- Feb 22 2023
Hanging On: An Interview With Radio Birdman’s Deniz Tek
Hanging On: An Interview With Radio Birdman’s Deniz Tek
I Like Your Old Stuff was thrilled to recently have a quick chat with Deniz Tek, legendary Detroit-born guitarist of one of Australia’s most influential and iconic rock bands of the ‘70s and beyond, Radio Birdman. Birdman have just announced a June Australian tour with Died Pretty, and Deniz and his friend, legendary ‘Raw Power’–era Stooges guitarist James Williamson are just about to release a joint EP Acoustic K.O. that revisists two songs from the Stooges Raw Power album and two songs from Iggy Pop & James Williamsons’ great Kill City album. We touch on both of these major announcements, as well as aspects of Deniz’s musical history, after initially talking about Deniz’s new solo album Mean Old Twister, which is a great follow-up and companion piece to his 2013 album Detroit.
The new album, like its predecessor, finds Deniz developing an earthier tone that reflects the diverse influences that have made him the musician he is; there are certainly echoes of Radio Birdman in there, but it’s less clamourous. It’s packed full of great songs and tasteful, soulful guitar playing. Check out this new video for album highlight "Prison Mouse":
ILYOS - Congrats on the great new album Mean Old Twister. You have a bunch of different crew that you work with but it seems your primary recording crew is the Montana guys. Can you explain a bit about who these guys are – Ric the drummer was in Spinal Tap!! ...and how they came into your orbit. And you did some recording in Hawaii too?
DT - Thank you. The core studio team since the Detroit album is Bob Brown, bass player, who has also stepped into the producer’s role, Ron Sanchez, engineer, senior advisor and keyboardist, and Ric Parnell. Ric Parnell played Mick Shrimpton in Spinal Tap. He actually IS the quintessential stereotypical British rock drummer. That, plus having a great sense of humour, is why he was selected by Rob Reiner for the part. His role was to be himself! Ric is the son of renowned jazz drummer and bandleader Jack Parnell, who is the only drummer that Buddy Rich ever praised in an interview. Jack also did musical direction for British television (Dusty Springfield Special, and others), and was the musical director of The Benny Hill Show and The Muppet Show! Ric played drums since childhood, and was later in many notable bands including Atomic Rooster, The Deviants, Blue Cheer (later version), Wayne Kramer, etc. He was a session drummer in LA, playing drums on Toni Basil’s hit "Mickey" and a zillion others, when he was picked up for Spinal Tap. We couldn’t believe our luck when Ric relocated to Montana and became available to do sessions at the Career Records’ studio, GLEA (God’s Little Ear Ache), in Bozeman.
For my last two studio albums the basic tracks were done very quickly, live in the studio with me playing rhythm guitar and Ric on drums. Ron Sanchez, the label boss and studio owner, engineered the sessions and played keyboards on a few tracks, notably "Comanche’"and "Corner Conversation". Bob Brown is an old pal who played in my touring band, along with Scott Asheton, in 1992 for my first solo album Take It To The Vertical. Bob played bass and produced this new album. He brought in the horn players, keyboardists, percussionists, and put the flesh on the bones. Bob came out to Hawaii where I have a little cabin, and we recorded vocals, extra guitar and bass parts and the dulcimer there… in addition to a lot of drinks, BBQ and generally hanging out. Rob Younger mixed the album at Alberts along with Wayne Connolly, through Wayne’s vintage Neve console - no explanation needed there! I got mates rates too.
ILYOS - What do these guys bring to your music that other bands mightn’t?
DT - We are all close friends which makes a huge difference. Ron, Rob and Bob and I have done music together for so long that we can sense what each other needs, know instinctively what is working, and what’s not. Ric hasn’t been with us as long but he brings the highest degree of talent and experience, and he has a great feel for finding and executing beats that suit the songs.
ILYOS - I really love the live in the studio thing you did that Career released as a digital EP with new version of "Breaks My Heart" and a great "Oh Well". "Oh Well", which I know you’ve performed live too, seems significant in a way as I hear something approximating Peter Green’s tone in your sound these days. A less metallic tone and more wood. Earthier. Would that be fair to say? Any thoughts on that?
