The Max Factor
By GEOFF BARTONKim Mitchell and Pye Dubois flop tiredly down on to a bed in their shared room in Newcastle's Centre Hotel, reluctantly preparing themselves to go through the interview ritual yet again.
Dubois, chubby lyricist with Canadian combo Max Webster, slumps up against the headboard and feigns alertness. The contrastingly rake-like Mitchell, band vocalist/guitarist, sidles up next to him and breaks the ice by asking: "Well, you gaot any questions? Like" - his voice adopts a sarcastic, mocking tone - "Where'd the name come from?"
Well, no, I was going to try and avoid that one actually.
"You were?" Mitchell suddenly brightens considerably. "Well alright! Only you don't have to..."
Nah. People must have said to you "What's the idea, when there's no-one in the band called Max Webster?" so many times that you must be sick of explaining it by now. Don't worry; I'm not interested.
"that's great. That's really great," mutters Mitchell, growing more chipper by the second. "Only... its just that we wanted somebody's name. Its no deeper, no heavier than that."
"We wanted a personal name," chips in Dubois, "a composite kind of image. See, there's so many people involved with this band that, y'know, to make it work we just felt we had to use someone's - anyone's name."
"So if I might just have the final word," says Mitchell emphatically, "there's no-one in the band named Max Webster."
Having washed all that out of their systems, the pair gently sigh with relief. Despite my not really wanting to know the origin of the title "Max Webster", they felt duty bound to tell me anyway. And thus purged they begin to unwind and loosen up, finally lapsing gratefully into the most relaxed state I've seen them in all day.
It's been a day charged with nervous energy in fact, starting with a mad 95 mph dash up the M1, continuing with Tyneside one-way system confusion and climaxing with the sight of Max Webster backstage at the City Hall, just prior to their first gig in European territory as support to fellow Maple Leaf metallic merchants Rush.
Faces white as sheets, Max Webster looked as worried as condemned men.Because Rush had had time-consuming PA problems, the Webs hadn't been able to do a sound check... they seemed pessimistic and to fear the worst.
And certainly the sight of them stalking gracelessly on to the stage at the beginning of the night's proceedings didn't exactly send this writer into raptures either. Lacking a certain something in the srtorial elegance stakes, the motley Max looked like they'd just purchased their clothes from some kind of Oxfam rockstar castoffs shop.
Drummer Gary McCracken was garbed in a two-sizes-too-small striped satin waistcoat/strides ensemble (Pete Way circa '76); keyboard player Terry Watkinson was resplendent in a soberly-coloured creased-up suit that'd probably been discarded by Tom Robinson and left crumpled in a corner for a year; Kim Mitchell wore a pair of glitter-encrusted tights-cum-trousers, sported more effectively by Todd Rundgren as a 'Whanger Of The Week' winner; and worst of all was bassist Dave Myles, whose tacky satin bomber jacket appeared to have been modelled on a style that first appeared six months ago from the Hugh Fielder Design Studios.
But thankfully musically Max Webster were no let down. Quickly conquering their nerves, they played a quirkily dextrous. wholly unpredictable 45 minute set, drawing mainly on material from their two Capitol albums 'Mutiny Up My Sleeve' and 'A Million Vacations', with an occasional harkback to their superb second (and last) album for Mercury 'High Class in Borrowed Shoes'.
From the Fruupp-like 'Charmonium', through the fast-paced Blondie-style 'Rascal Houdie', up to the jaunty 'Paradise Skies', Max Webster acquitted themselves enormously well and the knee-high denim-clad longhaired Geordie metal fans responded warmly to the ultra-eccentric goings-on.
Highlights were 'The Party' (multi-faceted freneticism all the way up to a titanic false ending, together with a touch of humour when Mitchell sang the lines 'Show us your body - show us your curls' and ran his fingers through his own lank mass of out-of-condition hair as if he had magnificent flowing blonde tresses or something) and 'Beyond The Moon' (probably the most straight ahead, pure rock number in Max's weird repertoire, Mitchell giving the brilliantly alliterative Dubois words 'Cocaine colour computer cards' the careful pronunciation they deserve).
In many ways Kim Mitchell is Max Webster. Incredibly tall and spindly, his legs are as thin as a stork's but are nonetheless capable of propelling him a respectable David Lee Roth distance off the ground when called upon to do so. Cooly charismatic, he's a mean guitar player and his oddball between number raps have to be heard to be believed ("I've got camel's asshole mouth. Is there any water?").
