Interview: Jay Bulger on the Incomparable Subject of ‘Beware of Mr. Baker’
This interview was originally published on November 28, 2012. It is being reposted now that Beware of Mr. Baker is out on DVD.
Jay Bulger‘s Beware of Mr. Baker reminds me of Nanook of the North. This isn’t because the film focuses on Ginger Baker, a drummer who represents a bygone cultural era, in a way that’s akin to Robert Flaherty‘s documentary on an Inuit man and the dying traditions of his people. It’s more because Bulger, like Flaherty almost a century ago, made an initial trip and shot preliminary footage that wound up serving as a sort of test package to garner money for a second trip and greater production. Following that first meeting with Baker, though, Bulger did write up a story for Rolling Stone magazine that also helped with some of the groundwork. And unlike Flaherty’s initial footage, it didn’t end up lost in a fire. You can read it here.
I talked with Bulger this week about that process of making a profile on the wildly hilarious and complex and reclusive Mr. Baker, who is now added to the list of great, foul-mouthed curmudgeonly documentary subjects (a la those in Winnebago Man and I Like Killing Flies). We also talked about the film’s acclaim (it won the top doc prize at SXSW), why it shouldn’t be compared to other films and what the new filmmaker has in store as a follow-up.
Congrats on the film. I just rewatched it and enjoyed it just as much as the first time, at South by Southwest, and it’s getting great reviews.
It’s hard doing this criticism and stuff. People have been writing about it now. It’s all positive, but… It’s not like I’m some righteous bastard, but they were comparing my movie to [Shut Up and Play the Hits]. Not to be self-important or anything, but I was just like, “What the hell do these two movies have to do with each other at all?” It’s a concert film about James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem, who’ve made two albums. Great. I love that. Anyway.
Well, I was going to bring up another comparison, which I think relates more. It fits very nicely alongside the recent Patty Schemel doc, Hit So Hard.
I don’t know. Courtney’s a really good friend of mine, and I heard that one’s good, but… I’m not saying it’s better or worse, I just don’t know how you compare his life to anyone else’s, who isn’t 70 years old and been through so many incarnations. I’d have to see that movie, obviously.
Like, for instance, I’ve been having these discussions with people about [Searching for Sugar Man] and they were like, “We want to do a Q&A with you and Ginger and the Sugar Man guys,” and I was like, “Wouldn’t that be giving Sugar Man the credit to be on a stage with Ginger? And that he earned the right to not have to do that?” By that I mean I think they’re not in the same…
Ginger thinks Mick Jagger‘s a punk. So what the hell do you think he thinks about Sugar Man? And I like that movie, but I don’t think that movie was so much about music as it was about this guy’s misfortune and then rediscovery in this place and so forth, this unlikely end-of-the-Internet-age tale.
The only things I would see comparatively are that both are predominantly set in South Africa and both kinda start with the approach of “I thought this guy was dead. Now, let’s go see what he’s doing these days.”.
But at the same time, no one really cared if he was dead anyway. Right? I mean, nobody knew who that guy was to begin with. Look, I really like that movie. I thought it was great. But I thought it was more situational than it was… Ginger Baker has revolutionized music history. On his own behalf, I see why he’s pissed when he’s grouped with other people who are unworthy of such.
I wouldn’t necessarily compare, quality-wise, the films or even the drummers, between this and Hit So Hard. The only thing that I think is interesting is that they’re both films about drummers and they both address the issue of drummer contributions not being properly compensated over time, especially as songwriters.
I’d love to talk to Courtney about that. I think that with most bands the drummers are replaceable. They are. A session drummer can come in, especially in the rock format. It’s really easy to have interchangeable drummers, because most drummers don’t have their own unique style.
I think if there’s one objective fact about Ginger that I’ve gotten from every musician I’ve interviewed is that there’s a distinct sound, and you can put a thousand people in a room with him and his relationship with the kit and mastery of such, his sound and intonations from his kit, are such that no one can repeat that. He is a completely unique individual and a master.
I don’t know about the woman from Hole, but Ginger can write, arrange and is a polyrhythmic drummer who is a master of time signatures all across the globe from Indonesian to African, etc., which are incredibly difficult.
