from Mercury Rev to Mogwai, magical things happen in the little house on Tarbox Road!


Pop Culture Press
Winter 2001
By Caliban Jones

Trips home to Buffalo in March are always a gloomy prospect, but the fares are always cheaper and there's something about being there just as that deep freeze is beginning to thaw. This past March I took a chance and went on a field trip down to a tiny little town called Cassadaga, New York, a tiny little one stop light town between Buffalo and Jamestown, and tracked down Tarbox Road studios just outside of town. From the road you would be none the wiser that there was a studio hidden back among the trees, if not for the broken tape spool on the mailbox. In the driveway, a blue car with reflective Mercury Rev stickers tells me that I'm in the right place. I'm greeted at the door by Grasshopper, who remembers me from a chance meeting years ago, and I'm introduced to Rev's drummer Jeff and a very polite Dave Fridmann. I've interrupted their afternoon's work, but Dave takes me on a short tour of the studio and we agree to do this interview later, via e-mail, at a more opportune time. As it turned out, it was better to wait because I've had the chance to hear both the Mercury Rev album they were working on and the Mogwai album that had been recorded there just a month or so before my visit.

Caliban Jones: Does what you're doing now seem to be what you were working towards being/doing all along?

Dave Fridmann: It seems as though I'm still doing the same thing that I've always been doing, which has always been a lot of fun. What is really good, though, is that I get to do a lot more of it.

CJ: There seems to be two different ways that you have of producing music: first, as with Mogwai, where the band already has their sound and ideas together and are looking for a way to make it come alive and secondly, where you are actually a collaborator and a part of the final product itself (as with Mercury Rev and Sparklehorse).

DF: I think that it's about the same to me in the sense that I just do what needs to be done: fill in the gaps!

CJ: Do you know ahead of time what role is expected of you?

DF: I think I usually have a pretty good idea what is expected of me.

CJ: In meeting with artists that you haven't already worked with, how do you determine that your working together will be mutually beneficial?

DF: I usually just listen to the music that the band has done before and even more so, any recent demos that they have sent me. If I don't hear anything that I could do for them, I'll just let them know that I don't know what they could get from me. Sometimes they can explain it to me, or it will become apparent during our conversation. Other times, it just doesn't work out and we don't do it.

CJ: Obviously there was a time when you jumped from being in a band (Mercury Rev) into being a producer- what drove that desire?

DF: I think that my main role with both the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev has always been in production. When Mercury Rev became too time consuming to do both I stayed with what I was best at and enjoyed more. I think that I make a better producer than a band member. I'm pretty practical that way.

CJ: Who are your role models for being a producer? What makes you different from any of them?

DF: Although there are many producers that I like and who I think do a great job, (I think) it has to be the right thing at the right time and the right band. George Martin and the Beatles: Great! George Martin and (someone else) who cares. I guess that I don't really keep track of producers. I keep track of bands and hope that they find the right person to help them realize their vision at that time. I don't think that anything really separates me from them. We're all trying to make good records and help the people that we are working with to the best of our ability. Is that naïve?

CJ: What is the weirdest thing you've been asked to do as a producer (ie:"Make me sound like a toaster thrown into the bathwater by two college girls with matching jumpers and a sponge!").

DF: I actually get such a steady stream of requests like that, I don't actually remember any one item in particular. I will say that there is usually a lot of arm waving and gesturing associated with it!

CJ: Is part of the lure to your studio the fact that it is somewhat isolated from the distractions of the modern world? You're about 40 minutes from Buffalo and 20 from Jamestown'is that far enough away to keep your subjects focused and out of trouble?

DF: Yes, it is part of the lure. I don't really like to goof around too much. I really like to work hard in the studio. Plus, Buffalo and Jamestown are not distractions for people from NYC and London, etc. There is no trouble staying focused.

CJ: Do you introduce your visitors to Beef on Wick, Genny Cream Ale, Cuba extra-sharp cheddar and wine from the hills over Westfield or do you let them discover this all on their own?

DF: Yeah, I definitely send people down to BJ's for wings, Mighty Taco, and Aldrich's Beef and Dairy. Bison chip dip for the Americans and peanut butter and Fluffer-nutter for non-Americans. I usually have to keep it to things that we can enjoy really close by so we can keep working, but for people that are from really far away, I try to find time to get them to Niagara Falls also.

