The Offense - April, 1983
The Birthday Party
The first thing I can thank the Birthday Party for is (almost) single-handedly keeping my interest alive, both in music and in this newsletter. After hearing them and now seeing, the inadequacies in the music of so many other bands have become so glaringly apparent to me, as has the immeasurable power they themselves hold in their very capable hands and mouth, power just dumped out, unloaded in heaps at each of the two stops I shared in, songs shoved onto our backs. Did you bear up under the strain, or did you collapse under the weight and seek refuge in that Trouser Press on the floor? I feel a real reason for continuing. So many Americans are being so fooled by so much shit that incredibly passes for "entertainment", these shiny new dance bands, this year's models, this year's faces, oh, the new wave of it all. The alternative provided in Detroit and Washington D.C. was devastatingly blatant and brilliant. Anyone who left unaffected just came in to watch the videos and drink and did so.
Tim: Can we talk about the early days first, just at the beginning?
Rowland: Why don't people ever talk about the early days at the end of the interview?
TA: Well, this will maybe be in chronological order. First we find out how old you were when you met each other, if you where babies on the same block, and then we grow up.
RH: Oh, right. Go on, ask us a question about our early days.
TA: Well, how long have you known each other?
Nick: Rowland joined later than everybody else. We were already a group before him.
TA: Even before the band, though -- when you were kids in Australia.
RH: Wandering through the bush?
NC: In form 2, when we were thirteen.
TA: You all went to the same school?
NC: Rowland was at a Free School. It was for the complicated.
RH: Nick went to a very traditional school, and I went to a school where you were allowed to do whatever you liked, basically. At the age of 12, I was turned loose upon society and my teachers.
TA: So when you formed The Boys Next Door, how old were you? Nick? Were you out of school yet?
NC: Um, pardon? I was looking at the microphone.
TA: Yeah, it's goin' to roll off the book, but that's OK.
NC: It's making me really tense.
RH: Were you out of school when the group formed?
NC: No, we were still in school when we first played together.
TA: Was that a school function?
NC: Awwww (winces)... probably. I can't remember back that far.
RH: It would have been a school-related thing, a school party or --
NC: Yeah, we played a girl's school dance once, and we were a big hit there. Played for about three hours. Just a lot of blues numbers -- Blues in A and blues in in --
NC: B and --
RH: Blues in C
NC: A rock and roll song in there.
TA: And that was you, Tracy, Phil and Mick?
NC: Yeah. A few rock and roll things, Alice Cooper songs, a few West, Bruce, and Lang tunes.
TA: Was all this in Melbourne?
NC: Yeah, we hadn't toured anywhere at that stage.
TA: Did you all graduate then eventually? Get your diplomas?
NC: Yeah, we all graduated. I then went to art school for a couple of years. Failed.
TA: But the band stayed on through all that?
NC: Yeah. And then it was about that time that the punk rock explosion happened.
RH: Seeped through into Australia.
NC: It was just what we had heard from the press and so forth. You could get a New Musical Express over there.
RH: We liked the pictures.
NC: We were considered to be a punk rock group at that stage, so we started to get a lot of dates. Some punk rock venues started up, and there was only about three or four punk rock groups in Melbourne. So we got to play quite a lot, like three times a week.
TA: I assume none of those other groups are still around today?
NC: Um, no. Some of the characters are still plodding on.
TA: Any idea how many shows you've played in all then?
NC: It's about 500 I think. I asked Mick the other day, and he said, "About five hundred."
About 500, and to me that's pretty clear testimony to the Birthday Party's unmatched creativity. Who else has been recording since 1978, playing out since 1976, and yet is putting out truly the best and most challenging songs of their entire career today? It's been a natural progression, logical steps, just a thrill to follow them from record to record. The first one was an Australian punk rock compilation album on the Suicide label, which they were asked to contribute three songs to. The LP was called Lethal Weapons, and The Boys Next Door songs were Boy Hero, Masturbation Generation, and a cover of These Boots Are Made For Walking.
TA: You all wanted to do Boots very much?
NC: Uh, I don't know.
RH: No, I didn't at the time, actually. That was sort of a record company idea more than anyone else's.
NC: We used to play that song, and I think they considered it to be a favorite for us to record.
TA: Was the next thing your single with The Models, on which you recorded Scatterbrain.
RH: My God, I'm just amazed at how well versed you are!
TA: Huh? Oh well, I just have a friend down there who sent me a tape. Was that the next release?
RH: No, the next thing that came out after the compilation was the Mushroom record -- the Door, Door album.
NC: Which is a repulsive piece of vinyl. One of the worst things we've ever done.
TA: Well, you wrote everything yourself on side one!
NC: Yeah, it was one of the... it was one of the worst pieces of, one of the worst records ever recorded.
TA: Some people, believe it or not, liked your singing style better then than even now. The smoothness. What would you say to those critics?
NC: I would say that they are unfortunate people. I think my singing style at that particular period was totally repulsive. It was really disgusting.
TA: What really were the goal of The Boys Next Door? 'Cause from Door, Door it sounded like stabs at commerciality were being made.
