DNA - early 1986

The Robert Pugh Interview

This interview was conducted at 5MMM on 10/1/86 by Robert Pugh. MMM had been advertising tonight's show with one of their whipped up cartridges. It wasn't particularly good, in fact would probably have been downright embarrassing to any band. The person who wrote the blurb was largely at fault, and although my friends and I tried to do an alternative one, there wasn't enough time before the interview to do another, and considering that this is how 5MMM were promoting a concert that they were presenting, we thought it necessary to redress the balance somewhat in C&CS's favour. That's right, we played them the cartridge:

"Grunge out to Crime & the City Solution at La Rox on Friday 10th January. Crime & the City Solution, featuring former Birthday party and Bad Seed members Mick Harvey and Rowland S Howard. A night of tasteful grunge"

(While the cartridge plays, Rowland moans in mock histrionics and wraps his head and arms onto the desk; Simon gasps a bit, but by the time the cartridge has finished both are busting to defend themselves).

RP = Robert Pugh RH = Rowland Howard SB = Simon Bonney

RH : Uh, that was beautiful.
RP : Okay we have two of the members of C&CS here with us in the studio. Rowland has just fallen apart on the table in response to the advert. What are your initial reactions to the cartridge? Do you think it's an adequate ……..
RH : Yes, I think it's a totally adequate description of our group in every form, it sums us up 100%. There's nothing more to us than "tasteful grunge".
SB : Yeah, I don't think we're especially grungey. I don't aspire to grunge.
RP : Yes, I thought you might end up saying something along those lines. Six months ago C&CS were described as "a tough stiff and overworked" on stage, and this was when you were first starting …

(Immediately they're both half wary/half curious/puzzled. Rowland, the more defensive of the two; I should point out that RH looks most tired and is highly tense. He looks like he's in sore need of sleep, with a blue sleepmask shoved up into a forehead, preventing his oilslick hair from leaking down. Poor bastard, he may relish his lifestyle, but I wouldn't change places with him. Rowland talks only when he absolutely has to. He looks dead buggered, living on adrenaline and nervous energy until this final Australian concert is over. He talks little, tiredly fighting incoherence: when he does speak, it is effective).

SB : What article was that from?
RH : The one that Biba Kopf did.
RP : It was from the NME…..
RH : I think that was an admission we made ourselves. We'd been rehearsing for so long that what we did have very little spontaneity, which is largely derived from when you play on stage.
SB : Also, that concert that he was watching … well, that was quite a sympathetic article and I quite respect Biba Kopf's views. I mean that was like our third concert ever; it's been for Rowland and certainly for myself, it's been a long time since we'd played live, and also it'd been only a short time since Epic had joined our band

(he'd previously worked at Mute Records doing backroom stuff, and played in two line-ups of the Red Crayola after the demise of Swell Maps)

and we were experimenting and sort've learning about each other in a "live: format.
RP : Rowland, how do you feel about playing guitar in what is an essentially new band for you? RH : Laughs
RP : For example has your guitar style changed or ……
RH : (begins to speak but has a bit of trouble articulating, which I've edited away).
Well hopefully it changes according to how I feel on the particular day, but, I would hopefully and longingly like to imagine that it has progressed slightly since, over the last three years. I think it has, basically. It's not …. It's just this C&CS requires different needs than the BP did. So therefore I play in a different capacity.
RP : Could you define in a, uh, wild way what type of style you have now, or not at all?
RH : I could try and do it in a s(ong?) … what the needs of the song … it's just that basically you have to try and convey this feeling of the song without people being able to understand the lyrics, you've got to be able to do it musically. Because in a live situation obviously people aren't going to be able to take in every word…
SB : Also especially when you're playing in Europe where people can't speak English and can only speak their native language, you're going to have to try and convey something …
RH : It's a much more atmospheric thing, C&CS, than the BP.
SB : I think that's partly due to the fact that the way in which we approach writing the songs, is that Mick was the first person I ever met, having been in two sort've versions of this band before, who'd actually sort've like, read the lyrics, and as does Rowland when he writes music for them, and they're sort've taken into account as opposed to a "necessary evil" which certain people have seen lyrics, and singing in general as being a necessary evil.

