Deniz Tek: Renaissance Man

Deniz Tek is ambidextrously inclined, as the right and left hemispheres of his brain control completely different enterprises: medicine and rock and roll.

One of the most influential musicians in Australian rock, Deniz is a modern renaissance man. He’s a Naval flight surgeon who specialized in emergency and aerospace medicine, an emergency room doctor who ran St. Vincent Healthcare’s Helicopter Emergency Lifesaving Program while also serving as the director of the ER from 1992 to 2002, and was named one of the top ten Australian guitarists of all time. His band—Radio Birdman—helped launch an entire movement of rock music across the sixth largest country in the world.

Deniz has balanced this timeshare over the years by segmenting his musical and medical lives. “I can’t do either full time, and I’m willing to sacrifice a little time from each to maintain both,” Deniz said in a recent phone interview. He doesn’t have an office practice, so he’s able to take time off from the ER without abandoning a patient to play music and tour.

Deniz brings ferocity to his music in the same way he brings intensity to the ER. He’s the original Iceman whose call name was immortalized by Val Kilmer in “Top Gun,” and he now splits his time between working emergency rooms in Sydney, touring internationally, and recording his music. He has dual citizenship in Australia and the U.S. and maintains a home in Billings, returning each year because there’s something enchanting about this little city that has kept up with the allure of Europe, Australia, and the Motor City, where Deniz first formed his legendary sound.

Australia-Bound

Deniz was raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, an hour west of Detroit. His father was a first generation Turkish immigrant (Deniz is a Turkish given name), his mother an American. He grew up listening to early ‘60s surf rock and hot rod music. He was hooked on the Ventures, Phil Spector, and Dick Dale—all the music that was big before the British invaded.

“I was just learning to play the guitar and was really interested in that kind of music,” Deniz said.

Deniz began taking guitar lessons at age 12 and started his first band a year later, merging his early surf rock influences with the sounds coming from Detroit in the mid 70s, a gritty in-your-face workingman’s rock and roll.

Ann Arbor, with its particular mix of beatniks and artists, academics and hipsters living among industrial folk working in huge car factories and machine shops, was uniquely positioned to create high-octane rock and roll—a direct response to this blue-collar-meets-avant-garde scene.

Detroit was churning out bands such as MC5 and Ann Arbor replied with The Stooges, who laid a bass line of volatile rebellious rock that had never been heard before. Deniz recalled it being an incredible place for music, if only briefly.

“It was at the forefront of everything in those days—way ahead of L.A. and London.”

At age 18, Deniz took his Motor City musical background to Sydney, Australia, which had lingered in his memory since visiting five years earlier with his parents.

“Being near the ocean was a big deal, especially for a kid growing up in the Detroit area,” Deniz said. “I wanted to surf, to be out on my own and very far away from where I grew up.”

The roots of Deniz’s sound, all that high-energy rock and roll, was a new language in the land down under. Deniz took this fast and frantic Detroit rock sound and in 1974 formed Radio Birdman, a group long associated with the Australian punk rock movement, yet their sound—a kind of full-contact high-intensity rock—predated punk.

“Before ‘punk,’ they didn’t have a label for us,” Deniz said. “They didn’t know what we were. We were getting thrown out of gigs, and we only became acceptable because they could put a label on it and they could see there was some commercial viability to it. When punk actually hit, the only thing we had in common was the energy level involved and playing fast.”

Flew the Coop

In 1976, Radio Birdman was picked up by Sire Records and had evolved into a six-piece with keyboard and fairly complex song arrangements—a far cry from the gritty dissonance of the punk movements of the mid to late ‘70s. They launched out on a European tour with the Flamin’ Groovies, wrapping in mid 1978. They were slated to tour North America with the Ramones, which would have launched the band across the American music scene, but Sire Records filed for bankruptcy and dropped most of their bands, including Radio Birdman.

“We found ourselves without a label, without tour support, and with our album sitting in warehouses,” Deniz said. The group had no viable way to get their album in the hands of listeners, so in mid 1978 Radio Birdman wandered back to Australia, where the group dissolved.

“I think we were a better fit for America than the UK,” Deniz said. “Under another trajectory, things would have a lot different.”

