Overeasy Magazine - October 2003
ROWLAND S. HOWARD
I wanted to ask you initially about the ‘Rowland S. Howard Aesthetic’, so to speak. Contradiction has always played a big part in your work from the style of your lyrics to your choice of covers. Do you see contradiction as a means to get closer to who you are and how you see the world?
This isn’t probably a terribly good example but it’s like how people will laugh when something terrible happens. You can only react to things in the moment so your reactions are going to be contradictory. It’s like the thin line between love and hate - there are so many people who supposedly love somebody and then they break up and they hate them.
You were saying how tragic things can be funny. Humour seems to be a key component of your work albeit in a rather subtle way. Irony tends to be a pretty overstated thing in Australian music yet you seem to have struck a balance that maybe some people have picked up upon and others haven’t.
Well it certainly doesn’t get picked up on overseas. We’ll it did a little bit just before I left England but it certainly didn’t in Europe where people speak a different language - places like Germany and so forth where humour is very different. It doesn’t involve irony and sarcasm and those sorts of things.
I would suggest that you’ve mastered a sort of stylized honesty. It’s been said that real artists equally show their failings and successes and their ups and downs, whereas a lot of people would just gloss over the bad stuff.
I was thinking on the way up here that there are so many reasons that I play music and a lot of them have got to do with allowing me to be somebody that I’m not allowed to be in day-to-day life, or I won’t let myself be. Playing live is like a channel I have for anger that I don’t express much in my day-to-day life. If you’re writing about yourself it would be patently absurd to write about the good things that happen to you. When your writing your investigating something - what actually happens.
So it’s a means to resolving those sorts of tensions?
I find that I often have no idea about what I’m writing about when I start writing a song. I’ve just got some kind of image or thought in my head and I just start writing from that and it’s only after that that I can sort of look at it and see how it related to my life at that time. Which is interesting.
The sky was deep
The wind was hot
I tried to speak
But I could not
The telephone rang like churchbells
Jesus Christ I've gone to hell
Nodding dogs and Valium
Let's make this whole world
Spin like a top
and then stop
'Exit Everything' - "Teenage Snuff Film".
With a lot of the lyrics on your last album ("Teenage Snuff Film") it’s as if you’re talking almost like your frozen in time and you are articulating that experience. How do you decide that you’re going to write about this-moment-in-time, given that there might be nothing particularly happening except what’s going on in your head?
Well I guess it is that that’s just what’s going on in my head at that time.
I guess my point was that you don’t need something to happen to be able to write.
No. I think there are a lot of archetypal experiences that everybody has had that you can recall to some extent and it’s the job of any writer to be able to express these things.
Coming back to what we were talking about in regards to humour, I’m curious to know if the press picked up on some of those things on the last album, both in Australia and overseas?
It happened with the previous album overseas and it was like all of a sudden I went from being like this mind-blowingly depressing person to being really hilarious in the eyes of the press. And again it’s just one perception. It’s equally frustrating to be gleamed as being some glib quipster as it is to be deemed to be someone who is really depressing. Unfortunately you just don’t really get the kind of rock journalism where people are prepared to... I don’t know its really hard to review something.
The story goes that I'd give
The story goes this is a
Everybody knows that I've
fucked up badly
I'm just hanging on by the
length of my nose
Everybody knows I've only
got one song
And it's much too slow and
it's much too long
And this is how it goes.
‘So The Story Goes’- These Immortal Souls, "I’m Never Gonna Die Again".
It seems that on the last These Immortal Souls album ("I’m Never Gonna Die Again") you were dealing directly with some of these issues. Songs like ‘Crowned’ and ‘So the Story Goes’ are sort of like saying ‘I’m holding you up here guys - lets have a rain check’.
In so far as I can tell you’ve never made a concept album in any deliberate sense in any of your projects from your work with The Birthday Party to your last album - yet each record has it’s own sense of individual character. What’s the process like of getting to that point, recognizing it and then do you play up to it?
There are a lot of physicalities in making a record, such as where you record it and who records it for you but I usually have some kind of vision of what I think pop music should be and what I thought the reaction to the last record I made should be and where you go from there and then it comes down to a whole lot of things such as how it was perceived and what I thought it achieved. It’s almost like your sort of constantly focusing and refocusing a lens trying to get this sort of picture but your idea of what the picture is keeps changing.
So the actual process is the key to the ultimate expression.
And also you get to express different sides of your character. You know it’s like doing ‘White Wedding’ on Teenage Snuff Film. If it had of been in a group scenario I very much doubt that anyone would have let it happen - the idea would have been scoffed at but I think it worked really well.
