|Who put the kick back?
Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue
DEREK WEILER & DAVE FISHER
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN
FILLER MAGAZINE, APRIL, 1996
LIFE IS KNOTTED with frustrations
and disappointments, but if you can wait them out and stay alive, you might
just see some payoff after all. At least, that’s what the area’s Mercury
Rev fans learned on a cold snowy night in December, when the Buffalo group
finally brought its stoned soul picnic back to Toronto. After an embarrassment
of riches early in the band’s career — with two Toronto appearances in
the space of a year — Rev fans were then stymied at every turn. Dinosaur
Jr’s J. Mascis threw them off a double bill at the last minute in April
1993, and Rev then mysteriously failed to make a scheduled bill-sharing
with Luna in September of ’95.
was a much-changed group that finally did take the stage at Lee’s Palace,
December 5 . Nominal frontman David Baker had been ousted, leaving
songwriter and guitarist Jonathan Donahue to consolidate his position as
the Mercury Rev alpha cat, and the group was touring behind a brand-new
Bakerless LP, See You On the Other Side. The new model is still terminally
trippy — check out the epic transcendence of “Racing the Tide,” which
then segues effortlessly into an Eastern-flavored lovefest dubbed “Close
Encounters of the Third Grade” — but more focussed and potent than ever
before, boasting better use of Suzanne Thorpe’s lovely flute.
the new Mercury Rev was a head-rattling affair, with a deafening wall of
whitenoise giving way to barely perceptible shifts in tone and melody (and
they did sneak in a solid cover of the Velvets’ “Ocean”). Throughout the
set, looped images were projected onto the stage, filling up the wall behind
the group with the repeated sight of an alien autopsy at one point, and
two androgynes fucking at another. And the jovial Donahue waxed candidly
about the group’s problems crossing the border: they were nailed for “contraband”
merchandise (T-shirts to sell), for unspecified drug
offenses, for “having an alias” (presumably thanks to guitarist Grasshopper),
and, just for good measure, for firearm possession.
last took our naively Canadian sensibilities a bit by surprise, though
in retrospect, it shouldn’t have come as too much of a shock, since a close
look at the back cover of See You On the Other Side reveals a morose Donahue
contemplating his trusty revolver and its scattered lead cargo. In any
event, Dave managed to nab the armed one for a quick interview after the
set to probe the matter (among others) further. And although talking to
two fanboys immediately after a show cannot be high on anyone’s list of
things to do (unless, of course, he was actually having the time of his
life, and his perpetually pained expression could be put down to a simple
hemmorhoidal itch), Donahue was unfailingly courteous and straight-up.
The gospel is as follows: read, or yo’ soul be lost. [DW]
You mentioned during the
show that you “hit for the cycle” at the border crossing today. What happened?
they got us, it just boils down to that.
Are a lot of fines coming
Yeah, we paid a lot in fines
to get here. We didn’t actually get thrown in the slammer, we had a choice
to post fines.
What were they for?
Well, there were different
fines for different things. There was a lot of problems — drugs and weapons
and contraband. The shirts were illegal, and using an alias. It was just
a big mess.
What were the drugs?
I don’t… I can’t really
What were you doing bringing
a gun into Canada?
We’ve had a lot of problems
on tour recently, a lot of crazy people. I’ll use the word “stalker,” not
like a sexual rapist, but just crazy people who went beyond the bounds
of fan-band relationships and started doing things that were really sort
of sinister and dangerous.
Is this the reality of
touring in America today?
No, not generally, it’s
a reality of where we live. We don’t live in the ghetto, we live in the
mountains where there’s just lots of rednecks, and lots of crazy people,
bears and coyotes. I carry a gun all the time, just to check my dog from
getting eaten by a black bear or to protect me from walking down the wrong
country lane some night and getting jumped by yahoo rednecks in pickup
Do you feel more paranoid
in the countryside than the city?
Neither one… actually,
both of them. It’s not like walking around with a Glock in your hand ready
to pop somebody, it’s just the nature of the business where we live. Everyone
in the bars carries them, there’s no real fistfights. If you have a problem
with someone in a bar, the guns are drawn. It’s immediate, and it’s not
something you either fuck around with or take very lightly.
This isn’t the first time
you’ve had problems getting to a show in Toronto. You were supposed to
play here about two months ago.
Right, we were supposed
to play with Luna, but that had nothing to do with the border. It was more
internal problems, trying to get people together. We just didn’t get it
together in time for that.
