When two major guitar wielders with the rock ‘n’ roll pedigrees of James “The Skull” Williamson and Deniz “Iceman” Tek join forces, it is a time for celebration, especially in these dark times. The pair have done it again on Two To One, a new album released this week. James “The Hound” Marshall spoke with both James and Deniz for PKM.
In these days of diminished expectations when anyone over 40 who can still hold a guitar gets labeled “legendary”, it’s nice to hear a new record that actually delivers the goods.
You can’t argue the credentials of the players here: James “The Skull” Williamson, bad ass Stooges guitar slinger, the man who wrote and wielded guitar on Raw Power, Kill City and other stone cold Stooges’ masterpieces turned tech wiz turned comeback kid of the century. Then there’s Deniz Tek guitarist/songwriter from Australia via Ann Arbor, Michigan who led Radio Birdman from birth through their 21-century reunion, made a half dozen classic solo albums (the last four Detroit, Mean Old Twister and the instrumental “soundtracks for imaginary films”- Lost For Words,and Fast Freight I think are his best work ever), not to mention the Soul Movers, the Visitors, New Race (with Ron Asheton), Dodge Main (with Wayne Kramer), Powertrane (with the Rationals’ Scott Morgan and Stooges drummer Scott Asheton). He has also worked with the Lipstick Killers, Angie Pepper, the Flamin’ Groovies’ Roy Loney, Jeff Dahl, and innumerable other one offs. I’m out of breath just listing his musical accomplishments but he also found time to join the Navy and become both a jet pilot and Emergency Physician, holding the latter job until 2017.
Two To One (Cleopatra Records) really does deliver the goods. On his last album, James Williamson & the Pink Hearts’ Behind The Shade, James spread his musical palette wide. Here, he focuses it on what he’s best known for—powerful guitar riffs and explosive solos. The opener, “Jet Pack Nightmare,” acts as a mission statement with one of those thundering Williamson riffs that would be at home on any Stooges record. Deniz Tek brings his A-game, writing half and singing all the songs, and gets his share of guitar glory. It’s all blood, guts and fire from beginning to end and I can’t imagine any fan of the Stooges or Radio Birdman (is there anyone who is a fan of one and not the other? I think not…) being disappointed. I spoke with Deniz and James via Facetime recently to get the scoop and context of the eve of the release of Two To One.
JAMES WILLIAMSON DENIZ TEK VIDEO – “Stable” :
DENIZ TEK INTERVIEW
JM– To get some background, this is the second record you and James have made together. There was the Acoustic KO EP. It seems like the most natural thing in the world that you two would find each other, but how did you actually get together?
DT– I grew up in Ann Arbor, I’ve been a Stooges fan ever since I was in high school. I graduated high school in 1970 so for me being a kid in Ann Arbor was really perfect, we didn’t even know how good we had it. Then I moved to Australia and in 1973 Raw Power came out; that’s when I first heard James Williamson. I missed out on that era when they had two guitar players. Of course, I’ve been reading about this in Creem and wondering, what’s a Stooges album without Ron Asheton on guitar gonna be like? So it took about five seconds after the needle hit the record. It was the Stooges and the guitar was really featured on that album. It’s way up in the mix.
JM– It’s the only thing in the mix.
DT– Yeah, that and the vocals, pretty much. So for me, that was fascinating, I never heard anyone play like that before. Then fast forward to 2011, I got to play at the Ron Asheton Memorial in Ann Arbor. At this time there was a Raw Power version of the Stooges going on. So James did a set of Raw Power songs and I did a set of older songs with them. That’s when we met, at that concert.
JM– With the symphonic introduction!
DT– Yeah, it was really amazing. Back in Ann Arbor, the mayor gave Iggy the key to the city. It was unbelievable. When I was a teenager, they were the most outrageous thing. I mean there was a lot of outrageous music happening in Ann Arbor but they were the furthest out there. This is going back before they had any songs. Now here’s the mayor giving Iggy the key to the city! It was just incredible. And I got talking to James and as it turns out we both have connections here in Hawaii. He has a house here, it’s about a half hour drive from where I’m sitting right now. My parents have this little farm. My dad died and I came here to help my mother more and more, and for the last three years Ann and I have been living here. So we’re neighbors with James and Linda, we get together and play tennis on Thursday afternoons, go out to dinner, and hang out. That’s how it all got started.
