Interview with David Baker (Variety Lights, Shady and ex-Mercury Rev)

David Baker (by J. Geimer)

David Baker (Photographed by J. Geimer)

Largely due to the fashion-driven push-pull of the brand new and the nostalgic, views of musical history are constantly being rewritten.  As a co-founding Mercury Rev vocalist and songwriter, David Baker’s place in said band’s fledgling years – specifically across 1991’s sublime Yerself Is Steam, 1993’s brutally inventive Boces and countless contemporaneous fearsome live shows – has often been unfairly misrepresented as a maniacal distraction in the piecemeal build-up to the commercially successful second post-Baker Rev album, Deserter’s Songs, released in 1998Yet more recent interpretations of the Mercury Rev saga are actually far kinder to the Baker years,  especially given the group’s seemingly terminal latter-day slide into creative torpor and the rising recognisable influence of the aforementioned earlier works upon a recent crop of neo-psychedelic and noise-pop explorers. So, at last, his creative stock is rightfully up for more positive reappraisal.

With his reputation belatedly being rebuilt, Baker also finally returned to releasing music in 2012 – around 18 years since his last official recorded outing under his short-lived Shady solo alias – with a new album cut with his new Variety Lights venture.  With its enigmatic mixture of warped dream-pop and spectral sci-fi soundscapes encasing oblique philosophising and psychodramatic edginess, pieced-together meticulously via layers of analogue electronics and showcasing Baker’s more hushed yet still distinctive vocal delivery, the promising Central Flow may have surprised and bemused some of his inherited fan-base but it reveals an artist keen to move forwards instead of resting on the laurels of past glories.

With all the above in mind, an opportune invite to hook-up with Baker around his return to touring with post-punk veterans Peru Ubu in the UK was taken-up.  The resultant revealing interview below was thus conducted post-tour via e-mail, after a face-to-face rendezvous on Bristol’s dockside.

You’ve just been over here in the UK for most of April for a Variety Lights tour with Pere Ubu – was this the first real touring that you’ve done here since the 1990s?

My last show in the UK before this tour was in London in 1994 with my solo project Shady. I had in my band my sister Julie Baker on violin, John Thomakos on drums, Robert Hampson (from Loop/Main) and Bill Whitten (St Johnny/Grand Mal) both on guitar and Jon DeVries of Agitpop on bass.  The last national tour for me was singing in Mercury Rev as we toured with Spiritualized the year before.  I remember that tour well enough to be surprised that it was 20 years ago. The length of time became really clear to me this tour however when I found myself meeting some teenage fans from that time period telling me now how their own grown children are also fans. I felt a little like Rip Van Winkle.

What was it like for you to be touring with Pere Ubu?

I saw Pere Ubu play my school lunchroom in 1987 in Buffalo!  I had already been a fan of their recordings for some time. After all, they were from Cleveland, another city on the Great Lake Erie, that was perhaps suffering an overall decline similar to my own city and it felt inspiring that this great band were making cool records for the world to hear.  I remember at the show they surprised me because every member of the band was interesting, from the keyboardist playing with the noise of his synths plugs to the fantastic bassist.  And I loved how the drummer Chris Cutler, I believe, played with such weird personality, and of course Mr. Thomas was great!  All these years later the members may be different but the formula of everyone being an interesting contributor to the music is still very much there. So actually it was an easy thing to be on tour with a band you admire. Really great group of people…

So I imagine that touring with Peru Ubu stirred some memories of your formative artistic years.  Can you recall and recount how it all coalesced for you at the start of your music career?”

I was a music director at my school radio station during the mid-‘80s and it was a great time for listening to music. A diversity of cool music.  But what people forget about the ‘80s – while they remember all the freaky hair and the music – is that there was a huge division between mainstream music and what was called new wave or post-punk or hardcore or rap but certainly not mainstream. I remember being in restaurants or on the street and people being seriously unkind to anyone that looked different or thought differently. Yuppies and Reagan and the whole thing. Radio did and actually now again still does not play music by adventurous bands. At least now there is easier access online but bands then had to rely on a small but devoted group of kids, fanzines, and record stores.

I decided to do my part by booking in Buffalo the more interesting groups at union halls or wherever, sometimes myself or with a bunch of us kids called Neurotic Family and even opened a club.  I put on everything I could.  Shows for Sonic Youth, the Pixies, Flaming Lips, Snakefinger, and more and then my roommate Jonathan Donahue (Mercury Rev) started doing the same thing as our schools concert chairman and he set up everything else. Butthole Surfers, Bad Brains, The Chameleons and then also Pere Ubu, even Lou Reed and The Beastie Boys with Public Enemy.  It was a cool time for us.

Who was with you this last April playing on the tour?