DT - That is a fair comment. Peter Green had wonderful tone and that is certainly something worth aiming for. “More wood”, I guess that means a less processed tone. No wah pedal these days. Almost all of the electric guitar parts were played directly into an amp without using any effects. The last two albums feature quite a few acoustic guitar parts also, sometimes blended in with electric guitar. That live in the studio thing was me, Bob and Ric, unrehearsed, spontaneous and off the cuff - tacked on to the end of a recording session.
Deniz Tek - "Oh Well"
ILYOS - Do you approach your solo work differently to Birdman stuff in regards to songwriting? And your playing? Do you bring in different influences? Looking back, how do you feel the different facets of your work fits together – Birdman, The Visitors, everything since then: do you view it as all a continuum, or is it more compartmentalised, with each different thing reflecting a different musical ambition?
DT - When I write songs the ideas sort of come out of nowhere. I don’t really plan it. So I write a lot, and some of it ends up as Birdman material. It really comes down to whether Rob wants to sing it, or not. If it’s something he feels that he can deliver, it can be a Birdman song. The other songs might work for me solo, or for other musicians. One song that I wrote while working on songs with Penny Ikinger was "Free At Last" which is based on images from a poem by Hafiz, from the 14th century. It didn’t resonate with Penny, so it became a leftover which I was happy to use on my own album. There is no ambition in it - only a process, which proceeds more or less spontaneously. The challenge comes when it is time to songsmith the ideas into a workable format and then send these things off in the right direction.
ILYOS - Not too long ago you cut a new 7” with the Golden Breed – the album you did with the Godroy brothers remains probably my favourite ‘solo’ thing of yours. More plans to work with them? I loved "Calendar Girl" and the version of Roky Erikson’s "Bermuda" you did with them on the recent single. Things are a bit punkier when you’re with them – fair to say?
DT - Yes. They will be touring the new album with me in the USA and Europe, in the new year. Of course, the set will include some Golden Breed songs, and other back catalogue stuff. Art and Steve are totally punk. When I first met them I don't think they were really aware of any music existing before 1976 or after 1978. They have opened up a bit since then, but anything they do is going to be hard wired to the punk position. So yeah, I have to fit in with that.
Deniz Tek & The Golden Breed – "Bermuda/Calendar Girl"
ILYOS - Can we talk a bit about Birdman? There’s been a fair bit of angst since Chris was let go but the band is sounding great. What does the future hold for Birdman?
DT - On our side of the fence (the band’s side, that is) there was no “angst” following the split with Chris. The angst was before! It’s a great relief to be able to get along, and work together positively. And you are right, the band sounds good again. It’s much closer to the original vector. We couldn’t have gone on, the way it was. The future is clear only in the very short frame. We will continue to tour, as long as the quality and power level can be sustained. And, we are working on several new songs, for what that’s worth.
ILYOS - I know a feature length Birdman documentary called Descent Into The Maelstrom has been completed. Any thoughts on that?
DT - We all cooperated fully with the filmmaker, Jonathan Sequeira. He travelled the world to get Ron Keeley and Chris Masuak’s perspective. We are confident that the quality will be there, and that the story will be told honestly, although we haven’t actually seen anything of it except a short trailer at this point.
ILYOS - Birdman released a single for Record Store Day in 2016 comprising unreleased recordings made in the early days of the reformation. Any plans for more of that stuff to appear? Great Master’s Apprentices cover by the way.
DT - Thanks. No plans for more archival releases at this point, although there is a wealth of material. I think the box set contained the best and most interesting of what was in the old tapes. The Alice Cooper song, which we used to cover in the old days, was a track we recorded as our contribution to a SubPop Alice tribute album. That was never released, so it has been sitting around in the vaults for ages. "Buried and Dead" was recorded the same afternoon, at Hothouse in Melbourne. As it turned out, that was Ron Keeley’s last studio session with us, so it is nice to have it out there.
ILYOS - Speaking of the Masters I know you were exposed to some late ‘60s Australian music when your family first visited back in the day. Did you see any of those bands live or were you too young?
