Drum Media #460 - August 31, 1999
Much Ado About Snuffing
You might not immediately recognize that name beside mine. For Rowland S. Howard usually comes with an almost obligatory weight of brackets behind it, that usually reads something like: '(ex-Birthday Party, ex-Bad Seed, ex Crime & the City Solution)'. For that is he. The man who wrote the strange attraction that is Shivers, a song so wonderful it even survived a Screaming Jets cover of it.
Now Rowland S. has got around to releasing his first ever solo album, basically constructed with longtime cohorts Brian Hooper and a man described on this piece of paper in front of me as the 'ubiquitous' (this probably meaning he has even more brackets after his name) Mick Harvey, under the wonderfully questionable title of Teenage Snuff Film. Now happily resettled in his boyhood home of Melbourne after many years of playing musical nomad, Mr. Howard even considers it the end of one phase of his life, and an attempt to get some spirit of place to whatever comes next.
But just how does he feel about those brackets, and that past that people just have to bring up.
'It is unavoidable,' comes his measured tones down the line, as you hear him lighting what probably isn't his first cigarette of the day. 'My feeling toward it tends to vary. We were promoting a live Birthday Party a month or so ago, and Mick and I did a couple of days of interviews that really talked about nothing else. So I am a little over it right now.'
But what this is about is his new solo affair. A record he calls 'his best album in 15 years'.
His rationale is straightforward. 'It is probably as simple as it being the first record I've done in a long, long time that I can listen to and actually enjoy. It just comes closest to what I intended it to be.'
'Even the singing is a hell of a lot better than I've ever done, and the songs are strong. It has a lot of diversity. It just achieves the things I wanted it to,' he elaborates.
And being just his name on it, there is also the freedom to do what he wants. Some of the blackclad constituency will be taken aback to find a cover of Billy Idol's White Wedding among the Snuff.
'I actually suggested doing that song a number of years ago, when I was in These Immortal Souls,' Rowland offers, adding another name to those brackets, 'And the response from the band was, shall we say, 'less than thrilled'?
'But they really had no idea of how I wanted to do the song. Sometimes in bands, ideas are just rejected before people even knew very much about them.'
'And of course there is the perversity to it,' comes the conspiratorial chuckle, 'Half of the reason to do it the absurdity of it. But the other half is that I knew that beneath that absurd machismo, there was a half decent song lurking. It is a love song.
'I admit that I never expected to be sending royalties to Billy, but then, he's probably never expected to get any from me.'
We discover through this conversation that Mr. Howard does have an aridly dry wit lurking, with many perhaps missing some of the humour of the whole thing.
He readily agrees: 'The humour in music has to be subtle, or it can become very tiresome, very quickly. But - and it's maybe because of some of the things I have been associated with - people just aren't looking for that lighter side in my music.
'I understand that it is so much easier to write about someone who is larger than life. As much as I said I wouldn't mention it, that's exactly what we did in the Birthday Party. It was a conscious decision to become caricatures, which is fun, but not particularly artistically rewarding.'
'The problem there was some of us forgot where the artifice stopped and we began.' You can just about hear the shake of the head as he pauses to light another one.
Rowland S. Howard launches Teenage Snuff Film (Reliant/Fiido) on Saturday at Goldmans.
- Ross Clelland