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The old is new

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic bring back Roger Miller
By MATT PARISH  |  July 22, 2009

BACK IN THE DAY: Recalls Miller (right, here with Swope, Lindgren, and Scott), "Birdsongs was so obviously outside of the mold that it was easier to assimilate" than Mission of Burma.

Re-geeing: Birdsongs go back to the drawing board. By Matt Parish.

Birdsongs on the road. By Matt Parish.

At a live show included on Birdsongs of the Mesozoic’s recent reissue collection, Dawn of the Cycads (Cuneiform), the band are introduced by Andy Warhol archivist and sometime Birdsongs roadie Jay Reeg. The date is May 14, 1987.

“I think if you think back from the year 2007, you’ll probably come up with a couple of Boston bands,” Reeg says to a packed house at Nightstage, just outside Central Square. “One of them will be Mission of Burma, and I’m confident the other one will be Birdsongs of the Mesozoic.”

What follows is a half-hour of banging, screeching, and carefully orchestrated madness by three guys on keyboards, drum machine, and a guitar in keys no rock band would ever have thought of going near — assuming they even knew those keys existed. There’s wild applause between every song.

In their 30 years of line-up shifts and collaborations and a dozen-plus albums, Birdsongs have never threatened to become a breakthrough indie-rock band, but that lack of expectation is what’s kept them interesting.

“There really never was a plan,” says Roger Miller, a founder of both Birdsongs and Burma. “There was nothing about consciously smashing styles together or anything. All we ever did in those early days was what felt natural to us.”

This summer is all about those early days. The music on Dawn of the Cycads — everything from 1983 to 1987 — is the fuel for a handful of tour dates this month (among them Johnny D’s next Thursday), with Miller reclaiming the spot in the band he abandoned 22 years ago. It harks back to a time when audiences at long-gone venues like Nightstage, the Rat, and Jack’s were just getting acquainted with Birdsongs’ chamber-quartet-as-rock-band repertoire. This time, it’s the band’s turn to get acquainted.

“It’s taking me a lot of mental firepower to figure out how I did this stuff,” says founding keyboardist Erik Lindgren. I catch Lindgren on the phone in the middle of a tour as the bassist for ’60s garage legends the Rising Storm. “It’s exciting to dive back into that pool, which is very jagged and very energetic.”

I talk to the rest of the band — Miller, Rick Scott, and Michael Bierylo (who took guitarist Martin Swope’s place in 1993) — while huddled over beers and laptops one afternoon at a deserted J.J. Foley’s in the South End. There’s a thunder-and-hail storm brewing outside.

“People liked Birdsongs shows more than they liked Burma ones,” Miller remembers. “Burma shows were notorious for being completely misunderstood and irritating, but Birdsongs was so obviously outside of the mold that it was easier to assimilate.”

Miller, Lindgren, and Scott flaunted reckless minimalism and a gleeful, aggressive use of every knob on whatever stone-age effects boxes they could find. The results suggest the missing link in among Terry Riley, the Residents, and Battles. Everything was fair game: some of the drum-machine breakdowns on Cycads would sound at home on Purple Rain; others sound like John Zorn doing prog-metal.

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  Topics: Music Features , John Zorn, Roger Miller, Roger Miller,  More more >
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