Alternative Press #55 - February 1993
Resurrection Time Again
"The thing about my career structure," says Rowland S. Howard, "is that it's left entirely up to chance."
Oh, well, that explains it. The musical path of guitarist Howard since the split of his influential band the Birthday Party has had so many rollercoaster ups and downs, twists and turns, that it makes perfect sense why much of his output has had a carnival flavor. For the past near-decade he's been a member of fellow ex-Party member Mick Harvey's Crime & The City Solution, played with A.C. Marias and Einsturzende Neubauten, made perhaps his biggest marks with three Lydia Lunch collaborations, and put out one LP by his own combo, These Immortal Souls. Now, four years after that debut, there's another, entitled I'm Never Gonna Die Again on Mute. So that's what held him up.
Actually, "I didn't write a song for like three years, " Howard confesses, then corrects himself. "It wasn't like I didn't write anything. I wrote things but they were either thematically or aesthetically similar to something I'd already done, and it just seemed pointless."
Rowland has the demeanor of a survivor. Dressed in his familiar fashion of too-short navy sportcoat and uncuffed tuxedo shirt, his hair retains that inimitable anti-style, shooting out of his head carelessly at right angles. Chain smoking, Howard is thoughtfully eloquent, but occasionally loses his train of thought and comes out with something banal - a strange balance between, perhaps, Brian Eno and Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel. If there's anything of a living legend in him, it's in the fact that like most living legends, he doesn't have much to show for it.
Never Gonna Die should correct that, and a few other cosmic errors. Since the Birthday Party - whose antagonistically original sound was formed as much by Howard's guitar as by the contributions of Nick Cave, Harvey and the others - Howard has been painted as an also-ran. "Even when the first [These Immortal Souls] album came out," says Howard, "there was a popular belief that I hadn't been doing anything and in fact I make three albums in one year. But the problem is, I haven't had a common name for a body of work like Nick has."
Ten years on, though, Howard's work shows more of a logical progression, more of the Birthday Party's spirit - more of the rage, tension, restlessness, malignancy than Cave's maturing patos or Crime's smoother themes. Unlike that first These Immortals album, which admittedly was "a reaction to Crime and the Birthday Party," or his work with Lydia, which "was more like fufilling somebody else's ideas," Never Gonna Die, Howard observes, "does have a lot more thematically to do with the Birthday Party than anything I've done in a long time.
"One of the reasons I left Crime [in 1986]," says Howard, "was they were a very seriously minded group, and there was no room to do anything 'dumb.' And also there was no room to say 'fuck you' to people. Those two things were important elements of the Birthday Party; 'Dead Joe' is an incredibly dumb song, but it doesn't matter because rock music can encompass so many things and contradict itself, because it's supposed to affect you on a gut level."
Now more than ever, comparisons to the Birthday Party are unavoidable, not only because the ironically titled Hits retrospective was recently released on 4AD, but also owing to Howards onstage three-song onstage Party reunion with Cave and Harvey this past September in London. Never Gonna Die, though, is up to the test, particularly on "Crowned" and the instrumental "Insomnicide," wherein Howard's guitar screams like it hasn't since Birthday Party's Mutiny. Throughout the disc, in fact, Rowland's six stringer slides, stomps, lunges and parries, and is perfectly seconded by Genevieve McGuckin's keys and the bottom line of bassist brother Harry Howard and ex-Swell Maps drummer Epic Soundtracks.
Never Gonna Die also recalls other basic influences - the recently reemerged Richard Hell ("Shamed," "All The Money's Gone") and, closer to home, the early records of Australia's Saints ("The King of Kalifornia," Hyperspace").
"I have great deal of respect for Richard Hell," says Howard, though surprised at the comparison. And, "there are a lot of people I listen to more than the Saints, but those [first three] albums when Ed Kuepper was in the band, Ed Kuepper's Laughing Clowns [and] Ascension by The Aints are a really big influence on my work." Admitting also the obvious influence of Ennio Morricone soundtracks and Lee Hazelwood (whose "Some Velvet Morning" Rowland and Lydia covered a while back), Howard sums up: "I just like twangy guitars with a great deal of attack... they can be soulful and funny at the same time."
That sort of contradiction paints not only the album's sarcastic title (and even the band's name) but also most of Never Gonna Die's baldly autobiographical lyrics, which have already been subject to some misinterpretation by the British press. Howard bemoans, "The quote on the album jacket - 'I've been crowned by sorrow, I've been crowned by hate, I've been crowned in black, now I abdicate,' - Melody Maker took that to mean that my life had been so utterly miserable that I was just going to give up. It had never occurred to me that someone could interpret it that way; it was meant that I've been painted as being all these things and I don't have anything to do with it. It's really annoying because as far as I'm concerned there's a lot of humor in my songs. It's not a sort of humor for which I expect anyone to sort of slap their thighs and roll around howling on the ground, but 'The King of Kalifornia' is an absurd song title."
That isn't the only point on which Howard and most critics differ.
Considering the tracks on Hits, Rowland says, "I'm amazed by how tame some of it sounds, and how 'un-Birthday Party like' it is. A lot of that has to do with the fact that they are studio versions, and there isn't that element of chance."
Which isn't to say Howard isn't optimistic about working with Cave and Harvey again ("Well it has been talked about, and certainly we're a lot friendlier now than we have been for years."), or that he denounces his past achievements. "The biggest criticism I could level at These Immortal Souls is that we don't believe that we're capable of wiping the floor with everybody else, whereas the Birthday Party had an innate belief that we were so much better than everybody. That's an important thing, it's important that a band should be 'you against the world.'" Considering the challenges brought by critical misapprehension and the recent departure of drummer Epic Soundtracks, These Immortal Souls may find themselves in that position before they know it.
- Eric Gladstone