Latest Release: Radio Birdman Box Set (Citadel)
Achieving success independently is often bandied about by bands with bravado and untested optimism. To actually then do it well for decades whilst enduring the fickle nature of the music industry yet continuing to be both influential and remain a respected musical force is incredibly rare. Australian rock band Radio Birdman are one such band and are widely considered the forefathers of punk rock in Australia who spread open a path for future bands that didn’t fit in with the mainstream or desired to do so. The latest version of the band is about to tour nationally with a line up that combines founding members and some associates. Also, a mammoth box set that includes re-mastered and unreleased material is just out and should be a mandatory purchase for any Australian rock and punk music history aficionado. Loud Online caught founding guitarist Deniz Tek for an insightful chat.
You’ve just released a limited edition box set. Can you elaborate on that?
It has eight discs with re-mastered reissues of all of the previous albums from 1974 to 1978 and a new live album from Paddington Town Hall in December of 1977. There is archive material that includes out takes, alternative versions and songs that were never released from studio work that we did over that same timeframe. It is all in the box set with eight CDs and a DVD. The Radio Birdman website has all the details.
Did you oversee the production of the release?
Yeah, I did. It was prompted because a lot of tapes were found. There were more than twenty boxes of two inch, twenty four track tape at Albert studios. We didn’t know they still existed so we restored them and I went through hundreds of tracks. I picked the best tracks and included it in the box set. The live set is a concert on a good tape and that was the last show that the band played in Australia before we went to the UK.
Were there any external producers brought in to look at the material as well?
We work with good engineers who are also producers in their own right. Wayne Connolly did the mix with me on the studio material. We got William Bowden to do the re-masters. Rob [Younger – vocals] and I sat in the studio with him providing artistic advice as he went along. But the actual engineering was done by these experts.
Which version of the first album Radios Appear [demo and then re-recorded on being signed to Sire Records] is on the release?
Both of them are presented in the exact format that they originally appeared and each one of those has its own bonus disc with outtakes and alternate versions from the time of that album. So, each disc that you get in the box set has its own alternative universe bonus disc. The first Radio Birdman album I produced was Living Eyes in 1978 and before that I had produced a few singles for the Lipstick Killers and things like that. Then of course Zeno Beach was the album that we made in 2006 some thirty years later.
For the coming tour, will you sneak in any solo stuff or rarities into the set list?
It will be purely Radio Birdman. We’ll probably do one or two cover versions of songs that we like but everything else will be from the Birdman albums. I think we may have a mixture of classics and some things that are obscure. People who are familiar with the back catalogue will know everything pretty much but we’ll do a couple of things that are considered obscure or that didn’t make it onto any official releases.
The music industry has changed so much with the internet. Has that been a revelation for you getting music out there or has technology just made it more competitive?
Well you can get your music out there easily these days but you won’t get paid for it and that is the difference. Vinyl is the last refuge of sales because it is still impossible to get vinyl quality digitised. Also, the format is better with a bigger graphic and is better to hold onto than an audio file. But eventually that will be over and then the only way bands will make money is to sell tickets to a live performance or to sell merchandise. In the old days you did an album and then you toured to promote the album. Now it is completely reversed. You do an album not expecting to get anything out of it but to promote a tour.
Are there any plans to re-release your solo material?
I’ve got solo material coming out fairly regularly. Last year I released Detroit and it was pretty well represented across the spectrum of formats in vinyl, CD and digital downloads. When we sell vinyl we include some form of digital download within the vinyl. The spectrum is shifting towards the digital. CDs are almost finished as far as I can see it but vinyl is still pretty good and digital is increasing. I’ll finish another solo album next year and expect most of it will be vinyl and digital.
What was the independent music scene like here in the seventies? Many probably have the impression that original music in the live setting was thriving.
There wasn’t any independent music scene in the seventies. If you weren’t part of the establishment and signed to a major label or part of the touring circuit that was established with the branded pubs, you couldn’t get any work. We spent the first two years of our existence being banned from playing in Sydney at any of the established pubs. We were the first people in Sydney to really start putting on our own shows, doing our own recordings and selling them out of the back of cars. We had to go completely independent because that was the only way that we could do anything. We were prevented from being part of the established music scene but then after 1977, when punk music hit Australia then there was a whole wave of it that came after that. But if you go back before that, there wasn’t anything. It was all mainstream or nothing.
So really you had to fit into a category and go on Countdown to manage radio airplay or vice versa to get anywhere.