Luckily I had a great group. One of my favorite singers and musicians Adam Franklin from Swervedriver played guitar and Weston Broske and Chaetan Newell [were] on bass and drums. Also, Max from the band Pram came with us to help out and drive. It was a lot of fun. The GPS was terrible however; “Turn left, then turn left, turn left again…” and I am saying to the device “Hey Madame, that many lefts is a circle!” One time in Glasgow we arrived – instead of at the club – at a lady’s house on a hill in this residential neighborhood. Pere Ubu later told us they went to the very same house. We really should have played a show there in her living room.

What can people expect from the live Variety Lights experience compared to the studio recordings?

Live has always been for me an immediate experience. Catharsis or outburst or actively seeking beauty in the moment. Breaking things but also caressing – your mood at the time matters and also the mood of the crowds.  The studio is a fun, wonderful laboratory. A place where spontaneous is also king but captured with tools. And then sure, if you feel like it, destroy that.

It does get silly to me sometimes when I meet musicians that feel a studio should only recreate what a band can accomplish live. That’s similar to the thinking back in the early silent film era when the static camera was used as if capturing a play.  So you go back to those films and everything is still.  Studio or live, I have always admired the musicians that play with an experimental drive, an emotional heart, an attachment to melody and hopefully a little intelligence.

Do you exclusively play material from Central Flow or do you dip into covers and further back in your own catalogue with Shady and Mercury Rev?

Only new music…

To many, your reappearance with Variety Lights last year came as a somewhat pleasant and unexpected surprise. Although I suspect that you been asked this many times over the last year, please can you briefly account for your time away between release of your album with Shady and your return with Variety Lights?  What had you been doing?

Dreaming up ideas. Growing and learning. Loving. Grieving. Searching. Working. The usual. Quietly inventing. I was always making music, just not releasing.

David Baker (Photographed by David Baker)

David Baker (Photographed by David Baker)

What steered your move to a more electronic palette with Variety Lights? What were your influences?

It’s not just that I wanted an electronic album. It’s been a continuous evolution.  I have always been interested in electronics in music even as a kid hearing synths in sci-fi TV and movies or public television…Walter Carlos, Sesame Street. I remember seeing the Whole Earth catalog advertising synthesizers back in the ‘70s or seeing pictures of synths filling rooms. I used to romanticize as kids do about computers making music.

I loved funk and soul in the ‘70s and definitely crossing that with pop psychedelia and of course Krautrock. I think that the use of synths in funk and electronic urban dance led kids my age to new wave.  I loved how early synth bands constructed songs from sounds like Kraftwerk. I loved the song “Ghosts” by Japan and those huge early hits by Tears for Fears and Depeche Mode. Many were constructed heavily from electronic sounds like Human League’s Dare and then Heaven 17’s Penthouse And Pavement.

But while I loved ‘80s dance remixes, new wave or hip hop, I also started liking the idea of taking the crazy sounds but exploring leaving out the beats. Cross pollenating with psychedelia or rock or experimental stuff.  Back then I was sparked first by rap mix masters but then further by what Christian Marclay or other music or mixed media artists were doing that I would see at Hallwalls Art Center in Buffalo. I even sat next to John Cage there during a performance that involved clipping a piano string and rubbing it on the metal inside a piano.  So on the radio or where I was allowed I would play records at wrong speeds or backwards. Turned them by hand, slowed down or faster and would mix records but not so recognizably as others. Not so popular. Then came tapes and soundtracking weird moving images. It’s still a part of what I like to do now.

The period with Jonathan and Sean (Grasshopper) pre-Mercury Rev was and is very important to me as well. I still love guitars. Guitars with effects.  At first we would get together to make weird tape creations. But when we all moved into the same house Jonathan Donahue started experimenting with guitar pedals making sounds unlike anything we’d heard before and I had my cheap Casio keyboard and vocals and out-there 4-track ideas. Sean used to play everything, even pots and pans, but when he focused more on guitar as well they made something powerful. When everything got chaotic the police would come… regularly.  That basically is where things started forming what people now know as early Mercury Rev. So I feel that Variety Lights is continuation of even that time but also the decades since. Some people think Central Flow is a current whim or a recent fashion choice but it’s been a continuous journey.

How did using more vintage electronic equipment and your own studio shape the sound and construction of Central Flow ? Was it a slow and meticulous process?

The only rules for Central Flow were it had to be done entirely by myself and Will Maclean. So if we did not know something we had to figure it out. We did have a good time linking synths around the room via Midi.  Trying to make a big sound or musical piece with just the two of us or even a lot of the time by myself.  For a time I called myself Condo Boy. I was allowed access to record in a room in the sky and its view is pictured in the CD booklet. Every day the colors changed and the lights changed and that informed the record. I would usually write words or music in that room but also Will MacLean and I would get together a couple of nights a week to experiment or jam with our combined collection of instruments. I did not leave the place for very long periods. Just went kind of crazy. Whispering into the microphone.

