Magnet Classics: Mercury Rev’s “Yerself Is Steam”

MercuryRev

The making of Mercury Rev’s Yerself Is Steam
By Corey DuBrowa

The reply to the inquiry comes back the same day it was sent, its cockeyed enthusiasm offset by a dash of reality check.

“Love this! If MAGNET is prepared for six different versions of the same ‘making of the LP’ tale … ”

Mercury Rev frontman Jonathan Donahue is now 25 years on from his band’s debut release, the malaprop-flaunting Yerself Is Steam. But the personality conflicts, differences of opinion on artistic direction and sheer, glorious miracle of its “noisy squall meets giant, major-chord melodies” sonic crazyquilt are still omnipresent in his mind. So, a little expectations setting seems entirely in order.

“I see the band as a vehicle for personal experiences,” he begins, weaving a metaphor that will set the stage for the many conversations that follow. “Looking back, it was made to fit four passengers comfortably; six, crowded; two perfectly, with baggage. And no one told us when liftoff was. So, everybody jammed in there waiting for some message from Control like, ‘You’re going to take off in an hour—here’s where the bumpy part will be.’ Nobody gave us any instructions, so we all fitted into that cramped capsule and then it took off without anyone being prepared. And some of us weren’t as well strapped-in as others, or didn’t have oxygen on at the time we left the atmosphere. Where we came back down again as six people was very different from where we took off; it was disorienting and messy. Things were broken. There was bruising.”

The Major Tom analogy suits Mercury Rev perfectly—throughout its two-decade history, the Buffalo-based outfit has soared skyward, plummeted in flames while packed with a team of astronauts almost as close (and contentious) as family, been fawned over and analyzed by the powers-that-be while witnessing any number of quasi-legends spring up around it, all while continuing a journey toward an epic moon-shot that only the band itself seemed capable of envisioning. Part Pink Floyd and part Pere Ubu; half Butthole Surfers and half Brian Wilson; more Ciccone Youth than Sonic Youth, Mercury Rev’s startling debut signaled the dawn of a decade in which Lollapalooza, the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow and even the neo-psychedelia of the Elephant 6 collective would prove capable of brief guest appearances in the mainstream pop consciousness. The record has never sold in any kind of quantity, and has been in and out of print since it was first issued. But it remains—alongside The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Forever Changes and Hairway To Steven—some of the most outré and influential psych/pop of the 20th century, a monument to chaos and beauty almost universally revered by critics and fans alike.

This story is the first time since the original six members were still a band that all responsible for 1991’s Yerself Is Steam have gathered to discuss it—and as Donahue predicts, the results represent six different creation myths that sometimes synch with one another, but just as frequently spin out in space, going in seemingly every possible (opposite) direction, often simultaneously. “Six chefs, one cauldron,” laughs Donahue at the memory of it now. “Six witches, one spoon.”

What eventually became Yerself Is Steam had no timeline, no road map, no recipe. In fact, there wasn’t even a band responsible for its creation throughout most of the three years in which it was slowly hatching.

“Nobody was planning or thinking ahead. There was no band, really. It was a recording project that turned into a band,” says now-producer and Tarbox Road studio owner, then-student and part-time recording engineer Dave Fridmann of Mercury Rev’s origins. “There was no set agenda, no formula—just a bunch of people stumbling around trying to figure out how to write songs, and being recorded while that’s happening.”

Mercury Rev traces its origins to four friends attending college together in upstate New York, bonding over a shared love of music and an urge to create something that was “an extension of that friendship,” says Donahue. “The three of us—me, David Baker, Sean (“Grasshopper” Mackowiak, a nickname with somewhat fuzzy origins that was most likely invented by Baker)—lived together and were inseparable from Suzanne (Thorpe),” all of whom were media students at SUNY Buffalo and orbited around the campus radio station, WRUB, where Baker served as the station’s musical director.

“We were writing songs for these little student films,” says guitarist Mackowiak. “We met David Baker and immediately wanted to get him involved. Then Suzanne—she was friends with Jonathan—came into the picture. And we started playing some art galleries around Buffalo. There was no audience, really, but we’d play these songs we’d put down on fourtrack, different versions that would go on for 20 minutes.”

