Prehistoric Sounds Vol 1 #2 - November 24, 1994
Rowland S. Howard
Prehistoric Sounds: Tell me about your influences. Can you think back to that period of your late-teens when you were wondering what you were going to do with your music. What sounds were you influenced by?
Rowland S. Howard: Well, depending on the year, it would have changed every six months.
PS: Well, from 1976 onwards.
RSH: Well, Nick and I would have come out of a period when Roxy Music and David Bowie were really big influences. I know that Roxy Music was a big influence on the Boys Next Door. At one stage Mick Harvey left the band because they were doing so many Roxy Music covers, he thought it was absurd. I still think that Roxy Music were a really great band on their first three albums. When you look at film of them, it was like they came from another planet which is a pretty good criteria for a rock band.
PS: Well, I remember seeing the Boys Next Door doing things like I'm Eighteen by Alice Cooper.
RSH: Yeah, when I first saw them at that Swinburne gig, which was like the second Boys Next Door gig, they were basically just a garage band doing Gloria and I remember I was pretty unimpressed with them musically, but they did have a real spark. And Nick was doing things with Gloria and injecting something of himself into the songs. He was always very good at improvising lyrically which he doesn't do so much anymore, which is a real shame I cause he rejected a lot of the more spontaneous elements of his performance. Not in terms of how he presents himself visually, but it's a little more stilted nowadays. His songwriting is a bit more formalised now, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that, it's just the way he performs them which is stilted.
PS: You originally started in the Obsessions; what was that band about?
RSH: It was like a high school band and it didn't really ever become more than that. It was like me and my best friend and it was like a lot of bands that formed that way. It was almost like an in-joke and we wrote songs that were amusing to us. The idea of actually making a record was just so far from our minds that there was no attempt to do anything other than exactly what we wanted to do. The first Saints' album was fairly similar to what we were doing. I had such a rudimentary grasp of the guitar, which Ed Kuepper didn't of course, but, what he was playing was very rudimentary. It was the same sort of extreme distortion.
PS: You were telling me before the interview that The Aints' Ascension, was an inspirational album to you.
RSH: Yeah, Ed Kuepper is actually a really inspirational figure to me. I really like what he does and I see certain parallels between what he does and what I do. I don't think other people hear it. I don't think stylistically so much, but in terms of attitude and a certain sense of humour that's common to both of us, a very dry sense of humour. Also I like guitarists that sing.
PS: Maybe, thematically also in the sense that you both came out o that period of Australian music when all those bands were breaking away from old moulds.
RSH: Yeah, and also I think that, and I don't know if Ed would say this but I think it's correct, we've both been influenced by music that's very strongly intuitive and not particularly cerebral and we're trying to do something with the music to extend it into something that's more eloquent while retaining that impact. Actually the Saints' Prehistoric Sounds album was a big influence on the Birthday Party.
PS: By the time you formed the Young Charlatans, you must have had a better grasp of guitar playing?
RSH: When I was in the Young Charlatans, Ollie was influenced by things like Television and Can. I suppose I was too, but it really didn't come across in the songs I wrote. The songs I was writing were very poppy, and stylistically I can't think of any groups they sounded like. The people I was listening to when I first started writing songs were a lot more sophisticated than what I was capable of doing. Ollie was a much better guitarist than I was technically. He was much more capable of doing a very passable Tom Verlaine imitation.
PS: So you didn't do many gigs as the Young Charlatans.
RSH: We did 13 gigs and we were together for about a year. That second Boys Next Door gig was in 1977 and that was two weeks after I'd first met Ollie and he'd already had the idea for the band and in fact it was Ed Kuepper who introduced us indirectly to Jeffrey Wegener. He told Jeffrey about Ollie. Chris and Ed had met Ollie when they were down in Melbourne playing and they told Jeffrey that he should come down here and form a band with Ollie. After Jeffrey came down to Melbourne we couldn't find a bass player so we moved to Sydney and found Janine. Well, Jeffrey knew Janine and also there was some rehearsal studio in some absolutely awful place where we rehearsed six hours a day. We didn't stay in Sydney very long. What happened was that Ollie left the band and we came back to Melbourne and then he rejoined and then he left and rejoined again and then he left again.
PS: By this stage there was the semblance of a scene forming in Melbourne with the Young Charlatans, the Boys Next Door and that whole Suicide crew, and people like News and Philip Brophy's band Tsh Tsh Tsh that were starting to play.
