Deniz Tek is best known as the guitarist and primary songwriter from pioneering, influential and rule-breaking Australian rock n roll band Radio Birdman. He’s packed a lot into his life thus far, not only has he lived many musical lives creating in various incarnations – TV Jones, The Visitors, Angie Pepper Band, New Race, Dodge Main, The Glass Insects, The Soul Movers and more – but he’s also saved lives as an ER doctor and ex-navy flight surgeon, and these days he’s also a coffee farmer living in Hawaii with his own blend of Kona coffee, Tekona.
Gimmie caught up with Deniz recently to chat about his latest project, album Two To One, a collaboration with long-time friend and Stooges’ guitarist James Williamson.
How’s your morning been?
DENIZ TEK: Good. Very productive so far, I got a lot of work done this morning. It’s been a good day! How about yourself?
Very good too! I think every day is a good day though, your day is what you make it.
DT: Yeah. At our age every day you wake up should be a good day, time is limited and you have to make the most of every minute you’ve got.
You’re at The Tek Farm in Hawaii at the moment?
DT: Yeah, I am.
Is that a special place for you?
DT: Yeah, my parents started it about forty years ago, when my dad retired from his job at the University of Michigan. They moved out here to Hawaii and started this farm. My wife Ann and I are out here taking care of the place, we took over running the farm. After my dad died my mother needed the help so we moved out here about three and a half or four years ago, we had been living in Australia before that. She’s now gone into a nursing home for about the last year. We’re just going to stay here and take care of the place for the time being.
That’s lovely of you both. Do you enjoy working outside, outdoors in nature?
DT: Oh yeah! Absolutely. I enjoy it so much better than working inside.
What attitude and spirit do you approach playing the guitar in?
DT: It’s just part of my life. I’ve played guitar since I was twelve years old. I’ve been in bands since high school. I approach it as part of daily life. It’s like eating, drinking, breathing. I play most days, occasionally I don’t play but typically, I’ll play every day.
Does it give you a particular kind of feeling?
DT: Yeah, time disappears for one thing, you stop being aware of the passage of time—you’re totally in the process. Time goes by and it’s very involving, it’s something I can really focus on without any effort involved. When my attention is focused on that, I don’t have any outside distractions.
Is it like a meditation for you?
DT: I suppose you could say that. I’ve tried meditating and I’ve never been very good at that because I keep thinking of too many things but, when I play guitar that’s not an issue so, I guess it is my meditation in some ways. I’ve never really thought about it like that but I think you’ve right.
I understand that having commercial success from your music has never really been a big a motivating factor for you; what are the things that motivate you to create?
DT: The creative process itself is extremely rewarding, it’s not a financial reward but, it’s more of a spiritual reward you get from that. Especially if it’s something that you create that other people can relate to or if it resonates with other people and they like it and it makes their life better in anyway or happier, it helps people forget their problems for a short time—what better reward could you ever hope for.
When you’re creating, whether it’s writing a song or painting; where do you find the most magic in the process?
DT: Whenever there is something new happening that’s going really well its magical. That can be just sitting with a guitar at home or in the recording studio or it can be at a concert. When you’re playing live to people that are throwing energy at the stage and we’re recycling that energy and giving it back to people; also doing it between ourselves in the band, band members giving energy back and forth between each other, that’s real magic—that’s transformational. It works with some higher powers that I don’t’ understand. It’s pretty amazing!
On the new album – Two To One – that you made with James Williamson from The Stooges there’s songs like “Take A Look Around” and “Climate Change” that speak to environmental issues; are these things that are important to you?
DT: Oh yeah! Yeah. These songs are not necessarily meant to be protest songs or political propaganda but they are observational. These songs were holding up a mirror and saying, this is what we’re seeing and this is what you may be seeing as well; maybe to increase awareness in certain ways.
Previously you’ve said that The Stooges album Raw Power helped shape your path as a young guitar player; in what way? What resonated?
DT: That was in 1973 when it came out. I was living in Sydney, I was a student. I was in a band called TV Jones, about a year before [Radio] Birdman started. I already had great inspiration from many other guitar players that were well-known but, I think the guitar playing on Raw Power brought a new element to it. The tone was so brutal and the playing was so aggressive and hard and I hadn’t heard anything quite like it in some time. To me it was wonderful to hear that, it was an affirmation for me that rock n roll music that is very high energy and aggressive was still alive, that The Stooges were able to do that. It was inspirational!
You’re good friends with James now and you’ve worked together before; have you ever had a fan moment with him in any way? Like, this is the guy whose guitar playing resonated with me as a youth!
DT: Yeah, you can’t push that too hard but, I enjoy it when I can get him to tell Stooges stories [laughs]; when he tells me stories that nobody else knows, it’s good to hear that stuff. I love that! That’s being a fan, to want to hear that stuff. Of course I was very curious as to how he got that guitar sound. He’s very happy to tell me about it and show me how he got this or that guitar sound. A Gibson Les Paul through a Vox AC30, cranked up loud with no effects pedals. It’s a balance of being a fan and being a partner in the work we do together AND being a friend. We hang out a fair bit together too, we play tennis and us and our wives go out to dinner together and do things like that.