A Hugely entertaining performance that never encroached upon the territory nor stepped on the toes of the headliners. In all, the perfect support foil for the magnificent Rush.
Returning to the interview, I ask lyricist Dubois about his relationship with the band. He travels around with them wherever they go, even though he 'only' writes the words to the songs and shuns appearing onstage with them.
"What do I do all the time? Well, I'm handing out the asprins, sewing a cuff on a pair of pants... I do so many things. I'm very protective towards Max. I like to see the band treated in a certain way. I like to see that things are on time."
The (obviously outdated) MW record company biography makes Dubois out as some kind of lunatic figure, mailing lyrics to the band on postcards from far-flung corners of the globe and practising psychotherapy along the way.
"That is my past," he says. "I am a psychotherapist. I used to practise in Canada, but there's no work for me ther now, I cured them all. There are now no depressed people in the country. So I felt I had to move further afield. Wherever I was in the world, I always kept in touch with Kim, made sure he had something. That's the way it works. We're always pretty close with our communication."
You've probably noticed that Dubois, as befits his 'bizarre poet' image, has a strange turn of phrase. This intensifies into off-the-cuff nonsensical phraseology as the interview progresses...
Apart from someone who helps out Renaissance with their words (and boy, do they ever need some helping out) and the infant school scribblings of Pete Sinfield with ELP and the like, I'm hard pressed to name many other bands that enjoy such a close lyric write/musician relationship.
"There was Procol Harum," says Mitchell.
"Yeah," continues Dubois, "King Crimson also I believe. And there's Elton John and Bernie Hairpin if you want to count them."
"I think it works out well though," says Mitchell. "I'm not a good lyricist myself, maybe I was born under the wrong sign of the Zodiac or something. I read somewhere that Cancers make bad poets... I'm living proof of that. Terry can write lyrics, Gary too, but with me, well I just get kind of stuck on the basic cliched kind of stuff. Pye's unique though. He's been doing it so long."
Max Webster have four albums to their credit, two on Mercury, two (so far) on their new label Capitol. Why did you suddenly change labels in mid-stream?
"You want to know the honest truth?" asks Dubois.
Yeah. Of course.
"Mercury didn't give a fuck about us. They didn't care one bit. The band would play in Milwaukee or wherever and it'd be great and you'd walk around town, go into a record store, and would they have a Max Webster album on their shelves? Nope."
"You get embarrassed," says Mitchell. "When you're a support band in the States - these days we're headlining in Canada - I don't expect to see an enormous Max Webster display in the window, but I do expect to be able to find our records."
Sucking up to the stars, I mention how much I enjoyed the night's set, in particular its immense unpredictability.
Mitchell: "You like that? We do too. I like to see people having trouble categorising us. We don't know what to call our music, we just play it. that's up to whoever wants to get hung up on what you're supposed to call it.
"It's igloo omlette music and -"
"Igloo omlette music. Ha! We can say whatever we want, nobody's the wiser."
I envisage the scene around the record company boardroom table when Max Webster bring in a finished copy of a new album.
"Yeah Max," the chairman or whoever would say, "this is good, I like it. You must know what you're doing, I suppose... but in heaven's name how do we market it?"
Dubois: "That's it exactly."
Mitchell: "The best thing for them to do is to say that it's Max Webster. We're not going to classify it. We're just a... just a 'reckless party of high class curiosity rock'n' roll'."
Dubois: "Nevertheless, I think it's true to say that Capitol are pretty hot for the band at the moment. They saw the potential before, but the album we gave them, 'Mutiny Up My Sleeve', was not really something they could easily promote us with, not with tracks like 'Beyond The Moon' and 'Waterline'.
"Now suddenly they have 'A Million Vacations', something that's a little more accessible and straight forward and they warmed to it because they want to break this band."
So you've been forced to compromise?
"Oh no. 'A Million Vacations', it just turned out to be... well, less weird. Our next album will probably be totally different to any other and Capitol'll probably groan. 'Oh no. They've given us one of those records again'. But we'll keep writing and writing because we're that prolific kind of band. Let them put us into a category. Let them sweat it out.
"At the moment we're happy that they're happy that they can see that we can come up with the goods. we're not alligators sitting on the toilet in Alberta trying to figure out God's gift to fucking pancake mix, we're just trying to create music and we just use what we got. So there."