BB Gun Magazine #6 - 2003
DEAD LETTER TALES
THE ROWLAND S. HOWARD INTERVIEW
Blown backwards by a shear sonic force so unremittingly ferocious, yet somehow still intelligibly rock derived, though minus the lazy pretensions of the majority of that tired form. I'm barely a teenager and listening to John Peel playing something that sounds like it used to be music - but the lurching rhythms, heavy bass line, growl-cum-shriek vocals, and a guitar cuts the airwaves are something altogether new. The Birthday Party (like Throbbing Gristle, Teenage Jesus, Einstuerzende Neubaten, Swans, Foetus, and Sonic Youth, etc etc) defined my teenage years. Here was a form of music that was a direct form of communication, stripped of the pretensions of most post punk / so-called new wave / so-called indie. This was a manifestation of - as Iggy et al so eloquently put it - 'raw power'. I was even lucky enough to see the Birthday Party - midway through their final UK tour - as a nihilistic self-baiting four piece who created a sonic maelstrom that defined that intrinsic something as few others have been able to access. Sure all four of these guys made the music (there used to be five of them) - each part clearly indispensable, forged from years of playing together and surviving together often against the odds - but this concerns their guitarist, a tall thin guy with metal arm bands holding his shirt in place like a riverboat gambler in a western. Live, near as I can recall some twenty years later, Rowland Howard was able to tear a noise from his guitar that sounded either like a wall of howling quasi-disciplined tonnage (witness the extravagance of Dead Joe or the aural attack of Swampland) or possessed the kind of fractured dislocation that really could send shivers up your spine (witness Wild World, or Deep In The Woods, or She's Hit, or Dim Locator).
Likewise Howard's work with Crime & The City Solution or his own combo These Immortal Souls, both of which consolidated his reputation as a guitarist who was gifted with being able to play both rock in the classic sense and wild sonic assaults, often at the same time, and with no apparent care of the tired niceties of genre (thank the gods).
In all these outfits Rowland could simultaneously smoke a cigarette, fall over, lean forward into his guitar like it possessed him and still attack it with a uniquely casual abandon... he really gave - and still gives on record - the impression he didn't care about anything but the six strings resonating under his fingers. Sometimes he sang in a dead-pan deep tone, telling stories that seemed to hint at some kind of soul damage, as if pinning down the source of pain would fragment the very psyche of the singer. the mood evoked was noir existential rather than self-pitying.
He has collaborated with the likes of Lydia Lunch and Einstuerzende Neubauten, and guested on various Bad Seeds albums. He has jammed on-stage with Primal Scream and continues to write and perform. He released his first solo album Teenage Snuff Film in 1999, joined by Birthday Party collaborator and Bad Seed Mick Harvey and former member of Kim Salmon's Surrealists Brian Hooper on drums and bass respectively. Teenage Snuff Film is the logical progression of Howard's previous work, turning the eclectice lyrical images evoked in his earlier songs and his familiar guitar style into a finely honed and beautiful expression of his soul.
I was in Melbourne, and spent a few hours in Rowland's company, ostensibly discussing his novel (still, unbelievably, in need of a publisher). We were going to do an interview there, but instead we spoke on the phone:
JS: Hey Rowland, it's Jack calling about that interview...
(phone picked up)
RH: Hi Jack.
JS: I was going to ask you about everything, from the beginning to the present day. So, you're actually from Melbourne?
RH: Yeah. Yeah. Born and bred.
JS: What was it like, growing up there? There must have been a sense of isolation?
RH: I lived right out in the suburbs, where there wasn't really anything. What little culture there was you had to invent for yourself. The first secondary school I went to was this school called Era, it was an experimental school where you didn't have to go to classes if you didn't want to, but it was very dominated by a hippy aesthetic. And in those days in Australia if you wanted to find anything interesting you had to go and look for it. There used to be these shops that sold American records for some reason. And I used to go to them and look through things and find records like Raw Power, the Velvets, and you may have read the names in the NME or something, but you'd largely be buying things on appearance, because there was so little that was different in those days really, you could sort of do that fairly safely. It was hard work, put it that way, not looking like everybody else. People would get terribly upset if you had short hair and stuff like that.