”We lived in this house, the three of us, in Buffalo,” says Baker. “We went from little answering machine-size recordings to bigger ones. Then it started getting louder and louder. We kind of hijacked a DJ mobile unit and played through it, which broke the speakers. We were trying to make as much noise as possible. Jonathan and Sean got into even more disruptive things; then the cops would come, and we’d hide. But we also loved delicate things. We were thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have (hardcore’s) heavy energy and make somebody cry?’”

“I probably had the most formal musical training insofar as studying on a particular instrument,” says flautist Thorpe. The very idea of a flute—especially in indie rock—was anathema in an era of grunge’s feedback and distortion, and one of the earliest signs that nothing about Mercury Rev would hew to anyone’s “rules for cool.” “I remember not even questioning changing my instrument—‘Why would I do that?’ I would look for ways to collaborate with them. If I’m going to play in this particular (rock) paradigm, then I have to construct a way to play. I had no role models whatsoever, and it was, in many ways, improvisational. There wasn’t one individual who was composing or making musical choices; six choices were being made simultaneously. We were like an experimental orchestra, making live soundtracks.”

Indeed, much has been made over the years of the sounds, source material and sociology that influenced Mercury Rev. But what seems to have gone missing within the band’s backstory is that a sense of place—Buffalo, New York, a rust-belt town many years past its prime; the Catskill Mountains, a remote, beautiful wilderness just far enough from New York City to nurture a child’s sense of wonderment and isolation—informed the band’s quicksilver sound as much as any Syd Barrett composition or Red Krayola album.

“We didn’t have anything like punk rock in the Catskill Mountains; there was no college radio, no late-night FM dial,” says Donahue of his childhood upbringing. “I grew up with what my mother and father played in our house: Mussorgsky’s ‘Night On Bald Mountain,’ Dvorak, ‘Danse Macabre.’ She would prod my father to tell stories during the classical music being played. So, he would make up these tales, telling his little son (dramatic voice), ‘And then the wolf came, and the Indians made their way up the Hudson River.’ So, I grew up thinking that’s what happens in music. She bought me this collection called Tale Spinners, from the ’70s, which were children’s stories set to classical music: you’d have Prokofieff ’s ‘Peter And The Wolf,’ and the narrator would be the voice of someone like Vincent Price. So, I never listened to Pet Sounds, but I liked Sons Of The Pioneers. I loved doo-wop, and Brian Wilson cut his teeth on that. I had the influences they had. That was my original language of machine programming.”

“We studied film with Tony Conrad, who played with La Monte Young, as well as Paul Sharits,” says Mackowiak of the Beat-era community that comprised some of the SUNY Buffalo film-school faculty where most of the group studied. “So, there was a cinematic influence. But we also loved the Brill Building stuff, doo-wop, Broadway showtunes. We were wrestling with all of these inputs and trying to corral them into songs.”

“What influenced me most were experiences,” says Baker. “Allen Ginsberg read ‘Howl’ at my high school with Peter Orlovsky, his partner. When I held the door for them, I could smell incense and marijuana in my high-school halls for the first time! So, when people ask, ‘Were you influenced by Pink Floyd?’ No, but Ginsberg coming to my class did.”

Then there was Buffalo itself—a city parked on the Eastern shores of Lake Erie, directly across the Niagara River from Canada. By the late ’80s, much of the city’s heavy industry had long departed for Asia along with many of its native jobs, and the corresponding exodus resulted in its population falling to levels below that of even 1960. This was the band’s birthright; its melancholia directly informed both the songs Mercury Rev was writing and the sounds it considered core to its music.

“There was a post-industrial bleakness,” says Thorpe. “The abandonment of buildings, the weather extremes, an economic struggle within so much of the Buffalo community. We grew up in an industrial sonic environment, and you tend to fold that into your expression. This dichotomy between melody and noise—we just didn’t think they were that disparate. There was a hopeless beauty to that period of time. The theatrics of the Reagan years accentuated the decay we were all experiencing and also influenced us to consider the many layers of what is real and what isn’t.”

“Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Buffalo lost something like 100,000 people,” says Baker. “There weren’t many prospects then for making a living playing music. Really, anywhere in the world that would have been true, but in Buffalo especially, it was pretty certain.”

