Rip It Up - 1999
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Out Of The Woods
To call The Birthday Party one of the most important and respected bands in the history of Australian music (and anybody else's) would be nothing short of an embarrassing understatement. They were easily the most important punk/art rock outfit to crawl out of the slime of the early '80s, post-UK-punk explosion. This was the sick foetus that finally split into fragments to be painfully birthed as the careers of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, These Immortal Souls, producer Tony Cohen and Crime And The City Solution, they also had a powerful, seminal influence on all most important underground/ "alternative" bands that followed: Sonic Youth, Jon Spencer, The Jesus Lizard, Beasts Of Bourbon, Mudhoney, Bikini Kill, PJ Harvey, Gallon Drunk, Rollins Band, The Dirty Three you name 'em. Their music was definitively dangerous and uncommercial: an ingeniously hideous ball of intense creative energy which arrogantly pushed the musical envelope into visionary realms still rarely fathomed (but often imitated). After they collapsed under their own weight in 1983, due to their own high expectations, the band members (Nick Cave, Rowland S Howard, Mick Harvey, Tracey Pew and an already ejected Phill Calvert) went their seperate ways (with Harvey regrouping with Cave for The Bad Seeds and Howard from Crime). It seemed as though there would no more, but the post career releases started trickling out. First came two hastily prepared cash-ins from their ex-management then the approved, somewhat ironically titled "best of" collection, Hits, and now the Harvey and Howard produced The Birthday Party Live 1981-82.
I spoke to Rowland S Howard about this, in a dream interview, the likes of which I never imagined I'll actually ever do. Howard's easily one of the most distinctive, evocative and riveting guitarists this writer's ever had the privilege of witnessing - and this is what he had to say.
How are ya Rowland?
"I'm okay Paul, how are you?"
Great thanks. I've got Dani with me, the bass player of my band King Daddy.
"Oh, you've got a band?"
Yessir. You'd like it I think. It's pretty sick and twisted.
Let's get into it shall we? Firstly, what brought you back to The Birthday Party?
"Well the band was always, in the eyes of the people in it, primarily a live band. There had never been what we considered to be a satisfactory live release. There had never been any that had the band's approval. Henry Rollins was wanting to release something on his own label and kept on prodding us about it. Eventually, there was two of us in the same town for long enough to sit down and do something about it. It seems like a fitting full stop to the back catalogue of records."
How did it feel to go back to that time?
"It was strange. As Mick said in an interview earlier today, I could still remember how to play the songs. It was a long, long time ago now. I can't remember how to play songs I've played in groups since then. It was very interesting."
Dare I ask if you miss it?
"It took me a long time after the group broke up to get used to not having that intensity in my life. I don't miss it now, but I did for a long time."
I was too young to see The Birthday Party play, but I was pretty blown away when I saw you played the Shotgun Wedding tour with Lydia Lunch. There was a fairly visceral, thrilling intensity in the air then, was it at all comparable?
"Not really. Although musically I thought it was really good, the thing about The Birthday Party was, once you went onstage there was the feeling that anything could happen. And it was a very physical thing. It was REALLY out of control. The Shotgun Wedding shows were a lot more controlled. There wasn't the same level of expectancy and danger."
Did you ever get hurt?
"Yeah," he shrugs. "Lots of people got hurt at The Birthday Party shows. The band and the audience, all types of people. It was just part and parcel of the whole thing. If you wanted to do something that was that extreme, you had to be prepared to take a knock or two."
Are there any incidents that come to mind? Any quintessential moments?
Rowland agonises over this. "Erm, It's hard to talk about. To an extent it takes a certain amount of disconnection from what's going on. There was an occasion when we were playing in Manchester and there was a big stage barrier and someone launched themselves off the top of the barrier and football tackled me. We went rolling across the stage and we fell off the back of the stage and then my amplifier fell on top of us. That was nice. It was a long time ago."
GEEZ! Now I don't believe everything I read but..
"You should always believe everything you read."
Hah! Was there a lot of emotional battery going on within the band?
"Yeah, everybody's lives were completely subjugated towards the group. We sacrificed everything to perpetuate the group. And it was a very demanding atmosphere. We expected everybody else in the group to be absolutely brilliant, always. So there was a lot of pressure and it was very intense. When you're with any group of people day in, day out, there's inevitable bickering and all that sort of stuff. We were playing virtually all the time for three years and we never had anywhere to live and stuff like that. It was incredibly tiring."
Was it an unsympathetic atmosphere?
