The Next Thing - 1984
The Birthday Party: Love's Lonely Children
It may be an academic sort of judgment to make, which the band itself would understand yet still deny, but the Birthday Party are probably the most important rock group Australia has produced. This, of course, is a claim that's hard to substantiate, as the Birthday Party have never sold a lot of records, and their full impact may not be felt for some time to come, but already their influence has been enormous, all around the world as well as within Australia. Surely the number of pale imitators the Birthday Party have got, from the Southern Death Cult to the Sacred Cowboys is measure enough of their significance. The Birthday Party have wrought a change in music which has extended far beyond their own existence, and is still yet to be properly assimilated.
So much ignorant and sensational garble has been written about the Birthday Party that to say anything more now is inviting criticism. But not if it's neither ignorant nor sensational...
The Birthday Party have left a de-evolutionary trail. Slug-line indeed! Four polite, bushytailed middle-class boys from Caulfield Grammar in Melbourne form a group called the Boys Next Door in 1976, play equally polite punky power-pop. Get artier and artier. It's not until 1980 though, that the group undergoes a musical metamorphosis: change name to Birthday Party. Move to London.
As disillusionment with the contemporary post-punk scene sets in, the Birthday Party become surer of their own worth, and pursue their own obsessions singlemindedly. Totally abandon stilted art-rock predilections. Songs have become simpler, sparser. The Birthday Party arrive at a contemporary music that is unashamedly rock (at a time when rock was a dirty word) yet more vital than just about any other music being made. The Birthday Party could never be called primitives because they are too- knowing; pretentious in the extreme (which is not necessarily a bad thing, it leads to greater things), they are not, however, contrived (which is a bad thing). Always inconsistent (which may or may not be a hallmark of greatness), when the Birthday Party connect it is with an awesome vengeance. Their rock is crucial because it accepts its own mythology; the Birthday Party re-validate rock. Rock can no longer be so straightforward, it is encumbered with too much past, its implications push beyond the obvious and the immediate. The Birthday Party realise this; their greatness is that they embrace as much so-called 'negativity' as they do 'positivism', as much 'bad' as 'good'. The Birthday Party come not to 'entertain' but to taunt. The Birthday Party's mangled, violent melange may be symptomatic of our apocalyptic times, but they would deny that. Their concerns are inward, timeless and classical. Talk about exorcising the demons - that's what the Birthday Party do for rock, and for themselves. But I wonder if it's not lost on an audience...
With every statement the Birthday Party have surpassed themselves. Prayers On Fire was a coming-of-age, their 'baptism'; 'Release The Bats' may have been more deliberately trash, but it was more coherent and immensely commercial. Junkyard went further in its arrogance, but The Bad Seed was better, it distilled the best elements from Junkyard and then expanded upon them. Between Junkyard and The Bad Seed the Birthday Party sacked drummer Phil Calvert; guitarist Mick Harvey moved to drums, but it was never a particularly stable situation. After recording The Bad Seed, Laughing Clown Jeffrey Wegener sat in for Harvey on some Dutch dates, and then when the Birthday Party toured Australia in mid-1983 Harvey refused to come. The group returned to England and then went to Germany to record what would be an epitaph, falling apart amidst walk-outs and squabbling, a sordid, sad end.
Late in 1983, Nick Cave performed in America as part of the Immaculate Consumptive with friends Marc Almond, Lydia Lunch and Clint Ruin. Tracy Pew and Mick Harvey returned to Australia. Rowland Howard remained in London and may or may not manage to get together his long promised 'super-group' - These Immortal Souls. Then Nick Cave too returned to Australia and assembled a group, including Harvey and Pew, as well as Barry Adamson and Hugo Race, called Nick Cave:Man Or Myth, which played a series of gigs and proved that the fire that burnt in the Birthday Party is far from extinguished. xxxx - C. W.
This interview with Rowland Howard and Nick Cave was held in their room
at the Barclay Hotel, Kings Cross, at the time of the Birthday Party's 1983 Australian tour.
After living in London for some time, you moved to Berlin, but it wasn't long before you left there. Why was that?
Rowland: I think Mick and I felt it first. I left because, for a start, there's the language barrier, and, like, it was just so hard getting basic things. things to read, to watch TV, go to the movies, things like that.
Was it a positive experience though?