What led you to you sign-with up Fire Records?

James [Nicholls, Fire Records Label Manager] emailed me for 5 years. He was a fan and with his energy and salesmanship revealed an easy way for me to get back to music.

Lead single “Silent Too Long” is hard not to read as a self-acknowledging reflection on your time ‘in exile.’ Is that what the song is really about?

I usually like songs to have multiple ways to hear them or understand them. However in this song I was trying to write more directly about how a kind of apathy had formed through the country based on fear and lies. Voices were muted so I wanted to present a simple and direct message that we have all been silent too long. When we chose the single it revealed that perhaps I myself had been literally too quiet.

Am I the only person to think that “Establishment” is partly reminiscent of The Turtles’ “Happy Together”?!

Yes you are the only person. There is one other lady in Sweden that thinks it’s a song by Rupert Holmes.

What inspired the lyric to “You Are Famous”?

It felt like a modern way to say you love someone. That they are famous even without the reality show. Inspired by happy times with my girlfriend and our puppy. Fame is not required.

How do you think that you have evolved as a lyricist since your Mercury Rev and Shady days? Has the process changed a lot for you? 

The first three albums have lyrics that are very personal and although each song was approached differently, sometimes spontaneously, other times intensely thought out, they all seem to have multiple layers of meanings. People will always try to ask me to explain lyrics or some will ask me to write them out because we did not include lyric sheets. This album I included the words but also perhaps I tried to be slightly more direct.

Some of my favourite pieces from Variety Lights are perhaps the dreamier, more atmospheric and vocally-minimal tracks like “Feeling All Alone,” “Infinity Room” and the b-side “Worry.”  Do you think that such tracks will help change people’s pre-conceived perceptions about you the most?

I do not know what do people preconceive.  Either way you shouldn’t pigeon hole a pigeon.

Mercury Rev at the Mean Fiddler in London on July 6th 1991 (Left: Jonathan Donahue and Centre: David Baker - photographed by Peter Morris.)

Mercury Rev at the Mean Fiddler in London on July 6th 1991 (Jonathan Donahue (left) and David Baker (right front) – photographed by Peter Morris and pulled from the David Baker archive)

Looking back, do you feel that prior to Variety Lights that you’ve been underrated as an artist?

I started out rated as high as you could be. Great reviews, year-end lists, fans and television. The year of our debut [as Mercury Rev] we were picked by Melody Maker as one of top four albums above Loveless and Nevermind. That’s not underrated.  If you are meaning my time after the Rev, a paranoid person would say there were movements by labels or even fans that like the newer Rev to erase my impact on music. The blame is mine because I did not speak and I did not contribute. I have not corrected the lyrics. The assumptions that I was a drug addict… So… nope not a drug addict.  But if you mean after I left Mercury Rev? I have friends that have consistently updated me about every little movement intended or not over the years [to] maybe to marginalize my influence or impact.  They would say, “Speak up for yourself. Set the record straight.” That band or this band or that person.  That’s for the critics and the fans to write and rewrite and discuss. I know I have had an impact. My friends remind me how not only my music but my ideas have impacted music and bands.

Personally, I think that your role on the first two Mercury Rev albums is indeed sorely undervalued and that Boces is a particularly underappreciated album. How do feel about those records now and your part in their creation?

Yes I would agree but also the record was a group effort. Drummer wrote a single. Flutist innovated with pedals.

Were those early Mercury Rev recording sessions and live shows as turbulent from the inside as we’re led to believe?

Serious orgies of fencing and jousting and karate and insulting.

Over the last two decades have you recognised the influence of your early-Mercury Rev material in younger bands? For instance, some of the current crop of neo-psychedelic guitar bands on labels like Thrill Jockey and Not Not Fun certainly seem to owe a direct or indirect debt to the likes of “Very Sleepy Rivers” and “Meth Of A Rockette’s Kick”…

Yes sure…things we did influenced many bands, some much bigger. How do I know this? Because they tell me. Ha-ha! But… good point about indirect. Many people may not know.

Are you still in touch with any past/present members of Mercury Rev? Could you ever consider working with any of the band again? 

Yes and yes.

Do you think that you might be able get the sole Shady album reissued; perhaps via Fire?

I like how you think. That would be cool.

What are your future plans with Variety Lights and any other projects? Is a second album already in the works?

I have written songs for the second Variety Lights album. One idea I like would be to record in different towns and locations and buildings. If anyone has an interesting place they want to suggest or offer us to record… anywhere in the world, they can write to me at david@varietylights.net.  I am starting to do producing again and I have a desire to get back to working with film makers and visual artists.

For more information on David Baker activities visit the Variety Lights website and Fire Records.