Nice! Why is writing songs important to you?
DT: I don’t know. I guess it important to me because I feel like I’m contributing something and I have an impulse to create, that satisfies that for me. I have a hope that the songs I write will also benefit others, that people will hear it, like it, dance to it or it will help their day go better. That’s what I hope.
You’ve mentioned before that you’re not quite sure where songs come, that they just arrive, that you have to be tuned into their frequency in a way to find them; is there anything you do to tap into that frequency?
DT: The best thing is to just have a guitar in your hand and be playing, you don’t have to be playing anything specific, you could just be tuning it up, and just have a clear mind, not being distracted. When songs come you grab them out of the air, they come out of you or through you, and then the challenge is to remember it when it happens. You have to try and get it down right away, you write it down or record it. That’s what’s nice about our modern phones, you can record straight away. When these ideas come, if you don’t save them somehow you never remember them the next day. I suppose they float off and someone else gets them [laughs].
Maybe! [Laughter]. I love the storytelling in all of the songs on your new record. One that really stood out to me was “Small Change”.
DT: The thing about “Small Change” was James presented the music for it and a friend of his, Frank Meyers, had written words for it as well. The story for “Small Change” was suggested by Frank’s lyrics but it didn’t quite gel with me, so I took his basic idea and re-wrote it. I turned it more into a story of a woman who decides to become free and leave the small-town single mother existence that she was stuck in, that she’d go off and do something else. The story of how it would take a lot of courage to do that. Sort of like a mini-episode of a movie.
I love the lyric from it: It takes a little bit of change and a great big heart. I think a lot of people can resonate with that. Has there been moments in your life where you’ve done that yourself?
DT: I suppose leaving home when I was sixteen or seventeen years old was sort of like that. Leaving the country at eighteen and just going off overseas with nothing but a backpack and a guitar.
Do you have favourite track on the album?
D: Not really. After it was mixed I didn’t really listen to it. You work so hard on these things and put so many hours into it and you hear it over and over and over again so many times when you’re finishing the production on it that you don’t want to hear it again for a while. I’ve actually put it aside and haven’t listened to it for about a month. When it comes out on vinyl and I have a copy of it I’ll listen to it again. I like all the songs, if I didn’t like them they wouldn’t be on there, I have a different favourite every day.
Why did you decided to call the album, Two To One?
DT: It was a big struggle to find a name for the album until we found one that we could agree on and that hadn’t been used. We’d decide on a name, look it up on allmusic.com and find out there were already thirty albums with that name so, finding something that hadn’t been used before was the challenge. My wife Anne came up with it. It’s an old blues expression and it’s a lyric in a Blind Boy Fuller song from the thirties. Two To One sounds good and it’s two guys doing one thing together.
For both you and James playing guitar is expressing your emotions; is it hard when you have to work with somebody else to get your vision through to fruition?
DT: It can be! It wasn’t in this case. We pretty much agreed on everything. When we first started writing for the album there were come ideas I presented that he didn’t like and likewise, there was a couple he presented that I didn’t like. We didn’t pursue those and we tossed them out early on and focused on the things we both agreed on and both felt were good. Once we had decided on that it was straightforward.
Are you working on new songs now yourself?
DT: Yeah, I am. I’m putting together songs for a new album now. It should have been recorded already but because of the coronavirus we couldn’t travel. Basically, I have another album written and arranged and ready to go. That will be a solo album.
You’ve been working on songs with your wife?
DT: She’ll play guitar on that album as well, when we finally get around to recording it.
Is it nice to have someone so close to you to bounce creative ideas off?
DT: It is! I’ve never had that in that way before. I’ve usually been the only guitar player in the family [laughs].
As well as your music I know you love to do art as well, you paint; is painting for you similar in any way to writing a song?
DT: It’s pretty similar. I’m a much more experienced song writer and guitar player than I am a painter. I’m just getting started with painting and figuring out how to do it. It’s just as much fun. It’s one of those things like I was saying, where time just disappears.
Over the years has there been any advice you’ve gotten I regards to creativity that’s really stuck with you?
DT: Not directly but, I read something that Keith Richards said when he was asked about creativity and he said that the thing he would like to have on his grave would be the words: he passed it on. In other words, you take from your influences in music and then you add something to it of your own and then you pass it on to the next generation. If you can form a link in that chain, that’s the greatest thing that you can do. I always took that it heart. I thought it was a really cool idea and that it was something that I would like to be able to say, I also did that—I formed a link in the chain and passed it on.
I think that you have done that, many times over!
DT: [Laughs] Thanks!
What makes you really, really happy?
DT: Not thinking about happiness but just being, existing in the world and being part of it—that’s what makes me happy. The minute you try to be happy, it just all goes away! [Laughs]. Just being makes me happy!
** Coming soon on Gimmie we also have a chat with The Stooges’ guitarist James Williamson**