The Sunday Times (U.K.) - July 9, 2000
As a great songwriter, Rowland Howard helped Nick Cave
find fame. Now he's ditched the drugs and found his own
voice. By STEWART LEE
The Cave man's back
You can recognise a Rowland S Howard guitar lick in seconds. A quavering, tremulous thing, half anaemic Duane Eddy, half spaghetti-western soundtrack, permanently hovering on the brink of collapse. But for the past decade, Howard has been missing in action, while his one-time bandmate Nick Cave is recognised as one of the world's finest songwriters.
Back in mid-1970s Melbourne it was Howard who co-piloted Cave's early journeys from thrash punk into more epic territory. But more than 20 years after he first helped Cave discover his, Howard too has finally found his own voice.
"I went into the studio on the understanding that it was my record and I had power of veto," he says of his first solo album, Teenage Snuff Film (out now on Cooking Vinyl records). "There was none of the acrimony you get with a band, of people refusing to surrender what they had deemed to be their 'magnificent contributions', of different personalities that inevitably run afoul of each other. This time it was no problem."
Nowadays, Howard is eloquent and witty, grown old on just the wrong side of (ex-) junkie chic, impossibly long of finger and looking like the St Kilda sun might melt him. But Howard was an elfin-faced 17-year-old when, in 1977, he joined Cave in the Boys Next Door, bringing with him a cache of more sophisticated songs that clearly raised the singer's game. In 1981, reincarnated as the Birthday Party, they settled in London, where their incendiary live shows became as talked about as their feral, drug-wracked lifestyle. But Howard's most unpleasant memory of London is of Kilburn High Road. "I remember for months every traffic light was sitting in a hole in the road with wires trailing out. It was like the Third World." Nevertheless, after the band collapsed, Howard stayed, collaborating with obscure cult figures on albums only distinguished by glimpses of his distinctive guitar sound.
He eventually joined the hardy Australian perennials Crime and the City Solution, but disagreements with the gravel-voiced vocalist Simon Bonney forced his departure. "I had these absurd arguments with Simon. He said my guitar and his voice both occupied the same 'sonic frequency' and therefore I had to be turned down," recalls Howard with an almost comic disbelief. When he finally got to front his own band, These Immortal Souls, things fell apart as usual. "There was a string of extremely unfortunate incidents," he says, darkly. "We went into a studio for weeks and came out with nothing. The record company was reluctant to let us back in. It kind of killed the momentum."
In 1994 Howard took a holiday back home: "Something clicked and I thought, 'What am I doing in London?' I was utterly miserable there, and there was nothing to write about because nothing had happened to me for so long. Also, the musical scene in Melbourne appeared to be very healthy, where previously there had just been an enormous proliferation of drugs." In a series of acoustic sets in local clubs, Teenage Snuff Film began to take shape.
Unlike Cave's more recent songs, which extend the usual alternative-rock concerns into metaphors about man's relationship with God or the creative imagination, Howard is starting from scratch once more at the simple sex, drugs and death level, but gloriously so on tracks such as the chillingly sparse Breakdown, or the shimmering, meditative Autoluminescent. When we start discussing the album's take on the 1960s standard She Cried, something is revealed of the songwriter Howard hopes he is.
"I heard it on a Shangri-Las compilation," he recalls. "They had some amazing writers. Shadow Morton wrote Leader of the Pack while smoking a cigarette in the shower, on a piece of clear plastic using three coloured pens to mark out the vocal lines. I like those old songs that are corny but have an emotional core. I admire people like Shadow Morton or Lee Hazlewood, who subvert the genre from within. I fondly like to imagine that Lee Hazlewood can't tell the difference between a work of genius like Some Velvet Morning and something appalling."
The Howard as would-be Shadow Morton/Lee Hazlewood theory would go some way to explaining the air of class that surrounds Teenage Snuff Film. And it shows Howard has grown up. Eighteen years ago, he and the American performance artist Lydia Lunch released the second worst recording of Some Velvet Morning ever, but in his approach to a cover version on his current album, the new, reformed Howard shows an astonishing maturity. His reading of Billy Idol's White Wedding reveals a hidden dignity beneath the song's trashy veneer.
If Howard is ready to take a Billy Idol song seriously, then he must be ready to respect his own talent. "It's interesting to find something great in a song that everyone despises," he says. "I mean, do we really need another version of Knockin' on Heaven's Door apart from Bob Dylan's? But to do a song by Billy Idol, a man regarded as being without any redeeming features, a kind of cartoon character, but not a cartoon character that anyone likes... Excuse me, can you ring me back later? My bathroom has just flooded."
A faulty washing machine denies us a glib conclusion. Still, here goes. The Birthday Party's first posthumous live album is called It's Still Living, a phrase that could equally be applied to the tenacious Howard himself. Even if he's having trouble with his domestic appliances.