VIDEO: DENIZ TEK JAMES WILLIAMSON: “I need somebody” (from Acoustic KO):
JM– Two To One was recorded in California?
DT– Yeah, the backing tracks were all recorded at Studio D in San Francisco. It was an annex for the Record Plant in the old days, Record Plant is gone, but Studio D is still there. James had worked there before, he knew the room was amazing for drum sound. He really wanted to go there to record drums so I spent a week there before Christmas recording all the backing tracks.
JM– Who are the other musicians on it?
DT– The drummer is Mike Urbano. The bass player is Michael Scanland who James met when he guested on a Dead Boys set a Burger Boogaloo Fest, he was playing bass. I think Cheetah was the only original Dead Boy.
JM– It’s gotten to where bands are like baseball teams. Someone told me there are two Dr. Feelgood’s on the road, with no original members.
DT– I don’t think we’d ever do that. We don’t have all the original members of Radio Birdman but we have four members.
JM– I just watched the Radio Birdman documentary (Descent Into The Maelstrom). You have made an amazing number of records with Radio Birdman, solo, with Ron Asheton, (New Race) Wayne Kramer (Dodge Main), Scott Morgan (Powertrane), Roy Loney, you produced one of the few records I liked in the 80’s, the Lipstick Killers’ “Hindu Gods Of Love.” One of the few things that got my attention back then.
DT– That was recorded back in ’79.
JM– I think Greg Shaw (Bomp Records and Who Put The Bomp magazine) put it out here around ’83 or ’84. Greg gave it to me, it’s one of the rare modern records I played on my radio show back then. I always liked him because he had the 45’s column in Creem (Juke Box Jury). I love 45’s. He was a big influence on me.
There was a lot of outrageous music happening in Ann Arbor but they were the furthest out there. This is going back before they had any songs. Now here’s the mayor giving Iggy the key to the city!
DT– I have the same history, I was sharing a house with Rob Younger, this was even before we started the band together and he had every issue of Creem, and we’d just sit and read those things all the time. Finally meeting the guy was wonderful.
JM– He (Greg Shaw) managed the Flamin’ Groovies. All kinds of cool stuff. He was the first person I ever met who talked about the internet coming, way before it actually happened. I just saw the Creem documentary on Amazon.
DT– Is that good?
JM– Yeah, it’s great. It’s mostly about Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs and Barry Kramer. Fair enough, they were the most important guys there, but Ben Edmonds gets left out, he edited some of the best issues in between Marsh and Lester, ’73-’74. He went on to sign Mink DeVille to Capitol and Iggy Pop to Arista. He also helped get Kill City together. He died about five years ago. Pancreatic cancer, same thing that got Greg Shaw. But that’s my only complaint about the documentary. I guess when a documentary gets made the film maker has an agenda, so Barry Kramer’s son was the producer. I would guess it’s also a question of who do they have film footage of? Maybe there’s no footage of Ben Edmonds and Greg Shaw, so they got left out. Nowadays everything is documented. As soon as someone pulls out a guitar, 25 people pull out their phone and record it. But there’s no footage of Guitar Slim. So many greats where never filmed. Supposedly there’s a guy sitting on footage of Elmore James but he wants a fortune for it. No one’s ever got to see it.
Getting back to the record, it’s a straight-ahead two-guitar rock’n’roll record, people today don’t even understand what genre something like that it is. I mean two guitars, bass, drums, it’s almost like you guys are Jimmy Reed now.
DT– I don’t deserve it, but I’ll take it. I feel like that sometimes. You say rock’n’roll and people don’t even know what that means.
JM– Yeah, they think Motley Crue or Guns ‘N’Roses. That’s not rock’n’roll, but this (Two To One) is rock’n’roll flat out. You could pull any two songs off this record and they would be the best songs on anyone else’s record. There’s no duds.
