Your Flesh #25 - 1992
ROWLAND S. HOWARD
The Evolutionary Thrust And Parry Of Man And Guitar
For the better part of 20 years Rowland Howard has played guitar through one of the most varied and eminent pedigrees underground rock'n'roll has ever seen. From the seminal punkoid bashing of the Young Charlatans to the incredible wake left behind the Birthday Party's ascendant work and finally to primary conservator of These Immortal Souls, Rowland Howard has lived music and in the course acquired more than a few engaging accounts. This interview took place over the phone on March 6, 1992.
YOUR FLESH: Let's talk about the early part of your musical career - what's the story behind Tootho and the Ring of Confidence?
ROWLAND S. HOWARD: How the hell did you find out about that?
YF: I read about it in an interview with Ollie Olsen that appeared in Forced Exposure a few years back.
RSH: Oh right, well that's just the type of thing he'd bring up. Tootho was the first band I ever joined. It was one of those groups that starts out as a high school joke basically, and it went on to play out for probably one gig under that name. That was like a year before I joined.
YF: What year was this?
RSH: Probably about 1975 in Melbourne.
YF: Had you been in any bands prior to that?
RSH: No, I could barely play anything. I used to play the saxophone and that's how I started playing in a group. I could sort of play the guitar and started writing songs, and so as I had written the songs, I could do what I liked on them basically.
YF: What came after Tootho?
RSH: Well, when I was still in the band I met Ollie and we discovered that we had relatively similar ideas about music and so we formed a group called the Young Charlatans. I think we played thirteen times or something and it was the most traumatic band I've ever been in. I think Ollie left twice for a total of about four months during the one year course of the band. It was a really good group, but Ollie has a very strange approach to things. If things start developing any level of success, he seems to abandon them.
YF: What sort of music were you folks listening to at the time that influenced what you did in the Young Charlatans?
RSH: It was at the time when we were first starting to hear about punk rock and stuff like that, but probably most of the influences, because punk was something that was relatively new - most of the influences would have been things that had come out earlier in the '70s. I know Ollie was really influenced by people like Can and early electronic bands like Neu. Also people like Roxy Music and David Bowie, who have since become, unfortunately, vapid.
YF: At the time the Young Charlatans made a splash in the Melbourne scene was there anyone else doing something similar?
RSH: Not really. The Boys Next Door were playing and so forth, but they were very much like a garage band at the time. They did things like "Gloria" and Alice Cooper songs. There wasn't really anybody who was combining more aggressive elements of music with something that was a little bit unusual - which is what we were trying to do.
YF: When did you leave the band to join The Boys Next Door?
RSH: It must have been 1978. I knew them for ages and I used to go see them play. They were always a really good live band. I think the third time Ollie left the Young Charlatans it just seemed more trouble than it was worth and Nick had asked me to join The Boys Next Door a couple of times already, so I did. It just seemed like they were relatively stable as a unit and Nick was such a great frontman - it just seemed like it would be really good fun.
YF: How did the band's association with Mushroom records come about?
RSH: Before I joined the band, punk had become a "thing" of the media and this businessman named Barry Earl, who had been in England managing some Australian rock band which had failed, came back to Australia and decided that punk was going to be the next big money spinner. He convinced Mushroom to invest some money in a subsidiary label called Suicide Records that put out a sampler of all these Australian punk bands in 1978, called Lethal Weapons. The Boys Next Door were on that and then went on to record an album for Mushroom before I was in the band. That label didn't do anything with it for ages. A year after I joined the band, Mushroom wanted to release the record and we asked if we could go into the studio and record some songs that were more up to date. They said no and so we ended up paying for the recording ourselves. The second side of Door, Door is the side I'm on. The people that the band worked with production wise for the earlier recording wanted to make a pop record and what the Boys Next Door wanted was a completely different thing.
YF: How long did The Boys Next Door last before transforming into the Birthday Party?
RSH: It lasted until we moved to England in January of 1980.
YF: The Birthday Party weren't a band prior to your arrival in England?