RSH: Yeah, and the Chosen Few who had been around for a long time at that stage.
PS: Did you feel you were part of that scene?
RSH: I guess so; see I was only 16 or 17 and I was naive enough to think that there could be such a thing as a scene that was noncompetitive which was exactly the opposite of what was going on elsewhere. The Young Charlatans and the Boys Next Door didn't want to have anything to do with all that. It was the world-against-us syndrome. I was young and idealistic I suppose and Nick and Mick and those guys were a couple of years older than me. They'd been together for a while. I used to see them everywhere.
PS: So what was it like for you as a young musician trying to get your music heard?
RSH: Well, it was easy really. We did what we wanted to do. When I was in the Young Charlatans I had the benefit of Ollie being in the band. He was, and still is, the most remarkable self publicist. He had all these people convinced that he was a complete genius. He still does to a certain extent. And way before we'd even played, before there was a proper band, all these people were already convinced that we were this great band. It was quite ridiculous. On our fifth gig, we headlined at Melbourne Uni and we got paid twice as much as the Boys Next Door had ever been paid and they'd been playing for ages. It just seemed easy. For me it's always been easy. Admittedly after I joined the Boys Next Door, I think it was very shortly after that that Keith Glass wanted to put out our records and not once since then have I been without a record company.
PS: So just before you joined the Boys Neil Door they were still a polite English influenced pop band.
RSH: Yeah, in fact in this book that is being written about Nick at the moment I said that and the guy who is writing this book told Mick Harvey and he said "well, Rowland may have been in a pop band, but we certainly weren't ". And I thought how bizarre 'cause they were incredibly poppy.
PS: So how did you actually come to join the band.
RSH: Well, it came about through friendship more than anything. I did actually like the band, but they weren't really doing what I wanted to do. Nick really wanted to change what the band was and how it sounded, but he didn't know how to. So getting me into the band was a shortcut to changing the band and when I joined I brought all these songs with me.
PS: So what else do you think you brought into the band? Obviously they were in the process of changing.
RSH: See, when I joined the band, Nick had ideas and stuff but they were fairly unmusical ideas. I remember talking to Mick Harvey when I was still in the Young Charlatans and he used to laugh a great deal at my expense about how some things I played on guitar were musically incorrect. So I think in a way I gave weight to Nick and his ideas and so when he'd say "let's do this " and Mick would say "you can't do that " And I'd say "so fuckin' what, that's irrelevant, the rules are what we make them, not what somebody else says ". Also I showed Nick different ways of being able to write songs. Like you could write songs that were one chord or with the one riff going all the way though them which became a Birthday Party trademark. So I guess I gave Nick a crash course in doing things differently from the way he had been doing them.
PS: Your guitar sound was very distinctive too, which changed the band completely.
RSH: Yeah, sure. I mean Mick Harvey's guitar playing was fairly traditional. If you listen to his playing on things like These Boots, his playing is normal rock guitar and even on the first side of Door Door, it's fairly conventional. So I guess through a mixture of ignorance and blind selfconfidence I just did things 'cause I thought they sounded good and Nick would really encourage me to do things, like making ridiculous noises. I remember at one stage that every song Nick wrote for ages he would say "and when it gets to this part I want you to make a really horrible noise; it has to be completely different from any other horrible noise you've made in any of the other songs ". So I used to really rack my brains thinking how I was going to make some noise that was singular to that song and not just the same as I'd done before.
PS: That second side of Door Door was where the band was starting to break out. Shivers was the big thing from that album, it was the single.
RSH: Yeah, well what happened was that we went to Mushroom and said that the record couldn't be released how it was. It was already a year old when I joined the band or something like that. I joined in late 78. So by the time they were talking about putting the album out we had a completely different set of songs and they said "well, you can do more recordings if you pay for them yourselves", or something ridiculous like "you waive the rights to royalties", or something bizarre, I can't remember also we had to have a single. So Shivers seemed like the most commercial song that any of us could think of and they were horrified cause it mentioned suicide, which was incredibly shortsighted of them really. If they'd decided to be enthusiastic, it could have been a big hit.
PS: Well, it was proven to be a hit when the Screaming Jets released their version of the song as a single.
RSH: Yeah, although that was a long time later. I wrote that when I was still in the Obsessions and it's turned out to be the most productive five minutes of my life! Also when I wrote it, I sat down to write a 'hit single' and it's fairly ironic that one of the few songs in my life that I've ever written that wasn't out of a desire to express something and it's the song that's moved the most people. I don't know what that proves but it proves something in an extremely cynical way.