DT– We worked really hard on that. We had a whole year to get this thing together. Once we signed up with Cleopatra Records we started working on it right away. James and I both have type AA personalities and we don’t waste time gettin’ stuff done. Cuz we’re busy, you know? So we got right on it, those songs really took place over a six month period. We threw a lot of idea out that we didn’t think were gonna make it and just kept the ones we thought were really good songs and worked on those, refined ‘em. There was not gonna be any half measures.
I’ve been reading about this in Creem and wondering, what’s a Stooges album without Ron Asheton on guitar gonna be like? So it took about five seconds after the needle hit the record.
JM– James Williamson doesn’t usually play with another guitar player.
DT– That’s right. The way he puts it is “he doesn’t leave a lot of air”. With me, I’m used to playing with another guitar player, I prefer to have another guitar player. So two completely different approaches.
JM– The video for “Stable” is out now. That’s almost got an (early) Stooges’ quote on there, especially when the piano comes in. That’s a classic already. “Jet Pack Nightmare” is a natural hit. Sort of a mission statement for the record.
DT– Both of those song ideas were James’. He wrote both of those tunes. A lot of the songs, I was very conscious that they were gonna have a James Williamson solo on them. And I wrote to that purpose. Like what do I put in the sixteen bars of this song that will be a backdrop to the kind of James Williamson solo that I want to hear. I’ve done that with other guitar players too, I’m used to that. Where as James comes up with these killer riffs that are straight ahead.
JM– He’s as unique as it gets. There’s no precedent for it (his guitar style).
DT– He’s more riff based, I’m more chord based. Chord progressions. When he does write chord progressions the changes are so fast that it’s like a riff in itself. It’s like a multi-dimensional riff.
JM– Off topic, you’ve got such a crazy story, between Radio Birdman and the later solo stuff and the Birdman reunion you were a jet pilot and a doctor. Are you still working as a surgeon?
DT– No. I was working emergency rooms but when we moved out here (Hawaii) I stopped.
JM– And now the coffee biz?
DT– Well, you know my mom has this farm where I am right now. It has macadamia nuts and coffee. That’s what we grow here. Ann, my wife, and I took over the running of it.
JM– So you’re a farmer now? Hard work.
DT– Yes. It can be tedious, and it definitely can be hard. When it gets too hard especially with things like picking. That’s brutal. I do as much of it as I can, then hire help.
JM– Getting back to the record, lyrically it’s a lot like your Detroit record. Looking at a world that doesn’t make sense anymore.
DT– Right. I wrote all the lyrics for “Progress” and “Climate Change.” “Stable” is all this guy Paul Nelson Kimble. He lives up in Oregon and writes with James. Those lyrics were so perfect I didn’t feel like I should mess with them at all, I left them alone. “Take A Look Around”, those lyrics are Frank Meyer.
JM– Nice rhyme, “the world is upside down”. I mean the world is upside down and sideways…
DT– And inside out. Even more so now than when it was written.
JM– Yeah, I spent five months in Arizona due to the plague. You know, it’s weird how many people think crystal meth, automatic weapons and children should all be in the same room together…Americans are so weird nowadays. It was a real eye opener to see who the real Trump Americans are. You don’t see ‘em in New York too much, except the cops. I mean in New York everyone knew him as the guy who doesn’t pay the plumbers, and carpenters and electricians and he fucked up a casino, two casinos. I mean push goes to the house, how can you fuck up a casino?
It’s weird how many people think crystal meth, automatic weapons and children should all be in the same room together…Americans are so weird nowadays.
DT– Well, people were looking for a scapegoat and he provided it. That majority of his followers don’t know who he is or what he’s done. It’s just a symbol that people want to get behind to change the situation they find themselves in. I’m speaking about a lot of poorly educated working class people in this country. They don’t like it and someone comes along and says “I’ll get your life back for you and I’m the only one who can do it”, and they believe it.
JM– I think a lot of it is that he hates what they hate. Meaning people of color. This guy who comes every month to help around the house is from Bosnia and he says modern America feels exactly like what it felt like in Yugoslavia when Milosevic took power. All of a sudden, his neighbors are trying to kill him. It went from normal to crazy almost overnight. He says this feels just like that. A scary thought.