Rowland: Oh yeah. I don't think Bad Seed would've been the same record had it been made in London. We had to get out of London.
Since then you've been on the move continuously, and Nick you often said how you liked being homeless - it gives you a precariousness that helps your creation - but what effect do you think all that touring has on you?
Nick: Well, physically, I'm sure it's taken many years off my life.
Rowland: It's really important to me, because there's not many groups capable of it.
Nick: I think there is some danger in having the opportunity to go any place you like at any time, you're continuously faced with this avalanche of input, where after a while you start to pass things off as uninteresting. And the obvious conclusion to that is that you could eventually become very jaded. I think I would have reached the same conclusions about things if I had just stayed in Australia, on philosophical questions, but I think the travelling around has helped develop, or speed up, the process, the actual form of its presentation. The whole thing about the form of the songs, the travelling around, continuous working or something, just the basic flow of ideas is quite fast, and so the kind of basic progression of songwriting is quite fast. I think the simpler everything begats (laughter) gets, the harder the whole thing becomes.
What sort of new influences have you absorbed?
Rowland: You just see things everywhere, in newspapers, or an image that gets locked into your subconscious and then comes out in a song. I find it very hard to listen to most music, because it doesn't do anything for me emotionally. The only thing that influences the Birthday Party is the people who are writing the songs.
Nick: The point is that there are certain groups and people we would consider to be great working in music, but all the things they're doing, in the same way as us, are so personal, that's why they're great, so obviously you just don't get influenced. I mean, you could superficially plagiarise Mark E. Smith if you wanted to, but I think it would be fairly pointless, because his style and his imagery is entirely his own, and it would stick out like a sore thumb.
Rowland: The point is, if you have any real understanding of people like that, then the way in which they would influence you is to learn how to express yourself as personally as possible.
Considering the structure of The Birthday Party in personal terms, how do you work together now?
Rowland: It's more a case, I've come to realize, that the Birthday Party has become, in the last two years, more of a vehicle for Nick than anyone else. And that doesn't bother me. Basically, the songs that I write and the songs that Nick and the group write are two different things. The way we write songs in the Birthday Party has evolved to a state where we arrive at a bassline or something like that, which is why Tracy plays so repetitively, the basslines are the basis of the songs. Ninety-nine per cent of the time I'm playing what I invent. When Nick writes songs, he often has only a very abstract idea of what they're going to be like, he needs someone to translate it, and I think we all work really well together.
How personal is your material, Nick?
Nick: Totally that way. I don't really write very much about the situation I'm in today, and kind of disguise it by using characters and a different situation, but I don't write anything I have no feelings for. All of it directly relates to me, but I think also there's a certain discipline involved in writing where you do write so it is entertaining and interesting, and interesting for me too.
Do you think The Birthday Party, your music, is radical?
Nick: I wouldn't ...
Rowland: I mean, as far as I'm concerned, in a sense there are no rock bands left. I really think one thing our group has done has made it patently obvious that so few people are aware or recognise what rock music is meant to be. They've just completely forgotten. I think what we're doing, so few other people are doing.
Nick: I think the extremities of our group have been pursued before us.
Rowland: And also, we're not primarily concerned with being radical.
Nick: I think what being radical is is opening up, for other people to follow, surging forth and this type of thing, which I don't think we do. I think what we're doing, just by existing, is making an example of ourselves as one group in history, among the few there are, who display exactly what they are themselves, and have worked out a truly honest, personalised embodiment, through their music, of themselves. I think the bulk of groups rely on what has gone before, the history of rock music, which I don't think our group does.
Rowland: Using a certain sequence of notes evokes a certain feel, and you are exploiting that, there are things in our songs that hark back to history, like to a blues-run or something like that, so it is in a way a real clich6, but you use things like that. I know what Nick means when he says we don't owe much to music history, because we're using things in a different way, and putting them in a different context.
Nick: What I mean is that we don't need music history to qualify what we're doing. We can stand, I think we're successful because even if there was no rock history we could still be relevant because we're expressing our personality, which is the basic thing, the whole essence of art is to do that, the art should embody its creator. So in a way we're age-old, but at the same time we're rare, because there's very few artists who do that, particularly in the rock world.
How do you regard Junkyard now?