Deniz moved back to the U.S. in the early ‘80s, after having been in Australia for 10 years, which is when he joined the Navy. In 1989, after fulfilling his tour of duty, Deniz started looking for a good place to raise his family. A position as an emergency room physician was open at St. Vincent Healthcare. “Billings seemed like a good place for my family, with low crime and clean air. And it was a good job opportunity for me. We showed up there without knowing anyone. It was November, the week before Thanksgiving, and it was already snowing hard.” Deniz laughs as he recalls his hot rod, which was completely useless in the snow.

A Billings Connection

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Deniz Tek and Bob Brown, Billings Montana
Deniz Tek (at right) and Bob Brown working on Detroit in Bob's home in Billings, 2013.

Anne Laurent

Local musician and Yellowstone Public Radio DJ Ron Schuster brought Deniz into the Billings musical fold, asking Deniz to join his weekly radio program on YPR as the “Mr. E. Guest.”

“Deniz is a character,” Ron said, “One of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.” Ron introduced Deniz to fellow musicians Bob Brown and Pat Rogers, whom Ron jammed with at his house on the West End of Billings. “We all instantly became friends—still are,” said Bob.

Ron had a studio in his basement, and they started weekly jam sessions, writing songs under the name Zero House. “We were just a bunch of guys having fun,” Deniz recalled. “We did a variety of material, mostly playing covers, but I got the idea that I wanted to do an album myself—a solo album—so I used those guys to test out ideas.”

Deniz’s musical connections from Ann Arbor and Australia came through town to assist in this solo effort, and there was a period where Scott Asheton, one of the founding members of the Stooges, and the guitarist from Radio Birdman, Chris Masuak, hopped into the jam sessions.

“These guys reached a pinnacle with their band, traveled the world, and were recognized all over,” Ron said. “And here I am, a guy from Billings, Montana who barely plays guitar, jamming with them. It was a real ego boost for me. When you think about the Stooges, and the shit that those guys went through and have done, it was an honor to be in the same room.”

After a couple years writing and recording material, Deniz set off to Texas to master his solo album at Sugar Hill Records. Titled “Take it to the Vertical,” the album dropped in 1992 and has a song named “Me and Gene,” written by Ron about his time as a teenager driving the Montana Hi-Line and trying to pick up radio signals from Canada. A program about Gene Vincent came through the airwaves one night, and Ron was taken with the rockabilly founder.

After the release of “Take it to the Vertical,” Deniz launched an international tour to support the record. When the bassist dropped out of the tour without notice, Deniz called Bob and asked if he would join the tour. When Bob landed in Australia, Deniz was on the cover of the Asian/Pacific edition of Rolling Stone. But Bob knew Deniz in a different capacity: one of a dedicated ER doctor who gigged in a basement with Bob and his friends. “I’ve always known Deniz as Deniz,” said Bob.

“Bob and I work really well together,” Deniz said. “We understand each other, and he can tell where I’m going musically and help me get there.”

Channeling Detroit

Deniz-Tek-Detroit-510x506Deniz Tek’s latest solo recording, “Detroit,” was released earlier this year. He spent nearly two years working on the record in Billings, Bozeman, and Australia and recorded almost all the vocals in local musician Bob Brown’s home studio.

“Bob has this uncanny ability to produce vocals,” Deniz said. “He can tell me what’s needed, what’s not working. He knows when to say stop and knows when it was the right take. It’s an easy working relationship.”

“When we work, we work hard and we work long,” Bob said. “We have all developed over the years a process that just seems to work.”

“Detroit” is clean and minimalistic, like pounding back a shot of straight rock. “This album was designed to be stripped-down-straight-ahead rock and roll,” said Bob, whose driving bass lines arc through the record. Bob’s son, Steve Brown, is also credited on the album for his percussion work. Other Montana musicians on “Detroit” include keyboardist Ron Sanchez, who co-owns Bozeman’s Career Records with Deniz, and the English rock drummer Ric Parnell, who is perhaps best known for his role in the rock mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap” as the ill-fated drummer. He now lives in Missoula.

It’s not like these gents are trying to imitate rock and roll; they are rock and roll.

Pure, undistilled rock can be found at the white-hot center of “Detroit.” It’s not like these gents are trying to imitate rock and roll; they are rock and roll. Though the album was recorded in a collaborative effort, Bob credits Deniz with the final product. “We are part of a process of Deniz Tek doing what he does,” Bob said.

“Deniz is sharp and focused,” said Steve. “Whether he’s tearing open a chest or shredding on guitar, it’s the same intensity level. You’re in good hands if Deniz is taking care of you medically, and you’re in good hands when he’s taking care of you with rock. He is always on his game…and Deniz only has an A game.”

Tor as intense and exacting as Deniz is, he’s not a perfectionist. “If it’s good and he likes it—it’s good,” Steve said. “He doesn’t spend a lot of time going back and agonizing.”

“That’s perhaps the biggest influence on Steve and I,” Bob added. “Deniz will say that’s good enough, and then it’s done. He knows when to move on.”

A Billings Draw

Deniz’s story is a tremendous chain of musical happenstance and career choices that brought him to Billings 24 years ago. Though he works in Sydney and travels internationally for music, he maintains a home in Billings and returns at least once a year. “I have so many great memories of Billings,” he said. “What keeps me coming back are the people and relationships.”

Billings is a connected place to make music, one of open circles and freeform jams. It’s not the sexiest place in Montana, but there’s a collection of exceptionally talented musicians who choose to live and work in Billings. “People in other music communities tend to look down on Billings, which I think gives Billings people a sense of unity and solidarity,” Deniz said. Living in relative isolation, Billings has a DIY spirit that drives local musicians and provides a place for making music that is authentic and genuine.

“If anyone doesn’t like it—too bad,” Deniz said. “It means a lot more when it’s difficult to get.”


The Musical Soul of Billings Ron Schuster's musical imprint lingers

^Ron Schuster, accepting the Freeman Lacy Lifetime Achievement Award during the 2012 Magic City Music Awards.

Ron Schuster could tell a thousand stories through vinyl. At one time he owned more than 5,000 records but has since paired his collection down to an essential 2,500 albums. Armloads at a time, Ron’s records overtook the house and slowly migrated to the garage. During a garage sale someone offered Ron $500 for the collection, lined alphabetically on handmade shelves.

“That’s not even a $1 per record!” Ron exclaimed. “Add another zero to that and maybe I’ll consider it.” The buyer left empty-handed.

Ron’s records may have been quarantined to the garage, but as I run my finger along the clear plastic sleeves, feeling the spines of the records, it’s obvious that this man’s record collection is invaluable. Ron has invited me to his home, nestled against Billings’ northern rimrocks, to eyeball his music collection, which includes thousands of CDs and bunches of cassettes recorded in the 70s and 80s. Ron’s music collection continues in a den-like area where he’s got two walls of CDs flanking a TV playing a live stream from a European music festival. Winn Butler of the Arcade Fire swings his head, throwing a sweaty Mohawk out of his face. I’m impressed—Ron knows the band, even has a favorite song: “Leave the Car Running.” These Canadian indie rockers aren‘t unknown, but they aren’t well known, either, especially to the baby boom generation.

I suppose I imagined Ron in his man-den spinning hit records from the 60s and 70s, not flipping music channels between Fatboy Slim and Arcade Fire. Ron was one of the first on-air programmers in the early 1970s at the fledgling Billings public radio station, KEMC, and he maintained a program on public radio for 30 years, which he recorded from his home. In the corner of Ron’s den, he still has an area set up for recording radio shows, though he’s been off the air for more than a year now. Hosting the program forced Ron to seek out new music on a weekly basis, from roots to rock to reggae music. In the heyday of radio, Ron received boxes of new music in the mail to sort through. He’d pick out the oddball artists that never made it big and give them some airtime.
Continue reading The Musical Soul of Billings Ron Schuster’s musical imprint lingers

A Retrospective of Music Culture in Billings, Montana

As I drop down Interstate 90 into the river valley that holds the “Magic City,” I swear: I won’t ever live in Billings, Montana.