PS: So it must have been odd to be caught up with the Mushroom thing, but then Keith Glass took an interest in the band.
RSH: Yeah, well Mushroom just didn't know what to do with us. I remember they wanted us to come up with an ad for the album for magazines. By the time the album came out we hated it, so we were trying to think of some way to sway them to rectify the album and this is where 'Drunk on the Pope's Blood ' came from. We said to Mushroom "this is the slogan for the album" and they thought we were completely insane. We thought it was really funny. It didn't occur to us that anybody would be offended by it, 'cause the only people who read the rock press... well, I guess Catholics read the rock press too.
PS: So how then did Keith take an interest in the band.
RSH: Well, he had a regular gig at the Tiger Lounge on Tuesday nights with the KGB, the Keith Glass Band. He started giving us support slots. He knew Phil from him going into Keith's shop, and he ended up working at Missing Link. Then Keith started the Missing Link label and he became our manager, and because nobody else was going to release our records he started to do it. It was good being on a record label where for a while we had complete creative control, getting the record covers that we wanted and so forth.
PS: By the time you came to Hee Haw, the band had completely changed. I really like that record
RSH: I really like it too. It's almost like a psychedelic record or something. It's really bizarre in its own particular way.
PS: You had things like The Red Clock, and Nick was doing things like A Catholic Skin. Then you had the Boys Next Door/Birthday Party record
RSH: See, that record was never meant to come out like that. There were only three songs on it that weren't already available, and it was compiled for release in America on Ralph Records, the Residents' record label. Then for some reason they decided, after lengthy negotiations, not to do it, and Keith just stuck it out. We were really pissed off. He told us he was going to release it and we said "no ", because all these people would buy it for just three songs and they probably already had the others. So, he didn't ask us what we wanted on the cover. I really hate that cover, it's rotten.
PS: I really like that record though.
RSH: Oh, look the music on it was fine. Apart from the politics it's a great record. It's fair enough I guess in one sense, but Keith put it out and didn't bother contacting us 'cause we were in England by that time. It was just like all of a sudden the communication had stopped entirely. We said "can you at least let us do the cover " and then he said "yes ", but then it just came out. The songs are good. There were a couple of recording session where we did Happy Birthday, Cat Man, Waving My Arms, The Friend Catcher and Mr. Clarinet and they're all great. I think they capture a part of the band that we moved away from. It was a transitional phase. They were almost funky, but at the same time it's very light and nimble. It's not at all heavy or plodding. The songs are really short and concise even though we were experimenting in the confines of basically pop music, although The Friend Catcher is basically a different story.
PS: Is that you doing all that incredible feedback at the beginning of that song? It's just awesome.
RSH: Yeah, it's just me and one guitar. It's a great sound. I always meant to pursue that particular line further and do different things with it. I just never got back to it. One of the things people don't realise about musicians is that very often what they do is dictated by the equipment they have. I've only ever had the one guitar, and how I got it to sound so good was I borrowed a tape echo unit. So I could do all that feedback, ,cause I could control everything. If you go into a studio and you say to the engineer "put a whole lot of echo on it " and they put a tiny bit on and even if you say "I want a ridiculous amount of echo on it " what they think is a ridiculous amount of echo isn't what you want. But when you can control it all yourself you can do things like that. Otherwise you don't even have the opportunity to find out what it will sound like.
PS: So it was very experimental. Even Mr. Clarinet is experimental with Mick Harvey playing that distorted, choppy organ.
RSH: And the guitar and the organ all blended into one noise on that song. The guitar is distorted and its a kind of an odd sound.
PS: I find it really compelling and catchy.
RSH: Oh, yeah. I think it's a really catchy song. I remember when we first learnt that song and Nick and I were on the tram going back to his house afterwards and we were convinced, in our completely deluded sense of self-worth, that we had a hit single on our hands. But it could never be a hit single, even though its so catchy.
PS: But it got you a lot of interest, and also The Friend Catcher, when you went over to England.
RSH: Well, people were amazed that an Australian band could actually do anything that was worthwhile. Which shows you how even something supposedly as enlightened as the English rock press, they were racist enough that they thought anything from Australia was a lesser version of something from England. Also they all insisted and were convinced that Aboriginal music played a really big part in our development. Even when we told them we didn't know anything about Aboriginal music, they didn't want to know about that because it wasn't a good story. They wanted us to go walkabout, be something out of Wake In Fright. That was bizarre.
