Interviews | 2008

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Tuesday, 16 September 2008 00:00

The Whybirds

Written by  Søren McGuire

whybirds0908.jpgMeet The Whybirds. Four guys from Bedford who really look the part of your classic 70’s country rock outfit. With their long hair, beards, flannel shirts and classic Cosmic American guitar licks, they sound like Pearl Jam having a fist fight with The Allman Brothers in Don Henley’s back yard. But what’s more important is that The Whybirds might just be the most hardest working and hardest rocking band in Britain right now – a band destined for greatness. Americana UK had a long yet very interesting chat with the band about the 70’s, country rock and guys in flannel shirts. Turns out we shouldn’t have mentioned Don Henley though…

First off - your Myspace says that none of you like The Eagles, despite the fact that you do all look a bit like Don Felder circa 1976 (and I mean this in a good way). I think we can both agree on the fact that Don Henley and Glenn Frey will be the first to hang when the Day of Reckoning comes, but come on, dudes, they gave us Already Gone, Tequila Sunrise and a pretty damn fine cover of Take It Easy! Why don't you like The Eagles?
Luke: I'll have to look up what Mr Felder looks like. The reason for the thing on the MySpace is because we keep getting compared to them, and I think it's people being lazy, you know: "Oh, they share vocals and do harmonies, they sound like the Eagles". Actually, it's not lazy really, it's borderline moronic. The Eagles thing for me, it's all a bit... schmaltzy. A bit fake. Pompous. I dunno, I mean, I like the solo to Hotel California when it goes into that triplet bit at the end, so it's not all bad, but I've said it before, and I'll say it again: "The best thing Eagles records are for is keeping dust off your turntable." Although it was Tom Waits who said that, not me. Probably just as he was counting the royalties from "Ol '55"!

Taff: I’ll level with you, I do own Hotel California the album, I can’t remember the last time I even thought to put it on and I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it all the way through. It just doesn’t do anything for me. I was pretty much indifferent to them until people started saying we sounded like a modern day Eagles, but that alone has made me dislike them. We get the same thing with Skynyrd but I think that’s mainly because we’re a pretty hairy band. It is a bit insulting really because people look at us and say “they’re like Skynyrd and the Eagles” based on the fact that we have beards and our drummer sings, whereas I would say our influences clearly lie in singer/songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle and if they listened to the music rather than just focusing on our facial hair then that should be fairly obvious. Besides, anything the Dude says should really be made gospel anyway - “Come on, man. I had a rough night and I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man!”

Luke: Fuck. I should’ve used the Lebowski quote.

Dave: I don’t think I actually dislike the Eagles, it’s just we get our love of harmonies from bands like The Band. When people hear four-part harmonies they instantly think of the Eagles. I guess that’s the power of Top 40 radio rearing its head!

Ben: Yeah, I don’t hate them. They have got some good songs, they’re just a bit too middle-of-the-road for me. As Tuck says, it’s just the comparisons we keep getting that made us put that line up on the MySpace. For the record, I actually don’t like the triplet bit in the solo. Joe Walsh’s part all the way.

Long story short, The Whybirds was built on the ashes of your old band, The View. You're four guys, early 30s? You're from Bedford and like other normal children, you grew up listening to grunge, Guns ‘N’ Roses and The Beatles. Yet somehow you ended up sounding and looking like The Allman Brothers. How big an inspiration are the ‘70s to you?
Luke: Early 30s? Bloody hell! No, we're in our mid-20s! Christ...I’m offended.

Ben: I’d say we’re fairly influenced by the ‘70s. I an article the other day that ‘proved’ that ’73 was the best year in rock! But the ‘60s are probably just as big an inspiration to me. My parents used to play loads of ‘60s and ‘70s stuff when I was young, including the Allman Brothers. I guess that’s where the influence started.

Luke: It's hard to say really. I like a lot of films from the '70s, just like I like a lot of music and books and so forth. I do feel connected to the '70s - and like Ben said the '60s, for me the whole Greenwich Village thing - but then I couldn't tell you why. Everything just seemed a bit cooler I suppose, but maybe that's cos I didn't live through it. Films were grittier, records had mistakes left in, cars were more badass... I had a 1975 Mark II Escort once... I miss that car. But then I saw this thing on TV the other day where people dressed and decorated their house like it was the 1950s, to the smallest minute detail. Bit weird. Each to their own and all, but we're not that obsessed.

