In the 1970s Birdman had a reputation for delivering the goods live – for playing each show as if their lives depended on
it. Is that commitment still there?
“I think it is, yeah,” Tek says. “It certainly feels like that at the end of the show – I mean, you don’t have anything left. We’re still committed to making every show different. There are certain keystone moments in the set where it’s going to be the same, certain things are the foundations and they have to be there, but other than those checkpoints, the stuff in between changes all the time. We love to improvise and come up with new approaches to the material. Some of the songs have intervals or passages where it’s completely free game to do whatever you want to do, so we like to take it into different areas. If you’re going to improvise, it can work out really well – or it might not. But you put yourself out there and hope for the best – and play really hard. The band has always been into playing hard.”
The self-titled seven-CD, one-DVD box set released last year has almost sold out, so the European tour is not an exercise in merchandising.
“There’s not going to be any more people buying the box set because we’re out there playing in Europe, so it’s just for us to go there and have a good time playing and present the music to the people again,” Tek explains. “That’s the main idea. We’re not going to get rich off it either – it’s really expensive to take a six-piece band on the road… we’re going to feel we did great if we break even. So it’s all about the music, that’s all.”
The highlight of the box set is the official version of the band’s oft-bootlegged last concert in Australia at Sydney’s Paddington Town Hall in 1977. Also available on vinyl on its own, it’s one of the great live albums of all time. As well as an incredible set from a band at the peak of their powers, it was a riotous occasion that left the band – who set up and promoted the show themselves – with a hefty damage bill.
“With Radio Birdman one of the regrets is that – in my opinion – we were never able to capture the energy of the band on a studio recording,” Tek says. “I think the studio recordings are okay for what they are, but it didn’t really tell you what the band was like to go see. This Paddington Town Hall LP release sort of does give you an idea of that, so it fills in a gap in the band’s history that needed to be out there.
“It was a crazy evening. We weren’t even aware of how crazy it was until after it was over. It turned into a riot at the end. I remember one side of the PA column had been torn down, there was a lot of blood on the walls in the place. The concert venue was on the second floor, and it had a row of these great big tall windows down one side. Those were smashed, and people had thrown these big wine flagon bottles out through those windows and smashed a whole row of cars that were parked on the street. It was just amazing – we had no idea that was going on while we were playing. In those days you didn’t have security, and you didn’t have insurance, you didn’t have any of this liability protection or any of this stuff that they have today. It was just, go out there, hire a venue, hold an event and see what happens. It seems pretty innocent when you look back on it, but it was an eye-opener for us. Things were a little bit out of control, and we were kind of glad that that was the last show we did in Australia – we had no idea what was going to happen, maybe somebody would get killed at the next one. Certainly we were afraid of that possibility after we saw what had happened, and we were glad to get out of the country and go somewhere else where things weren’t quite so weird.”
At one point on the record, after a blistering version of Crying Sun, Younger remarks to the audience that they are “getting yourselves worked up into a right state” – which is putting it mildly.
“Yeah, there’s some pretty interesting exchanges between Rob and myself and the crowd that’s on the tape that didn’t get put on the album. It was kind of adversarial. At one point Rob jumped off the stage and got into a fight with somebody down at the front, and I jumped in to help him. That was just this melee, with stuff being thrown at the stage. Something hit the bass amplifier and took it out, so there’s this long delay while we’re putting a new bass head up – people screaming and us telling them to settle down and that we’re not going to be able to play if it goes on like that. All that was on the tape, and it was really interesting to listen to – maybe sometime we’ll put some of that out just so people can be entertained by it. It was mostly quite positive, the response to that show. People were into it, they liked it. But some of it was reminiscent of Metallic K.O. [the legendary live recording of The Stooges‘ chaotic last gig in 1974] – stuff hitting the stage and bottles flying, all that kind of thing.”
“We really liked The Saints‘ record when it came out, and when they came down from Brisbane we thought ‘Here’s another band that’s actually doing something different’. By then the punk thing had started, and I think we had heard The Ramones‘ first album, and maybe a couple of things from the UK, so we felt like we’d have some allies when The Saints came down to Sydney. We helped them out by giving them a rehearsal space to use, loaning them equipment and helping them to get gigs, stuff like that. But it didn’t actually work out, their singer Chris Bailey didn’t like us and was… let’s just say less than friendly. So we didn’t get the alliance with The Saints that we had hoped for originally.”
Growing up in Michigan, Tek took guitar lessons from Dan Erlewine, who had been in a band with his brother Michael (who later founded Allmusic.com) and a guy called James Osterberg, later to be known as Iggy Pop.
“They were in The Prime Movers, it was sort of a blues-jazz-fusion thing, and Iggy was the drummer. Dan Erlewine was my first – and only – guitar teacher. I took guitar lessons from him for about three months when I first started playing, I was about 12 or 13 years old. Later on Dan became a famous guitar builder and luthier and repair man, and he wrote a column in Guitar Player Magazine for how to do guitar maintenance and repairs. When the neck broke off my Crestwood he was the guy that did the repair on it, so I maintained contact with him for a long time.”
The Crestwood Tek refers to is a 1966 Epiphone Crestwood Deluxe, as seen on the cover of Birdman’s debut album Radios Appear. It had a previous owner – Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the MC5. (Guitar freaks can read its story here.) Although Tek didn’t buy the guitar directly from Smith, he did strike up a friendship with him and often joined Sonic’s Rendezvous Band on stage when he visited the US.
Back to Birdman, what does the future hold after this tour?
“I really have no idea. If I could be the dictator of the band and tell everybody what to do, we’d probably make another album. I’m not really interested in touring forever as a nostalgia act and just doing old stuff, for me it would have to be an actual living band. To me being in a living band means you’re working on new material, doing new stuff. So if I had my choice on that, that’s what I would do. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I don’t know if the commitment is there from everybody to do that, to take it to that level. I know that Rob is still very committed to The New Christs, and he would probably prioritise that above anything else if it was a time issue. So I’ll take what I can get at this point.”
All photos by Anne Laurent. Used by permission