PS: That album Boys Next Door/ Birthday Party marked that transitional period of the band Why the change in the band's name at that time.
RSH: Because I always hated the name and so did the other guys. They had about a hundred different names and often it was just a case of getting a gig, this was before they were the Boys Next Door and the person would say "well, what are you called" and they'd say "the Magic Pudding", which is what they were called for about two weeks or something. So it was the same thing with the Boys Next Door. When they started it never occurred to anybody that this was a serious thing, so it didn't matter what you were called. As far as they were concerned the whole thing was a joke anyway. They obviously weren't the Boys Next Door, so...
PS: Well, the band had changed so much by then.
RSH: Well, yeah and we didn't want to arrive in England called the Boys Next Door, we thought it was completely inappropriate. The Birthday Party was a statement we wanted to make, we wanted people to realise that the band was now a completely different animal, we existed on different terms.
PS: Is it actually taken from a Harold Pinter play?
RSH: No. There is actually a Pinter play called the Birthday Party, and there's a really great film version of it. But what happened was that we were trying to think of a name and at the same time Nick and I wrote Happy Birthday and we were going to call that song The Birthday Party. We realised that it would be a great name for the band, so we called the song Happy Birthday and kept the Birthday Party for the band. At one stage Nick wanted to call us the Friend Catchers. In fact the name The Friend Catcher... Nick wrote that song and we were just about to go on stage and play that song for the first time ever and Nick pulled the lyrics out of his pocket and showed them to Anita Lane and said "what should I call the song", and she just said "oh, The Friend Catcher", which came straight off the top of her head.
PS: What things were you listening to at that time in the band's history?
RSH: I guess the biggest thing we were listening to was Dub Housing by Pere Ubu and the first album by the Pop Group, that was a really important thing for us. You could hear the David Thomas influence in Nick's vocals on things like Hair Shirt. I think Nick tends to write off that period of the band because he finds it difficult to listen to himself being so blatantly influenced by somebody else. But it doesn't mean that the whole thing has less value.
PS: I guess also by that stage the whole Seaview Ballroom scene had been going for a while and this is where the band was really becoming identified as the leader of the pack in a way.
RSH: We were one of the only bands that really played all that much. There were other bands that played a lot, but bands like Whirlywirld who were really good, hardly ever played. They could have played as much as we did, but we just went and played three nights a week, and the Models did too. One of the reasons that we progressed quickly was that we worked a lot.
PS: I saw the band on a number of occasions during that time, but the most bizarre bill I saw you on was at Festival Hall supporting Flowers, The Angels and Cold Chisel!
RSH: Yeah, I can only imagine that Keith got us on that bill. La Femme opened that gig and they were on Missing Link too. I remember when we did that gig our band room was right up in the roof and there was this ladder going up to this hole in the roof. So Nick climbed up there, and he said "oh, you can see down onto the stage from here" and he walked forward and this enormous masonite panel fell away from the roof and crashed down onto the stage. So consequently we didn't get paid! (laughs)
PS: At least you didn't get bottles thrown at you when you played.
RSH: Well, I remember we walked out on stage and we wanted to alienate the audience so we started with The Friend Catcher. So I started the noise and I waited, and Tracy was supposed to come in but he didn't, his lead was broken. So after playing this noise for about a minute and a half I stopped and there was this polite applause. They thought that was our first song! (laughs). Then afterwards, Nick and I were going home on the train and we were waiting at the station and these schoolgirls came up to us and said "don't worry, we liked you, we thought you were good, even though nobody else did, it's okay ". It was like "hey, wow but we couldn't have cared less.
PS: So by that stage had you already decided you wanted to go to England?
RSH: The band went to England because basically we knew we couldn't keep existing as we were in Australia. We'd gone as far as we could go. We very rarely got written about in the Australian press; I think we had something like three reviews in RAM, or something. So we would have broken up if we'd stayed in Australia. I mean we saw it as an opportunity personally just to get out of Australia, as much for ourselves as anything. We couldn't imagine any other way to get overseas. It just seemed like a good opportunity. We went over there with no money or anything. I probably got malnutrition. I think we played only about nine times in the first year we were there.
PS: England at that stage would have been a very strange place, because punk had ended and it was the rise of 'new - wave there wouldn't have been many bands that you fitted in with.