DT– I would imagine it feels like if you were around Austria and Germany in the mid-30’s it feels something like that. I don’t know that he has anything inside except self-promotion. He was a big supporter of the Clintons.
JM– He understands the symbols to get that racist mentality stirred up and to use it for his purposes. But the other side is shit crazy too. College professors who have to memorize 62 different gender identifications.
DT– It’s absolutely insane. You can’t have free speech anymore, you can’t have a discussion. There are things you’re not allowed to say, it’s like back in Victorian times. A mixture of Victorian times and the Red Guard.
JM– Yeah, Lolita couldn’t be published today. The cancel culture idea is scary. It’s like that Stooges’ outtake I Drop Boxed you (“Nigger Man)”, I can’t send that to everyone.
DT– I draw the dotted line on that to (Iggy songs) “African Man” and “New Values”. You probably couldn’t put those out today.
JM– Yeah, it’s not like Iggy is a racist, he married a Nigerian. It’s just language. When you invest this mystical power in these words you give them power they don’t deserve. I guess that was Lenny Bruce’s theory. But you’re working in a culture that doesn’t remember a time when you could live a free life, off to the side. It’s so expensive to live now you can’t have a bohemian existence. I arrived in New York with $200 in my pocket. That world is gone. Life is now inside a phone. The process of discovery is gone, now with everything at you fingertips your brain has to filter things out. My generation was too dumb for jazz but now we’ve bred a generation too dumb for rock’n’roll. That’s really fucked up.
DT– Yeah, that’s hard to get your head around.
JM– It would be nice to see some live shows with you and James, if it ever becomes possible to play gigs again.
DT– Yeah, we were just talking about this yesterday. Even when venues open up, will we ever see concerts the way we do concerts? A thousand people just going completely crazy, slamming into each other in a hall or big club. Are people gonna say we don’t wanna do that anymore? Even if it’s not Covid, it may be something else. That might be gone, I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t wanna play concerts where everybody has to sit at a table or be a certain distance apart. It wouldn’t be any fun.
JM- It wouldn’t make sense. It’s not the way rock’n’roll works. Little by little, the things we took for granted are disappearing. Think about when we were growing up, drummers on records. Ringo didn’t sound like Charlie Watts who didn’t sound like Keith Moon who didn’t sound like Al Jackson. You could tell who was playing drums, they all had their own sound. Producers would never let someone play drums like that on a record nowadays. It’s all perfect, pre-fabricated, sterile, machine sounds. The ones that come built into any computer. Every drum hit is exactly the same. Taking that away, it’s like something has been stolen from our culture.
I certainly wouldn’t wanna play concerts where everybody has to sit at a table or be a certain distance apart. It wouldn’t be any fun.
DT– The heart has been taken out. The beating heart of rock’n’roll is drums. You lose all the personal things that they do. Did you happen to read Mike Edison’s book (Sympathy For The Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters)?
JM– Yeah. I mean, he gets it. He started out as a drummer. He hears a lot of things on Rolling Stones’ records that I never even thought about. It was fun to read that then go back and listen to the tracks he talks about.
DT– I think that’s a wonderful book.
JAMES WILLIAMSON INTERVIEW
JM- Are you near the fires?
JW– We’re not on fire, but the air is full of smoke and it’s hazy. It’s really awful.
JM– Stuck in California, you can’t get to Hawaii because of the plague?
JW– No, just kind of locked up here. The worst part is it’s not over because we’re not even in fire season yet. What’d ya gonna do?
JM– Yeah, now we have hurricane season here (NYC), which we never had before, until recently. The last ten years.
JW– Yeah, and the plague on top of everything else. It’s like Yippee man!
JM– Yeah, the dystopian future we all knew would come some day is here. It came faster because there’s idiots running everything.
JW– Let’s hope that doesn’t last much longer.
JM– I love the record Two To One. We’ve been blasting it since we got it.
JW– Does Gillian like it?
JM– Yeah, it’s the only new record we’ve been playing over and over again. Non-stop. Especially since we have to work out in the house. It’s such a straight ahead rock’n’roll record. There aren’t any records like this anymore.
JW– Glad to hear it. I don’t know if it’s just me, but the music coming out has just been so lame. I don’ get it, you know.
