Guitarist Magazine - January 1993
These Immortal Souls
I'm Never Gonna Die Again (Mute)
These Immortal Souls' Australian exile recounts more than a decade on the musical edge...
As befits such. a central part of the still-eulogised Birthday Party (Melbourne's terrifying gift to Europe's post-punk scene), myth and misunderstanding has stalked Rowland Howard ever since the Party ended in 1983. Back on vinyl following a two-year bout of writer's block, he's surprised and depressed to find the media's image of him as rock's Mr. Glum has survived, in spite of the exhilarating content of the new LP, These Immortal Souls' 'I'm Never Gonna Die Again'.
xx"A lot of the record," Rowland sighs,. "is about other people's perceptions of you and how if enough people treat you in a certain way that's what you become after a while. For years people have described records I've made as being depressing, and admittedly I've made a lot of melancholic records, but I don't find records like that depressing. I find Buck's Fizz depressing... or any music that expresses no humanity. And also I've just got tired of the group being viewed as this humourless... thing. There's always been a lot of irony in the songs; people seem to take so much at face value, so literally, and that's a shame."
xxAnd beyond the wry wit of the lyrics, there's Howard's guitar playing. Fiery - and unsettling, it's the sound of Tom Verlaine with a rocket up his butt - hardly the sound of a man who's tired of life.
xx"I started playing guitar when I was fourteen," says Rowland, "and I was listening to people like Roxy Music and David Bowie. But when I learned - to play guitar I just got a book of chords and learned them and just sort of thrashed about. I'm still incredibly limited, technically, with what I can do. But if you want to play things that sound good and you have those limitations, then often you have to resort to things that other people wouldn't do. Most people, if they can play something that sounds like something that they've heard on a record, are in danger of falling into the trap of saying, 'A-ha! I'm playing real music at last.' Because I could never do that it never became a problem.
xx"The review of 'I'm Never Gonna Die Again' in Select started off saying that all the guitar playing that I did in The Birthday Party was genius and that since then I've been very vague and confused. Which really is the worst sort of hype, because although I think that some of the things I did in The Birthday Party were good and some of them were great, some of them were just, 'So what?' I think that some of the playing on Crowned and on Insomnicide is just as good as virtually anything I've done before and it's just sheer nostalgia to suggest otherwise."
xxWhich just goes to show how strong a hold The Birthday Party still has on the public imagination. When Rowland recently got up on stage with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds at London's Town & Country Club (reuniting three of the four surviving BP members) the old songs were greeted with hysteria.
xx"It was pretty funny," smiles Rowland. "It was really good and really exciting but in a way it was also like a flashback to 1983 or something, because I still wanted to do completely different songs to everyone else! I suggested what songs I thought we should do and Nick and Mick (Cave and Harvey) said, That's stupid...'And I thought, 'Right, nothing's changed..!'
xxIn their prime, The Birthday Party did very weird things to rock, fracturing its structure and tinting it with hints of country, blues and spooky carnival music. They were also, very, very noisy. Were they aware at that time of how experimental they were being?
xxThere was such an incredible level of will involved," reflects Rowland, "and we just took it for granted that we were, like, better than everybody else by about 50 million miles. And when you have that level of confidence it's easy to do things because, you know, you just do it; it never occurs to you that you might not be capable of pulling something off.
xx"Our attitude was very much one of reacting against people, so we would get constant impetus to behave as we did because there was so much around us that was lacking. Others didn't really seem prepared to do things that demanded a response from people. They didn't seem prepared to say anything that might appear embarrassing or gauche later on. And rock music has to be like that. If you're too cool you just don't get anything done, basically. You have to be prepared to be a bit dumb."
xxDumb, yes, but literate with it, The Birthday Party's black, macabre edge had an immediate effect on an impressionable British scene. Inevitably, though, some people missed the point entirely and as a result they've often been tarred by the indiscriminate brush of 'gothic rock'. For Rowland, this is clearly a sore point...
xx"It's obvious that bands like The Sisters Of Mercy and Fields Of The Nephilim have taken various things from The Birthday Party. But, a band like The Sisters are about the surface level of things and the trappings. To most people it's more important what Andrew Eldritch (The Sisters' mainman) looks like than anything else. And the quantity of dry ice they use, and how much flour the Nephilim have on their clothes! Whereas, none of the bands I've been in have ever been showbizzy in that sense, and if we're in a bad mood then we play really badly. What you're getting is a representation of how the band feels at that time. We don't attempt to disguise that we're four fallible people up there playing music.
xx"Bands like the Nephilim and The Sisters do everything they can to cover up the fact that they are mortal. It's a comic book sort of thing, doing everything in your power to present yourselves as greater than your audience. I think that's a very significant difference."
xxRowland's quick to understate his own importance as a guitarist, but he's not prepared to attribute the host of apparent Howard derivatives entirely to synchronicity.
xx"Sometimes," he admits, "I hear things that sound so ridiculously like something I do that it's not funny."
xxSo, for budding Howard soundalikes everywhere, here's Rowland's gear rundown for I'm Never Gonna Die Again...
xx"I had a Fender Twin, a graphic EQ with everything on ten and the amp with everything on ten. I had an MXR Distortion Plus and an MXR Blue Box (a prehistoric harmonizer making up for its dodgy tracking with an intriguing wobbly sound and some rather excellent white noise - Ed). For guitars I just used the Jaguar and a Broadcaster-type thing made for, I think, Jerry Donahue, which I found at the studio. They said the body had been cut from the top of a bar! Whenever I use anything else - a different amp or something - I just can't get anything to happen, so I've given up trying, basically."
xxIt's the same late '60s Jag and the same Twin that he had in 1980 when The Birthday Party first broke. If it's the only guitar and the only amp he actually owns and, basically, that's his sound.
xx"I don't like using effects, really," he explains. "The more effects you use the more you lose the original signal of the guitar and I like the fact that it sounds like a guitar and it sounds really twangy. I don't see the point of doing things that make it sound completely unlike a guitar. Most effects to me sound like oil on top of water. I like Duane Eddy, and I like a guitar to sound twangy and hard and brittle."
xxHowever, the Howard sound often goes beyond that of a mere guitar. In fact, he seems on occasion to recreate the clatter of an entire wrecking yard, and it sounds terribly tough on the instrument itself...
xx"Well it's not particularly well looked after," he agrees, giving the Jag a rough old shake to illustrate his point. "In fact, I'm always surprised when I see Sonic Youth. They have about 14 guitars on stage and they actually do seem to have to half destroy their guitars to get those sounds out of them! Whereas I hardly ever break a string; I mean, you don't have to hit your guitar with a hammer to make it sound loud."
xxAlongside its work with the increasingly excellent These Immortal Souls, Howard's guitar has seen recent service with Crime & The City Solution and Lydia Lunch. He also guested on The Bad Seeds' 'Kicking Against The Pricks'. But what was it like working with Blixa Bargeld, The Bad Seeds' legendarily perverse guitarist?
xx"When I told Blixa I'd be playing on the LP, his response was, 'Oh good - less work for me to do!' He's the only person I know who considers not playing on something to be a contribution. He thinks, by the sheer fact of not playing on something, his contribution has been to leave all the space for everybody else. Which is quite an admirable trait, because most people seem hell bent on playing all over every single track, whether it's needed or not."
xxRowland's also worked with Bargeld on Einsturzende Neubauten's Thirsty Animal 12"...
xx"When I walked into the studio Blixa had his body miked up and they were punching him to get a bass drum beat. And the studio floor was covered with meat, and they had this dog they'd starved for three days with contact mics all over its stomach... and they were recording him eating the meat! It was really bizarre. I had to stand in the middle of this studio, the floor strewn with these bones and meat, and play guitar. It was quite a hard act to follow, believe me.
xx"Somebody told me that they saw the Bad Seeds recently and the show was being recorded, and that Blixa had had his volume knob turned down the whole time! After being in The Birthday Party, where everybody wanted their part to be as loud as is humanly possible, it's quite refreshing to find someone who doesn't even care if he's on the record or not!"