(Simon is more genial and relaxed, and would probably be good to get drunk with. He strives to make sense of his thoughts; which come tumbling out altogether; in a soft, explanatory, helpful voice. He endeavours to speak clearly, and incongruously punctuates his sentences-of-sorts with "like", "y'know" and "sort've". A very likeable chap, and the more approachable of the two at this moment. I later find out that Rowland can be equally pleasant, but like many of us, pressures alter our personalities in awkward, unaccustomed tensions and torsions).

RP : So here it's more integral?
RH : Much more.
SB : Yeah … and I sort've think the music is basically representative of the lyrics … I feel for the music in the same way as I sing them, and hope that the band feel for the lyrics.
RP : Do you feel confident about your own singing ability and performance ability?
SB : Performance ability? More and more, yeah, although it's been a long time since I've played. We've played what, about twenty concerts?
RH : Something like that..
SB : Like the last couple of concerts we've played in Europe I thought were especially good, and I thought that the ones we're playing in Australia were pretty good; obviously you intend to improve all the time, but my ability to communicate with an audience was sort've like, um, improved, I think that stiffness that Biba was referring to was quite an apt description of that period of time.

(Simon later laughingly admitted to "fucking up five songs" on this night - after the interview. If he did, he covered magnificently, his king snake machine sewing flaws in satin. His visual presence is luxurious, rhythmically fascinating; looping his body in spirals which are broken by the natural angular geometry of his own torso; he looks like he's trying to mimic a cobra which is intent on captivating, but without intending to devour).

SB : I think you'd be the first to admit that things have changed in the last six months since that particular concert and I don't think we were especially stiff even then.
RH : I don't think we're stiff at all.
SB : But now there's the interplay and the knowledge that you get up on stage with and you have a pretty good idea what everyone else is gonna do and like, it's just become much more a band, a solid object.
RP : So 'Just South of Heaven' would be more indicative of the direction that the band's go …..
SB & RH : Oh hell yeah
SB : More so that 'The Dangling Man'.
RH : Well the two records cannot be looked on basically as being the same group, because they're not. We only made 'TDM' as a live record, in the sense that we recorded the songs in the way they would be played live, with a few exceptions like subliminal cellos an stuff like that, but 'JSOH' has a different line-up and people are playing different roles, and because there is a greater number of people in the group people don't have to … play, you can play far more creatively as opposed to filling in a gap in the structure.
SB : When we went in with 'TDM' there were 4 of us, and therefore Mick and Rowland were playing a multitude of different roles which we weren't aware of; obviously we weren't able to practise these songs in the way in which they were recorded because we just didn't have the number of people, and 'TDM' was recorded more out of a need than out of absolute want. It was just that we had been practising for like numerous months and sort've seeking a fifth member. At the time it was sort've like hunting for a guitarist or keyboard player or that we should do something and so that given that we couldn't play live as a four piece, and go and record.
RP : Did you advertise for Epic?
SB : No we actually met him during the recording of 'TDM'. He just happened to have contact with our recording company, yeah, he worked for them.
RP : What, as a session musician? (thinks : oh no, not Epic !)
SB & RH : No, no, no, writing biographies …
SB : And I don't know, just counted up the petty cash or something, he just sort've needed work and um …
RP : So you gave it to him?
SB : No Mute gave it to him initially, and we gave it to him secondly.

(At this point we have a break, Simon and Rowland sneaking out like schoolboys to have a badly needed smoke in the hall. When they come back, more at ease, we prattle about nicotine gum. Rowland rattles and taps his pen until Simon prevents him, and fiddles with his cellophane package from his cigarettes).

RP : Oh, back in the studio, how are the songs created; who comes up with what?


