Interview Variety Lights: ‘I Wanted To Be Normal For A While’

Nicolas Watmough speaks to ex-Mercury Rev frontman David Baker.

Variety Lights is the new project from David Baker, ex-front man for Chicago super-psych-rockers Mercury Rev, and sound-manipulator Will Maclean. Nicolas Watmough speaks to David about the new album, ‘Central Flow’, released on Fire Records in June, and about what he’d been doing with himself for the past 18 years.

So you’ve announced your new project and a new album under the name Variety Lights. So, I’ve got to ask… what have you been doing with yourself for the past 18 years?
Wow, that’s a way of getting right to it! [laughs] What have I been doing? Well… a little of this, a little of that. You’re the first interview I’ve done in all that time.

This is the first interview in 18 years?
Yeah! I thought about what to tell people about the past 18 years, but now that you ask me, I’m not sure! 18 years is a long time. Some people become everything that they are in that time. I was making music still, but I was being normal. Back with Mercury Rev, things got a little crazy. I wanted to be normal for a while; things like, you know, love, stuff like that. But it was a mirage anyway; that’s a much crazier place to be in! It’s more relaxing to be in a rock and roll band.

What made you decide to finally come out of being “normal”?
Everybody has crazy experiences. Some of the jobs that I’ve been doing would just be 100% completely more weird than being in a band. Making music is something that feels more stable anyway; I like doing it, it makes me happy. I’m sorry, I’m rambling, you threw me with the first question!

Sorry that I didn’t ease you into it, I figured that you’d been doing this all week! Let’s go for an easier one; you released a 10” for Record Store Day, how did that go?
Ahh, Record Store Day was great! I used to work at a local record store, they’re nice people. When they found out the record was coming out, they said “Why don’t you come and play your old store?” and I said “Okay” and it was that easy. I’ve always been friends with record store owners all over Europe, and suddenly this guy in my town asked me to work there.
It was awesome, being able to just hear music all the time. That’s probably one of the reasons that I got back into this; I wanted to hear music even more. One of the reasons I wasn’t into all the crazy stuff back in the day was that I just wanted to listen to music and be calm; I guess that’s where the last eighteen years have been spent. 

But people have been asking me all this time, “When’s your next record coming out?” I’ve probably made hundreds and hundreds of songs. My friend James (Fire Records) suddenly asked if I wanted to put any of those songs out, and it felt right. I’ve been making recordings for other bands and myself the whole time, but now feels right to put this out.

So are there more recordings waiting to come out? What’s the process been like writing this new stuff with Will McClean?
Well, as I said there’s tonnes of recordings with different people. And they might come out. I’m actually already working on the next release. But I’ve been going into the studio with different musicians and then chopping it up to see what it sounds like for a long time. I was in a band with seven people, with everyone going this way and that. And I suddenly decided, maybe I don’t need seven people to make a big huge sound? I can do this myself. I met Will, who had these awesome sounds that gave me what I wanted. He’s a vintage keyboard nut, loads of cool oscillators and weird stuff. We didn’t have any plan, we just sat down and made music, and it was so much easier that way. I guess it’s taken two years of us getting together and making weird noises on tape. Rather than thinking about different records, we would just experiment and see what sounds we made, and eventually things would reveal themselves as songs. This album is simply the noises that I decided “Yep, that’s a song, that’s a song; that’s not a song” and put them into a group.

What has been the hardest part about finally releasing something for the first time in so long?
Times are different than when I was first making music. There’s a lot more technology that makes things instant; in some ways we embraced that and in some ways we ignored it. We tried to keep our heads out of the way of what’s already out there and just go with a feeling. I’m not trying to say that we’re completely different to everything that’s out there, we just had to get rid of all that external clutter. That’s been the hardest thing, not getting distracted.

You’ve mentioned classic bands like The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Can… is there any new music that you’ve got on the stereo at the moment?
It’s still old music, for the most part. It’s everything, it’s all random. I’ve been listening to the ‘Trouble Man’ soundtrack, because it popped up on shuffle on my… what is this, an iPod? I have every iThing… I love that, I have tens of thousands of songs, so whatever pops up will be a surprise, it’s like the world’s longest mix-tape. I used to make tonnes of tapes, so I could get things to constantly flow. I’d make a 90 minute tape and carry it with me, and then when it was finished I could say “Well that was a load of songs I’ve never heard before”. Now, you can just do that sat at a computer, which is great.

The thing that I’m still not sure about is probably the same as a lot of young people today; what’s new and what’s old? I get confused; some things sound like the 80s, and they’re not the 80s, but there’s things from the 80s that sound super-slick, or like they’re from the 50s. I love what. What’s going on?! I worked at a college radio station, and would put records on blindly, to confuse myself. I guess I tried to anticipate this new shuffle technology, by being a blind, random DJ. I would put records on top of each other, and try and blend them, and get freaked out about where one song was and where they were going. I just let it go.
But to answer your question from a long time ago; I try to listen to a lot of things, but obviously the bigger stuff gets through. Animal Collective is an example, but there are bands that I don’t actually know their names, I just get given things by friends. You being a drummer, you probably have tonnes of friends that know stuff, right? I can’t remember names, but if you had people to flex my memory I could probably name loads of cool new stuff. But, you’re a drummer in a band, right?

How do you know that?!
I see things, that’s the great thing about technology. Everything is on my radar. I don’t meant to be stalking you… I googled your name and found a Twitter and found a band. I like it! That sort of thing happens a lot.

That’s very, very cool. This interview has become very ‘meta’.
That’s what it is now. You know about people now, whereas in the old day stuff was less accessible. I’d do an interview, 18 years ago, and I wouldn’t have a clue, and these people didn’t have a clue either. The greatest thing about being in a band is that I could walk into a record store anywhere in the world and talk to people and find out new music and check out local bands. So now, the internet has made that even easier for me.

But it’s definitely natural for me to want to know about you, and your band. There are a lot of journalists that seem like they don’t like music, at all. It should be a pre-requisite to be a fan of music, to try and write about it. I’m not saying anything bad about writers, just a specific few. I would meet people back with Mercury Rev, who wouldn’t actually care about the music we were making at all, only about making money from it; making stuff up, and the fantasy of it, the event of it all. You don’t have to play music, but at least like it! It’s the most important thing.

Variety Lights’ new album ‘Central Flow’ will be released on 11th June via Fire Records.

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