What happened with the
scrapped Dinosaur Jr. show you were supposed to play in ’93?
We quit the tour in Buffalo
the night before, it just wasn’t working out so well.
Rumour had it that Mascis
booted you guys.
No, I think what it was,
was that J. [Mascis] thought somewhere along the
line that we were a bit too weird for his audience. Along the same lines
we started playing street hockey during sound checks. He didn’t like it,
so we just left. He later came and saw us at Lollapalooza and apologized
to us, and said he was having problems with his mind or something and didn’t
want us playing games.
So, the ball hockey story
Oh yeah, the hockey story
is all true.
I take it you’re a sports
fan… apparently you’re all Buffalo Bills fans.
Oh yeah…yeah, yeah.
The last time you played
Toronto was the night after their third SuperBowl.
Yeah, that was their first
one against Dallas when they got blown out, that would make sense. It was
pretty much like the Bills were in the SuperBowl every year of our existence,
the first four or five years.
I remember after the show
David Baker was pretty bummed about it. Anyhow, he’s gone now, so can you
tell us about the circumstances of David’s departure from the band?
It was personality. That’s
what it boils down to. He didn’t write any music or anything, so it didn’t
have anything to do musically. There was a lot of personality clashes between
him and some of us, and it seemed like it wasn’t becoming productive to
make music any more. It was too difficult.
At the Toronto shows,
he’d leave the stage periodically to sit on the stage or go to the bar
and drink while you guys played. Was this typical for him?
Yeah, he didn’t like us
to play songs like “Car Wash Hair” or “Frittering” because he didn’t sing
on them, so we didn’t play them very much, but when we did he’d go for
a walk or something.
As far as the tension
existing with David in the band, do you find it more comfortable now without
Yeah, musically it’s eased
a lot, we’re able to play a lot of songs that people wanted to hear but
he wouldn’t really allow us to play too much.
You totally ignored Boces
tonight. Are there songs from the first two albums that you don’t feel
comfortable playing now?
Boces was really painful
to make. There was a lot of drug abuse and alcoholism, just a lot of tough
times making it. I love it a lot, but it’s kind of like seeing an ex-girlfriend
where you had a really painful breakup, and it’s just not easy going up
to her every night and saying, “Hey, how’s it going, how’s your new boyfriend?”
It’s one of those situations, so every once in a while we’ll choose something
off there, but we really gotta work up to it.
Stories were built up
in the British music press about the fistfights with the band. Was this
No, not in the early days,
there was plenty of fights on stage, I was there in the middle of it. I
threw punches, I got hit, y’know, whether or not we carried on like in
the British press for weeks on end as if it was Mike Tyson versus Riddick
Bowe, it wasn’t like that. But there was plenty of fights, plenty of drunken
Do you recall the last
Probably when David was
in the band, probably at some point during Boces. I don’t recall the specifics
of it though.
What do you think of his
newest project Shady?
[pause] … I listened to
the album and thought he probably could have taken a little bit more time
with it. But I was very proud of him for doing that, because he’d never
written any music and didn’t know how to play any instruments, and so for
him to jump right out of our band and do that was, I think, very good for
him. It kept him mentally happy and took the pressure off from just being
an ex-lead singer who didn’t do anything again.
Have you spoken with him
Yeah, he comes to see us
when we play. He lives in Chicago, we actually saw him a week ago.
He has a lot of guests
on his record, including members of Rollerskate Skinny. I’m interested
in your opinion of them, given that some people have come to call them
the British Mercury Rev.
They toured with us on their
first tour ever, and I think they could’ve been the next great thing, they
could’ve taken what Mercury Rev was doing and even gone a step further,
they were really amazing. But they had internal problems and now Jimi Shields
lives in Chicago. I don’t know whether the rest of the band is still together,
but Jimi’s now got a band called Lotus Clown that’s kind of like Rollerskate
Skinny but with a twist. They were just on tour with us up until last night.
Are the reports of Mercury
Rev never rehearsing in the early days accurate?
Yeah, we never practiced
up until the new record, because it was too difficult getting six people
like us in the same room. You couldn’t even tune up before two people
would be going at it, so you’d just go, “Fuck it, let’s go to Denny’s and
eat and forget about it.”
Dave Fridmann’s not with
you either. Did he start the tour? What’s his status?