NC: Well, it was basically that we were produced by a -- I mean, in those early days of recording we were very much manipulated by the record companies, far more than we are now. We weren't given very much freedom at all, and things like producers and even what songs would go on a record were record company decisions.
TA: Tony Cohen was with you pretty early though, wasn't he? And you're still using him.
RH: We started working with him when I joined the group. But when they recorded the first side of Door, Door it was just a really ridiculous situation.
NC: We worked with my cousin. He was an engineer.
RH: He wasn't really a friend of yours.
NC: No, I didn't say he was my friend. I said he was my cousin. He's probably a great guy, but at the time he had a really MOR attitude towards music.
The Door, Door LP (look for the one with Vincent Price on the sleeve) and a single with two songs of that record were to be the only releases on Mushroom Records, both coming out in May of '79. (Lethal Weapons was released in March, 1978).
TA: Did Mushroom lose interest, or did Missing Link come up with a better offer?
RH: They just didn't take up their option on the contract.
NC: It was obvious we were a flop. A big flop.
RH: It was obvious they were never going to give us a cent from the record, and they had no interest in us. The group used to support a group that Keith Glass of Missing Link played in, The Living Legends, which was also The KGB. That was basically an R'n'B cover group. And he just took an interest in our group because everyone was so painfully naive and obviously getting pushed around by anyone who approached us. So he decided that he would be our savior.
TA: Was he?
RH: Well, at the time he was the best thing that probably could've happened to the group. But since then he has sort of finked on us a little bit.
NC: At the least.
TA: Is Missing Link still releasing your records in Australia?
NC: No, we've severed all ties with Keith. He's in Nashville at the moment, in fact, selling off country songs that he has written. There's a ridiculous situation at the moment where The Bad Seed isn't even being released in Australia at all by anybody. It can only reach there by import, because I guess the companies there who would be willing to take us up just think that we're with another record company.
RH: We're going there in a couple of months, so the situation might change.
TA: You don't have anybody down there to take care of things like that for you, huh? You're pretty much on your own in Germany?
RH: We're pretty much on our own in every respect.
Anyways, after Mushroom but before Missing Link, a song called Scatterbrain made it out on something called Crystal Ballroom Records in November of '79, and then one month later came the release on Keith Glass' label of The Boys Next Door's revolutionary Hee Haw EP. (Well, I've only heard two of the five songs on it, but one of them I've always considered to be a bit extraordinary.)
TA: There were five songs on that, and one was The Hair Shirt, right?
RH: Yeah. Then there was Death by Drowning, Faint Heart, Catholic Skin, and Red Clock.
TA: I hope I can hear those sometime. I'm just amazed that The Hair Shirt was written that early, cause that's one of my favorites of yours. Seems pretty advanced for its time, not really fitting in with the rest of what The Boys Next Door did.
RH: Well, it fits in with the rest of that EP really well. When we made that record, we were just trying as hard as we possibly could to make a really adventurous record. After what we considered to be the humiliation of Door, Door, which is like the tamest thing possible, we just reacted very violently against that record in the most extreme direction away from that.
NC: So there's some free-form stuff and things like that on the record.
RH: It's like a psychedelic record. A Texas psychedelic record. Very naive but very enthusiastic. I think it's really good personally.
TA: What jobs did you have in Australia?
RH: Nothing. I made lamps once for a couple of days. That's the only job I've ever had on a steady basis.
NC: I worked in a cigarette stand.
RH: And in Denim Den!
NC: Yeah, a jeans shop down there.
TA: How old were you when you smoked your first cigarette then? You've been around them all your life.
NC: Yeah, I think I was weaned on cigarettes.
TA: Mom would give you one of those to suck on?
NC: Yeah, I'd start crying cause I was hungry, and she would stick a Marlboro in my mouth. She's burn me with them, too.
TA: Is she proud of you now though?
NC: Oh, very proud. She is, honestly, very proud of me. She's seen us play a number of times.
1980 came and it was time for a change. The band recorded the three songs for the Friend Catcher single in January and were off to England the following month.
TA: Were you pretty sure England was where you wanted to move? Did you consider any other places?
NC: At that time we where overwhelmed by the England press. Even now they're still harping that England has something more to offer than anywhere else in the world, which is complete fallacy.
TA: Was it tough to make that move?
RH: Yeah, it was really tough.
TA: How far away from Australia is it?
RH: About 12,000 miles or something. We just went to England with extremely limited funds, knowing nobody there. We were all broke within about a week.
TA: Did you have to leave your girlfriends behind?
RH: No, fortunately they came with us.
TA: OK. Some trouble with the parents over that maybe?
RH: No, I think they all had gotten used --
NC: They all came as well. So we had to sit in job agency queues each morning at half past eight --
RH: Trying to find work in a factory --
NC: And as dishwashers and so forth.
TA: You decided at some point to change the name of the band. You dropped The Boys Next Door entirely.
RH: That would have been a bit -- that name was something we hadn't liked for a long time, but it was just highly inconvenient to change it. And so when we went to London, it was a perfect opportunity to change it. At that time we were searching rather vainly for a name for the group, and I believe we were in the process of writing a song called Happy Birthday at the time. The Birthday Party was one of the other titles we had for it.
