Max Eider Blog
Interview With Mick Mercer
February 19, 2008
Your label boss says the most appalling things about you in the press release. I don’t know if you’ve seen it? Maybe you could go on one of those team-building exercises at an executive retreat, paint-balling, something like that? He even paid the illustrator to turn you into Ray Davies, styled after Aerosmith. You must have been livid!
Augustus is a drunk, a bastard and a fraud and you can quote me on that. No jury in the land would convict.
The picture inside the cover of the album shows a man with his back to a girlfriend in his bedroom, clutching his guitar instead, an album sleeve of himself plainly visible to the world. How close a picture is that to reality, a man consumed by the beast that is music?
When I’m doing it, it consumes me totally. I have made one or two game efforts to give it up but I can’t. I’m a lifer.
According to myspace you’re Pop/Alternative. An alternative to what?
Good question. In my case, I suppose ‘alternative’ simply means ‘almost unknown’.
I read the rambling interview at www.caughtinthecarousel.com from a devoted fan, and it highlights just how long the gaps were between records. Is this a cause of distress at any time, or do you find yourself simply happy to have an album every five, or nine years, with some other recording for others in-between, and the occasional gig? In theory you could, presumably, have been doing CD-R releases since the late 90’s but haven’t chosen to do so. How badly do you worry about such things?
To be absolutely honest, in my less light-hearted moments I see my sparse output as a sort of self-betrayal. My excuse is that it’s only fairly recently that the technology become good enough to make high-quality home recordings. And it ain’t easy, however good the technology. If I had the choice, I would still leave that side to professionals. Anyway, I’m glad the technology is there, and if the songs keep coming, the gaps will be smaller in the future.
Let’s simplify things for people unaware of your work. Pre-Jazz Butcher bands, what did you do musically, apart from the hideous King Crimson type school band (what were they called?) – was it Punk which truly set fire to those musical loins? Which bands most impressed you and managed to dislodge Pink Floyd and Gong from your clearly addled mind?
The Velvet Underground dislodged quite a lot. The other groups that really lit my fire around that time – Television, The Only Ones, Talking Heads for example – weren’t Punk. I did find some early Punk really exciting, but I felt like a fraud, because I was a bit of a muso. During my late teens the bands I was in were very confused musically. And in every other way, come to think of it.
Jazz Butcher – how much work was there and what do you think of it now?
In the 80s we did four studio albums plus a live album and various singles and EPs. Pat Fish is a hugely gifted and under-rated songwriter and I’m proud of the stuff we did together, though the first album is perhaps a bit too ropey and the fourth one not quite ropey enough.
Earlier Max albums: 1987 – The Best Kisser In The World. Your label goes bankrupt – did that cause a massive dent in things for you? Usually independent labels don’t give their artists anything anyway, it’s just a way to get the records out, so I can see it being an annoyance, but then it’s an astonishing 14 years between albums!
The bankruptcy of my label wouldn’t have been such a problem if I’d been able to find another one in the next 13 years.
2001 – Hotel Figueroa – did doing this is America make much difference? Writing on the road, lost in the glory of the American highways? A one-man Clash?
I did go a bit native but I’m not sure how much that comes over. What may have made a big difference was the fact that I was recording in the middle of a thick fog of the finest Californian grass Not smoked by me, or at least not deliberately – I’d long since given up the habit – but when I got home I realised I’d been stoned out of my mind for two months.
In between work with David J – and lots of it. Did you only play with him in the States or worldwide?
Just the States and Canada – and a few in the UK.
Tell me of your night with Joe Strummer and tequila. I’m assuming he was either a big JB, ME and DJ fan and had to be drunk to be able to approach you?
Yes – he was very shy and normally, as I’m sure you’ve heard, he never touched the stuff. The wonderful thing about Strummer was that his enthusiasm for the whole shabby business was undiminished – and totally infectious. He’d been doing an interview for an LA radio station, and we were next up for a live spot. We didn’t know he was there until I looked up after our soundcheck and saw him with his face pushed up against the glass of the control room giving us the thumbs up. Disconcerting. He ended up hanging out with us for the rest of the day and he made us feel as if, for a day at least, he’d become our no. 1 fan. I guess he made everyone feel like that. I remember sitting next to him in a cab as we passed the Roxy on Sunset Boulevard, where we were playing that night, and it had a ‘sold out’ sign up by Dave’s name. And he was bouncing up and down with excitement: ‘Look – you’ve sold out the Roxy! You’ve sold out the fuckin’ Roxy!’ He was more excited about it than we were. Afterwards he came back to the hotel and we set about the Jose Cuervo in earnest. He was very complimentary about the gig but he had a thing about Dave’s guitar – one of those Ovation electric acoustic jobs with a plastic back. He kept going on about how Dave needed ‘the big wood’, not that ‘thwacky-thwacky Ovation shite’. The next morning Dave went back down to Sunset Boulevard and blew $2000 on a big, beautiful, vintage Guild acoustic. We called it ‘The Big Wood’, and Owen (Jones – the accordionist/percussionist) later wrote a song about the episode. Joe Strummer made an impression.
