four decades in rock, including work with the Birthday Party, Bad Seeds and PJ
Harvey – and now a solo album of all-original material.
BY RON HART
For over 35 years, Mick Harvey has been an essential cog in the
history of Australian modern rock as a key member of The Boys Next Door, The
Birthday Party, Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds,
where he has helped to bring a theatrical, multi-faceted strain to the punk
idiom that has proved to be as unique as the platypus of his native land.
As a solo artist, however, Harvey has sought refuge in the work
of others, choosing to serve the role as a sort of sonic interpreter educating
his fanbase on the genius of such acts as Lee Hazelwood, Tim Buckley, Guy Clark
and, of course, Serge Gainsbourg, with whom he’s translated two full-length LPs
worth of his songs to English. But his latest album, Sketches from the Book of the Dead, marks the first time this Oz
rock vet has recorded an entire collection of his own written material under
his own name. The songs featured here date back to a creative writing session
between 2007 and 2009, inspired by the memories of people close to him that
Harvey had lost, cumulating in the tragic passing of his longtime friend and
Birthday Party bandmate Rowland S. Howard.
After finishing his outstanding performance as a member of PJ
Harvey’s elite ensemble of collaborators for her latest opus, Let England Shake, alongside John Parish
and Flood, Harvey
utilized the downtime he had on his hands to complete the song cycle he
started. So with a renewed sense of creative energy, he entered the studio to
craft what would become Sketches with
a small group of session players, including Rosie Westbrook on bass, JP Shilo
on violin and accordion and Xanthe Waite on backing vocals with the
ever-versatile Mr. Harvey playing every other instrument. And the end result is
a haunting, insightful look into how we cope with death as humans and the wide
net that is cast upon the way in which one heals from the loss of a loved
one–equaling up to his most triumphant title as a solo act to date.
BLURT recently had a chance to speak with Mick Harvey the week
of his stint opening up for Polly Jean at Terminal 5 in New York City, where a wide variety of topics
surrounding the release of Sketches were
discussed along with other points of interest spanning the scope of his entire
career. Delivering his answers with a cantankerous grace, Mick was forthcoming
about everything, from the way he writes his songs and his role as a producer
to his favorite work by Rowland S. Howard and keeping in touch with his old
comrade Nick Cave. The result is a greater understanding
of this great mind, a multi-dimensional genius of the Victoria province.
did you wait so long to release a solo album of your own original material?
Simply put, it’s because I don’t normally write songs. It’s not usually an area
I pursue. In the past I have occasionally written lyrics but for the most part
where I have co-writing credits it’s for the music, and obviously I have
composed a lot of music through my film work, but this does not make one a
lyric writer. I mean, not everyone is cut out to write lyrics or driven to do
so. I came to the concept of this album when I wrote a couple of songs around
what would become its basic theme and that gave me the impetus to even consider
writing songs for such a project in the first place. I still don’t consider
myself a songwriter in the vocational sense. So, to answer your question
directly, it’s because I didn’t have the original material.
particular, inspire the idea for the concept of Sketches from the Book of the Dead?
The couple of songs which kick-started the idea, which were, I
think “The Ballad of Jay Givens,” “Frankie T.” and possibly
“A Place Called Passion,” came to me in quite quick succession, which is
not something I am used to. I can only say with hindsight that it must indicate
I was rather interested in looking at those issues at the time and had been
thinking a lot about such things. I guess that must be the basis of the germ of
most conceptual ideas – something that the artist is interested in. I’m not
sure it needs to be any more complicated than that.
How do you
feel the losses you experienced in the last few years altered your perception
of your own aptitude as a songwriter or storyteller?
Well, I don’t think recent losses have much to do with what I’m
dealing with in this material. The songs are really not connected with any kind
of raw grieving process. They are really more about the condition one comes to
live with – the absence with which one becomes accustomed but which has its own
peculiarities in what one has even chosen to keep remembering. I certainly
don’t consider myself a storyteller. I’m aware there are quite a few songs on
the album which purport to tell a story, but really they are just a vehicle to
present imperfect memories or to find the way to the bits and pieces which are
hard to explain without the story.
your approach to the creation of these narratives for the album?