RP : Well, in a manner of speaking, does somebody come up with a tune, and you put lyrics to it, or do you go from the lyrics?
RH : Everybody in the group now writes music, so there's, I don't know, fifteen ways of getting it done.
SB : But primarily it's sort've like, well, with Mick you tend to present him with a set of lyrics, and if he's sort've … well that's true of anyone … if I present him with a set of lyrics which I write with Bronwyn and, they sort've deem those lyrics sort've suitable for a particular sort've music, and it's just a matter of compromise made, I guess, with verses removed, or music changed, or whatever …
RP : So that in the end the entire band is contributing actively to the …
RH & SB : Oh yeah yeah hell yeah
SB : Every song is, irrespective of what the credits are, everyone has contributed towards that song, and it wouldn't be a good song unless it was that way.
RP : Very much like what John Lydon said years ago about their song credits; that's why they always put all the names at the end …

(Rowland's pen scratching, persistent since he returned from smoking, reaches a peak and is eventually silenced by a watchful, helpful Simon).

SB : It can be misleading that way, cos if you do come up with the music and if you write the lyrics the, well I mean, you have actually done so irrespective. I think that anyone with any sort've sensitivity or knowledge of music would be aware of the fact that it's obviously a person's guitar sound or a person's organ sound is obviously going to contribute towards the overall sum total of the song, but ultimately the actual notes were written by, or the notes that the person worked off to create whatever sound ...
RH : The original spark of inspiration …
RP : There's a greater concentration of very tough professionalism about this band ..
RH : What? Tough professionalism? (gasp of disbelief, laughter)
RP : (surprised etc I was going on to say "rather than your previous bands, or is there?" but what the hell, the point was debated)
SB : Oh no, we're slack as hell.
RP : Oh, good
RH : Professionalism is something I would hopefully like to avoid, for my entire life. "Professional" is someone like Frank Sinatra, who goes out on stage and is totally at ease and totally relaxed and just does exactly the same thing every night …
RP : So you don't do the same thing every night, and you've always got pressures … (thinking of the roadie who pops in and out with little difficulties and so fourth throughout the interview)
RH: Well the songs always have room for improvisation
SB : That's something I personally like to aspire to quite a lot, I mean, I quite like the idea of there being both lyrical and musical improvisation in a song; the more that we get to know each other, the more that that's possible, the more interesting that it becomes; because I mean that I find the idea of someone getting up and performing a sort've like, in the sense that they might present a play, which is by dint of its very nature, to be successful, it has to be exactly the same every night, and I would prefer there to be a certain amount of spontaneity, and if you don't feel … I mean each song has a sort've, not just a singular characteristic, and that it's a sort've sad song or a happy song or whatever song and I think that that comes through in our music, that on a sort've given particular night, people might feel in a particular way, and that combination of those feelings create a sort've different feeling every night that we play.
RP : I was hoping you'd say that. (I know folks! A dumb thing to say, but could you have come up with a better alternative)
SB : So that's why you should come along and see us, it's a unique experience.
RP : I gather that. (Hideously long pause while I throw my questions out and realise that I've only got about three left, since they've touched somehow on every topic I was intending to bring up)
RP : Since the media continually portrays Nick Cave and everything else anywhere near him as almost ludicrously morbid …
RH & SB : sigh
RP : Despite this … are you getting any of this sort of response?
SB : Tons of it.
RH : The fact I basically that people are so used to, particularly songwriting being so incredibly saccharine, that if they're presented with anything that bears any relation to the contradictions and so forth in actual life then they think that it's depressing, which is basically their problem as far as I can see.
SB : I don't think Browyn and myself write lyrics that are in anyway depressing. I mean I don't … admittedly, for some reason for which I cannot understand, it does appear that the more negative emotions are sort've like, the more powerful ones, and you do seem to be drawn towards those to write about, but none of those, I don't think there's one song that I've written with Bronwyn or by myself that is in anyway defeatist or subservient to the way that the world is or whatever, I mean I would hope to sort've see the world in a realistic way, and sort've like appreciate that there's both good and bad in it as opposed to …
RP : I thought they were songs of experience really.
SB : Yeah, but not sort've like negative experience.
RP : No
