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INTERVIEW – Rob Younger, Radio Birdman – October 2014

| 6 November 2014 | Reply

INTERVIEW – Rob Younger, Radio Birdman – October 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

It hardly seems possible that kings of the Australian underground Radio Birdman have been a thing for forty years, but they’re capping 2014 off with a comprehensive box set featuring all their albums plus unreleased bonus material, and a trip around the country to shout ‘yeah, HUP’ one more time.

Singer Rob Younger says he felt more than just nostalgia listening back to the albums, citing “there’s such a distance between the way you feel you sound and the way you actually did sound at the time, that sometimes it’s unreachable. It’s really weird actually. I’ve found that I was more curious as to the way I felt a little bit displaced by listening to the whole thing.”

In the sense that it’s listening to someone else almost?

“Yes, I’m not putting it very well, but yes, something a little like that, yeah,” he says thoughtfully. “That was kind of interesting, but I can’t still speak on anyone else’s behalf. I was kind of happy that hear things that I thought I’d be rather uncomfortable with actually sounding sort of okay or maybe it’s just that the perspective I have now let’s me tolerate it a little more – because I’ve always been so self-critical that I actually can’t objectively listen to my own music most of the time anyway.”

Radio Birdman 2014 01

Google any interview of the past couple of decades where Younger is questioned about what may remain unheard in the Radio Birdman vaults and you’ll read him bursting the bubble of thought that there was anything left worthy of release, yet guitarist & songwriter Deniz Tek has found a few noteworthy track for inclusion on the box set.

“Yes, that’s right. I haven’t heard all the curiosities – well, whatever they may be called – on this, but of the outtakes, I’ve heard one thing. It’s the MC5 cover we did of Shakin’ Street. Otherwise, I’ve just heard the albums that have already been released. Of course, I’m very familiar with that and [I heard] the live one [Radio Birdman’s infamous Paddington Town Hall concert from December 1977] as it was mastered. These outtakes, I don’t even know what they are.

“I kept my distance because, when all this was proposed – it was quite a while ago actually – I wasn’t in the frame of mind to do it. I didn’t really feel included… through my own doing. So I kept my distance anyway. I’m far more involved with it now – so I might have to actually listen to all this stuff and sort of find a viewpoint or something so I can actually comment on it,” he say with a wry laugh.

From what we know about Youngers career from Birdman through The New Christs and a huge body of work as a producer, I that he seems far more at ease working in the now rather than working with stuff that happened so many years ago.

“Yeah. Well, it’s much more interesting to do something like that – a new project, whatever it might be,” the singer agree. “It’s complex. You mentioned the nostalgic aspect, but there are others as well. Sometimes you’re just wrestling with the idea that, Jesus, ‘is this shit any good?’ you know? You often don’t know. I don’t know… does that answer the question? I don’t think it does really… My overview on things is often at odds with other people, so I shouldn’t really bang on about it, in any case.”

Radio Birdman 1977

The 1977 Paddington Town Hall show occurred just before the band boarded a plane for London, from whence they imploded a few month later. Those shows have gone down in Birdman folklore, with even Tek publically commenting that it was amongst the best shows the band ever played. Since he was at the remastering of the tapes, I asked Younger if they lived up to the near-forty-years hype.

“Does it reflect the gig as I remember it – is that what you mean?” he snorts. “I really have trouble answering that because, for one thing, I wasn’t really aware of any hype surrounding it at any case. Any level of expectation either. It’s a raw document of the show. It seems to capture the atmosphere of the gig. To me, it wasn’t our best gig, but it was enjoyable. It was the last gig we played in Australia before we split for England in ’78, so in terms of the group, perhaps that’s significant; I’m not sure.

“People talk about these times as heydays, the primitive period, the golden era, all this sort of crap,” Younger continues. “If any of those terms apply, this was the last gig from that time. When we went to England, we did a lot of gigs, went over very, very well, but got caned in the press a lot of the time and internally we just screwed it all up, really; we imploded. That was a pretty miserable time.

“But that’s just typical of most bands: the reason most bands break up is because they don’t get along anymore,” he says plainly.

Younger says the band haven’t reformed solely to publicise the new release… well, not exactly.

“Umm… no, not purely so, but I don’t think it would’ve happened had there been no box set. Probably. But the idea is, of course, well, it might be fun as well!

“You incorporate that, you want the band to play well and a band gets along well when they are playing well at the show. The idea’s not to go out there and say ‘look at us’ – it’s not an advertisement for a bloody record. We have no standards whatsoever, other than that we need to turn up on time. We want the gigs to be good, you know, people to have a good evening. It’s the way we always played the shows anyway. That’s what we intend to do again. It should be fine; rehearsals are going okay.”