Appearances across the years with Pat Fish, after leaving the Butcher? Reforming, clearly, but occasionally?
Not until the late 90s, when the Jazz Butcher had officially been disbanded. Then occasionally, and then more, and now we’ve stopped for the time being.
On that interview you mention a gig done at someone’s 60th birthday party, where the sons who had organised it for their father were all JB fans but naturally his dad and collected friends weren’t. What did they, overall, make of you? Did they riot?
No – I wish they had. Generally they politely ignored us, which wasn’t hard as the garden was quite big and we were playing in a kind of conservatory. But at one point it pissed with rain and they had to take cover. As soon as it stopped, they all cleared out again. We’ve played a few such unpromising events over the years and sometimes they’re surprisingly successful. For instance, at one wedding, in Monterey, the grandparents started jiving to ‘Zombie Love’.
Work with others?
I did sessions and gigs from time to time with people if they asked and I liked them or their music.
You mention freelance writing and editing has helped you keep the wolf from the door, although could always invite him in, as they tend be clean, but what sort of writing do you do?
I’m glad to hear that the wolf is clean, because he may be moving in soon. I’ve mainly done vaguely educational stuff for broadcasters and NGOs.
How weird is it being someone in the Internet with an album out but no gigs to gauge responses by? Do you get much of the way in feedback form people through your site(s) and is that enough?
It’s pretty weird, and I sometimes feel as if the whole thing is a pathetic exercise in vanity publishing. But for various reasons gigging is a non-starter, in the UK at least. I do get some feedback through the websites. Plus there’s a small number of loyal and enthusiastic supporters who do their best to make me feel it’s all worthwhile. Of course I know quite a few of my ‘fans’ personally after all this time, which is nice, although it makes it a bit embarrassing to take their money.
Is it different it any way to the past; more informative or instructive, or more infuriating?
There’s certainly more of it – more direct feedback – these days, because of the internet, and I suppose I make more of an effort to be approachable, because there’s no one else trying to promote my stuff, and I genuinely appreciate it when someone takes an interest. I do get some questions about what equipment I use and so on, which are a bit tedious, but mostly people are just friendly and supportive.
Your newest album, let’s have a look. ‘I Want’ is a lovely pop song but the protagonist sounds a bit of a bastard, taking rather than giving much!
It’s less about a particular character than about our (my) endless desire for what I haven’t got, or for more of some things I have got – not even knowing half the time what I want, but vaguely knowing that I want it. It’s not an attractive aspect of the psyche. I had thought I was talking about a shared experience but maybe I’m just a bit of a shit.
Whenever I hear that jazzily style of ‘Secret Life’ I can’t help thinking of the old kids TV show Vision On. I was scarred by it. This clearly isn’t a problem for you. When Punk and its aftermath was happening I’m assuming you had a varied album collection of guitarists?
In fact, the music to Vision On is closely associated in my mind with the loss of the will to live. I’m generally quite bored by instrumental jazz unless it’s really exceptional – Duke Ellington or Miles Davis or something. For me, it’s always been about songs. But I have spent quite a lot of time listening to treatments of songs in the ‘standard’ repertoire, which of course tend to have a jazzy feel, and I do waddle into that territory from time to time, when the song seems to call for it.
Was that song sparked off by some nutter in the press and how people view the loner, or just another look at a deceitful relationship?
I like that ‘just’ – the implication that the way we view some homicidal nutter in a newspaper story is somehow more interesting than the way we relate to the people we’re supposed to love. But as it happens the original idea did come from reading about a suicide bomber and what a nice quiet boy everyone thought he was. And then I started thinking about how little any of us really know about what’s going on the minds of the people near to us.
‘My Dreams’ is stunning and quite shocking. You must have some seriously disturbing dreams?
Well this is a story, and the narrator is not me, but of course there’s some sort of emotional connection, and it’s my warped mind that came up with the story. Certainly I read that phrase somewhere – ‘May all your dreams come true’ – and I thought, ‘My god, what a thing to wish on someone.’ Like the Chinese curse wishing someone interesting times.
‘Dirty Old Man’ is sad, wistful and quite peculiar. Not only do you make growing old sound awful you let everyone else know their life will be shitty? Aren’t Bauhaus lacking a singer? You could apply. ‘Can invest situations with grim undertones at the drop of a hat.’
The worrying thing is that I see the mood of this album as generally positive. While I was making it I collected a stock of ideas for the next album, which I rejected for this one on the grounds that they were too dark. So that’s something to look forward too, isn’t it?