TA: There's an Altered Images song called Happy Birthday, too.
RH: Yeah, there's been a lot of them since we wrote ours.
TA: I wonder if some of the people coming tonight are expecting a girl to come out and sing that.
RH: Oh, I hope so!
TA: How long after you arrived in London was it before 4AD showed some interest in you?
RH: It was a long time, about five months or something. We didn't play at all in England for about the first five months we were there. We played eight times in the whole year.
TA: You hadn't sent out tapes to companies?
RH: Yeah, we did, but the people didn't listen to them. We went to Rough Trade when we first got there and they listened to things like The Friend Catcher and Mr. Clarinet and all that, and Jeff Travis said to me. "I think you're a very good group but you're too much like The Talking Heads, and you're too unemotional". And so I said "OK, OK" and we went away.
TA: I wonder where he got the Talking Heads out of all that.
RH: When we first went to England, people compared us to Joy Division and The Pop Group all the time. It was a continuous process.
TA: Nick, you were talking at one point about writing sad songs, and weren't all that happy with the way Joy Division did music like that.
NC: I never thought Joy Division were particularly depressing. I always found them pretty funny myself, never liked them very much. They were a bit corny, I think.
TA: You like New Order any better?
TA: Did you see any bands after you got to England that you kind of liked? Anything?
NC: I saw The Cramps. They were good.
RH: Yeah, The Cramps were the best group we saw.
NC: And The Fall. I didn't like them very much myself, the first time.
RH: In fact, you hated them!
NC: Yeah, it was probably a bad night.
TA: Did Ivo just see you play?
NC: Yeah, he basically saw us play live once and thought we were very good.
TA: That was in London?
NC: Yeah, in a night club.
NC: It was a really depressing year, 1980, anyway. And then we went back to Australia, where we kind of changed a lot. We just decided we couldn't let another year happen like that again. We were a little bit more aggressive when we came back to London, both in the way we performed and in the way we approached people.
TA: It wasn't a gradual thing then? You just made up your minds to go out and --
NC: We were very disillusioned at that time with all the groups that we had idolized on record as young --
RH: Impetuous youth.
NC: Australians have an inferiority complex to begin with, but upon coming to London and seeing them all play live and seeing just how stagnant and shitty --
RH: Wishy-washy --
NC: That they were, it seemed quite obvious that a group was needed who were a little bit more direct.
TA: So then Ivo got the rights pretty quick to get The Friend Catcher and Mr. Clarinet out in England, right?
NC: Yeah, and those records raised an eyebrow amongst the press -- us coming from Australia, and they wrote a whole kind of patronizing, bigoted -- the press wrote a number of totally racist, bigoted reviews about those records.
TA: Just cause you guys were from Australia?!
TA: Rough Trade graciously agreed to distribute them, though.
TA: You didn't have any journalistic friends that early? No one who's stuck with you through thick and thin?
NC: Not until when Prayers On Fire finally came out, which we recorded in Australia the first time going back. I think Barney Hoskins, well, he came to America with us, in fact, the first time we were there.
TA: I wish Ivo could come over some time.
NC: You've never met him?
NC: He's a really nice guy. Ivo has very specialized tastes. All the groups he gets on his label are basically products of this taste of his. I've always been quite surprised that he's taken us up, judging by the other groups he has on that label. I mean, I find them all fairly offensive myself.
TA: All of them?
NC: Well, yes.
TA: Cocteau Twins are big fans of yours.
NC: Well, you know.
TA: You don't have to return the favour, of course.
NC: OK. They're a little bit light for me.
TA: You aren't jealous of Modern English's newfound American success with I Melt With You?
NC: No, we're not jealous of anybody.
TA: You aren't going to crank out a single geared to the American Dance Crowd?
NC: No, I don't think so.
And so 1980, that "really depressing" year, ended with the release on Missing Link of The Birthday Party lp. This record included the five songs from the year's earlier two single releases, plus the two songs from Hee Haw that I'm familiar with (The Hair Shirt and The Red Clock), plus Hats on Wrong, Guilt Parade, and Riddle House. It was, of course, the first of the three sterling albums out under their new name, and even if you've already heard half the songs on it, buy it for the other half. You won't regret it. 1981 was an even stronger year for vinyl. The Prayers On Fire album came out in June, a Nick The Stripper 12" was issued in Australia the same month (with yet two more new songs, Kathy's Kisses and Blundertown), and the song that really got people talking, Release The Bats, came out as an A-side in August. During the last week of September and the first week of October, The Birthday Party, having lost Tracy Pew temporarily due to a conviction and a three-month sentence for drunk driving in Australia, recruited Barry Adamson in his place and... "toured"... "America"...
TA: On the first U.S. tour, I read about how the sets were cut short by the clubs' managements. What do you think about the places that did that?
NC: I think The Ritz is possibly one of the worst clubs that we've ever been to.
