The list of rock legends Deniz Tek has played with – Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton and Wayne Kramer, among many others – would be impressive in its own right. However, his own work with the vastly influential Australian band Radio Birdman means that many fans hold him in the same high regard as those illustrious aforementioned peers. Just ask the good folks at Blå Rock Cafe in Tromsø: they’ve got a chicken burger on the menu called – you guessed it – the Radio Birdman.
In addition to a musical career that began in the early 1970s after his family moved to Australia from the US, Tek is also a former US Navy flight surgeon and fighter pilot, and he now works as an emergency room surgeon and teaches medicine. As a youth, he once sold a rare guitar to Keith Richards during the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour of Australia.
Radio Birdman imploded acrimoniously in 1978 after two groundbreaking albums (the second released after the band had split) and four tumultuous years. Songwriter-guitarist Tek eventually returned to the US to join the military after completing his medical studies in Australia. A reunited Radio Birdman visited Oslo three times between 2003 and 2007. The 2003 gig was at the old Cosmopolite in Møllergata on the day that Johnny Cash died, and one of my friends says his ears are still ringing to this day. Long before that, though, Tek visited the north of Norway in quite a different capacity.
“I was up there one time with the Marine Corps inland from Narvik,” Tek says. “There’s a little airbase there, Bardufoss, and east of there I spent something like six weeks in a snow cave. That was in the late Eighties. I was a Navy doctor, supporting the Marine Corps. One of the things that was a specialty was cold weather operations, and I was sent up there for a couple of exercises. So I had some Norway experience even before Birdman went there.”
That’s quite a contrast – snow caves and sweaty rock venues.
“Yeah, I’d rather be in the venue anytime!”
Tek is coming back to Norway in early June, playing three shows in Oslo, Moss and Halden on vocals and guitar with his power trio Deniz Tek & The Bad Men. Like Tek, bass player Art Godoy and drummer Steve Godoy count influential punk bands and some pretty serious non-musical ventures among their achievements. The identical twin Godoy brothers played in the Californian outfit Exploding Fuck Dolls, and both are former skateboard champions as well as leading lights of the tattoo industry with their state-of-the-art Godoy Machines.
“They were Birdman fans that actually tracked me down when I was living in Montana,” Tek explains. “I corresponded with them back and forth – they sent me a custom surfboard with a Birdman logo on it as a gift – and I became aware of their career as punk musicians, and their incredible skateboarding career. The next time I went to San Diego from Montana, I went to one of their shows, they were playing with the Exploding Fuck Dolls. That was where I met them and that’s where the friendship really started. That was in maybe 1992 or 93, something like that.
“They’re really fun to tour with. There’s always entertainment from those guys, and they’re super-positive and fun to be with. They’re the kind of guys on tour that solve problems rather than create problems, and that’s exactly what you want. They’re always up for the next show and enthusiastic – they hate having days off. They’re just totally hardwired to the ‘go’ position, and I love that.”
Tek is currently laying down backing tracks in Montana for his next album with English drummer Ric Parnell – who played with Atomic Rooster and The Deviants, as well as appearing on screen as the hapless Mick Shrimpton in This is Spinal Tap. They are taking a similar approach to the last album, 2013’s Detroit, which includes some of Tek’s best post-Birdman work. Detroit’s songs are filled with apocalyptic imagery, and Tek says that the city’s decline has been even more dramatic than many might think.
“You can’t even imagine it. You have to go there to see it to believe it,” he says. “It looks like bombed-out ruins, and large areas of the central part of the city with forests and trees growing up through abandoned buildings. It’s just unbelievable, considering what it was like when I was growing up [in Michigan], it was a very vibrant and happening city… and now it’s like that. It is apocalyptic, it’s not an exaggeration at all.
“It’s probably the extreme example of a much wider problem, no question about it. Detroit was the perfect storm of factors that created that situation, but those same factors exist to some extent in a lot of other cities in America, and elsewhere also.”
Tek says several of the songs from Detroit will make appearances in the live sets for this tour, as well as songs from his previous solo recordings and Radio Birdman’s heyday.
“We’ll probably be doing four or five things off Detroit, and a few things from previous solo albums that we enjoy playing live, and some Birdman songs – we always play five or six Radio Birdman tunes, focusing on the ones that I wrote – and a couple of covers. So we round it out to about 20 songs.”
The reputation of Radio Birdman hasn’t diminished since 1978 – if anything, the band have built up more of a following over the years they haven’t been touring and recording than during the years that they have. The band attained mythical status in Australia and Europe between their first breakup and the first reunion in the early 90s.
“It is gratifying,” Tek says of the continued interest in the band. “Part of it I guess is the quality of the material that we did in those days, and a sort of unusual-for-the-time outlaw stance that we had. We didn’t plan that, but we got pushed into it. And then you disappear for 15 years – and if you disappear for 15 years, stories grow. Probably the best thing you can do as far as getting a reputation is to … vanish.”
There are also a series of Radio Birdman vinyl reissues planned this year, including many recently discovered songs that had been forgotten or presumed lost.
“It’s pretty exciting, the stuff that’s coming out. There’s going to be high-quality vinyl reissues of all of the previous releases in the first stage of the band, we’re just focusing on ’74 through ’78. There’s a lot of archive material that we found – studio outtakes, different versions of songs, some songs that were never released in any form. That stuff’s going to come out. We found a huge number of tapes that we didn’t know still existed – maybe more than 20 boxes of two-inch, 24-track tape that were found and returned to us. I spent quite a bit of time going through all that tape after it got restored and transferred, figuring out what was good on it and what wasn’t. Literally hundreds of hours of stuff, unbelievable. A lot of it I couldn’t even remember. So the best of that stuff is going to come out.”
Another forthcoming reissue is a double-LP of Birdman’s most legendary concert – their 1977 appearance at the Paddington Town Hall in Sydney. The gig was the band’s last Australian performance in their first incarnation, and it was recorded on 16-track mobile before they left for the UK, where they broke up a year later. The concert ended in a riot by fans amped up on the high-energy music.
“It was pretty wild,” Tek recalls. “In fact, it was wild enough that we didn’t really want to go there any more. We were happy to be leaving the country. For one thing, we were afraid somebody was going to get killed. There were already a lot of significant injuries at that show and a LOT of property destruction – which I ended up having to pay for out of royalties from [Birdman’s first album] Radios Appear. All of those royalties from that album went to paying band debts. A lot of those debts were from stuff that got smashed and destroyed at that concert, including a whole row of cars outside the venue, and the venue itself. It was crazy. It was a time and a place that will never happen again, so it’s great to preserve that in a quality way.”
Asked if there might be more Radio Birdman live shows around the release of the reissues, Tek says nothing is certain as yet.
“I can’t really talk about that right now. Let me just say that we’re looking into some ways that we might be able to promote these re-releases. I can’t really confirm anything about that right now, but it’s possible.”
Deniz Tek & The Bad Men play three shows in Norway in June – Tuesday June 3 at Kulturhuset in Oslo, Wednesday June 4 at Tivolikjeller in Moss, and Friday June 6 at Feelgood in Halden. They also play three shows in Sweden – Thursday June 5 at Lilla Hotellbaren in Stockholm, Saturday June 7 at Henriksberg in Goteborg and Sunday June 8 at Folk & Rock in Malmo. For a full list of European dates, see http://www.deniztek.com/#!gigs/csml