Legendary blues rock band The Yardbirds have affected the course of modern music more than is often apparent. Not only were they one of the first bands to successfully marry blues rock with psychedelia, but they were also pioneers in terms of their use of guitar effects (fuzz tone, distortion, feedback, backwards echo). They also invented Led Zeppelin, who were originally called The New Yardbirds.
In the relatively brief time that the band was active for during the 60s (prior to reforming in the 90s), they produced some of the biggest and most enduring hits of the day, including “For Your Love,” “Heart Full of Soul,” “Shapes of Things,” and “Over Under Sideways Down.” The Yardbirds also kick-started the careers of some of the most well-known blues guitarists of all time: Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page.
No less important to the success of the band was rhythm guitarist and sometimes bassist Chris Dreja. Along with drummer Jim McCarty, Dreja has been the only consistent member of the band both during the 60s as well as through to the present day. As a largely collaborative band, Dreja and McCarty were just as — if not more — responsible for creating the Yardbirds sound than their more famous bandmates.
While readying for a US tour which begins on September 1 in Massachusetts, Chris Dreja took a few minutes out of his day to talk to Rock Edition about what it was like then, what it’s like now, and what happened in between. Read on!
How’s it going?
Well, I’m in London, the sun is shining, it’s 21 degrees Centigrade, so it’s quite pleasant at the moment! The birds are singing.
Do you live in London year-round?
Yes, I live in Fullerman, London, which is pretty [much] central London. I’ve been here for many years now. It’s a little cosmopolitan area of London which is rather nice.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but I live in Brooklyn now.
I used to live in Brooklyn!
I used to live on Bergen Street! That was all very interesting. I liked it. It was an old brownstone that was falling to bits, but I hear they’re worth lots of money now.
Yes, apparently so. I wish I had one of those!
I lived in Brooklyn for about a year, so I’m sort of Brooklyn-ese as well.
I’m becoming that slowly. I’m pretty new still.
It took me a while to get to [understand] New York, to get how the rules went. It’s not as aggressive as it used to be when I was there, but it could be quite something, couldn’t it? They’re much more polite in LA.
Yeah, they are. Well, it’s funny, I had always heard the stereotype about rude New Yorkers, but when I moved here, I didn’t really encounter it much.
It used to be. It was the code: when you hit them back as good as they gave, then they accepted you and you became a New Yorker. That was the trick, you see; if you didn’t give back the animosity and the shouting… They weren’t polite. They were just being New Yorkers.
I did find it was important not to waste a stranger’s time. In LA, if you are asking someone for directions, you go, “Excuse me, I’m so sorry to bother you…” But by the time you say all that to a New Yorker, they’re already done. You have to just say, “Where’s 4th St?”
Yeah, that’s it. Especially in all those short-order cafés, where you go to get sunny side up [eggs] to go. They think they’re short of time, so they just cut off vital words. So, anyway, how can I help you?
Well, obviously we’re here to talk about The Yardbirds.
Oh, are we? Okay, then! [laughs]
So you guys are coming back to the US pretty soon?
We’re coming back on August 31 to do a three-week tour of the United States.
Are you excited?
Yeah, I’m always excited — because I was a New Yorker, wasn’t I? [laughs] And I spent very many formative years observing you guys, since the early 60s ’til now, and it’s been an extraordinary journey. I’m always [excited], because I think the Americans, despite everything, still keep a tremendous enthusiasm going for stuff, which is very positive. Music is a good thing to get your rocks off on, and that’s what we’re bringing!
Near the end of the tour, you get three days in Hawaii. That sounds nice.
Yes, apparently we have! Well, we’ll probably need it, just to recover a bit. [laughs] The music is powerful and energetic still, but Jim [McCarty, drummer] and I are not quite as young as we used to be.
I suppose that’s true.
Oh, it is! I can tell you it’s true, because I’ve just been offered a British pension, so it must be true! [laughs][laughs]
I can’t believe it; I’ve got a sign in my office that says “Too Old to Die Young,” so there you go.
How did you find your new bandmates, [lead guitarist] Ben King, [bassist] David Smale, and [vocalist] Andy Mitchell?
