“TELL US ABOUT THE RECORDING AT NASA.”

Bottom left corner: still from the notorious “Something for Joey” video.

Who put the kick back?

Post-gig interrogation:

Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue

BY 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.

So it was a much-changed group that finally did take the stage at Lee’s Palace, December 5 [1995]. 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.

Live, 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.

That 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?

Basically, they got us, it just boils down to that.

Are a lot of fines coming your way?

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 comment.

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 trucks.

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 is true?

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 Super Bowl.

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 Super Bowl 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 him?

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 exaggerated?

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 backstage brawls.

Do you recall the last one?

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 since?

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 Lips…?

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.

Kingston…?

Yeah, I’m from Kingston, it’s right on the Hudson River in the Catskill Mountains of upper-state New York.

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, right?

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 still are.

What other writers are you fond?

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 a day.

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 made?

We’ve made five now, I think.

Are those available for purchase?

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 produces?

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 out.

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 get it.

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 us.

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 originate?

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 projects?

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 growing up?

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 your idea.

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 films.

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 at NASA.

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 on record?

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 live?

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, take care.

Text & photos copyright

D. Weiler and D. G. 

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock