The Brown Birds from Windy Hill – One Last Wave

July 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: Rhythms, July 2009.

With the help of 70s guitar legend Tim Gaze, Byron area group The Brown Birds from Windy Hill have paid tribute to one of the true iconoclasts of Australian surfing. By Dan Rule.

If The Brown Birds from Windy Hill had any kind of ambition for their latest recording project, it was to evoke a little of the era when Michael Peterson was surfing.

“I don’t know if music in the 70s was better or life was better or surfing was better, but it’s just something that we’re all attracted to,” says singer-songwriter and founding member of the group, Andrew Kidman. “I just feel like there was so much great music that went on throughout that period and that’s when Michael was surfing…the music and the surfboard designs from that era feel really similar.”

“It was only when I started riding single fins and experiencing what those guys were experiencing in the 70s that my surfing really felt right.”

The story of Michael Peterson has haunted Australian surfing for the last three decades. Still regarded as one of the greatest ever surfers, MP was untouchable in his prime. His surfing at his famed local break Kirra was loose, critical, devastatingly powerful and all but unfathomable. He approach came to epitomise a generation.

But the late 70s was pretty much where Peterson’s surfing career ended. Following his famous win in the 1977 Stubbies contest at Burleigh Heads, the already notoriously shy MP became increasingly introvert and troubled, eventually withdrawing from the surfing scene all together. He was finally diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1983, after his arrest for leading police on a car chase through southeastern Queensland. From all accounts, he hasn’t surfed again since the mid 80s.

When filmmaker Jolyon Hoff approached Kidman and iconic Australian guitarist Tim Gaze – who co-wrote and recorded three pieces for the soundtrack of the legendary 1972 surf film Morning of the Earth with his then band Tamam Shud – to compose music for his documentary on Peterson’s life, Searching for Michael Peterson, they were well aware of the significance of the project.

Kidman – a renowned surf writer, filmmaker and photographer in his own right – took the idea to his band and they began discussing the project. “We just thought we could articulate it well with music,” he says. “We knew that we could because we all come from that culture.”

“I mean, Neal (co-founder and former pro-surfer Neal Purchase Jr.) was there on the beach at Burleigh Heads when Michael won that contest. He was a kid, but he was there. And Paul (bass player Paul Brewer) grew up in Manly and is a bit older than us – he was of that vintage – and Gazey’s the same.”

Recorded live over two days at Pete Murray’s studio in the hinterland between Byron and Lismore, the recordings pulse with a raw, improvisational energy, The Bird’s rugged take on psych-flecked surf rock offsetting Gaze’s soaring guitar. “It was really spontaneous and pretty much happened on the day,” explains Kidman. “We sort of put a structure in place and decided that we’d play within that chord structure, and what that ended doing is allow anyone who wanted to go off within that to just go for it.”

“We were almost like a backing band for Gazey, kind of showcasing what he could do,” says Kidman. “Not that he ever would have said that. But I kind of felt like we were trying serve him in a way, just out of respect for who he is and what he’s done in music. We learned so much from him in such a short space of time.”

That’s not to suggest that the process was rudderless. The most crucial thing to Kidman, Gaze and The Birds was approaching their subject faithfully. “Neal had spoken to Tommy Peterson (Michael’s younger brother) a little bit about what music Michael used to listen to,” explains Kidman. “Tommy reckoned Michael loved Deep Purple so we thought we’d try and bring a bit of that to the recording.”

“In the music we tried to capture the spirit of Coolangatta in the late 70s and early 80s; the sounds of Jeremy Oxley’ s Sunnyboys, Radio Birdman and The Saints. In the lyrics we tried to reflect the times.”

But the group were wary of falling into the trap of revivalism. “I guess what we were trying to do was to not make something that was just retrospective, but something modern. We’re all living now and we’re very aware of that, and we’ve all gone through whatever we’ve gone through.”

Indeed, according to Kidman, it’s important to put the project in perspective. While the record is certainly a tribute to the great man, it’s anything but a definitive statement.

“I mean, this is our music and whilst it’s been inspired by Michael’s life, it’s still our music,” he says. “It’s still something we’ve done creatively as a group of people for a film project, rather than some evidence of Michael.”

“The last thing I wanted to do with the whole thing was exploit Michael in some way. We just wanted to be respectful to what his life was.”

Music Recorded for the film Searching for Michael Peterson is out through Spunk

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