It’s the space between the ruined, faded grandeur of the place itself and the relatively wide-eyed innocence of Mercury Rev’s core contributor group where the seeds of Yerself Is Steam began to sprout. “When we started to play together, we couldn’t afford any amps, so I played through a television set by hotwiring this speaker through the back,” says Donahue. “Sean played a clarinet, and David sang into an old Casio SK-1. We were poor; this was all we had available. We began making little cassette tapes. And we played a lot of 4 a.m. sets at a bar in Buffalo, long gone now, called the Continental. To three people, every Thursday night.”

Donahue had also met, through his gig-booking sideline, the indie-era Flaming Lips, signing on as their “roadie and glorified bubble and fog guy” in 1987 before landing a permanent slot in the band as their second guitarist, “the Jackson Pollock behind (Wayne Coyne’s) ballads, doing what I could to colorize things and give it a third or fourth dimension.” By the time the Lips had begun recording their 1990 LP, In A Priest Driven Ambulance, Donahue was using the name “Dingus,” and had connected the group to Mackowiak’s old high-school friend, Fridmann, who was a student at SUNY Fredonia studying music production. Fridmann volunteered to record the still-embryonic project as part of his senior thesis, thus ensuring that the crew’s studio time would be free, provided they used it during off hours. “The majority of Yerself Is Steam was recorded from midnight to 8 a.m.,” says Donahue about their “deal.”

“I wasn’t in the band at that point; I was engineering and helping prep things for them in the studio,” says Fridmann. “But then they’d always get to a part where Sean would say, ‘Hey, we don’t have a bass player—can you help us?’ So, every few months we’d do a session or two, then they’d retreat for a few months and prepare for the next session. And they’d come back and say, ‘Scratch out all the names on the master tapes’—they’re all Sharpied over on the masters: Shady Crady, Coal, Clamor. At some point, Jonathan was out on tour with the Flaming Lips, and I became their sound man. Jonathan would turn to me backstage and say, ‘What do you think about Mercury Rev as a name for that band?’ Well, all right, cool, let’s do that.”

At that point, Jonathan was living in Oklahoma with the Lips, and he’d send these tapes around: ‘Syringe Mouth,’ ‘Chasing A Bee.’ I’d put some parts on top of that and send them back,” says Mackowiak of the band’s songwriting method at the time. “Then he’d mix that down and send it to Suzanne and (Baker).”

Given that both of Donahue’s music projects were being recorded in Fredonia at roughly the same time, there are certain shared characteristics about the swirling tornado of noise and melody the Lips and Rev traded in then. “Some of the songs on Yerself Is Steam were recorded when we took a day off from the Lips,” says Fridmann. “‘Frittering,’ ‘Coney Island Cyclone.’ They were exactly the same setup—literally the same microphone on exactly the same kick-drum. Mercury Rev would just walk in and play.” But for all of the overlap, it was also equally clear to all concerned that the Lips were, at that point, the “real” band of the two: the one with great songs, an established track record, and also a bona fide touring outfit. Mercury Rev was still formative and saw itself as a very different entity, albeit one perhaps following in the footsteps of its super-heavy friends from Oklahoma City.

That said, Mercury Rev’s volatility and impermanence was evident even then. Baker had been in and out of the band a few times (“We’d have a fight, he’d be out; we’d make up, he’d be back in,” says Mackowiak), the group had a never-ending parade of drummers moving through its ranks (at least six different people man the traps on Yerself Is Steam), and Fridmann was quite nearly a hostage, filling in on bass. “The making of the record was so fragmented and broken up over such a long period of time; everything changed every session,” says Fridmann. “Everybody’s playing different instruments, there’s no fixed idea of what to do—no fixed singer, no real leader. I was learning to record as they were learning how to perform and write.”

That sense of loosely configured collaboration was only further enhanced by the distinct lack of interest the music industry was demonstrating toward the tracks as they were completed. “We were rejected by every label I’d sent our recordings to: Homestead, SST. No one was interested,” says Donahue. “We didn’t even get rejection letters; just no one ever bothered to call back. One little label, Jungle in the U.K., said, ‘We like what you’re doing, but we don’t know what it is,’ and gave us $1,000 to finish the record, which basically meant paying Fridmann for gas and beer, in exchange for the master tapes. Which they still own.”