The thing with Dave is that
he writes and records with us, but he’s married and he has a kid, so he
can’t do the six-week tours. We just record and write with him, but he
has to stay in Fredonia, down in Buffalo, that’s where he lives. So he
sticks around there and does a lot of studio work with a lot of other bands.
He just did some production
work on the latest Flaming Lips record. You were formerly with the Flaming
That’s right, for two records.
Why’d you leave?
Well, I started Mercury
Rev first. Mercury Rev started recording Yrself Is Steam around 1987. I
got about halfway through that and I’d known Wayne [Coyne] for a little
bit. I just started writing with them, not really thinking that Mercury
Rev was going to be doing anything more than making nature film soundtracks,
so I did two records with the Flaming Lips, In a Priest-Driven Ambulance
and Hit to Death in the Future Head. When I was in the band, they were
very lean years, there wasn’t any money. We were making great records,
but nobody was paying attention like there is now. Really, we had no money,
so the success they have now is long overdue.
Will Dave Fridmann continue
to be part of future Mercury Rev projects?
Oh yeah, yeah, he’s been
in the band all along. We hired two friends of ours from Kingston to fill
in for the live show on the bass and piano.
Yeah, I’m from Kingston,
it’s right on the Hudson River in the Catskill Mountains of upper-state
How’d you end up in Buffalo?
Some of us went to college
at UB [University of Buffalo] — some did, some didn’t — and that’s how
we sort of met in Buffalo for four or five years in the mid-80s.
You were film students,
Grasshopper’s the film student-major-master.
One of your instructors
was Robert Creeley?
That’s right. I took a lot
of English classes with him, he’s a great poet and a big influence. I can’t
remember if I ever even graduated… I don’t think I did, because I went
out on tour and stuff like that. Creeley grew to become our — what’s the
word? — mentor or something. We studied and we talked with him a lot just
about different things, we were really in love with what he was doing and
What other writers are
Antonin Artaud… I’ve read
a lot of his stuff. I read the Bible pretty much daily, I stay up on that.
Any particular reasons
for reading the Bible?
[Mimics a gospel/blues singer]
If ahh don’t read mah Bible, mah soul be lost, nobodies fault but mine.
A handful of you also
took courses with Tony Conrad…
He was sort of Grasshopper’s
teacher and mentor at UB. Grasshopper still stays in contact with Tony
from time to time.
You said Grasshopper was
the film student. Was he responsible for the “Something
For Joey” video?
A lot of the ideas for that
was David Baker’s. He was also a media studies student, and he and Grasshopper
would do a lot of the ideas for the videos. That was what drove David and
made him happy, doing the videos. I think that’s where he had the most
prominence actually, at least in the band.
The video was slightly
controversial. Did it receive any play on MTV?
It probably got the typical
two or three plays on 120 Minutes, but where it got the most was on the
Playboy channel. It was us and Aerosmith for, like, five months, ten times
How did you score Ron
Jeremy [porn star] for that video?
Through a stripper friend
of ours. He wanted two hundred bucks, so that’s what
we paid him.
How many videos have you
We’ve made five now, I think.
Are those available for
Not as of yet. We’d like
to do a compilation in a couple of months after we’ve made a couple more
videos for this record. We’ll probably put out the compilation just for
fans, so they can buy the older stuff and get some weird footage.
You record your music
on 35mm magnetic tape…?
Yeah, not all of it. The
first album was recorded on it, on an old film machine we stole from the
University at Fredonia. We did Yrself Is Steam on it, some of Boces, and
a bit of See You on it, but it’s real old and doesn’t work very well. Songs
like “Close Encounters” have it, and I think bits of “Racing the Tide”
and “Empire State.”
You like the sound it
Yeah, we do. It’s kind of
broken, so it has a warbly effect to it that sounds like one of those bad
tapes you put in your VCR. We’re just never able to reproduce these sounds
on a regular fifty-thousand dollar machine.
Is it cheaper to record
using the film machine?
No, no, you have to buy
mag stock film and all this kind of crazy stuff. It’s actually more expensive.
How did the Dean Wareham
collaboration come about? We read somewhere that you and Jimy Chambers
did a little session work for Galaxie 500.
No, that’s not true. We’d
met Dean just as Galaxie 500 had broken up, but never played with them.
Grasshopper plays on a couple of Luna records and Jimy might’ve played
on one, but Galaxie had broken up a few months before we got Dean to record
on “Car Wash Hair” with us. I guess the relationship had started up with
Grasshopper, he hooked up with Dean in New York somehow.