"It could be, yeah. It could be VERY unsympathetic. People weren't encouraged to display any kind of weakness. And there was a lot of using people as scapegoats and all that sort of stuff. Everybody in the group was treated with complete contempt by everybody else. All that sort of stuff that goes on when you're in incredibly close quarters with other people for a long period of time. There must be an element of that in all groups, but The Birthday Party were particularly competitive and everybody had very strong ideas about what they were trying to achieve and what they were doing, what they would do and what they wouldn't do. Nobody was allowed to get away with stuff. You were always pulled back down to Earth very quickly. Chopped off at the legs."
Was there a mediator in the band?
"If anybody was any kind of mediator it would've been Mick Harvey, but not really. You were left to fend for yourself. It was survival of the fittest."
Let's have a look at this record. It's a fairly similar track listing to the previous The Birthday Party live album, It's Still Living (disowned by the band, Mick Harvey refers to it as "effectively a bootleg").
"Right, well probably. But the sound is a lot better than It's Still Living but I've only heard that record once. I can't really say. There are changes and stuff, the songs would vary from night to night. I don't know."
Why did you concentrate on 1981 and 1982?
"Literally they were the only decent tapes we could find. It was really important to me to represent the period of the band when we were a four piece but we just couldn't find anything. Funhouse [The Stooges cover] is as a four piece but everything else is as a five piece. The tapes were just such bad quality that we couldn't use anything. The only times we were ever recorded live was for radio or a couple times, the record company would just inform us that they were sending a mobile recording unit but we didn't have the money to record ourselves live or document anything."
It's a pity you couldn't get a good live version of Deep In The Woods.
"Yeah. Well that's the stuff that I think is the height of the group. I'm very sad there isn't a decent recording of that stuff but you have to work with what you've got."
Are there any particular songs on this live record you had to have?
"Like I said before, it was really a question of working with what we had which wasn't a great deal. We used virtually everything from the couple of gigs we had, without repeating songs."
For your own tastes, are there stand out songs from throughout the career?
"Yeah, definitely. My favourite record of The Birthday Party is The Bad Seed EP with Deep In The Woods and Wild World but I think there's a lot of really good stuff that represents different sides of the groups personality."
Isn't that the only record that Tony Cohen didn't produce/ engineer?
"Yeah, that and the Release The Bats single."
Is that incidental?!?
"Yeah. I just think the songs are really strong and nice and sparse and has a really good feeling."
Gimme a fly on the wall insight into a typical songwriting session for The Birthday Party? This is something I've always wanted to know. It seems as though a lot of the songs have very complex arrangements. Sometimes sophisticated, sometimes crude as hell. How the heck did you do that?
"Ummm, there was no typical songwriting session. It was all fairly atypical. Because it really defended on who was doing it. The arrangements and stuff like that, well everyone just made up their own part and basically did what they wanted to. It was all very quick, done at great speed and it was a time of enormous change. I was thinking about this the other day. When the group broke up it was because we perceived that we'd been in this creative hiatus for so long, and it was a period of three months or something, but we put ourselves under so much pressure to continue producing something astounding all the time that three months seemed like an eternity. We decided we were creatively fucked and broke up."
It's astonishing to imagine where you may have gone next. Mutiny In Heaven, the final track from the final EP Mutiny, was one of the most elaborate studio recordings you'd ever committed to tape. Even though you didn't really contribute an awful lot to that (it was the subject of much contention for Howard at the time. He apparently stormed out of the studio after he'd complained the track was too dense to contribute a guitar part - so Cave called in future Bad Seed, Blixa Bargeld, to play on Howard's guitar and amp set-up in his stead), it was an powerful herald of a possible future.
"That was one of the few occasions where we pieced together a song in the studio. Actually maybe not. We wrote a lot of songs in the studio but that was the song that the studio played the biggest part in. It allowed Nick to do these multiple vocals - and it wasn't based around live performance whereas virtually everything else was based around what we could do live. That song is very much a studio thing."
Your bassist, Tracey Pew, didn't reap too many songwriting credits but his presence is inextricable from the signature sound. How much of a contribution did he have?
"He was a great bullshit detector. If he sensed anybody was being too pretentious he felt it was his job to take them down to earth. A lot of Tracey's basslines were written for him but it didn't really matter because the way he played them was so particular that it was very much him."
Each member had a particularly defined character. Your own sound was so singular.
"Well that's good. Ummm."
This seems to confuse Rowland. I'm a bit embarrassed coz I didn't really want to be caught flattering him. It might be just my imagination, but this seemed like a definite no-no.