JM– I do think the technology factor, making everything sound so perfect, makes it all sound the same. It’s awful. I was taking about this with Deniz. It all sounds like processed cheese. It’s a symptom of a much bigger problem that’s affected humanity in a bad way.
JM– How did this record (Two To One) come about? In seven years, you’ve done three alums, three singles and an EP. You seem to have no problem coming up with material.
JW– You know, you gotta do something. I’ve been doing an odd few tracks for Cleopatra- Mitch Ryder (“Devil With The Blues Dress”), Cherie Currie (“Leader Of The Pack”), even David Hasselhof.
JW– Yeah, that was fun. I got to know Matt Green who is a vice president at Cleopatra and he came to some Pink Hearts live shows and he suggested Deniz and I should do an album after he heard Acoustic KO. He wanted an electric album of new material. I bounced it around with Deniz and we decided why not? We had a lot of time to do it, our final drop dead date was like a year from when we started. We started writing last summer (2019).
JM– There’s a name on the song writing credits I didn’t recognize.
JW– Paul Nelson Kimble or Frank Meyer?
JM– Frank Meyer is the Street Walkin’ Cheetah’s guy who was in the Pink Hearts? Who is Paul Nelson Kimble?
JW– Yeah, Frank was on the Pink Hearts thing. Paul Nelson Kimble is someone I’ve known since he was in a band called the Careless Hearts. I played a live show with them when I first got back into playing, before the Stooges thing. He’s a very good lyricist. He did the lyrics on a few songs on the Pink Hearts record. I don’t write lyrics so I had him, Frank Meyer and Deniz helped on some of the lyrics to my songs too. He massaged ‘em a little bit.
JM– What’s your writing process? Do you come up with a title and tell ‘em to go write lyrics or do you sit down with a guitar and write together?
JW– None of the above. I wait until I get an inspiration and then when I get something I like, something I can play three or four times and I still like it, then I’ll start lookin’ for the lyrics. Basically hand off the tune to whoever’s gonna do it. Let them take a crack at it. There may be some back and forth if they feel that there needs to be a bridge or a chorus, but normally it’s pretty close to what I give ‘em. That’s pretty much how I did it with Iggy. I can’t really do it well the other way around. Give me the lyrics and write the song— I don’t think so.
JM– The band on it, the drummer you’ve been working with for a while (Michael Urbano), where did the bass player come from?
JW– Michael Scanland. I played a festival as a guest for Cheetah Chrome, he wanted me to play a couple of songs with the Dead Boys at Burger Fest. We rehearsed a couple of times. He was playing in Cheetah’s band and he was good and I liked him and I didn’t have a bass player so I asked him if he wanted to do the record. He said “Hell yeah, I’m in”. He had a great attitude. A lot of times the bass player can be the weak link, they can be difficult and I think “why don’t I just play bass myself”? But this guy was good and it worked out really well.
JM– You’re not known for playing with other guitar players.
JW– Right, I didn’t on this either. The video shows us playing at the same time but we didn’t do that. I don’t leave a lot of air. What we did was, on my tracks I played rhythm guitar and he (Deniz) would play lead guitar on some of them. On his tracks he’d play rhythm guitar and I’d play lead guitar on some of them. We tracked the basic tracks live. We were up in a fantastic room up in Sausalito called Studio D. Acoustically phenomenal, the room is what you want. That’s where you get great drum sound. We were all playing together live. We knocked it out in five days. The guitars solos and vocals were overdubbed.
JM– You can’t beat the sound of a band playing live.
JW– Yeah, that’s what everyone does it for. The feeling of playing live.
JM– “Jet Pack Nightmare” is already something of a classic. I guess that’s what you’re known for that kind of killer guitar riff.
JW– That one is a challenge even for me even. I wrote it, but it’s technically difficult to play. You try playing that for five or six takes in a row.
JM– The video is for “Stable”. There’s a lyrical theme through the record, I don’t want to say socially conscious but it’s different from anything else you’ve done.