Dave: In the ‘90s, when we grew up, there was a great music scene and of course you look for who influenced your influences to discover more music, I think that’s how a lot of people come to love the ‘70s. Especially these days when there’re a lot of rubbish bands around. You can find good music by looking backwards I guess.

Luke: I’m not sure how great the music scene in the ‘90s was, especially over here. It was good for about five minutes. For me, it was the decade of boybands.

Needless to say, there seems to be a growing interest in the sound and looks of the ‘70s these days. The Fleet Foxes look like they've just crawled out of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash, Tom Petty "reformed" Mudcrutch and Neil Young, David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills have actually managed to stay in a room together long enough to put out a live album. Why do you think this decade suddenly rings so well with the youth of today?
Luke: I don't know why this generation is relating so well to the '70s. I guess because everything mainstream now is so bland and meaningless, and things seemed to have a little more heart back then. It's probably some sort of reaction to that. But the music we make has far more in common with Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen - which is essentially rock ‘n’ roll - than it does Lynyrd Skynyrd or CSNY. I could've been born 10 years later or earlier and would still want to play this music.

Taff: I think a lot of music fans are sick of hearing the pap that’s passed off as music these days and so they turn to older music. Besides, any self-respecting music fan is going to investigate the roots of the bands they like and that will lead you back through to the ‘70s and beyond. It’s no different to Bob Dylan listening to folk music and obsessing over Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. In many ways the ‘80s ruined things so much that we’re still culturally hungover from that decade, and that alone makes the ‘70s seem so much more genuine and creatively more inspirational. People these days seem to focus so much on technology, getting things done faster and cleaner and bigger and louder, that they forget about the actual creative element, which makes music and films so captivating. When I look back at the ‘70s everything seemed a lot simpler and more raw and honest. People just seemed to care more about the artistic approach to music and that’s what inspires me. I think there’s a growing backlash against modern culture. Artists like Howlin’ Rain, Devendra Banhart, Backyard Tire Fire and even Jack White are making a point of going back to the roots of music and they get criticised for being ‘retro’ but it’s no less relevant just because it’s not ground-breaking… hell, the Stones were just ripping off Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf.

This year marks the 40 year anniversary of The Byrds playing at the Grand Ole Opry and recording Sweetheart Of The Rodeo. So basically we’re celebrating 40 years of country rock, aren’t we? What does country rock mean to you?
Dave: It means a lot. A great deal of our influences are country rock: Neil Young, Steve Earle, and these days people like Ryan Adams and My Morning Jacket. And though I’d say we were in the rockier half of country rock, those influences definitely shine through.

Luke: Well, that’s just like, your opinion man…there you go, I got a Lebowski quote in! But no, I don't think "country rock" means a great deal to me. I mainly listen to singer/songwriters. Songs that can be played by a full band, or on your own with an acoustic guitar or piano. That's what real songwriting is to me. If it's a great song, the pedal steel, the guitar solos, the harmonies, all they do is add to it. A great song would still be great on its own.

Taff: To me it’s just another genre. Most of the bands I listen to could probably be branded as Country Rock if you really wanted to but to me there’s not a lot of difference between Alt. Country, Country Rock, Southern Rock, Americana… it doesn’t really mean anything. I think it all comes down to songs. The one thing that a lot of the ‘70s bands or artists had was great songs and that will always connect with people. Too many bands these days rely on a particular drum beat or an image and they don’t have any songs. We’ve always said that you can strip our songs down to the bare bones and play them on an acoustic guitar and they will still sound great because it’s a song with a melody and lyrics that mean something

Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was one thing – five years later, Gram Parsons gave birth to Cosmic American Music, and you seem to be drawing more inspiration from Gram’s way of doing things, his way of blending country with rock, psychedelica and soul, than you do from McGuinn and Hillman’s traditional approach to country. How much country and how much everything else is there in your music?
Taff: I think Gram Parsons was definitely ahead of his time with the Cosmic American Music ideal and it’s certainly an inspiration to see someone break down barriers like that and just play whatever music he wants to. We’ve never really placed any boundary on what type of music we play, it just turns out the way it does naturally from the way we play our instruments. When we come to arrange a song, it develops into a certain sound almost without us realising but we never say “let’s write a psychedelic country song”. I think when you start trying to shoehorn your music into a certain style then you’re in danger of faking it. We use a lot of open chords and don’t use many guitar effects so it’s never going to sound like Metallica or Pink Floyd… I think our sound has developed of its own accord over time. If you listened to how we were playing just 18 months ago it was quite different, maybe a bit less sympathetic and a bit forced, whereas now it feels like we’ve found our natural sound that melds influences from country, grunge, folk and more without being specifically based around any one of them.