RSH: No, well there were some bands that we liked. I remember though we went to this gig at the Lyceum and there was the Psychedelic Furs, Echo And The Bunnymen, A Certain Ratio, Teardrop Explodes, Manicured Noise, all these bands that were supposedly the cream of the crop and they just all walked out on the stage and stood there while they played their songs and it was about as exciting as watching paint dry. The only band that was at all confrontational was the Psychedelic Furs and they weren't particularly impressive either. They were sort of expressing some kind of discontentment with things, but all the other bands just stood there and played their guitars and that was it. A Certain Ratio were all in their shorts! The only bands we liked were The Fall and The Pop Group and The Pop Group broke up soon after we got there. We saw the Cramps and they were great. When they played they had attitude. It was when Brian Gregory was in the group and he was such a great guitarist, he wasn't just trying to play rockabilly. So they were a much more interesting band while he was with them. Also, they were just completely irreverent and bizarre. 'Rockist' was the bad word at the time and one of the only other groups we saw that we liked were Wha! Heat because a) they were incredibly arrogant, it was nice just to see somebody stand there and believe they were really great and b) when they started playing, the first line of the first song was "We are Wah!, if you can drag yourself from the bar", and I mean they were really like a rock band. It was really different in England. Australia has always been really into rock bands, but in England, although a lot of the stuff the Birthday Party was doing at that time was not real rock as such, it had the same intent. It was supposed to be really exciting and supposed to inspire people to react. It was supposed to be confrontational.
PS: So do you think the English scene spurred you on to be completely the other way?
RSH: Sure. After we went to England the way things influenced us was by showing us exactly the way we didn't want to be. We reacted against everything rather than being influenced by things. We saw things and knew that's exactly what we didn't want to be. When we came back to Australia the first time after being in England, quite independently, Nick and I just came to the conclusion that we wanted to really drive home the point of what we were trying to do our audience. We got all these reviews in England comparing us to things like Joy Division, and the Talking Heads and Bauhaus, and just things that were so far removed from the point. I remember seeing a film of the Doors playing at Shea Stadium and the whole front of the stage was this line of police and it was just like a riot. I thought "this is just what a rock gig is supposed to be like ". It's supposed to be completely out of control. Jim Morrison turns around and just punches out the camera and it was just like this really great display of this band that was really intelligent, but performing in the most confrontational manner they could and the whole thing was just a real explosive situation. We set out to be confrontational and make people react and put them in a situation where they could not be indifferent and just really force them into a situation where they had to align themselves with us or be completely against us.
PS: So do you think that was where the real spirit of the Birthday Party took off, or had that already started?
RSH: It was one of the few periods in the band's history where we almost made a conscious decision and I remember seeing each other after we'd been back here after three weeks, we didn't see anyone in the band and we'd all, independently of each other, been listening to the Stooges a real lot, Funhouse. It's a record that defies categorisation. It's like 'psychedelic heavy metal James Brown' and it really shows you what you can do. Playing rock music can be something that is really extremely unusual and it can still be as sexy and as aggressive as all great rock music can be.
PS: So that's where playing Loose came from?
RSH: Yeah, that record more than anything seemed to sum up what we wanted to achieve. And the Stooges had a similar sort of technique as we did in that a lot of the songs had one bass riff that goes throughout the entire song. The songs were purposely very loose so they allowed you an enormous amount of freedom of expression. They could go for five or ten minutes or whatever.
PS: Quite aside from Tracy Pew playing those bass lines did he actually come up with the bass lines in combination with the rest of the music you were producing.
RSH: A lot of the time the bass lines were the first things that were written, so they were either written by Nick or myself But I mean they sounded completely different when Tracy played them. We played with other bass players like Chris Walsh and Barry Adamson and my brother Harry, and it never sounded as good as when Tracy played them. So while Tracy often didn't write the bass lines, he played them better than anybody else could so it was irrelevant. And also the bass lines just fitted in like a glove into the songs. It was irrelevant that somebody else may have written them.
PS: I guess his persona came to epitomise the band at that time, with the cowboy image.
RSH: Sure. Well, Tracy always had a fairly perverse take on how he presented himself and he was always cutting his hair in different ways, really extreme ways, and doing strange things. After we went to England, he was the first person who started... It was like we became caricatures of ourselves, our own natural attributes or the way that we dressed. It just became exaggerated so that's where the whole Junkyard thing came from. It was like a joke and it really snowballed and got out of control.
PS: But it was taken very seriously by people listening to it.
