In this exclusive interview, Mick Harvey talks extensively about working with his old mate in The Birthday Party and Crime and the City Solution on the newly reissued Teenage Snuff Film
There was no one quite like Rowland S. Howard. The Melbourne guitarist, songwriter and singer carved out a highly individual space in the musical universe, whether as sideman or bandleader.
Though his creative corpus may be slim compared to more prolific artists, it remains consistently strong. But nothing moreso than Teenage Snuff Film, his 1999 solo debut. Crammed full of exceptional tunes – “Dead Radio,” “Exit Everything,” “Sleep Alone,” “Autoluminscent,” “Undone,” a creepy cover of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” – performed in a stripped-down electric style, the album stands as one of Howard’s finest works. Sparsely distributed during its original release and out of print for nearly two decades, the record finally received a much-deserved reissue in March 2020 courtesy of Fat Possum, who performed the same duties for Howard’s second (and final) solo album Pop Crimes in 2014. The re-release reinstates an important cog in the wheel spinning the kind of rock noir favored by fans of the Bad Seeds, PJ Harvey and the Dead Weather.
Though Howard first made waves as guitarist and primary songsmith for the seventies-era Australian punk band the Young Charlatans, Howard’s handiwork alongside Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, Tracy Pew and Phil Calvert in the Birthday Party (formerly new wave band the Boys Next Door) put him on the world’s map in a big way.
“He really developed his unique guitar style when he was not the principal songwriter,” says Harvey today about his colleague of thirty years. “He really went into his shell at that time. He started writing stuff that fit with what the Birthday Party were doing, instead what came to him in the natural course of just writing stuff.”
Though Howard’s tunes took a back seat to Cave’s, his distinctive axe work – equal parts wiry screech, gothic twang and rib-rattling crunge – practically wrote a new set of rules for rock & roll guitar. “He developed that incredibly unique style because that’s what he had to do every night – just play the guitar. So he really put a lot of energy and focus into developing that, and enjoying that aspect of what he could do.” It’s no exaggeration to say his work with the Birthday Party spawned hundreds of adherents around the world, including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields.
“Johnny Marr and different sorts of players – they’ve all been influenced by Rowland,” says Harvey. “I don’t think a lot of people would know that. His influence is pretty pervasive. It’s part of the sound of the way a lot of guitar is played – you hear it all the time.”
Following the Party’s dissolution, Howard, Harvey, bassist Harry Howard (Rowland’s brother) and drummer Epic Soundtracks joined singer Simon Bonney’s Berlin-based batch of postpunk weirdos Crime & the City Solution, where Howard proved himself as adept at psychedelic soundwash and atmospheric thrum as controlled explosions. Howard left the band in 1986 with his brother and Soundtracks in tow and formed These Immortal Souls, the first band with himself front and center. The Souls released a pair of albums, 1988’s Get Lost (Don’t Lie) and 1993’s I’m Never Gonna Die Again, that introduced Howard’s distinctively deep, deadpan singing style and, most importantly, the full flowering of his extraordinary songwriting, covering subjects Harvey wryly describes as “girls and relationships and his broken heart and his analysis of his own self-importance.” Howard’s tunesmithery – witty, bitter, steeped in an imaginary world of tainted love and grey-shaded obsessions – hit its mark with especially deadly accuracy on Again.
VIDEO: These Immortal Souls Enger, Germany 1988
“You can really see his songwriting develop with ‘Marry Me’ through to the second album, which is, I think, really fantastic,” says Harvey. “The songwriting has really grown, and his singing is better. He’s found his voice, and he can sing more strongly. He’s just found his zone a bit better from doing it.”
Unfortunately, a combination of public indifference and a lifelong heroin addiction kept the musical iconoclast from taking full advantage of his creative blossoming. Outside of a few guest appearances, he was quiet for a good half-dozen years, before finally releasing Teenage Snuff Film, his first solo album, in 1999. It’s here that Harvey re-enters the picture. Howard and Harvey kept in touch mainly for business reasons after the mid-eighties Crime lineup split, until Howard recruited Harvey for the album. “Rowland wanted me to come and play drums, so I thought about it for a few seconds, like ‘Will I regret this? Will I feel resentful when he doesn’t pay me?’ Crime & the City Solution was a bit of an odd finish where he just took half the band and went off and started These Immortal Souls, and he thought I would have been upset about that, which I wasn’t particularly. Purely in terms of wanting to work with him as an old friend and colleague, and because I thought it could be a really interesting musical thing, it took me a few seconds to quickly process all the different possibilities and just say yes.”
