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**
Melbourne musician Steve Lucas has been making music for over four decades. In 1977 he co-founded early Australian punk band X, who gifted us one of Australia’s greatest punk records, their debut X-Aspirations. He’s also lived many musical lives since X genre hopping from post-punk to indie rock to acoustic folk to country to gospel and all kinds of things in between with bands and projects: Bigger Than Jesus, Double Cross and The Groody Frenzy, Empty Horses, The Acland St Booze Hounds, The Strawberry Teardrop, The Pubert Brown Fridge Occurrence, Armageddon Resource Management and more. Gimmie spoke to Steve in-depth, to get a real insight into his music and the man behind it. We talk about songwriting, mental health, depression, his early life, overcoming spine surgery, creativity, of making good choices and of life in general.
STEVE LUCAS: I have to learn a couple of songs for a recording session on the weekend.
What are you recording?
SL: Two originals that my wife wants to do and a cover of Deuce by Redd Kross.
How are you going with it all?
SL: The original ones are fine because I’ve been there hearing it since the concept but going back to Redd Kross is how I used to play forty years ago. I’ve got unlearn everything I’ve learnt so I can do the real grunge sort of underplaying. It’s underplaying but really in your face. I’ve got a little bit too good for my own good [laughs].
Do you think that the style you were playing back in the beginning was so raw and powerful because there was a naivety in your playing?
SL: Absolutely! You didn’t know what to do so you had to do anything that worked. Looking back it worked, limited knowledge meant maximum feel. It was all about the feel. I actually used to play a really clean sound which made it more awkward. But, now going back and looking at Redd Kross I can see, they’re a bit New York Dolls-y kind of thing, thirty or forty years ago I would have just done it but now it’s like, fuck, that’s not really that chord… it’s that chord now because I’m correcting it but it’s not a chord at all, it’s whatever it is.
When did you start playing guitar?
SL: I got my first guitar when I was fourteen, that didn’t last long, accidently setting it on fire and smashing it to pieces, very dramatic, almost burnt the house down.
Was there anything that inspired you to set it on fire?
SL: I was trying to… I had this grand idea that I was going to strip it back and have this cosmic kind of paint job on it. I was in the laundry at home and there was a gas heater, the pilot light is always on; I had the door closed because I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing and I was using tons of thinners and turpentine and the fumes kept building up and building up until the pilot light just ignited them! It went booooosh and blew the door off and blew me out of the laundry [laughs]. There was turps and thinners everywhere, all the shellac and stuff that was on the guitar was all molten like and running river. The more I tried to hose it out, the more it spread. In the middle of it all I saw my guitar and grabbed it and flung it out to save it but all the goo on the guitar sent molten globs of stuff onto the back wooden fence [laughs]. It was really, really traumatic. By the time I got all the fires out, I was looking at the smouldering guitar, I was so angry. I took to it and smashed it to pieces and thought—never again!
Wow! When did you start playing again and change your mind?
SL: It wasn’t that long after. I was always a much better singer than I was guitar player. I learnt how to play Bob Dylan kind of guitar, nice strumming and chords you could put under a melody, very folky, bluesy kind of stuff, that was totally relevant in 1977. I was just singing when X started, it was only after Ian Krahe died and a few other people didn’t fit that I was told I actually had to have an electric guitar, I had to have an amp, I had to learn how to play riffs… it was traumatic. Three months later we recorded X-Aspirations.
Have you always enjoyed singing?
SL: Yes, as long as I can remember. On my father’s side of the family, my grandmother was a chorus girl and my grandfather was vaudevillian, and he’d sing honky tonk piano, soft-shoe, magic tricks, all that kind of stuff. He would always be singing and if we stayed over with those grandparents he would sing us to sleep every night. I don’t remember when I started singing because I was too young to remember but being sent to Sunday School… my family wasn’t religious but they thought I should have some sort of religious experience, so I had to go to church on Sunday and I’d sing in the choir there. I did that up until I was twelve and when they said “Now if you want to go you can go, we’re not going to make you” so, I didn’t want to go and that was fine. By then I was into primary school and singing in the school choirs, doing choral concerts in Sydney Town Hall. I was always singing; singing along with the radio, with records—I’ve always loved singing.
Who was one of the first songwriters that first moved you?
SL: [Laughs] That’s funny… the answer I’d like to say is, when I was around thirteen or fourteen there were songs like, some very basic things like Don McLean or Dylan, really basic Creedence stuff… I loved to listen to Big Band music, I used to think that one day I might rather play the trumpet but it didn’t happen. Once I did actually have a guitar I really liked to “chunk” along to basic stuff. One of the first songs I learnt to play on guitar was something like “[Vincent] Starry, Starry Night” [laughs]. Cat Stevens was very big then, and again, very chord-y, easy songs. If you went to a party and there was a guitar sitting around you could pick it up and play Cat Stevens songs and girls would tend to like you more than if you sat there doing a Deep Purple song [sings opening riff to “Smoke On the Water”]; guys would love that but girls would be like, oh no. I made up my mind very quickly which direction I was going to go.
