Five Questions With… Mike Tilka of Max Webster
Given that you can’t turn on a Canadian rock radio station at almost any hour and not hear “Paradise Skies” or “Let Go The Line,” it’s easy to forget what an innovative and influential band Max Webster was during their heyday in the late 1970s. But that history has finally been put into its proper context with an essential new box set simply entitled The Party, available now through ole Label Group/Universal Music Canada.
Available in both CD and vinyl versions, the package offers remastered editions of the band’s full catalogue, along with a previously unreleased live show and frontman Kim Mitchell’s rare debut solo EP. Altogether, it tells the story of a unique musical entity that managed to straddle the lines between progressive rock and new wave, while somehow remaining quintessentially Canadian.
Although Max built its reputation in the shadow of close friends and label/tour mates Rush, the primary songwriting team of Mitchell and lyricist Pye Dubois often ventured into previously uncharted territory with its combination of post-psychedelic and pre-punk surrealism. But what ended up grounding their often-outlandish image was a connection to the simple pleasures all Canadians could relate to, which ended up being part of the soundtrack to countless lost weekends.
Max Webster’s founding bassist Mike Tilka, who moved into a production role after the band’s classic 1977 sophomore album High Class In Borrowed Shoes, reflected on The Party, and how it represents Max’s overall legacy.
The Party is the package that every Max Webster fan has been waiting on. What made this the right time to put it out?
It’s the right time because if we had waited any longer, we would have to go our gigs and interviews with walkers—or not at all! Also, our original audience would all need hearing aids just to listen to the product. Seriously though, I’d hoped this would have happened years ago, but no one asked my opinion.
You were a founding member, playing on the first two albums and co-producing the third. You guys offered something fresh and exciting in Canada during that period in the mid-1970s, especially with punk just starting to happen. What's your perspective on that time today?
It was just a great period in pop music. Bands could play both bars and school concerts in the same week. You could make a meagre living while you learned to be a better musician and a polished band. The periods that followed didn’t provide that “learn on the job” opportunity.
Musicians also had other new opportunities: less expensive recording facilities, music videos and TV exposure (not sure how “good” that was), drum machines (not always good), bigger music industry (not sure if that helped), etc. But for me, real music needs to be performed—competently and joyfully. The ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s demonstrated that in spades.
The great thing about Max was how the band managed to balance some pretty far out musical and lyrical ideas with basic blue-collar rock and roll concepts. Was that just the nature of Kim and Pye's creative vision?
All gigging bands are balancing acts; it’s the nature of the beast. The “balance” kept us all keen and engaged. “Basic blue-collar rock and roll concepts” and “creative vision” do not belong in the same paragraph. When a band strives for the former—sex, drugs and rock ’n roll—they don’t immediately formulate the latter. Max started out as a struggling, working rock band and the balance came from the “Band Experience” not some predetermined vision. The nature of rock music isn’t usually about vision. It is about ego and determination, with a healthy dose of luck.
I've also always felt there's something uniquely Canadian about Max. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Max was certainly unique, and that is one of the reasons it didn’t succeed in a larger market. Being unique also created a real “love/hate” thing for some people and, for me, it was definitely love. Part of the “Canadian” thing was only because that was our identifiable market. We killed in the Ontario bars, played everybody’s high school, opened for Rush a lot, etc. When we started, we did not want to sound like the other Canadian bands around at the time. Kim was from a border town [Sarnia, Ontario], and I’m a Yankee. Once we established our foothold in Ontario, we should have focused on playing Cleveland, Detroit or Chicago to try and break the band to a wider audience. Easy to say now!
Max still gets a lot of radio play, which must make you feel good. What goes through your mind now when you hear stuff from those records?
I have fantastic memories of those first two albums, and memories of a different sort when I hear things from [1978’s] Mutiny Up My Sleeve—but still great just the same. It keeps me playing now, and always wanting to make more great memories. My duo, Odd Clue, has a new album about to come out as well that I’m very excited about.