Was part of your motivation for going solo that you would no longer have to deal with the warped diplomacy that comes with working in a band?
Yeah I guess I wanted to make a record where I didn’t have to argue with anyone about what was going on it. There are so many reasons for the break down of communication in bands and a lot of them have very little to do with music. A song will be effectively destroyed because someone doesn’t like you telling them what to play and that part is crucial to the song and they’ll change it - things like that. It was a much more enjoyable experience because I knew I had veto power. I couldn’t force anyone to do what they didn’t want to do, but they knew they were working on a record to help me to achieve what I wanted to achieve.
I’m not sure how great Mick Harvey, Brian Hooper, Genevieve McGuckin and producer Lindsay Gravina’s contribution was, but did you find that you missed out on having people come and throw a new angle on things or did they help you with that?
Mick especially was incredibly generous with his time and input and he always works really hard to find what the song really needs. I was very fortunate that everyone really liked the record that was being made so they put a lot into it. Lindsay, again, put in a lot of time.
Lindsay is great for conjuring up an appropriate atmosphere for a recording.
Yeah and there was a lot of time that he didn’t charge us for.
When you get Lindsay excited about something then it’s a fair indication that it’s going to be good. In the liner notes for "The Best of the Beasts of Bourbon" you wrote that ‘rock and roll in its purest form is a mainline to the heart of darkness’ and in the "Gimme Danger" article in World Art you wrote that ‘rock and roll is a music born of an inarticulate rage - a primal scream and a consciousness and pain that accompanies such a state’. Coming back to what you were talking about how you see playing live as an outlet for a lot of your anger.
With the World Art article I was trying to say that you can reach a sort of trance like state on stage where you are no longer aware of what you are doing. It becomes a very primal experience.
I haven’t seen any live footage of any of your groups other than The Birthday Party, but certainly within that group and others such as The Beasts of Bourbon there was something in the rhythm of the music that could really get you going. Your solo shows also have a hypnotic quality to them but if that is your definition of what outlandish-performance-based-rock-and-roll is about then what are you tapping into when you perform solo?
I guess that’s the way I perceive the ultimate expression of rock and roll to be. Solo shows are different. It’s an intimacy and formlessness of the solo shows that I like where there’s nothing really between you and the audience. It’s very challenging and when I started doing them I really needed something that wasn’t very easy to do. Solo shows are always hard because everything relies on you.
With The Birthday Party recordings it seems to me that you built up to the last 2 EPs ("Mutiny" and "The Bad Seed") where you established a sort of minimalism in the sound - it was more economical which is something that you get with your solo shows.
Yeah, I feel that a use of space is really important and a sort of directness. When we did the last two Birthday Party records we sort of reached a maturity and we stopped fucking around and just got down to the heart of the matter and there was no sort of extraneous matter - it was just very skeletal but in a way a lot more powerful for it than when we’d been a five piece.
Do you think your career post The Birthday Party has sort of built up to "Teenage Snuff Film" which has that same sort of minimalism that allows you to acutely articulate your kind of sound and vision?
The idea for "Teenage Snuff Film" did come out of my solo shows. Really I just wanted to keep it very simple and sparse but to put some kind of power into it as well, but once you go into the studio things just take on a life of their own.
Coming back to the process being where it’s at.
Moving on, I wanted to ask you if there are any favourite authors you have or any particular style of writing that particularly grabs you.
Yeah, I’ve got a couple of favourite authors who nobody has heard of, but the only author I really like who everybody has heard of is Cormac McCarthy. Do you know his work?
No, I don’t.
He wrote a book called Blood Meridian which is about The Wild West. He’s intensely American. It’s like this mythic sort of vision of America that’s just like this dream and it’s all true, or it’s assembled out of true elements but it just seems so unreal. And that’s something I really like when people can take things from real life and imbue them with a mythic quality or a sort of magic quality it makes them so much more than they are.
Well that’s right. And that’s something that comes across in your music - the dramatization of everyday instances.
I’m finding it very hard to write lyrics at the moment because I’ve spent the last six years working on one novel and then writing another. I’ve gotten used to having a lot more space to write in so I’m finding it very different.
Despite that has writing a novel helped you develop any ideas?
Very much in terms of the language you can use. If anything it’s made me want to make the lyrics simpler and more straightforward - just very direct. I’m not sure why because the book is not like that.
Inanimational items elude I, and
In-an-emotional-motion I swallow my
Motive of quicker location is slammed
My Dim chance of skipping this THICK world is THIN
They call me Dim
I am the Dim Locator,
‘Dim Locator’ - Birthday Party, "Junkyard".
