Radio Birdman guitarist Deniz Tek laughs out loud when we pose the poignant question: If they were to make a Radio Birdman movie, who would play Deniz Tek? “Well, I would, of course!” replies the 64-year-old, who, it must be said, has managed to retain much of his youthful good looks despite his 40-plus years of hard rocking and rolling. It’s the day after Tek has first laid eyes on filmmaker Jonathan J. Sequeira’s new Radio Birdman documentary, Descent Into The Maelstrom. Rather than be exhausted by the marathon walk down memory lane, he seems buoyed by the quality of the film, and excited by its potential to bring Birdman’s music to an even wider audience. Because it’s always been about the music.
How does it sit with you, Radio Birdman being honoured in film form – do you care?
If it didn’t happen I wouldn’t care about it that much. I wasn’t hanging out for this to be done. But now that someone has done it, I think it’s going to be very helpful for us. It might get our story and our music out in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to it. That’s great. If it does that it’s well worth it.
Do you enjoy rock music documentaries, generally?
I like them when they’re done well.
How do you rate Descent Into The Maelstrom?
I thought it was really, really great. Jonathan told our story in an interesting way, in a hard-hitting way, and he used different sorts of elements to bring the story together and it rolled along really nicely, I thought. Some of it was funny, some of it was sad, some of it was controversial – it had all the elements that you want in a good story. And the other thing was, the sound was great. One of the things that can really bring something like that down is if they don’t get the sound right, but they did. My first thought when I saw it was: ‘Great, they got the sound right.’ I was relieved about that.
The music is featured all the way through. There’s a lot of talking-head action, but there are also tons of songs.
Yeah, the story is told around the music, which is how it should be. That’s always been our thing – we think the music speaks for itself. When we were supposed to go on Countdown in 1977, we showed up at the studio in Melbourne after a gig, so it was around midnight or something, and all the engineers were still there. We talked to [Molly] Meldrum and said, “We’re happy to do this interview on camera but you have to show our video.” We had a well-made video of the band playing “New Race” live; the sound was good. But he goes, “Well, why?” We said, “Because the music speaks for itself and nothing we can say to you on camera can speak louder than people seeing what the band is like live.” We felt very strongly about it. We want the music to be presented in an honest way. We’re not going to get up and mime to a song or do anything stupid. They refused to play the video. Our management went back and forth with Countdown for an hour and finally they said, “OK, we’ll show it.” But by that time the one technician capable of showing it had left! So we walked out of there. We never did the interview; we were never on Countdown.
Was there anything surprised you when watching the film, something you might not even have been aware of?
Oh yeah. For one thing, some of the things that Warwick [Gilbert, bass] said, I had no idea that he felt that way. Some of them I did know from reading Vivien Johnson’s book [Radio Birdman, 1990]. But you wouldn’t know it from talking to the guy or being in a band with him because none of these things were said at a time when it might have made a difference to say them. But one of the things in the movie that shocked me was that he said he was upset when he saw the writing credits on the first album. Y’know, I didn’t know anybody was contesting that, or had any idea that those writing credits weren’t accurate, nobody told me that before. And Ron [Keeley, drums] mentions the bass riff in “Hand Of Law” as something that really makes the song work and there’s no credit for it. Well, you know what, I wrote that bass riff too! I can tell you that I got it from James Brown – Live At The Apollo, y’know, the fanfare, the opening sequence, I copied the riff out of that and adapted it and that’s what the bass plays in “Hand Of Law”. So I was really surprised by that. And there were a few other things like that, where it’s like, “God, if you really thought like that then you should have told me and we could talk about it.”
I guess everybody involved could claim to have been afflicted by emotional immaturity at the time.
Was the band hands-off in letting Jonathan navigate any drama and tell the story his way?
Yeah, we had no idea. Our whole input into this film was being interviewed, separately. He went around and interviewed everybody separately and then he picked and chose what he wanted to include from all that interview footage. We also gave him old photos to use, but we didn’t have any input at all as far as how it was going to be presented.
What’s your view on how the band’s personal differences were dealt with in the film?
I thought he did a good job, too. Everybody got to have their say. He didn’t censor out anything that he thought was going to be too controversial – at least I don’t think that he did – and he maintained integrity with that and I respect him for that. I don’t agree with some of the things that other people said, but I respect him for putting it in the film. I think he did a great job because he didn’t avoid the dramas but he didn’t dwell on it too much, either. He didn’t let it get in the way of telling the whole story.
What’s your favourite Radio Birdman song?
That’s impossible to answer. But I guess I really like the ones that go well live, like “Descent Into The Maelstrom” and “Do The Pop”, and I love playing some of the ones on Zeno Beach, particularly “We’ve Come So Far To Be Here Today”. But y’know, all the songs have got something to recommend about them, otherwise we wouldn’t have put them out there.
OK, you might be able to answer this one more definitively – who makes the best Iskender kebab in Australia?
At the time we wrote the song [“Iskender Time”] it was the one on George Street. I don’t know who makes the best one now, but I will say that Erciyes on Cleveland Street is really excellent.
