Australian Guitar - May 2006
Rowland S Howard: Storm Und Twang – The Prophet Of St Kilda
From icy reverb to noirish twang, Jenny Valentish pays tribute to Australia's most influential guitar fiend, Rowland S Howard...
AGED 16, ROWLAND S Howard fell hopelessly, deliriously in love. The recipient? Roxy Music's Phil Manzanera, specifically that mercurial Gibson Firebird of his, in red, white and gold.
The son of folk musicians, Rowland was studying fine art at college and playing in his first band, The Young Charlatans. He procured a Firebird of his own, penning that perennial favourite, 'Shivers', which has haunted him ever since, and crafting some fine pop songs. It was around this point he ran into local private schoolboy-cum-rapscallion Nick Cave at a Melbourne party where, strung out on acid, Cave slammed him up against the wall and demanded to know if he was a punk or not. Despite this inauspicious start, a friendship developed, with Rowland reviewing Nick's band The Boys Next Door for fanzines and joining them on stage when members were too drunk to play.
"The Young Charlatans were a lot less aggressive than The Boys Next Door, but it was quite unusual and I think that's one of the main reasons Nick wanted me in the band," says Rowland. "He wanted to move away from poppish-rock music and towards something a lot more like his paintings. They were very splattery and grotesque, and the music he was making at the time had nothing to do with that sort of thing."
When The Boys Next Door morphed into The Birthday Party, they became what Rowland has referred to as both "easily the best group on the planet" and "a clichéd rock band, almost to the letter"...
"I think the beauty of electric guitars is you can defeat their original purpose to a huge extent," Rowland enthuses. "They're very mechanical so you can get all these kind of sounds by doing things that were never intended to be done. With digital equipment you can't do that because they're all computerised – you can't punch a pedal on the side and make a weird noise. Particularly with Fender Jaguars, they've got bits of metal everywhere, so they're incredibly live and you can get a lot of sounds out of hitting them on the strings, above the neck, below the bridge, all that sort of stuff."
Rowland bought his '63 Fender Jaguar back in 1978, and it's still in good nick. Despite the violence of some Birthday Party tunes and gigs, he plays gently and prides himself on rarely breaking a string.
"They're such incredibly idiosyncratic guitars and they're far from perfect, but for some reason it fits me. I used to have a Firebird before I had the Jaguar, but anything else you've seen me holding would have been borrowed for some reason or another. I don't have a spare, so when things go wrong you tend to have to borrow things from support bands, with disastrous results. Particularly in Europe, the support bands can have four or five guitars... and it almost seems to be in direct ratio to how bad they are."
Bassist Tracy Pew was also a Fender man, favouring a Jazz or a Precision after an early fling with a Rickenbacker – although a six-string bass was nixed by the group.
"At one point he bought a Bass 6 and Mick Harvey went absolutely spare and told him it was to be gotten rid of immediately," Rowland laughs. "He just couldn't cope with the idea at all, which is a shame, because the results would have been quite interesting. He was appalled when I got a guitar with a whammy bar, too. He was always trying to lay down the law, but in those days he didn't have the creative authority to back it up, so Nick and Tracy and I were like the naughty boys and Mick Harvey would try and keep us in line."
Ampwise, Rowland's always used a Fender Twin Reverb. "I would just turn the reverb up high and hit the guitar," he tells us. "On the neck, behind the bridge."
In England, Batcave bands influenced by The Birthday Party were busy inventing goth – a genre which relied on copious amounts of phasers, flangers, chorus and echo. Rowland, by comparison, was severely organic.
"The last thing I wanted to be was stuck there like I was on the Starship Enterprise, with this bank of pedals, switching things on and off," he tuts. "It's not particularly satisfying to me. The more pedals you have, the more of the original signal you lose and I just wanted it to sound like a fucked up guitar.
"We did an EP called Hee-Haw, which was like our psychedelic period, but the Roland Space Echo on that was just borrowed. Really, the basics of my set-up was the reverb on my Fender Twin, an MXR Distortion Plus and an MXR Blue Box, which is supposed to imitate a contrabass. It's more like an octave divider that doesn't track properly, so you get all these really strange harmonics coming off of it, and it almost sounds like a synthesizer at times. It's got a really strongly gated effect that adds sustain to a note but then it will end dead. That's how I kept my sustain going so long, but it only works with a very specific set-up, because unless there's a lot of treble it has no definition."
