Mercury Rev archive interview from 1993

Mercury Rev archive interview from 1993
interview by Andrew Neal from Plane truth magazine

Often, a writer’s task is to construct a glistening palace out of a
couple of “I guess so” bricks. David Baker poses no such problems. Instead,
an editorial scalpel is required to condense the flow of ideas. Yet it had
all started so hesitantly, the consequence of a rough night in Sheffield,
albeit far less distressing than their previous visit to the home of the
infernal, eternal post-gig indie disco.

“Last time I was there, I got punched in the head, hair pulled out,
jumped on at this club we played. This guy wanted to beat up Grasshopper
He held up a pass and I guess the person thought he was giving a “fuck
you”. They were harassing him and wouldn’t let him in. A lot of clubs, it .
doesn’t matter what country you’re in, will hire guys who are bored with
their lives so they lift a lot of weights and they’re hired to beat
people up. The mentality is affected by the hormones. The more you lift
weights, the more you get this special thing so that when you do it, you
have to be hard because you can’t punch a typewriter cos you’ll break
the keys. We don’t like going to places like that. People get pulled by the
hair and beaten. Usually, it’s not the band.”

Mention of phobias draws a neat analogy to Mercury Rev’s music, the
fourth dimension meeting point of seven (including live horn player, J)
parallel lines.

“I’m claustrophobic. Our tour bus had 12 coffins on wheels – those
little things with curtains on them. I couldn’t stay in mine for two
minutes. I don’t like it when people put walls in front of you in any way,
in music, physically so I usually try to push out.”

Their live shows are blessed,or plagued, by an immense variability.
Suzanne’s flute of the ascension angels can be scrambling for air under
the mound of a rock mix. Ideally, the cindered melodies of Meth of a
Rockette’s Kick and Snorry Mouth should bombard with a meteorite shampoo
shower whilst Syringe Mouth approximates to the shattering shards of a
safety-glass window.

“The sound of a show, if you’re inside it, you can’t hear what everyone
else is so you’ve got to trust the extra member of the band, the soundman,
cos your ears are different from their ears. I once had a soundman say,
‘I’m just gonna punch you out of the mix’ and I guess they did a few
shows without any vocals. It’s almost like having a good lawyer. If your
lawyer isn’t any good, he’s not going to be speaking any good for you. It’s
like having sex by virtual reality. Wouldn’t it be better if you did it
yourself? You can’t do everything yourself. Well, you could have sex by
yourself and that’s probably the most fulfilling!

“There’s also the thing about people storming the beaches during the
war. A World War 2 guy was telling me he had to unload people off the boat
to go after the Japanese so they were just taking out everybody. He kept
prodding them out and they all kept saying, ‘okay’. And I was saying, ‘Vietnam
war, everybody was no this isn’t okay’. He was going, ‘all they complained
about was the food’ so it was like a group effort because they were all
in it together but if the war’s not something everyone’s into then I guess
they complain. I guess the weird thing is, either way you die. Either way on
stage, we’re going to die or not. We’re in it as a group so sometimes you
can’t worry about every single detail.

“Every show’s different. I don’t know how other bands can stay the
same way, and why would they want to? Sometimes, the worst ordeals are the
only things you remember in your life. Maybe it’s because it must be the
most interesting stuff. That must be the reason we go on tour so we can
think our lives are interesting.
Extraordinary locations were chosen for recording the Boces LP: the
Fluids Research Centre at NASA for Something for Joey, Dunkirk. Jr. High
School cafeteria for Boys Peel Out, and sections of Meth of a Rockette’s
Kick at Elvis’ Jungle Room, Graceland.

“Did you ever see ‘Mystery Train’? It was the reason I went to Memphis
in the first place. The weird thing with that director is a lot of it is
environment. When I went to find the environments he used, like the
restaurant, the hotel, I found out this guy didn’t even have a similar view
of the environment I had when I went. He actually made this vision of what
was in his head, translated through all the technical people, he ended up
creating an environment. The coolest thing was he was paying attention to
the environment. Sometimes when people make a record or a movie, they really
don’t grasp the environment at all. A lot of the time with records and big
budget movies, what they do is anti-septic everything. The studio, especially
with records, you go and there’s a machine that’s been made, sleek design,
carpets on the wall, smelling clean. There’s little gadgets that limit and
clean up stuff. That erases any feeling. Sometimes, what you do is take another
space and try to capture it. My voice might be resonating from this ashtray
or this cup and it might give you this feeling of ‘wow, I’m in this pub’
which would be cool but if I wanted to recreate that in the studio, my
voice is going to resonate on some sound muffler that’s supposed to keep
it doing nothing so the only thing you can get is no feeling, no ambience
It’s good to go to places for the way your voice interacts with the place
With technical advances like digital, you can record anywhere so we
recorded where ever we felt like.