RSH: Well, the Birthday Party as such really existed from the time I joined the Boys Next Door or shortly after that, but in effect, it was just too much trouble to change our name - it wouldn't have been terribly viable. So, moving to England was like getting a fresh start and we could be called whatever we wanted because nobody in England had ever heard of us before. Also it gave us the freedom to change.
YF: When did you return to Australia?
RSH: We were in England for like seven months and we played about five times. Then we went back to Australia and all of the sudden we were accepted on a much greater level because we had had good press in England. Australians have a massive inferiority complex, so they didn't thunk very much of their own culture at the time and nobody took us seriously prior to having gone to England. We were seen as being neither one thing nor the other; we didn't devote ourselves entirely to the cerebral sides of music and we didn't devote ourselves entirely to the aggressive sides of music. We were stuck in the middle, sort of being neither an art band nor a rock band.
YF: Did you guys land a recording contract while you were in England?
RSH: We released a single ourselves, "Mr. Clarinet," on Missing Link, and then 4AD rang us up and expressed interest in us. We released the "Friend Catcher" single with them, but there was no contract, just a verbal agreement.
YF: What sort of scene was present when you guys returned to Australia?
RSH: As far as bands go, I suppose Ollie would have been in Whirlywirld at the time. There were also people like the Laughing Clowns, Ed Kuepper's band. For some reason or another, the people that I think are interesting that have come out of Australian music all came out at the same time. There's the people that were in the Birthday Party, Ed Kuepper, Ollie - I can't really think of anyone else off the top of my head, but nobody seems to have come along to replace those people in the last fifteen years.
YF: Do you keep in touch with what's going on in Australia these days?
RSH: No, I have very little contact with anyone in Australia.
YF: Why did the Birthday Party break up?
RSH: What lead to the Birthday Party's demise was to a certain extent media-related. We portrayed ourselves as being one thing and then the media took it up and we started believing our own press. Basically, it was just the fact that we no longer had the ability to communicate with each other. We were under this mistaken belief that we were all trying to do things that were completely different from one another. I think Nick felt that he wanted to have more control over things, because in the public's eye, the band was starting to be seen as Nick Cave and the Birthday Party. He felt like if something happened within the band, he was going to be seen as the originator of the idea, or if we were doing something he didn't like, it made it difficult for him I guess. Basically, people's personal lives got out of hand and nobody was prepared to meet in the middle. In 1983, Mick Harvey declared that he was going to have a holiday away from the band, because for about nine months, whenever we played, Nick would be sitting in the band room with his head in his hands sort of saying "I can't do this, I just can't go on." I agreed to Mick's proposal and Nick took it as us turning on him in some way and then he said it's all over. The original idea was that we would all have a holiday away from the band and if everybody was enthusiastic enough, we'd get back together, but the situation was fraught with politics and all types of Machiavellian thoughts. Mick and I lived in London at the time, and Nick and Tracy were living in Berlin, which didn't help the communication problem. Eventually, everything just fell apart.
YF: What did you do after the breakup?
RSH: Well, nothing very much. It was all a bit devastating, really. It was an incredibly intense thing to have been involved with and I think everybody came out of it feeling a bit betrayed 'cause we had been together a long time. I ended up sitting around for about a year not doing anything and then I did some demos for Mute for what was going to be the first These Immortal Souls record. That was fairly miserable, so I procrastinated about it for a long time. Then Mick Harvey asked me to join Crime and the City Solution.
YF: You weren't with them for too long, right?
RSH: I did an EP, a mini album, and an album with them. It was never what I thought it was supposed to be and a lot of the time I was at loggerheads with Simon and Mick as to what was going on.
YF: So These Immortal Souls was your primary interest?
RSH: Yah, what happened was when we left Crime, These Immortal Souls was already going and so it wasn't a terribly big trauma for anyone. It was just something that was completely natural because there was not very much interest from anybody to continue the relationship. So we just went on working on the These Immortal Souls album and put that out.
YF: Is These Immortal Souls still together?
