Interview: Chris Dreja of the Yardbirds
The Yardbirds were a guitar player's band. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page all took shifts in the lead slot over the band's five-year career.
The group began playing blues and rock standards, gradually evolving over the years towards a more psychedelic sound. More than 30 years after the band broke up, the group is getting the compilation treatment with the Rhino Records release of the double-disc Yardbirds set "Ultimate."
Guitarist Chris Dreja pursued a career in photography after the band's split, and now fronts a new version of the '60s group. SoundSpike talked to Dreja about the group's tenure, the compilation and the current incarnation of the band.
One of your first breaks was backing up Sonny Boy Williamson. What kinds of things did the band learn from working with him?
The management and agency we were involved with was the National Jazz Federation. They were great because they were the only Europeans really bringing black musicians, jazz players and blues players to Europe. In America, it was a pretty strict divide between black and white musicians. We were playing as the Yardbirds--that was with Clapton, of course--and the National Jazz Federation brought over Sonny Boy and we kinda got on. We backed him a few times, and it was decided to do a couple of live recordings. We were terrible. We were a white copy of a blues band that hadn't got into our stride as the Yardbirds at the time. Sonny Boy was such a great player; in retrospect, it was a brilliant thing to have done.
One of the things we learned was that black blues musicians, especially ones who drink and are very into their music, tend to change it on the fly. Any rehearsals go out the window. You learn to think on your feet. Of course, his harmonica playing was unbelievable. Now after all these years have passed, you can see that stuff was worth it. I always remember one of Eric's gods was John Lee Hooker, and not that long ago, I saw a documentary about John Lee Hooker. Right at the end, they asked him, "Who do you admire?" And he said, "That Eric Clapton." And I thought, "Wow, isn't that amazing." Thirty-five years later, us white guys from the suburbs of London idolizing these musicians, you understand, and then there's this amazing payback. It blew my mind off, actually, when I heard that.
I've read that the Yardbirds track "For Your Love," though it was your biggest hit at the time, caused a crisis within the band.
In essence, we had tried to get our hard blues sound onto tape, but it hadn't really worked. It gave us minimal exposure. At the same time, the nucleus of the band were quite keen into get into sort of stranger ideas. In other words, I guess, personalities stopped borrowing so heavily from the black blues thing, although obviously it's a root thing.
Unfortunately, Eric at the time was very strict-tempo on that--fair enough, he wasn't too keen to go down that road. Of course, for us it was really getting the branches growing. If you look at the picture of the Yardbirds, basically it's part of a natural eclectic progression. The band touched so many things in a short space of time. "What was that band?" It was just a no-rules, eclectic, high energy outfit that tried lots of things.
The compilation is great for that. It's the first time that amount of material has been put down in one compilation. Especially on CD, where you can track-to-track from track 1 through 30, and you can really see the travel time. Some of it is a bit iffy, perhaps, but you can really see the travel time as a listener. It had its roots, but it was a restless thing within the band that made everybody try anything. You could not ever say about the Yardbirds they were strictly one thing, although there was always a theme.
It seems like each time you changed guitarists, the direction of the band changed as well.
It did to a degree. When we started off as a band, what turned us on was very much black blues music--all the traditional influences like Blind Lemon Jefferson and the like. I was very much into piano music. We all got initially turned on by this incredible music we heard, and we just wanted to play it. We wanted to play that 12-bar blues because it was so spontaneous. At that time in [the U.K.] we had very kitsch pop music, very structured, and unemotional in a way. We heard this [blues] music, and we just wanted to find like people who could play it, and we wanted to play it.
There really was no set direction. We became a band and we started working full-time. And then we heard the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and everybody else. It became necessary to make records so [that we could build a] wider audience, and the nucleus of the band evolved. Guitar players came and went and had an influence on that.
How involved were you in the compilation?
Rhino were very good. I know they've been keen to do it for a long time, and they were finally able to clear the decks and get some of the label stuff in place. They consulted us pretty much with the track lists and that kind of thing. I would pretty much agree with what they picked. There's some stuff missing; there are a few tracks that for legal reasons can't go on there. It's kind of interesting--it completes the story, perhaps. It's certainly got all the main bits. They compiled it well, the liner notes are good and they've got some great photographs.
