Williamson and Tek beat the odds but "Two To One" came down to the wire
Studio work: Jqmes Williamson and Deniz Tek. Franklin Avery photo.
It’s a back to basics, guitar album but “Two To One”, the joint effort from James Williamson (Iggy & the Stooges) and Deniz Tek (Radio Birdman), had a complicated gestation that birthed a record in the nick of time.
Commissioned by Los Angeles label Cleopatra Records a year out from its planned release, most of its 11 songs were worked up in face-to-face sessions in Hawaii, where Tek now lives and Williamson spends half his year at his vacation home.
After Williamson went back to his home in San Francisco, the songs were refined via file sharing before Tek flew to the mainland in December last year for rehearsals and a recording session for the basic tracks at Studio D in Sausalito, California.
Sessions for vocal tracking and guitar overdubs followed on both sides of the Pacific. The record was mixed and about to be mastered when the first ripples of the COVID-19 pandemic became a global tidal wave.
Anne Tek photo
Fast forward half a year: Tek is marooned on his coffee farm in Hawaii (there are worse fates) and Williamson is in California, effectively prevented from going anywhere near his tropical holiday home by th strict quarantine conditions controlling movement between Mainland USA and its 50th State.
Of course, there will be no shows to promote the record - at least in the foreseeable future.
"Well, that's a sore subject really," Williamson relates in a three-way Zoom hook-up, "Because what actually happened was we wrote the album, kind of back and forth, but then tracked it album at Studio D in Sausalito, which is a wonderful room.
"And then we brought the album back over to Hawaii and did the vocals, and some of Deniz's overdubs. And then I brought it back to San Francisco, did my overdubs, ended up mixing in San Francisco and just got it done ready for mastering when the shutdown hit.
"And so then I've been in California ever since. Luckily we were able to get the record mastered and of course now it's out. But I'm kinda imprisoned here."
Tek opines that the live scene may never make it back to normal.
"We were just talking about this the other day where, even when things open up and people can travel and go to venues again, are they going to want to be in the middle of a thousand people crammed together in front of a stage, jumping around and sharing body fluids? That may be something that's in the past.
"And, you know, as far as the kind of gigs that I want to play, with an electric rock and roll band, I don't know if I would want to just be playing to a room of people standing or sitting at tables six feet apart."
"Two To One" LP cover. Mouse-over for the CD art.
On to happier subjects. "Two To One" has a raw sound that's a couple of steps removed from Williamson's most recent band, James Williamson and The Pink Hearts, who were, in part, about the textures, and sonically closer to Tek's output with his own Deniz Tek Group.
There were songwriting assists from Paul Nelson Kimball from San Francisco's Careless Hearts (the band that gave Williamson a live warm-up platform before his return to Iggy and the Stooges) and Frank Meyer (of L.A.'s Streetwalkin' Cheetahs among others.) Five songs are stand-alone Tek compositions and he and Williamson collaborated directly on three.
Did Deniz have to adjust his own writing to accomodate James's reputation as a guitar bulldozer who fills every available space?
"I'm used to playing with other guitar players and I actually prefer that," Tek says. "And on this record, it came into the song-writing. I tried to incorporate some of the (two guitar) weaving into the structure of the songs, so that I would make room for James.
"In fact, I put some chord progressions together specifically so that they'd be a good backdrop for, for what I wanted to hear as a James Williamson solo, you know. And being a fan myself, you know, this is a golden opportunity."
Both Michigan raised (although Williamson was born three years earlier in Texas), the pair first crossed paths professionally in 2011 when Tek guested on guitar at the Iggy & the Stoogs tribute show to the fallen Ron Asheton in Ann Arbor. A friendship grew and Tek and Williamson collaborated in a studio for the "Acoustic KO" vinyl EP three years ago, which reprised "Raw Power and "Kill City" songs and added an orchetsra .
If their eventual teaming on an all-electric project didn't have a sense of inevitability, it does make sense.
Deniz handled lead vocals on "Two To One" with back-ups from Petra Haden and Andrea Wasse. Tek's vocal is mixed up font and rank as his best ever, which he says is a by-product of working with James Williamson.
"He really held my nose to the grindstone. Let's just say he made sure that he got the best vocal out of me that I had in me, and they are better than vocals I've done in the past for that reason."
In some ways, "Two For One" is a record that runs contrary to the grain. It's guitar rock and roll, for one, and it was not made DIY style but with a record label putting its money on the line to finance its recording, manufacturing and marketing.
"A record company? This wouldn't have happened without it." Tek offers. "It was, for me, a real breath of fresh air, after having to do everything myself for so many albums in the past. To have a label actually take charge and provide resources - I hope it keeps going."
Of course it would have come to very little without a tight and competent engine room. Tek and Williamson couldn't be happier with their chosen bandmates.
Williamson: "Michael Urbano was the drummer. And you would have heard him on many other things that I've done before. Michael Scanland was the bass player. And he was someone that, that I had run into when I made a guest appearance in Cheetah Chrome's band at a festival, Boogaloo,in Oakland. I asked him, 'Do you want to play on a record?' And he was all into it. So he is a good guy, easy to work with."
Tek: "He did a good job. And a super guy and and you know, really willing to put in the hard, the hard work to make, to make this record work.
"And Urbano has an amazing CV; he was in Todd Rundgren's touring band, and played with John Hiatt. And he was in Cracker and Smash Mouth. A great guy, enthusiastic, total pleasure to work with - and just a total shit-hot drummer. That makes all the difference."
"Two To One" is out on CD, LP and digital on Cleopatra Records on September 18.