Radio Birdman’s Deniz Tek, The TVD Interview

To be sure, it’s a rare occasion when entire music scenes are ignited by an individual, and it’s even rarer when said artist just so happens to be an expat from Michigan immersed in medical studies nearly ten thousand miles across the planet, which is a roundabout way of saying Deniz Tek ranks among the most transformative figures in the history of Australian music.

Hailing from the rock ’n’ roll capital of the world, Ann Arbor, Tek was groomed on the frenzied sounds and performances of local pioneering groups such as the Stooges and the Rationals before making the permanent move to Sydney in 1972. It was here that Tek set out to create a band so uncompromising in both power and energy that the mainstream contingent of the country would be utterly confounded and, just maybe, incensed. The result was Radio Birdman.

Formed in ’74 by Tek and fellow outcast Rob Younger, Radio Birdman quickly emerged as the preeminent rock ’n’ roll band in Australia, and it’s only fitting that the name itself is the product of a misheard Stooges’ lyric. With Tek as the chief songwriter and lead guitarist, the band seamlessly coalesced the essential components of Motor City rock with the equally feverish speed and style of surf music to establish a sound that remains completely unique and nonpareil. Following releases of the EP “Burn My Eye” in ’76 and the absolute blitz-of-an-album Radios Appear the following year, the band ended up label-less and financially abandoned, extinguishing their future plans and leading to a wealth of different projects for all involved.

Tek would soon form the Visitors and then, alongside Younger and Birdman bassist Warwick Gilbert, the Sydney-Ann Arbor supergroup known as New Race, which included two pivotal names (and heroes to Radio Birdman) in rock history: Ron Asheton of the Stooges and Dennis Thompson of the MC5. Egregiously, though intentionally, short-lived, New Race put out just a single live record documenting a month-long tour in 1981 before its members opted to pursue other endeavors.

Between his return to the medical world as a US Navy flight surgeon and continued music projects with Deep Reduction, the Deniz Tek Group, and the lost experimental group Glass Insects, Tek maintained a tight schedule to say the least.

In 2006, Radio Birdman reunited to record for the first time in almost thirty years, creating Zeno Beach, and, after a solo hiatus in the latter half of the 2000s, Tek returned to the studio with Career Records, producing two solo albums, Detroit in 2013 and Mean Old Twister just this past year. Moreover, his recent collaboration with the Stooges’ James Williamson, Acoustic K.O., is due out in just a couple of weeks. Paired with some nonstop performing in Europe, as well as an Australian tour with Radio Birdman in June, Tek is still doing more than his share to keep the flame alive.

We recently caught up with him to discuss everything from vinyl lathes and the Sydney scene that Birdman revolutionized to the fabled history of his Epiphone Crestwood and a late ’60s Detroit radio station with a penchant for Captain Beefheart.

It’s definitely tricky to keep everything straight considering just how diverse your activities have been over the years. I’ve always been curious as to when you actually started serving as a flight surgeon in the Navy. Was it just after your time with New Race?

It was, yes. The New Race tour was in April and May of 1981, and I started flight surgeon school on the first of July, so it really was right after that.

I know you were in medical studies at New South Wales right before Radio Birdman got going, so was it always on your radar to go into a related line of work at some point or another?

Well I never expected to be able to earn a living playing music. I realized early on that the kind of stuff we were doing was never going to be commercial, and I had no desire to conform my songwriting or playing to anybody’s idea of a marketing plan. I was always going to need another job, let’s put it that way.

As for the music itself, the one real constant element in just about everything you’ve done, whether it be with Birdman, the Visitors, or Deep Reduction, has always been that hard-driving Detroit rock ’n’ roll sound, so would you say it’s been something of a goal of yours to ensure that this same kind of raw-power, scorching-guitar sound is present in all your work, or has it always been just second nature for you?

I think it’s more pounded into the DNA from my growing-up years over there. My high school graduation year was ’70, so my teen years were really 1967 through 1970, and that’s when you really form—it crystallizes what you’re gonna do in music. And I saw all that great stuff. It was just there. That is the one thing I do well. I can play country music and I can sort of play jazz, but not as well, so that sound is what I focus on.