JS: So you were listening to the Stooges, Velvets, David Bowie stuff like that?
RH: David Bowie, Roxy Music, and all that sort of stuff.
JS: You started playing in like 1976 with The Young Charlatans?
RH: I started playing - mucking about with other people - when I was 14, so that would have been '74. I started playing in a band situation in early '76, late '75. That was a high school band that everybody goes through. Then when the first very early whisperings of punk rock came along - well not so much even punk rock because there wasn't even a name for it yet - you know, that sort of, similar things started to crop up all over the world at the same time, a similar aesthetic, that appealed to the same sort of people. And all of a sudden you'd start noticing other people around, as you became more socially active, and I used to see Nick [Cave] and Tracy [Pew], I didn't have any idea who they were but I'd see them at films, things like that, and eventually you'd get to meet them.
JS: You started playing with The Young Charlatans first right, with Ollie Olsen?
RH: Actually, I was in a group called the Obsessions before then.
JS: The Obsessions - that's a great garage rock name.
RH: (laughs) Yeah. They were the people I went to High School with, and then I met Ollie and that was very different because we were both... it was something we were doing outside of our social life. It wasn't just done because we were friends and we had to have something to do. It was done much more seriously, to make some kind of statement. It was a real turning point for us. There was a television show on the ABC here, about music, the history of music, and they interviwed me and Ollie, when we were about 16, as the future of music (laughs), which was pretty funny.
JS: But it was true as well.
RH: But we didn't even have a band at the time, we just sat around writing songs.
JS: And that's when you wrote Shivers?
RH: No, I wrote Shivers when I was in The Obsessions.
JS: Really... so it really dates a long way back.
RH: Oh yeah a long way.
JS: It is one of the greatest teenage lost love anthems ever. Everyone I know in Australia seems to know that song - they remember it from school discos and so on. It seems to have had a huge cultural impact...
RH: Yeah. I don't know how, it never translated into record sales. I guess it's one of those things people heard from other people. By the time most of the people heard it I doubt it even was available... I imagine it was a home taping thing.
JS: That was the punk rock thing, home tape distribution. Have you got tapes of other things by The Obsessions and The Young Charlatans?
RH: Have I? No. There was a tape of four or five songs by The Young Charlatans - there were two tapes. Ollie used to leave the band all the time, and there was one [tape] that was just me, Jeffrey Wegener and Janine Hall, as a three piece, and there was another one with Ollie as well. And I periodically come across people who have copies of these tapes - I don't know why they've got copies and I don't - and I say "look I'd really appreciate it if you'd drag that out from wherever and it is and make a copy" and they say "oh yes I will", but they never do which is a real shame. I remember it as being good, and I know the songs were good, although I'm sure we were awfully amateurish.
JS: With growing up in Australia did you think there was a sense of isolation that helped create the music and the way people approached song writing?
RH: I think it was hugely important. There were a couple of things that were really important. One was at that time there were hundreds of gigs, you could play gigs all the time, and Australian audiences can be very blasé, you really have to be pretty exciting to catch their attention. But the other thing was there was never any kind of idea that it was even possible for this to be a serious commercial venture, you just did what you were doing without regards to anything. You could see there was a time in England in punk rock where it all of a sudden became possible for people to make a lot of money, and it does change things enormously. But in Australia, still to this day, you can't make any real money doing what you're doing because the population is so small; if you are operating outside of the mainstream there just isn't the population to buy it.
JS: It seems to me that - just looking through my record collection - so much was happening in Australia between '76 - '86: SPK, The Saints, The Moodists, The Triffids, The Scientists, you guys...
RH: I guess Australia was lucky in a sense, we had a better standard of living than other countries, so people could afford to buy instruments and to rehearse, things like that. And, as I said, there were stacks of gigs, I mean The Boys Next Door used to sometimes play four times a week. It made us so much of a better band, it allowed us to experiment with ideas very quickly, almost immediately if somebody had a new song it would be learnt and when you play that often you really develop as a band. One gig is worth 100 rehearsals.
