About to return for another decent into the maelstrom. We talked to lead singer Rob Younger about all that has been happening in the world of Radio Birdman.
For a band that only existed initially for four years, Radio Birdman have had a pretty stellar run of forty plus years. In the last couple of years I have written I have written a lot about Radio Birdman, the tours, the excellent documentary about the band that came out last year, and rather re-write a bunch of that here I’ll add some links to some of those articles at the bottom of this. Lead guitarist Deniz Tek, keyboard player Pip Hoyle and lead vocalist Rob Younger are the remaining original members of the band that currently tour and record, carrying the Radio Birdman banner high and coming to town to kick your arse very soon.
Rob Younger isn’t very comfortable doing interviews, ‘Deniz is doing his share as well’ he says ‘He is actually good in interviews, he in more concise, more lucid. His American accent conveys more authority than mine.’.
In the weeks before I talk to Rob Younger much had been made of the ABC TV decision to reject the offer to acquire of the airing rights to the excellent Radio Birdman documentary Descent Into The Maelstrom for their Ausmusic Month programme in November. Made by film maker Jonathan Sequeira and released last year, the critically acclaimed Descent is seen by many, (myself included) as an absolutely crucial chronicling of not only one of this country’s most powerful, creative and influential bands, but also of the birth of a scene, mindset and attitude far removed from the satin jackets, feathered hairdo’s and boogie based pub rock that was the norm in the mid 1970’s. They produced their own music, released records independently. When nobody wanted them to play in their venue they started their own in Oxford Street Sydney. The Oxford Funhouse became a breeding ground for an entire scene of musicians, bands, artists, misfits and outcasts, many of which became ground breaking and influential forces in their own right. The doco captures all of this while being a warts and all detailing of the Birdman story, with all past members involved and giving their versions of the story. Some of those versions are not very complimentary and it pulls no punches in a way that is rare in any kind of documentary. Especially in music story telling there is usually a big scoop of idolising and hero worship. That the national broadcaster would deem it not to be of interest, or perhaps more shockingly, not up to their broadcast standards was dizzyingly disappointing.
All of this comes as no surprise to many, including the band who became used to being shunned, marginalised and misunderstood right from the start. In part that was what solidified the determination of Birdman and their followers into the fervour which became their legend. I asked Rob about the situation.
Well I didn’t expect the ABC to want to show the documentary. I’m not terribly concerned about it and I watch the ABC and have done all my life and it’s mostly great, but I don’t think they have ever done music all that well. Especially on TV, without going into great details. There has been a lot of under achieving that they have been rather self congratulatory about. The documentary itself is well worth a look and I can’t see why it isn’t eligible to be screened. I suppose they throw malodorous phrases like ‘cultural relevance’ around. I am disappointed for the director who threw his heart and soul into it and he did a pretty good job, it holds together really well. There are a few things in it I don’t love, a bit of carping in it from some ex-members, which we maybe could have done without…
From an outsider / fan point of view, it seemed like everybody was being very honest from their own point of view, was a bit confronting but I found it refreshing to.
Well that is good. I wasn’t able to anticipate what people might have thought about all that. It is balanced in the sense that everybody gets to tell their story, at least in response to the questions that are put to them. I mean, I am about the music and I was thinking it would be more about where the music came from, what we liked and stuff rather than the sort of….in-house, inter-personal relationships stuff, which can be a bit tiresome actually. In a lot of ways it’s extra-musical in a lot of ways, it may be of interest to some people. Maybe there wasn’t that much of it, I mean I had to get and go for a piss three times during the movie because I’d been drinking a lot of free wine before the screening, so I missed some bits. People talking to me about a particular bit in the doco and I was thinking ‘Buggered if I can remember anybody saying that’.
I guess you’ll soon be able to catch up on the bits you missed with the DVD being released.
I don’t know what’s on it. What do you know about it? Is it an expanded version of the doco or is there extra material on it?
When the documentary was about to be shown in the film festivals, Jonathon indicated that there was so much stuff they couldn’t fit it all into the documentary, but expected that would form bonus material on the physical release. (see below for full details*). I talked to Deniz before the tour last year and he mentioned he hadn’t seen any of it, was that the same for you? Did you see it for the first time at the public screening?
