High Class In Borrowed Shoes
By Boyd TattrieThe past twelve months have been kind to many newly-recorded Canadian bands, particularly Toronto-based rock bands. And perhaps the one that is making the most impact is that quartet of loons who call themselves Max Webster. If you're not familiar with them, they are a band that, because of their outrageous manner and appearance, would probably have been banished to a special rock 'n' roll oblivion long ago if they didn't make such damn fine music.
Their reputation is spreading out from Toronto to western Canada and recently, to certain states where they've been opening for Rush and a number of other bands including Styx, Starcastle, Rick Derringer, Cheap Trick and Angel, usually as the first band to appear in a three-act package. As third band on the bill, that's not a particularly enviable position to have, but as Max's guitarist-composer-singer-leader Kim Mitchell explained recently to Music Express, "We've been getting very good response. We've been getting encores, and that's hard for an opening act. In this deal, there's an opening act, then a special guest, then the headliner. If you're an opening act, you're playing while people are still coming in. But we still pulled off encores."
Just a month ago Max completed their most important Canadian tour so far, a trip westward opening for Styx that should have made them a bunch of new fans.
In addition, on the night before they left on that tour they played their very first big headlining concert at Toronto's Massey Hall. They were cheered on by more than 2,000 confirmed fans, most of whom over the past four years, have watched the band mature from a crazy, sloppy, silly Toronto bar band into a serious and original - though still quite crazy - musical force. It was an important night for the band, and it was a successful one. All of this feverish activity lately is because Max has recently released their second album, High Class In Borrowed Shoes, on the new Anthem label. It's been getting a lot of airplay on the FM stations - maybe you've already heard On The Road, Fear Of Gravity, or In The Context Of The Moon. Bowing to the inevitable pressures to be commercial, the band has made the album a little more palatable to those who can make or break them - radio programmers. Although the album is no less spirited or ambitious, there's nothing on it to match the sheer craziness of Toronto Tontos or Hangover from the first album.
At this stage of their careers, Max Webster can't afford to take too many chances, especially if they're trying against impossible odds to get exposure on the airwaves south of the border. "The places that didn't like the first album," explains bassist Mike Tilka, "we're pretty sure they're gonna give airplay on the second, because programmers and record people have told us that it's a lot more programmable. You know, Toronto Tontos is great for Toronto and we love it - it's a great song - but it's a little weird for a guy in Davenport, Iowa to relate to what a Toronto Tonto is and even how to work that into his program schedule."
Of course, not all of Max's material, even on the first album, is weird. Much of it is straightforward but sophisticated hard rock - stuff like Only Your Nose Knows, Coming Off The Moon, and their tour-de-force, a rock ballad called Lily. But for many FM stations in the U.S., even that's too much to take. Government regulations of AM and FM airwaves are minimal compared to our own CRTC regs. In the U.S., it's often hard to tell the FM stations from the AM. "They're so tight," says Mitchell. "Mercury Records (the parent company) has taken the album to some stations that have fairly straight programming and given it to them, and they've said, 'Oh, man, that first album, I dunno...' Like they don't even want to listen to the second album because they still remember the first one... You have to twist their arm a bit."
All this seems rather strange if you've ever heard anything about American rock audiences. Perhaps those stations aren't in touch with them, because the rock fans there seem to have a great variety of tastes. Look how big Rush has become, and they rock so hard and so loud deejays wince at the mention of their name.
Max was asked if they've found that they're liked better in certain areas that they've played in the U.S. so far. Are rock fans different in certain areas, with different tastes?
"We play with different bands," comments Tilka "but it's sorta the same sea of kids. It can be divided up differently, like Rush's audience and maybe Starcastle's are a bit different, but there's so much crossover. I think maybe they just take different drugs depending on which band is playing... I think there are places along the east and west coast where we could play to a different type of audience. But basic Midwest Great Lakes audiences are pretty similar, whether it's Rush, Starcastle or us.
Tilka made an interesting observation when discussing the change for the band from performing in bars to performing in concerts. "You should see the American audiences. Bars are tame compared to how drunk kids are there. A lot of the concerts are not, 'let's sit down and act nice for the band', they're much rowdier than bars. A lot of these places - the arenas - serve booze too, so they're like a huge bar. Plus every kid in the place has a bottle in his pocket."
Could it be that Toronto audiences are so sedate simply because they're not as drunk as their American counterparts?
Considering Max's, uh, unique stage style, maybe they'll be more successful if their audience is drunk. For while they've managed to build a very healthy following in Toronto, other cities, regardless of the kind of music they make, might have trouble accepting their crazy personality. Check out the cover of High Class In Borrowed Shoes. Mitchell is wearing purple shorts, something like hand-painted high stockings, platform shoes... Keyboardist Terry Watkinson's got on makeup and a tuxedo... Bassist Mike Tilka is fat and balding... That's Max Webster, folks, that's what they look like on stage. They also have an odd collection of props they use, and the weirdest chereography. Music Express asked them how and why their trademark antics got started.