CJ: Is there anything to be hopeful for in this post-Flutie, post-Haseck, post-Jim Kelly era or are the best days really behind us?

DF: Definitely behind us for awhile. I can't wait for the Chargers vs. the Bills game later this year though!

CJ: I must say that there was a while there that I thought Mercury Rev was done for, after Dave Baker (original vocalist) left. I even reviewed that first album without him as being like Mott the Hoople without Ian Hunter. Seems kind of weird now how well the band has done without him and how he completely fell off the radar screen after Shady (his solo project, now found in 99 cent bins everywhere). Do you keep in touch with him? Did you ever patch things up?

DF: Yeah, a lot of people didn't understand the nature of how the band felt about Dave leaving. It was a lot like losing a leg. You wish it didn't happen, but you also realize that it doesn't mean that you won't still walk around, you just walk a little differently. Dave is in Chicago, the last time I spoke with him. He seems to be doing well. We had a very funny talk with Sean (Grasshopper) and Jon (Donahue, M-Rev vocalist/guitarist and former Flaming Lip) at the same time. I think that everything is fine and things have worked out for the best.

CJ: Are you happy?

DF: Yes. Things in general are better than I ever would have felt comfortable hoping for.

FIVE ESSENTIAL DAVE FRIDMANN JOINTS: (through the ears of the Caliban)

MOGWAI: ROCK ACTION (MATADOR 2001) The only imperfection in this gem of an album is that it is only 39 minutes when I could easily love 80 or so minutes of this perfect music. The shorter tracks are concise and beautiful, but the longer tracks, "You Don't Know Jesus" and "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong" are even better. "Jesus" is a true religious experience, a song that starts out full on and then fades away into a beautiful sunset over Lake Erie of an ending. Going to Western New York from Scotland in the dead of winter was probably like a tropical holiday for Mogwai, but it did them well. No 'Love Beach' for these lads, just 39 minutes of pure rock action confection/perfection.

FLAMING LIPS: THE SOFT BULLETIN (WARNER BROS. 1999) While "She Don't Use Jelly" put them in the charts and in the red, this album put Oklahoma's finest near the top of many critics top tens for the final year of pre-Millennium tension. In the press release for the album Wayne Coyne speaks of the magical effect that walking around Cassadaga late at night (presumably stoned?) had on him. It shows. While the Lips have been more powerful and more deranged elsewhere, this album shows a maturity and focus absent from earlier efforts. They are currently working on a follow-up, but it would be amazing to hear them top this ear candy delight.

MERCURY REV : DESERTERS SONGS (V2 1998) Most of us Rev-heads had given them up for dead by the time this album came out. Three years after a luke-warm 'See You on the Other Side' showed them in search of direction after the departure of larger than life figure Dave Baker the Rev came back with their best album yet. With the focus on Jonathan Donahue and "Grasshopper" and peripheral help from Band members Garth Hudson and Levon Helm (who lived near Donahue's home in Kingston, New York,which is pretty darn close to Big Pink and Woodstock). Brought them massive acclaim in the UK, and even raised their profile here in the States.

SPARKLEHORSE: IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (CAPITOL 2001) While Sparklehorse is the vision of a very gifted southerner named Mark Linkous, and his previous efforts have also been pretty fucking great, it took a helping hand from Fridmann to pull all of the brilliance of 'Life' together from all the divergent paths it had taken. With input from PJ Harvey and John Parish at a session in Spain, and other sessions in Linkous' home state of Virginia, and Tom Waits in LA, Fridmann had a lot to pull together and even manages to play bass, mellotron and piano here and there. It's yet another pinnacle: easily the best Sparklehorse album, and one of the years best albums over all.

MERCURY REV : ALL IS DREAM (V2 2001) Originally the Rev was going to work with Jack Nitzsche on this album, but his passing left them settling with orchestration from Tony Visconti. This shows the band beyond any transitional phase and settled upon a very distinct sound and direction. It's filled with the kinds of dreams and imperfections that life is full of, making it their friendliest and homiest effort yet. The sound of friends making great music together because it's too fricking cold to go outside. More importantly, the sound of Fridmann totally at ease with a massive undertaking. George Martin and the Beatles, indeed!