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.
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.
To everyone’s surprise, it worked.
“We had a charmed life,” says Scott. “It was supposed to be just one show at the Rat and that was it. People went wild because it was such a scene, apparently.”
The band were soon hitting the road, playing wherever they could. Lindgren recalls, “A lot of our gigs would be in rock clubs. With hardcore bands opening for us, indie-rock bands, power-pop bands, the local weirdos. People would walk up and go, ‘You guys aren’t from around here, are you?’ ”
Lindgren also remembers a house show in South Carolina. “Basically a frat party. It was full of Southern frat guys drinking beer. So we go into The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, our version, and they just started going crazy bouncing all over the place and getting into it. They loved it. But then again, it’s all about sacrificing virgins.”
Miller and Lindgren have known each other since the late ’70s, when they started the Moving Parts in Cambridge with bassist Clint Conley (later of Burma). Lindgren says, “I remember back in ’77, I had this goal to mix the Stooges with contemporary composer Anton Webern.”
Birdsongs operated together for seven years before Miller quit. They evolved into a four-man collaboration straddling modern classical and rock, performing at the Berklee Performance Center, doing spirituals with gospel singer Oral Moses, covering Terry Riley’s In C.
Bierylo: “We know who we are and what things mean to us. We seek out collaborators to keep things new. To step into someone else’s shoes and go back in 1981 is really changing how I look at us. When we work with Roger, we’re basically working with another collaborator. We’re collaborating with the guy that founded the band.”
BIRDSONGS OF THE MESOZOIC | Johnny D's, 17 Holland St, Somerville | July 30 at 9 pm | $10 | 617.776.2004 or www.johnnyds.com