Luke: When I write a song, I don't really take an approach. I just string some chords together, get a melody, and write words that suit the tune. If it turns out to be a country song, fine. Most times it's not. I've written some songs that are undeniably country, like "Foolish Heart" or "These Lonesome Blues", but normally I'm just trying to write a song. Like I said, my main thing is singer/songwriters, regardless of the genre they fall into. Billy Bragg has turned out the odd country tune, as has Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen, but you wouldn't call them country singers. There's as much Tom Petty and Steve Earle as there is Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams in my songs, cos they all use the same chords! But then, in the band of course, I play drums. And I'm pretty sure I don't play like most country drummers. Rock players like Dominic Greensmith, John Bonham, Jack Irons and Matt Cameron influence my drumming the most, so I guess that brings a different dimension to our sound.

Ben: Yeah, It varies from song to song. We listen to such a wide range of stuff. But even on our most country songs we you can still hear our other, more rock, influences come through.

There’s a lot of great political songs from the 70’s – Ohio, Teach Your Children, For What It’s Worth and so on. But when it comes to protest songs, there’s none more fitting decade than the one we live in now. Are you in any way a political band?
Luke: Not overtly. We all have our political views, that's for sure. The reason we haven't released a political song yet is simply because we haven't written one good enough. For example, "Teach Your Children". I find it hard to call that a great song, let alone a great protest song. "The past is just a goodbye"? Nice one Graham. I absolutely adore Neil Young, but can't stand CSNY, for the same reasons that I don’t like the Eagles. Apart from Four Way Street, that’s okay. Anyway, back to your question, I have written political songs, it's just that not many of them have made it through to the band's repertoire, for stylistic reasons or otherwise. One song we do play - "My Darling England" - is political I suppose. But due to the nature of the song, it's not talking about one view being better than the other. I mean, there are communist ideas in there, capitalist ideas, meritocratic ideas, it's more about coming together really. I also see "Hard to Find" as a protest song, but it's not obviously political. The thing with a song like "Ohio" is that it's so rigidly linked to its time. You couldn't play that to a modern crowd and necessarily get them to resonate with the lyrics like they would have done in 1970. But then a song like "Masters of War" sounds like it could've been written today, despite coming out 45 years ago. If you’re gonna do it, do it well.

Taff: I think there’s a danger in becoming pigeonholed as a ‘political band’ as people then expect something else from you over and above your music and that can be dangerous. You just have to look at what happened with Bob Dylan. He was vilified because he stopped writing direct protest songs but luckily he had the balls to escape the folk movement. Just imagine if he had just stuck to writing in that style. We would have no Blood on the Tracks or Time Out of Mind. Personally, I don’t know that I could be direct enough in my songwriting to point a finger or take a particular political stance as I don’t think I’ve ever felt an element of trust for any politician. That’s not to say I’ll never write a political song. If the urge was strong enough then I would follow it but it’s not something I’ve ever tried to force into my songwriting.

Final question. If you could play one gig at one of these two venues, which would it be and why – CBGB (before it closed) or The Grand Ole Opry?
Luke: I've been to CBGBs. Well, actually, I didn’t get past the lobby, cos the person I was with didn’t have ID. But anyway, it smelt. The thing is, we've played lots of small clubs with graffiti and foul toilets, buy we've not played too many places like the Grand Ole Opry. I think that should answer the question!

Ben: That’s a tough one. So many of the bands I listen to played CGBGs but I’m with Tuck on this one. I don’t think we could pass up the opportunity to play The Grand Ole Opry.

Taff: Absolutely. Actually, as long as there was a crowd there I wouldn’t mind. I’d imagine playing to an empty Grand Ole Opry would be pretty soul destroying.
The Whybirds’ self-released debut, ‘The Whybirds’ is out now. More info at www.thewhybirds.com

 

Søren McGuire

Søren McGuire

Soren McGuire lives in Copenhagen with his wife and three sons, works as a magazine editor and honestly thinks Taylor Swift can be labelled as alternative country. He spent three years working as Americana UK's interviews-editor, once played in a CCR jam-band, and his favorite country subgenres include 70's country rock, Texas red dirt and stuff that sounds like John Prine.

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