JW– I can’t take credit for that. I did pick the guys the wrote ‘em. “Stable” is written by Paul Kimble, he’s a very interesting, complex guy. He has meaning in his songs, he may never tell you what they are, he’ll leave it up to you. Always a good sign in a lyricist. He’s had some real challenges in his own life, his wife passed away from cancer. He had to bring up his kids himself, I don’t know if that’s related to that song or not, but everything that happens to you relates when your writing songs. Frank Meyer wrote “Take A Look Around”, that’s pretty apropos these days.
JM– Lyrically the record reflects a world gone shit crazy.
JW– Pretty much. I guess if you’re looking for a dance record, this isn’t it.
JM– It’s a flat out high energy rock’n’roll record.
JW– What I like about it is the mixture of Deniz’ stuff and my stuff together, his stuff is almost like punk-surf drivin’ down the highway havin’ a good time- all upbeat, uptempo intermixed with this other stuff which is a little more musically complicated. But you don’t want everything to be complicated. You want to feel good sometimes. We come from the same general musical sensibility having come from the Detroit/Ann Arbor area. We’ve all heard the same bands, and that comes through.
JM– He’s the only musician to play onstage with the Stooges who wasn’t in the Stooges.
JW– Yeah. He was a friend of Ronnie Asheton’s and he was influenced by Ronnie a lot in learning how to play. So he was a friend and that’s why he was asked to come in and play those album one and two songs. That’s the first time I met him. He’d moved to Australia early on. I was only in Ann Arbor for about a year. I never ran into him because he was younger and wasn’t hanging around with any of us then. Probably ostracized for being younger. Later he did Radio Birdman which was very influenced by the Stooges. It was fun to meet him.
I got to know Matt Green who is a vice president at Cleopatra and he came to some Pink Hearts live shows and he suggested Deniz and I should do an album after he heard Acoustic KO. He wanted an electric album of new material. I bounced it around with Deniz and we decided why not?
We got lucky on this record, we recorded in December then took it over to Hawaii to do some of Deniz’ vocals and guitar overdubs and then I brought it back to San Fransisco to do my overdubs then we mixed it. I was waiting to do the mastering with a guy I like to use in San Francisco and that’s when the shut down came. We were lucky Cleopatra had somebody, the guy I was gonna use was shut down and couldn’t work. So Cleopatra had a guy who did a good job and they were able to squeeze it in at the pressing plants and here we are. Most albums aren’t able to get anything out or are being held back in hopes that they can tour.
JM– You made a video.
JW– They shot that when we were in the studio. They came in and did photos and filmed that. In hindsight I wish we’d done a second video for “Jet Pack Nightmare”. That’s the one that’s getting a lot of attention.
JM– It’s a natural.
JW– One thing I like about this record is all the songs are short, 3-4 minutes songs, old school. Get on, get off. There might be one song that’s four minutes. I just saw that David Johansen video and like, you know he did it, nice job, but it’s so fuckin’ long by the time you get to the four minute mark it’s like “when is this over”?
JM– I’m not so sure about white guys singing in patios’ dialect. There’s something black face about it. It’s not as good as the Mighty Sparrow’s chicken commercials. But God love him if he can make a living at it.
JW– What are you favorite songs on the record?
JM– “Jetpack Nightmare”, “Stable”, “Take A Look Around”. I like “Climate Change” a lot. At first look at the title I was thinkin’ it’s a little obvious but it’s got a great lyric. Very Barry McGuire. Musically it’s great. Ask me in a year, it might be all different. With Re-Licked it took about a year before I realized how great “She Creatures Of The Hollywood Hills” was, I didn’t like it at first, now I think it’s great.
VIDEO: DENIZ TEK JAMES WILLIAMSON: “Jet Pack Nightmare”:
JW– I have to say, I’ve heard these song a million times now and I’m not tired of it.
JM– Most records now only have one or two decent songs, you can take any two of these at random and base a whole album around them.
JW– I hope people who buy it are sophisticated enough to see that. None of us are spring chickens anymore. I have to say my kids really enjoy this record too. Europeans and Australians are more hip to this kind of stuff.
JM– I think any Stooges fan will like this record.
JW– I feel like we got it right. Just to make a good guitar record, old school, not overproduce it.
JM– It’s got everything you’d want— killer riffs, explosive solos, dynamics. I love it.
JW– Good deal.