It’s interesting, because although he doesn’t want to be lumped in with guys like John Bonham and Keith Moon and others from that time period, there is something to be said for that era for elevating the drummers to be more well-known than mere session players. Now I don’t know any drummers’ names anymore.
Well, I don’t think there’s masters of the instruments in the pop landscape. Everyone is interchangeable at this point. People walk into a room and they’ve got producers like The-Dream, who come in and say, “Yeah, now just put some vocals over that.” Music has changed to become electronic. The human has been replaced by machine at this point.
I’d like to go back and talk about how the film begins. At first it seems like it’s going to be one of those amateuristic first-person docs where a filmmaker goes in search of someone he’s a fan of. You get over that perspective right away, partly because all of that went into your first trip and the Rolling Stone article.
I didn’t want to be in the movie. I wanted to make a movie about him, and I wanted to write an article. I ended up in the movie because he broke my nose with a cane and I thought it was a really significant moment that could be indicative of how he relates to people and how relationships with him come to a close as far as his own separation anxiety goes. And how he expresses himself to people that he’s become close to. He’s a bridge burner.
I think that all goes back to when he was a child and his father left him on the tracks, and the Nazis bombed his neighborhood repeatedly and he grew up in bomb shelters, and then he got a letter from his dad that said, “Use your fists; they’re your best friends. And I’m not here to help you.” I think he was deeply steeped and entrenched in those formative years of becoming a professional musician at the age of 15. I don’t think he had a childhood, and I think as a result, emotionally he is very child-like.
And he’s never really dealt with those issues in the same way that through therapy Eric Clapton was able to. That’s a common story for musicians who find themselves becoming famous and have no other means of supporting themselves or expressing themselves besides music.
So, I think I ended up in the film because I felt like I had undisputedly grown close to him, and here I am on the last day of the film and he broke my nose with a cane. It didn’t really matter. At a certain point we thought we were documenting the last chapter of the indestructible man, and here he was getting up on the canvas again. It was like, as conflicted as I was, there was an uplifting aspect to his breaking my nose. It’s like, geez this guy has still got it. I tempted fate and I pushed his buttons and I got what was lingering in the room. I messed with the tiger and I got the claws.
There’s something to be said about that. The guy, whether you love him or hate him, you’ve gotta respect him for the fire underneath his ass that has allowed him to live a life without compromise. I thought my journey with him was indicative of that.
The first trip you went on, were you going to make a film?
Yeah, I wanted to go there and make a film, and then he was like, “I thought you were from Rolling Stone. Aren’t you writing an article?” And I was like, “Oh sh*t, now I gotta write the article.” So I wrote the article and took some of the footage that I shot and put together a package, and I went back there with money and did it.
So some of the footage from the first trip is in the documentary?
No. I went and re-shot everything professionally, because it was impossible to do sound, shoot the interview, do all that stuff and have a product I was happy with. So it was nice to go back with a crew so I could focus on just telling the story.
Did making the actual film seem like a repeat for you or for Ginger after that first trip?
I guess so, but he likes talking. So I think it was comforting for him to have someone to talk to and tell his story. As difficult as it is to get him to tell it, I think he likes telling it. He, just as much as I, is completely understanding of how important the story is.
So he wasn’t reluctant to have a film made about him?
Yeah, he was reluctant and he’s crazy, but deep down I think he appreciated my wherewithal. Look, he’s the most honest person I’ve ever met. So we made a pact. I followed through with it, and so did he. Honesty defines him for better or worse. He doesn’t think before he speaks.
How long were you there the second time? I know you were there three months with him the first trip.
Three months. Both trips were three months.
Did you talk to any of the other interviewees between the two trips? So you could come back to Ginger and say, “So and so said this…”?
Well, I had done the article, so yeah. I’d done some pretty good groundwork for what I was gonna do.
But you talk to a lot of people in the film. Most of that came afterwards, right?
Did it ever seem like you were making 20 documentaries in one? He had so many lives, so many chapters and there were so many people to interview from each part.