“It’s a lot different in songwriting. That’s just the formula, like
writing a book is a formula but if the person following the formula is
just a boring ass, then the book’s going to suck however good the formula
is. Same with a song; you’ve got the formula, the notes, but you’re not gonna
like some people’s version s of the song. Some people like anti-septic
The reason I don’t like anti-septic is I was raised with vinyl so there’d
be dust on the record, scratches, and the scratch would be part of your
environment so ‘sccr’ would take you to some space place or locked into
a dungeon and it’s not on everyone’s record, it’s only on your own. Somebody
breaks the record, you buy a new one and it’s not the same because you
might have become accustomed to the dust. In America, they got rid of
vinyl.”

Mercury Rev retain a child-like delight in asking awkward questions
musically, exploring areas of which an accountant would not approve, and
standing with juvenile tongues stuck out defiantly such as with the
impenetrable, indecipherable extra tracks on the Something for Joey
single, or their jazz symphony. David is at pains to point out that the
childhood described refers to him specifically.

“I used to draw a lot, watch a lot of TV. I used to have to imagine a
lot of things. I had a pretty active imagination which I think a lot of
people do but supposedly I would go on for ever about these imaginary
situations. I had a friend who went insane and he actually said, ‘I hear
voices in my apartment. I’m getting help’. I was going, ‘you don’t need
help, I hear voices too’. People get worried but it’s called daydreaming,
isn’t it? People are afraid of not being seen as normal. I see things all
the time that aren’t there. I’ve done it during our conversation. I’ve seen
you”(gesturing to co-interviewer, Paula)”in a swingset. As an adult, I’m
saying, ‘okay, she’s not in a swingset’ but when I was a kid, next time I
saw you, I might have remembered you as swinging on a swing.”
Tiredness especially allows the imagination to take over and on such
instances, I’ve seen friends transformed into the devil, having their head
replaced by that of a pig, talking in someone else’s voice. Bus shelters
have become animated and developed threatening human characteristics.

“The reality and the unreal are very blurry. I think that explains
why people feel they’ve been places before. If you see England in a movie
and you’re from America, why would I feel I’ve seen this before?”

David’s philosophy is to revel in his surrounds and plunge into the
unknown.       
                                        
“We plunged ourselves into going to Europe. We’re having a funner life
because in your younger years you might have been deprived of a lot of
things. I’ve never been to Japan. I guess if someone when they were five
years old went to Japan, Australia, Europe, travelled all over by the time
they’re 20, what would they do for the next 50 years. I’m glad my first 20 
years were in space, in fantasy worlds because I’m now finding there are
actually fantasy worlds that exist.

“It’s like Small World in Disneyland. You realise, ‘wow, what a big
universe’. It’s even bigger in here”(his head)”because that’s where it all
is. There are no trees falling unless it registers in your own head. It
wouldn’t matter if I went over there and had this fist fight. You don’t
know that experience until it enters your head. I think that’s why people
like to fall in love so they can have this experience this other person
had that they can’t have. Even though they didn’t have it, they can feel as
if they did. For me, it was records. Records replaced love. Listening to records
and knowing what it was like to be insane, knowing what it’s like to feel
depressed. Maybe if I didn’t feel it myself, I could get it on a record and
get scared.”

Considerately, he concludes with a summation of Mercury Rev’s appeal.

“We’re a bunch of consumers who are now actively participating in
producing things to consume that are interesting so that people can feel
like they’ve been to places they’ve never been.”

Postscript .

That was an interview where questions were not necessary! David’s reference to Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train was intriguing in that while Mercury Rev were also trying to capture a sense of place, in other ways they are the polar opposite of Jarmusch: he is seen as a minimalist who includes what other directors would leave out of films while Mercury Rev cram the whole kitchen sink and other utensils into their sound ..

David Baker left Mercury Rev shortly after the tour leaving me to fantasise about the ultimate band of eccentrics (this is meant approvingly) consisting of Baker, Eric Gaffney (ex-Sebadoh), and the twin powered drumming of Ely (ex-Trumans Water) and Gary Young (ex-Pavement). It would have been mayhem! .

Mercury Rev manufactured further sublime moments, most significantly rehabilitating the flute’s reputation in popular music (previously buried by its association with the wretched Jeffro Tull). Unfortunately, my last encounter with them, at the time of 1998’s Deserter Songs, saw their live show descend into the realm of tiresome elongated guitar solos and destroyed my previous fondness for that album.

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