Flixclusive Interview: Jay Bulger (Beware of Mr. Baker)
Nov 27 // Hubert Vigilla @HubertVigilla
Jay Bulger finagled his way into the life of legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker. He claimed to be a Rolling Stone writer (he wasn't at the time) and wound up living with Baker at his gated South African compound for three months. Entering the gates, a large sign reads "Beware of Mr. Baker." It's a fair warning given the reclusive musician's reputation. Bulger's gambit resulted in an actual Rolling Stone profile (read the article in PDF form here). He returned to Baker's compound to film additional footage, and the result is the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, which opens in New York tomorrow.
Just entering his 30s, Bulger's a former boxer, an ex-model, a cancer survivor, a current freelance writer, and now he's a filmmaker. Talking to him, I got a sense of comfortable swagger, and a toughness as well. It may stem from his boxing background, which he says helped him deal with the cantankerous Baker. Makes sense: the documentary opens with Baker smacking Bulger in the face with a cane. Beware.
Look for our review of Beware of Mr. Baker tomorrow.
So how have things been on your end with the film coming out?
Umm, I just heard that Ginger Baker watched the movie today, which is awesome.
Do you know how he reacted? I was so curious if he'd seen it.
I'm curious too. Because I was in London with him three weeks ago, and we did a Q & A and he hadn't seen it. And I'm like, "Why didn't you watch it?" And he's like, "I don't wanna watch me losing all those horses! I had 38, now I've got one dog." Who knows, those wounds are fresh, I guess.
How did he respond to your article in Rolling Stone?
He liked the article, he was totally cool with it. So I'm assuming he'll be cool with the movie. But, you know, obviously with the movie you've got so many elements at once, and it's like, he's probably going to be pissed that in the context of some jazz concert that I showed I used footage from two weeks later.
He's going to be a stickler. He's going to be like, "HOLLYWOOD! Blah-blah whatever."
When you were living with him, how did you find his personality?
He was just set. I read some review about [Beware of Mr. Baker] recently, and it was the only one I've ever read where someone wrote, "You know, Jay was lucky to do this film. All he had to do was point the camera and magic happened." I'm like, dude, this was so hard. It was taxing, and I'm still recovering.
Yeah, because it wasn't like doing a Bill Withers doc where you just showed up and were like, "Hey, Bill! ♪ Just the two of us ♪ Just tell me your story." Every day [with Ginger] was like: "We're doing a documentary. Can we please talk?" And Ginger would say, "I don't know if I feel like it, you cunt!" [laughs]
[laughs] [Editor's note: I should add at this point that Jay Bulger's impersonation of Ginger Baker sounds like a crotchety old British man -- picture a cross between Ebeneezer Scrooge and Ben Kingsley's character from Sexy Beast.]
You know, and he'd be like, "World Series of baseball? Who plays the fucking game, Yankee!?" And I'd say, "Oh god. All right. Please take your morphine tablets and let's get into this." And he'd be like, "Maybe I will, maybe I won't, you fuck! I'll cut your head off!" All right, dude, come on. Just shut the fuck up! You know what I mean? It was like pulling teeth. Every single minute of making this film was difficult. And he made suffer for it, and I'm glad, because I had to be at the top of my game at all times. There was no... Every second of it was tentative, you know. As an interviewer and first-time filmmaker, it was dealing with (what I think) was one of the more difficult interview subjects. If you didn't know your history-- I'd ask a question and he'd be like, "What? That was '69, not '68! You're an IDIOT!"
In order to get the right responses, sometimes you'd have to throw out questions that you knew were going to piss him off because with his response, you knew you were going to get the answer that you wanted. You know?
Like he'd correct you to get to the thing you were looking for?
Yeah, sometimes there was that. There was a lot of trickery, just a lot of manipulation. Look, I had a premeditated approach to doing it, you know, and I'm on top of the game for months and months. Just taxing. And plus, you hang out with that guy, you can't help but take in some of his idiosyncrasies. Like you're at the bar and all of a sudden-- I'm sure it'd be the same if you were hanging out with Hunter S. Thompson. You leave the bar after hanging out with [Thompson] for a month, and you're like, "Yeahmotherfucker!" [laughs]
[Hanging out with Ginger] it was like, "What did you say?" Oh my god, chill out, dude.