RH: Yeah, When we played The Underground that was fairly understandable for a couple of reasons -- because the audience was just totally - they were all 45-year-old businessmen and young girls they had picked up. So they just wanted to drink and chat with their new girlfriends. Mick Harvey had sort of consumed a large quantity of alcohol, which is something that he rarely does, and he was totally out of his brains, screaming through the microphone at people, telling them in no lean terms how completely fucked they were. And also having just the slightest grasp on his instrument in terms of what to play. It was just this continuous feedback. [This was early October 1981, this show was stopped after three songs, the next show at The Ritz was stopped by the management after 35 minutes, they were not allowed to play at the next show in Chase Park, all NYC, my note: MM]
TA: Is he the only one who doesn't drink very much?
RH: No, I don't drink very much at all.
TA: You don't think that will happen tonight? Things ending prematurely?
RH: No, I can't see that happen tonight.
NC: The club might think it ends prematurely. That's cause they expect us to play for an hour and a half or some ridiculous length.
TA: Do you do encores generally if called for?
RH: Yeah, usually.
TA: If you had to live somewhere in America, where would that be? Have you seen enough of it? Could you be happy anywhere?
NC: I'd live in New York if I lived anywhere.
RH: Yeah, Manhattan.
TA: Not the southern United States or swamps or anything like that?
RH: Well, we haven't been around there, but basically I think we are city folk. We'd get probably fairly bored --
NC: Getting beaten up every Saturday night.
TA: Well, Tracy wouldn't be. He'd get along with them. There was one U.S.-released record, Prayers On Fire, and that was licensed through Termidor. Are there still plans to get Junkyard out here, too?
RH: Yeah, there are. I would have thought it would've been out by now.
TA: It's too bad it wasn't. I mean. the timing of these tours is important, I guess.
RH: Well, we never have any timing, cohesion like that.
TA: Do you have somebody that does things with the lights?
NC: No, we don't have anybody like that, nobody really working with us. We have a sound engineer sometimes. She is working with Depeche Mode at the moment, so she couldn't come over with us. That's basically it. We don't have a manager, that type of thing.
TA: I wanted to ask you about some of the clubs over there. Have you been to The Batcave?
RH: No, I haven't
NC: In London? Yeah, I've been to The Batcave.
TA: You haven't played there though?
RH: No, we were going to, but we didn't.
NC: It's better than most of the clubs in London anyway. At least it's dark and sort of filthy, whereas most of the clubs really make an attempt to be ritzy.
TA: Have you guys played at the Hacienda?
RH: Yeah, it's very civilized, if that's what you want in a club. But it had really horrible acoustics.
TA: You've done three Peel sessions so far?
TA: All the songs were ones you had already recorded except for the latest session, right?
RH: Yeah, and that was the worst of them by far.
NC: I was really uninspired that day.
RH: When we went in to do that we were just -- we had already recorded two of the songs, and we were just going through the motions of recording them again. It's very hard when you are doing a Peel session. You have extremely limited time, so you don't really have the time to approach songs from a new angle. It just has to be basically live, which is the way Sonny's Burning and Deep In The Woods, were recorded on the EP. So it just felt dumb because we were just recording them exactly how we had done them before.
TA: You ever make any videos?
RH: Yeah, we made one of Nick The Stripper.
TA: Was there a guy playing Nick in there?
RH: No, it wasn't that literal. It was very --
NC: Well, I was running around with no clothes on.
RH: There was a loincloth on.
NC: With token swear words written on my chest. Spelt incorrectly.
TA: Oh, the shots on the Release The Bats sleeve! What does "porca dio" mean?
RH: It means pig god.
At the 9:30 Club I was able to talk with them a little more about the video, after having just seen it for the first time on the previous night before The Fall came on. Rowland told me that it was filmed in eight hours one evening at a garbage dump in a Melbourne suburb. The opening scenes were actually shot last, at 6:00 in the morning with Nick "drunk and stumbling around". The total cost of the video was held to $1000 because "we only had to pay the costs -- the technicians volunteered their time, and we simply put flyers up inviting people to attend".
NC: I used to paint things on my body, but I don't do it anymore.
RH: Through sheer laziness.
NC: Well, I've lost my artist's dish.
TA: Plus you don't take off as many clothes as you used to, maybe?
RH: Which is true also.
NC: They tend to get taken off.
TA: Have you ever been arrested for having not enough on?
TA: Have any of you besides Tracy ever been arrested?
NC: Yeah, well, I've been arrested about five times for theft. Um --
RH: Driving without a license, crashing into a police car, drunk driving --
NC: Oh, I've been arrested for indecent exposure. Apparently I masturbated out of the back of a car for seven miles, in front of a local police --
RH: Local policeman's wife!
NC: Yeah, in some little country town in Australia.
TA: You were riding in a car?
NC: We were in the back, me and Tracy were in the back of the truck, we were driving, going up to a concert, and we were lubricating, um, drinking a lot of beer, and rather than have the car stop all the time, we were just urinating out of the back.
TA: That wasn't really masturbating.
RH: Well, that's what she said in her statement.
NC: The van passed a car when we were in midstream. And it was the policeman's wife. She signed a statement that said we had masturbated at her for seven miles. Which was not at all true, of course. It wasn't true, it was a frame-up.
TA: Were you found guilty?
TA: So what happened?
NC: It didn't turn up at the court session for that one.
TA: Just had to pay a fine for this small crime?
NC: Yeah. I've never been in jail.