JS: You saw that in bands coming from Australia to live in London at that time, even pragmatic things like how to deal with an audience. You'd see an English band who would do one gig every two months who'd be bewildered by an audience. Anyway, you joined The Boys Next Door from The Young Charlatans - because they were already playing as a four piece.
RH: The Young Charlatans, like I said Ollie was always leaving and coming back and leaving and coming back, and eventually he left, and things had disintergrated to such a point where I really didn't want him to come back. It just seemed like a natural progression that I joined The Boys Next Door, and eventually they asked me.
JS: Because they [The Boys Next Door: Tracy, Nick, Mick Harvey and Phill Calvert] all went to school together... so you were the outsider joining in almost?
RH: Yeah. Even till the very end I was sort of the outsider of the group. They had a long and established history of how they interacted with each other, and although for a long time I had a lot of say in what happened within the band with the artistic direction, they just came from such a different background than I came from there was always that cultural divide...
JS: Why was there this different background? Just the different schools?
RH: Yeah. And just... I think it was coming from a boy's school - they were a lot more macho than I was.
JS: And you were stuck in the middle of that?
RH: As far as I was concerned they were my friends, and I don't really see why I had to go through these alpha-male rituals to retain their friendship. I thought that it should have been the band against the rest of the world that it should have been this united front, but there was always somebody in the band who was being picked out as the whipping boy for a while, everybody had their turn.
JS: Don't you think that added to it in a way? I just remember the live show with that sense of total mayhem, then suddenly it would come together and blow the audience away - you'd think "wow" - and then you'd all skulk off back to your corners again...
RH: It may very well have, but unfortunately things like that were also responsible for the relatively short life of the band, in that it just became incredibly taxing personally, exhaustin.
JS: You moved to England and within six months you were gigging all the time, touring Europe, America.
RH: Well, we moved to England, and I think the time we were there we only played five or six times, and that was right at the end of the six months. Then we came to Australia and did a tour here. Then went back to England and I think The Friend Catcher came out and we got mixed up with Rough Trade booking and they were just in absolute heaven, because they were used to working with all of these bands who'd be incredibly primadona-ish, and just cancel tours after their second date. And because we were used to playing a lot it didn't really bother us, and they were just ecstatic because they could just book us all the time in these holes, and we'd go and play them.
JS: It must have been physically draining playing that often, especially with the live shows you'd put on, I mean we've spoken in the past about at that time post-punk and goth bands being totally unsexy, and I remember seeing a couple of bands and they'd just stand there with dry-ice, but you guys would hurtle around the stage like you were insane... I remember watching people pulling at Nick's hair and clothes, and pulling him into the audience, and him hitting them with the microphone, and you just charging towards the audience with your guitar... and that was something you didn't get from most English bands at all...
RH: ....No.... I think that the thing was that playing in Australia you did do a lot of gigs to audiences that were a) very hostile towards you and b) totally not interested, and you had to do something to grab their attention. And our attitude towards the audience was often very ambiguous and ambivalent. While we wanted some sort of reaction from them we certainly didn't want them to become some sort of clones of the Birthday Party. We wanted to get some kind of reaction from them, but by the same token we really didn't know what it was we wanted. Some kind of statement of individuality I guess. It had to be as much fun for us as it was for them. And we went back to Australia after being in England and getting reviews in NME and Sounds, we walked on stage and the audience was a) considerably bigger, and b) applauded riotously before we'd done a thing. I suppose we were looking a gift horse in the mouth, but we felt incensed: where were all these people before we had gone overseas? All we had now was some kind of stamp of approval on our foreheads - that was the only difference.
JS: I guess that contributed to the band's demise - being the leaders of the 'new scene' - I remember all those horrible goth bands citing you as their reasons.
RH: For us it displayed a total lack of understanding in what we were trying to do. Either we were doing something drastically wrong or people just didn't have the ability to perceive what we were doing. All that goth stuff was so melodramatic and ... "oooohhhhh spooooky" - it was so obvious. We certainly didn't see ourselves as being anywhere in those circles.
