Mike Tilka Speaks!

Mike Tilka

Okay, four years is a LONG time to wait for updates, I’ll admit. Life gets in the way. But I have finally started transcribing my excellent interview with original bassist Mike Tilka from July 2011, and have an excerpt to share with you, wherein Mike talks about his own musical background, how he met Kim Mitchell, and how the band came to be named. Please note this is a rough transcript and I haven’t confirmed all the names and proper spelling except for ones I could easily find online.

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James McNally (JM): Tell me about your own musical background. I know, too, you were born in the US. How did you come to Canada and how did you meet the guys in the band?

Mike Tilka (MT): I was born in East Chicago, Indiana, went to grade school in a little town called Munster, then went to high school in Gary, Indiana. And then when you’re out of high school and your parents want you to go to university at Loyola or someplace in Chicago, you go, “How can I get further away?” So University of Windsor made sense, and there were a few people who were going there from our area, so I ended up there.

1964-1965 would have been my first year, and that’s where I met Jim Bruton, and Jimmy, “Sparks,” we called him, was a keyboard player. I never actually played in a band with him but we were friends. I played with another keyboard player, Ray Bower (sp?) and a drummer, Phil Trudell. When university was over, Jim went to Greece to play. A lot of people went to Greece to play because there was the (Kola?) family, I’m sure I’m saying their name wrong, but something like that, had a restaurant and I think they might of had a bowling alley or a pool hall or something in Windsor, but they had a resort or a summer place in Rhodes, Greece, on the island of Rhodes.

JM: That sounds like Joni Mitchell’s stuff, what she did then…

MT: And every year, they would recruit some Windsor guys to go over there, because other friends of mine went. Well, Jim and Kim [Mitchell] went, they moved there in February, practiced and got ready for the tourist season, which starts when the weather starts to get warm, March or April, and then stayed there all summer and came back in the fall. So Kim kind of had that summer off, he had been in Toronto and had a band called ZOOOM, I don’t know if you’re aware of ZOOOM, but there’s a whole story there, with Jack Richardson and demos and stuff. And Kim would have been in his mid-teens at that time, I think. So he went over, with Jim, my friend from Sarnia and some Windsor guys, and they played for the summer, and when he was coming back, I guess it was in the fall, he wrote me a letter. Males in their late teens, early 20s don’t really write letters, I was shocked. But it was very nice, a little note, and he said, “Hi, I’m Kim Mitchell. You don’t know me, but Jim Bruton said I should call you. I’m interested and I want to move to Toronto and do some musical things. What are you up to?”

I had just finished the University of Windsor and I was a high school teacher in Detroit. From 1968 to 1972 I was a high school teacher and it kept me out of the draft. In other words, I had a university deferment…

JM: Weren’t you living in Canada then?

MT: I was still living in Windsor, but that doesn’t keep you out of the draft, I was still a US citizen. In fact, I even had my physical and everything in Detroit. But I was just in my 26th year, so by then you don’t have to worry about the draft. And [Kim] said, “I’ll come down, say hello.” That summer, before he came back, me and Phil Trudell, the drummer, had a band with Daryl Stuermer, who is Phil Collins’ guitar player, and he also plays in Genesis. He plays bass and guitar in Genesis. And I had spent that summer playing in Milwaukee with Daryl and Dwayne Stuermer in a band they had called Family at Max in Milwaukee. And I was filling in for their bass player who, right before a big gig at Summerfest, quit the band. And my brother was the trombone player and he called me in a panic and said, “We got no bass player.” I’m American, so I could drive there, I could play, I could work there, it wasn’t like a Canadian going. I had the summer off because I was a schoolteacher. I played with some guys in a little jazz group and I thought I’d take the summer off from that and go play with these guys, so I did. At the end of the summer, Daryl and Dwayne and me and my brother moved back to Windsor, because I’d said I could get us gigs, I’ve got a drummer, I’ve got a house… of course we didn’t have any legal papers for any of them. Except my brother Pat, I think eventually he got Canadian immigration papers but he didn’t stay, either.

