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Anniversary

A Circus Of Colour & Light: Mercury Rev's Boces 25 Years On
Ben Cardew , October 18th, 2013 03:10

Ben Cardew talks to Mercury Rev's original frontman David Baker about the band's classic second album

If much modern guitar music has the feel of a black and white thriller then Mercury Rev’s Boces, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is The Wizard Of Oz, remade in 3D with 5.1 sound, scratch & sniff and a live organ accompaniment.

It is, to put it mildly, a quite remarkable record, a circus of colour & light and joy & sorrow, where all musical life is to be found. It sounded like nothing else on its release 25 years ago and still occupies a unique niche today, based on improvisation, the love of sound and an ego-free recording process that gave all six band members free reign to compose and contribute on an apparently equal footing.

“People say that it was a hard time [recording Boces] but it was just that we were leaving all this stuff in and people were coming from different places,” says the band’s original vocalist David Baker, who would leave Mercury Rev in 1994, the year after Boces’ release.

“The drummer [Jimy Chambers] was really into a lot of 60s music; Dave Fridmann [bass and production], his background was more jazz. He used to put Steely Dan on a lot of the time. Suzanne [Thorpe, flute] was of the mind set of trying to conquer all these guitars with her flute. I thought people should be able to put their thing into the mix because it is better to have everything in.”

Songs, too, came from the whole band. “The drummer was writing a song, the bass player was writing a song and it would get blown up by someone else,” says Baker. “Jonathan [Donahue, guitar] was a major song writer and I did a lot but everybody got to contribute.”

This democracy extended to the recording process, too, with songwriters apparently not allowed to overrule their fellow band members’ contributions to their songs.

“There were pre-ideas and songs brought in but I don’t think anybody would have been allowed to tell people what to do,” Baker explains. “They knew their song was going to get blown up. Maybe you don’t bring in a song that you weren’t ready for somebody to blow up.”

Remarkably, as Baker tells it, much of the inspiration for Boces came from the band singing to a major label [Columbia] in the US.

“We were trying to allow each other’s freaks and difference to come out because we had a responsibility,” he says. “They [Columbia] were saying, ‘You can do what you want.’ Well, that’s what we are going to do because it is important to a band that it doesn’t just do what Mariah Carey does because that is what is supposed to be done.”

“We didn’t try and make a major label record,” he adds. “But the experience of having the world say, ‘Hey, you guys from nowhere, here is your platform', it made us kind of crazy and we used that.”

The album kicks off with the ten minute plus epic 'Meth Of A Rockette's Kick', a song that exemplifies the band’s musical restlessness as well as exhibiting two of Mercury Rev’s particular strengths: the ability to build momentum and some excellent backing vocals (these things count).

After drifting in on a wave of harps, acoustic guitars and a riff played on what sounds like a flute (or possibly a French horn), the song alternates peaceful verses - complete with barbershop backing vocals - with guitar freak out choruses that would set the Pixies hurrying back to Boston.

The loud/quiet trick is hardly a new one, of course. But 'Meth…' is set apart by an alarming attention to detail, with layer upon layer of instrumentation (often barely audible) brought together in a neatly-stitched whole. “I don’t know what people think of Dave Fridmann as a producer,” Baker says of his erstwhile colleague who would go on to record albums for everyone from MGMT to Mogwai. “At the time we didn’t really think of him being a producer. But what he did do, he was calm. If you had a crazy group of nuts come in, you need someone really calm. He is a very calm guy. Whatever happened, he would get his cup of coffee, put on some Steely Dan and say, 'Let’s try and put this down.’ If that is what a producer is, then great, he is a great producer.”

'Trickle Down', which follows, is in essence a guitar song. But it is set apart by a curious – almost jazz-like – dynamic, which sees the guitars ebb and flow in and out of the mix like waves breaking on the shore, as well as David Baker’s double-tracked vocals, which sound like Can’s Damo Suzuki on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Baker says the song was inspired by his experiences in a pre-gentrified Brooklyn. “We were (recording) in the middle of nowhere but the influences were there, me being robbed five times in Brooklyn,” he says. “'Trickle Down' was me trying to express what it was to be nervous.”