Coming from Ann Arbor, which is practically the mecca of rock ’n’ roll on Earth, it must’ve been so formative getting to actually see these groups like the Rationals and the MC5 in the flesh. Were you able to catch some shows at the Second Chance, or did that come around after you left for Australia?

The Second Chance was quite a bit later. That was more mid-to-late ’70s, but there were other places where we went to and saw bands all the time. I guess the ones that come to mind are the Fifth Dimension and the Big Steel Ballroom. They also had this incredible program of music in the park every Sunday in the summertime. This was outdoors, and initially they were at West Park but later they were at Gallup Park down by the river. There would always be the MC5, the Rationals, the SRC, and people like that.

I think the first actual electric rock ’n’ roll band I ever saw was the Rationals because they played at my school, Forsythe Junior High, one day after class. That was a real revelation for me because I loved everything about it. I loved the power coming out of the amplifiers, the way the band looked and dressed. I loved the way Scott Morgan sang, the sound of the drums. It left me saying, “Wow, this is great, and this is what I wanna do.”

There’s a name that still doesn’t get its due. Scott Morgan is one of the greatest soul singers to ever do it.

I totally agree. I can think of about four world-class white soul singers that came out of that area: Scott Morgan, Rob Tyner, Bob Seger, and Mitch Ryder. Of course, Seger went commercial later on, but in the ’60s, he was fantastic.

When exactly did you come into contact with Fred Smith? I know you starting getting invited to perform with Sonic’s Rendezvous Band at some point.

Around the mid-’70s. It was sort of at the same time as the heyday of Radio Birdman, the first incarnation of it. I was traveling back and forth a bit, getting back to Ann Arbor to visit my parents, brothers, and friends, and it was on one of those trips from Sydney that I became aware of and saw Sonic’s Rendezvous Band play. I immediately met Fred and Scott at that time.

I was a little bit disappointed when I returned to Ann Arbor after being in Australia for a while, because it seemed like the energy had gone out of the music. There wasn’t anything really cool happening, and then I saw a poster for Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and saw who was in the band and figured this has got to be worth checking out. I went to see them and there it was. The fire was still burning brightly.

Based on the few live recordings of Sonic’s Rendezvous Band in existence, that guitar-driven wall of sound he created was a completely different animal on stage. It was one thing to hear the Orchidé single for “City Slang,” but hearing the cut off the Sweet Nothing live record that got released later on was something else entirely.

Coincidentally, I owned a guitar that was previously owned by Fred, so he was fascinated that I had this guitar that had been sold when the MC5 broke up. I think it had passed through one or two sets of hands before it got to me. It was Fred’s Epiphone Crestwood, and he would say, “Yeah, bring your guitar down to the show and play with us on ‘City Slang,’” because he liked to have as many guitars as possible on that song. I think there’re twelve guitar tracks on the Orchidé recording. So I would bring that guitar down and play “City Slang” with them at the end of their set, which was fantastic.

Next time I saw Fred after that, we were on tour in the UK, and Fred, Scott Asheton, and Scott Thurston were in Iggy Pop’s band. He was doing the New Values tour, and they were playing in London. We caught up with them there, and Fred was flushed because he’d been on tour with Iggy, and he had a pocketful of cash and said, “I really wanna buy that guitar back.” And I said, “Y’know…I don’t think so [laughs].” I had already played many hundreds of shows with it by then. It had been on several recordings, and I just loved that guitar and didn’t want to give it back.

By chance, have you seen the footage they’ve got on YouTube of Radio Birdman playing the Marryatville Hotel back in ’77? That guitar was on full display to say the least. You guys blew the roof off the place that night.

Yeah, that was a good show. One of the things I liked about that was that they filmed it on actual film and not video tape. It was a 16mm cinema camera, and so it looks cool with that great color saturation to it. And the sound was pretty good, too.

With Birdman, what you did seemed to be bringing together that Detroit sound with surf music, which no one had even thought to attempt up to that point. You can correct me if I’m way off base but I’ve always described the signature Birdman sound as a sort of unity between Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and Dick Dale.