How did you discover rock n roll music?
SL: Mainly through Top 40 stuff but, when I was seven or eight my mother or my aunt took me to the cinema to see A Hard Day’s Night. Everyone was screaming so loud in the actual picture theatre that you couldn’t really hear very much at all. I got Beatle-mania like every other kid back then. They were accessible and covered songs by Little Richard. Then there were The [Rolling] Stones and between the two of them they opened the doors to my musical education, I suppose. Just really good RnB, soul-y kinds of ballads.
Was X your first band?
SL: It was my first real band. When I was fifteen I was in a school band and we did a gig for the sixth form’s farewell and we were never allowed to play again because we…. It was a big banquet and all the teaching staff was there and we were supposed to play stuff like Cat Stevens, we did play a couple of those to start but, then we broke into “Aqualung” and “Smoke On the Water”—that was the end of that! [laughs]. I changed schools again – I changed school a lot when I was younger – and met a bunch of other people and we used to play music together, I had my cousins and school friends playing bass and guitars and stuff and I was singing; we never had a name but one night a band was meant to play at a Police Boys Club but they didn’t and my cousin was in the Police Boys Club and told them he had a band, so we went and did that. It was fun! We did that one show and then maybe played at a party once. It was just something to do. X was the first band that we geared towards going out and playing to crowds in pubs, making money, the whole thing. We were gonna write great songs and get a record deal. Ian [Rilen] had left Rose Tattoo or had been discharged depending on who you talk to [laughs], so he had all that experience and the original drummer Steve Cafiero had plenty of experience, so we had a good chance of doing something if we played ball but we were a little bit… [pauses]. There’s ten years difference between Rilen, Cafiero and me and Krahe, Ian and and Steve were just hitting thirty and Ian and I were just about to turn twenty, our naivety and their experience was a great combination but it found us shooting ourselves in the foot quite often. We blew more chances than we actually embraced, by choice.
Are there any songs on X-Aspirations that really stick out to you or that has a special significance to you?
SL: No, because if I think of one I just think of another. The ones I would say I like least is easier to answer, “It Must Be Me” and “Turn My Head”. We weren’t sure of them when we recorded them, they were very much just off the cuff. When I used to take the records into record stores to sell, the first track I would always put on for the is “Delinquent Cars” because it had a nice steady pace, it had nice poetic lyrics, they always thought that was kind of good and they’d ask; what other song would you recommend? Then you’d play them “I Don’t Want To Go Out”. “I Don’t Want To Go Out” is the obvious one to say but I love them all. “Suck Suck” was great, and “Revolution”. “Dipstick” is so funny. “Waiting” is so tortured. They’re all very, very potent songs, which is why Lobby [Loyde] called it a concept album because it wasn’t an album that had two songs for a 7” single Top 40 hit… it was a collection of songs that stood well together but maybe not so well independently.
Do you remember writing “I Don’t Want To Go Out”?
SL: Yeah, I remember Ian would have brought that into the rehearsal room, it was predominately his song. I sing the riff ect. [hums the riff] and the first and second verse and it was like; where do we go now? I was sliding up and went to a C# or something and thought, that’s wrong! Then started moving down trying to find where he [Ian Rilen] was and he was following me, that ended up becoming the middle eight… we wrote the middle eight accidentally and then put in the last verse. He wrote the first two verses about me. I added the words to the middle 8 and I added the last verse about me and my friends preferring a beer to disco.
A lot of the time that’s how Ian and I would work, he’d have a blueprint for a song, he’d say it goes like this, do half and verse and then say that I can do the rest [laughs]. Sometimes I’d come in and do the same thing, like I’ve got this idea for a song but it needs a hook or something; he’d say, “How about this?” We were good like that from the beginning. I used to write with Ian Krahe as well. It was very organic in its original 4-piece format. Ian [Rilen] and I were obviously forced closer together when Ian Krahe died. We wrote a lot of songs together, maybe 120-130 songs!
Is there anything from that time with X that you learnt that’s stayed with you?
SL: Two things, OK… both the Ian’s were chronically late, that drove me mad! If anything I’m over punctual as a consequence. The big lesson that I’ve learnt that I’ve carried forever is one day Lobby explained to me how gigs worked. It sounds pretty dumb because you turn up, play, get paid and go home… that’s how you’d think about it but there’s more to it than that. Back then we had to hire our own P.A., you had to know the size of the room, whether it needed a single or double 4-way system, you’d have to hire the right rigging. You had to hire someone to operate it and then you had to hire people to lug it in. It was like running a small business, but it was called, being in a band!
As we got more and more popular and we could ask for more and more money, it got the stage where we were kind of pricing ourselves out of the market. Lobby said, “It all costs money. Pubs aren’t given alcohol to sell for free, they have to buy it and pay their staff, there’s overheads. You’re taking a percentage of the bar and door and there’s nothing left for anyone else.” He said “you have to understand that it’s very easy that you’re worth that but the most important thing to do is not believe the hype. People are paid to make that bullshit up! Don’t believe the hype!” He told me that and was about to walk away and turned around and said, “Especially your own!” That was it. I’ve lived by those rules ever since.