It's a pedal Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner uses with great zeal, as well as up-and-coming Brit band Mystery Jets – both of whom cite Rowland as an influence.
"Neil Young used it in his version of 'Broadway' when he's playing his solo," Rowland remembers. "They've started making them again, but unfortunately they're just not as good as they used to be. They were always being stolen by members of the audience climbing up on stage, and eventually my last one got stolen so I bought one of these new ones. It's not very good, sadly."
Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie once told Melody Maker: "I remember listening to The Birthday Party on the radio thinking, 'fucking hell!' We'd be down the front at every gig, follow them around everywhere. When we were still young and stupid, these people were big stars to us. It was that big guitar noise you got on 'The Friend Catcher' that was one of the things that inspired us."
The spindly, delicate, often eastern-tinged lines of Prayers On Fire made way for the more chaotic scribbles of Junkyard, and The Birthday party became resolutely unignorable."Junkyard was a flawed experiment in the sense that we were looking for extremes of sound but it didn't really have the extreme bottom end that we wanted it to have," Rowland muses, "it just turned into this white noise. We surrounded the amp with a tunnel of corrugated iron and then attached contact mics to it. As you can imagine it was extremely thin and unpleasant. The first time we did it we did it with Nick Launay at the Townhouse when we were doing 'Release The Bats'. I was running the guitar through a 24-band graphic equaliser and you just couldn't be in the room, it was so unbelievably offensive! But it just didn't translate to record and that happened quite a lot on Junkyard."
The EQ was a vital part of the proceedings, and a technique Rowland would go on to use in future recordings. Was he just boosting the high frequencies?
"No, no, it was really boosted in the bottom end as well. I wanted it to be like a hot-rodded version of Duane Eddy, with a lot of both top and bottom end. You can use a graphic equaliser as an overdrive so that it's distorted without becoming soft – the sound doesn't turn into mush. That was ideally what I was trying to do at the time."
At times it seemed Rowland was doing a high wire balancing act over savagely snapping basslines and cutlery-like clanging. 'She's Hit', in particular, is reminiscent of the knife-sharpening guitar sound of PiL.
"I thought Keith Levene was great," Rowland offers. "In fact, when we moved to London we only had two records that we played all the time. One was Metal Box and the other was by The Contortions. I always loathed Killing Joke, I never got anything from them. I really liked Richard Lloyd from Television, who still is a great guitarist, and Robert Quine. He played on Lydia Lunch's Queen Of Siam, which was really good. None of them really changed the way I played though, they were just guitarists I saw myself as having something in common with. Most of those people have a lot more developed technique than I do, but they were far more interested in the sounds they were producing.
"I did make up a lot of chords," he admits. "I learned the piano when I was a child, but it was an intensely unpleasant experience, getting whacked on the knuckles with a ruler whenever I made a mistake. Then I had two guitar lessons where they tried to teach me folk songs, so I never went back. I bought a book on chords and taught myself to play them until I could write songs myself. On lots of songs like 'Mr Clarinet', the guitar playing was really rhythmic, and so was the group. Funky and tribal rhythms. But then I don't know why, we moved away from that. At one point it seemed that every new song we learned, Nick would say to me, 'I want you to play a really horrible sound here, but it has to be completely different to all the other horrible sounds you've done.' So I'd be searching for something new to do, which was really good."
The band weren't worried about translating these ideas faithfully to the stage, with Rowland usually opting to do whatever the main guitar line had been.
"Towards the end there weren't nearly as many overdubs – it was really stripped down," he recalls. "My favourite part of The Birthday Party was when everything was really skeletal, where nobody was just playing for the sake of playing – everybody had a very specific purpose to fulfil."