Well, I’m happy with that myself. It’s humbling to think that people would think of it that way. We definitely had a surf music influence. In the early days of Birdman, we would cover surf songs when we first started playing and didn’t have enough original material. We used to do “Surf City” and “Dead Man’s Curve,” and things like that. We did a version of “Walk, Don’t Run” which was probably more similar to the Pink Fairies’ version than the Ventures’ version. So yeah, that’s definitely in there. I don’t think there was ever any deliberate attempt to blend those two styles together, but you can certainly say that it happened.

At the time, were you aware of just how strong of a grip that this fairly new brand of high-energy, aggressive rock ’n’ roll music had on the growing music scenes around Australia? I don’t think it’s much of a stretch at all to suggest that you had perhaps the biggest hand in relaying both the sound and the message, so to speak.

I think a big part of it was the attitude. The attitude that you didn’t need the music establishment to do things, you could do things on your own. You could run your own place, run your own shows, make your own records, sell them in mail-order, or distribute them out of the back of a car. Whatever you wanted to do, you could actually do it, and I think we showed other bands that you could. And then the sound, too.

Of course, in those days we knew about the Saints, and they came down to Sydney from Brisbane and we helped them out. When they arrived, we loaned them gear, let them use our practice room, got them gigs, that kind of thing. Then several other bands started up in Sydney, sort of doing a similar thing, like the Psycho-Surgeons who became the Lipstick Killers, and the Hellcats with Ron Peno.

So there was a degree of interaction with other bands then. You weren’t just solely laser-focused on doing your own thing and keeping it self-contained?  

Well we had a residency at this club called the Oxford Tavern. After a couple of years of not being able to play anywhere, getting kicked out of places, and running our own shows in garages, we managed to get a residency at this place. When they changed ownership, the new owner wasn’t interested in music at all, and he was going to close down the music part of the pub. Our manager talked him into keeping it going with the proviso that we would run it, and the guy was quite happy with that and told us, “You guys can do whatever you want, and I’ll sell the beer,” so that was the arrangement.

We took over and immediately changed the name of it to the Fun House. We opened it up to bands that we thought were like-minded to us, sort of the establishment rejects who couldn’t get a gig anywhere else, and it evolved into a little scene as sometimes happens around a club. So we were quite open to it and encouraged that. If a band was particularly commercially-oriented or ambitious in that way, we wouldn’t let ’em play there. It was kind of reverse discrimination [laughs].

In terms of the commercial side of things, I imagine you didn’t expect Radios Appear to have much an effect, if any, in the US.

Absolutely not. Radios Appear came out in two separate versions. One was in Australia, and about nine months later, the world version came out on Sire. Of course, we had hopes that it would eventually get some traction overseas. We were signed to Sire and they had a lot of great bands. After we toured the UK and Europe with the Flamin’ Groovies, we were supposed to record another album over there, and for the second half of the year we were going to tour America extensively with the Ramones.

Then the label essentially folded. Seymour Stein went bankrupt, and I think they had about twenty-two bands on the label. They dropped all of them except the four highest-paying ones, and those were the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Renaissance, and Focus. Actually, Renaissance and Focus, in the early days of punk, were paying the bill for all these other bands on the label, like the Rezillos, the Saints, and us. We were dropped from the label right near the end of that tour and didn’t get to tour with the Ramones.

As a result of Sire becoming bankrupt, they lost their distribution deal with Phonogram in England and Europe, Warner in the US, and so Radios Appear just sat in a warehouse. It didn’t get shipped out to stores. We were playing five to six cities a week over in the UK, and people would say “Man, you guys are pretty good. Are you going to put a record out?” And we’d say, “Well, we did, it’s just that you can’t get it.” Those days, there wasn’t any such thing as selling merch. All of that was through the record companies, so those albums just sat in warehouses and were either destroyed or sold as cut-outs.

I’m sure there’s a reason why, when you do tour with Radio Birdman, you guys don’t pass through the US as much as, say, Europe.

There are some people who know about us here. We did two US tours, one in ’06 and one in ’07. The first one was supported by Yep Roc Records, who had released our Zeno Beach album that same year. They helped us get over there then. Everywhere we played, we were well-received. We had good crowds and people came out to see us, pretty enthusiastic ones, too. The work visas were good for a whole year so within that twelve-month period we came back and did another tour, and that was fine as well.

