By Josh Griffiths
Descent into the Maelstrom is a new feature-length documentary on Australian proto-punk icons Radio Birdman, telling the tale from formation to disintegration to reformation.
At a time when most of the country was either dressed in velvet, smoking pot or boogieing to disco; Birdman were outliers – all denim, leather, attitude, and high-energy rock ’n’ roll. They didn’t want to and were never going to be accepted into the established Australian pop music fraternity in the 1970s, so they blazed their own trail and it was only years after they’d split that their true impact was felt.
DIY filmmaker Jonathan J. Sequeira sizes up that impact in Descent into the Maelstrom, which is just an all-round ripper of a film. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll throw the ‘Yeah Hup!’ salute from your cinema seat, and you’ll be reminded of the pure joy that is rock ’n’ roll.
After seeing the film and being blown away, we asked Jonathan how he did it…
Descent into the Maelstrom is a DIY film that looks ultra high-end. How was the film financed and put together?
Savings. How do you do that emoticon with the freaking-out face? It took more than two years because I did it in between paying jobs. Would I suggest that you just go out and make that film, or do that project that you believe in, even if it cost you? Yes! But maybe I’m just like the junkies who feel the need to get their friends into heroin to justify their own bad choices, ha ha. I don’t know! The DIY was out of necessity; it wouldn’t have got made otherwise. About halfway through I got a message from a friend at ABC Television asking if I was interested in making it with them. It would have had to be one-hour long. I said, ‘No, I just can’t do it that way; it wouldn’t do the band, or even myself, justice.’ So the big advantage is you don’t have to change things you love just because the piper is calling the tune. At the same time, you have to be smart enough to listen and weigh up any advice from others, because they have a perspective that it isn’t possible to have yourself. With any big creative project you have your ups and downs. Sometimes you think it’s the greatest thing ever, you can’t quite believe you’re doing it yourself, you’re a genius! Other times you wonder how you could ever have thought that – as Neil Young would say: it’s a piece of crap. With this film, the ethos and the determination of Radio Birdman kept me going. When you are editing and listening to what they are saying, and hearing their passion and the passion of their fans, that flows through into the creative process. It’s seeped into the documentary itself. I was very lucky that way, and I don’t think that would happen on too many films.
The interviews with all the band members are so open, honest and insightful. How’d you get the band to open up so freely? Bribes? Drugs? Hugs?
Ha ha. I don’t know what it was, but everybody involved was so open and giving of their time. It was just having a chat while the camera rolled, I suppose. I think they knew I took their trust in me very seriously, and that they knew that I was serious about making this film. I’d done a bit of filming of Deniz’s [Tek’s] other band, The Visitors, and Radio Birdman live, so they’d seen that and realised that while it was an indie production, it wasn’t amateur hour either. At the end of the first interview with Deniz, he remarked that I didn’t ask any stupid questions, so that put ME at ease!
The film includes comic book style cartoons by bassist Warwick Gilbert that really help to fill in the verbal tales… was the art done specifically for the film, or did Warwick bring it to the table already prepared?
Warwick sent me some photos and also some storyboards he’d done for a Living Brain cartoon he’d always wanted to make. They were rough black & whites, but still fantastic. In any ‘historical’ documentary you have sequences where there is just no archive available. What do you do? Reenactments, animated sequences? Whatever you choose, it has to match the aesthetic and also the integrity of the film, in my opinion. I had four different ‘holes’ to fill, each was a quite subjective anecdote, and they were equally spaced apart and they would give the film a visual lift. Perfect fit! If anyone else had done them it just wouldn’t have worked. Warwick gave it the integrity of being in the band, and his art, humour and storytelling skills are the best. He’s directed a couple of animated films, and worked at Hanna-Barbera and Disney. You should interview him, ha ha, although I think he has a love/hate relationship with animation.
If Mach 1 Birdman was all about being ‘rock ’n’ roll outsiders’ – do you think the many reformations since have been cynical cash grabs, or a continuation of the original legacy?
… I ask as one of the members in the doco talks of getting a suitcase load of money thrown at the band to reform for Big Day Out 1997, which betrays a lust for that cash grab? Nah, it would have happened one way or another. As Deniz said, you put the air in the tyres and oil in the engine and you want to see if it flies – that was the real motivation. The money just highlighted how different things were compared to 1977. I think Rob Younger, who said that, possibly likes to douse the ‘legend’ of Radio Birdman occasionally. Ha ha. The real point they were, as Rob says: ‘not doing anything different’. Still just as intense as ever and to the original fans it felt like a continuation. Even today they are just as serious about it, and nobody is making any money from it.
What lasting impact do you feel Radio Birdman have had on Australian music and culture?
They changed people’s lives. Other great bands influence other musicians. But Radio Birdman influenced people as well, and that’s soooo much bigger. It was a scene. It’s like the freemasons – you flash your Radio Birdman badge to the right people and you’ll get the secret ‘Yeah Hup!’ in return. Radio Birdman set the standard and all who saw them cast mediocrity aside. That attitude never became mainstream, but it’s not the mainstream that rises above. So many of their early fans went to work in the arts or music industry, whether Dare Jennings of Mambo/Deus who printed the first T-shirts for them or Don Walker (Cold Chisel) being inspired to write “Khe Sanh” after MC Mark Sisto talked about Vietnam on stage at a Birdman gig. Midnight Oil was a prog rock band before Peter Garrett saw Rob Younger crawling around on the floor. Phantom Records, Citadel, Waterfront, etc. sprang from people who were at The Funhouse, but it went beyond that. In Europe, there is a distinct genre called ‘Australian rock ’n’ roll’. It’s a really different, more physical sound to their own bands, and it all started with Radio Birdman. Brad Shepherd of The Hoodoo Gurus used to be in the fanclub and his early band [Fun Things] even had a song, “When The Birdmen Fly”, so you can see the lineage. On a more obvious note, I see a band like The Hives as the best example of Radio Birdman’s musical tradition, and they play appropriate tribute with the uniforms and the white Epiphone Crestwood (Deniz Tek’s guitar).
For info about the doco, including screening details check: descentintothemaelstrom.com.au