2009 will be looked upon by many as a strange and wonderful, confusing and bewildering, but ultimately a sad and tearful year. Yon writer feeling the weight of many a loss, but none as saddening and as that of the passing of Rowland S. Howard to liver cancer on December 30. Forever known as Nick Cave’s red right hand in the Birthday Party, Rowland was the purveyor of that skeletal, metallic guitar sound that along with the bass growl of Tracey Pew, defined the band. Not to forget as also the songwriter of one of Australia’s greatest recordings, “Shiver” that thirty years after being recorded still transfixes.
Throughout the 80s and 90s Rowland kept recording, be it with Crime & The City Solution, as These Immortal Souls, or partnering with the eccentric Nikki Sudden and the provocative Lydia Lunch to name but a few. Speaking to Static’s Chris Berkley, only a few weeks before his passing, Rowland S. Howard recounts his extensive career and his brief return the music, with his second solo album Pop Crimes. As the interview begins, I shall pre-echo the words here. It was a great pleasure and a privilege. Farewell Rowland.
A great pleasure and a privilege to welcome in Mister Rowland S. Howard. You doing alright?
It’s been a period of busy activity. Does it feel like you’re awaking after a dormant sleep, running around and selling yourself again?
(laughs) A period of hibernation. Well, it’s nice to be doing something again. Nice to have a new record to promote.
You started this year playing the ATP festival, you’re seeing the year out by doing Homebake, so it’s been a year book-ended by big festivals. Did you have to be coaxed into doing those kinds of shows?
How did you find ATP? You would’ve been among good folk, it couldn’t have been too hard an experience.
No, it was remarkably enjoyable. The audience’s were very kind and as you said, there were a lot of really good bands. I just hate playing outside, I hate playing in the daytime. I hate festivals.
None of that is conducive to your shtick is it?
No. It’s sort of the antithesis of what I do.
You didn’t suddenly have to write songs to play at ATP because the stuff from Pop Crimes had been kicking around for a while, right?
Only a couple of songs, but most of it was written specifically for the album. I think we did a couple of songs from the record at ATP.
Are you usually more keen to go into the studio then, or does it take someone like your producer, Lindsey (Gravina) to take your songs in and put them down?
It was just a case of nobody was offering me enough money to make a proper record. People would contact me and want me to go in and make a record in a day and a half. At this stage in my career I’m really not interested in the limitations that imposes upon you. I’m always interested in going into the studio but it has to be under the right circumstance. I’m not going to go in and just do anything.
I guess you’ve been there, done that as well. Is it good to have that support group like Lindsey, people that are helping you then once you’re in the studio to get the best out of yourself.
Oh yeah, Lindsey’s great and he’s one of the few people in the music industry who will go that extra mile for you and work for nothing to make sure the record’s finished, and I’m not saying he does that for everyone, but he does it for me and he makes great sounding records.
It seems throughout your career you’ve had a lot of collaborations and they’ve been your lifeblood, be it Lydia Lunch, Nikki Sudden or anyone. Is it good to have people to bounce off when you’re making a record?
Yeah, but a lot of that was also born of the fact that I just didn’t have the confidence to do my own songs myself, so it was easier for me to hide behind somebody else. Working with other people they often bring the most extraordinary things to songs you have written and make them so much greater than what you had thought they were.
It’s sort of a tradition that’s continued for Pop Crimes, you’ve done this song with Jonnine from HTRK and you had produced their album a few years ago. It’s this relationship that’s given you a Nancy and Lee type duet on the album. Was it great to have someone of her age and eagerness to do a song with?
Yeah, and I think HTRK are a fantastic band and I think Jonnine is a really great lyricist and singer and I knew we had that same sensibilities in what we found appealing and that we could conjure up a certain playfulness that would be fun.
Are those kindred spirits few and far between for you? You must get a lot of people coming slavishly to you but may not have the best interests at heart.
I don’t hang out with a lot of musicians. Just because somebody else plays music it doesn’t mean I’ve got anything in common with them. Most of the inspiration for what I do comes from other sources, other than music. Whereas most people just reference rock music, so it can only progress so far.
That said, you do hang out with a lot of musicians’ songs. Cover versions have always been your penchant and I’ve very pleased to see that you’ve done Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It” on Pop Crimes and I’ve never realised what a bleak song that was until you did it, Rowland (laughs). Is that something you find exciting, inhabiting someone else’s song?
I like taking somebody else’s song and showing that there’s another side to it, despite that it’s written, in the case of “White Wedding”, Billy Idol has no credibility whatsoever. It doesn’t mean the song isn’t a good song.
Well you’ve twisted the knife completely with it, Rowland, channeled through you. But it’s a beautiful song nonetheless, right?
I just always thought that you could approach it like something from Fun House.
It’s great to have Pop Crimes under your belt and you have been making this new music, when you’re still doing that, going into the studio, and releasing new stuff, do you find it frustrating when people only want to pick over your past? Does that happen to you a lot?
Yeah. It happens. In these interviews that I’ve been doing, there’s a general lack of awareness that things that I’ve done.
It’s a very selective kind of awareness, people might only want to ask you about Boys Next Door yet they might not have heard any Crime and the City Solution albums.
Well, exactly. After the Birthday Party, there’s a big gap in most people’s minds to what I was doing and I understand why people want to talk to me about the Birthday Party, and if I met Ron Asheton while he was still alive, I’d want to talk to him about The Stooges, than Destroy All Monsters or whatever.
It is that albatross, but it’s something that seems to weigh heavier on other people or some people, doesn‘t it?
Yeah, I think because I’m not really a careerist. I’m not somebody who does this for fame. I occupy a grey area in a lot of people’s minds, and also you have to be fairly definitive in what you do for most people to, and I don’t mean this in a condescending way, for people to get what you’re doing. If there’s too much ambiguity or subtlety, a lot of people don’t really understand. Most people don’t really want to spend any time thinking about music, they just want to listen to it and that’s fine.
It’s not like you turned your back on it completely, you performed “Shivers” at ATP. So is that a given as well? Do you feel like you have to perform that song when you play live?
No, I very rarely do it, and in fact it’s interesting because people don’t yell out for it anymore because my audience is completely different than it used to be and people, because they’re young, they don’t have the same historical associations with that song that a lot of older people do. Which is fine by me, because it’s a very, very old song for me.
First broadcast on Static on 10/12/09. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).