"We were very much under the impression that the way you played your instrument should be a direct extension of certain aspects of your personality. It didn't really matter what influenced you as such. It should be filtered through your own persona until it was fairly unrecognisable from the original input. Ummm, I don't really know what to say in answer to that. I'm glad you don't think anyone else sounds like me. That's good."
Do you hear your influence nowadays?
"Yeah I can. I hear it all the time, in all types of things. In really diverse things from things that are advertising stuff to people who sell a lot of records. You just hear isolated bits and pieces and certain types of sounds we did and that people weren't doing before that are just a lot more common now."
Were you specifically trying to make important music at the time - or did you not give a flying fuck how history remembered you?
"I think we were always aware, I think we thought we were important. But there was no sort of conscious thought as to how we were going to achieve these things. We just felt we had it in us to do that. There certainly wasn't anyone else around at the time that we felt was doing anything as good as we were doing."
Do you think you backgrounds in art had anything to do with that?
"To a certain extent. It gave us the ability to take things from a really diverse area. We wanted to express something that was really intelligent but still very aggressive because a lot of rock music that's really aggressive is perceived as being dumb. Or inarticulate. We wanted to change those things and to change what were the normal parameters around the ideas of what rock music was - or what it should be allowed to achieve. Normally if you've got an artist that's very lyrically motivated, they're like Bob Dylan or whatever where the lyrics are at the forefront of the music and you don't get people placing as much importance on the music. We just wanted everything to be as good as we could possibly make it."
All at once?
What events led you to be introduced to the band as a fifth member (Rowland was the last member to join The Birthday Party/Boys Next Door)?
"I think Nick was feeling a certain unhappiness about what he perceived to be the band's lack of adventurousness. There was a certain frustration with what they could achieve. I'd known them for a while and they'd seen me do things. Like a lot of things that were done throughout The Birthday Party, it was an extension of lifestyle in that it was socially motivated. I joined because I was their friend and the fact that I could contribute was obviously also a big part. But you tend to work with people you know and like."
Can you still remember what your initial impressions of them were?
"Well, the first time I met Nick, he threw me up against a wall and wanted to punch my head in. The next time I met him he apologised profusely and invited me to some party, where he proceeded to throw me against the wall again. I thought they were mad."
And that didn't discourage you at all?
"Well I got to know them over a period of time but they were still always fairly.. put it this way, there was always an element of that involved in The Birthday Party."
I read an article you wrote not to long ago on the subject of genuine danger in rock'n'roll. It seemed to some up EXACTLY what I thought was missing from music at the moment. Do you see any of that oh-so-important edge occurring anywhere at the moment?
"Alright. No, but I think it's a very rare thing. To get that sort of situation there's a lot of unconscious stuff that you can't bring into a situation at will. It's a collection of personalities and circumstance and stuff like that. Obviously it's got something to do with the music - but it's more than that. It's very, very rare. The Beasts Of Bourbon gig was the only gig I've seen in recent years that's been like that. That's in 25 years of watching rock bands play."
What about at the time The Birthday Party were still kicking? For instance, I've never heard you talk about The Scientists?
"I was never interested in The Scientists. When I was in The Birthday Party, to a certain extent, it demanded that we hate everything else. That was our job. We reacted against things. We were very critical of other groups. This isn't the opinion I hold now, but at the time we would have perceived The Scientists to be a garage band and wouldn't have really seen there was much in it as far as we were concerned."
Did you consider you had any peers, like The Pop Group or The Fall for example?
"Well, that's one of the reasons we went to live in Berlin eventually. We found the people we had met there seemed to have an attitude more similar to ours. We didn't really have much very in common with English groups."
What about the Americans? Like The Cramps or The Gun Club, even though they were more traditional, did you feel any kinship there?
"Ummm, Yeah I think we did. We liked them and stuff but it was a strange time. I don't think we met Jeffrey [Lee Pierce, frontman] until after The Birthday Party and The Gun Club had broken up."
Okay, just before you go, what can we expect from you in the not too distant future?
"I've got a solo album coming out in July called Teenage Snuff Film."
Ohh, Rowland, I knew we could depend on you to come up with something interesting.
"It has Mr. Harvey and Brian Hooper [of the Beasts Of Bourbon] on it. I think it's really good so you can look out for that."
Will you do anything more with Lydia?
"Oh that depends on whether she gives me a ring."
I remember hearing that you were going to do another Shotgun Wedding project, something with a horn section. Alright.
"We've talked about doing lots of things. But generally, Lydia gives me a ring every few years and says, I've got the money to do something, do you want to do something? And I say yes or no. That's the way it works."
The Birthday Party Live 1981-82 will be distributed through Shock as of next week.