Featuring founding members Younger, guitarist Deniz Tek and keyboard player Pip Hoyle, Birdman have also invited along some friends including bassist Jim Dickson. Ex-guitarist Chris Masuak has publically voiced his anger at not being included, [“Yeah, I noticed that,” says Younger, giving nothing away] but Younger says it wasn’t his decision, despite the long-held antipathy between the two.

“Are relations between the two of us simply unsalvageable? Yes – but I didn’t exclude him from the band. He published a statement. I can understand why he’d be gutted by it, but my view is it would have been naive of him to think anything would’ve happened other than what has happened. I didn’t exclude him from the band even though he thinks that’s the case. I was offered to participate on the basis that he wasn’t in the band.

“Despite what anyone may think – if the subject is indeed worth entertaining at all as anything of importance – it wasn’t actually my idea,” he says, obviously disdainful of the time taken to even have to answer the question.

He has a point, of course: As much as we want our bands to be gangs, groups of friends who stick together til the end, more often than not they are more of a business – and in rock n’ roll, usually a ramshackle one at that. Over 40 years, people come and go from any organisation – it’s kind of a natural evolution especially in a creative sense, and doubly so in a band.

“That’s right; that’s true,” agrees Younger. “You have to sort of weigh that up against the reason why we’re doing this. As we just discussed, largely the reason is to promote the box set – if it was going to happen at all, this is the only way it probably would’ve been able to happen in any case.

“The other thing is, of course- – fans of the band or whomever, are they the arbiters of who should be part of the group? Are they the ones who are supposed to be saying these are the people you’re supposed to be playing with? Is that really any of their fucking business?

“[And] gangs don’t last forever either for that matter,” he adds.

So is anyone indispensable? The thought of a Radio Birdman without Tek or Younger just seems wrong.

“I think that’s probably true. Yes, apart from the fact that Deniz and I started the group. When you’ve got the lead singer and the guitar player that wrote virtually everything the band recorded – they’re so central to the whole project that it would be difficult to imagine people without it.

“Look at the shit that The Saints caught when Ed [Keupper] went one way and Chris [Bailey] went another and Chris kept the name the same. I heard so much shit about that. You know… what do you do? You play and you do what you think is appropriate at the time. It’s not, anyway, for other people to say who we can or can’t play with.”

There are few Australian indie outfits from the past twenty or so years that Younger hasn’t produced in the studio. From The Lime Spiders and Hard-Ons to more cultish acts like The Psychotic Turnbuckles, he’s worked with them all, including local dynamos The Volcanics, [“they’re nice people,” says Younger] who will be supporting Birdman in Perth. Younger rates his work with Ron S Peno’s Died Pretty as amongst his best in the production field.

“I really rate The Died Pretty as a band. I think my involvement with them is something I can probably cherish. I think they’re the best band [Australia] ever had actually, so I’m happy to have been associated with that. I did a record recently that I’m proud of being involved with because I like the record and I like the people so much. It’s a Brisbane band called HITS [the album, Hikikomori, is released through the Conquest Of Sound label]. I don’t know if you’ve heard the band, but they’re really good. They’re playing on this tour – supporting us on a lot of those gigs [on the East Coast] actually. Do yourself a favour and hear the group.”

When questioned about the chances of a new Radio Birdman album, Younger leaves the door open.

“I don’t know; I couldn’t possibly say. I can tell you quite honestly, there’s nothing planned at the moment. But I couldn’t rule it out. I was ruling out ever getting back together when left the band about 7 or 8 years ago. You know, you believe some things you say, you believe them when you’re saying them, and you don’t think much will change. So… I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Having seriously influenced the likes of Hoodoo Gurus and Silverchair and all sorts of other acts that went on to the greater chart success, Younger denies he has any hard feelings about the industry not allowing the band to be more financially successful.

“No hard feelings – [but] it would’ve been nice to have made a bit of bread,” he says. “Having said that, it’s the songwriters who are generally raking in most of the dough anyway, isn’t it? With Radio Birdman, I really wasn’t one – until more recently anyway. So, no hard feelings there whatsoever.

“I’ve always had, pretty much, a lot of disdain for the music business. I know a lot call it the music industry; I prefer business because it characterises it a little bit more accurately for me. I thought about that when we were up for the Aria. [The band refused to accept nomination into the Aria Hall Of Fame in 2006, but finally acquiesced in 2007 to pacify friends & family who wanted to see them acknowledged for their contribution to Australian rock n’ roll]

“I didn’t really want to accept [the Aria] because I didn’t think the music business was ever really on our side, but there were people that did help us out, whether they were journalists or the odd agent or whatever. But generally, of course, I was always on my high horse about what assholes most of the people in the music business were, but I was just scattering my antipathy around at the world really. I don’t know where it all fell,” he says, laughing, “whether it landed on the right people or anything like that.