The North American release
of See You On the Other Side came a half-year after the British release.
Why such a long delay?
They had to bounce their
production schedule so they’d be able to move some things around. By the
time they get the tapes, they need another month-and-a-half to kick it
So, it wasn’t a problem
with Columbia having other priorities or having trouble marketing you?
No… well, sometimes they
prefer it. The big labels take a lot longer getting their wheels in motion,
at least in America. In England it just flies out the door as soon as they
The lyrics weren’t printed
with the CD sleeve here like they were in Britain, either…
No, we were disappointed
about that. They are in the U.K. and we asked them to do the same here,
but they claimed time constraints and said they couldn’t put the lyrics
in without postponing the September release date.
Why did you sign with
Columbia, and how long is the deal?
Well, we first signed to
Rough Trade for a week, then they went bankrupt. We then signed to Columbia
for a four firm record deal, which presumably means they wouldn’t drop
us for four records. Yrself Is Steam was the first, so we’ve still got
another to do. I don’t know what we’ll do after it’s expired. They’ve never
said they wanted to drop us, so we’ll have to wait and see.
Are you satisfied with
how they’re handling you?
I don’t know any other labels
that can offer us better. We had millions of offers, but we chose them
because of the offer they gave us, and they had Bob Dylan and a lot of
classic bands. They didn’t have any, like, Stone Temple Pilots at the time.
We wanted to be around the Miles Davises and stuff. Columbia had this vast
amount of archives, old photos and tapes and stuff that you can go through.
We just took it for that, because it was like signing to a big library
with a world of history of music.
You played with Bob Dylan.
Was that through a label contact?
No, I don’t think so, that
was through Bob’s manager or somebody like that.
I’ve seen that gig alternately
mentioned as having taken place in England and Yale University…
No, it was definitely at
Yale, we never played with him in England.
How did that show go?
Well, it was only the second
or third show we’d ever played, so we didn’t know what we were doing. We
didn’t even know what we were doing to record, so we just went out and
slopped out some of the songs from Yrself Is Steam and made a lot of noise.
It was around this time
that you played the Reading Festival in England.
Yeah, that’s right, that
was about our third show. I think it went… we played a show in Fredonia
at BJs Bar, which holds about ten people, that was our first show. Then
Bob Dylan, then another small show, and the Reading Festival. I think that’s
the order … two, three, four, something like that.
So, tell us what that
was like-going from an audience of ten people, then straight to Bob Dylan
and the Reading Festival for your first-ever batch of shows.
[pause] … It was pretty
fucked up, man. You can imagine when some guy in England calls and says,
“We want you to come over and play.” So you think, alright, we’re going
to go over and play for twenty people. So we said, “What … for twenty
people?” And he said, “Yeah, there’ll be twenty.” We said, “Well, that
doesn’t seem like that’s going to make us any money, playing for twenty
people.” He said, “No, not twenty. Twenty-thousand.” We’re like, “Whaddaya
mean, twenty-thousand people!?! That record’s only been out three weeks,
there’s not twenty-thousand people in the world who’re going to listen
to Mercury Rev in three weeks. Who the fuck’s going to want to see us…?”
So we showed up, and there were tons of bands on the bill, and we went
out and John Peel was with us. He announced us, and interviewed us and
gave us some really good plugs. He was a big fan, and that sort of catapulted
How was the buzz in the
U.K. stirred up about the band in the first place?
We went over and played
a small club just before Reading and we rocked. There was about 400 people
there, most of whom were apparently journalists.
Where did their interest
Somebody had gotten a hold
of Yrself Is Steam when we were making our nature soundtracks. A lot of
those songs were just for nature film soundtracks.
What were these…? College
No, just sitting around
the house, doing what young bands do, dicking around recording to the television
with some polar bears, y’know. Somebody got the tape and said that if we
could do a few more songs that we might be able to put it out as an album.
We didn’t really care, so we did a few more. He put them out in England,
then we got a call saying we were getting some good reviews. It was all
a bit of a joke to us because we didn’t know England from, like, y’know,
Albany, or any of those papers. Even being in the Flaming Lips, they had
not done anything there yet or broken in any way or had any British press,
at least not to the extent that I had any idea or could understand what
was happening to Mercury Rev.
