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Max Webster: Their roots are in Sarnia
By GARY LAMPHIERQuestion: What do you get when you combine a shrieking six foot two inch vertical line clad in Italian underwear, a professed "accomplished mystery" who looks like a refugee from Batman re-runs, a bear-like "ex-caffeine-geritol freak" drummer-dynamo, an ex-wholesale grocer torn between love for his bass guitar and a new lawnmower, and a slice of poetic Pye (i.e. Pye Dubois) who describes the above collectively as a "seizure"?
Answer: Max Webster, a promising Toronto-based, largely Sarnia-born rock and roll band whose diverse, imaginative music, sprinkled with a generous measure of the bizarre, has earned it both critical and popular recognition. In a survey of major Canadian critics, Max Webster was voted the act most likely to succeed internationally. Some examples:
"This four man band is the first Canadian group I've seen in a long time that actually has some class." (Montreal Star)
"An action packed pastiche of sounds." (Montreal Gazette)
"The new rock sensibility." (Toronto Star)
"Musically astute and ingenious." (Vancouver Sun)
Their second album, entitled High Class In Borrowed Shoes, has been on the market since May of '77. "By summer we expect to have a gold record on our hands," predicts lead guitarist and vocalist Kim Mitchell.
And well they might.
The album is selling reasonably well both in Canada and the United States. At last glance, it was number 11 on the Dutch charts, demonstrating a European appeal. And a tune from the album released as a single (Diamonds, Diamonds) has been holding its own in the face of extensive A.M. radio airplay.
These boys are no ordinary weirdos. Indeed, their madness is their method.
"Yeah. My weirdness is consciously cultivated," Kim chuckles. "Its part of being an entertainer. Its a growing thing like the songs...its all part of the process, including each person's personality." The process that led to the formation of today's Max Webster was a lengthy one. With the exception of keyboardist-vocalist Terry Watkinson, all of the present band members, including non-performing lyricist Pye Dubois, grew up in Sarnia. Note the qualification "present" for such was not always the case.
Former bass guitarist Mike Tilka, who was still with the band when "Borrowed Shoes" was recorded, and Gary McCracken's predecessor on drums, Paul Kersey, have each gone their separate ways.
"Its very difficult to make personnel changes," says Pye, characterizing that earlier dissection as "traumatic".
Tilka, a former Detroit high school teacher, is now involved in the managerial side of the music business and no longer performs. Kersey left Max to join the Hunt, another Toronto band, over 18 months ago.
Dave Myles, who along with McCracken, attended SCITS while a student, is Tilka's successor on bass. (Kim and Pye are St. Clair alumni)
"Gary and I knew each other in Sarnia, but Gary knew Dave better," explains Kim. Actually McCracken and Mitchell played together briefly in the home town some years ago, and when Paul Kersey left the group, Kim contacted his old friend to see if he'd be interested in a reunion. He was, and McCracken reportedly learned Max's entire first album (titled simply, Max Webster), in a matter of days.
As for new bassist Dave Myles, Mitchell assesses his adjustment with a kind of brotherly satisfaction: "Dave's working out great...He's even started writing a little, though at first he was confused. Its not like high school anymore. There's a great deal of pressure and you have to be more professional. At first he was a little blown away by it, but now he digs it."
And how has the change affected the band's music?
"Its improved," is Kim's unequivocal reply. "Its expanded our range and now we can do more things. There are things the last bass player (Mike Tilka) couldn't do that Dave can cut with ease."
But Myles' decision to join Max wasn't an easy one, despite the less than lucrative job he held previously as a wholesale grocer. "He was thinking of giving up music because all of his past experiences with it were bad ones," says Kim, adding that a marriage engagement also had something to do with it. "But we caught him just in time."
"First he said no way, then we convinced him to give it a try. So he came down and rehearsed, then he left. A week later he was back for good."
Mitchell is a seasoned rocker, having played in several earlier ventures including Sarnia bands Zoom and The Gladiators. "We were Zappa and Captain Beefheart fans," remembers Pye, implicitly explaining Kim's leanings toward Zappa-esque gyrations onstage.
That was before Kim and Pye went to Greece, where the seed of Max Webster was supposedly planted. "That must have been five years ago," Kim estimates. "I just got offered a gig over there to play. So pye hitched up for a vacation. I started writing. It was a very productive time. The climate was nice. I'd just get up and practise for four hours every morning. It was a really nice high the whole time."