Is there like a Ginger Baker detox that you can do or something?
I'm still doing it, man. I'm still doing it.
It's great, though. I mean, it was all worth it, obviously.
It always seemed like he was crotchety, but until he popped you in the nose with his cane, did you ever feel threatened physically?
Oh my god, man -- like every day! Well, I mean there's a lot of lead up and a lot of threat, but yeah, man, there wasn't one moment that I didn't think he was going to [take it to me]. But at the same time, like I was saying, I've been boxing since I was a kid, and my grandparents are both Irish, kind of WWII (stock). I just grew up with those types of strong, masculine, affected, Irish [traits]. Even my dad has inherited that WWII [attitude] and the history of his father and so forth, so I've just grown up with those people that are stand-offish, kind of callous -- ornery Irish types, you know. So, I don't know, I related to that, but I kind of felt like I was predestined to deal with that guy. Maybe that's why I was attracted to him so much; you know, him and his personality.
But I think, you know, the reason I wanted to make the movie in the first place is I felt like it was the most difficult movie to make. And I knew that the rewards of it would pay off. I'm not asking the audience to appreciate that, but what I am saying is that opposed to judging the movie [in terms of] "Do I want this guy to be my father..." Like, you know, do you want Citizen Kane to be your father? [Ginger]'s a deeply complex individual, and that's why I think he's that interesting. He is a walking contradiction. There are a lot of contradictions to him, and I think that's reflected in his music. And, you know, as I was saying a million times today, I think he's mildly autistic or has Asperger's. I think he relates to people in a musical way, his greatest friendships have been musical. I think everything that can be said about his life is reflected with that music; it's what he best expresses himself with. So, I'm not friends with him. I'm just a guy who stumbled in and made this thing, but I've learned that about him, and I think that's highly interesting.
Did you go into Ginger Baker's world with any preconceived notions, and did any of those change?
My main preconceived notion was from reading Heart of Darkness and watching Apocalypse Now. [laughs]
I mean, romantically speaking too. I felt like maybe more so the Heart of Darkness guy because Martin Sheen [in Apocalypse Now] was highly affected himself, and I'm surely not like a lieutenant hired by the CIA. But the guy from Heart of Darkness was kind of like this naïve worker for the ivory company. He goes down and doesn't know what he's getting into, so I related to that. And it was so far away. I'd never been to Africa, and he wasn't living in Capetown, he was in the mountains. It sounded like something that Peter Beard would have done, and [Ginger] sounded like someone from a different time. So I was so inspired and in awe and intimidated and trepidatious about the whole process. I was like, "This is fucking c-- what am I doing?!" It was crazy.
But it was funny too! There were moments... Like when I went to England and my passport was out of stamps. I called [Ginger] and was like, "I'm not coming until tomorrow," and he had sent someone to pick me up at the airport. And I get this email and he's like, "What? Did you get busted for FUCKING DRUGS AT THE AIRPORT?"
And he was serious. He thought I was crazy too, you know, to come there, because I had sold my car and just said, "I'm coming!" He was like, "...oh, fine." And I just kind of showed up, as blindly as possible, and I had no idea what I was going to get into, but it was such a romantic idea: this kind of last great adventure of this undiscovered icon living at the end of the world, and everyone thinks he's dead, and yet he's obviously there for a reason. It was really fucking just awesome. Awesome in the finest definition of the word. The journey was fucking great.
I liked how the animation showed Ginger's path of destruction around the world, with just these pyres on the map and the ship. Did that come to you--
The ship was... I was always a huge fan of Ben Hur, and when I looked at that hortator drummer there was a light bulb. He's the greatest drummer ever. He's the conduit between the admiral guy at the top of the ship and the slaves in the galley, and his pounding and his rhythm dictates how fast they row. And he's a slave at the end of the day, and if the ship goes down, they're all chained to the thing and they die. So there's do or die rhythm, going forward, destruction. And then I talked to a Danish friend and we were talking about addiction, and she was like, "You know, 'addiction' and 'slavery' are the same word in our language."