Oh my god, yeah. He was this guy who was constantly leaving people behind, both musically and personally. That’s why I didn’t incorporate other people into the story after where they were in the story. I wanted it to feel like we were leaving the people behind. Because he was.
I usually hate when people ask the “has he seen it?” question. But I want to bring the idea up, though not really to ask it…
He saw it last week.
Oh, he did. I imagine that people had been asking that before, at festivals and stuff. Was he reluctant to see it?
He was reluctant to see it because he didn’t want to see himself lose everything again.
I had assumed he’d have no interest in seeing it. Especially the stuff with other people talking about him. Not only the parts of people recounting their experiences with him but also the newer guys who speak reverentially. I don’t know if they knew him or he knew them…
Almost everyone in the film had some interaction with him at a certain point or another. Chad Smith did some drum clinics with him in the ’90s.
What’s his reaction to these people celebrating him in this way?
I don’t think he gives a sh*t. I’m sure he loves the accolades. He knows how respected Neil Peart is, so to have Neil Peart say that Ginger’s the greatest I’m sure means a lot to him.
Then I wondered about the reactions of the others in the film or mentioned in the film, because it seems like Ginger is the kind of person who you would love to be insulted by.
My sense of humor was in tune with his berating me. I liked it. I find it hilarious. It’s a very British sense of humor, all about slighting people and the ongoing game of wit. He’s a witty guy, so you have to be on your toes.
Yeah, he doesn’t ever seem to be really out to hurt your feelings or really insult you. He’s just playing a game.
He just likes talking sh*t. It was fun.
He talks about the drummers who are no longer around that he can easily talk sh*t about, but then he talks about other people who are still around. But he would probably say all that stuff to their face too, right?
I want to talk about the animation, because it’s one of my favorite parts of the film. It’s not exactly necessary, it doesn’t really fill in for anything, since you have tons of photos and archive footage and such. It has a whole other atmospheric kind of purpose.
The reason I did the animation was that to begin with you have this guy who is such a folkloric, mythical figure, and then at the end of the day… I wanted to dispute and disprove or provide the sense of paradoxical nature of his legend, which is this man who’s larger than life in folklore and yet here he is at the end of the world. Eventually even Ginger Baker, the indestructible larger than life caricature of rock and roll drummer junkie madman becomes old and fragile too. I thought to start off with that is interesting, and then there was a huge map of the world to cover these places. We needed to show how much land he covered.
Then I saw Ben-Hur and thought, “Oh great, there’s the greatest drummer ever, the hortator of the Roman slave galley. You’ve gotta keep up with his beat otherwise you’re chained to the ship and you go down with it. Then my friend who’s Danish told me, “You know, there’s no difference between the word ‘slavery’ and ‘addiction’ in the Danish language.” So, I thought, okay, he’s a slave to the heroin and the jazz drumming until all his incarnations come together and he’s eventually the master of his own ship as they go off the end of the world.
All that concept was your own?
Yeah, that was all my dreams. Plus, I also really like Otto Dix, and I grew up with that kind of BETA animation, He-Man and so forth. It was really fun to do the Monty Python meets Otto Dix meets the cartoons of my own past.
While this is your first feature and it’s a doc, you have done other film work before. Are you going to continue with the nonfiction route now?
I’m going to do fiction now. I’m doing a movie with Jonathan Batiste, the pianist, about a father/son revivalist duo. They travel through America playing music. They’re masters in a time without mastery.
So I take it music is a big passion for you, then.
Yeah. I’m really inspired by music. And I’m really inspired by the fact that if there’s one thing… Everything is kind of coming to this souless… Everything, from journalism to books to music, all media is at this weird point in history. I think if I can focus on music as something that is lacking in our culture… Who is Hendrix now? Who is Aretha Franklin now? Where is Marvin Gaye? Where are the masters? We’re stuck with garbage.
To point people to the past and when there were masters or to create a movie about musical masters in a day and age when they’re no longer relevant, I think it’s important, because I’m wondering what the hell we’re missing as a society. And while I don’t have children I wonder what the hell it’s like growing up now without the musical profundity that we were gifted with.
Beware of Mr. Baker is now available on DVD from Vivendi Entertainment. It is also available in digital/streaming formats.