DT - No, I never saw them live. I was 14, bewildered in a new country, and didn’t know where to go to see them. Radio was good in those days, though.
ILYOS – I remember reading that Birdman’s "Anglo Girl Desire" was inspired musically by the Loved Ones’ great "Sad Dark Eyes". What are some of your other favourite Australian songs from the ‘60s?
DT - Actually "Sad Dark Eyes" was the inspiration for the ending part only - the harmony vocals going ahhhh, ahhh, ahhh, ahhh at the end. The Loved Ones got it off the Yardbirds’ "For Your Love", so we figured if they could rip it off and get away with it, then we could too. The rest of the song is quite different, even rhythmically, "Sad Dark Eyes" being a waltz in 3/4 time... I thought that "The Loved One" was a terrific song too. I think the first Australian song I ever heard was Rolf Harris's "Tie Me Kangaroo Down" in 1960, and then Lucky Starr's version of "I've Been Everywhere". Some of my favourites were just as you might expect: The Easybeats’ "She's So Fine", and of course "Friday On My Mind". The Masters Apprentices’ "Wars or Hands Of Time", "Undecided", "Buried and Dead", "Living in a Child's Dream". Phil Jones and the Unknown Blues’ "If I Had A Ticket", which was successfully resurrected by Ed Kuepper. The Atlantics’ "Bombora" and "Come On". The Zoot's amazing cover of "Eleanor Rigby" - who would even think of trying that, but it worked! And I've always had a soft spot for Judith Durham and the Seekers’ "Georgy Girl" and "I Know I'll Never Find Another You".
Radio Birdman - "Anglo Girl Desire"
ILYOS - I believe at some point in the early '70s you also visited the UK and saw the Pink Fairies? And Birdman later did their version of their version of "Walk Don’t Run". Who else did you see on that trip, and were there other UK bands of that era you liked? I always figured that the Visitors’ "Disperse" as inspired by Hawkwind’s "Sonic Attack".
DT - I was in London for the first time and wanted to go to The Marquee, because of the history with The Who and the Stones. It so happened that The Pink Fairies were playing there that night. I had never heard of them. I was surprised by how much raw energy they put out, certainly the equal of anything I had seen in Detroit. They did that killer version of "Walk Don't Run", which we adapted later on. Also on that trip I hung out at the house of Brinsley Schwarz, and jammed with those guys. I didn't know they were "pub rock", I thought they were just another rock and roll band - nice people. I also had no idea that they were famous.
Some other UK bands I liked at that time? So many! The Who. The Stones. The Kinks. Dave Edmunds. The Small Faces. The Hollies. The Move. King Crimson. Bonzo Dog. Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green. Early Pink Floyd, pre-Dark Side. Led Zeppelin's first couple of albums were all right, as studio recordings, but I didn't think they could cut it live.
I wasn't really aware of Hawkwind at that point. I did listen to their records later, around the mid 70's, but I doubt if Pip Hoyle, writer of Disperse, has ever listened to a Hawkwind album. His wife of the time gets a credit, but it was really all Pip. Maybe she suggested taking off Moonlight Sonata. There's a bit of Floyd in there too. The lyrics are just Mark Sisto spontaneously going off on an apocalyptic tangent.
ILYOS - Moving forward some years, to the days of TV Jones and very early Birdman, were there any local bands you enjoyed seeing? I guess with TV Jones you must’ve been on the same circuit as the likes of Finch and Hush?
DT - In TV Jones we opened for Stevie Wright. He was fabulous. We thought Hush looked silly in their satin jump suits, and sounded ordinary, but were really nice guys. I don’t recall Finch. Being at a Billy Thorpe concert was like being beaten slowly over the head with a football sock full of lead weights… On the other hand, I really enjoyed seeing Daddy Cool. They had something going on.
ILYOS – Which prompts the question – were there other early-to-mid ‘70s Australian bands you liked at all? Birdman seemed to be removed from the broader Australian scene, but, apart from Stevie Wright and Daddy Cool, did you personally like anything? Early AC/DC? The Coloured Balls? A lot of people these days see them as some sort of local equivalent to the Pink Fairies… Things like Company Caine? What about the Bleeding Hearts a bit later (with Rick Grossman, who I believe you knew.) Did you see Daddy Cool in their original time (1970-72) or when they briefly reformed around 1970?