Yes that was the case for me too. I was a bit jittery about that. Also as some people are, being hung up on seeing themselves on the screen I find that pretty off putting and I can’t be objective about it really. It has a good narrative that holds it all together and it is about a band and has to have a high musical quotient to it. Something I perhaps haven’t emphasised it in other interviews is it does sound great, they mastered the music really well. The music sounded really full, it was bristling and had an energy to it. They did a great job with that. I was happy with that. The animation turned out well too, it was quite amusing, it might have been odd but it worked well. It was artfully done and I was impressed with how that turned out.
The people that they talked to were all very close to the band and they said some touching things, some sensible things. They didn’t lay it on too thick. They didn’t talk us up unnecessarily. I was happy with that kind of balance. Just to go back to the ABC thing for a moment. It doesn’t matter, certainly not to me. I can’t get worked up about it. Rejection is nothing new to us. Considering where we came from, we started out being ignored by radio stations, music magazines, TV, kicked out of venues or refused the right to play. We came to expect it and it seems nothings changed. There was a lot of hostility and also apathy. So we had to make our presence felt to get some attention. Even then, a lot of that attention came from people’s perception that we were obnoxious, playing dreadful music, when it was just different to what other people were playing at the time. Other bands would be sharing rehearsal rooms next to us and they’d be really snotty to us. A lot of snobbery about technical prowess on the guitar and shit like that at the time. Mostly people were trying to be like British blues bands here. Even though a lot of it was just covers, but songs people hadn’t heard before.
The industry at the time was pretty narrow and I felt like when avenues were closed to Birdman you just made your own avenues and they have turned into your own eight lane super highway over time. You have respect, loyalty and much as I hate to chuck the term around, you are revered for the uncompromising way you do things. And forty years later it’s music that still resonates with people that loyalty is very evident in your audiences.
The difference these days is we play in a room of people who really want to see us these days instead of mixed feeling or open hostility. We were knocked back and ridiculed by venues for a long time in the early days. Then The Oxford agreed to let us take it over as a venue we had a place to play and for other bands to play when we were touring. It made for a very concentrated scene of like minded people and people clung to it, and people outside that scene were often intrigued. We got a lot of attention for doing that and it became a headquarters for us, a base of operations. There was a kind of insularity about the band and sort of siege mentality about it.
That steeled your resolve to carry on.
Exactly, it steeled our resolve. I like the phrase.
You reconstitute fairly regularly these days, and that has included some touring overseas to Europe and The USA. How has that been and is it a vindication for how tough it was when you went to the UK originally?
It’s great doing these tours. I love it. We get in the middle of a bunch of concentrated gigs and it becomes something else, like a machine. It’s great. Plus we get to catch up with friends overseas. I don’t see it as a vindication really. I didn’t expect anything in the first place. I was happy the way the band was going in the early bands just from the notoriety we were getting for being ourselves, not even going out of our way to stir people up. That UK tour in 1978 in weird. Because the perceived information is that it was really bloody hard and it did really badly. But the truth is that virtually all gigs did really well. We were confronted by a fairly hostile English music press and maybe we were our own worst enemies. We had never been away for a protracted period before, living in close quarters and that wasn’t good socially for the band. That’s where the main problems came from. But in some ways all that hostility from outside sources, to used your phrase steeled our resolve as much as anything else. Us against them. It made things solid because, and it sounds a little corny but it the gave it the element of the crusade about it. Fuck them, we’ll do this. Rightly or wrongly, it doesn’t matter. It’s a point that we could all get behind so you can stick it up ’em.
Interview by Ian Bell
Radio Birdman play at The Gov on Sunday September 30 with special guests Los Chicos and The Sunday Reeds.
* The DVD contains over an hour of extra material and a 16 page booklet. And there is also a limited edition Directors Cut Box Set containing the DVD (with a download of an extra 30 minutes of footage), Descent slip mat, double vinyl and CD versions of the Funhouse Jukebox soundtrack, plus stickers, press photos, etc – available from