Q&A with Mercury Rev's David Baker


Mercury Rev, Yerself Is Steam

Foster Child zine, #13, Winter 1993

1993 interview with David Baker, founder and then-lead singer of Mercury Rev. This interview came some time after the band's debut album, Yerself is Steam, was released. In addition to Baker, the band at the time consisted of Jimmy Chambers (drums), Jonathan Donahue (guitar), Suzanne Thorpe (flute), Dave Freidman (bass) and Grasshopper (guitar).

FC: I have to apologize, I have to ask you some preliminary questions. I do not have a biography of the band.

DB: Good. So, have we met before?

FC: Umm, I don't think so.

DB: Probably though, I've lived in Baltimore

FC: Did you grow up in Baltimore?

DB: No, but you know Dave Koslowski [then guitarist of Baltimore band Liquor Bike]? You must. I used to work with him.

FC: At Merkin Records?

DB: Uh-huh. I was there a few years ago. While we were making Yerself Is Steam, I was living there. We just lived all over the place. One lived in Oklahoma, one lived in Connecticut, one lived in New York City, two lived in Buffalo, and I lived in Baltimore. So that's pretty spread out for what you would call a band.

FC: How did Mercury Rev get together?

DB: I don't really know. Mercury Rev got together because, um, I don't know. I got no idea. I usually try to give some answer but it usually doesn't work. We met in Buffalo. There must be people you know where you don't remember the first time you met them, right? Well there's people in the band that can't really figure out where they first met each other.

And also, I don't think anybody in the band really refers to the band as a band. We've gotten into the habit of it. It's more like its just a group of people had one thing in common: They're a bunch of losers.

We're doing all kinds of different stuff. Making films and stuff, just a bunch of friends doing creative weird things, and then we decided 'Oh all these people make records and they don't sound like what we want to hear,' so we made some stuff for ourselves and this guy in England, Graham, said he wanted to put it out. He works with Jungle Records, but he started this label, named Mint.

So we weren't really a band. We were living all over the place. Bands are some kind of thing you see in a Seattle-type deal. Everybody kind of looks like they belong together. They live in the same house, listen to the same records, piss in the same toilet. In the beginning, I didn't even know one or two of the people very well at all. Since then I've gotten to know them a little bit.

FC: What other kinds of projects were you involved in?

DB: Mostly inventions. Like trying to invent spaceships and stuff.

FC: Actual spaceships?

DB: Well, you know some of them could be constructed I guess, Some of them were to use your brain.

FC: Where are you living now?

DB: Brooklyn, New York. I'm hardly ever there because there's all this stuff we're doing. Like I'm talking from an isolation booth, which is kind of cool, actually. I think I just want to live in an isolation booth. I just like padded walls. It's pretty cool. A little window, it has little fish in it,

FC: It has fish in it?

DB: To see outside the isolation booth, you have to look at fish, and then there's this blurred image so you can kind of see the control board. And then there's a big door, and a coat hook, which I don't know why anybody who would go into an isolation booth would need a coat hook. Then there's a plug. And a heater. It's carpeted. It's pretty cool. The reason I like it is that it is kind of like your own little self-contained world.

It's like spaceships, the reason I think people like spaceships is because it reminds them of the womb. But the isolation booth is the same thing. You can't really get out until your ready to come out. Until you're ready to land.

You know babies babies sometimes try to get out but it's not really a good idea until the atmosphere is right. So it's kind of how we make records too. You get into the isolation booth and when you come out. . .[pause]. Wow, that's a weird light.

FC: Would you call the group isolation booth musicians?

DB: Yeah, we're very isolated from each other. If we'd have six isolation booths, we'd probably make the best music ever. If we'd promise we'd never see each other.

I don't know how other bands work. I wonder if other bands fight as much. Try to kill each other. We get passionate about stuff, I mean it's still early on. It's only one record. We're just finishing up another one now. I wouldn't say that's its been a long career, but I can't imagine being like Chicago or something, making 25 albums. I bet they must phone in their stuff. They must.

FC: How will the second album differ from the first?

DB: Well. . .um. . .different song titles. I think the band makes songs different ways each time. We try to make ourselves interested in things, some of which is how one song differs from another. So some of the songs may sound like they're from the same band, but they are definitely attempts at doing different things. If I were to going to generalize about the whole album, I wouldn't be able to do it.

FC: So you're very conscious of not doing the same things the same way?

DB: Well, yeah. You get bored. I guess there's some things you can do over and over, like watching certain episodes of TV, but there are some other things that just get so boring you try to mess them up.

FC: Did you have a hand in the making of the new video for “Car Wash Hair”?

DB: Yes. One cool thing I like about Mercury Rev is that we usually have our paws in everything. We're pretty self-contained. The bass player is the engineer for the band. Jonathan does a lot of artwork. The artwork on the cover is his. Grasshopper and I do video.