DT - No. Never got into any of those. I thought their version of "boogie" and white electric blues was boring. I recall seeing LaDeDa's, CoCaine, Coloured Balls, and some of the "psychedelic" bands with long and tedious guitar noodling, such as Khavas Jute, Tamam Shud, Itambu. And Blackfeather, who later dropped the "Black" and became just "Feather", which seemed appropriate. Never liked any of them, they did nothing for me. No memorable songs, y'know? I can't see any similarity of the Balls to the Pink Fairies, who had great songs and a ton of energy. I never saw AC/DC so I can't comment on them. Daddy Cool, as I mentioned, had some real fire and could write a good song. I saw them in 1972 at UNSW.
Rick Grossman was a school friend of Chris Jones. When we were first rehearsing what later would turn into TV Jones, he used to hang out with us - he was interested in what we were up to, but I don't recall that he was already playing by then. I never saw the Bleeding Hearts.
ILYOS – So what do you see as your key influences? Obviously everybody thinks of the Stooges, MC5, Stones in relationship to you, but also obviously, there must’ve been more…
DT - First, my personal influences. It's a big list. As a young player just beginning to learn, I was greatly influenced by the country blues players: Lightning Hopkins (I sat up many late nights as a kid trying to copy his style), Bukka White, Bill Broonzy, Fred McDowell, Leadbelly, John Hurt. And others, including some white guys - Merle Travis, Roy Clark, Hank Williams. Also some of the Chicago guys like Muddy and Howlin Wolf, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam. The three Kings: Albert, Freddie and B.B. Chuck Berry was a massive influence. Surf stuff - Dick Dale, Ventures, Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Trashmen. Brit Invasion bands - Stones, Beatles, Kinks, Yardbirds, The Who. All the Motown stuff and Atlantic Records soul. Late 60's - Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, Zappa, Velvet Underground, early Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Cream. J. Geils, John Mayall, Johnny Winter. James Blood Ulmer, Sonny Sharrock.
Influences on Radio Birdman as a unit: when we were first getting together, we were listening to New York Dolls, Blue Oyster Cult (the first 3 albums), James Brown, esp. Live at the Apollo, The Stones, the Who, the Kinks - always!, Gram Parsons, Garland Jeffreys, The Harder They Come (soundtrack album), Bowie, Suicide, T Rex, Mott the Hoople (Rob loved that band), The Move, Bob Seger (the early stuff, pre-Silver Bullet), like "Lucifer", "Ramblin Gamblin Man", "Heavy Music" etc. And of course we often listened from Rob's vast collection of 50's and 60's pop singles.
I know I've left a lot out, but these are the influences that come to mind immediately - so they are probably pretty much right on, memory wise.
ILYOS - Couple of surprising things in there – I don’t think many people would have expected the band to be listening to much reggae! Birdman was never tempted to do try anything off "The Harder They Come"?
DT - No. That would have been too far out in left field for us, although we did enjoy mixing up genres. What you put on the turntable at a party isn't what you'd want to play in a set, necessarily. Eventually, in the 90's, I recorded a version of the title track "The Harder They Come" with Wayne Kramer, on the Dodge Main album.
ILYOS - And it was great to see your Garland Jeffreys "Wild In The Streets"-inspired song "Insane Alive" finally released on the Birdman box set. I assume you squared with Garland himself? Was it that hard to find a copy of "Wild In The Streets" in Australia at the time you that you had to write your own song based on it because you couldn’t remember it to properly cover it?
DT - I had Garland Jeffrey's first album, which I bought at the White Light record store in Sydney, but could never find "Wild in the Streets" which only came out as a single. I heard it on the car radio a couple of times while visiting back in the US, and took the idea from there. This was before YouTube of course. When the box was coming out, I contacted him about it, and he approved the release along with an appropriate credit and split.