Anyway, they came, we formed a band, we were thinking of a name and that’s where Max Webster came from. Family at Max ended the night with a song Daryl wrote called “Song for Webster.” So if you look at Daryl Stuermer’s web site there’s a little background about that.

JM: I didn’t know that, I had all kinds of theories in my head…

MT: No, no, there isn’t any theory, and it was never talked about much.

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Image courtesy of AudioJunkies, whose three-part podcast interview with Mike from 2014 might just make this entire project obsolete. Hopefully not…

And thanks to Dave Bidini, who’s now following this blog, kicking up a frenzy of guilt that resulted in at least one more post. 😉 His blog about 45s (“singles”) is fantastic.

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Apologies

I would like to apologize to those of you following the project. Things started off with a bang in the summer mostly because I was severely underemployed and looking for a creative outlet. Since then, I’ve become extremely busy and have had very little time to devote to anything other than things that pay me money. But I do have plans to continue the project and have lots to do.

My first order of business will be to transcribe an excellent interview with original bassist Mike Tilka, who was gracious enough to give me more than an hour of his time back in August. He has lots of stories and seems to know everyone so I know that going forward he’ll be someone I’ll be talking to again. His support for the project is really encouraging and he’s given me a whole bunch of other leads, too.

When I have some or all of his interview transcribed, I’ll put up some highlights. I hope you’ll stick with me on this, I’m sure it’s going to be worth it!

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First Interview Complete!

I was fortunate enough to meet with Martin Popoff a few weeks ago to talk about the project. Martin has written more than 40 books about music and has an office completely filled with amazing rock memorabilia, plus enough vinyl to pose a serious fire hazard. He has written liner notes for Kim Mitchell, and was once a neighbour of Max’s reclusive lyricist Pye Dubois. Not only did we get to talk about the band, but he pulled out lots of old vinyl and we listened to some of Kim’s early solo material, which I’d never heard before. Here’s an excerpt from our chat:

Pye Dubois

Pye Dubois (image courtesy of maxwebster.ca)

James McNally (JM): The way that I came to you was by reading that you were a neighbour of Pye Dubois, and I wanted to know how you came to know him.

Martin Popoff (MP): Well, the way I came to know any of these guys is through the very first rock band bio I wrote for a CD or album ever, which was for Kim Mitchell’s Itch (1994). So he was like one of my very first interviews ever. We went and sat at a coffee shop, I was real nervous. In fact, my first interview ever was Trent Reznor, which is crazy…but that was a phoner, so this was in person, it was very likely my first in person, so I wrote the bio for that. Through some connections, we knew Pye was around. I ended up meeting Pye, seeing him on the street all the time, and every time I saw him, he’d say “let’s go for a coffee or let’s go for lunch ” so we would do that, and just chat and have stories, did a few interviews with him. I’d see him at the bank all the time for some reason, Bank of Montreal. And word had it, you know, he basically doesn’t do any work, he’s a little bit eccentric, he’s a little neurotic, he’s difficult to work with, but he’s been able to just live his quiet life off of the royalties for “Tom Sawyer” and a few other hits. Granted, let’s not forget that Kim Mitchell had some double and maybe even a quadruple platinum album.

JM: So Pye was only working with Kim until the 90s, was it that album, was it Itch?

MP: No, Pye worked with him on every Max and the Kim EP and the first Kim album, the second Kim album. I believe he doesn’t write very much on the next album, he’s definitely not around for Aural Fixations (1992), a couple of others. Itch was a bit of a reunion with him, to try to rekindle the old magic. And then I don’t think they ever worked together again. So they have a bit of a love-hate adversarial relationship. You know, I talked to Neil Peart about Pye, too, and Neil just says outright, “He’s neurotic.” You know, you can be a great artist. His sort of attitude was to paraphrase, you can be a great artist but you have to have social skills and some level of ambition to be out there with your art all the time. So Pye had his classic years but has only worked spottily ever since.

