David Baker, the former frontman of Mercury Rev, is back with a new collaborator (Will MacLean) and a new album, his first since 1994’s ‘World’ (released under the name Shady). With the album, called ‘Central Flow’, generating a buzz of excitement among music press and fans alike, Baker and MacLean (known collectively as Variety Lights) are in the spotlight (in Baker’s case, for the first time for around twenty years).

Realising that Baker would probably be doing a great number of interviews, I opted for a different take on the traditional music interview. Dispensing with the regular questions about inspiration, etc., I followed a line of questioning which, while unusual, gives space for Baker to talk on a variety of subjects, such as what he would do with a time machine, what superpower he would have given the choice and just how weird he really is.


PB: Okay, first of all, I’m going to stay quiet for two minutes. Can you tell us about the new album?

DB: It’s interesting, because I haven’t actually talked about the album. The album was just two of us, Will MacLean and myself, and it was a challenge for me as it was so different from the album I made as Shady. I had sixty people on that and so this was kind of the opposite. I had done all sorts of different things in between, but the reason this one was more minimal was just, well, I just thought that I would do something with fewer people, which would let me do more on the record and be the one responsible for any instrument. We said, “Okay, it’s just going to be the two of us.”

How did Will get to be the lucky guy to work with me? It really wasn’t anything like trying to choose somebody, I was going through a pretty depressed time. My mother had passed away, and Will’s a guy who really loves the ear candy that comes out of vintage synths. To actually hear the rich feeling of the oscillators and the sound of them, it was really just a case of wanting to get together and do that. To try and cheer me up, my girlfriend who is the one and only for me, said “Why don’t you do a bit of that?” so we got together and spent time just working out some songs, not thinking about an album.

It took me back to when I made ‘Yerself is Steam’ (Mercury Rev’s 1991 first album-Ed), there was no thought about what was going to come out or anything. We just sort of gave up on that idea and just made something for the fun of it. I’ve been doing that for years anyway. This was really cool because there was no pressure, so we decided that we were going to connect all the keyboards like MIDI around the room and have fun with it.

And then you start becoming yourself again and I just started making songs out of it. There were hundreds of songs, and they all came out of just having fun and then with some of them we thought, “Let’s start putting these together.”

Another big factor was about five years ago James Nicholls from Fire Records (Baker’s record company-Ed) was like, ”Have you got anything you want to put out?” And then I thought, “Well, actually…” He waited a long time before I said “I have something here,” and that’s what you hear.

PB: Do you believe in magic?

DB: Magic, as far as I know, is when you believe. Magic is the act of believing something whether you believe it’s fake or not. Magic is that, right? So if you get fooled into it or you’re in the mood or if you’re inebriated or on drugs, magic can happen pretty easily! So I would say that, yeah, there are times when everybody believes in magic – of course, right? Or maybe I have the definition wrong. I don’t just say I believe in it because if someone’s pulling a rabbit out of a hat and I saw them put the rabbit in I’m not going to believe that, but do I believe? Yeah, sure. Do you believe in magic?

PB: Well, I guess I’d go with you – everyone believes at some point. It’s like Arthur C Clarke said, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. You know, if you were to show someone from the eighteenth or nineteenth century a video phone, they would think it was magic.

DB: Yeah, the number of times I watch a movie or a TV show from the seventies, I just look at the people and I go “You guys don’t even realise!” Watch an old movie and throw a cell-phone in there – like a mystery movie where everything could be solved by one call.

PB: I’m always struck by how big a part of our lives cell-phones have become and how quickly they’ve done it. It’s weird to think that, say, John Lennon never used a cell-phone.

DB: That’s true, and he also didn’t like new technology. I remember reading something, and I don’t know if it was accurate or not, but it said that he was upset with Sean once because they had too many channels. I think it was a Rolling Stone interview. He was ticked off because they had, what, three networks?

PB: Well, yeah, think of the quote from Pink Floyd on ‘The Wall’, “I’ve got thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from.”

DB: The first time we went over to the UK and watched TV we were like, “Uh, this is it?” And now, I don’t know what it’s like I haven’t been in a while so I’m hoping – actually, I’m not hoping, but I’m just thinking it’s probable that you guys have the same thousand channels or so that we have in the US.

And of course, now you can go online and find pretty much anything through sites like YouTube. I went to see Nirvana a long time ago – I think it was their first show in New York – at a place called The Pyramid. It was only, I don’t know, maybe eighty or ninety people and I remember telling people for years that it was crazy! This guy got up on the stage and the band beat the hell out of him. I remembered the whole thing and I told people and they said, “No way! No!” I would tell them the bass player sat on the guy and in between guitar strums Cobain and then this other guy who ended up in Soundgarden (Jason Everman-Ed) they’re punching him and I remember the whole thing.

So I looked it up on YouTube and there it is and it doesn’t look anything like I remember! I was like, wait a minute! It’s good for your memory, because I remembered the guy being different. The memory was basically there, but thank goodness YouTube’s there for that guy to take his tape out of his closet and let everyone see it.

And now I can say there’s proof because I used to tell people and they thought I was making up stories! No, no! They really beat up a guy! How many years ago was that? And all the time I’m telling people [who disbelieve me] and now I can say, no, it’s there. The thing is though that you don’t even need to have the memory any more – someone was there to record it.

The other thing that was weird was the camera was right behind me so it’s this weird thing – I’m seeing the same point of view as my memory and there it is. It would be great if you could have all those amazing and important moments in history and have someone videotaping them. You know like Napoleon – you get the guy with the camera and you’re like, “Wow, he was actually taller than people say.”

PB: If you could make one return journey in a time machine where would you go and why?

DB: Well, it’s not the science fiction answer, I’d probably go back and meet my girlfriend when she was a lot younger so I could meet her and we could hang out longer! I’m not a young whippersnapper. We met about eight years ago but I would love to have met her when we were younger. Who knows, though, maybe we wouldn’t get along when we were younger! I’d also be this old guy, so that doesn’t work! I have got to think of a better answer!

Okay, that wouldn’t work. A time machine would mean myself actually going back. Okay. You know there’s always the things you say like you want to go back and blow up Hitler and stuff like that, and I would like to go back and do something that was helpful. I think there are periods of time that I’d like to see. I’d like to go back and see some of my favourite musicians and watch them making music or see movies being made and just hang out on the set, just watching from the background. There were periods in the 60s that I thought were pretty cool, like it would be really cool to hang out on a Fellini set and see how they did it. I’d just watch and just learn but I don’t think. I don’t know, I’d have to think about it – Jeez, I thought that answer was pretty good but now…! It’s like I said, you’ve got to think these things through! Before you go rushing back you got to think them through because if you go the wrong way you might end up being hurt.

I suppose it’s like kids today who want to meet people who aren’t around, like meeting Michael Jackson. I wonder what would it be like to meet Marvin Gaye or all those other great people. I need to be careful with this – it’s like one of those genie wishes where you have to really think about it.


The second half of this interview will be published in next month’s magazine.











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