There is so much on show in Boces that the guitar avalanche (courtesy of Donahue and second guitarist Grasshopper) that ends 'Trickle Down' - the wild ferocity of which could put Mercury Rev up with the Sonic Youths of the world – here sounds almost incidental to their cause.

'Trickle Down' gives way to 'Bronx Cheer', another Sonic Youth-esque moment and possibly the most conventional track on the album. These things are relative though, with the song featuring both a frantic cowbell interlude and submerged backing vocals, which don’t so much support the main vocal as subvert it. The song itself is a sublime example of fuzzy guitar pop that would be a highlight on any Dinosaur Jr album. It is also by some distance the most 1993-esque track on Boces – a year that also saw the release of In Utero and Siamese Dream.

The jazz influence that runs through the album is made explicit on 'Boys Peel Out'. The drums and bass that anchor the track could come from a conventional, if dreamy, work of fifties cool jazz, while there is some beautifully understated piano throughout.

“I know Dave had a jazz background and he played the bass,” says Baker. “He had that thing but then there was also sampling, there was soul, children’s records, there were band experiences, there were dissonant influences, anything that we probably had listened to; we didn’t think about it, we just let it come through.”

Throughout Mercury Rev’s career, their music has been marked by a sense of vulnerability. This is particularly in evidence on 'Downs Are Feminine Balloons', which rounds off side one of Boces. The song is marked by beautifully restrained guitar work, percussive washes and Suzanne Thorpe’s meandering flute, which resolve into one of the band’s loveliest choruses: “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s up”, a throwaway line that is pushed into melancholy by the subdued vocal delivery. It is a song that seems to wander on the edge of permanent collapse, held together by little more than its own sense of ennui, and is all the better for being so.

By contrast 'Something For Joey', song one side two, is pure musical joy, a masterful exercise in tension and relief. This song is centred on the chorus, a joyous three-note explosion played out on brass instruments that makes you want to throw your hat in the air. Around this is a tightly-coiled verse that seems permanently primed to explode in glorious Technicolor pop. “We were trying to capture the magic of what was happening,” says Baker of the album as a whole. “There was humour and energy. We loved being in the studio.”

'Snorry Mouth', the longest song on the album at almost 11 minutes and the centrepiece of side two, pulls off the same quiet/loud trick as 'Meth Of A Rockette's Kick'. But here the atmosphere is different, as if offset by Sunday night paranoia. Quasi-military drums patrol a disparate bunch of instruments on the verse, with Baker’s vocals like those a man who is too troubled to get out of bed. When the band finally kick in, their instruments seem to be in disagreement, their arguments played out in contrasting musical signatures.

'Hi-Speed Boats' is the sound of two Mercury Revs meeting, combining the fuzzy guitar pop of 'Bronx Cheer' with the layered chaos of 'Meth Of A Rockette's Kick' before giving way to furious 48-second feedback interlude 'Continuous Drunks And Blunders'. 'Girlfren', Boces’ final track, doesn’t so much close the record as seduce it to bed by unseemly methods. The song starts with a conventional – and pretty catchy – piano riff, the kind of thing that might anchor an old soul record, which Baker then proceeds to sleaze all over hilariously, interjecting promises to “hold you in my arms” with incoherent mumbling and scat singing of the most disjointed type. He sounds like the kind of man you’d cross the street to avoid, with the song’s minimal backing – other instruments flit in and out of the mix quietly – forcing the listener to concentrate on his dubious seduction.

“There is a lot of humour in the album,” Baker says. “Even some of the most serious records in history, the band have the enjoyment of being together (in the studio) doing things.”

There’s just time for a false ending, which gives way to 30 seconds of noise and muffled mumbling. And with that the record finishes, bringing to an end not just Boces but also a phase in Mercury Rev history. There may have been a Boces tour but with Baker leaving soon after the album was released Boces has remained in a kind of stasis ever since, loved but neglected even as it hits its 25th birthday.

The band (by then essentially Donahue and Grasshopper) would go on to commercial success with Deserter’s Songs in 1998, while Baker would later front Shady and Variety Lights. But for all their subsequent success neither side has quite hit the same brutally creative heights as on the jazzy, improvisational, sometimes frustrating but always fascinating, Boces.

“We wanted to do something that was a gift back because we had records saving our lives as kids,” Baker concludes. “We wanted to work, we worked really hard to try to do something that was worth something.”

They succeeded.

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