‘Dirty Old Man’ is about one specific aspect of getting older, and it is sad and wistful, but it’s also about coming to terms with it. I wanted to write about those feelings because they’re considered shameful, despite the fact that they’re hard-wired and pretty much universal, at least for men: at some point in your life, like it or not, and not many of us do like it I don’t think, you’re going to find yourself fancying someone who’s young enough to be your daughter or son, and eventually, presumably, your grand-daughter or grandson. So the song says: hey, don’t feel so bad, there’s no shame unless you do something about it. And even if you do something about it, as long we’re talking about adults and not children, it’s not wrong, just (probably) very ill-advised. A lot depends on the circumstances of course. I know I’m her schoolteacher but she told me she was forty-five, your honour.
‘Love’s Blind’ has a similar message, done with humour “just as one door closes he said, another slams in your face.” I’m thinking inspirational speaker/ life coach might not be the alternative career for you.
No definitely not. I’m not a fan of the self-improvement/counselling culture. And I’m beginning to worry they’re not going to offer me the Bauhaus job either.
‘Closing Time’ sounds gorgeous but it’s another weird relationship? I kept expecting some talk of revenge but you seem so easy-mannered.
Not so weird: it’s just about an affair that one person takes much more seriously than the other. The twist is that, having ended the relationship, the one who cared less turns up out of the blue and gets seductive. So the other one, the bloke, has to decide what to do about it, knowing that his ex-lover has a comparatively lighthearted and casual approach to life and love. There’s no malicious intent: she just doesn’t take things to heart as he does. This is not a situation I’ve been in myself but it’s one that happened to someone I know and it just had ‘song’ written all over it.
That goes double into ‘Sweet Nothing’ like the anti-speed dater, one man and his sun dial.
‘Sweet Nothing’ is a kind of manifesto. In my experience, decisive action of any kind is almost always a mistake. And it’s that attitude, as the song says, that has got me where I am today.
‘Neutral Tones’ love must demonstrate the potency of love, as no-one else would consider using White City as a ravishing backdrop!
Well, it’s set after nightfall.
‘Stupid Heart’ is almost optimistic but still lacking any happy ending.
This is about taking the knocks without hardening the heart. What do you want, Love Actually?
‘It’s Come To This’ again trundles through disappointment. So, playing devil’s advocate, does playing light and lush songs about love’s downside get you a get out of jail free card in the Melodic Court Of Justice while the likes of Tony Hadley or Chris De Burgh go to the firing squad? Is it the unhappiness which works, as you’re in the same big anteroom of Singer Songwriter Covering Emotion. How do you avoid do a Lady In Red?
I suppose this is a fair question, but I don’t really think it’s for me to answer. People can make up their own minds, if they’re interested. I do what I do with whatever insight, wit and talent I can muster. Judging whether or not, in the end, it’s a pile of old shite is your job.
One thing though: if it is, in the end, a pile of old shite, my ‘Lady In Red’, do I get to sell some fucking records then?
Booze is often around in songs – what’s the greatest drinking song you have ever heard, and what do envy about it?
I love Pat Fish’s contribution on the Jazz Butcher album A Scandal In Bohemia, ‘Soul Happy Hour’ – ‘I wish I’d been born a tree / Someone might have made a barrel out of me / I get in a phewery / When I’m not in a brewery.’ Now that’s a lyric. I also love Dean Martin singing ‘Little Ole Wine Drinker Me’ – he’s trying to drink off a broken heart but he sounds as if he’s really enjoying it. Dishonourable mention too for ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking’ by Tom Waits – it’s just so drunk, and it gets the element of denial essential to the true alcoholic.
‘Kings And Queens’ comes to you through Sting! Can you explain the purpose of the song because I’m not strictly sure what you’re saying there, it’s almost like the end has you approving of a troupe of imbeciles?
Well, Sting got up in front of whatever award ceremony it was, and he’d been adjudged the best songwriter and best shag in the history of the world or whatever it was, and he looked the camera in the eye and said: ‘Music is its own reward’. Then he took off his shirt and played ‘Message in a Bottle’. And something inside me snapped.
‘Kings and Queens’ is a song celebrating people for whom music really is its own reward – people who aren’t multi-award-winning multi-millionaires, people who make music that no one hears, people who sit singing and strumming in bedrooms, rehearsing week after week in unspeakable rehearsal rooms and never playing a gig, or playing the same crap gigs over and over again to two men and a dog; people for whom the rock ‘n’ roll dream never died, or has long since died, or was never born, but who do it, well, why? – for whatever reason. Because it’s what they do. Because at some level they want to or must do it. They are the Kings and Queens.
What the fuck did you think it was about?
Can you tell I’ve had a couple of drinks now?
Next album around 2012, or are you on a roll?
I’m on a roll mate. Soon there will be more albums than fans.