The sun glints off a sprawling refinery that dominates the city’s eastern entrance. A sickly sweet smell smacks my face, making my teeth ache and my stomach curl. They’re processing sugar beets on the south side.

Somewhere in this landlocked dustbowl are 100,000 people sprawling west along the Yellowstone River, which winds across the city’s southern belly. Yet all I see as I enter the city are neon signs shouting “liquor” and “casino” amongst the transients curled in doorways. Downtown morphs from a gritty scene to a workingman’s paradise. Bank buildings dominate the landscape and hospitals stretch across the land like arteries, overtaking historic neighborhoods in the city’s core.

Surely this “magic” city has been misnamed.

I’m like many other Wyoming residents—I’ve come for the shopping and lack of sales tax. With my car stocked and the refineries in my rearview mirror, I’m confident. I will never live in Billings, Montana.

Yet in the months that follow, as I plow my way through the doldrums of living in a small Wyoming town without much opportunity, Billings beckons me. It’s small enough for a small town girl to feel at home, yet big enough and far enough away from Wyoming to feel like something progressive could actually happen.

I find myself dropping back into the city in which I swore I’d never reside with a U-Haul full of my belongings. I figure my journalism degree and background in newspaper and photography work will land me a dream job as a reporter or photographer at the largest newspaper in the state, The Billings Gazette. Seven interviews for seven different positions later, I’m in the least glamorous position possible: night-side paginator.

Once again, I question the “magic.”

Yellowstone River from the top of Pompey’s Pillar looking west. MHS Photograph Archives, Helena

It was through the explorations of W. Milnor Roberts, a chief engineer for the Northern Pacific Railroad, that Billings came to be. As Roberts and his crew rode toward the site of present-day Billings, Roberts observed: “We have passed through the finest valley by far that I have seen in Montana” (Lubetkin 2002). Railroad financier Frederick H. Billings founded the city in 1882 and it quickly became a booming railroad town, hence the “Magic City” nickname. From its speedy beginnings, Billings has continued to boom, reaching a population milestone of 100,000 residents in 2006—the only city in Montana to do so (Kemmick 2006). I figure with all these sprawling urbanites, there must be some culturally enlightened folks. Even in Casper, the small Wyoming town where I grew up, there were pockets of culture—small clubs where the sweatiest punk rock music you could imagine rolled through town.

My life has always centered on music, from the early years of sneaking listens to Pink Floyd’s The Wall (my mother found it inappropriate music for children; my father was thrilled I took an interest in music of his generation) to my symphonic music pursuits to my teenage days of foul-mouthed punk rock. I was a symphony in the flautist by day, an elbow thrower in the mosh pits by night, attending concerts in divvy warehouse venues in Casper. When I started college at the University of Wyoming in Laramie I dropped the flute and picked up the bass when I formed a band with my roommate. I screamed, she sang and played guitar. All our songs were three chords. Our favorite compliment: we were a “cuter Bikini Kill” (Besides Green Day, which my roommate listened to incessantly, Kathleen Hanna and her Riot Grrrl movement was our inspiration).

Eighthundred Reasons

In the tiny town of Laramie, Wyoming, we fought to bring musicians through town. This was the late 90s and the early 2000s, when the Internet was just developing into a tool for traveling bands. Musicians still relied heavily on word-of-mouth and moved from city to city based on the good word of other traveling bands. Details in publications such as Book Your Own Fucking Life let this traveling network know where there would be food and gas money.

In Laramie, we handmade flyers for shows and taped them to poles. We held concerts in garages that the police shut down and in warehouses that the fire department condemned. Bands slept on our floor, and we fed them ramen noodles and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon until the sun came up. It was during this time that I worked as entertainment editor for the college newspaper while pursuing my journalism degree.

Music was everywhere; music was my life.

Sarah Stoli and her Beers.