Do you like to create every day?
SL: No, no, no, ‘cause then it would be like a job. There are two kinds of camps, there are people that work at it and people that are sitting around waiting for a transmitted beam to be sent into your head and you go, ah! Thank you! Sometimes you dream of a song and if you’re really lucky you wake up and remember it and can figure it out before it fades away. Most of the time it falls into your hands. You’ll be playing it and as you’re playing it, sometimes the riff or progression will suggest words to you and then you latch onto them and you build. For me it’s always been a spate of songs, maybe ten or three or four that will come all at once and then they’ll be nothing for months. You don’t force it. I used to try and force it and I used to write shit, at least I thought it was and no one else would get to hear it; I’m not gonna say, hey, listen to this it’s shit! [laughs]. I’m not precious about it but, I just think if you want it to be a natural thing and really represent who you are, you can’t force it because, then you’re just tinkering with nature, I’m not a fan of that. Tin Pan Alley and the Big Think Tank, big songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s… I love some of those songs but they were obviously made under duress because they had to write hit singles.
Can you think of any songs that have been particularly challenging for you to write?
SL: Definitely. It’s weird because the song that made the most money in my whole musical life was a song that I wrote in about five minutes. It was a non-song almost. I wrote it because my daughter had a sleepover, a bunch of ten or eleven year old girl students, they’d all been picked up the next morning except for one that was left… I don’t know what my daughter was doing but, I was sitting in the lounge room waiting for this other girl’s parents to come and I was mucking around on the piano and she said “What’s that?” I said, I don’t know, I’m just mucking around. She said “Can you make that into a song?” I said, I don’t know, and I was looking around and saw a memo pad and it had written: thought of the day, make it happen! I looked at that and was like, yeah, I can make it happen! I just made up the song “Make It Happen”. I didn’t think much more of it until I was recording an album and needed an extra track. I thought it was pretty jaunty and threw it on. Thirteen years later it got picked up by Yoplait in America for a commercial. It was just like, wow! That’s one extreme of how lucky you can be.
On the other hand, my daughters favourite song that I’ve ever written, I had the music and arrangement in my head for twelve of thirteen years. I could never find the words that I thought belonged to the song. One day I was sitting the bus thinking about it and a line came to me and I thought it was perfect for that song. Once I had that it was like getting a key and unlocking a door and everything went booof and came tumbling out. I imagine that somewhere in my subconscious I had been thinking about it for all of that time, the lyrics wrote themselves in a matter of minutes, I was scribbling on bus tickets and whatever paper I could find it write it all down, this was obviously before mobile phones [laughs]. It can take forever.
What was the line in the song that came to you?
SL: I can’t sleep for loving you. It’s a nice tender little ballad, my daughter loves it. She loves it and says she’s going to cover it one day.
Aww that’s so lovely.
SL: Yeah, it’s for her. I think it’s a very beautiful song. I’ve demo’d it but never put it out. I think because I like the demo so much, I don’t want anybody to mess it up… I mean alter it by bringing their own feelings into it. Then again, the demo isn’t quite good enough to release, maybe one day on an anthology or something. I’m just leaving it there so if my daughter covers it, it can be hers.
I wanted to ask you about the song “Don’t Cry No Tears” it’s such a beautiful song and it’s become a bit of a signature song for you; can you tell me about writing that one?
SL: I remember it vividly. It was sometime, but not too long, after Ian Krahe had died. I was reading The World According to Garp [laughs], and I always associate that song with that book for some reason. I’d borrowed a 12-string guitar from someone and this C Major Seventh chord sounded beautiful on this guitar, I was mucking around with that. Of course in the end of the book Garp dies, I was thinking about that and then I was thinking about my friend that had died, I was thinking of how I never got to say goodbye and well, he never got to say goodbye either. I was having a conversation with him, representing him and myself talking to each other saying; this may have happened but it doesn’t change this. Wherever I go people want me to play it. I did a live stream for a mental health issue last night, it was the last song I played. I love the song, I’ll play it endlessly forever. It spoke the truth that just needed to be spoken.
Do you get emotional playing it?
SL: Sometimes I get very emotional. If a friend has passed away and someone asks if you can come to the funeral and sing it, it’s like, fuck! [laughs]. Yeah, I can. A couple of times I’ve really had to choke back the tears on it definitely, that’s what makes people like it—it’s real. I can’t do it without emotion. You can have the best or worst voice in the world but, it’s the emotion and the honesty of the delivery that moves people more than anything else.
I’ve found that throughout your catalogue of music that loss seems to be a prevalent theme; does music help you with healing?