So I was like, oh god: he's addicted. He's introduced to the rhythm by Phil [Seaman], he's enslaved in this galley of rhythm. And as he goes on, he keeps getting better at that path of destruction that has been defined by his father leaving him. Now [his dad's] going off to die, and the Nazis are bombing; his father's killed by the Nazis and he then gets this note that's like, "Use your fists!" So he's like *pssh pow* and [drums on table]. We've created a superhero, you know?
And with those different incarnations and what he learns along the way, he keeps perfecting his own lone pursuit off to the next promise land or point of destruction. He just keeps going on until he's mastered it: he's the captain, he's the hortator, and he's all of the rowers. That's what I was trying to say.
That worked really effectively. I was noticing all the rowers making those changes as the movie progressed.
You also used -- sparingly -- split screens. Could you discuss the use of that?
I hired my editor [Abhay Sofsky], who's a first time editor -- he'd edited a couple of videos -- but he's a drummer. And that's why I hired him. He's a really good drummer. I went to him and was like, "I'm going to hire you and I'm going to edit this with you everyday because I know what I want. But what I want is a polyrhythmic form of editing. I want us to not just follow the beat, but visually express what's going on as a drummer." And drummers -- polyrhythmic drummers, especially -- split their brains in half. That's an uncanny act that you can't learn. You're born with it. You know, you're playing 5/4 with this hand and this foot's playing 4/4. To do the split screen would be the visual representation of playing the drums -- there are two rhythms happening at once. Multiple things. I felt that was the natural progression of the editing style of a polyrhythmic drummer and his story.
From the beginning, were you that attuned to using polyrhythms and a percussive basis for the editing and crafting of the movie?
It was like an editor's dream, a drummer's story. It was like *pssh pew pew pssh pew pssh pew* you know. Yeah, I mean, I wanted to do a polyrhythmic movie. By that I mean it's about a polyrhythmic drummer, so if I'd done 4/4 editing, it wouldn't have represented his life. I feel like he's lived a polyrhythmic and complicated and complex [life]; highly volatile at times, and then beautiful. He serves the music as a drummer, but what he mostly does is push people to their greatest level. That's why Eric Clapton and all those people love him -- no one sounds better than when they play with him. He's the ultimate drummer. He can do simple to complex to whatever, but he is a master.
How much footage did you shoot?
Thousands of hours. And I shot when I was up there the first time a lot too, and I didn't end up using any of it. But, you know, we went back and I had a DP. It was hard to do sound, cinematography, lighting, and interview him at the same time. It's hard enough to fucking interview him, so it's not like it turned out amazing to begin with, but it was good enough that I made a promo and raised the money with my Rolling Stone article and the promo to go back with a skeleton crew that was capable of doing two cameras and sound. [That way] I could just focus on interviewing.
When you were interviewing Ginger's family, were they pretty open with you?
Yeah, they were. I think they feel like they should get their due also. They're a huge part of his story, and they suffered for the story that I'm telling. They really did. They were born into the land of this musical genius who left everyone. You know, he was incredibly selfish and individualistic and he left everyone behind him. And it was for an ultimate purpose that we have continued to enjoy over the years -- without knowing what the story really is -- which is the music we listen to on the radio. And it wouldn't have sounded like that if he wasn't the person he was and he didn't make the sacrifices that he'd made.
It's who he is, and that's why the music sounds amazing. The story's in complete syncopation with his own tendencies and life actions. He's a complicated guy who's destructive and yet caring, you know. One leg's doing this and one leg's doing that, and that's the way the music sounds too. But he keeps going forward musically also. He's innovative, he's been on the forefront of so many different musical genres that we've now looked back on and have defined, but at the time it was just Ginger doing some shit. Fusion, whatever. [Ginger Baker's] Air Force was so for its time -- Blind Faith, whatever -- but the Fela Kuti stuff was the greatest meeting of Western and African musicians ever. Like, who do you compare Ginger to? Paul Simon, who went to the grasslands in the 80's?
Like, South African music isn't even polyrhythmic. It's deeply affect by colonization. Nigeria [was different.] When slaves came to America, the drumming was outlawed, and as a result we've got gospel because they sang, whereas the Caribbean kept some of the beats and then it fused back again. Africa has had that music that the kids are born into -- polyrhythmic culture. And I think that's why Ginger related to it. The cradle of civilization, and his going across the desert to meet Fela Kuti and live there. It's not even a musicologist thing, it should be in the fucking Smithsonian!