JM: So do you think he had the ambition at the beginning? He was part of that Sarnia group with those guys, wasn’t he?

MP: I don’t know how much ambition he had. I always say he’s my favourite lyricist ever, along with maybe Captain Beefheart and a few other people, but he’s an amazing amazing lyricist. I think he’s just a great artist, poet, he just strikes this real interesting chord between bizarre, but he can cut right to mature adult emotions when he’s writing a love song. He could be childish, naïve, he could be hopeful. It’s not really all that dark that often, and it’s just great art. He reminds me of a mainstream version of Captain Beefheart.

JM: But he was friends with Kim. As far as I know, they grew up in the same town?

MP: I don’t know for sure, but they’re all part of that strange cabal, they all lived together, and he’s essentially a band member. It’s really cool, I don’t know how many parallels there are. I guess there’s Bernie Taupin and there’s Hunter and Barlow for The Grateful Dead, but it’s pretty cool when you have an external lyricist like that.

JM: When I first discovered the band, I thought he was a construct, I didn’t think it was a real person. I thought it was a publicity thing because you never saw a picture of him.

MP: I think there are some little inset pictures on some of the inner sleeves.

JM: I never bought it, because I thought that this was a way of giving the band some mystery.

MP: I never thought that, it never crossed my mind.

JM: I know you recently said that he’s disappeared.

MP: Yeah, he moved away from the Danforth. He used to live on, I think it was Cambridge Avenue, which is one of those quiet streets to the west of Broadview, above Danforth, that little area before you hit the valley. People have said he’s moved to London, Ontario. People say he has a pattern of doing this, where he’s out and he’s sociable and around and visible, and then all of a sudden people don’t see him for two or three years, and then he surfaces again. But he’s also had some health problems.

JM: I know it was just after the latest Max reunion (in May 2007), or maybe it was just before that, but do you think that had anything to do with it? Was he part of that, was he asked to be a part of that?

MP: Well, the latest Max reunion, I believe, was just one show at Q107, wasn’t it? So the one before that was the big one [Editor’s note: this reunion tour was from December 1995-January 1996, with an additional show in June 1996]. They didn’t make an album or anything, but I saw them play Hamilton [Editor’s note: January 26, 1996], it was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, one of the best-sounding shows I’ve ever seen. I guess they toured around a little bit, but that goes back now ten years or something, or even more. And he was part of that, because he would get up there and recite poetry as, almost like the grandfather of the thing. He’d be like your Beat poet up there, and he had the long grey hair, blowing back, if I remember, and dramatic lighting, and he’d be up there, reciting some sort of Pye nonsense as actually part of the show.

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Introduction

I was 14 in 1979 when Max Webster’s A Million Vacations was released. I’m not sure what made me pick it up. “Let Go the Line” was being played a lot on local radio, but this Terry Watkinson-penned and voiced song was not typical of the band’s sound. In any case, I was drawn in by the weirdness of songs like “Research (at Beach Resorts)” and “Rascal Houdi” and soon had their entire back catalogue in my record collection.

Sure, I had yet to really get my teeth into the punk that was exploding all around (that would wait until 1980, when Teenage Head displaced Max as my favourite band), but there was something deeply strange about this band that made them different from the literary earnestness of Rush, or the blue-collar stomp of Triumph.

I’m pretty sure it had something to do with the mysterious (and to me at the time, possibly fictional) Pye Dubois, the band’s lyricist who did not play any musical instrument or appear in any publicity photos. Something about those freaky lyrics set Max Webster apart from the dozens of “hoser rock” bands that Canada inflicted upon the airwaves during the 70s and 80s.

High Class in Borrowed Shoes (1977)

The band appearing in drag on the cover of High Class in Borrowed Shoes (1977) was about as punk as anything going on at that time, if you ask me. Plus, they were the first band I heard swearing on record (“fuck you” is in the CHORUS of “Oh War!”), making them as badass as they were odd, both character traits I wanted to add to my own emerging identity.

When did you first discover Max Webster? What made you like them?

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