What drew you to the Radio Birdman story as a film idea?
I was a bit of a fan of the band I knew it was an interesting story on the surface – the seminal Australian rock ’n’ roll band, really. I was doing a job authoring the DVDs for the Radio Birdman boxset that contained their archive footage, and my brother and my co-producer in the documentary, Mark Sequeira, was pressing their vinyl through his company Matrix Vinyl. So anyway, just got chatting to [Birdman’s manager] John Needham and said, “Has anyone done this? It’d probably been a good film.” He said, “People have tried but nobody has really followed through. Put something down on paper and I’ll show it to the band members and see what they say.” So a couple of months later I did and I got the OK from everyone. It became a bigger story than I realised. I always found Radio Birdman an interesting band, but when I started to look into it I realised how much it matters to a lot of people and how it was a real change in Australian music history. It’s a really important thing.
Jim Jarmusch made a movie about The Stooges last year, which I felt was a bit lazy and not as good as it should have been. I don’t feel that way about Descent Into The Maelstrom. I think you’ve nailed it.
I’m happy to say it out loud, I think this is a much better film. Y’know, with someone like Jim Jarmusch, he’s got his little artistic interpretation, things can run in a funny order or you’ve got James Williamson interviewed in the bathroom or whatever it was, whereas I just felt like I needed to get out of the way and let people tell their story. That’s who you want to hear from. You don’t need me adding any flourishes.
What were the reference points for your film, was it other rock documentaries?
Not rock documentaries necessarily, but the best ones are always where they tell a story about the people. The one film that I had in mind when I started was Shut Up, Little Man!, the director is from Adelaide but I can’t remember his name. That was a good template. I like the way that captured a time and a place and something happening, but it was about the people. That’s what you’ve gotta go for, that’s what makes it interesting.
Shut Up, Little Man! uses dramatic reenactments to tell the backstory whereas you went for ‘toons done as storyboards, which I thought added to the style of your film.
All the drawings are by Warwick Gilbert [bass], it’s his art, so that made the big difference. But yeah, it’s hard, and you’ve got to be careful – I’ve seen those kinds of things not work. With historical documentaries, you’ve just gotta work with what you’ve got. There’s always places where you go, “I’ve got no pictures for this, what do it do?” And it’s reenactments or its animations; there’s a limited number of choices. So I thought a lot about it and I’m really happy with how they worked out, really added to it. I had to give a lot of thought to all the stuff, like how to present the archive and the assembling of the photos and artwork.
You must have been grateful that so much glorious old live footage and photos of the band exist?
Yeah, it makes the job of getting the story across a lot easier when you see how amazing the band was. Some of that footage is out of the band’s archive and some is out of the ABC archive. That was one of the big costs of making the film but it’s vital. Y’know, a lot of rock documentaries you’ll get Dave Grohl or Sting…
Oh yeah, you managed to make a rock documentary that doesn’t have Henry Rollins in it – that’s a feat in itself!
Haha! Well that’s right. But basically, if you’ve got the live footage then you don’t need to describe the music or say what it’s about, just friggin’ play it and let people have a look and listen. If you don’t get it within 10 seconds of listening to it then you don’t need someone to explain it, ’cos you’re never gonna get it. There’s a lot of music in the film. The film is an hour and 49 minutes and there’s about an hour and 20 minutes of music. That’s a lot, more than most music documentaries. And there are all different dramas and costs involved in music licensing but that was just something that I decided early on, I need to use a lot of music in this. You’ve just got to hear it to make sense of it all.
Radio Birdman has a fraught history and I think there might have been times in the past where some of the members would not have been open to talking about what happened.
Yeah, I was amazed at how open everybody, just fantastic in that way. For whatever reason they all decided to trust me, you’ll have to ask them why, but I’m just so grateful they did. And that was a big responsibility, to have that trust put in you, so I had to do it justice. Y’know, sharing stuff, sharing not just your time but your experiences, that’s a big deal to me. That matters, and you’ve just got to do the right thing by people.
Deniz Tek agreed you did a good job of navigating the controversies without letting it get in the way of telling the whole story.
I tried not to let that stuff bog it down, because it’s not about that to me. There’s conflict in it, of course, but it’s a celebration of the band. So it’s part of the story, but it’s not the story to me. I’ve played in bands and anyone that’s played in bands will know the kinds of things you go through. Radio Birdman might be an extreme version, but I think having played in bands I was sympathetic to the fact that everyone has their version of events.
Was it important to make it just as entertaining for diehards as people who’ve never heard the band before?
I want people to see it who have never heard of Radio Birdman and go, “Wow, what a great band, what a great time.” That is actually really important to me. Because I know the fans are going to like it anyway. So my ideal viewer might be someone who is only vaguely aware, like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of them, I know ‘Aloha Steve And Danno’,” or maybe have just not heard of them at all, and see the film and go, “Wow, I never knew that happened.” Because it’s a bit of Australian cultural history, that’s what it is.
The film is screening in cinemas around Australia now, check descentintothemaelstrom.net for session times.