RSH: Yeah, it did, and we wanted people to take it seriously, but as a joke. I mean, jokes are as serious as anything else and you can take them with as much passion as anything else. We thought that people would be aware of the absurdity of it, but they weren't. There were all these Goths starting to look like Nick, which was absurd.
PS: Well, were you aware of the impact the band had on the scene in Australia? Quite often when Australian bands go overseas they come back and they get cut down, whereas when the Birthday Party came back they were treated like conquering heroes in a way. Where you aware of that?
RSH: Well, only because I think we weren't that big before we went away. We came back and played to like four times the amount of people as before we left. I remember we found that really disturbing. We played the Ballroom the first gig after we got back on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve, the end of 1980 and we walked onstage and everyone just applauded violently and we just thought "well, we could be really rotten and have turned into a really rotten band, what are you applauding for, we haven 't done anything ". And now I can obviously see they were applauding because they liked the band and they were pleased we were back. There was all these people who'd never come before to see us and now they knew even less about the band, so it was "how come you like the band all of a sudden, just because we've got this British seal of approval stamped on our foreheads, get fucked! ". All of a sudden we got the cover of RAM and it was like "where were you guys when we needed you?.
PS: Quite aside from that did you enjoy the acceptance?
RSH: Yeah, it was good being able to play (to a lot of people). It's very hard to achieve a feeling of playing well in front of 20 people. I mean the thing was we never really wanted acceptance. That was the whole thing with the Birthday Party was that we were never really looking for acceptance and the bigger we got the more of a problem it became. It's very difficult to keep reacting against things when you become successful because of what you're doing. It's difficult to sustain the anger. Also the band progressed very very quickly, so usually by the time the press and the audience had caught up to what we were doing we didn't want to be seen as being like that any more. It's difficult to explain to people, but the band was our entire life. We went to England and left everything behind and moved to Germany and did everything for the good of the band, or what we thought the band needed to make it better or keep it going or whatever. So it was our whole lives and we took it very seriously, we were very intense about it. It used to really anger us. Towards the end we really didn't want to be doing the same things. We didn't want to play to riots anymore. We wanted to be playing music that was more introspective and slower, but at the same time Nick, in particular, felt he was under enormous pressure to keep that sort of thing going. I remember when we learnt Swampland, we felt it was a cop-out. It was like what people expected us to do and it's difficult to have conviction when you feel you're doing something because people want you to be doing it. I know Nick felt enormous pressure to go out on stage every night and just hurl himself around and he didn't want to do that anymore. Also physically he was really fucking himself up. He'd get off stage wrecked. He had all these gold rings and he ended having to cut them off his hands with wire snips 'cause they were so bent they were cutting off the circulation to his fingers. He'd just go on stage with total disregard for his own physical well-being and just pound the stage. I mean, I don't know what he was doing but they were all squashed out of shape. I remember when we played at the Cell Block in Sydney, he went into the audience and he was wedged between the stage and the audience and there was this girl with a bunch of keys just going 'RRRIIIPPP' down his back! He used to do that sort of thing fairly often, but excuse me! I suppose we asked for it in one sense, but you can't expect people to be terribly overjoyed and look forward to going onstage and be attacked by the audience. People saw it as a personal challenge and we would get attacked by people in the audience. Being in the Birthday Party was so incredibly exhausting and I remember towards the end of the band we used to play for like 45 minutes to an hour. That was the longest amount of time we could play for because we were completely fucked after that. We were taking speed and stuff and we were fucked from just working so much. Physically we just couldn't keep up the intensity of it all. We were just burning out.
PS: You were also handling all the guitar duties towards the end when Mick moved to drums. When you came back for the last tour of Australia you had Des Heffener on drums, so was that demanding?
RSH: Well, in a way when Mick started playing drums I stripped all the guitar right back and it was easier for me. There was less to do. The band was so much stronger and more defined because of the way that Mick approached the drums was more like a musical instrument. So it wasn't like we were just one guitar, bass and drums all of a sudden. It was still like we had three musical instruments.
PS: It was a very rhythmic sound.
RSH: Yeah, and the way all the songs were written was changed to be this incredibly stripped down thing. So my job wasn't to fill out the sound, because the sound was supposed to be very skeletal, sparse.
PS: That's a very good description of your guitar playing, that skeletal, spidery sound. That style was perfectly suited to what you were doing. At that time, as the band was evolving, were there definable roles for each of the members? Like Nick seemed to be always the spokesman; I recall reading in a RAM article where he was saying all these really outrageous, controversial things.
