight forward, rock 'n' roll. Classic rock 'n' roll. That is really all I can say about that.

What sort of attitude do you want people to hear in the music?

B: Well, basically I want them to hear something rock. Something new, but with that old little kick to it. I just love that true rock 'n' roll. I love when I look out, and see people tapping their feet, shaking their heads
S: or dancing
B: That gives me the biggest high of all.
S: We are just ordinary guys, trying our best at our craft, and we want to put an emphasis on our craft, and create a certain synergy wherever we play. The people are going to make the choice. It is a passion for me, sometimes you find it, sometimes you don't.

Find out more about Mercy House