SL: Yeah, it is. Music helps me sort out my feelings, absolutely. From my earliest memories there’s been issues around love, my parents split up when I was very young, then they got back together again and my sister came along, then they split up again. I went to live with my maternal grandparents. My mum was in and out of sanatoriums, she was manic depressive. Then she remarried, had my brothers and then that guy disappeared… love or the lack of love or the abuse of love, or the longing for love has been part of me for as long as I can remember, everyone wants to be loved. It’s so tricky because there’s so many kinds of love [laughs] and not all of them are healthy, not all of them are joyful. It is a powerful emotion. If you can sing about things like that people can relate to them, anger is another one. People loved X because of the satirical but very real anger in a lot of the songs, the critique, the social stuff. While I’m interested in social interactions and politics, I tend to address them through interpersonal relationships instead now. Love is love, you can apply it to anyone in any situation, having the same kind of joy and happiness or loss and sorrow; the politics of love is just as important as social politics. If you don’t have love within yourself, you’re not going to put it into anything else that you’re going to take out into the world; are you?
Absolutely. Did it take you a while to come to a place of self-love?
SL: Yeah, it took a while. I can’t remember when it happened [laughs]. One day I realised that I wasn’t so angry anymore; I wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing? I decided it was definitely a good thing. When people say “Why don’t you write more songs like the classic X songs?” I say, it’s because I’m not that person anymore. I can’t go back and feel the way I felt then… people say “Times are so bad now, we need more songs like you and Ian wrote!” I’m like, they’re there. You can take songs like “Revolution” or “Suck Suck” or “Police” any of those songs, and they will apply to today, emotionally and politically. Nothing has changed, it’s just different labels and factions, people are still arguing about stuff that often doesn’t need arguing. People talk more about doing things than actually doing things because it’s much easier just to talk than take action. Nothing’s changed; why should I write another song? It’s there! [laughs].
I read on your blog a little while back about the power of naming things, songs, albums, etc. and how things can have a prophetic quality about them; have there been times you’ve felt you’ve done this?
SL: Wow! That’s going back a bit [laughs]. I’ve definitely had that, “Cry No Tears” is one. Now that you’ve mentioned it, it’s got me thinking… sometimes it can be a curse and you’ve got to be careful. Ian was always labelled with the [Rose Tattoo song] “Bad Boy For Love” thing and he hated it! It made him lots of money but it made him sick of people calling for him to play “Bad Boy For Love” especially at an X gig. The last thing he ever wanted to do was play that song again. It’s almost like a pre-destined, big clue to who you’re gonna be and what you’re gonna be for the rest of your life. For me, my two are “Moving On” which is the first song I ever wrote by myself; the other was “Don’t Cry No Tears”. The “Moving On” thing, I finally realised I didn’t think that I would remain rootless or without a real family for the rest of my life. I realised it was possible to build a home and a family and to be happy. With “Don’t Cry No Tears” it’s a nice resolution, it’s a song about closure but also about any parting, it reinforces that it can’t change your life, it can never be taken away, and sometimes you just have to be strong. When I think about it, I’m actually quite surprised that I wrote it.
Where do you get your strength from?
SL: That’s a complicated one. Partly sheer stubbornness [laughs]. The difference between my sister and I is about three and a half years, in the first few years of my mother and father being together when I was born they were happy for a while. I was too young to remember specifically but, I had a sense of that love. Later on when I was in my forties and my mother was permanently ill, she didn’t want to die in hospital, so I told her I would be her carer, you can die at home. During that time we got to talk about a lot of stuff. She said “Yeah, you know, I know it didn’t work out so well but when you were born, I really, really did like you”… I really needed to hear that. We weren’t the most communicating kind of family. My mother would say stuff like “You’re not much but I like you anyway, I suppose”. That was just her way. Anyway, her being able to tell me that made a huge difference, it reassured me about something that I had suspected on a subconscious level, that there was a golden time for me. It took a long time to get back to it.
I was also the eldest of the family so I did have to take care of my sister and my younger brothers. I had to be strong no matter what, it was expected of me. The quickest answer for your question is, it was firstly expected of me and secondly, because I’m incredibly stubborn. A third answer is that having suspected something had happened and having it confirmed, that was a very powerful moment.
I know what it is like to care for a parent, I spent sixteen years caring for my mum with Alzheimer’s and then my dad had mobility issues all for the later part of his life.
SL: That’s tremendous.
I had a similar moment with my father. He told me as a teen I wouldn’t be anything or do anything, that I was a no-hoper like the rest of my siblings… after my mum got sick and we were looking after her, our relationship changed and he told me that he’s always been proud of me and that he loved me. It’s the one and only time he said it to me. It really changed things for me.
SL: Yeah, if you hear it once and it’s honest and heartfelt, you only need to hear it once. I feel so sorry for people that don’t get that, because I do know people who have never felt loved by their parents and consequently never felt loved in their whole life—it’s terrible.
Are you a spiritual person at all? I know you went to Sunday School.
