Zig Zag Magazine #125 - May 1982
Down To The Junkyard With The Birthday Party
The Birthday Party really are the Stooges' bastard sons. More importantly, they sound a million miles away from the Beefheart ramble that they are so often criticised for. The Birthday Party have a sound of their own, reminiscent of many, derivative of none, they stand up on their own four legs.
A new long-player from this team is due shortly, featuring characteristic calling cards such as 'Dead Joe' and 'Big Jesus Trashcan' as well as newer additions like 'Kiss Me Black' and the Hammersmith Odeon premiered 'Kewpie Doll'. Nick describes the latter as 'A symbolic anthem to sexuality in terms of Kewpie Doll being a particular obsessive wanting for a particular girl I know and love'.
'Kiss Me Black' is one that Nick attempts to sum up with a brief glimpse of the lyrical content. Thus:
'Now they've put the stink on us/
Filled us up with incubus/
Choc-a-bloc with sucubus/
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxum ... something, something FUCK.'
quotes Nick, having visible problems reciting this lyric, excusing himself as the song is sung at such a rapid pace he cannot quite find the words.
Assembled before me then, are three fifths of this unique phenomenon, twin guitarists Rowland Howard and Mick Harvey and the afore-quoted Nick Cave. Drummer Phil Calvert has a tendency for waking late and bassist Tracy Pew is currently serving his time in an Australian jailhouse for drunken driving without a licence among other things. Where does the second Birthday Party album figure in the scheme of things then, gang?
'I would say this this album is an extension of Prayers On Fire. Obviously people aren't going to realize things for themselves unless you firmly implant the seed of the idea in their brain' explains Rowland.
Is that subliminally?
'No that's what we always tried to do in the past, to do it subliminally. Now we've realized that you've basically got to drill a hole in people's skulls. So it is very blatant.'
Blatant in lyrical or musical content, Rowland?
'In both. In our songs the music and lyrics are inseperable, and they're both there to achieve a common aim and they're both a product of the same attitude.'
'More than anything we've ever done before, this album works as a set piece, as an album' interrupts Nick, 'On the last record there are a number of songs that could've been left off or been done a lot better, a lot more in keeping with the flavour of the record. This one is far more consistent. This really is just a relentless pounding.'
'Well it's not so much that', says Mick, 'There are moments when the pounding stops, but it just has an incredible atmosphere and feeling about it.'
Nick: 'The songs are far more middle-paced for a start, as opposed to the Prayers On Fire one, it is far more heavy and far more of a relentless pounding of songs.'
Rowland: 'It's in no way intended to be an accurate chronicle of our live sound. In our live shows we just go for something incredibly immediate and effective, but on record it's something that people are going to be considering more, to a larger degree. So in the studio you can use far subtler methods to realize the same aims.'
Nick: 'I don't think we've used very subtle methods on this record at all! We have very strong ideas in terms of what we wanted to get across...'
'But it was all rather vague as to how to actually achieve it' continues Rowland, 'We knew we wanted to have an incredibly powerful, individual sound with a really strange production, but we didn't have any idea of how to get this. The record was recorded by Tony Cohen and us. I don't think terms like production come into it.'
Mick: 'I think the live record was intended to be totally throwaway, a really quick immediate thing that wasn't preplanned. Everybody has treated it as a serious release, the next Birthday Party product for the next six months and it's not like that at all.'
Nick: 'It really is meant to show the attitude we have towards music, all music and our own music and that is that it is dispensable.'
Mick: 'I think we should just throw out more things like that in the future.'
Rowland: 'I think that it's a great record. It's really what a live album should be like, what a live album was always meant to be like. But it was just totally fucked up by people who wanted live albums to be studio albums with a pause at the end of every song.'
Nick: 'It should have thunderous applause to show how goddamn brilliant we are.'
Now that the audiences are growing larger, is this something that you're pleased about?
'The fact that we are liked doesn't make me any more confident that out music is liked', says Nick. 'I find it quite the reverse myself, music that is disliked is generally the music that is good. As it happened in Australia our music became popular to the general masses because it was hyped up by the press and that began to give me grave doubts about our music.'
Rowland continues: 'I think it's gradually become hip to like The Birthday Party fairly steadily.'
And does that worry you?
'Yes, it worries me very much, all it does is dilute the audience away from the original people. You still have the same amount of people who have some understanding of the music, but you have a greater amount of people coming along. In the long run, it's a disruptive procedure which is very sad.'
One of these is Rowland's recording with Lydia Lunch, on a version of the Vanilla Fudge popularised Lee Hazlewood magnum opus, 'Some Velvet Morning'. Others present on this grouping are Mick and Birthday Party stand-in bassist Barry Adamson as well as Rowland's compatriot Genevieve McGuckin.
The other is Nick's book of fifty plays with the same Ms. Lunch. This is twenty-five one page plays, each under subheadings of Speedway, etc. One likely title, 'Ugly Is As Ugly Does' is derived from another of these divisions.
On the topic of Rowland's record:
Nick: 'Everyone else got invited except me and Phil.'
Rowland: 'You didn't ask me to write for your book.'
Nick: 'That's only because you didn't ask me to do the record.'
Rowland: 'Well I was waiting.'
Mick: 'And so am I still.'
Nick: 'Well it's too late now, isn't it.' (End of squabbling).
Mick: 'We do have some time off at the moment so there will be other projects.'
Nick: 'These other projects and the band should be inseparable. What I was trying to say before is that with these plays I'm writing with Lydia, the ideas within those are incredibly similar to the ideas I use lyrically in Birthday Party songs. I find that I can't write differently, it's just the way I think. There are certain compromises that have to be made in the band because you're working with five people and there are certain things that I feel I can't write in songs because I don't feel they'd wash with the rest of the group.'
Rowland: 'In my case, I have a surplus of songs that I haven't even shown to the others because that just wouldn't fit with what the group are doing at all. So these are the songs that I shall be working on with Lydia.'
The problems of success.
Mick: 'I see becoming too popular as a problem in terms of what it's done to us already in the live context. In terms of playing London, Sydney and Melbourne where when we play those places there is something expected of us when we walk on stage and whether we like it or not the audience responds in the way it thinks it's meant to and that takes away that immediacy and danger, the risk factor we thrive off. That gives us a distorted view of what we're doing. And we don't really get to see what we're really doing until we play somewhere where we're an unknown quantity and we can be taking that risk factor with the audience again. I think the London shows since we got back have been bad in terms of the way they should have been. That's because the audience give us a set response and it's such a strong set response that it's hard to work against. The Palais show for instance, we walked out there, started off really well, but after three songs realized there was no challenge and started playing badly. We lost the risk factor. By the end of the set the only reason we started playing well was because realized we'd been playing so badly for half the set. We started having a competition with ourselves to finish in an alright fashion.'