I thought it was interesting that on the set, the songs are divided by who was managing you at the time.
Yeah, that's the way they decided to go. It's an interesting sort of slant. Well picked-up. I don't know, I'm a little ambivalent about it in a way. They didn't go with the guitarist thing, they went with the management thing. Maybe at the end of the day, we not only had colorful guitar players, we had some very colorful managers.
Peter Grant is a book on his own. And so is Giorgio Gomelsky. Giorgio was an Italian-Russian. Very interesting character and he had this lovely bass voice. Giorgio always wanted to be the sixth Yardbird anyway, if the truth be known. Very different from someone like Peter Grant, who was a nuts-and-bolts guy, just wanted to make sure the artist was OK. Giorgi was very much on the creative end, but I think that was pretty good at the beginning.
Why did the Yardbirds break up the first time?
We were working 500 days a year, and in those days, you didn't travel in executive jets. It was a hard slog--we just burnt out, basically. We should have come off the road and thought about doing another album. We were in perpetual motion, and it finished us off in the end. Also, Jimmy [Page] and I were more on the heavier side of music at that time, and I think [vocalist Keith Relf] and [drummer Jim McCarty]--understandably for them, perhaps--wanted to go a more mellow route.
Why did you go into photography when the band broke up?
We were an art-school band, so that art side was always there. I always had a penchant for photography. I used to take the opportunity on 13 American tours--being in the Watts riots and the Detroit riots--I would sneak out and take photographs.
Also, speaking personally, you kind of get fed up in a way with your destiny being controlled by five or six people of varying stability. So I cut out pretty much immediately. I came to New York, I worked in New York for a while. I completely said, "OK, I'll do my other love." It was pretty easy for me. It was great: in photography, the world I went into, people had no idea who I was or what I had done. If you think about it, it's like starting again. There's nothing judgmental. It's the best thing I ever did, actually, I have to be honest.
What brought you back into the Yardbirds?
The great honor that you guys gave us, inducting us into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a bit of a spark. We kind of reformed in the mid-'90s for a little bit. We did a couple of project albums under the name Box of Frogs, which we wrote, but we had all different singers as guests.
I don't know. I got to the point where I could start moving a little more diagonally, as opposed to just up and down. And I thought if we could get the right musicians together, I might quite enjoy playing [the Yardbirds'] material again. Because I hadn't played it for 30 years.
We eventually got the right musicians together, and what a kick-ass band it is, and what kick-ass material it still is. It's never the same any night, and of course with the new band, we're writing new material and performing it. I've had such a great break that I come back at it with a lot of energy. We have a lot of material to call on, of course. We're introducing new material, which is becoming a fixture as well, so one doesn't get bored. The thing about that music, it was never boring and it isn't now. People who saw us back in the '60s say, "My God, this band has more energy than we even remember it." And in those days, you went out with your amp and that was it, really. You didn't have great sound systems and the whole thing you have now. So we can actually present the music better in many ways.
Are you working on a new record?
We are. We've signed with Steve Vai's label [Favored Nations], for all sorts of reasons. We think that's right for us. We're in the process of recording as we speak, really. We're recording in L.A., actually, using Steve's set-up.
Ken Allerdyce is currently the producer. He's been involved with Weezer and the Goo Goo Dolls. He's from Scotland, Ken, he came over and worked on some of our demos tracks a couple years ago. We liked him a lot. You need people that you can relate to, obviously, and people are into the music you did and the music you want to do. His pedigree is good for us.
What's the new stuff sound like?
It's eclectic again, because it's a no-rules band. It's going to be pretty guitar-orientated, but the three or four tracks we're putting down at the moment are beginning to happen quite nicely. It's sort of the Yardbirds, but with a bit extra, something else. I always think all the Yardbirds--take things like "Shapes of Things," "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago"--there was a sort of philosophy going on within the band. It's not a band that's too lightweight, musically and lyrically. It's melancholy, but with a whack. Just when you think you know where it will go, something will turn.