SL: Yeah, at the local Anglican Church, that was because my grandparents thought I should be introduced to some religion. Church of England is probably the most passive, it was back then. They thought it would be up to me to make up my mind. They weren’t particularly religious, no praying over meals or anything like that. For me, I’m pretty spiritual. When I was doing the stream last night I was talking about mental health issues and we were having a conversation and it came up; what do I believe in? I believe in something, it doesn’t have a name or a face but it is a faith. It comes from the necessity of me to carry on my daily existence, to think along the lines of basic science that energy cannot be destroyed it can only be transformed, we are made of energy. When you die, whatever you want to call it, a life spark or a soul or a neuron or whatever, I believe it goes somewhere else. I’ve heard some pretty funny ideas, Billy Connolly said, we all made up of atoms, molecules and can’t be destroyed, the body might die but you might become part of a teacup or a chair [laughs]. That’s one way of looking at it, you don’t have to necessarily be reincarnated or go to Heaven or whatever but, because we can’t figure out what happen afterwards doesn’t mean that nothing happens… it doesn’t mean anything happens either for that matter.
A long time ago, I was into Buddhism for a while, two Jehovah’s Witness knocked on my door, normally I’d say I’m not interested but back then they were using a different tactic [laughs]… there was the typical guy but an absolutely stunning woman; I was like, if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness I could be converted on the spot! [laughs]. I thought I’d talk to them because I was interested in what she had to say really, I’ll be honest. We were talking for a while and they said “You don’t believe in God?” I said, I don’t believe in god but I don’t necessarily not believe. I was into Buddhism and possibly being reincarnated, I said, maybe that’s what happens to you when you go to Heaven. They were like “What do you mean?” You’re reincarnated into another person or a better version of yourself then you get together but then you find that now you’re in Heaven and if you behave and do really good you might die and go to another Heaven that’s even better! That might go on for an eternity of eternities. They were like “Wow! We never thought of it like that!” I’m not saying it’s true but anything is possible. They said “Can you come to our chapter meeting next week and explain this?” [laughs]. I said, no, you can talk about it amongst yourselves. I’m not a spiritual leader, I’m just saying there are infinite possibilities, you believe in what you want to believe in and it’s fine with me as long as you don’t hurt me through your beliefs.
Outside of music what else are you passionate about?
SL: I love cooking! I was taught very young, as I mentioned I was brought up by my maternal grandparents and my grandmother had it in her mind that she didn’t want to be responsible for another stupid man walking this planet [laughs]. For her that meant, unable to look after themselves. She taught me to cook, sew, to do all the things she thought was important for a nice, comfortable day-to-day life. Cooking has always been a great comfort for me. I tried to get into art for a while but I’m no good at painting. I liked drawing for a while. There was a period where I felt very unmusical so I got into drawing a lot. It was fun for a while but it’s not the same… at the end of a drawing, people don’t clap and cheer. You don’t go to the pub and set up an easel and paint and at the end of it people go “That was fucking awesome! Can you do another one?!” [laughs]. There is an ego involved in creativity, it’s pretty hard to be creative I think if you don’t have an ego, I mean you might be very self-depreciating but it still makes you do whatever you need to do to… [pauses] process whatever it is that makes you feel that way. I’m not a psychologist though but I talk to all different kinds of people and when you do that you hear lots of different things that maybe you never considered yourself.
If I was lucky with anything… I remember someone interviewing Sean Connery once and they asked him; what’s the best gift ever given to you? He said “The ability to read”. I’m very passionate about literature, I love reading… to be able to listen, to be able to talk and write things; I like writing. I was actually really enjoying it until someone asked me to write a book. I started and then I thought, oh, now I’m doing this for the wrong reason. I was having fun before that and if I wrote something and someone liked it, it was great, if they don’t, so what. It’s not like my career depended on it. That was a bit odd.
Anything can hold my interest or catch my eye but how long it maintains my interest is a different thing. It depends if I can actually use it, like cooking, I can make a dozen bread rolls and people can come over and eat them and go “Oh my god, this is fantastic!” …back to the ego, if you do something and it gives you a positive return, you want to go back and do it again. Passion can manifest in many ways. I made leadlight windows for ten years. It was after my first wife and I split and I needed a job because I wanted custody of my daughter, I thought it was important to have a job. I needed a job that would be through school hours so I could pick her up after school and all that kind of stuff. A friend of mine said “Come and work for us”. I actually got really good at it and I enjoyed it but, I’m not in a hurry to make another one [laughs]. It was good while it lasted.
The things that are the most rewarding are the things that at the end of the day you can look back at and see it’s complete and finished, that you have a sense of accomplishment. That’s what’s good about writing a song… unless it takes thirteen years [laughs], then it’s not so good. I’ve been doing a few talks about depression and one of the big things with depression it seems is that people get that way because they’ve lost or never felt they had purpose, beyond the philosophical; why am I here? It’s like, literally; why am I here? I’m not doing anything for anyone, myself included. To have no sense of purpose, I can’t imagine anything more hellish.
When I was a kid I used to like making models because at the end there was something to look at. Even if that meant I’d blow ‘em all up with bungers! It was still fun.
Have there been times in your own life where you ever felt like you didn’t have purpose?