“But I’m equally as self critical, you know,” Younger laughs again, “so at least it shows some balance… Still, on the question – I’d have been happy to have made a lot of money out of it, but no, it wasn’t the case.”

Money aside, you’d think that after 40 years, a bunch of reunion tours and albums, and the legend of the band building to a large scale, albeit on a cult and underground level, that most people now “get it” – understand the band and their music. Younger’s not so sure.

“After that long, you’d think so, wouldn’t you?” he laughs, sarcastically. “But… um, well, the music has its context. People coming to the music now kind of hear a type of music they’ve been – probably, in a general sense – thoroughly familiarised with. It might not even be 40 years old; it might only be 20 years old, but they’ve heard all this stuff.

“In our context, we sounded a certain way when we started out and at that point, we were flung out of places for being a certain way, for sounding a certain way, for acting a certain way. I don’t think if we came out now – completely theoretically all this, of course – if an identical band came out right now, it’s not going to sound different from everything else, is it?

“You really can’t say how these things are, how people should view it. To me, it’s straight-forward stuff. It was always very simple music and not that hard to get into. I think the way we presented it put a lot of people off – but that was good for us, because getting flung out of venues and so forth, being considered to be quite obnoxious… It actually brings people to your music as well. Some people are like, ‘I think I might be interested in that.’ You pull in some people and push others away.

To some, the very state of a band being ‘cult’ is enough for them to investigate.

“Yeah, that’s true, I suppose,” continues Younger. “Really, there’s just so much music that people hear that doesn’t sound very different. If you just extend your imagination a little bit, [you can think] ‘from what I know about music around that time or from what I know about music that existed then, this was radical or this was whatever it was.’ I didn’t really think we were doing anything particularly groundbreaking at the time, but it was a little different from the stuff that we were seeing a lot of bands around Sydney were playing.

“There was a lot of blues bands, quite a few bands wanting to play, sort of British heavy rock like Deep Purple and Sabbath and things like that at the time. We always seemed to be at odds with a lot of people there that wanted to hear that kind of thing, I suppose. We used to get a lot of snubs from bands around the place – in rehearsal rooms we’d pass them in the corridor and they’d be looking at us like we were pieces of shit!” he laughs. “They must’ve heard what we were playing coming through the walls and concluded that we were beyond help or something.”

The difference between those snobs who couldn’t see the value in what Radio Birdman were doing forty years ago, and the band themselves, is that they’re not now reforming four decades on and releasing a box set of everything they did…

“Ha!” exclaims the singer, “well, if you think that’s having the last laugh on somebody then… forty years later it’s small comfort – but yeah, that might be true.”

I proceed to tell Rob Younger that my first exposure to the band was probably watching Rock Arena in the mid-80s, and seeing four songs recorded live at the Marryatville Hotel a decade earlier. It was seminal stuff and set me off on a journey to discover short, sharp, loud garage rock – especially that with an Australian flavour.

Those four songs and interview segments are now on YouTube, and watching them again was a visceral experience, especially when Younger takes a slug from his orange juice carton and, with a mischievous glint in his eye, pronounces ‘I like to get myself into a state where I’m not aware of what I do at all, yet somehow I get it all out. How about that!’ It’s a shamanistic concept, at the very least.

“Like becoming a kind of unaware or something…” recalls Younger. “Yeaah… you want it to be liberating; you want to be freed by the music to feel completely able to, you know, throw yourself out there and at least consider the possibility that you’re liberated and anything could happen, so you allow for that. It doesn’t mean that anything is going to happen. It doesn’t even mean that you’re doing anything anyone else isn’t doing, but nonetheless, it’s getting to a particular state where it’s interesting, it’s gratifying if you think you’re achieving it.

“But it sounds a little bit dodgy and pretentious actually to actually say it,” he laughs, “I’m feeling that as I’m saying it. You just want to get yourself into some kind of state that’s not the usual state that you’re in, which is normalcy and pretty much boring everyday existence. You’re playing in a band for a reason so something’s got to be elevated, for God’s sake, so there’s some sort of heightened experience.”

Radio Birdman – Tek and Younger circa 1977

Musicians have used drugs, amongst other things, to get into that state for many decades. Was this just a natural channelling of your own energy, or were Radio Birdman on something else?