RSH: Again this was another problem. The band started being perceived as Nick Cave and the rest of the band, which everybody else in the band took great exception to because it was very much a band of very strong individuals. And also because Nick felt himself to be perceived as being the leader of the band he wanted to have more control over the band because he felt that people assumed that anything the band did was something that had originated with him and therefore he should have more control because he had to stand directly behind everything the band did. As far as I'm concerned he had to do that anyway, but it was the way he thought. Ah, but everything was happening so quickly and we were under such enormous pressure. Before we broke up we basically had something to do every day of the week, something to do with the band. The main reason the band broke up was because we were just completely exhausted. It was supposed to be more than anything like a rest. The whole idea was 'let's have a break and if people are sufficiently enthusiastic about it we'll get back together just by natural enthusiasm'. But there was no definative time it was supposed to be, like we had x amount of time off and we'd get back together. It was going to happen if it was going to happen. Nick and I were interested in doing other things, but Mick perceived it as being a betrayal of some sort, that we should be completely happy to work within the context of the Birthday Party and that anything else was unimportant. To a certain extent it was, because everybody knew that the Birthday Party was the most important thing in our lives. But playing music should be an enjoyable experience and it had stopped being that due to the enormous amount of pressure we were under. We just wanted to do something that wasn't gonna be perceived as some really important statement. Playing music for music's sake as opposed to saying something that was supposed to be earth shattering every time you opened your mouth. You just can't do that unless you're prepared to sacrifice everything you've got for being a musician. We did that for three or four years and after that we were just completely fucked.
PS: What influence do you think Berlin had on the band? Did you actually decide to go to Berlin to be influenced by what was happening there?
RSH: We went there because Lydia and myself and Mick Harvey wanted to make this record, which ended up getting released years later, it was after Some Velvet Morning. We'd already met this band from Berlin called Malaria and then when we were in Berlin doing that record Lydia and I met Neubauten and those two bands seemed to have a lot more in common with us than anybody else. Certainly Neubauten. Also it was a much more enjoyable city to live in than London because there were no licensing laws or anything. Anybody could open up a bar. There were clubs open all night. We felt there were people there that had ideas that were similar in some way to what we wanted to do. We were also sick to death of London. Berlin was really cheap compared to London. Buildings that were built before the Second World War and the rent had been frozen since the end of the war, like $10.00 a week. Beer was like 10c a bottle or something. Just everything was really cheap and we weren't making that much money out of the band. It was like economic survival as well. But Berlin was also incredibly intense because it was non-stop and eventually that's why I left to go back to London because you just burnt out
PS: I wanted to talk about the progress from Prayers On Fire through to Junkyard through to the final two E.P.'s. The development there was incredible, and that was a fairly short space of time, three years.
RSH: What happened was that after Phil left or we sacked him or whatever, um, there was a conscious decision from everybody that the band would change so that we all had much greater freedom. Everybody had their own defined area. There was only one guitarist so I did all the guitar and Mick did all the drums and Tracy did all the bass. Also Mick's drumming was just so much more an integral part of the band than Phil's drumming. It was like Mick Harvey was playing the base of the songs rather than playing along with what we were doing. So everybody in the band was playing their instrument in a very expressive fashion. The whole idea of the band to a certain extent was different in that it was supposed to be like a rebirth to some extent.
PS: So what do you think of those latter records?
RSH: I think the two E,P.'s were the best things we ever did. In particular The Bad Seed, that's a really great record.
PS: So, do you rate Prayers On Fire and Junkyard?
RSH: Prayers On Fire sounds incredibly thin now listening to it. I think Junkyard's got some really good things on it, but it was more like an experiment that didn't work very well as far as I'm concerned. We'd recorded all these things in really strange ways and to a certain extent it cancelled out a lot of the power of the band. I mean, we went from Release The Bats, which while we didn't like it that much, it was recorded really well, really powerful, to consciously deciding to record a record that sounded really trashy, but it didn't really work the way we wanted it to.
PS: Do you think the two E.P.'s bear the influence of Berlin?
RSH: Um, you have to realise as well that it was a learning process and by the time we made the last two E.P.'s we knew a lot more about what we wanted to do. Also I think when we were doing Junkyard we did that with Tony Cohen which was like six completely insane people in the studio together. There was no voice of reason basically. So you had all these ridiculous things happening like putting tunnels of sheet metal around everything and recording from the vibration of the sheet metal rather than from the amp. It was this really thin, brittle sound which might have been alright if we'd put it in with the original guitar sound. We were doing all these things to make the record sound singular and some things worked while others didn't.