SL: Not really, because as I said, I was the eldest whether I had a purpose or not I had a responsibility, a responsibility is kind of similar. I’ve never felt like; why am I here? I’m lucky in that regard, I don’t know what I would have done if I had felt that way. You’d know having been through that carer’s situation, it’s a huge responsibility but, it’s infinitely rewarding when you get those breakthrough moments, they can make years of pain, if not necessarily evaporate, give it a sense of proportion where they’re no longer a millstone or albatross around your neck.
Before you were talking about playing a song for people and they clap and that being ego and then your friends coming around to eat the bread rolls you’ve made; maybe it’s more just coming from a place of connection?
SL: Yeah, absolutely. There’s the social aspect of it, which is important. I’m not going to pretend I don’t like it when people cheer or clap at the end of a song [laughs]. It’s very gratifying. I can play a song and have no one clap at all and still feel like I’ve done a good thing.
What’s next for you? You mentioned you were working on some songs for your wife.
SL: Yeah, she’s got a few projects going. Last year I lost a very close friend and one of the things he asked me to do before he dies was go to America and find some genuine Mexican musicians and record some songs with them, because he always thought I was wasting my time doing rock n roll. He always thought, in his words that “I had a beautiful voice for country music”. He said the Mexican people are so passionate, and he played me some stuff. I was going to do to Tijuana but the guy that was organising it for me just disappeared. My wife used some guys in San Diego, they fitted the criteria. When I recorded with them it was beautiful, it was fantastic.
That was the album By Request?
SL: Yes. Things come from all different corners and it comes back to; what do I believe in? I do believe in a certain amount of destiny. I had massive spinal trauma, my left leg was paralysed and they said I might lose the use of my right leg too. I had to wait a year for an operation. I asked myself; what am I going to do in that year? The doctor said “You’re a musician, if there was something you’ve always wanted to do, now’s the time to do it”. I said, I always wanted to tour America. He told me to go do that! [laughs]. I said, it’s not that easy! I can’t walk. He said, “Don’t let that stop you! It’s a thought!” I went home thinking, shove this thought up your bum! [laughs]. But, within weeks a guy sent me an email from America saying he loved X-Aspirations and that he wanted to do a run for his own little label on vinyl. I said, sure go for it! He told me he really wanted me to come to America and tour it. I said, I’d love to but I’m in a wheelchair at the moment, I’m having an operation on my spine. He said, “Don’t worry about it then”. I said, no, no, wait! My doctor said I should do something like this, there will be limitations. So I went and played.
I was in so much agony and had to take so many prescription drugs to manage the pain. I don’t really remember much. I’d get to a gig and they’d prop me up and as long as I didn’t move I wouldn’t fall over. I did twenty-eight gigs up and down the west coast of America. It was insane. I came back here and then after a bit had the procedures done. Gradually I got my left leg back. They recommended I do physio, which I wasn’t too keen on but, my wife bought me a drum kit. I set it up left-handed so I had to use my left foot to drive the kick pedal. They said you can train your muscles and nerves to work differently, the ones that aren’t working doesn’t mean you can’t stimulate the muscle, it’s like a detour, you’re rerouting things. I tried it and then the stubbornness kicked in and I worked at it and worked at it; even now if I’m walking down the street I take a cane because I get tired, but if I walk the way I used to I’m all over the place ‘cause the things don’t work anymore. It’s amazing what your brain can do if you let it. This could apply to anything pretty much. Being told you might not have feeling in your leg to doing what I am now, I thought that was an insurmountable thing and I’d never get over it, but I did!
A friend of mine who was a Buddhist said “You were given that pain for a reason, you have to love it for what it is” ….again my first reaction was, pffft! [laughs], you try feeling like this and tell yourself you’re gonna love it! Then I realised what they meant, it was an opportunity of sorts to deal with things. It was great! I remember waking up one day and being, that’s it, today it changes! I’m not going to be this person anymore, I’m not going to be dominated by my pain, I am going to dominate my pain! It didn’t just go biiiiing! It took a long time, that’s where stubbornness really comes in handy! [laughs].
I say to people, you always have a choice, no matter how shitty the choices are, you still have one and if you’ve got nothing but bad choices laid out in front of you, then you pick the less harmful or more palatable of those choices, take it. Once you get there you’ll see more choices, maybe equally as bad but maybe one that’s not quite as bad as that, so you go there. The further you go along taking the most positive steps you can take, even though they might seem like there’s no difference at all, you start to learn how to make better choices. Once you start to make better choices, you start to have a better life—to me it’s that simple. I’ve been through it. I still have to do it and make hard choices but I have learnt what is a good choice and what isn’t. It helped enormously. It is rewarding. As you know, it’s not always an immediate plus but you can look back and go, oh, I’m actually glad I did this because now I don’t have to worry about those ones, or you can look back and go, well now I’ve done this, I can face that and get over that hurdle too. I hate the words “empowering yourself” but it’s good to empower yourself to make good decisions for yourself that will benefit you mentally and spiritually, in health, in your relationships… but you don’t need to have a world dominating vision at the end of it [laughs]. You don’t need to be a CEO of a mega company to feel like you’ve accomplished something. I feel like I’ve accomplished way more than I could ever imagine I could. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that I have to stop doing things!