Well your lyrics over the past twenty-five years have struck a sort of balance between playing with the sound and texture of words and also more narrative kind of structures. Have you found that you’ve needed to sort of adapt to each band you’ve played in and written for in terms of these aspects?
In The Birthday Party Nick wasn’t happy about singing personal songs of mine so the only way to get him to sing these songs of mine was to write these things that were so disguised so that he didn’t know what he was singing about (laughs). So you do adapt.
In These Immortal Souls you seemed to strike a balance between playing with those more abstract things whilst working within narrative based structures.
I mean a lot of the songs for "Teenage Snuff Film" were written whilst I was recording the record and I’ve always worked that way to a certain extent but I particularly liked it this time because it meant that I didn’t have the time to really labor over things and make them more ornate than they needed to be. And also there was the aspect of having the Billy Idol song and the Shangri Las’ song just the directness and simplicity of pop songs was something that I wanted to address.
You're bad for me
But I haven't sucked
Enough of you yet.
Nothing is sacred,
And nothing is true,
I'm no-one that's nowhere,
When I'm here with you.
I've lost the power I had to distinguish
Between what to ignite and what to extinguish.
You're good for me
I don't get any younger,
You don't get any older.
And everything's true,
All this is possible,
When I'm here with you.
I've got a lot to say,
But I won't speak with my mouthful.
I'd like to spit it out,
But I keep my own counsel.
‘Dead Radio’- "Teenage Snuff Film".
The record is like a balance between the more detailed psychological kind of portraits and then those pop themes. On "Teenage Snuff Film" songs like ‘Exit Everything’ and ‘Dead Radio’ are almost like detailed still-life portraits of moments frozen in time. It’s a common theme that goes right back to your earlier stuff with songs such as ‘Crowned’ and things before that. It seems to me that you use lyrics as a means for personal exploration.
Yeah, well very much so. When you asked earlier about concept records - often on a record I’ll have a number of songs that address the same issue. Like on "I’m Never Gonna Die Again" with songs about how I’m perceived as a person and a public figure. I still find the process of songwriting really hard work and I found it really pleasing when I heard that it takes Leonard Cohen sometimes twelve years to write songs.
Have you heard the old story about Leonard and Bob Dylan meeting up?
Bob asked Leonard how long it took to write a particular song and Leonard replied ‘3 years Bob’ and Leonard asked the same about one of Bob’s songs and Bob replied ‘15 minutes’. I guess it depends if it’s more narrative based, then certainly it can take longer than if it’s...
But it’s like ‘Shivers’ took me ten minutes to write.
Is that something that as you’ve become older that you’ve found it takes longer?
To an extent you’re running out of ways to approach themes and you find yourself thinking that ‘I’ve written this song before’. I mean you haven’t really but it’s this doubt that comes into your mind that perhaps you shouldn’t be writing this song. But ultimately music is abstract and it’s just as important what the words sound like as what they’re saying, so I doubt the veracity of that criticism because a song is like a feeling encapsulated. In my criterion of what good songs are I certainly don’t judge them by theme.
I’ve got a sense from reading back through your old interviews that there has been a sense of trepidation at certain points, where you’ve sort of been a bit hesitant maybe because you’ve covered that territory or...
Well it’s just this sort of self doubt as to whether you (pause) Unfortunately, and as clichéd as it sounds, you eventually find out that there only really three important things to write about - love, sex and death - and these things are eternal to everybody and are experienced by everybody and so it’s a way of finding your perceptions of these things gradually change. You only have to look at somebody like Leonard Cohen’s work for prove that as you get older your work doesn’t have to get tamer or whatever. Anybody who is over sixty and singing ‘give me crack and anal sex’ - that’s just so fantastic. There’s the spirit of rock and roll there as well, even though Leonard Cohen is a long way from rock music.
I do not want to be your friend
Kiss your cheek and not your lips
I don't wanna shake your hand
When I can shake your hips
I wanna have your all
See your breasts rise and fall
But you don't come when I call
I do not wanna be your friend
‘Undone’ - "Teenage Snuff Film".
Well it’s strange how as certain artists get older they tend to tame down whilst others find a new angle to play with those three keys themes.
Yes, and also there’s the physicality of the voice that changes as you get older. I saw Johnny Cash on Rage last night. His voice just sounds like he looks - just this incredibly weather beaten piece of rock. It’s so amazing that kind of vocal capacity.