"It started when we moved to Toronto from Sarnia, actually, after going around to see what was going on."
"We started in bars," adds Tilka, "so we started looking at what was in the bars. And people didn't seem to be enjoying themselves. 'Ho hum, here we are, playing another Allman Brothers tune'. Shit, it doesn't have to be like that. People pick up on the fact that we're fooling around having a good time... Even in a large audience."
However, one thing that can be noticed is that on the new album, there aren't as many 'crazy' songs. Does this mean Max Webster is mellowing out and losing some of the craziness they're known for?
"Oh no," Mitchell reassures. "But we had so many tunes, and those were the songs that we wanted to put on. We have a lot of crazy stuff. But we have a lot of straight stuff too. People kinda relate to us as a crazy oriented band, but we're not really."
"You're not?" we ask incredulously.
"Oh no," insists Mitchell. I think we're really normal. Like after being in a band three or four years even Toronto Tontos seems normal."
The record company that handles their albums in the U.S. has been a bit puzzled by the band. The covers for both albums were altered before being released south of the border.
"We've had a lot of trouble with covers," says Mitchell. "Initially they hated the cover of the first album (which was a drawing by Watkinson of distorted, block-shaped heads rolling down a conveyor belt) so we made an American version 'Just have one head, and you know, make it look like it's got a hangover.' So that's what Terry (Watkinson) did. They still hated it, and they came back and blamed us. 'That cover's terrible.' We'll never live it down. And for the second album, Hugh Syme (who does Rush's covers) did a really nice charcoal sketch of a little twelve year old chick in your basic jeans, smoking a cigarette, and she's got her mother's shoes on, beautiful shoes. You know, high class in borrowed shoes. The cover was gonna be grey and white. The record company says 'child pornography, we can't do that'."
On the back of the American version of the first album, there was a picture that Tilka says was edited as well. "That picture had four rooms in it, it had a lot of depth. Two different kinds of lighting with two back rooms with girls in it, then a girl in the middle room and a girl in the front room and we were all in the front room. They just chopped the picture, cut the two back rooms off because they said one of the girls in the back looked like she was doing an obscene gesture. Which is ridiculous because she was sweeping the floor with a broom. But they cut it, and the picture lost a lot of depth. It's alright, it still works. You can see us with hangovers, which we legitimately had. We stayed up the night before and got loaded. David Street, the photographer, woke us up. He's done the photos for both the covers, he's done alright."
People who have followed the band will notice that Gary McCracken, their drummer has played only on the second album having replaced Paul Kersey who was their drummer for the first album.
"Gary and I have been lifelong friends. He'd come down and visit (from Sarnia, the band's hometown). We've always wanted to play together because every time we jammed together, we always got off on each other's playing. It wasn't a case of what was wrong with Kersey, it was a case of we wanted to play together. Every time Gary would leave we'd bum out, cause we wondered when we were gonna play together again. Finally I made the decision that I wanted to play with him. I told the other guys, 'I wanna play with Gary' and they said, 'yeah, we know.' It was really hard telling Paul. At the meeting before Paul got there we did a couple bottles of wine trying to cool out. And I had to tell him. There were little things - well, there's little things in everyone's personality you can pick out after three years that you don't like. The only thing I can say is that he was so distant."
Soon after, though, Kersey reappeared in Toronto with a band called The Hunt, and they already have their first album released.
There have been other changes. "Gary's our third drummer," explains Tilka, "and Terry's our second keyboard player. And before that we were a trio, we didn't have a keyboard player. There's been a few changes. And a million roadies. But we got a great road crew now, we got the four best roadies of any band."
Tilka says their road crew has licked the problems suffered by every band that's ever opened for a bigger band - sound and lighting limitations, outright sabotage - simply by being sociable with the other band's road crew. "Every band we've run into so far," says Mitchell, "has really gotten off on our road crew."
That makes a lot of difference, especially to a band that is just moving out of the bars and into extensive concerts and touring. Surprisingly, that move is riskier and usually less profitable than playing bars.
"The lean years are now," says Tilka. "The lean years weren't playing the clubs here, those were the fat years. Going on tour gets so expensive... hotels for eight people every night whether you play or not; gasoline expense is just enormous... We've been making some decent cake in some places, in others we're unknowns and we're paid like unknowns. It's as simple as that. But fortunately enough we can come back to Ontario and we have a good market, a good following here. So we sort of subsidize our own tours. We have record support, too, of course. You can't do it, I don't think, without a millionaire or some record support. But fortunately we can finance it ourselves cause we can come back to Ontario. Like right now we're here for two and a half weeks, we've got a lot of dates to do, and we'll bank the money. To lose on the next tour. It's the name of the game, everybody does it."