Why would a video be made by somebody else? Some bands just do that, they say 'I got no idea, just put me in there with my guitar playing on stage, because that's what I do.' I don't think we ever thought about what we do as being just like this.

A lot of people assume that. . .it's kind of like the accountant who's a really great tennis player, but the thing that makes him the money is being an accountant, so he's called an accountant even though he may play tennis as much as he plays with a calculator. He might even be better at it, but he wouldn't known as a tennis player because he doesn't make any money at that.

So on our working papers it says musicians, and that's only because that's only because that's the only thing that people play us to do, besides sell hot dogs and pizza.

FC: Listening to Yerself is Steam it seems as though the band aims for a sense of disorientation. . .

DB: Aims? It just ends up being there. It's pretty much the way things are. I think it's almost like a six-sided seesaw. Some people are disoriented and some people are really oriented, and the people who know what they are doing are probably not right.

FC: The band seems to be very aware of sounds. . .

DB: Yeah. What you didn't ask the question everybody asks, namely what are your influences? But that's exactly our influences, sounds, feelings, stuff like that. Chocolates, relationships, humans, not records. Sounds like a car backfiring is definitely going to have some sort of influence on the guitar.

There's a lot of different things on Steam that are not traditional instruments, things you look at and think ' Oh, that usually serves a different function.'

FC: But they do have musical qualities to them. . . .

DB: Oh, yeah. A tea kettle can put notes out, but people usually don't use it for that. Maybe because when we were making the record we were so different from instruments anyway. We were about as close to the kitchen utensils as we were to guitars that it didn't seem weird to use anything.

A lot of people don't get that. Because they've been playing guitar their whole life they think that's all there is . But there's always kitchen utensils, vacuum cleaners, stuff that people don't usually use in a rock band.

FC: Coffee percolators . . .

DB: Yeah, how did you get that? You're the only one who figured that out. Everybody thinks its a breathalyzer . That's cool. Give yourself a plaque.

FC: What does your mother think of the record?

FC: My mother? Let me tell you about my mother . . . .(laughs) Nah, I'm just kidding. That was a line off of Blade Runner.

I don't know. She seems to think it's o.k. You'd have to ask her.

She seems to think it's all right. She's into classical music and she's happy that her son is doing all right. But I don't think it's her cup of tea.

I think she's happy I'm doing music. Music has always been in the family. My sister is a classical violinist. She's pretty good.

FC: While you were on tour with My Bloody Valentine, did you interact with them at all.

DB: Interact?

FC: Hang out, discuss politics, eat breakfast together?

DB: Midnight munchies. They're very nice people. I don't remember how we met, but they asked us to play in England and we played one show. We really don't play that many shows. We've only played six in the U.S. So far. We've taken eight trips to England.

We did play one show with Bob Dylan. I don't think anybody at that show remembers us playing except for the fact that there were six people on the stage making them deaf.

FC: Where did you play with Dylan?

DB: It was at Yale University. We played our regular stuff for 2000 people who didn't know we were going to be on. We figured it was the wrong thing to do to play with him because we're not like him. But we figured that it would make sense.

FC: But, in a strange sort of way it does.

DB: Yeah, it kind of did. The crowd was old and young. It was the young republicans sitting there getting mad, and screaming at me afterwords, yelling 'You fucking shattered my ears' or something. And then this old guy, maybe about 50 years, grabs me and I'm going 'Oh shit, maybe this is big mistake.” But he goes 'That was fucking awesome. I haven't heard anything like that since Hendrix.' So it was the older people, the ones who talked to us, who seemed to like it. The younger ones were saying 'That's not music.'

It's like the norms always change and the weird thing about it is that it is almost like a cycle. I remember being a little kid and there was this conversation at this person's house and they were talking about how Dylan wasn't a singer. It's weird how something like that seems off kilter, like Dylan's voice, can later be acceptable 20 years later.

FC: When playing out live, do you feel the urge to play the songs the same way as they sound on the record?

DB: We couldn't anyway. We don't practice so it changes what we're doing. Our first show was in this small bar for Melody Maker. They flew over from England because we couldn't afford to go there. We didn't have any money. We paid for our first record from the savings of working shitty jobs and selling blood. So we said that if you want to see us, we'll play this place, and Melody Maker was interested because they heard our first record. So they came, and started this whole thing over in England.

So the next show, our second show, we played in front of this big crowd in London, and by the fifth show we played in front of 20,000 people and we still haven't practiced.

So it's just been pretty attracted to the idea of spontaneous combustion. And it seems to work because they keep paying us to play more.

FC: Sounds dangerous. . .

DB: Yeah, there's songs, there's structure, but occasionally somebody has a nervous breakdown. Like myself. You never know.