Well, Ben’s not so new; Ben’s with the band six years now, if you can believe it. He’s a fabulous guy and a wonderful guitar player. He’s seriously good. Of course, the other two came in later. When we were auditioning for replacements — we work with many people, obviously — the guitar player thing is obviously very important. Our original singer died back in the 70s, so when Andy came along… he’s a great frontman. He really is so good. And then a young bass player — it was actually very nice to bring [young energy] into the band, and sort of pass the mantle on to these young guys, who come from the same roots as we did when we were young — same influences — but to have that young energy in the band is a very good mix.
Are you guys writing any new songs?
Well, we’re constantly updating our arrangements of the catalogue. We have written new songs, not in the most recent two or three years, although I think there’s one or two that might be bursting out of the new guys, which I’d be most interested in having Jim and I take a look at.
Will you be playing any songs that you haven’t played out before?
Probably we will be, actually. We’ll be playing more material from the cult album ‘Little Games’ — I always think it was a cult album, anyway. Things like “Glimpses,” which we’ve never done live before, but we’re starting to work that out now. It’s all part of that eclectic mix between rock ‘n’ roll and the blues, and well, you name it! Crazy stuff.
It’s always good to play fresh stuff, but the thing with the band is that right from the get-go, we did sort of change these things on the day, as they say, which helps keep things fresh.
I also understand you’re selling some photographs of yours?
Well, the thing was, we were going to come over to America earlier to do a thing called The Zep Fest, which unfortunately hit the rocks at the last minute. We were [going to be] in Washington for a week, and I’d had a request to show some of my photographs, because I took some rather intimate stuff of Led Zeppelin and The Yardbirds back in the day, which were quite unique. I was going to bring some of those photographs, but unfortunately, as we’re touring full-time on this tour, I don’t think I’m going to be bringing original photographs. Although, I am doing a few interviews which will involve talking about the photographs. I’ll probably bring some digital stuff which can be shown, but it won’t be an exhibition-type thing this time around. Being a photographer for many years — it’s the other passion in my life, so it’s good to be able to move in interviews and do things diagonally.
It’s nice that the two can meet.
And they do meet! That’s the wonderful thing, really. They both work quite well together.
Prior to reforming in the early 90s, did you ever think that you would play as The Yardbirds again?
No, I didn’t think anybody would remember us after about five weeks, let alone the unpredictable history that has happened and evolved from that time when we first hung up our guitar straps in ’68. I went into my other passion, which was photography, and I moved to New York as I was telling you earlier, and spent many years — well, 32 years. I was still involved in music, like with Box of Frogs and other projects, but I was mainly a photographer. So it was very refreshing for me to come back into music again, and rediscover all those great Yardbirds songs — they’re all a bit crazy, you know.
Nothing like a little rave-up.
A little rave-up doesn’t do your soul any harm at all, you know. It’s all good stuff. You can have sex, or you can have a rave-up, but it’s all good for you.[laughs] That’s a quotable quote, right there.
Yeah, maybe. [laughs] But it’s true, you know. Music takes you to the places that nothing else does. It’s as simple as that. Especially when times are a little bit tough for people. I don’t think The Yardbirds will be too expensive to come and see.
Probably not, especially not for true fans. I think it’s really true that a lot of people did not forget about The Yardbirds or other bands from that era, even the ones who stopped. Quite the opposite, in fact!
No, you didn’t! We obviously brought a light over with us. And don’t forget, you’re historically a guitar country. All your roots are in string instruments, basically, so it’s kind of understandable, really. You’ve got Gibson, you’ve got Fender, you’ve always had great players, great musicians.
Can we talk a little bit about the early days of The Yardbirds?
When you first formed the band, what was the feeling like in the air?
Well, in ’62 and ’63, England was still pretty black and white. It was very post-war for us, and especially for young people. Basically, there was absolutely fuck-all to do! [There was] nothing to go out and see; everything was very establishment. When I was lucky enough to go to art school, along with Eric Clapton and Top Topham, we had a certain amount of academic freedom. We all kind of discovered your great American blues music at the same time, and it had so much passion and energy, we kind of thought maybe we could play this music, which was sort of crazy, you know. It was very, very exciting. Suddenly we had bought cheapo guitars, and we had this passion between three young people that evolved into joining up with Keith [Relf, vocalist] and [bassist/songwriter] Paul Samwell-Smith, and forming a true band that was lucky enough to catch that gestalt of the moment. There were lots of clubs opening up, like The Marquee in London, and suddenly the kids turned around and had something totally for themselves, and not just in music, but also film, theater… it all happened very quickly. Your feet really didn’t touch the ground, it was just from A to B awfully fast. It was a wonderful time, really a wonderful time.