JS: I always saw you as taking the piss out of the goth stuff, I mean with Release The Bats... I thought that was meant to be funny.
RH: Oh yeah. The first time we learned Release The Bats I think we were falling around laughing. It wasn't so much a parody of goth, it was absurdist. It was very funny, it was enormously frustrating that people never seemed to be aware of the humour within the band, because we thought that we were genuinely amusing a lot of the time.
JS: I think that it's true - I think there's a lot of humour in it - like putting the Ed Roth cartoon on an album cover, when nobody would have done that at the time...
RH: Well, certainly no goth band would have done it, they'd have some awfully serious photograph of something awfully serious. The Ed Roth stuff conjures sort of an inarticulacy, a certain dumbness, and that's one of the great things about rock music is that it can combine articulacy and dumbness at the same time. A song like Dead Joe musically, and lyrically to a large extent, is incredibly dumb but it works - you don't have to be thrusting your intelligence into people's faces all the time, it's so unnecessary.
JS: From listening to all your records again over the last week I think that's also true about how you approach the guitar, that you have on one hand this absurd 'crung crung' [makes mouth guitar noise] thrash on say Dead Joe, and then you have these free jazz style riffs for like two bars or so... so on one hands its 'simplistic' and suddenly it becomes very 'clever', but you don't get beholden to one over the other, which so many bands seem to do - showing off their intellect or playing down their talent.
RH: Well, they're either scared of looking like snobs or scared of looking dumb, and that's always been what I feel is an integral part of rock music, is that it does encompass both of those things... and if you're really smart you know when it's appropriate to be dumb.
JS: And that's what good rock music should be about.
RH: Yeah. Absolutely. And a lot of absolutely true timeless rock music is dumb - or done with a sense of dumbness.
JS: The Stooges.
RH: They transcend intelligence - you hear the depth of the performance, especially in The Stooges case, if you look at the lyrics and read them from a sheet of paper they sound moronic, but the actual performance transcends that, takes it somewhere else.
JS: That's what makes a good rock record, and more and more people seem to have lost that, the idea you can have pleasure in that.
JS: I was always fascinated that people likened some of the Birthday Party to Captain Beefheart, to me that seemed a really superficial analogy, "oh! It's slightly odd time scale. It must be like Captain Beefheart".
RH: But also, it was also only one aspect of the band anyway. To be perfectly honest, I don't think they'd ever really heard Captain Beefheart before people started talking about him... I'd heard him and really disliked him because of his association with Frank Zappa, I couldn't bring myself to like anything associated with Frank Zappa, and that was when I was 14. The influence just wasn't there. You cannot but help arriving at similar points that other people have arrived at before.
JS: But you arrived at them from a far more different perspective, far more aggressive and dangerous... So, how did you approach song writing as a band?
RH: It was usually coming up with a very simple framework for a song and taking it to the band and the band filling it in. And it was usually based around some incredibly repetitive bass riff... but it was very collaborative.
JS: So, it wasn't like you and Nick sat down with your songs and argued them over, because the two of you wrote most of the songs...
RH: Well, we wrote... it was largely separate. When we were in England, because Nick didn't have a piano or anything, which is what he mostly wrote on, he would come with his ideas and you'd help him translate it into something he could show the band. Nick's very - I always felt it was one of his strong points - that he was confident enough with the band to come along with a very skeletal framework and let the band fill them in.
JS: That's how a band should work I'd think.
RH: Well yeah. Yeah. But a lot of people don't have the trust...
JS: (laughing) That's why most bands suck.
RH: (laughs) Yeah.
JS: How did you end up in Berlin - when the whole thing started collapsing?