“Well we don’t talk about it…” he says coyly, “but if you’re driven to some sort of area by this activity that you’re all sharing, participating in, then that might be an interesting place to go. It’s also a little bit pretentious to talk about it. You’re just playing rock and roll songs – we’re just people who are getting pissed in a hotel really, aren’t we? But don’t we all think that perhaps there’s got to be some kind of meaning behind what you’re doing, so you think up all these things, these reasons as to why, you know? So you can justify this self importance.

“I really like playing gigs,” he continues, somewhat tangentially, “I still do, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Back then, it was a bit different in a way. It was odd playing shows; it was almost more of a poetic event than a musical one. I learned later on actually how to listen to a group and put the songs across but have a listening experience as well and not just throw myself around, thinking that this is cathartic, and this is the wildness that everything needs and all this other stuff was great. I’m just talking about myself here, not how other people should necessarily think.

“I sorted all this out when I started playing, I think with the line-up of the New Christs with Charlie Owens – because at that point I started listening to the band and getting a better idea about how to put it all across. That was from touring Europe and so forth. I found myself musically – cheesy as that sounds – around about then, which is a good 10 years after that [Radio Birdman] period we have been talking about.

“I remember that ABC show and all of that, and people were, ‘what were you drinking? I know it was a big orange juice container, but it must have had vodka in there, right?’ As if somehow that would do,” he laughs sardonically, “and that makes me sound more rock or something like that. More comfort to them. ‘Was it laced with something?’ Jesus Christ, I don’t get it. That was just one gig – and it was very awkward because they gave me two microphones [taped together] because one was for the video recording, [and] one was for the in-house PA. That was very awkward, I found it off-putting. I also found it off-putting when you jump into the crowd that they would actually move out of the way and let me hit the bloody floor. It wasn’t a high stage anyway, so no harm done there.”

With our time almost up, I put it to Younger that for a band who formed deliberately to do their own thing outside of commercial constraints, he must appreciate the irony that here they are forty years later reforming again for another tour and re-releasing their albums.

“I suppose it’s ironic…” he concedes, “but we didn’t start out really to be uncommercial. We’re happy [to be], but we thought that the music we were playing, because it was different enough from the bands around the place, that it would either attract attention or it would get completely ignored. We also thought that if we come on strongly then people aren’t going to ignore us, but I don’t know that we thought the music itself was so radical.

“It just happened to be a little to the side of what the mainstream was. When you look back on it, of course, it’s not that different – it’s only 3 or 4 chord rock and roll isn’t it, after all?

“But yeah, I suppose it is ironic. I find it a little ironic. I also find it ironic that the people that you listen to that inspired you to play that sort of music since I’ve actually played onstage with a lot of them, with Iggy Pop and with guys from The MC5 and I met the [New York] Dolls and that sort of thing. I’m not trying to drop names here; I’m just saying the whole idea of like minded people gravitating towards something, it actually happens quite a lot and that’s the odd thing.

“To actually have played with some of these people that I admired and that inspired me is really kind of… It amuses me. It doesn’t have any particular meaning beyond that. I just think it’s odd that it has happened and I think there’s some irony in some of that. Plus, I got to play with guys from Blue Oyster Cult last year in Melbourne. I mean, imagine when I first bought their album and I’m lying on the floor of my lounge room in Paddington with my head between the speakers thinking, ‘fuck this is great! Where do these guys come from? What do they do?’ And then find that forty years later, they’re actually backing you up on the stage at a gig!

Having first bought Radios Appear when I was around 16 years old (that’s over thirty year ago, for those who care) that’s exactly how I feel talking with Rob now.

“I see – well, that’s right then,” he says, somewhat dumbfounded that would make the parallel. “You’re interested in music. You’ve obviously maintained an interest and somehow we got to talk to each other on the bloody phone. You think talking to me on the telephone is exciting…” he says with a laugh. “If that’s the chickens coming home to roost – well, good luck! You know what I’m saying – these things somehow occur and it’s kind of strange and funny and also ironic.”

And with an exchange of thankyous, our time is up – but not before Younger throws one more quote at me as we’re both hanging up.

“Yeah, I hope people come along to the gig. It should be okay. I’m looking forward to hooking up with the guys in The Volcanics as much as anything else, but we’re going to have some fun surely.”

Radio Birdman wrap their Australian tour up this weekend:
Friday 7th November 2014 – The Hi-Fi – Brisbane QLD
Saturday 8th November 2014 – The Gov – Adelaide SA
Sunday 9th November 2014 – Rosemount Hotel – Perth WA

This story was first published in edited form in X-Press Magazine’s 4 November 2014 issue

Category: Interviews

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