I’ve often wished I’d been born to live in the 60s.
Well, I can’t deny it. To be awfully honest, I think for everything [to line up so that] the 60s could happen again, it might take centuries. Perhaps never.
Did you ever feel like you were in the shadow of the other Yardbirds guitarists, or was it not really like that?
I tried to be, all the time! [laughs] I’m a background boy. I love playing the bass and rhythm guitar, and helping with song ideas. But I’ve never been a virtuoso; I didn’t have that thing about leaping in front, you know. And I was just very happy to work behind some very gifted players, and make them sound good.
It’s pretty amazing; few bands have that legacy to be able to say they have had that many well-known, accomplished musicians in their lineup over the years.
Yeah, it’s quite unique. I always say to people that we also had the most amazing three managers, with [Giorgio] Gomelsky, Simon Napier-Bell, and Peter Grant, the latter of whom totally changed the music business forever. I know things are different now, but he changed all the percentages around between artist and promoter and record company. So there was also that history. They don’t make them like that now.
Yes, well, the whole business is different now.
Yes, of course. It’s sharpened bands up a bit, to see how they can make it work these days. All the traditional streams are not available anymore.
But there are other ways; you just have to be creative and work it.
Yes, and you’re never going to stop people who have that sort of passion for playing, like I did. You don’t want to be ripped off, but you just want to have your music heard.
That passion is the most important thing. If you have that, then you will make it work.
Exactly. That’s what I always thought. I mean, I’ve had two main passions, and I made them work for me. I didn’t set out to make them work, they were just what I wanted to do. I couldn’t help but do it.
Has the way in which the industry has changed made things different for The Yardbirds? For instance, distribution channels having changed: did that affect you when you released ‘Birdland?’
Well, yes. Jim and I felt that once we had the musicians right, it was pretty imperative to try to put something new out there, and of course we’d not done a new album in 35 years. That’s a hell of a long holiday! It was very difficult, to be honest with you. There were companies interested, but to get a company that would be — how can I put it? You don’t want to mess with a legend like The Yardbirds, so you need to get a company that are intuitive and also have respect for things. Integrity.
So finally, Steve Vai’s company [Favored Nations], which is very much a guitar-orientated company, were kind enough to do an album with us. It wasn’t easy. Very kindly, when the album came out, people were generally supportive of what we had done, by splitting up old material and writing new material, and hopefully keeping it fresh. Then we did the ‘Live at B.B. King Blues Club’ album, which was a bit of a coup, because it [captured] that real high energy that the band has. Today, bands have to do all sorts of things to survive, don’t they? I know bands who practically have a car boot sale every night [after] their shows. Nowadays, you have to take your record company out to dinner, not the other way around! [laughs] So what can I say?
Some of them are better off not even having a record company, these days.
They are, but it’s still hard. Even with the Internet, you’ve still got to have something, haven’t you? [And] it’s no good being mediocre these days.
No matter what your music, you have to have that hustle.
You do, and of course artists are not the best hustlers, are they? Let’s be honest.
Not as a whole.
They’re really not. Although obviously Jim and I, having been ripped off ourselves, and [having] been through [all that we’ve been through]; almost roadmapping the original business, in terms of touring in America and everything else; we have learned a bit since then, but we had to relearn it all again, because of the Internet!
What’s next after the tour?
Well, we have some European dates, in places we never played in the 60s. Prague, for instance. We’re going to Tel Aviv, I believe, to do one or two other festivals. Istanbul, we’re playing. We play many different and strange countries these days. Wonderful places, of course.
That’s really cool.
It’s kinda cool, isn’t it? It sounds very glamorous, Julian, but I must be honest. My brother thinks I’ve had a long holiday all these years, being a musician. He doesn’t now, when he sees my schedule, but the truth of the matter is, as we all know in the business, with all the traveling and the time schedules, it’s not as glamorous as you might think. The best part is a good audience. Without that, you’ve got nothing.
Pick up The Yardbirds’ latest release, Live at B.B. King Blues Club.
For the band’s upcoming tour dates, check out their website.