RH: Mick Harvey and I and Lydia [Lunch] and Genevieve [McGuckin] went to Berlin to do the Honeymoon In Red recordings. And about a week after those recordings started we had a tour with the Birthday Party and Nick and Tracy came out and hung around the studio for about a week. Then we... we'd met Malaria in Washington - we'd played this place called the 9:30 Club and they supported us - and we re-met them, and Neubauten came into the studio when Lydia and I were recording and asked us to work on this single of theirs [Thirsty Animal]. And basically we met more interesting people there in two weeks than we had in England in two years - so it just seemed like the thing to do, to actually go somewhere where people we found interesting and stimulating [lived], because we had no allegiances to London it seemed like a good idea to get out. It was very frustrating.
JS: England doesn't support artists because it's too small - the problem is the weekly music press - you're famous Wednesday and two weeks later you're out of date.
RH: Well the other thing is you're on the cover of the NME and you're living in poverty, everybody knows who you are but you are starving. [In] Berlin - because there were a lot more people interested in what you were doing and so forth, there were people who were interested in helping you out, and it seemed much more of a like frame of mind, there would be more inspiration running around.
JS: Right. And then when the Birthday Party split up you stayed in Berlin?
RH: No. I stayed behind in England, I think everybody else went back to Australia. We did the last Australian tour and then we went back to England to finish Mutiny - so that's where we were based when the group officially ceased to exist, that's where we were finishing the recordings.
JS: Because those were the best records you did - the last two: The Bad Seed EP and Mutiny EP.
RH: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Without a doubt. I always felt ripped off that we'd eventually gotten to a situation where we were finally showing all the promise that we had finally grown above and beyond all of our influences and it sort of fizzled out, in the true T.S. Elliot sense. It was just, you know, we'd worked so hard and given so much to the band, slept on so many floors, and everything came to a head artistically and personally speaking and just disintegrated. But there was such a mess of misunderstandings going around, and very few people really understood what was going on. I certainly didn't understand what was going on at the time, there was so much back-stabbing and so forth, very typical of the situation.
JS: And then there was Crime and the City Solution - did you join them or reform them, because they were already playing in Melbourne?
RH: Well, there were two bands called Crime and the City Solution before Simon [Bonney] came to London. Like I said when the Birthday Party broke up everybody went back to Australia, and Mick Harvey had always been very impressed by this band Crime and the City Solution, and the only constant in the two line ups was Simon (the singer). And Simon and Mick did some demos together, and Mick took them to Daniel Miller, and Daniel was interested. So Mick paid for Simon to go to England. Then he rang me up one day and said that he and Simon had a group and would I be interested in playing in it... I think his initial intention was that it was his and Simon's band and they would use a sort of floating group of people to do whatever they wanted to do at the time, but it's very difficult to do that sort of thing because you can't really discard people after they've done all this hard work, it's one thing if you can afford to pay them, but if they're just slogging away for very little - like we were doing in Crime - it's very different. But I think that it was never really what I envisaged it was going to be. I always felt I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
JS: What did you think it was going to be like?
RH: Simon's other groups were much more eccentric and Simon's vocal style had changed completely, he was much more eccentric a vocalist when I first knew him, then all of a sudden he seemed to turn into this Jim Morrison-esque rock star. Whereas when I had seen Simon perform before he was incredibly charismatic, but also hugely particular, and totally unlike anybody I had ever seen on stage before, and certainly not a bundle of rock clichés he turned into. I think it never lived up to the sum of its parts because we were working in disparate directions most of the time.
JS: And you were doing These Immortal Souls at the same time...
RH: Well, because Crime wasn't a lot of fun, after a while I just started to do something else. The group sort of dissolved into two different camps, Harry [Howard, Rowland's brother], Epic [Soundtracks], and myself, who felt that Simon and Mick's approach was overly serious and too concerned with being beautiful. And Mick and Simon. So, I used Epic and Harry to start These Immortal Souls, and we were really happy with that.
JS: You didn't play out so much with These Immortal Souls - at least not in England.
RH: Well, we had a lot of problems initially, we released the album, went overseas, and there was a lot of press, and not long after the first album we went into the studio to do another album, and it was a complete disaster. And I found out halfway through recording the record that Epic didn't like any of the songs, but rather than telling anybody he thought if he played really badly we'd never release them. So we ended up going to the studio and spending a lot of money and not having anything releasable. Mute lost a lot of faith in us, and it took a long time till they paid for us to go back into the studio, it really sort of killed the momentum that we had. It was just very strange.
