Radio Birdman Does the Pop Again: An Interview

After 20 years of hiatus and 10 of Australia-only dates, the legendary Radio Birdman is finally touring the US. PopMatters talks to Deniz Tek and Rob Younger about the early days at Sydney's Fun House, their frustrated first run at a US audience, their 1996 reunion, and the confluence of factors that resulted in a new album and a full-scale trek through America.

"Are you ready? Are you nervous?"

That's the chorus to "We've Come So Far", the lead-off track to Radio Birdman's Zeno Beach. It marks the band's return to recording after a three-decade hiatus, and though perhaps not exactly the same as the songs reissued in Sub Pop's The Essential Radio Birdman in 2001, it has much of the old impassioned fury. The answers, you have to assume, are "yes" and "fuck no," because there's no hesitation at all in the music.

In its short 1970s incarnation, Radio Birdman cranked out an incendiary brew of Motown soul, Stooges-style hard rock, surf guitar, and free jazz keyboards. Their songs -- from the Hawaii 5-O guitar frenzy of "Aloha Steve and Danno" through the abstract fury of "Descent into the Mainstream" and the glorious hard-edged euphoria of "Anglo Girl Desire" -- should by rights have become just as familiar as "Satisfaction" or "Kick Out the Jams".

In 1974, Deniz Tek, a native of Detroit then studying medicine at the University of South Wales, met singer Rob Younger, keyboardist Pip Hoyle (also a medical student) -- all three still in the band -- as well as Ron Keeley and Carl St. Johns, and Radio Birdman began. Too aggressive for the Australian mainstream, the band first had trouble finding a place to play. "What was going on which in 1973 and 1974, that was sort of the post-hippie, boogie-blues era," said Tek. "We didn't want any part of the mainstream."

Even AC/DC, by the mid-1970s testing its proto-metal sound in the Sydney area, earned Tek's dismissal. "They were contemporaries of us, but doing something completely different and way more acceptable than what we did," he said, a perceptible chill creeping into his voice at the comparison. "It's debatable whether what they were doing was similar. We felt like they were more mainstream than us."

The Funhouse era

So, for a couple of years, Radio Birdman scrambled for DIY venues, putting on shows in garages and church halls, until the band struck a deal with the Oxford Pub in Sydney. That pub became The Funhouse, ground zero for an uncompromising brand of Australian rock.

"What happened was that Lou Reed was in town, and I was talking to Lou Reed, and he wanted to come to our show ... and we didn't have a show," said Tek. Realizing the sort of opportunity he'd been handed, Tek hustled to find a place to play. He went to the Oxford Tavern, then still a nonmusical venue, and negotiated with the owner. Not surprisingly, the name Lou Reed opened doors, and the owner agreed.

"So, we show up. All of our friends come. And it turns out to be a wild night. A really good night. And he sold a lot of beer and it was great, except, of course, Lou Reed doesn't come," said Tek. The bar owner paid Radio Birdman's players $10 each. "He said, 'You did great. Be sure to pick up all these beer cans before you go, and come and talk to me about playing here some more,'" remembered Tek. "So it was a breakthrough. We had a real place to play."

Radio Birdman began playing shows at the Oxford Tavern every Friday and Saturday night. When the pub changed hands, the new owner allowed them to essentially run the venue themselves, booking shows and renaming it the Funhouse. "We immediately used that as a way to give work to other bands that we considered outlaw bands," said Tek. "Bands that couldn't get anywhere through the mainstream music industry. So we ran this little scene up there. We tried to keep it exclusive and if you were commercial, you couldn't play there."

Into the maelstrom

Radio Birdman, along with the Saints, built enough of a following in Australia that US record companies became interested. Seymour Stein signed both bands to Sire in the mid-1970s; however, his label soon ran into financial difficulties and Radio Birdman was unceremoniously dropped.

"We were supposed to tour America with the Ramones and get exposure and all that stuff, and it never happened," said Tek. "[Sire] dumped us from the label right before that was supposed to happen. And in association with dropping us from the label, of course, they never bothered to distribute the album or push the album in any way. So I think that first album of ours just sort of sat in boxes mostly, in warehouses, and never got to anybody who could hear it."