We spoke to New Zealand musician Peter Ruddell from Sulfate and Wax Chattels in iso from his home studio. He shared with us a little about his band noise-rockers Wax Chattels’ new record that’s finished, new work from solo project Sulfate that’s in progress, writing and recording a song in 48 hours and songwriting in general plus more.
The most recent track that you’ve released into the world is ‘Song For Ruth’…
PETER RUDDELL: Where is Ruth at? [*looks around the room for his cat*].
I thought Ruth was your cat!
PR: It’s my partner’s cat originally. She is the best little thing. She comes and sits next to you when you’re working in the studio and hangs out, she’s kind of like a dog and sits next to you or on your lap and is always super affectionate; I wanted to acknowledge it. I made that track thinking that I needed to block myself away from all the social media and news, because I was finding myself sucked into it. I’m sure you’re the same.
PR: I thought of making a song all about her.
Nice! What effect has being in isolation had for you?
PR: For me, it hasn’t been that bad. I know a lot of other people have been struggling quite a lot financially and mentally. I’ve got a really great set-up here where I get to keep my day job, I get to work from home. I have a great little bubble here, its two apartments next to each other and we share a deck together; me and my partner in this house and then another couple of artists and musicians in the next one. A person over there has been decorating the rooftops, he’s been climbing over and painting faces on the satellite dishes with the receiver as a microphone, all these happy faces. It really lightens the mood. He’s been a source of much admiration, keeping everyone’s spirits up.
That’s awesome! I love hearing stories like that.
PR: He changed an air conditioning unit on a bar next door into a Marshall amplifier!
Cool. Over the last weekend you’ve locked yourself away for a 48-hour song writing thing?
PR: Yeah, it’s this thing called ‘Two Daze’. It’s a compilation of New Zealand artists who write and record a song in 48 hours. It’s going to come out for music month which is May. There was something like 20 artists who have written songs for the compilation. It was nice to have a really strict deadline. I feel like everyone needs that every now and then.
What did you find yourself writing about?
PR: The state of living in isolation, which I feel is going to be the theme of the compilation. It’s not a particularly positive take on it. Sonically it’s pretty different to the songs I’ve released both as Wax Chattels and Sulfate up until now. If you compare this track to the song I recorded two weeks ago ‘Song For Ruth’ it’s night and day. That was a real positive stay-calm-everybody kind of tune whereas this one is more guttural. It finishes with a ripping sax solo! [laughs].
Nice! Did you find the 48-hour thing challenging?
PR: Yeah, it was tough. You know when you’ve got a song and you think, this might sound good or that might sound good, but you have no time to pick which version is the best way to go. It’s just about, ok, that’s it! Let’s move onto the next thing. Then drums, ok, that’s a drum sound, awesome, I guess that’s the drum sound! It was kind of nice, ‘cause you know when you use computers, with so many variables. Have you played around with Ableton?
PR: It’s just a black hole, right? Limit yourself with time, which means limit yourself with everything else, it actually means you produce something which is a finished thing. Its punk shit man, it’s putting stuff together and your ability to do it; you yield something which is hopefully going to have an impact on others, which is the whole point of music, right?
Yeah. You’ve been making music for quite a while now, so it’s you relying on your skill, instinct and believing in yourself to do it.
PR: I guess. I’m really curious to see, there’s a bunch of pretty big artists on this list for the compilation and it’s going to be really amazing to see what they create.
Do you learn anything about yourself when you write?
PR: I guess you learn limitations, I learn limitations. I try to go into writing things phonetically with a very clear perspective. I don’t know if it’s the content that comes before the music itself in most cases; the learning about yourself would potentially be evaluating your thoughts and evaluating what you want to write a song about. That kind of yields what you think about the world.
I remember when we were writing lots for the next Wax Chattels record, there was a lot of… I don’t know if this is particularly what I want to say or feel comfortable portraying, especially to the wider community, it’s a tough one sometimes.
Where did you learn to write songs? The members of Wax Chattels all met at a jazz school, right?
PR: We did. You had to write original compositions there. I’ve been writing stuff since I was at school though, with bands all through high school. I feel like coming out of jazz school gave you a lot of options and ideas to create interesting variations on time signatures or variations on form. I feel like a lot of the stuff that I have been producing lately, has been pretty much very stripped down to its barest.
The Sulfate record that I made, it reminds me of… do you know Jim O’Rourke? He talks about how there’s no simple songs, only simple people. I was like, hell yeah! Let’s make some songs that are super simple and see if we can make them interesting in ways that are captivating. For all the craziness of jazz school, I kind of went off all of this technical prowess, I find it limits the effectiveness of what you want to say sometimes.
I wanted to ask you about the Sulfate release, specifically songs there’s a ‘Cyclone Pt. 1’ and ‘Cyclone Pt. 2’; what was the thought behind those? The first one seems kind of calm, like the calm before the storm or even being in the eye of the cyclone where it’s calm, then you have the next track which feels maybe like it’s the storm.