Rowland: I was never really happy with it. In the actual process of recording we tried various experiments, and I think they failed, so the point we were trying to get across... I think, basically, Bad Seed is a lot more focused. When we kicked out Phil everything fell into place really quickly. Like, I think Mick is far more capable of expressing himself on the drums than on the guitar. The idea was, after doing Junkyard, we found it really hard to strip down, even though we'd only lost one other instrument. It's a really big jump. We had doubts whether we could pull off being a four-piece.
How did you react immediately to the four-piece line-up?
Rowland: Well, personally, it gave me a lot more room, I think I play less than I used to, but what I do has a far greater effect. For ages we'd been wanting to make things a lot sparser and starker, so that, like, every instrument was doing something that was totally necessary, no-one was playing unless it was dynamic. It was really hard to achieve that in a five-piece, with everyone fighting to get their point across sort of thing.
The difference between Junkyard and Bad Seed, was that change just the result of Phil leaving?
Rowland: it was a combination of a lot of things. I mean, the longer you play with any group of people, which is as long as you continue to enjoy it, you progress in the ability to be successful creating what you set out to create, and The Birthday Party has really evolved into this sort of... Bad Seed was like everyone pushing for one aim, to create the same type of atmosphere, which hasn't been true of our past records, it was always people pushing against each other. I mean, we really wanted to make a record that carried emotional weight. It's very hard to say how it happened.
You've also often claimed you find your music funny, that the humour in it is essential. Does that still hold?
Nick: I think there's a's much humour, or at least the humour remains in the presentation, but perhaps not so much in the lyrics themselves.
Would you describe it as black humour?
Rowland: Well, it's very dry.
Nick: I suppose it's a black humour, but the intention is that it's to take the importance away from the lyrics so that they become secondary, I mean a second realisation of the Birthday Party. What's actually there does mean something that is very serious. Whereas the unfortunate thing about a lot of groups who deal honestly with serious sorts of things is that it's always in the foreground. The first thing about Joy Division is that they are talking about very serious things, and I don't think that's really effective. I mean, with Joy Division, there's no reaching beyond their external image, into anything else, but with us I think there's far more layers; for a start the whole thing is glossed over with a layer of humour. It's like something that seems really funny, but has an unsettling effect on you, and you realise that it isn't really funny after all.
Rowland: Something like Joy Division, as far as I'm concerned, is just totally unreal, because any sort of situation at all, however serious, it always self-contradictory, there's so many things involved it's never so straightforward.
Which is undoubtedly why you are so often misinterpreted.
Rowland: Well, I think the reason the reaction is so varied is that every song has several possible interpretations, and people can pick up on what they consider to be the most important aspect of the song. I just think that contradictions are so necessary. There are so many emotions. People just don't talk about them, in love songs, all they ever talk about is the purest, the most idealistic ...
Nick: ... and commercial ...
Rowland: . . . yes, commercialised. There are so many other emotions that go hand in hand with love - jealousy, anger, disgust, and some nice things too. That's what I think we do, I think we show all the joys,. and all the petty things, the ugly side as well.
Yeah, I mean it does seem to me that most of your songs are in fact love songs ... still, fundamentally, they're love songs. Would you agree that love is a central Birthday Party theme?
Nick: It worries me that every song I write seems to be about love, I mean it's not only central, we just harp on it continuously, and the fact that people don't understand that that's our primary concern shows that either we're not expressing ourselves properly, or that they don't feel the same things that we do about it, or that they're ... just ... thick.
Rowland: They've just basically been conditioned. A lot of people just pick up on the aspect of the song that could possibly be interpreted as outrageous.
Nick: Which is the sensational, the violent aspect.
But that aspect is very apparent.
Rowland: What I think is amazing is that people think the Birthday Party write songs with the intention of shocking. If we really wanted to be outrageous or violent or whatever, our songs would just be complete failures, because in most of the songs the violence itself is only alluded to, nothing is overt.
Nick: If we wanted to be outrageous, it would be a lot easier than being the way we are. We could be like the Dead Kennedys, and get banned all the time.
Rowland: Or even like Alice Cooper, the violence is playacted.
Nick: The thing that mustn't be forgotten is that when we actually write a song, lyrics, the thought of how it's going to be interpreted is the furthest thing from our minds. You just sit down and write a song you're happy with, and you learn it, and play it, and then the consequences of the song become apparent to YOU. Also, in that respect, we feel no responsibility as to what effect we will have on the audience. This is another point, and that is that there should be no censorship by us, in that we shouldn't do particular things because they might create an adverse reaction, which is something we're criticised for, deliberately inciting audiences.
