Inpress #1093 - October 14, 2009
CRIMES DO PAY
National treasure Rowland S. Howard tells Tom Hawking about his fantastic new album, gaining unlikely recognition from ARIA and, um, meeting Fall Out Boy.
On the shortlist for nominations for this year's ARIA Awards -- the nominations for nomination, if you will -- was on very incongruous name. In amongst the various up-and-comers in the running for the Best Breakthrough Artist award -- largely young hopefuls like Art Vs Science and Bluejuice -- was the name of one Rowland S Howard.
Although he didn't make it into the final set of nominees, the fact that a musician of Howard's stature could ever have featured on this list demonstrates several points: the generally bizarre nature of the ARIAs, for a start, along with the fact that the music business is a strange one indeed at times. But it's also indicative of how chronically under-rated a talent Howard remains -- that 30 years after the formation of The Boys Next Door, he's still Melbourne's best-kept secret.
For all his influence -- and the coruscating guitar sounds of The Birthday Party have influenced virtually anyone with a liking for distortion, feedback and/or atmospherics -- his work has never enjoyed the widespread acclaim it merits. He's certainly beloved by the music community -- in an interview with Inpress a few years back, the late Magic Dirt bassist Dean Turner memorably dubbed him "the reason so many people in Melbourne wear black", while countless others have cited him as an inspiration. But he's largely spent his post-BirthdayParty career as a kind of John Cale to Nick Cave's Lou Reed, the one who's gone on to have arguably the more varied and interesting solo career without ever quite breaking through into the mainstream.
Howard himself is philosophical about the whole thing, seeming to regard the belated recognition from ARIA with the same wry humour that's characterised his songs over the years. "Someone told me about it, yes," he chuckles. "I couldn't quite believe it. It seems really weird being a Breakthrough Artist after 30 years. I don't know how it happened. I would have thougt they would have notified me or something, but no such event occurred."
In the flesh, Howard looks almost impossibly fragile these days, but he's still robust enough to have taken a trip to Japan in late July to play the Fuji Rock Festival ("I met Fall Out Boy," he recalls with a laugh. "They had absolutely no idea who I was") and he's an engaging and pleasant interviewee with a bone-dry sense of humour.
The album that brought Howard to the ARIA committee's attention is Pop Crimes, his first release since 1999's triumphant Teenage Snuff Film and only the second record he's made under his own name. The decade-long wait between drinks has led the anticipation for this record to build to sky-high levels. The phrases "long-awaited" and "highly-anticipated" are bandied around with abandon in the rock'n'roll publicity, but there's no argument that this is an album entirely deserving of both.
And somehow, against the odds, it manages to not only meet but exceed expectations. It's little wonder, then, that its creator answers a question as to whether he's happy with the finished product with a simple, satisfied "yes". Despite the decade between albums, Howard says that returning to the studio after such a long absence wasn't quite as daunting as it might have appeared. "I 've done it [recording] so many times before... It was slightly different in the sense that my health was very bad so I couldn't put in the same time and concentration that I would otherwise [have done], so it took a lot longer than it should have, but I knew that I could trust the people I was working with to do stuff while I wasn't there that would be worthwhile."
The recording also found Howard working with a band again for the first time in quite some time -- although he's occasionally collaborated with other musicians in the years since Teenage Snuff Film (like Devastations, who played as his backing band for a one-off 7" released through Basque Australophile Gorka Larruzea's Bang! Records in 2005), he's largely performed solo over that time. Pop Crimes reunites him with former Birthday Party bandmate Mick Harvey, who also drummed on Teenage Snuff Film, while JP Shilo of Hungry Ghosts plays bass. Shilo and Howard have quite a history -- Howard produced the first Hungry Ghosts record way back in 1996 -- and as such, his name sprang to mind immediately when Howard's regular bass-slinger Brian Hooper was unavailable.
"[Shilo] is one of those people who can play lots of instruments, and he's not traditionally a bass players, so when I couldn't get Brian Hooper because was overseas, I thought it'd be interesting to get John because he's so eclectic and doesn't approach things from a traditional point of view," explains Howard. The results certainly prove the idea was a success, with Shilo's basslines driving several tracks on the record, including lead single and title track Pop Crimes and also the epic cover version of Talk Talk's Life's What You Make It.
The latter is an interesting choice of cover; so where did the idea come from? "I had [the thought] ages ago," says Howard. "It just seemed to be a song that you could do in a much more powerful fashion than the original. It's got that huge pressure bassline and I just really liked the feel of the song."
The song's sentiment -- of living in the moment and appreciating life for what it is -- also seems to fit with the themes of Pop Crimes' songs. While Howard's songs always have an element of darkness about them, there's a strange and almost indefinable strain of optimism that runs through the album, especially given the circumstances of its creation. Did he think, then, that the song's lyrical theme fit well with the rest of the album? "Yes," he says, simply. No further elaboration is forthcoming.
Also appearing is HTRK's Jonnine Standish, who plays Birkin to Howard's Gainsbourg on the toxic ballad (I Know) A Girl Called Jonny. "That was the first song to be done [for the album]," Howard says. "I had this idea of doing a duet with Jonnine, and I'd started writing this song called (I Know) A Girl Called Jonny, so it seemed like an obvious thing to do. I really like her sensibility, and I think that HTRK are a great group, and they've got a sense of mischievousness that I relate to."
The release of Pop Crimes comes at a time when there's a renewed interest in the late '70s and early '80s post-punk culture that spawned The Birthday Party Reissues like Chapter Music's exhumation of albums by The Primitive Calculators (a band that Howard confessed to "loathing"), the reunion of a string of bands from the period and the release of books and documentaries like Richard Lowenstein's recent We're Living On Dog Food has combined to create perhaps more interest than there's ever been in [what] had been a largely undocumented era. Howard himself features prominently in We're Living On Dog Food, having given extensive interviews to director Richard Lowenstein.
So was he happy with the result? "Yes," he says, "although I thought it petered out a bit when it started concentrating on The Ears a lot more. But there were certainly some interesting things said, particularly having been there at the time. There was," he chuckles, "a lot of back-stabbing. It was good."