JS: And when that ended you moved back to Melbourne.
RH: Well, These Immortal Souls were still going then, we played our list gig here in Melbourne and I'd already started playing solo gigs and things. And we did the last These Immortal Souls gig because I had decided already that I was going to record a solo album. Basically I decided I want to make a record that I had complete veto power over everything and if it was bad it was because of me and visa versa: if it was good it was because of me. I didn't want to have to be diplomatic and take people's feelings into account and let something that I didn't like go on the record, because you can't tell people what to do all the time. And I'm really happy with the result, and strangely enough it was probably one of the easiest records I've ever made, and the situation of me having to tell people what to do came up so infrequently that it was like I had this power that I didn't need to exercise.
JS: I mean I love the song Silver Chain...
RH: I was just trying to write a song with that that could have been written at any time in the last one hundred years, a very traditional song, it's almost like a folk song in a lot of ways. One of the things I set out to do when I made the record was make it timeless, not to sound like a record that was made in any particular period of time. It's also very much - as you said - a more purified form, you don't need a degree in literature to know what I'm talking about.
JS: Right, certainly in some of your earlier lyrics though... I have to ask you in the Dim Locator you talk about 'intrigueinometry'... (laughs)
RH: Yes. It's a play on words - the science of intrigue or the mathematics of intrigue (laughs).
JS: That's what I thought (laughs).
RH: I used to read a lot of stuff by French writers like Raymond Queneau, writers who were influenced by mathematics...
JS: All that oulipo stuff... books based on permutations and things... books with the letter 'E' missing and so on.
RH: (laughs) Yes. Well Raymond Queneau used to work out exactly how many words were going to be in his novel and in his chapters through mathematical equations. A book called Exercises In Style where he tells the same ridiculous story in all these very different styles of literature - eighty different versions or something. Yeah, when I wrote Dim Locator Nick was finding it very tough to sing anything I'd written that was at all personal, so you know, I just wrote this ridiculous linguistic thing.
JS: That's interesting because it is that sense of absurdity you were talking about before regarding the Birthday Party. The fact you have this real intellectual perspective - you've written a book, you write essays and so on - and you also have this sense of the absurb.
RH: I guess the longer you do something... you become increasingly aware of the reasons why you do them, when I started playing music I really had no idea what I was trying to do, I was trying to do something that wasn't what everybody else was doing. Try as you may to remain in ignorance you just become aware of it through a process of osmosis. I really enjoyed writing the article about rock and roll for World Art it was a lot of fun.
JS: Finally, what made you want to do a cover version of White Wedding?
RH: I have always maintained that there was little point in - and before I go any further I am guilty as anyone else - there is little point in doing a cover version of a song everybody knows is brilliant, usually you only do a lesser version of it. What was much more interesting was to do a song that everybody thought was a piece of rubbish and find something great in it. And, I felt it was possible to do that with White Wedding, give it a certain sincerity and gentility it didn't have before.
JS: I agree. The first time I heard it I thought it sounded strangely familiar, and then when I heard the chorus...
RH: Well it really sounds like one of my songs until you hear the lyrics. And I liked the fact people would freak out a little bit.
JS: And again that goes back to these ideas of what rock music is.
RH: Well, exactly, and one of the things I wanted to say with the record was how important I felt pop music was - and seemingly ephemeral pop music. And that's why I put the Shangri-Las song on there as well.
JS: I love the Sangri-Las. They are one of the greatest bands ever.
RH: Oh absolutely. Hugely ignored by most people in rock music.
JS: Everything about them... the pro-Vietnam war song...
RH: They are truly extraordinary.
JS: Ok, that's great - thanks very much.
RH: My pleasure. Keep in touch.
JS: Talk to you soon, 'bye.
Jack Sargeant is author of numerous books on underground film and culture, he really does love the Shangri-Las and his essay on them appears in Car Crash Culture edited by Mikita Brottman (Palgrove).
- Jack Sargeant