TA: You've been arrested too, Rowland?
RH: Yeah, for drugs in England.
NC: Oh, I've been arrested for that too.
RH: It was a £350 fine or nine weeks in jail. I'm still paying the fine. It was about a year ago.
TA: There's no rehabilitation centers they send people to help them get well?
RH: No, the judge told me it was obvious I was going to be dead in nine months.
TA: Proved him wrong then.
RH: Her. I thought she was taking a real liberty, saying that to me.
TA: Well, she was just concerned.
RH: I had to go see a social worker for an interview and talked to her about my problem, and she came to the conclusion that I was quite in control of the situation. But the judge toot one look at me and declared that I would be dead in nine months as part of my punishment. But I didn't die -- the hex didn't work.
TA: Did she have a little doll up there of you?
RH: No, just a hank of hair and a bit of bone.
TA: Has Mick ever been arrested?
RH: No. Mick is the only lawful person in the group. His father was a vicar, and --
TA: He probably likes the band!
RH: Yeah, he is extremely fond of the band.
NC: Mick -- he doesn't even know we've released any records, Mick's father. 'Cause Mick has to hide them all.
TA: What does he think his son's doing?
NC: I don't know.
RH: I think he's written out of the family Bible.
NC: Mick's mother always has to hide all the records.
RH: Any press clippings or records get put in the closet.
NC: Except he found out about The Pope's Blood once in the national papers.
RH: Yeah, when we went back to Australia we got a lot of Sunday paper interviews about -- things saying "What inhuman creature would call a record that?" asks the Very Reverend Mr. J. Ackerman. And "We were only trying to be amusing," says Rowland Howard.
I'm not going to go over the records of the past year and a half since you all know what those were, with the possible exception of Tuff Monks' After the Fireworks 45. This Au-go-go- release came out at the end of '82 and featured Nick, Rowland, Mick, and three Go-Betweens. I think it's a great song. Mick Harvey thinks that "It would have been great if it hadn't been a idea never been finished, if half the vocals hadn't been gone, and if it had a proper B-side." But then, he was pretty irritable that night in Washington. He went on about how he didn't think anyone else knows how to play the drums, which is probably true, and how he hated the instrument (Rowland confided that as the set progresses, the cymbal stands start to look like prison bars to him and he feels trapped). Mick also confessed to being "Straight, completely and utterly straight," and also admitted to singing Foxy Lady whenever The Boys Next Door played live. But anyways, let's move on to the move to Germany and the unceremonious dumping of Phil.
TA: Are any of your guys officially married?
TA: Or plans?
NC: Oh no. Phil had plans to get married. Disgusting.
TA: That's why he didn't want to go to Germany?
NC: No, we just kicked him out and then left for Germany. He had no say in the matter.
TA: But you had been with him right from the start, right?
TA: So wasn't that kind of difficult?
NC: Well, I mean, I didn't have to do it, actually. Mick did it. So I wasn't there. I don't know if it was difficult or not. Mick just told him, and then we played one concert, and then I never saw him again. So I'm not peeved about the whole thing.
TA: Do you have any comments on the band he joined?
NC: Well, there's something I kind of like about The Psychedelic Furs. I don't know what it is; it's probably the lyrics on the first record, which I quite like for some reason. Fairly pervert sort of lyrics. I think the group's music leaves a bit to be desired.
TA: Do you think he's probably happier with them?
NC: I don't know. I really don't know what he's doing. He's obviously got it made with them in the sense that he's -- I talked to him on the phone once, he called, and he was saying that he had done a 22-date tour of America, and now he's doing a 30-date tour of Australia, and he's coming back straight after it to do another 20 dates in America. So I said, "How can you possibly do that?" And he said, "Aw, it's all right when they treat you well, living in the Hilton and driving around in limousines," and all that sort of shit.
TA: Well, when you're in with Todd Rundgren, it's life in the fast lane.
RH: David Bowie's going to produce their next album.
NC: Is he? Well, I'm totally jealous.
TA: Was it decided right away that Mick would play drums, or did you first look for another drummer?
RH: No, we just got Mick to play drums.
TA: Had he played them at all before? I know he's played just about everything else.
NC: No, not really.
RH: Well, he played them on Junkyard.
TA: What, Phil left about halfway through that or something?
RH: No, he left when we were in England, after the album had been recorded.
TA: He just wasn't in the studio, then, for some of the songs?
RH: Well, he was there, but he just couldn't play the drumbeats. What happened was that Mick used to write all of Phil's drumbeats, because Phil became increasingly unable to think of drumbeats as the songs became less predictable. So Mick and other people used to write the drumbeats, and sometimes Phil couldn't play them because he was far too conventional a rock drummer. He had to have his right hand hitting something in time. So eventually it came to the situation where Mick had to play some of the drumbeats.
TA: Phil sounded pretty good on the earlier stuff. I think John Peel even voted him his favorite drummer at one point.
RH: Yeah, he is a good drummer for that type of thing, but he just has very limited personal vision. There was a time in 1981 when he suggested that we should do a cover of a Beatles' song. This was his contribution to the group, so obviously he had a very different idea of what the group was about.