PR: It was written as one song really. I figured they should be spread out on the record so that you could have… I think the reason I did it was for radio play. It was going to be difficult to get radio to play this 7-minute epic, whereas if you can just cut to the heavy bit people will be like “Hell yeah!” It does feel like two distinct songs in a way, Part A and Part B, so I thought why not just separate it into two tracks.
Who are the songwriters that you admire?
PR: Jim O’Rourke is definitely one. Prior to the Sulfate release I was listen to a lot of Yo La Tengo and Dirty Three. Swans is a big touchstone; Michael Gira has this side project too called, Angels Of Light, which is again going back to simple songs. A lot of the simplicity in that material was very inspiring. I’m currently in a place where I’m trying to strip things back and make them as effective and as simple as possible to make them hit even harder. Artists I think can do that well are really onto a good thing.
What inspired that change?
PR: Possibly frustration, frustration at my technical abilities. I just found myself listening to music that was simpler with fewer changes.
Is there a specific way that you wanted to differentiate between Sulfate and Wax Chattels?
PR: If I sit down and start writing something, I feel it goes in one of two ways. It either goes in the noisy, fast, angular stuff that is Wax Chattels – in that case I’ll take it to the band and we’ll work on it, we’ll chop it up and take an idea from Tom and take an idea from Amanda – or it goes in another direction; I wanted to have a separate outlet where it’s more beautiful and I had a clear idea of where I wanted the song to go in its entirety and it suits the Sulfate idea of simplicity and often slowness temp-wise. I feel like I’ve been making a call early on in the writing process which camp it fits into.
What’s a song that always cheers you up?
PR: Oh shit, I don’t know. I don’t do any DJ-ing for this very reason. I go through this playlist on my phone and go, oh yeah, that’s sad, oh that’s sad too, and that’s so sad—it’s a difficult question for me to answer [laughs].
Sad songs can make you happy too.
PR: True. There’s some catharsis in it. I like to think there’s a lot of catharsis in the music that I make, none of it is particularly happy or inspiring I don’t think but, maybe there’s some catharsis in it.
What was the first concert that you went to that made a real impact on you?
PR: I remember it very clearly. I went to the Big Day Out when I was fourteen and I remember walking in and seeing the band Die! Die! Die! play, you know that band?
I do, I’ve interviewed them before.
PR Cool. This was after they just won Rock Quest when they were still in Dunedin, I remember walking in and seeing this band that wasn’t much older than me – they would have been about nineteen – I thought shit this band is incredible! It was a fuck yeah, I should be doing this moment.
They’re amazing live!
PR: Yeah, so good. I’ve seen them five or six times.
What are you going to start working on now?
PR: Well, with this isolation it’s all about songwriting, right? You can’t get together with bands, it’s limiting and challenging and how we react to that. We’ve just finished recording a Wax Chattels record, we’ve wrapped up the recording… who knows when it will be released.
PR: I think right now my focus is on the next Sulphate record. My goal for the foreseeable is to have an alternating year, this year should be a Wax Chattels year and next year will be a Sulphate year, I’ll just start working on some stuff there. When we do end this lockdown I’ll hit up my mate David and we’ll make the next Sulphate record.
What direction has the new Wax Chattels record taken?
PR: It’s heavier.
Heavier?! Is that possible?
PR: [Laughs]. We spent quite a bit of time in the studio finding sounds this time. The previous record we wanted to keep as live as possible, this record maintains that live element but we spent a lot more time thickening it up, making the keyboards thicker and the bass more intense. Sonically it’s much more a step up.
Any particular themes you were writing about?
PR: It’s not too dissimilar from the doom and gloom we’ve been talking about [laughs]. I feel the world has changed so dramatically in the last month though, it’s going to be interesting to see what comes out of it, how people interrupt it post this crazy change in the world. All of the songs were written last year, we tracked it towards the end of last year and just got mixes back. The world is a different place.
You said you were exploring a lot of sound in the studio; did you have a favourite sound that you really love?
PR: Personally, my keyboard sounds more and more like a guitar every time [laughs]. Check this out [*holds up an effects pedal*]. There’s a guy in Dunedin called Pepper’s Pedals who makes this thing called “The Satanist” which is black metal distortion in a Wax Chattels box. It’s the most straight in your ear trebly distortion, I love it! It’s all over the record.
What’s one of your favourite songs to play live?
PR: We have a new track on the new record it’s called ‘Mindfulness’. It’s all about how we shouldn’t just try to use the techniques the mindfulness to deal with the shit that we’ve got going on because that’s actually a way of not changing anything, it’s a way of just accepting the status quo rather than kicking up a fuss and actually seeing some real change. That song to play live is so challenging. Me and Tom have to lock in insanely tightly, there’s a whole bunch of aggressive vocals. It’s a thrill to play.
Any other favourites on the new album?
PR: There’s one we’ve been playing live for maybe a year now, it’s called ’Glue’. I can’t wait for the record to come out really. It’s taken a while. I’m going to be excited when it finally does come out.