Yeah, you had to fit into a category and if you didn’t or weren’t signed you were pretty much out of luck. We were lucky because we had people that helped us to form our own little cottage industry or organisation ourselves. We were lucky enough to be able to eventually find a bar that would let us run it ourselves [Oxford Funhouse, Sydney]. So we played there and had groups that were considered outlaws play there as well. We formed our own scene out of that but if it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have been doing anything.
Was it more frustrating for you given you’d come from Ann Arbor, Michigan were you knew there was a thriving melting pot of musical ideas growing and coming through?
I didn’t see it as a frustration at the time. We just accepted that we weren’t fitting in and it just gave us motivation to be different and to create more confrontation. It was what we did and we thrived on it. I wouldn’t say it was frustrating because it gave us a clean canvas to paint on. We felt in some way fortunate that we were the only people out there doing it and if we could throw some style out there that could piss people off or get people’s attention, one way or the other, we thought we were doing okay.
When you were in the band New Race, did the international members [Dennis Thompson – MC5 and the late Ron Asheton – Stooges] empathise with that situation?
Yeah but by then the scene had broken up and there were hundreds of new independent bands so it had finally changed. By the time we brought the New Race project to Australia, those other guys had gone through similar things in Michigan when they were starting out. Of course, when I was in high school, The Stooges weren’t taken seriously by anybody. They were almost considered a joke in the early days because they were so far out there and different to anything else. So they could definitely relate to what we had been through. We all felt like we’d come from some common ground.
In that context did you view the Aria Hall of Fame award with some indifference?
Yeah, the first two times they invited us to be in it we declined. We didn’t see the relevance of it and didn’t feel like we fitted in there because we’ve never had a hit record and we’ve never been commercially successful in anyway whereas everyone else in the Hall of Fame was so we were pretty indifferent to it. It got to the point where our families wanted us to do it so more for them than for anybody else, we went ahead and accepted it the third time around. When we did go to the reception to accept the award, we were the last band that night to do so at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne and we played two songs. I am sure that at least half of the people in their suits and tuxes got up and headed for the door. When we could clear that room we felt we were still on the right track.
What was it that got you into electric guitar playing initially?
It was just the great music that I was hearing on the radio at the time. I started playing the guitar when I was twelve years old and there was this great rock’n’roll stuff on the radio that I wanted to be a part of and that was what did it. I started playing and saw my first electric amplified rock’n’roll band when I was fourteen. It was The Rationals and they played at my school. I saw that and thought that I wanted to be like those guys.
Are you still in contact with former Radio Birdman guitarist Chris Masuak? Also, did you enjoy his band the Juke Savages that formed around the early nineties?
Yeah, I really like the Juke Savages and played on a couple of their recordings. Chris and I have collaborated on each other’s solo projects over the years, multiple times. He has been on a lot of my solo stuff and we’ve had a lot of contact but he lives in Spain now.
What sort of guitars are you using these days?
I’ve still got a couple of Epiphones. I’m still playing that guitar that is on the white version cover of the Radios Appear album. That 1965 Epiphone Crestwood was originally owned by Fred Smith from the MC5. I also have a ’65 Coronet but the ’64 is back in America. Over the years, on the last European tour that I did which finished in July, I played a Strat on that tour. I have a re-issue of an Ampeg Dan Armstrong clear lucite guitar which I like and have played Rickenbackers over the years. Steve Salvi from Adelaide has made a signature guitar for me and I have been playing the prototype of that. It is a combination of design that has some features of a Mosrite, an Epiphone and a Rickenbacker all blended into one guitar. I helped him figure out the specs of it. I’ll be bringing that on tour.
Given you’ve also worked as a Navy physician and in emergency departments, has that disciplined break from music changed your style or songwriting? Does going outside of music provide a new sort of vigour on return?
Yeah, I think that you do come back to it with a fresh attitude. I enjoy playing music so much but I’ve never really used it to make a living because I’ve never really wanted to compromise the music to get money. So when I come back to it after working at a regular job I enjoy it so much that I approach it with a lot of energy. I think that being out in everyday life and being in contact with regular people or non musicians who are out there doing it hard and living in the society gives you a lot of raw material for writing. If you’re a writer of songs and lyrics you start observing things in a different way and you pick up on a lot of stuff on the outside that you can bring back with you into the music.
Radio Birdman is touring later this month and November:
31/10: Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle NSW
1/11: Manning Bar, Sydney NSW (SOLD OUT)
2/11: Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
3/11: Corner Hotel, Melbourne VIC
7/11: HiFi Bar, Brisbane QLD
8/11: The Gov, Adelaide SA
9/11: Rosemount Hotel, Perth WA
14/11: Manning Bar, Sydney NSW