Latest release: Acoustic K.O. (with James Williamson) (Leopard Lady)Website: www.deniztek.com
The name Deniz Tek is one that is writ large in the annals of Australia’s rock history. As the guitarist and chief song writer with Radio Birdman he was instrumental in the creation of some of the most scorching high energy rock n roll this country has produced. Informed by the Michigan native’s love of The Stooges, MC5 and Blue Öyster Cult, ignored by the mainstream when it was released, Radios Appear is now considered one of Australia’s greatest rock albums.
40 years on from that landmark recording and Deniz Tek shows few signs of slowing down much. The day after this chat he flew out on a tour through the US and Europe in support of his latest solo album Mean Old Twister. After that, it’s back to Australia for another Radio Birdman jaunt, this time with dual-headliners, 80s rockers Died Pretty. In the meantime, there’s the actual topic of our conversation, an EP release with Stooges guitarist James Williamson, due at the end of the month.
Tek was good friends with the Stooges’ sadly-departed Ron and Scott Asheton for decades. In 1981, he and the elder Asheton toured Australia as New Race with Birdman alumni Rob Younger and Warwick Gilbert and MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson. He has known James Williamson for only a few years, however, and this will be the first time they have recorded together.
“We’ve been friends since I did that gig with the Stooges for the Ron Asheton Memorial Concert,” he explains. “That was in April 2011. I was already friends with Iggy and very good friends with Scotty. Of course Ronnie was a very good friend to our family, godfather to one of our kids, but James and I had never met until then. He did a Raw Power set with the Stooges and then I did a set with the earlier material for that tribute show. That’s when I met him, and we’ve been friends after that.”
Quite coincidentally, the two men also discovered they were near-neighbours on Hawaii’s Big Island, where Deniz and his wife Anne spend much of their time. The two guitarists found themselves discussing ways they could keep themselves entertained in an area not exactly renown as a rock n roll hotbed.
“There’s no rock scene in this very rural place on the Big Island. There’s no rock n roll venues around here at all, but there’s plenty of little bars and things like that, so we thought maybe we could do some acoustic jams in one of these little bars to give us something to do. So we got the idea of doing something acoustic,” Tek explains.
As it turns out, Williamson had already been fed the kernel of an idea by Stooges enthusiast Hakan Beckman. Beckman had suggested an orchestrated version of the Kill City track ‘Night Theme’ and even a record title to Williamson some years before.
“He said, ‘I’ve got a friend who mentioned reworking some of the Raw Power and Kill City songs and called it Acoustic KO‘. Then we thought, Maybe we could actually do that! So it developed from that seed of an idea, and the next time I saw him he had four of the songs and we went ahead and did it.”
When it was suggested by Williamson that he do the singing, Tek admits that he had to really consider how to approach the task in light of the fact that these were songs originally performed by Iggy Pop.
“Working out the guitar parts acoustically wasn’t difficult,” he says. “There was no test involved in that. Both of us know how to play guitar and we can do that pretty well. That part of it was easy, but the singing approach for me was a challenge because I wanted to do something that was good and pays respect to the originals. No one can sing like that, like Iggy. I had to work out a different way of approaching it that was fit for the song but not the way that Iggy did it. So that was a challenge, but James helped me out with that too because he was sitting in the producer’s chair when I was doing vocals and he made a few suggestions as we went along.”
Often when re-working songs into an acoustic arrangement, artists are forced to completely deconstruct them. That wasn’t necessary for the tracks chosen to appear on Acoustic K.O., however, and the format actually allowed them to expand on one of the songs.
“The songs that were selected was chosen because they could work acoustically and wouldn’t require too much deconstruction in that way,” Tek explains. “And as far as what is going on in ‘Night Theme’, it’s way beyond what was happening on the original album, so that song wasn’t deconstructed, but the opposite. So we played them pretty straight, but with acoustic instruments.”
After wrapping his current solo tour, abetted more than ably by Keith Streng of the Fleshtones and long-time co-conspirators Art and Steve Godoy, Tek’s next assignment is with Radio Birdman on a six date Australian blitz with Died Pretty, a band whose status in the 1980s matched that of Birdman’s the decade before.
“Hopefully some of the Died Pretty fans who haven’t got across us yet will, and vice versa,” the guitarist surmises. “I think most of our fans already know about Died Pretty, but maybe it’s not so much the other way around. So we hope to reach a much bigger audience by doing it together and present two quite different types of rock.”
Their music championed in the 90s by local leading lights such as Silverchair and You Am I – whose drummer, Rusty Hopkinson, was later a member – Radio Birdman first re-formed in 1996 when they appeared at the Big Day Out. Since then, the band has maintained a steady existence that has now toured the world several times. Throughout, their following has remained as solid and devoted as ever. Deniz Tek has even noticed something of a demographic change in the crowds coming to see them these days.
“That didn’t happen for a long time, but now, in the last couple of years, we have had more and more 18 – 25s coming along and not because their grandfather dragged them there! They’ve come because they appreciate it. I’m not sure why that is,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s one very obvious change that we’ve noticed, and another thing is that more women are coming to the shows now. It seemed like when we first got together back in the 90s and we started playing again, it was all blokes. Now it seems it’s much more of a heterogeneous crowd that’s coming along, and that’s great. We like that.”
With no plans to scale down, changes like that might keep Deniz Tek and Radio Birdman on the road for many year to come yet.
Acoustic K.O. can be pre-ordered from offwhiterecords.com