NC: He never suggested it again. He only suggested it once.
RH: He was being very serious though.
TA: Yeah, that'd be a big step. You'd have to think about it for a while.
NC: He did every now and then attempt to assert some of his personality onto the procedure, which we stifled.
RH: Stepped on.
NC: Snipped in the bud.
I asked Phil about this Beatles allegation backstage after the Furs' show in Columbus, and all he could respond was, "I really don't remember. But what else did they tell you?"
TA: I heard that you don't play anything before Junkyard live. Is that true?
RH: Yeah, because we've only got one guitar now. The earlier songs wouldn't sound as good. I don't know how to play the main part in Release the Bats, for example.
TA: What percentage of the stuff before Junkyard had two guitars?
RH: It was about 80% with two guitars. Then there were songs that had organ and auxiliary percussion. Then we lost our organ.
TA: You don't want to buy a new one?
RH: We just haven't got the money.
TA: And you got to get someone to play it, too.
RH: Yeah, now. About a month ago we had another drummer, an Australian from a group called The Laughing Clowns, Geoffrey Weggener. We were planning on getting a keyboard for Mick to play, but then Geoffrey left the group.
NC: We're very limited now in what we can do, being only four people.
TA: Maybe you'll get someone else then.
NC: I doubt it.
RH: It's really a question of finding somebody who would fit in with us personally.
TA: Is that what Bleddyn Butcher does?
NC: He's just a photographer.
TA: He's from Australia, too?
NC: No, he's not --
RH: Yeah, but he's just one expatriate Australian who came to see us play and met us, hung around. He's in England now; he's not part of our entourage.
TA: Seems like he's got an exclusive on the photo rights.
RH: There's just not that many photographers out to take photos of us, basically.
NC: Basically, we haven't got the faces of 1983.
NC: Uh, what year is it?
TA: 1983. I think you guys are as distinctive as anyone else. You don't have to-
RH: I guess we just don't wear gold lam&eaccute suits, things like that.
TA: Yeah, that's going to hurt. Do you play out in Germany a lot?
RH: No, not really. We just went to Berlin to live.
TA: Did you play out at all while you were there?
RH: We played once in Berlin while we lived there. We've played there three times in all now.
TA: What kind of band would put a swastika on a sleeve, just right across the whole thing like that?
NC: I don't know.
TA: Was that supposed to be subtle?
NC: It was just a square design, fitted into a square format. It could've been a Ban the Bomb sign. No, the swastika is the offensive symbol, and the sacred heart is the symbol of purity. It has both extremes on it. It was basically put there because I knew people would make a fuss about it. I can't see why you can't draw that symbol without having any particular political connotations anyway.
TA: You guys aren't generally considered a political band. You haven't played any anti-nuclear benefits.
RH: No. Things like nuclear warfare tend to go outside your formal garden politics. It's easier to discuss the president than a nuclear bomb, although I don't like to talk about things like this. It makes me so depressed.
NC: We're basically not interested in making public our political views.
TA: You didn't get involved with any neo-Nazi factions while you were in Berlin?
RH: Only Malaria.
NC: Who are now actually communists.
RH: What do you mean?
NC: Well, they're no longer toying with the Nazis.
RH: How do you know.
NC: Because they sent over Mark to get a Communist red flag to hang behind their group.
TA: Uh, back on The Bad Seed, the way the faces are all turned around different except for Rowland's -- I just wondered, is he kind of considered as the sex symbol in the group or not?
NC: I don't know, I just painted it and gave it to the printers and went to Berlin, and that's just how it came out. I don't know whether Rowland's considered to be the sex symbol. I think all of us attract different types.
TA: Have you ever been approached about doing a film soundtrack?
NC: No, unfortunately.
RH: No, people just generally seem to be fairly resilient about approaching us.
TA: Do you have any favourite actors or actresses?
NC: All the ugly ones.
NC: Charles Laughton.
TA: Is he dead?
NC: No, I don't think so.
RH: I think he is, actually.
NC: Is he? What a shame.
RH: When was The Hunchback of Notre Dame made? About 1930?
NC: Oh, he might be dead then.
RH: He was about 30 then.
NC: Jose Ferrer. When he played Cyrano DeBourgeorac, he was pretty good. And Toulouse Lautrec. He's not so good these days.
TA: Is there anyone you like that's going these days?
NC: Brad Dourif. He was in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and I saw him once in a pub.
TA: Lydia Lunch has got some film friends. Couldn't you get involved in a New York project like that?
NC: Well, I suppose we could, I guess.
TA: Or even be in it?
RH: I don't really think it'd be great to be in a film. It would have to be a role I could feel extremely comfortable in.
TA: Like what? A murderer?
TA: A lover?
RH: Jesus Christ!
TA: Like, what part, you know? I'm sorry, Rowland.
RH: I really don't know. Basically, it would have to be some kind of possible extension of my personality, I would assume. I can't really see myself taking on terribly diverse roles.
TA: Are the songs about Gun and Sonny and Mr. Clarinet based on real people that you write a story about? Or is it all just out of the head?
NC: They're just --
RH: His friends.
NC: My little, my friends.
RH: Just friends who live in his closet.