Yet even in remainder bins, the records won fans. Mark Arm of Mudhoney recalled picking up Radios Appear as a teenager. "Used records stores seemed to have a glut of late '70s punk records on Sire (Saints, Voidoids, DMZ) in the early '80s for cheap," he said. "It was as if Sire just dumped their stock."

[Photo: Terri Nelles]

Arm said he was first drawn in by the sheer rocking-ness of Radio Birdman, but later began to notice the subtleties. "Pip Hoyle's keyboards helped to differentiate Radio Birdman from most of their contemporaries," he said. "'Man With Golden Helmet' has a jazz feel which is quite different from other punks at the time. Songs like 'Hand Of Law' and 'Aloha Steve And Danno' have that surf guitar thing going for them." He added, "The fact that I was heavily into Hawaii 5-0 reruns in the early '80s made my discovery of Radios Appear particularly serendipitous."

As a long-time fan, Arm can only speculate on why it took so long for Radio Birdman to find an audience. "I have no idea," he said. "Why did it take the Stooges, MC5, and Velvet Underground to get an audience in the States? Perhaps, in Radio Birdman's case, the fact that they're Australian and never played here has something to do with it. Their legend had to travel word of mouth, from generation to generation, across continents."

Much of that whisper campaign came, unfortunately, after Radio Birdman had broken up. A tour through England with the Flaming Groovies 1978 had been particularly stressful. "That really broke the band up," said Younger. "Socially, we fell apart through being in each other's pockets all the time. Close proximity, it does that to anybody."

Radical but not punk

Ironically, the band dissolved just as punk rock went widespread, clearing the way for their hard-edged, confrontational sound. Although Tek bridled at applying the term "punk" to their work, he admitted that a changing climate might have made Radio Birdman more accessible to the mainstream.

"We pre-dated what's commonly referred to as punk now by a few years and I think there's a lot of stuff about our band that's not really punk," he said. "We had keyboards, two guitar players, fairly involved arrangements and solos -- so it was pretty far from what punk was when punk started. So, while we never really objected to the term, we didn't really feel like it described what we were doing in any way."

"Although having said that, when the term came up, when punk first became known in late 1976 or so, we benefited from that quite a bit, because before that, nobody knew what we were or had any sort of a label for us," he continued. "So we were kind of scary, something out there that was undefinable. I think that when they saw that we played real hard and loud and aggressive and with the attitude that we had, they put a punk label on it. And once we had that label, all these doors started to open up for us. 'Oh, now we know what you are. You can come.'"

A second run

Members of Radio Birdman went on to other projects -- Younger to the New Christs (which are still active today), guitarist Chris Masurak to the Hit Men, Hoyle to the Vistors, Tek to solo work and projects with Wayne Kramer of MC5. They also pursued more traditional careers, with both Tek and Hoyle becoming doctors. Then in 1994, the Australian band Silverchair covered "New Race", flying Tek in to Australia to make a guest apparence. In 1996, the band was invited to appear at Big Day Out, a massive, multi-city festival that traveled throughout Australia and New Zealand.

"We had all been doing these other musical projects. And finally, it sort of hit home that nothing we did had the same chemistry or could be done on the same level as the stuff that we did together," said Tek. "So in 1996 we were offered a bunch of money to reform and play the Big Day Out. So we said, it'll either work and it'll be cool, or it'll destroy the myth and it won't be cool. And either way, it's a good outcome."

"We enjoyed ourselves, playing the music and socially," said Younger, remembering that first series of gigs. "For a few years after that, it was just festivals and showcase things. And then we decided to do clubs around Europe as well."

[Photo: Terri Nelles]

Tek was adamant, even in 1996, that there had to be new music. "Otherwise we're just playing the back catalog and we're a nostalgia band, and we don't want to do that," he said. So even during the initial Big Day Out performances the band played two new songs, written and rehearsed just for the occasion. Radio Birdman got a further boost from Sub Pop's 2001 The Essential Radio Birdman, which gathered 22 cuts representing all of the band's recorded albums as well as three live bonus tracks.