Wrapping up the record meant completing the last few tracks. Enter Jimy Chambers, the last of the original six members to appear on the record, and a friend of Donahue and Baker’s from Buffalo, when the pair had managed his teen-pop band, the Moment. Having just graduated from college, Chambers was a free agent when a phone call from Donahue brought him to Fredonia for a final set of sessions.

“It was a total freak scene,” says Chambers. “Long hair, wristbands, playing music blaringly loud, like nothing I’d ever heard before. We rehearsed the songs maybe once. I brought the drum kit I’d been using for the last 10 years and just went for it, at maximum volume. Then (Fridmann) says, ‘That’s too much,’ and the next thing I know, the other band members are hovering around my drum set, taking pieces away and conducting me, with headphones on. What you hear is me not knowing what to do and being really uncomfortable.”

By then, Donahue’s unschooled method of conveying his musical ideas to the band had evolved into a more visual form. “I never brought in any charts, and the songs, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, are all two chords: E and A,” he says. “But I used to bring these large Stockhausen-esque diagrams to the studio, and they were literally written like an avant-garde composer: pictures of cloudbursts, a giant cauldron boiling. Fridmann laughed his ass off when I’d spread these giant purple-crayon charts out, but it was the only way I knew to create an arc to a song that was 11 minutes long.”

What Yerself Is Steam ended up sounding like very much resembles the inmate/patient drawings Donahue describes. There are huge, sweeping sonic canvasses featuring classically inspired “movements” (“Sweet Oddysee Of A Cancer Cell T’ Th’ Center Of Yer Heart”), short bursts of punk energy that could easily pass as lost Sub Pop singles (“Syringe Mouth,” “Coney Island Cyclone”), an opener bracketed by Baker’s dreamily rhymed chanting and Donahue’s singsong chorus (“Chasing A Bee”), songs that fib about their lengthy runtimes in the liner notes (“Blue And Black,” a composition about Buffalo’s brutal winters clocking in at six minutes; “Frittering,” one of the band’s early signature tunes, registering nearly nine minutes), and a slowly unfurling closer marked by heavily processed guitars, creepy-crawly flutes and lyrics that, contrary to Wikipedia myth, portray a friend of the band’s who was arrested under suspicion of being Buffalo’s infamous University Heights rapist (“Very Sleepy Rivers”). Fridmann, for his part, weaves fireworks, fire extinguishers and even the studio’s coffeemaker into the alchemic brew. Melody Maker described the corresponding sonic stew as “like being strapped in an electric chair in a sordid bar just south of Saturn,” while All Music’s review enthused about lyrics that “revel in the quirks and idiosyncrasies of language” with sounds pivoting between “comic malevolence and opiate lullabies.” The vote was in: It was a stunner.

At least part of the lurching dynamics so audible on the record had been baked into the mix from the start. “We mixed the record with all six of us perched behind (SUNY Fredonia’s Amek) sound desk,” says Donahue. “Everyone thought their fader was the one. So, when a guitar solo leaps out of the mix or David’s vocal is suddenly audible, that means someone took initiative. A big part of the record was actually mixed into it by default.”

Jungle released the record in Europe, and then the six essentially returned to their daily routines—Donahue and Fridmann reprised their respective roles in the Flaming Lips; Mackowiak and Chambers joined their friend Dean Wareham in an early version of Luna; Baker moved to Baltimore; and Thorpe relocated to New York City. But months later, Chambers received a surprising call that indicated things were suddenly “on” for Mercury Rev. “It had been essentially a one-night stand in Fredonia, then a year later, I find myself in the epicenter of this huge thing, with the label calling and asking us if we’re free to play some shows in the U.K. I don’t talk to anyone for nine months, then there’s a baby.”

The essential challenge was that Mercury Rev had largely been, until now, a recording project only. Jungle had successfully pitched the finished product to media in the U.K., who responded rabidly to its eccentric mix of highs and lows. When the feature writers at Melody Maker decided it was time to pay a visit to the States to check the band out in person, a minor wave of panic set in, as the members scrambled to put on a live show for the first time.