RSH: Yes, we've just recorded a second album. It's taken us a long time to complete for a couple of reasons. We went into the studio about three years ago and we spent about a third of our budget and it just wasn't good enough, so we scrapped everything that we had. This left us with the problem of how to record an album with only two-thirds of a budget. Mute then decided that because we had gone into the studio and scrapped everything, they wanted us to have a producer so that there was somebody there to watch over us and make sure that we worked. Then we had to find a way to make an album on two thirds of a budget and pay a producer, so it took years to find somebody you could even entertain the idea of working with and who would do it for such a small amount of money.
YF: How does the new album differ from the first?
RSH: When we recorded the first album, we'd never played live. This record is very different from the first one 'cause we've done a lot of live work in the last year. It's consequently a lot more electric than the first one and considerably more uptempo.
YF: For the past several years you've been working with Lydia Lunch. What got that started?
RSH: That came about 'cause the Birthday Party played New York and Lydia came backstage and met us. I'd been entertaining the idea of recording a version of "Some Velvet Morning," but I couldn't really think of anybody to do the female vocals until I met Lydia.
YF: What's the story behind the Honeymoon In Red album?
RSH: After "Some Velvet Morning" was released, we were approached by a German record company who wanted us to go to Germany and make a record with basically the "S.V.M." line-up. We went to Germany and recorded for a couple of weeks, but we were having a lot of problems because the engineers were absolutely hopeless and the record sounded like it was being recorded in a cardboard box. So we decided we wanted to go to England to work with a decent engineer and we took the tapes back to the hotel we were staying at and as we walked in the door the hotel owner said let me help you with those and put the tapes in his safe. He then said you're not going to get the tapes back until you pay the hotel bill. Of course the man who owned the record company didn't have any money - no money to pay for the studio, to pay us, or pay the hotel. In a couple of weeks we got the tapes back and went to London and finished the record, but of course they guy still didn't have any money to pay for the studio, so the tapes just sat there for like four years. By this stage, Lydia had decided the tapes needed more work, so she took them away and gave them to Jim Thirlwell, who changed them in a way he saw fit - which is not necessarily what I would have done with them, but that's what happened.
YF: Was the album ever intended to be a Birthday Party project?
RSH: No, it was recorded around the time of Junkyard, but it was probably just supposed to be a Rowland S. Howard and Lydia Lunch record.
YF: How did Shotgun Wedding come together?
RSH: During the time I was trying to find a producer for the These Immortal Souls record, I was desperately in need of something to do, so I wrote Lydia and said why don't we make a record. She had moved to New Orleans and that seemed like a nice place to go spend some time. She got the people together, I went to New Orleans, and we wrote the record's songs in about six weeks before going to Memphis to record them.
YF: Speaking of the South, it seems like your guitar playing on the album is influenced in subtle ways by the blues. Do you feel you're influenced by the blues more so than say rock'n'roll?
RSH: Well, I never listen to blues music, but the whole idea of blues I find enormously appealing - just the idea of something being incredibly intimate and raw and truthful. I mean the whole point of music as far as I can see is for it to have some kind of humanity and convey some sort of emotion. I guess that's what I try to do and that's certainly what blues music is all about, so there's a similar approach. I guess some of the idea was to make a record that was our version of blues music.
YF: What bands are you listening to currently?
RSH: I really like the new Aints record by Ed Kuepper. I think it's great. It's like the loudest record I've heard in about ten years. And it's sort of been responsible for me falling in love with electric guitar again. I tend to lose faith in electric guitars occasionally because so very few people play them well. I really like Leonard Cohen's last record and I also listen to the things everyone else listens to, like the Stooges. I don't find there's a lot of contemporary music that appeals to me, certainly not in England.
YF: What are your plans for the future?
RSH: These Immortal Souls will be touring Europe in September and hopefully America whenever we can. Also the album will be released simultaneously here and in the States.
YF: Anything else?
RSH: At the moment, I'd really just like to consolidate the band and really work hard to make people see it's a full time thing. I'd like to focus on one thing for quite a long time and achieve some success with it.
- Mike Trouchon