It’s the scraps of information which are the more important
offering in the case of this album. That’s what it’s really about. So the
narratives are a way to find those. In a couple of instances the story IS the
imperfect memory, that’s what comes back to me about those people, so that’s
what I have used. But there was no attempt to research or get the story right
as that would have been against the concept of the album. It was important to
me that it was about memory and its inherent fallibility.
songs were not about catharsis, what aspect of the way we as humans cope and
live with death propelled their direction?
They are about, or attempting to delve into, aspects of what we
live on with at a point beyond the stage of mourning, when we are supposedly
coping with the loss. Which of course we do in varying degrees and intensities,
dependent on a huge number of factors.
single for the new album, “Famous Last Words,” has a very different tone,
sonically, than the rest of Sketches.
How did that song come about?
That one came from left field. It’s really just a collection of
quotes, of famous people’s last words. So it’s quite different in that it’s not
a personal experience or memory of mine. Putting it at the end of the album is
intended as some kind of release valve, I suppose. Though, it’s odd how it
works in with a fundamental theme of the album, which is the study of what we
take with us of those who are gone. In this case quite disproportionately
remembered last utterances that could have been made in a state of delirium or
quite mundanely, yet they are routinely strongly attached to the person in
were to be in conversation with someone and they asked you where to start in
your late friend Rowland S. Howard’s artistic oeuvre – be it from your days in
bands together or from his own solo material – to begin his or her appreciation
of his contribution to the music world, what album would you recommend first
Probably Teenage Snuff
Film. I think it is by far the
strongest of what could be considered primarily as his solo output – if you
place These Immortal Souls in that category as well, on the basis that he was
the main songwriter and I mean that as no slur on the band’s input to that
project. The material on Teenage Snuff
Film is very strong and his singing is by far the best he managed on any of
his recordings. The guitar playing is also unsurpassed, even on The Birthday
Party’s output. It’s something of a lost album as it was only really released
in Australia and very
low-key in England
and hardly anyone was interested in him at the time so it kind of got lost.
It’s a bit of a gem and I’m on it too!
to your work on Let England Shake,
what was it like for you to work in the English countryside for the album?
It was very enjoyable being in the English countryside and
working in the church. Although it was very cold for the first half of the
sessions and I was away from my family for 3 weeks, which was not easy.
have a favorite area of Great
Britain? Which one and why?
Not really, but I do like it in Dorset
which is just as well as I’ve spent quite a bit of time there.
your thoughts on how Let England Shake turned
The results are a good reflection of the working process [we had
together]. It was very enjoyable and there was a great chemistry between the
players involved. I think that can be heard in the way the album turned out.
Despite its subject matter it is very engaging and oddly enjoyable. We recorded
most of the songs as a three- or four- piece live and quite often an early take
was chosen, one from before we had even worked out our parts fully. That
looseness comes across, too.
My favorite thing about Let England Shake is how snippets of
certain songs creep into the mix, like Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime
Blues” and They Might Be Giants’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”.
How did that idea come about during the recording process?
In both cases Polly wrote the songs
using those loops as a base to work over. Interestingly she chose to play a
chord which was one semi-tone out with the original loop on “Let England
Shake”. I guess she’s just contrary by nature, must have sounded nice to
her, or just more interesting than chiming with the background – more
interesting to create a certain frisson. The loop on ‘Let England Shake’ was
eventually removed, in fact I think the final version was played without it.
“Summertime Blues” was still available for use on the recording of
“The Words That Maketh Murder,” but we chose not to use it.
you first come to meet PJ?
She came, with some mutual friends and associates, to a CD
launch the Bad Seeds did at the HMV store in Picadilly, London back in 1995, I think. We have been
good friends ever since. She invited me to work on To Bring You My Love… almost immediately.
to your previous solo material, how did you go about selecting the songs with
which you interpreted through the years?