I feel that your voice is as good as it’s ever sounded on the last record and hearing it live. Certainly in terms of articulating things there is a maturity that does away with anything other than the core. Despite the trepidation there seems to be a sense of ambition even from very early on with The Birthday Party - it was an anarchic group yet somehow you all managed to get to London. I’m thinking that perhaps the drive to do great work has lead to a sort of hesitancy at certain points.
At virtually any given moment if someone said to me that ‘you can go into the studio tomorrow’ then I could do that and start making a record but unfortunately the music business, and particularly in Australia... put it this way, when I moved back here it was like a story about Leonard Cohen once again where he was signed to Arista, or some label that Clive Davis was the head of, and Clive Davis said to Leonard Cohen ‘look Leonard we know you’re a genius, we just don’t know that your any good’ and that was the sort of reaction I got when I came back. I had all these sorts of meetings with people from record companies where they would tell me I was a genius but ‘we don’t know how to sell your record’. I find it very hard to go out there and sell myself and network with people and all that sort of shit.
Do you have someone doing that for you - a manager?
No, no I don’t.
That reminds me, Bruce Milne wants you to call him. I got a copy of "Teenage Snuff Film" off of him.
Oh right, well that’s a turn around.
What are the drawbacks of not having a common body of work - of moving from project to project?
The drawbacks are that career wise it doesn’t translate as one body of work. You know you start something and then you have to start again. Your career starts and restarts. It’s like having a car that stalls constantly. The plus side of it is that you get to do a lot of different things.
Was it hard throughout the 80s - juggling everyone’s schedules; moving from project to project; country to country, all the while with very little money?
No, because things just weren’t that busy. There were a whole lot of reasons that it wasn’t a problem but I’m not going to go into them because they’re too boring. That freedom allowed me to do some of the things that I really enjoyed doing that nobody over here would even know about. I played with this French pop group called Kas Product and that was really great fun playing pop music. Really fantastic.
Like Top 40 pop?
It was better than that. But they were really popular and they were very melodic and the singer could really sing. She’d been singing in jazz big bands since she was fourteen.
You played with Primal Scream?
Oh, I played live with them once. Unfortunately it was during the worst period of their career.
What was that?
The ‘Rocks Off’ era.
They’re one of the few groups I really like.
Struck down by my own device
You drowned in the dining room
Resurrection sure came too soon.
God it's cold in this room
Hopped up on fever's croon
Just two more love dumb fools
Here comes your breakdown and then...
Loading the gun again
Dead lead goes in and then
Catch as catch can and can't
catch cold and fall apart
Cold as a distant star
Hot as a stolen car
I choke on this heart of hate
Sometimes I find it hard to get things straight
‘Breakdown (and then)’ - "Teenage Snuff Film".
Feel free to hold me up here. You’ve been including The Velvet Underground’s ‘Ocean’ in your solo shows of late a fantastic song. Both you and Lou Reed have a particular ability to articulate, as best is possible, the whirlpool falling down effect of drug use. I’m just wondering what it’s like articulating the process of that.
It’s strange. It’s an odd process. I always feel vaguely self-conscious about it because the last thing I want to do is to glamorize it to any extent.
What I’ve picked up on is not a glamorization but more of an acute articulation that comes from the experience.
There’s just the danger with any kind of acknowledgment of those subjects that people will allow themselves to be seduced by the idea of what they see as perhaps being glamorous.
Is that something you’ve found with certain parts of your audience?
I’m certainly aware it exists and I find it really depressing. And particularly when you’re talking about people who are like seventeen or something and they think that it must be some kind of cool thing to do. And the incredibly depressing thing is that you can’t tell them otherwise because they just don’t want to hear.
On a day-to-day basis how do you deal with being someone who is known to be a drug user in the context of music?
How do you deal with it?
Well it’s part of the mystique of Rowland S. Howard that that is one part of your persona. Do you find that’s a problem?
Sometimes. I’m sure I would have a greater number of opportunities because people wouldn’t perceive me to be a risk or just irresponsible. So yeah, I feel it’s probably limited my career quite a lot. But I don’t actually see that because I’m not actually approached as it were.
Sawn-off scattergun rhythm
To the base of my brain with
a hundred million
Switch blade sugar coated
Kiss me to a strange design.
this suit of mine no
The style and the grace just
got up and quit.
So hold me unto this Holy
That holds me in shape and
in the present tense. I've been crowned by
I've been crowned by hate
I've been crowned in
‘Crowned' - These Immortal Souls, "I’m Never Gonna Die Again".
A friend of mine, who has been a junkie previously, said that it’s like work.
