The Geek Squad

The Mercury Project Takes Another Musical Turn With Its New Album

"We went from Goth to geek," Timothy Smith repeats several times in the course of a phone conversation. Clearly, he's amused by the musical trajectory that he and his bandmate Pete Naegele (aka DJ Hojo) have taken.

Both spent time in popular Cleveland-based '90s goth band Lestat, with their tenures briefly overlapping in the early '90s. When Lestat ended in 2000, Smith went on to electronic/industrial band UV, which even landed a couple of tracks on Warner Bros.' DVD set of The Matrix movies.

But while he was a cool goth/industrial musician on the outside, Smith harbored a secret: Inside he was a space-mission geek. "I've been into it ever since I was a kid," he says. "I remember the Apollo 13 thing going on and watching it on TV. I built a lot of Apollo 13 models. I was always into rocketry. I love space documentaries, anything NASA."

So he started writing ambient/space/industrial/electronic music inspired by those early space flights, incorporating sound bites from those missions. He dubbed the band Mercury Project after Project Mercury, the first series of U.S. manned space flights. And when UV ended he decided to focus all his energy on the project that channeled his secret space fetish.

With a chunk of music written, he ventured onto MySpace and stumbled onto a tune titled "Apollo," written by his old bandmate Naegele. It turned out the two were thinking along exactly the same lines.

"I e-mailed him, said we're doing the same style of music, so why don't we get together?" he says. "We worked together in 1990, and all of a sudden it's 2005 and we're hooking up again. He added little elements to stuff I'd already done, and I added stuff to his songs, and then we started writing together. He's a big lover of space-related things too. So it's like we were destined to do this."

That joint brainstorming led to the band's debut live performance at the Phantasy Nite Club in January. Their second show will be part of the upcoming Ingenuity Festival this weekend and will also celebrate the release of the band's album, Failure Is Not an Option, which takes its title from a book written by legendary '60s NASA flight director Eugene Kranz. The CD incorporates elements of all the band's past styles, including goth, industrial and electronic music. "The music's all over the board," says Smith. "Little pieces of me were coming out everywhere."

One of the things that attracted Ingenuity Festival booker James DeRosa to the band when he attended its Phantasy show was the multimedia presentation, which dovetails with Ingenuity's concept of mixing technology and the arts while cross-fertilizing artistic genres. As result, there's a synchronicity between Ingenuity and the Mercury Project.

"We have a lot of visuals with our music," says Smith. "I had this idea to dress like the mission-control guys from the '60s — a totally geek mission-control look with pocket protectors and everything. I made a mock mission-control center with two monitors in it. I made it out of wood and it looks realistic. We have all the video footage behind us. We made film collages - little pieces of archived film, public domain stuff. Pete's good at editing video. I came up with the imagery and he put it all together."

The band's even involved the real NASA in the project, asking permission to come out to the NASA Glenn Research Center in Brook Park to take pictures.

"We thought, 'Hey, let's take some pictures at NASA,' and they were all about us - they let us come in, let us touch Apollo spacecraft suits," says Smith. "We took a bunch of pictures with local photographer David Brown. They got a kick out of it. We looked like we were right out of the '50s or '60s, the way we were dressed. It's strange how we even look like the flight-director guys. Pete resembles Chris Kraft, head of Project Mercury, and I'd kind of resemble Gene Kranz, if I had more hair."

The Mercury Project, 10:15 p.m., July 25, NPI Hanna Stage/Ingenuity, Festival, E. 14th St., 216.241.6000, Tickets: $1.


The Prescription, Vol. 2 (Tomahawk Records)

When he's not hawking cell phones (give him a call and he'll hook you up with one of his rebate deals), hardworking Tomahawk Records CEO Javon "Chief Network" Bates is pimping his Tomahawk crew. This, the group's second effort, comes together nicely despite the fact that it's littered with cameos and just about every track features a different producer. The guys — in addition to Bates, the group features MCs Citisin Kane, D Gambit and Hub Money — take a positive attitude toward even their enemies, boasting, "We love all haters; thanks for hating; it makes us stronger" in the liner notes.

While Tomahawk offers up songs about the usual gangsta-rap topics (hustling and clubbing), it does so without the usual braggadocio and mean-spiritedness. The Mike Jones-like "Hustlin' Iz a Habit" is about a guy trying to quit the game, and "She Got Swag" is a slo-mo track about a hot babe. The tune's sexy but not demeaning ("The way she move will make a grown man fantasize," guest vocalist Jay-R raps, putting a PG twist on a Rollling Stones reference). Best of all, the group never settles for one sound or style. "Verbal Bluntz" has a heavy funk and reggae bass beat, and "Still Da Man" is an R&B jam that features the smooth vocals of guest Tyrone Hilton. Coming out of a hip-hop scene known more for its thugs than its harmony, Tomahawk Nation offers a refreshing change of pace. — Jeff Niesel