They were ones I liked, very much I guess. They were always
songs which had a personal significance for me and which I felt deserved to be
disseminated further than they had been or which deserved or were open to a
personalized interpretation. That probably just about sums up why people record
versions of any type of song.
you listening to these days, music-wise? Are there any modern tunes you’d like
I listen to all sorts of things constantly. If I put my finger
on something particular I would be being misleading you. And I must say that I
don’t think what I am doing is “covering” other people’s songs. The two albums
which precede Sketches from the Book of
the Dead are as full of original and never before released songs as they
are with obscurities by other writers or so-called “covers.”
ever been talk about reissuing the Boys Next Door stuff? Where do you stand
with that era of your career?
Door, Door was
reissued ages ago and remains available to the best of my knowledge. I think
the low level of public interest in that recording probably reflects its
quality. I see that era as being a kind of apprenticeship which led to the more
fully formed version which we renamed The Birthday Party.
tell me about some of the new bands you are working with as a producer. How do
you go about choosing who you plan on working with?
Apart from Polly’s album, which I co-produced, the most recent
albums would be those of The Nearly Brothers called You Can’t Hide From You Yesterdays, which is a little beauty, and
Brian Henry Hooper’s Trouble. But in
truth I don’t really work with bands as a producer. I work with people on their
albums collaboratively and usually in a playing capacity. I’m not a chair
sitter. People are often of the opinion I have produced their album, which in
some respects I probably have, at least as a co-producer. On some occasions
people fail to recognize that I have performed this function for them but that
is probably their loss. The role of the producer, or better said, the
incredible variety of potential roles a producer can have, makes it one of the
least understood jobs going around, I think.
producer, who do you admire most behind the mixing board and why?
I don’t really buy in to producer appreciation. I like lots of
different sorts of recording production but really it’s just a vehicle to
present the music properly so I tend to just focus on that. Obviously I really
like some of the engineer producers I have worked with, but generally on the
projects I’m involved in they adopt that role and defer to the artistic
determination of the artist involved. I suppose that’s indicative of the type
of songwriters and bands I have worked with more than anything else. Obviously
Flood, Tony Cohen and Nick Launay come to mind.
you most like to collaborate in the studio with and why?
I work with the people I want to work with now, with the
possible exception of Sarah Blasko, an Australian singer, who I would love to
work with properly sometime. Sadly she chose someone else for her last album.
your favorite instrument to play and why?
Drums. I find drums the most challenging and enjoyable in so far
as approaching their use in a musical way. I probably have quite an unusual
approach to the drums coming as I do from other instruments. I have always
suspected that I play with the singing which may or may not be advisable.
going on in regards to your soundtrack work? Have you been approached by any
filmmakers lately to create a score?
I haven’t been doing any soundtrack work recently. There were a
couple of expressions of interest but unfortunately my touring commitments are
leaving me with no real open space to do such things this year.
you know impacted by the Australian floods earlier this year?
Yes, everyone was if you include the price of bananas and
mangoes and just about everything else.
child of the Pacific, how do you feel about all of this devastating seismic
activity going on causing these earthquakes in Japan
and New Zealand and the
flooding in Australia?
Did you ever experience anything like it growing up or is this new territory?
Melbourne seems to
be spared most of these extremities. It’s not on the edge of a tectonic plate
or fault line and nestled far up an enclosed bay from the ocean. Though I was
born in the town which was the first to be flooded in the recent floods in Victoria which came after the Queensland ones. Not sure this is really relevant
to anything I’m qualified to talk about.
recently released expanded editions of four seminal Nick Cave and the Bad
Seeds albums in Let Love
In, Murder Ballads, The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part. Which one
of that quartet of titles is your favorite and why?
Hard choice between Let Love In and Murder Ballads. I think both albums are good demonstrations of the
Bad Seeds working really well in the studio and creating that feel, that
chemistry. Great atmospheres and playing. So I prefer them to the latter two
albums, where there is much less of that in play.
have you and Nick
Cave spoken since you
left the Bad Seeds fold? Has the time away provided any kind of healing element
to your friendship?
We are in touch occasionally. I’m not sure what there is to
heal, though I imagine there is something. Time will probably provide a better
answer than I could offer here and now.
[Photo Credit: Loredana Di Maio]