“In the studio, we switched instruments all the time,” says Mackowiak. “I’d play drums, Jimy or Suzanne would play bass. But we couldn’t really do that live. So, we’d have to learn the parts that each of us played, essentially teach ourselves how to play these studio creations in a live setting. We had taken the Brian Eno ‘studio as instrument’ approach to creating these songs, then we’d be like, ‘That’s crazy, I don’t even remember playing that.’”

Mercury Rev’s inaugural show was for a small audience in Fredonia at a local club called BJs. Even its own label described it as a “hit or miss affair,” unsurprising when you imagine a band working the kinks of its material out in front of a live audience. Which makes the band’s second, third and fourth gigs all the more surprising. Having been sent to the U.K. by Jungle to further promote the record, Mercury Rev proceeded to burn down the house at a club called the Mean Fiddler in London (to an audience largely consisting of media and music-industry types, which stoked the hype machine even further), resulting in an invitation to play the Reading Festival two weeks later—the very same festival that introduced Nirvana to huge British audiences. And while one might imagine a band beset with nerves at the prospect of playing to thousands for the first time, typically, that’s not how it went down with Mercury Rev.

“We weren’t really a band-band, so we thought, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’” says Fridmann. “There weren’t too many white knuckles about it; we’ll just go make a bunch of noise, and it’ll be fun.” The band’s next gig was at Yale University in support of Bob Dylan—literally its fourth ever—and found the outfit quickly gaining a reputation as a whirling dervish of hellish noise, albeit one with a temperament to match. The stories that spun up in the band’s wake were numerous and entertaining, if largely inaccurate.

“When the British media would interview us, we’d hear about these incidents that had supposedly happened; one involving Grasshopper trying to dig Baker’s eye out with a spoon,” says Chambers with a chuckle. “I was on the plane ride in question, and nothing like that ever happened; it was a fabrication. But then it would be written about everywhere and the band would get so much press. The story took on a life of its own. We’d get asked to play with other bands, and when we’d show up, we’d terrify them. Especially the English; they weren’t used to our kind of craziness. We weren’t a quiet good time.”

“We were exploring some pretty dark matter,” says Mackowiak. “Experimenting with a lot of different things. The video to ‘Chasing A Bee’”—filmed in and around New York City’s North Brother Island, the isolated grounds of a derelict former mental hospital infamous for housing a quarantined “Typhoid Mary” at one point—“gives a sense of the kind of exhaustion associated with mining that vein of crazy, chaotic danger on a regular basis. Our lawyer said, ‘You guys should take press photos with different people in different combinations, because I don’t know how long you’re going to last together.’”

“We had shows in England where we would destroy a piano onstage just to hear the sound,” says Thorpe. “Instead of house lighting, we’d hang a single light bulb. We played the Royal Albert Hall and strung guitars from the ceiling and let them feed back the entire show. Crazy shit like that. You can imagine the response—some people would be amazed; others would just stand there like, ‘What the fuck is this?’”

Ultimately, Yerself Is Steam and its support tour would result in the band signing to a major label, Columbia, for its sophomore album, the even stranger-sounding Boces. Mercury Rev would go on to a slot on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour and much greater commercial success later in the ’90s after nearly imploding altogether due to drug use, increasingly fraught interpersonal dynamics and general exhaustion with the toll these antics were taking on the band.

But its debut represents a very particular era for the group—one in which Baker plays a decisive role. “Yerself Is Steam represents a stream of consciousness, most of that being David Baker’s,” says Donahue. “He has a timeless delivery and wasn’t operating in the same time/space continuum as you and me. Remember, he’s not a singer—he didn’t grow up vocalizing, playing in cover bands. His otherworldliness is what leaves the main impression from that album. I can’t stress that enough.”

But at the start of it all, there was an innocence to the band’s debut, a wide-eyed wonder about the possibilities inherent in a recording studio, a half-dozen imaginative ears and the fearless spirit of invention that Mercury Rev represented. “It sounds as if we’re upset that we experienced some success, and we’re not!” says Donahue. “But there’s a shadow side to that success. We’re like the Doors biography, in reverse—all of our weirdness happened first, and then we got sorted out and found some kind of sense in it. Mercury Rev was a wooden boat, not a steamliner. Built from tender frames. When the waves started rocking it, we had never planned to be in such high seas, so quickly. We’re still recovering from it all.”

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