NC: Little bedfellows.
TA: There's a lot of them.
NC: Yes. I guess it's getting a bit --
TA: No, I don't mind.
NC: No, I don't mind either but --
RH: I think it's very good having songs about characters. It's not something people do very much.
NC: It just seems to me a very convenient form of songwriting.
TA: It gives each song its own individual distinction.
NC: Yeah, I think so. It makes particularly more narrative sorts of songs. It makes it much more akin to a novel or film or something which is generally based on a portrait.
RH: A living character.
TA: Tracy Pew hadn't really done any songwriting before, but he's credited on She's Hit. Is he going to be writing more stuff?
NC: Oh no, he just happened to write the bass line to that song.
TA: How do people get delegated the credit for writing each song? It's got to be kind of a group effort; most bands would be proud of calling it a group effort. But you guys always write down specifically who wrote the words, who did the music.
RH: A lot of people, when presented with a song, can think of something good to contribute to it. But when it comes to actually sitting down for a couple hours and working the whole thing out, writing the basis of the song, they can't do it. It is really hard work, and you do put a lot into it. Also, it is just another thing to do with personality. These songs are often reflections of a single person's personality and not the whole group's.
TA: You're not worried about the royalty money or anything like that?
RH: We don't get any royalties ever. No one bothers to pay us royalties.
TA: You don't think any bands ten years from now will be recording Birthday Party songs?
RH: At the moment we get publishing advances, me, Nick, and Mick, and the money is just used for wages, so everyone gets the money. After the advance, any money that comes in then for the records gets doled out to individuals. But that's just a very small amount.
TA: Nick and Mick wrote three of the four on The Bad Seed. Are you kind of saving your own songs for something of your own?
RH: No, they were just the songs that came out of the rehearsals that we did in Berlin. I'd written a couple of songs, and we tried to learn a couple of them, but they just didn't work out.
TA: Is there anything else worked out at this time other than Pleasure Avalanche and Marry Me (Lie, Lie) that hasn't been recorded yet?
RH: Yeah, there's a song called Say a Spell, a song called Swampland --
NC: That's a joke. Swampland's just a heap of shit.
TA: It's not going to be your big opening number or anything?
NC: It's one we kind of slide in the middle slightly red-faced. I just sort of, lyrically with Swampland it just sort of goes, "OOOLEE, ALEEEE," and I just pretend to sing lyrics there.
RH: Then there's Six Strings That Drew Blood, which Nick thinks he wrote about me, but he has the wrong impressions. Lines like "He scares the shit out of all his friends".
TA: He's probably just jealous because you've got more friends than he does.
RH: Oh, that's not true. He's got far more friends than I do.
TA: Do you know what the next Birthday Party release will be?
NC: When we get back to Germany, we're definitely recording. Then we're going to Australia for a few days. Depending on how much material we got, I would quite like to do a double EP, with the two records quite different from each other. Basically, there's this difference of opinion within the group as to what the next record should be like. I would like one of them to be far more loose in the studio, a lot more written and recorded and conceived in the studio, far more spontaneous, and the basic atmosphere of it to be really haunting, slower. The other one will probably have more songs that we do on stage, whereas the first would have no consideration for whether it could be reproduced on stage whatsoever. It would be more experimental, if you want.
TA: I read where you were going to do something with Collapsing New Buildings?
NC: I sang a song with them which is really good. Rowland played guitar on their last single, Thirsty Animal. That's really a great record.
TA: You know what label they're on over there?
NC: No, I've forgotten. They're really a great group, though. Very trendy group at the moment, but they're really intense and serious about what they're doing. They are really breaking new ground in a few respects.
TA: They go really heavy on the percussion and clanging?
NC: Well, yeah, but they have a real kind of personality in their music, which a lot of that stuff doesn't have.
In German the band's name is Einsturzende Neubauten, and their Thirsty Animal 12" is at this time available through Rough Trade. In D.C. Rowland told me a little about his own offshoot group, These Immortal Souls. It consists of himself, his girlfriend Genevieve McGuckin on piano, and the previously mentioned Barry Adamson and Geoffrey Wegener. He said they have 14 songs together and will be recording in two or three months, with the probable label being Red Flame.
TA: Are you planning on staying on 4AD for the time being?
RH: No, I don't think our next record will come out on 4AD, because they have a limited distribution and budget. The budget we got for The Bad Seed was extremely small. We've never signed a contract with them; we just sign for what record we want to make next. So it's not really worth their while to invest terribly much money in us.
TA: Is that why you're in the States? Are you hoping some label over here will show some interest?
RH: No, we just come to America to get out of London for a while, cause it's interesting playing to people in different countries.
TA: No label in mind for the next record?
TA: Mute? Really?!
RH: It's a possibility, yeah.
TA: Well, that'd really be different for them. Maybe they're getting smarter.
RH: They've always been interested in us, but Daniel Miller has a very slow manner of working.
NC: Pussyfoots around a lot.
RH: He has to be absolutely sure that he can work with whatever group he's got signed. He just doesn't sign anyone because he thinks they make good records. He signs them if he likes them, basically.
TA: It seems like he's always signed the same kind of group though.