The group's first album was released on Taurus Records in May, 1976. In January of 1977 they signed a recording deal with Mercury Records (excluding Canada), and followed it up with two major concert tours. Max played behind such headliners as Rush, Rick Derringer, and Blondie in several American cities including Chicago, St.Louis and Detroit.
Max returned briefly to Toronto for a Massey Hall engagement before setting out on a western Canada tour that brought them to Vancouver's Coliseum, among other places. The western tour also followed up release of their second album, the first on the Anthem label.
Max Webster is now an accomplished concert band. "Our last tour included 46 dates in 55 days," says Pye. At that pace its no wonder they have to wear borrowed shoes.
The band is now busily recording the last few cuts on their third album. "We have three more tunes to do. We'll be spending the next 12 days in the studio," Kim states wearily.
He's dutifully risen moments before in order to answer my call. The band had arrived home late the previous night after playing at a pub in Niagra Falls (Kim: It was great") and were now down to the final stretch in the studio. After that, an eastern tour.
This is to be followed (need time to catch your breath?) by another turning point in their development, a western tour in which they will be, for the first time, the headline act. After that?
"Massey Hall and then to the states," says Kim.
And what does he think of this prolonged game of musical chairs?
"I like touring. Its a more systematic way of life. Promoters now take care of the whole entourage...It has to be that way," he affirms.
When a band not only receives lavish treatment, but fully expects it, its arrival within the peripheries of the pampered pop-star has been forecast, if not announced.
Its a long way from "acid crazed" Sarnia, as Kim once called it, in pre-Max days. "It seems that all the friends I hung out with in Sarnia were really into drugs. There was no reality left in my world," says Kim.
"They were all content to stay there, which is fine with me...I'm not knocking it, but I had to go."
And didn't all roads lead, at the end of those doped up, get down, underground sixties, to that chunk of concrete nirvana sprawling along the edge of Lake Ontario? (known variously as "Taranta", "T.O." and in certain circles, "Toronto")
"Pye left earlier" (for Toronto), says Kim of he and his buddy's Greece-to-Toronto-via-Sarnia trek. "He was my only contact to reality in Toronto. At first everything was weird."
And this from a man whose stalk-in-trade is weirdness itself. Is such a place possible?
"But Sarnia has always been the weirdest place I've ever known as far as art. It always had amazing musicians and writers. There's something about that place. Everywhere I went there was art.
Speaking of which, the band's last album, High Class In Borrowed Shoes, seems to contain a hefty dose of the stuff. Its music engenders a wide variety of instrumentation and lyrical content. Kim labels it "high class curiosity rock" ("Its the best thing we could come up with...Its not punk and it isn't heavy metal."), though there is certainly a smattering of the latter in the title cut and in both America's Veins and Oh War!
Essentially, however, he is right. Their music is not tidily categorized. It demands a fresh approach and a willingness to revise traditional musical conceptions.
America's Veins shrieks unromantic optimism, of all things:
my blood is not made of water
its not made of apple pie
its made of laughter
its the heart of america's veins
Diamonds, Diamonds seems to wander in and out of ones consciousness, blending soft onomatopoetics with sly wit:
she takes more whiskey than i wine
never want to be lost without you
On the road features bouncy acoustic work accompanied by lyrics that would do Woody Guthrie proud:
i want to keep my pearly whites
i don't want shirts to keep a fit
i want a good steak once in a while
a checkered cab to go once in style
freedom some say
is when you get back home
And as if the simultaneous echoes of Woody Guthrie and Led Zeppelin within the covers of a single album aren't enough, Max even finds room for a manifesto of sorts. Gravity derides caution while validating the group's basic article of faith:
there's no reason to fear flying, mate
get a little savagery in your life
forget that fear of gravity gravity gravity
No wonder Pye describes the music as "diverse" - it defies any other adjective.
In reference to their upcoming third album, Kim predicts headaches for their new record company, Capital. Capital will beat their brains on the wall trying to market it," he says, alluding to the wide range of content and style. "I don't know how you can classify it."
Whether or not their music is accessible, as Kim believes, Max Webster is undoubtedly doing something right. In addition to a new recording contract, future concert tours and critical acclaim, the band has been nominated for a Juno award (Canada's equivalent of America's Grammies) in the best new Canadian group category.
As Kim eloquently puts it, "We're not a bunch of high school kids farting around anymore. We've turned pro, so to speak."
And that's sweet music to their ears.