Your albums all feature
a real diversity of sounds — What sorts of music you were listening to
I imagine in high school
it was probably everybody from AC/DC to the Clancy Brothers. My mom was
right into Broadway shows, she has almost every Broadway show record ever
made, so that’s certainly a factor … some old cowboy songs … nothing
like alternative or punk rock, neither was a big factor. I loved the Sex
Pistols, but beyond that I didn’t find much merit with a lot of what was
going on at the time.
Growing up and hearing
a lot of Broadway show tunes, I presume “Everlasting Arm” was pretty much
Yeah, I generally write
most of the songs, not to say all of it, but the lyrics and the chords
and the idea of the atmosphere are mine, then the rest of the band comes
in and puts their stuff on top. I’ve always liked Broadway shows. I
don’t mean like wimpy Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the older stuff like Camelot.
I’ve always liked the way the songs were constructed, very intimate, lots
of atmosphere, and they didn’t need, like, thirty-thousand Marshall stacks
to make a really powerful song for people to remember. That’s always
intrigued me, and that’s what we tried to do with the new record, to show
people and prove to ourselves that you don’t need tons of distortion to
have a really powerful song.
Do you see yourself writing
more music for the visual arts?
We’ve done a lot of films
already, but unfortunately, none of them are the size of Ace Ventura or
Batman, so you don’t see our name in lights. But we do a lot of work for
things like the BBC and nature films; we’ve done a bit of ambient stuff
for some independent filmmakers, particularly European ones. We’ve done
lots of obscure independent films, recorded for some of Howard Nelson’s
There were rumors about
the new record having some of the songs recorded in Elvis’s jungle room
at Graceland, and at Cape Canaveral…
We recorded some things
at NASA but not in the jungle room, at least not that I’m aware of. Baker
and Grasshopper would sometimes bring in some little cassettes with noises,
and they may have been giggling in Elvis’s jungle room, but I’ve never
been to Graceland so I wouldn’t know where that story came from.
Tell us about the recording
I think at the time our
interest was perked about some space stuff and we went down and they had
these huge old warehouse laboratories, some of them they would barely use.
We would just go in there, wandering away from the guided tours for about
twenty minutes here and there, turn some shit on, and then with our little
portable Mister Microphone we’d go, “Yah yah yah, blah blah blah, we’re
in NASA, whoo hoo, we’re in NASA, isn’t this funny, ha ha ha ha!” Then
they’d kick us out and we’d take the tour the next day and go do it again.
We did it for three days — go and sit in some spacecraft, and Baker would
sing and we’d all be banging with sticks on the sides. It was just stuff
that little kids do, having fun.
Was any of the tape used
Yeah, some of it was used
on Boces, probably the “Space Control” segment ["Continuous Drunks and
Blunders"] and probably one or two other things as well. I mean, it was
never set up with drums or anything, it was just some weird odd effects
that we’d try to wing and hope we’d get enough to tape before the tour
guides said, “What the fuck are you guys doing?!?”
You played the Velvets
“Ocean” tonight. Do you play any other covers with any regularity?
We used to do “Tears of
Rage” by The Band. They live about ten miles away from us in the Catskills.
We love them, they’re a big influence. The Velvets and The Band are two
of our biggest influences. We used to do a cover of Miles Davis’ “Shhh/Peaceful”
which went into “Very Sleepy Rivers.”
You mentioned before the
possibility of a future video release. Before we wrap up, could you talk
about plans for a new record?
Well, new Mercury Rev material
is still slowly being worked on and is still a long way down the road,
but we’ve got a side project called the Harmony Rockets. We’ve got a record
that’s coming out in January. It was out for a week here and they recalled
it for some artwork. It was what we played before we went on tonight. It’s
mostly instrumental, but there’s some vocals on the beginning of it, it’s
me singing. Basically, what it is, is most of Mercury Rev, that you see
up there [on stage], were trying to kill a Friday night in the mountains,
got really wasted and wandered down to a local Civil War bar. They needed
an opening band, so we brought some old analog effects with us and some
guitars and just whooped up whatever we were doing for, like, forty minutes
and stopped. Somebody had a tape, figuring it was y’know, Mercury Rev,
so they sorta recorded it shittily.
So, the entire album is
Yeah, just made up on the
spot. There’s not a damn thing that was practiced ever, it just sort of
happened, but it came out really nice. We like it, we were pretty surprised.
Okay, I guess we should
let you go and pack your gear.
Yeah, definitely. Thanks,
Text & photos copyright
D. Weiler and D. G.