RH: Well, he did put out the first D.A.F. record, which is extremely impressive.
NC: They weren't terribly good, but --
TA: You think Mute would get you Sire in the States?
RH: I really don't know.
NC: Just a change.
TA: That'd be Daniel Miller producing, too?
RH: No, it'd be us producing.
NC: He's going to come into the studio, though.
RH: Often there's people in the studio when we make records, but it's always, it could only ever be us that had the final say. Because it's our record, and nobody else's.
NC: I've had enough trouble with producers running around. Yeah.
TA: Like Richard Mazda?
RH: He just helped with two songs on Junkyard. When we got to England and had to record a couple more songs to lengthen what we had recorded in Australia, and as we weren't terribly confident about any engineers to record with, Hex Enduction Hour came out, and the sound on that was fairly pleasing. So we thought that he might be a good person to have around.
TA: That's one thing I've always liked -- you could've been like any other band and just stuck something older off a single on the album, but there's never been any overlap of songs on your records.
RH: Right. That would be horrible, because it would be totally unexciting for us to do that.
TA: Do you think there's anyone terribly unhappy in the band now?
NC: Um --
TA: Is there going to be some major upheaval in the near future?
NC: I wouldn't be surprised at all, actually. There always seems to be that possibility lying around. But you know, one never can sort of see it going on for very long.
TA: How old are you guys?
NC: I'm 25. I'm the oldest.
TA: Is there a most memorable moment while you were on stage during the five hundred shows, something that really stands out?
NC: Well, I really liked the New York shows the first tour. The ones we got kicked off. I remember The Underground, they tried to kick us off, and we wouldn't get off, and they said, "One more song", and we did a version of King Ink. We knew we only had one more song. We had only played about three, and we were kind of, oh, getting extremely, I mean, we were kind of at our peak, energy-wise, and were allowed this one last song, which was King Ink, which in its day we built up really strongly. I think that was a great moment because it was just totally total hatred and violent, both physical and music-wise. It was thrust upon an audience, and it was really good.
TA: Has there ever been a moment where there was any kind of fear that some kind of weapon was around?
NC: There have been some fairly hair-raising times. Like in Germany, in Cologne, for example. Every time we play there, it's the same as playing Glasgow, which is full of absolute nut cases. All these people up at the front who -- it's so obvious they've never even heard the group before and don't know anything about the group. They're just kind of shaking their fists and gobbing and so forth. But in Cologne, there was some guy pulling out an iron bar out of his coat while I was leaning down and raising it to club me over the head with it. It got pulled out of his hands, which I was quite relieved about at the time. There's no one that's pulled a gun out or anything like that so far. They don't have guns in England.
TA: That's true. This is Detroit, though, the wild Motor City, murder capital. You did a Stooges cover on Drunk On The Pope's Blood; are you doing that song tonight?
NC: No. Just as a joke, we once did a concert in Australia which was to more people than we had ever played to before at the time. We just did old, entirely old Stooges numbers, and people came slapping us on the back about our new material. It had developed so well.
TA: Were you ever a Doors fan?
NC: Yeah, of course. I don't think we really have particularly -- I don't think we've been influenced by anybody in the last two years though. I make no attempt to sound like anybody.
TA: You getting ready to move again?
NC: It's basically the moving that is important, not where you move to, in my opinion. As long as we can manage to stay in some state of alienation or some state of confusion, or where our sense are, despite what you might see at the moment, sharpened to some degree or our creative impulses kept flowing to some degree. The more I reside in one place, the more I feel that one forms habits of living which are death to any creative impulse. And it's the periods between the habits you develop which are the periods in which you're truly creative.
TA: When you write songs, they come in clusters?
NC: Yeah, I often write a lot on tour, because that's very much like that. But you know, I don't come up with that much sitting around in London for three months in some squalid little home. I mean, I haven't had a home now for years, two years or so. it's just been a matter of shifting around in places and waiting to go off on tour.
Let's see, what else is worth adding? When the band arrived at Traxx for the soundcheck, I introduced myself to Nick and Rowland and gave them some back issues (Rowland already knew about it!). Nick immediately scanned the individual categories of the Readers poll and took delight in noting which few musicians finished ahead of the particular BP-ers. Between the two shows I got to hear all four songs from The Bad Seed, the three brand new songs mentioned in the interview, Pleasure Avalanche, She's Hit, Dead Joe, Hamlet, and Six Inch Gold Blade. The 9:30 show was the last of the tour, and Rowland told me there that the sets in Minneapolis had "the most electricity". He also assured me that Tracy Pew was "capable of extraordinary things on stage", but all he did the two sets I saw was gently attempt to make love to his bass guitar. During an aborted rendition of Deep In The Woods, Nick threw himself backwards into the drum kit, knocking over half the cymbals and snare, Mick throwing down what was left in clearly an agitated state. From the second "row" I asked Tracy what happened, but his response was cocking his head slightly to one side and giving a somewhat puzzled smile. No need for his explanation, though, as Nick duly summed up the occurrence by affirming to the crowd that "It was unhappy." The Birthday Party are a great band, truly the best in the world today, and on top of that they were even nice to me.
- Tim Aanstedt