Zeno Beach came out right at the cusp of the digital revolution, and so it didn’t sell anywhere near expectations in Australia, Europe, or the US. Yep Roc wasn’t interested anymore, and without that support it’s just too expensive to come to America. Unless we could get on at a couple big festivals, that might make it possible, but otherwise you just can’t do it.

As far as what you’re doing now, you actually have a few more solo gigs stateside then you head for Europe, correct?

Yeah, I can come out here solo for a couple of reasons. Number one, I’m a citizen so I don’t have to get a work permit. I can use an American band, and my expenses are just so much lower. Birdman’s six people, plus crew and manager. It’s big.

In terms of how devoted your fans are, does Europe compare to Australia in any way, or is it just a completely different ballgame down there?

I’d say in terms of my solo presentation it’s about the same, but there’s nothing that happens in my solo gigs that comes anywhere near what happens when Birdman plays. It’s just much bigger, much wilder, much crazier, and these days, more money. But you can’t do it all the time. We can bring Birdman around, but like I was telling you, the expenses of taking the band out are high, so ticket prices have to be pretty high. We have to be careful not to overexpose or do it too much. We can go around once a year and that’s about it, but that’s not enough for me personally so I’m doing the solo stuff. Also, the solo material gives me the scope to do things I can’t do in Birdman.

And Birdman is set for some performances in Australia in a few months as well, around June and July?

That’s right. We’re going around with Died Pretty this time.

Any upcoming plans to get back in the studio with Rob and company to develop some new material?

We’ve talked about it, and we’ve even made some demos, but no actual studio dates at the moment. It’s something that could happen.

Regarding new material, you’ve got a record, “Acoustic K.O.” with James Williamson that’s due out on the 31st of March. Judging by the title alone, I’m guessing that there’s going to be a slight change of pace here.

It’s an EP on vinyl, and it’s an all-acoustic treatment of two songs from Raw Power and two songs from Kill City. It’s interesting. I wasn’t sure how that would turn out, but I think the intensity is right up there, even though it’s not electric.

Regarding intensity, it sure hasn’t worn off in any discernible way. A few months ago, I watched the footage from the Rabid Sessions that you did a few years back. I never thought the day would come when I would rather listen to somebody other than Peter Green do “Oh Well.”

Yeah right [laughs]. That session, y’know, Jack Rabid was a friend of Ron Sanchez, who owns the studio that we were recording in for tracks for Mean Old Twister. Jack came to visit Ron, and Ron took him to the studio, and we just set that up ad-hoc, me, the bass player, and the drummer. That was tacked onto the end of a recording day, and so we just played a few songs for the radio and did an interview. We just plugged in and went for it. My wife was down in the recording room and so she shot the video of the session on her camera and Ron recorded the sound. We put the two of them together and came out with a pretty good little video. I was happy with that.

Were you listening to early Fleetwood Mac back in the day or did you get into them more recently?

Back in the day. We had very good radio in Ann Arbor, and most of it was out of Detroit. WABX, independent FM. I mean those DJs could play anything. There was no programming director so they could just go in there and play whatever they wanted. You could hear a whole side of Trout Mask Replica. So I used to listen to the radio all the time and that was the first place I heard “Oh Well” and the early Fleetwood Mac stuff, and I just loved it at the time. I don’t think I ever actually saw them with Peter Green, but they toured in the area.

So more recently, you’ve been trying to incorporate just additional elements into your music, but not necessarily trying to put out something so radically different that it would upset or significantly alter the tone you’ve struck on previous records.

Well I’m always looking for new sounds. I’ve done some stuff in the past that’s been really way-out, experimental like Glass Insects, but in my more mainstream line of rock ’n’ roll records that I do, with Mean Old Twister being the last in that line—we got a dulcimer which I had bought for my wife and I thought I might try to learn how to play it, so we put that on a couple of songs. And I used to play harmonica back in TV Jones. I hadn’t picked one up in decades, so I said, “Yeah, maybe it’ll work in this song,” and so there’s harmonica in “Prison Mouse.”