SB : I mean I hope that my songs sort've bring people, I mean I hope that ultimately I don't sort've think that that will probably affect most people in that way, but if it affects one or two people in a positive way that they might feel happier with their lives, then I think that's a great thing. I certainly don't hope to depress people or to be a sort've fourth form person doing poetry readings, of the variety that are common among fourth formers …
RH : The fact is that happiness isn't the be all and end all of your life anyway. The most particularly intense times of your life aren't happy. I mean that's a ludicrous sort've attitude, they're a combination of different things and it's all contradictory and …
SB : But ultimately a combination, instead of that one … I mean most pop bands present this image of, I mean heavy metal bands seem to present this image of "I've been done really badly by", which obviously their audiences relate to, yet, your average pop band presents this image of "basically everything's wonderful", and you go home with this girl …
RH : Life is white.
SB : Or this boy and that's it, and you're happy ever after, and y'know that just doesn't happen.
RP : It's facile.
SB : And how can anyone relate to them, or gain any sort've experience out of that or encouragement in their life, I mean basically if you just actually believe the lyrics then you just have to feel awfully insecure.
RH : All you can do is ultimately depress people because they can't live up to the standards that they're continually being presented with.
SB : In the same way the average family cannot live up to being the Brady Bunch.
SB & RH : Believe it or not ! (laughter)
RP : If you are happy, if you're in that situation, the ideal situation, you don't really know what to do with it anyway, cos you've never been shown. It's "here it is, happiness". You have to work at it.
RH : I don't think contentment is a particularly great thing personally. I prefer to stay hungry.
RP : Well, on that note, how's the record company going? Are you pleased with it?
SB : Yeah, they're great. They've been totally supportive from the very outset. I would imagine for their respect for the BP and for Mick Harvey. They financed our rehearsal sessions, and our recordings, and have not complained about the fact that we are basically a tax loss at the moment.
RH : (chuckling) deeply in debt.
SB : Deeply in debt to them (laughter) I mean they've got Depeche Mode so they're not starving or anything.
RP : You're not worried about the debt, or are you worried but confident?
RH : Well it would be fairly pleasant to actually make some money.
SB : We're physically worried in the sense that we might have to go hungry for some considerable period of time, towards such time as that debt's paid off, but yeah, no, Daniel (Miller - head of Mute Records) he's got a pretty reasonable attitude about music, he seems to enjoy being able to sponsor bands that are really not likely to make that much money …
RH : (gleefully) In fact he really enjoys watching groups that he knows are going to sell hardly any records at all.
RP : He seems to love taking that sort of risk …
SB : It's not a risk for him, he's in a situation now where he's earning so much money through Depeche Mode and Yazoo, the Assembly, they're his, y'know … if he signs a band, that is intended to make money, like is a pop band, and it doesn't succeed, then he gets worried, but we're a band that is intended not to make a great deal of money; we're not going to be like, "here Daniel, here'2 the next gold record, and we'll sign one to your daughter" and whatever, he's got - what's that band that he's got that makes absolutely nothing?
RH : Not Non? Non sell about ten records a year in England; I mean Boyd Rice is a truly wonderful human being …
SB : A genius ! (much laughter by this time)
RH : … but he doesn't sell many records, but Mute are very faithful to him.
SB : And Mute's quite willing to put out triple albums by Non …
RH : Mark Stewart's another sort've person like that, to a certain extent - more successful than Boyd
SB : Mark Stewart - isn't he the one who went in and edited his record with a pair of scissors?

(the whole room is laughing)

RH : He was told that he had to take sixty minutes out of a 140 minute record, so he said "if you give me a razor blade, I'll be back in half an hour". Daniel was … fairly worried.

(At this point we have another break, the person cueing up the next record could hardly see the controls for laughing. We managed to cram in about ten minutes more interview, unfortunately no transcript exists (unless one of you listeners has it - I'd be most interested if you do), but the most interesting things were the last recording sessions of the Birthday Party. Rowland says that by this stage it was out of the question for anyone else to sing (as in 'Ho Ho'), because if they attempted it "the implication was that you weren't Nick's friend anymore". He didn't seem to like answering the question, but he'd said several times "ask what you like", which was good of him. Simon was asked about the original impact of C & CS in Sydney and Melbourne in 1978 etc (they were voted one of the best new Melbourne acts for 1985 recently, to Rowland's disgust) and while Simon downplayed its musical value by saying it wouldn't be worth having an album/tape of, Rowland countered with "it bloody well would". So does anyone have any tapes of C& CS from the late 70s???)

(transcribed by Cat)