Garland Jeffreys - "Wild In The Streets"
ILYOS - J Geils is a fascinating one for me. I think you covered "Hard Drivin’ Man" in TV Jones? Interestingly Eddie & The Hot Rods also covered that really early on (and Bob Seger’s "Get Out of Denver"), and I’d reckon they were an influence on Dr Feelgood too. And interestingly Gram Parsons’ covered their "Cry One More Time" too. I see them as like a secret influence on some cool stuff. Did you see them in the early days in Detroit?
DT - Yes, we did a few J Geils songs in TV Jones. "Hard Drivin' Man", and also their versions of "Homework" and "Lookin For A Love". I never saw them, but I was familiar with their albums, especially the first eponymous one, "Morning After", and "Bloodshot". They were from the East Coast, but their stuff got played on local radio in Detroit, which is how I knew about it.
J Geils Band - "Hard Drivin’ Man"
ILYOS - Also Birdman played Kraftwerk’s "Radioactivity" which not a lot of people realise and which shows that the band had influences beyond the expected…
DT - We loved Kraftwerk and still do. They write such fantastic pop music. We covered "Radioactivity" at one of the Paddington Town Hall concerts, I think the one in November 1977. The ABC has a fairly good recording of it.
Kraftwerk - "Radioactivity"
ILYOS - And what did you personally think of punk when it happened? I know you personally liked the Ramones. And you’ve covered the Vibrators’ "Whips & Furs". Any other favourites?
DT - We thought punk was great. Back to basics, at long last... Favourites of mine included Richard Hell, all of the Sex Pistols singles, The Damned, The Dead Boys, The Rezillos. I think the best Australian punk band was the Psycho Surgeons. I don't classify either the Ramones or The Vibrators as punk, rather, they were very good pop bands. Rob liked The Clash, I didn't.
Psycho Surgeons - "Wild Weekend"
ILYOS - I know around the time of punk you were fans of Sydney’s great R&B and rockabilly outfit of the era, the Mangrove Boogie Kings. You had them play at the Funhouse. Does that particular form appeal to you especially? To me it seems there’s something bar-band-like – that’s a compliment – in your music these days. A modesty and simplicity. Any thoughts on that?
DT - Simplicity is a virtue in the sort of music we do. It’s not easy to write a great simple tune with a hook. Most of the time it seems that all the good riffs have been taken. But another one always pops up somehow! Modesty comes with knowing your limitations, being grateful for what you do have, and staying within that frame.
Birdman pals the Mangrove Boogie Kings - "Flat Top Rock"
ILYOS - Getting back to the Boogie Kings, and the Funhouse, Birdman always seemed to make a visible show of support for the bands it liked. Was that an attempt to create a ‘scene’, or where you just lending a helping hand?
DT - No attempt to create a scene. The scene was already there - it was spontaneously generated wherever we and our fans were, which was generally centered around the Oxford Tavern, or “Funhouse” as it later was known. We had control of the roster of bands that played at the Funhouse in 1977… at least, Rob and George (our manager) did. They selected bands on merit, but favoured bands that, like us, were considered “rejects” by the music establishment. To the extent possible, we restricted access of commercially hopeful, or what we saw as artistically compromised bands, to that scene. We had got hold of a little power, and we were using it - like Robin Hood.
ILYOS - Similarly, was the band’s almost evangelical praise of the Stooges and the MC5 - and to a lesser degree the ‘Nuggets’ stuff like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators and the Remains – a conscious attempt to get people to listen to that stuff?
DT - There was no direct attempt to make people listen to anything, but whenever we had a chance to mention our “roots” or influences, we eagerly shared them around. We always admired the Stones for insisting that their fans got the opportunity to recognise people like Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, Little Walter etc., to whom they owed so much. We wanted to do the same.
ILYOS - I guess, seeing as you spent virtually all the ‘80s away from Australia, you couldn’t have been aware of the influence the band did have after its initial demise. Were you aware of the band’s continued influence in Sydney, and then on a new generation of bands all around the country - in the mid and late 80s - like the Exploding White Mice in Adelaide, the Seminal Rats and then Bored in Melbourne and the Girlies in Brisbane who were all hugely influenced by the band? This was also the time that the Birdman legend became a very big deal internationally – were you aware of that as it was happening? Did you anticipate it happening? Do you understand why it happened??