If stuff’s lying around, you pick it up and play it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I’m always open to trying new things. On the Equinox album, we had a Turkish instrument called the saz, and Dave Weyer, my engineer and producer, walked along behind a horse in the snow with a high-quality microphone and a DAT machine, getting the sound of the horse’s hooves hitting the snowy road. Things like that, just putting anything into a record to make it interesting.

So is this collaboration with Williamson just a two-man effort as far as personnel goes? Just you and James both on acoustic guitar?

No, it’s James and me on acoustic guitars, with me singing, but there’re also a lot of other musicians who James works with in San Francisco and LA, like the bass player, the drummer, and the keyboardist. On “Night Theme,” he put in a whole orchestra. The only rule was that it would be all acoustic. Petra Haden, who is an amazing vocalist, did some backing vocals and played violin on it. She’s the daughter of Charlie Haden from the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Annie Hardy does a duet with my vocal on “No Sense of Crime,” so yeah there are other people on there. If you read the credits, it’s a long list.

Do you already have another solo album in the works or are you taking some time off from the studio now, considering you just put out a record a little over two months ago?

I do have another one in the works. You have to sort of keep the pipeline primed, and so I have another album written now and I’ve demoed it. After the Birdman tour, I’ll go back into the studio and record the next solo album.

Are you thinking it’ll be along the same lines as Mean Old Twister?

I think it’s going to be all instrumental, so it’s going to be very different. I’m not sure how it’s gonna turn out, but I’ve written a bunch of songs that seem to stand out as instrumentals, more in the surf instrumental area. I guess you could quote Dick Dale or Link Wray, that kind of thing but with my own slant put on it.

Well I remember reading somewhere that you would occasionally change the lyrics to songs because an audience member might hear them differently than you. So do you consider your songs to be very fluid and open to change?

Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve never been that interested in having everything perfectly, clearly audible, because if you leave it fluid or open to some interpretation, then you get these fascinating takes on it from people that are sometimes a lot better than the original writing, and you can incorporate that into playing the songs in the future.

I think the other thing that took a lot away from music was the onset of MTV with music videos where the director would be the one telling the story of the song. So he’s telling people, “This is what this song is about,” and so once you’ve planned that, it takes all the other stories away. It sort of crystallizes it into the one thing, whereas before it could mean one thing to you and one thing to me. You could have a thousand different meanings out there, especially if you write music with fairly freeform lyrics. But if you put a music video on it, it tells everybody what it means, and I think that was one of the things about MTV and music videos that was really bad. The best music video is one that just shows the band playing.

Having said that, the video to “Night Theme” does tell a story to an extent, although the story is a little bit abstract, too, and I like it. Hopefully that’s the exception to the rule. I didn’t have anything to do with it. That was all James and a director friend of his from California who made it.

On the subject of instrumentals, are you at a point where you’re almost preferential towards them?

Not preferential to them, it’s just something I’ve never done. I’ve never done a whole album of instrumental songs. I put one on the last record and that sort of got me interested in doing more of them. After doing thirty-some-odd albums, I have nothing to prove so I might as well try something completely different.

You can’t really sell records these days anyways, so it doesn’t matter if anyone buys it or not. It’s more for the creative process of doing something. I was really happy with how both Detroit and Mean Old Twister turned out, and so my feeling is “OK, I’ll leave that for a while,” y’know, the vocal rock ’n’ roll approach, and try some instrumentals and see how they go. I loved listening to surf instrumentals when I was a kid, and I still do. I was actually listening to the Ventures in the car the other day, and I love the Shadows. So yeah, we’ll see how it turns out.

Do you have a list of four or five favorite LPs from back then, ones that you would just play to pieces?

Oh gosh, that question is too hard. I hate that question because I listened to mountains of things. I guess I always go back to Let It Bleed and Beggars Banquet, that period of the Stones, and Fun House, and like I was telling you the Ventures albums. I could equally name a couple hundred more that I loved just as much and are just as essential.

What’s your opinion on the studio albums that the MC5 put out? I know the production on Back in the USA is something of a contentious thing.      