You know, I love Fela Kuti, but I never realized Ginger Baker had gotten involved in that scene at all.
Me neither, and I thought it was a publicity stunt when I first watched it. Now that I've gone into it, those guys were blown away by Ginger. They had been playing some sick music, but Ginger deeply affected and changed their culture by his implementation and introduction of the trap set. He came down there with this big drum kit and was like, "This is what you can do with rhythms," and they were like, "Cool, well this is what we do with rhythms." It was a meeting of the minds, and it forever changed rhythmic history.
And the obvious "What are you working on now" question.
I'm doing a movie with Jonathan Batiste, the pianist. He's the face of Lincoln Center now, and he plays at Lincoln Center. He's a jazz virtuoso. It's a narrative fiction movie. He starred in Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee's new movie. I'm doing this movie with him about a pianist -- a father-son kind of pianist. It's about musicians in a world that doesn't understand and/or appreciate musical mastery. You know, what do musical jazz masters do these days? It's a very small kind of community of sorts. You're not remunerated for musical mastery these days. There's a real lack of musical virtuosity in our world, and I'm wondering what the fuck [that means and] how that affects our culture.
Do you have any preliminary thoughts about that?
You know, I just wrote the cover story for GQ about Rihanna. You know, she's a cool person and I like her music, but she sure as hell isn't Aretha Franklin, and I'm wondering why we don't have those people. And it's obviously a reflection of the industry that used to have money to hire the Phil Spectors to make people sound good and promote them, whatever. There's just-- It's a business and the business is redefining stuff, but hopefully one day people will wake up and realize, "Jeez, I need to suffer for this instrument, and go to Julliard, and learn the history of music, so that I can perform and continue to push the musical boundaries as opposed to stepping into this fucking Wizard of Oz booth that everyone seems to be a part of."
I don't know, I'm just not hearing that. What's the next form of jazz? I don't know. I'm not hearing it, and by that I'm mean, who's the new Theolonius Monk? Who's the new Jimi Hendrix? Gary Clark, Jr.'s pretty good, but, you know, who's Cream now? Where are these people? And what are the residual effects on our culture where you don't have these people that are constantly pushing these social barriers and artistic boundaries? Same thing can be said about art and painting. People paint a dot on a thing and--
All of a sudden that's like [some profound statement].
Yeah. I feel like that as an individual in society now. I feel like there's a real uninspiring landscape of music out there.
When do you think was the last time there was something with some real pop. And I don't mean pop music, but something that really had that feeling of Cream?
Yeah, well, obviously Nirvana wasn't quite like that, but they created a new sound. There's some interesting stuff out there. I mean, look, I really like Kendrick Lamar's new album. Outkast and hip hop. Like, I'm a huge Outkast [fan]. And Nas and like classic 90's hip hop.
Illmatic is still a fucking great record.
Fuck, you know, but that new Kendrick Lamar album is pretty good. It's good. I don't know. I've been getting more and more back into jazz, I think, personally. A lot of great jazz musicians out there. I was listening to Paul [Editor's note: Last name was fuzzy on recording] the other day. He's a pianist, he's really good.
I think Jonathan Batiste is going to redefine the musical landscape. I think he is the Ray Charles of this generation and he's about to do something that will unify people under the banner of the greatest contribution America has ever made to the world, besides freedom and liberty and justice for all, which is jazz and blues. That's why I'm excited to be working with him on this new project because I think he can take that thing on its shoulders and also dip into the lamestream. I'm excited to be working with him, he's great.
You should see him play. I've seen him play and people are like, "What is this," and I'm like, "It's jazz, dude."
Like, wow, Ray Charles -- and who's that guy?
Like, "Oh yeah, so that's what that sounded like again!"
Yeah! "I forgot about this!" I'm just feeling like it's just more and more like Fahrenheit 451. Burning books. And, "Hey, what's that?" It's a book.
Yeah, so go figure. But I think [Jonathan Batiste] is the man. He's fucking great.
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