DT - I wasn’t really aware of it until later, maybe in the early 90’s. Never saw that coming, and can’t really explain why it happened that way. Of course I knew we had been a unique band, and at times great, and able to summon down a lot of elemental power. I saw firsthand the effect we had on audiences, which was pretty astonishing for the times, but never expected there to be any long lasting effects. My guess is that we were in the right place at the right time, not by calculation but by luck, and we brought the right stuff to the situation.
Adelaide’s Birdman acolytes the Exploding White Mice - "Fear"
ILYOS - Do you get back to Detroit much these days? Sadly the scene would seem to be pretty decimated there since the deaths of the Ashetons. How’s your old mate Scott Morgan doing?
DT - I try to get back there about once a year. The local scene there pretty much died out after about 1977. Sonic’s Rendezvous was the last breath of it… the last killer Michigan band that really carried the fire over from the glory days of the sixties. Scott seems to be doing well, he had some very serious health problems a few years ago but he seems to have recovered and he’s just finished a new album with The Sights.
ILYOS - I know you played in Powertrane with Scott some years back and you played guitar for the Stooges in the Ron Asheton Memorial show in Ann Arbor some years back, and you’re good friends these days with James Williamson. The last week or two has seen the announcement of a new EP that you’ve recorded with James – what can you tell us about that, and what was that experience like? Are you guys thinking of doing more together? Will you do shows?
DT - We were hanging out in Hawaii, where we happen to be sort of neighbours. James mentioned jokingly that an all acoustic record could be done, and he already had a name: Acoustic KO. I thought that was a fabulous idea. James chose the songs, two from Raw Power and two from Kill City. So we recorded that, with both of us playing guitar and me singing. James produced. He's a tough producer, but very fair. He'll take suggestions, but he doesn't stop until he gets what he wants, and he knows what he wants. The results are surprising. He pulled some stuff out of my voice that I had no idea was possible. It's coming out on 10 inch vinyl on 31 March. We have thought about doing some shows but nothing definite is planned so far.
Deniz with James Williamson. Photo by Anne Tek.
ILYOS – You’ve also done stuff with Wayne Kramer and also the MC5 DTK thing. And of course before that the New Race. Did you ever think, when you were a kid seeing these bands in the late ‘60s (?) / early 70s, that you would end up a contemporary of theirs?
DT - No, I never would have imagined that would be possible. And yet, there it is. I am clearly blessed with very good luck.
Deniz playing with the Stooges at the Ron Asheton Memorial concert in 2011 - "TV Eye & I'm Loose"
ILYOS - So what’s next for you Deniz. I know you launched the album in Sydney. More touring for that here or overseas?
DT - Lots of cool stuff is always happening, and I’m not slowing down any time soon… USA gigs in March, Europe in April, for Mean Old Twister. That will be with Art and Steve Godoy, and Keith Streng from the Fleshtones. Then in June, Radio Birdman will be touring Australia.
ILYOS - The Birdman tour in June is with Died Pretty, whose singer Ron Peno fronted Funhouse regulars the Hellcats. What are your memories of Ron from those days? And what can fans expect from Birdman this time round? Those new originals you mentioned? New covers?
DT - I thought Ron was a very talented guy even back then, when he was sort of doing an Iggy takeoff. Later, he developed his own moves. The Hellcats had some great covers, including the Beach Boys' "Fun Fun Fun". I gave him a pair of Ron Asheton's white jeans, from the early Stooge days, because I liked him, and unlike most people, he could actually fit into them. I don't know if he still has 'em. We go way back, personally, and it hasn't always been cordial, but lately we get along well. I'm happy to be hitting the road with them - should be a good line-up. Fans can expect old-school Radio Birdman at full power, maybe with a new cover or two thrown in for fun.
Speaking of new covers for fun, we’ll finish off with the great – and unexpected – version of Magazine’s "Shot By Both Sides" that Birdman have played live on their last couple of tours. This version was shot in London in June 2015. Grab Mean Old Twister and Acoustic K.O., and look out for Radio Birdman in June.
Radio Birdman - "Shot By Both Sides"
Check out Deniz’s website here, and find him on Facebook here.
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