Well the first album, which sounded fantastic, was live at the Grande Ballroom. Then Back in the USA was very clean-sounding, and I would say almost polite. But that doesn’t take anything away from the fantastic playing on it or the great songwriting. I think that album’s very worthwhile even if you might not like the production on it. High Time was sort of back to that raw sound and a bit of an accommodation of the first two. I think they all stand up, and they’re all classic and great. I wouldn’t change any of it.

It’s like how some people complain so bitterly about the production with David Bowie’s mix on Raw Power, not least the guys in the band. Scottie and Ronnie just pitched their copies down the street when they heard ’em, but I love it and I grew up with it. I think it’s a very weird mix but it just works for that record. There’s room for all sorts of production techniques out there. There’s no one right answer for anything.

The CBGBs scene was also starting up just shortly after Radio Birdman got going. Were you guys aware of what was happening in those parts?

Oh yeah. We were reading all the music press. We got Creem magazine the minute it came off the boat. So we were very aware of the precursors, such as the New York Dolls and Suicide at the Mercer and Max’s Kansas City. And of course when the Ramones came out, and Television and Richard Hell, we were listening carefully to all of that and really enjoying it because we thought this is what the music scene needed. At last, somebody getting back to basics. You compare it to maybe one or two years before, everybody’s listening to a triple album by Yes called Tales from Topographic Oceans, and if there’s anything more boring in the world, you’d have to tell me about it. That was just the epitome to us of the dreadfulness and horror of what music had become, and it was a breath of fresh air when these New York bands started blowing all that away.

I know you’re a busy man, but have you managed to maintain any sort of record or CD collection over the years?

I used to have a great record collection. First of all, let me tell you that I’m not a collector. I don’t have the collector gene in my body, so I don’t collect things just because they’re rare or collectable. Everything I collect, they’re things that I want to play and listen to, leave on the floor, and step on them and stuff, y’know? But I did have a large record collection. Right now, I’m pretty mobile. We have some records here in Hawaii and some in Australia where we live, but not as much anymore.

How often would you check out the local record stores?

At least once a week. Obviously, money’s a factor. When you’re a kid, you don’t have much to spend on records, but I spent some. Discount Records in Ann Arbor, on the corner of State Street and Liberty, was a place where I used to go. I took guitar lessons for a while across the street at Herb David Guitar Studio, and I was about twelve then. The guy who was teaching me how to play guitar was Dan Erlewine of the Prime Movers. Iggy was the drummer in that band and he was also working at Discount Records, so there were all these cool people hanging around and I would go there and listen and try to pick something up, and I would occasionally buy something. Singles were ninety-nine cents, and, interestingly, you buy a single now on iTunes and it’s ninety-nine cents, but you don’t get a thing that’s round and black.

If you look at the prices for vinyl now, even newly-pressed records and reissues, it’s akin to highway robbery for the younger crowd.

As you know, a lot of the machinery that was used to make records is gone. When CDs came out, everybody thought it was going to just be them from now on. They were marketed as being better than vinyl, that they would last forever is one thing we were told, and the fidelity was also better. As it turned out, none of that was true. They don’t last forever and the fidelity is not that great. Ironically, just as CDs are on the way out now, they’re approaching analog fidelity, but it’s too late.

A lot of record companies had pressing plants and lathes and all the things you need to make vinyl records, and they just sold all that for scrap metal. You have to go to a Third World country now to find a record pressing machine, and that’s what companies are doing. They’re going to Guatemala or Bolivia, buying old pressing machines, and having them shipped back to America to gear up for production because there’s so much demand for vinyl now. But because there’s much more demand than there is capacity to supply, it’s so expensive. I guess that’s economics 101 [laughs].

“Acoustic K.O.” hits the shelves on March 31st, available in both vinyl and digital formats. Tek’s brief US tour for Mean Old Twister kicks off on the 30th at the HMAC in Harrisburg, PA, with two more dates at New Haven’s Cafe Nine and the Bowery Electric in NYC. Again, “busy” looks something like his upcoming six-country European tour, which includes over twenty-four gigs in just twenty-six April days, not to mention Radio Birdman’s Australian tour set for the second half of June. For more info, stay tuned to both his website and Facebook page, along with Birdman’s official site.

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