PS: I think you're right about the two E.P.'s; they've got that singularlity of purpose about them
RSH: Yeah, all the unnecessary elements had been stripped away. Nobody's playing anything apart from exactly what they had to do to make the song work. I think that's why they sound so great.
PS: Tell me about the recording of Mutiny! how you weren't there for all of the recording session. What happened there?
RSH: Well, we'd recorded most of the tracks in Berlin and then did that last Australian tour. Then we went to London to finish the record and the main song we were working on was Mutiny In Heaven. It was just a backing track at that stage. Nick had originally completely different singing to it and so I worked out a guitar part for that singing. Then he changed the vocals so the guitar part didn't really go with it anymore. Then he changed them again. So I'd gone into the studio and played something and Nick said "No, I don't like that". So I sat there and worked out something else to play and he said "No, I don't like that". So I did it again and so he said "No, I don't like that". So I said "Well, I can't just sit here thinking of completely different things to play within six hours, there's only so many things I can come up with in that time". So I just walked out of the recording area and sat down in the lounge area 'cause I was really pissed off. Then the next thing I knew Blixa came out and said "Can I use your guitar?" and I just said "Well, fuck you!". I mean, if anybody had suggested we get in another bass player it would never have been allowed. Because of the situation of the band at the time it was somehow allowed that Blixa should play guitar. Then I thought we only had one day left in in the studio, so I just didn't bother coming in for that day. But in fact we had six days. So it became this big deal that I wasn't even aware of.
PS: So they thought you'd left the band?
RSH: Well, yeah. See the band had already broken up, but it meant that it broke up with more acrimony than it would have otherwise. It meant that it broke up in a way that the original idea had not allowed.
PS: Tell me how you got to work with Lydia Lunch?
RSH: Well, we did a gig in New York at this place called the Chase Manhattan Lounge and I remember there weren't all that many people there, but they all looked like football jocks and they seemed to be having a grew time. And Lydia was there and after we'd finished playing she came backstage. I knew Queen Of Siam and the Eight Eyed Spy album, but it was the first time that I'd met anybody whose work I had any respect for who was incredibly enthusiastic about meeting us. Usually when you meet other musicians, even if they really like you, they're very cool and don't appear too enthusiastic. But Lydia was a real fan and really enthused about meeting us and I'd had this idea to do Some Velvet Morning for some time and she seemed like the obvious person to work with. I think I asked her the next day or something and then she just decided to move to England because she wanted to pursue the idea of working with the Birthday Party.
PS: In general terms what do you think motivated the band? And what do you think is the lasting legacy of the band?
RSH: Well, what motivated the band was that we had an outrageous amount of self-belief in ourselves as a band. Virtually everybody in the band was insecure and uncomfortable, but as a band we had an enormous amount of self-righteousness in that what we were doing was basically untouchable and that there was basically nobody else around that was really doing what we were doing. While there were other bands who were trying to be really exciting and loud and so forth, nobody was really trying to push it further than what had already been done. I think that arrogance is a really essential part of rock music. All great rock bands have a gang mentality, like us-against-the-rest-of-the-world and that's a really essential part of being able to keep up. This sounds really pretensions, but I think from a sociological perspective it was really important for the Birthday Party to remain outsiders 'cause that's what spurred us on. The problem was that as we became more and more accepted it became more and more difficult to sustain that amount of anger that fed us and kept us as self-confident. When everybody hates you you've got nothing to lose, so you just go for it. What you leave behind, your legacy, tends to be in most cases a fairly superficial thing, you know. I certainly don't see our legacy as having anything to do with Goth music. We never associated ourselves with that at all. The whole thing about the Birthday Party was breaking down categories. Life is full of contradictions and we wanted to make music that was full of contradictions. Music which was intelligent and dumb and sexy and ugly. You can't talk about anything as complicated as love, or the human condition, but most Birthday Party songs were love songs. We were trying to illustrate that love isn't this thing that is always delightful or pure. There's an enormous amount of bent emotions involved as well. Things that on the surface level appear ugly, and people behave in a really despicable fashion when they're in love and do terrible things to each other. That wasn't what motivated us, we were just acknowledging that it existed. As far as the legacy goes, God knows! People are always saying there's this band called Blah Blah and they sound like the Birthday Party, but whenever I hear them I never think they sound remotely like us.
- Ian McFarlane