As The Birthday Party morphed into The Bad Seeds, Rowland left and Blixa Bargeld stepped up to the plate – although Rowland later guested on Kicking Against The Pricks. His bandmate Mick Harvey told Guitar & Bass magazine: "It was time to move on, that's all. It was a very explosive band which had momentum, and it really couldn't slow down or it would have lost the point of it being there. It would have been quite hilarious, actually, watching it absolutely disintegrate and be completely and utterly corrupted. It could have been quite exciting in its own way, become some kind of rock'n'roll tragic disaster unfolding, in which we could have possibly done some good things musically, who knows?"
Harvey attributes Rowland's departure as being down to "the whole thing with the salient guitar player and what that does with the lead singer. Rowland's hardly a traditional guitar player, but at the same time I think Nick wanted to move away from wantonly abrasive stuff, so on that level it wouldn't work. That was a soundscape he wanted to move away from."
Before we get totally lost in a fug of circa-'82 nostalgia, let's get onto what happened next. After a stint in Crime And The City Solution with Mick Harvey, Rowland formed These Immortal Souls with his brother Howard, drummer Epic Soundtracks and girlfriend Genevieve McGuckin, who most recently performed in Vera Cruz. Collaborations with Nikki Sudden and Lydia Lunch followed, the latter of whom has spoken of her desire to work with him again.
It's his solo work that has really hit home, however, particularly 1999's album Teenage Snuff Film, with its startling cover of Billy Idol's 'White Wedding'. It's a delicate, cinematic collection of work, with flourishes of Ennio Morricone.
"It's humiliating shopping around for deals," Rowland concedes of the lull in record company interest ever since. Last year's outings with The Devastations, with whom he has found something of a spiritual home, have seen new fans flocking to gigs in droves and there are no end of fellow whammy enthusiasts like The Drones and Riff Random keen to hang out. The clichéd rock guitarist he was so scared of turning into is, of course, nowhere to be found.
ROWLAND S HOWARD maybe something of a shadowy figure, but he's a solid part of the psyche of a new generation of guitarists.
YEAH YEAH YEAHS
Nick Zinner has described Rowland as "my guitar dad" and recommends the solo album Teenage Snuff Film. "He's my favourite guitar player ever," Nick says. "The slow, creepy version of 'White Wedding' is surely a highlight."
Ian Wadley: "Once upon a time, at the start of a decade that began so dull, yet polished (and only got worse), Rowland Howard stood out like immaculately-dressed dog's balls and made a sound that was not just confronting but articulate: the energy of 'punk-rock' and the vocabulary of John Barry, Morricone, Erik Satie, etc. The world is a better place thanks to his guts and panache (of course many who owe much to his style are raking it in big-time by comparison – how unfair!): whether it's the intricate melodies or the noise factor. The world is full of tributes, copies, homages... entire genres that owe so much to this one guy's contribution. Hats off!"
Fresh from recording an EP with former Birthday Party drummer Phill Calvert – in which they managed to utilise a former Birthday Party snare drum, guitarist Kris Buscombe says: "Rowland, you is perfect. I've been through them all and settled on you. Your style, your songs and your tones. Your frigging sound. You are my guitar hero and I really actually feel like I'm in love with you."
Jah Grill: "I never really understood the Birthday Party until I moved to Melbourne. Along with obscene fringes and the colour black I was introduced to Junkyard and everything changed. Rowland's absurd spidery shrieks had a profound influence on the way I now approach the guitar. Perhaps I relocated JemimaJemima to Berlin to chase the romantic mythology a little further; I can tell you, that spectre has long since past, but I can still listen to Junkyard on my iPod when I walk through the snow."
Gareth Liddiard: "I'm into Rowland's playing a big way, that high tension surf guitar style. I play a Jaguar too, but it's a Japanese one, only ten years old. A '63 Jag is not something you want to dent up."
DIGGER AND THE PUSSYCATS
Sam Agostino: "Rowland S Howard redefined 'indie' guitar playing forever. Without him, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and a thousand other bands would never have had that bite, that angular anger and that soaring beauty. Rowland's playing is amazingly precise and yet always seems totally natural. Rowland's best work for me has come in recent years especially Teenage Snuff Film, where we find his unique guitar work embodied into amazing songs."
- Jenny Valentish