The shift out of college into working life was a shock for me. My roommate formed another band—Stoli and the Beers; I went to intern at a newspaper in Sheridan, Wyoming. She toured the country in a van with smelly boys; I worked just about every day of the week as the paper’s only photographer for a disgustingly small salary. I’d be ambulance chasing one minute, photographing high school football the next. I was even sent to an accident outside of town involving a cow. Within the six-month mark I felt that I knew everyone in town, or at least everyone knew me. The chemistry in Sheridan was strange. It was a small western town that attracted rich residents who built sprawling McMansions for vacation homes, yet it was a poor city in many aspects without well-paying job opportunities. Poverty was high, drugs were easy to find, and life was tough if you weren’t independently wealthy.

Though I left Wyoming for opportunity (and to get the hell out of Sheridan), in Billings I begin to feel disconnected from music. I’m building ads and classified sections, and there is not a smidge of writing or photography opportunities in sight. Night after night, paper after paper, and I was stagnant.

I was withering away in this “magic” city.

Conor Oberst, Billings Shrine Auditorium, 2008. Casey Riffe/Billings Gazette photo

So begins my musical quest. I take a review of a Bright Eyes album to the entertainment section’s editor, and he likes it. He asks if I’ve got more. I start writing album reviews, requesting advanced copies of my favorite artists. Suddenly pagination has meaning, as it led me to my savior—published articles with my byline.

I learn to overlook the oil fields flanking the city’s east and west entrances for the sandstone rimrocks that surround the northern edge of the city. The smell of burning sugar beets becomes the sweet fragrance of home and the deafening rumble of bike gangs a sweet reminder that summer is near. I smile at the homeless and ignore the casinos. I’m not even upset when our gas prices are high—despite the fact that we produce and export the stuff! I treasure spring rain when it comes for the smell it leaves on dirty asphalt, and I cherish the fires of a Montana sunset after a blistering summer day that make a cold microbrew taste better than I could have imagined.

Rim walking.

A few years in the “Magic City” and I begin to take note of the sweet and welcoming sounds of bluegrass drifting out open doors in the summertime. I start gathering with collections of musicians on patios at downtown locales—the upright bass providing a beacon and reassurance that music is not far. At the local alehouses where brews are handcrafted, I’m sure to hear music pouring from doors amid the din of Montana Avenue traffic. Open mic jams also provide me reassurance that live music in Billings is a constant pursuit—each open mic revealing yet another budding talent. As temperatures steadily drop, inside the tiniest tavern a band will be set up in the corner, rolling through a sweaty set of jazz grooves and demonstrating they could care less about the weather.

I’ve been given access to music in a new and exciting way. I have countless moments of musical intensity, festivity, and joy. The musicians of Billings show me that the term “family” is broader than the intended definition. They support and mentor one another, often sharing instruments and the stage. The musical families in town rear their youth in a culture that has inspired the youngest amongst us to pick up guitars, take their voices to the stage, and start their own bands. I’m in through the backdoor, the one that reveals what happens behind the scenes. I spend time with local musicians, prodding them for their stories, finding the angle that will propel readers to come to their shows. I interview traveling bands via phone, working up previews to entice readers to come to the concerts. This time the venues are legal, yet the crowds are small, the musicians are poor, and it becomes increasingly difficult to predict what concerts will pack the house and what concerts will leave the promoter holding the bag.

In conversations, I gather that no one really knows why they stay in Billings. The city has always been perceived to be the “butt hole” of Montana, as a friend and local musician Ron Schuster once told me. To outsiders, our music isn’t cool enough, our restaurants aren’t hip enough, our people aren’t liberal enough, our concerts are the leftovers from other big markets—yet this is a false perception. Billings is what we continue to make of it.

Located on a rolling prairie 600 miles from any city of substantial size, Billings is isolated, shut off from the trends and cultures that sweep big cities. Those of us that value cultural qualities in our town continue to fight for them—even if it appears outwardly that the town’s residents don’t support it. In the coming years Billings could be the city we imagine it to be… the western hub, the must-stop location for bands and artists that we currently drive hundreds of miles to see…

Billings isolation may be the key to its magical properties, as the music that evolves here is distinctly original, inspired, and created from a sense of urgency. Billings is a big city with a small town mentality, yet it’s on the cusp of greatness. I just feel it. Those of us who choose to stay fight for a cultural scene that this city can’t create on its own. That’s why I stay. I want to be part of the story, not just read about it someday.

Magic City Music Awards, 2012