Yeah, it is work. It’s like Mission Impossible everyday because you’ve got to get up, find the money. I think when you’ve been doing it for a long time you are so used to having this mission to complete everyday. It’s very hard to fill that hole in your life. You sort of go through stages of adrenalin bursts where you’re approaching your goal. When you stop you don’t have those intensities in your life and that’s a real sort of problem I think. It’s just such a strict lifestyle.
Does it impinge on your creativity in terms of actually finding the time to write?
There have been gaps in your career - a few years here, a few years there.
I mean, you know, one of the big things about heroin use is that it encourages you to lead a really insular lifestyle so you just aren’t out there being seen and reminding people of your existence. Did you see that photo of Nick Nolte after he’d been arrested?
Yeah, I did.
Well apparently at The Oscars that year that was being hosted by Steve Martin and he posted it up on the screen and made some big gag about it. And this photo, as truly appalling as it was, reawakened the image of Nick Nolte in people’s minds and he started getting all this work.
I don’t know if you watch The Simpsons?
Yeah, I do.
There’s this episode where Marge’s sister marries Side Show Bob and his agent says, ‘look, this marriage is doing great things for your career’. It’s funny how those sort of things work, where the focus is so often on the person’s personal life.
Well yeah, it just made people remember that Nick Nolte was there. That’s very interesting. You know you need to be seen. In any industry that is so low on financial remuneration you need to work as much as you can.
Moving on, I wanted to ask you about any plans for a new album?
The tape cut out briefly here during which Rowland talked about recording a selection of his songs based on his solo shows at a friends home-studio in St. Kilda, possibly to coincide with a limited print run. Also the recording of an actual follow up is a possibility in the near future.
Could you see yourself lugging your guitar around the world again for music?
If someone arranged it I’d be more than happy to do it. I’m terrible with these things. It’s like when people ring me up in Melbourne and ask me to play somewhere and they ask ‘how much money do you want?’. I’m like ‘I’ll get back to you on that’. I hate talking to people about money.
Finishing up, you’ve recently been championing Melbourne’s The Devastations. (Rowland recently wrote an article in one of the street rags to coincide with the release of the band’s debut LP). What attracts you to that band?
I think there songs are really strong and very touching. I think Tom is a great guitarist. It’s just so rare that I here anything going on anywhere that I really like. I just thought it would be nice to write a piece about them. I’ve written so many pieces in those magazines and they’re just so boring.
Well you took it from a different angle - treating it more as a creative kind of exercise.
Well I think there’s actually about four words of what they actually said. It was all true to the heart of what they were saying but my advice to anybody doing an interview generally is to lie, although I never do it - follow my own advice. I guess if you’ve got a bad interviewer the best thing to do is to lie or to do what politicians do and that’s just start talking about what you want to talk about anyway with no relevance to the question.
Two different bands that seem to have been partially influenced by you are Melbourne’s The Drones and NYC’s The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Have you heard of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs?
Yes. I read a little article about them in Vanity Fair where they were compared to The Birthday Party and I thought ‘well, The Birthday Party finally got into Vanity Fair!’
Finally! Where else do you see your influence now?
I hear it in quite a few places. Guitar wise just in a general sort of approach to the way people play guitar. And it’s not just from me but I think of the way people played guitar when I was eighteen years old or whatever, it’s certainly very different now. I remember people laughing uproariously when I started using a Fender twin amplifier because they were such weedy little amplifiers and how could you possibly rock without a Marshall stack?
The light from the window
Falls on the floor
And after it breaks
I cut my feet
On the light bright pieces
(I glow in the dark)
But only when night falls
It’s falling, it’s falling
‘Dull Day’ - The Birthday Party, "Prayers on Fire".
Finally, you mentioned that you were working on a novel.
When you send a novel to publishers they give it to a reader and then they give to a higher up reader and then they give it to an editor. And so basically I would get this incredibly enthusiastic phone call from people or letter saying what an incredible piece of work and this would go on until it got to the editor who would seemingly back away from it. I mean there’s nothing incredibly outrageous about it - I just wanted it to be entertaining and like something I would want to read. And then I gave it to Creation Books and they read it five times but it wasn’t extreme enough for them!
You can’t win!
Well let’s hope it gets out there soon as I’m sure it would be a great read.
Yeah, well I’ve already started a second one. I just do it for my own enjoyment and if it gets published then that’s fine
Sure, OK so we’ll leave it there
Well thanks very much.
A really nice interview. A good interview.
I used the Burning Heart website for research. There’s twenty-five years of interviews on there in case you ever want to know what you may have said. It’s all there.
- Clive Ubu