New voices and a new album

The band began touring more and more, not just in Australia, but Europe as well. "It got to the point that we really needed a new album and a whole bunch of new songs," said Tek. And so, the band began working on Zeno Beach, its first album of new material in nearly 30 years.

The album has 13 songs. A few of them -- "Found Dead", "Connected" and "Locked Up" -- sound very much like the old Radio Birdman, full of stinging 1960s rock riffs, pounding rhythms, soulful keyboard lines and crashing power chords. Others -- "Heyday" and the "Brotherhood of Al Wazah" -- might have come from another band, and in a way, they did. While Tek wrote almost all the songs during Radio Birdman's first run, he shares songwriting on this record with Younger, Hoyle, Masuak, and bass player James Dickson (who joined the band in 2000).

Younger, who wrote either lyrics or music or both for five of the album's 13 songs, added that he and other band members were simply more ready to contribute this time. "Deniz always did encourage me to contribute, writing lyrics, and I was always too lazy or a little bit too inhibited to bother with it," said Younger. Writing 100 or more songs for New Christs made him more confident about his abilities. "So now, as is the case for the other guys in the band, I've had to write through necessity and figure out how to put stuff together. So it's only natural that I and the other guys have an opinion on what we want to play and how we want to contribute."

Tek says that this broader pool of songwriting talent allows his band to try new things, pointing to "The Brotherhood of Al Wazah," written by keyboardist Pip Hoyle, as a prime example. "We could never have done that in the old days. The chord progressions and the arrangement, it's just something that we wouldn't have done," he said. "It's got multiple key changes and time signatures and it's really cool. It was a challenge to learn how to play it actually. But Pip's got the classical and jazz training to write something like that."

The other main difference, said Tek, is subject matter. "I think the overriding theme is the idea of being old and of dying," he said. "We've gotten to the point where a lot of people that we know are getting sick and dying -- and it's not all drug overdoses anymore. We're at the age now where our parents are all dying or dead. And we've got kids, most of us have kids, and it does bring to mind your mortality and maybe you think about it a little more. It's a big topic and certainly an appropriate one to write about."

So, even the album's most carefree songs -- "Hungry Cannibals" for instance -- touch on mortality, and more dramatic ones like "Heyday" seem to describe the aging process. But Younger cautioned listeners not to take any of it too literally. " I think Deniz did see a thematic link between some of the songs, but it certainly wasn't anything deliberate. There was nothing conscious on my part anyway in any of the five sets of lyrics I wrote to pursue any of that, and I don't actually see that any of mine are related at all," he said. " Most of the time, I don't even know what they're about. "

Doing the pop again

The band launched its first-ever US tour in late August, a 56-show trek that includes a stop in Tek's hometown of Detroit. (The set list there will almost certainly include "Do the Pop" with its Stooges and MC5 references and "Murder City Nights".). But like all Radio Birdman's second-run shows, a mix of old and new songs will be on offer, a 1970s classic for long-time fans, a brand new tune for younger, newer audiences.

"The range of ages is quite alarming," said Younger, commenting on the band's second-wave shows in Australia. "Sometimes people will come backstage and it'll be a guy that's pushing 60 with his two sons that he's dragged along because he used to see us in 1977. But we also get people who have just read something about the band and they come along on their own volition. They're just curious. They may have heard something on the radio or something and they want to find out what all the fuss was about."

And, as from the beginning, there will be a lot of musicians in the audience, because Radio Birdman has always been a band's band. "I think the people that love music ... musicians, one of the reasons that they do it is that they have a ... they're hungry to see where this stuff comes from. Musicians tend to find out who influenced the last record that they heard that was really cool. They have to find out what influenced that and trace it back and find other stuff, because they love music. It's like the air that they breathe," said Tek.

"I hope more girls come along," said Younger, ruefully noting that 75% to 90% of the typical Radio Birdman crowd seems to be made up of male guitar players. " I always judge a gig by whether there are girls there and if they're dancing. I always figured that a rock band is crap if girls can't dance to it. Ever met a girl that liked the Blue Oyster Cult?"

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