Beat #37 - January 1989


Rowland Howard is back in Melbourne, and whilst he has recently done a few gigs with Hugo Race, this week he will unleash his new band, These Immortal Souls, The band have already recorded one album and are now giving Australia the chance to see this material performed live. Rowland Howard discussed the state of his own divinity over a Bloody Mary with Andrew Mast.

The most recent image I can recall of Rowland Howard was this emaciated creature circling a stage whilst performing with Crime And The City Solution during the film "Wings Of Desire". Still, seated across from me he finds it difficult to remain motionless - he plays with a stick of celery, chain smokes and continually fondles his lighter. He likes to think of interviews as conversations, so it must be conversation that unnerves him — or as he said maybe staying still really does terrify him. This doesn't stop him talking, talk flows in an intelligent, thoughtful and articulate manner, he doesn't think his opinion should count for much, but he truly believes in his new band. Saying goodbye to Crime seems to have been an immense pleasure.

"I played with them (Crime And The City Solution) last in November 1986, then I didn't hear from them for a long time. Then one day I happened to be at Mute Records with my brother (Harry, also in These Immortal Souls) and Mick Harvey rang. Harry got on the phone and Mick said, 'Crime are in the studio today and we're making an album'. So I thought fair enough and it was a weight off my shoulders".

Set free from Crime, Rowland was able to turn These Immortal Souls into a full-time proposition.

"I was already doing it when Crime broke up, it was initially an outlet for a number of songs that had built up over the years and just to make a record where you have more control than you normally do because it was my record, and you can make it sound like what you've always wanted it to sound like, I guess?"

After having just worked alone with Hugo Race and Nikki Sudden overseas why not work solo to achieve the ultimate control? "I think bands are a lot more interesting solo artists, because there's a conflict and some kind of tension. Great bands aren't necessarily something easy to be in. the end product is always a lot better than a solo thing. The last Bad Seeds sounds like a solo record to me. It doesn't sound like a band record at all. Most of the songs sound like one person with hardly anyone else contributing and most of it's written by Nick, there's only two songs co-written by Mick Harvey".

Rowland then would not agree with another guest at our table who suggested that all great art is created by the individual. "No, that's not necessarily true — because if you have an idea and it's clear in your mind then what you need is others to reintroduce mystery into it through a lack of understanding of your idea; they interpret it in a different way, and bring something to it that you hadn't previously thought of or even wanted. (Is one enough?) Most of the time when you make records you're aware of the amount of time that's going by and the pressure to come up with a number of songs in the studio. Nikki writes about four songs a week and they're not necessarily all good, so it was just very easy to do and saved on arguments".

The sound on these Immortal Souls is a lighter, almost comfortably pleasant style of music. Rowland's voice growls lyrics that still reek of cynicism, yet still he has a reputation for creating loud aggressive music that plummets to the depths of hell. "People think of me like that, we played a gig in London six months ago and people were yelling out 'feedback or fuck off. Lots of people when they think of the way I play guitar think of loud noise — and yet that's only a really small part of it. Contrary to popular belief I don't like records with really loud guitars all over the place. Most records I listen to are just records with good songs on them and good performance. I don't care what people are playing — there are very few instruments that I intrinsically hate (apart from the flute)".

So has the legend of The Birthday Party left a stigma attached to the former members?
"It's not stigma; it's people imposing their own limitations upon you, which is not terribly desirable. I do like loud noisy things, I think they're great but if things are like that all the time there's no variety — no highs and lows".
Is it perhaps though, that Rowlands's point of view within his music still tends toward the darker elements of life and death as in songs from his latest album — "When I die don't bury me alone" (Marry Me (Lie! Lie!))?

Rowland easily justifies his dabblings with death, "For a start there's the purely practical viewpoint of the fact that there's no reason in the world to exorcise yourself when you feel happy. For that reason I write songs that are largely exortistic. Also perhaps I just see more sorrow in the world, that doesn't mean to say the song is of a downbeat nature. I'm starting from a point that isn't a normal point, most commercial art forms are based on giving people a good time whereas I try to make people emote, make them feel something. Anything like film or comics, which is some form of expression, most of it, the starting point is for people to enjoy themselves".

The conversation diverted here to discussions on the pros and cons of commercially accepted music until Rowland wandered back to his original point on artistic expression, "Most of the stuff I find really interesting to listen to is something where its just really great songwriting — which is less common than it used to be or a record that is basically a person going through multiple trauma. Records like that just don't- come along every five years even so it's much easier to find a body of work from the past than the present". Whether or not Rowland thinks he has contributed anything to the once in five year phenomenon!, he kept it to himself. But as talk switched back to his latest band, he began to once more enthuse, "We're a really great live band, which is the most important thing about this group". Quite some time has lapsed since their album was recorded and Rowland already feels that massive improvements have taken place within the band, 'The band is now one thousand times more powerful, we're more spontaneous and I personally am one million times more confident. We've become more agressive, but I guess that's the nature of live performance". Fm intrigued that Rowland's felt so much self improvement in the past year. I wonder aloud then how he must have changed since he first began in The Boys Next Door. Rowland doesn't hesitate to reply, "I still remember vividly, going on stage in 1978 and being (too) terrified to stand still".

And changes in Melbourne?

"Most of the people who were important when I lived here are still important now, I can't think of anyone that's sprung up since that I rate very highly".

With Melbourne seemingly remaining so stationary what is it that keeps Rowland returning?

"It's nice to come somewhere where you're treated with respect. In London no one cares what I'm doing. I come back here because it makes me remember who I am. It's like my entire mythology is here".

- Andrew Mast
(Thanks to Mick Geyer)
BEAT- 37
Jan 1989