But at a Birthday Party gig there is always a very real tension, an electricity, in the air.
Rowland: Well, I mean, it's really felt, if we're playing well we become totally involved.
Nick: I think, if I was a member of the audience, one of the things I would find most, exciting about the Birthday Party when they play live is the fact that it is a kind of dangerous show, without wishing to use too dangerous a word, but that the show can go in any particular way. I think in London people started to kind of come along, no longer to see if we were going to throw ourselves around, but to see if we were going to have any tantrums on stage, or what was going to be the quirk in the show, who would walk off.
But doesn't that add to the drama anyway?
Rowland: We always try to cut the stops to as few as possible, because personally it detracts from my pleasure, because you build up personal momentum, and then it's lost, and the idea is to throw yourself into it.
Nick: I think, because we are presenting ourselves as honestly as possible, new areas of performance are being displayed, which doesn't happen with other groups, and, y'know, a good show no longer relies solely on us playing well, or ... it relies on just how - I find this a bit hard to explain ... just how strongly our emotions or our situation will be put across. And if it comes down to a show that's just riddled with technical problems, with bad temper, then that can be as kind of poignant and ... educational, as committed, as any other performance which is a powerful, confident, strong performance.
Well, as you said before, you consider that you present yourselves totally true to yourselves, it's that, honesty...
Rowland: I mean, for a start, often the state - I hate to keep talking about this the state we're in is a state most people will never experience, so totally involved in something that you forget, literally, what you're doing. I mean, you're stripped of any self-consciousness or whatever, and so your personality is being presented in the extreme, and it's a really strong thing. You very rarely see people on stage like that. So it is, I suppose, larger than life, except that it can't possibly be.
Nick: When you're placed in such an extreme atmosphere there's so much focus upon you I think it's a matter of pulling out the innermost, inner personality you may have, wearing that in exchange for your day-to-day ... exterior.
Rowland: Basically, the aspect you see of most people is an incredibly unreal aspect, the one that contains all the conditioning, that they've been bought up with, and basically it bears very little relation to the real spirit of the person.
But the imagery you use - of religion, violence, sex, death - most people wouldn't think of as very realistic.
Nick: I think the things I write about are quite natural for me to write about. I'm talking about just fairly ordinary feelings. One case in point that's always used and may as well be used again is '6-Inch Gold Blade', which talks about murdering a woman, but I mean it's basically a song about jealousy, and . . .
It does have phallic implications though...
Nick: Well, yeah, um, yeah, but that's just the art of writing, expressing a number of things at one time. It's also supposed to express a certain . . . total hatred, and a desire... It's just a good diagram why love and death can be joined together so easily, and gracefully, in one song. I mean, some people perhaps have more sensitive views on certain things than other people, I don't know, but to dwell on only one extremity of desire, you can't help but equate it with death anyway, without going up some blind alley. For me, it's a perfectly normal mode of thought. I don't think it's eccentric in any way.
How much do you think you mirror what's around you?
Nick: I think that's perhaps where we miss out ... I don't think the Birthday Party reflect very well the social climate at the moment, I think there are other groups who do that much better.
Rowland: Any kind of politics in our songs, social or otherwise, is sort of incidental in a sense that what we're talking about is basically the effects of certain things upon ourselves.
So where does the Birthday Party's slug-line lead now?
Rowland: I don't ever stop to think about the direction we're going in. It's governed by so much, the songs...
Nick: You just don't ... They're things you have to think up answers for for interviewers, but you don't really think about it yourself. Ever since I started playing seriously in this group, I've become less and less naive, less and less innocent about what we're doing. In the early stages, the Boys Next Door was just a totally intuitive and innocent thing, but I don't think it was terribly good either. These days, nearly every aspect of the group has been talked about, externalized in some way. I mean, the last thing I want to do before we go on stage is an interview, because it's intellectualising something you have to make intuitive in the end, and it all boils down to a process of shaking off all knowledge, in a sense, of what you're doing - fuck, I wish I could find the words - all the effect it's going to have, it has to be a raw emotional experience, and that becomes more and more difficult all the time.
- Clinton Walker