Teenage Snuff Film picks up where the second These Immortal Souls album left off, with Howard’s distinctive romantic noir songwriting powered by raw, stripped down rock. Unsurprisingly, the record was recorded quickly, with few participants: essentially just Howard and Harvey, with Beasts of Bourbon bassist Brian Hooper and a few other guests. “The original plan was to record the basic tracks as a three piece with Brian playing bass and me on drums and Rowland on guitar,” explains Harvey. “As with all my bands, we tend to record live in the studio without click tracks and things like that. I don’t know what was up with Brian that week. There was something going on – he couldn’t make himself available and didn’t feel up to it for some reason. So we were left in the studio as a two-piece. We did nine basic tracks in probably about three days, and that was just me and Rowland playing live. There’s already a bit of bottom end, and that’s because that’s the way we recorded it. We really worked out the arrangements and the dynamics of the song based on that combination.”
Hooper did eventually join the party. “There were two songs, ‘Sleep Alone’ and ‘Exit Everything,’ which had Brian’s bass lines, which we really needed him for. So we got Brian in and he did those. Whatever was going on the week before must have cleared up and he felt okay about coming in.” After Steve Boyle guested on drums on the ballad “Autoluminescent” and a string section added some color, the record was done. “There was quite a bit of overdubbing on some songs, but all that dynamic range is all in the basic tracks, so it was a very exciting, very fun session to work on. It really was far beyond what I could have expected. Not that I went in with any particular expectations, but it was like, ‘Wow, this stuff’s great.’”
The creative success of the album was helped in part by Howard working on conquering his addiction. “He’d just been on some weird experimental treatment for heroin addiction: naltrexone,” says Harvey. “They thought it might be a kind of silver bullet cure at the time. After you’ve taken it, for the next week or so you were meant to feel really unwell if you took heroin – you just didn’t like it. So for the couple of weeks that we were doing all the basic tracks and Rowland was doing all the singing, he was actually not using any heroin. The clouds parted, and for a fortnight, opportunity just opened up, and it all happened. Because he was very alert and sang really well. I don’t know if you’re familiar with what heroin does to people’s vocal cords, but it’s not advantageous. It was just so very fortuitous – or it was deliberate. I think he knew that if he was just scoring and being out of it half the time that it wasn’t very conducive to making a good record.
“Nice for me, too, because I could actually communicate with him properly,” Harvey continues. “When people are on drugs and you’re not, it’s pretty hard to communicate in a balanced way. That was really fantastic for me – working with him on the material, understanding what we were trying to achieve, discussing what was happening in different parts of the song, and just the energy level, and his stamina was so much better. So we came out the other end with a really amazing sounding recording.”
Sadly, the album mostly fell on deaf ears, leading to the state of limbo in which it found itself, until now. “People had moved on and forgotten about him, at that time,” says Harvey. “It’d been six or seven years [since I’m Never Gonna Die Again]. Some people were really interested – he had core fans. But it was a small fan base. I don’t think the next generation had come online to be interested, and our generation, we’re all at home having kids and raising children. So this was a real demographic issue for a while – most of the people in the age group who are interested in what was happening were at home and couldn’t get out. We did a couple of shows in Melbourne, and one up in Sydney. There was good interest – those shows went really nicely, but just a few hundred people. Then [the album] was released through a small label in England, and that was it. A few months later, no one was interested. It was all over. Rowland must’ve felt like nobody was interested in what he was doing, which was pretty depressing for him. There wasn’t much to hang his career on, in an ongoing way. But he just kept plugging away.”
VIDEO: Rowland S. Howard performs “Dead Radio” solo
After a decade of acoustic shows, guest appearances, and production jobs for Hungry Ghosts and HTRK, Howard, Harvey and Ghosts leader JP Shilo assembled to make Pop Crimes, which debuted in 2009 to the kind of huge acclaim a cult figure like Howard deserved. “He could see that coming. When we’d gone in to do Pop Crimes at the behest of a record label, there was this groundswell of interest,” says Harvey. “Not just from the fact that the record company wanted to record, but from getting feedback from the public. He was getting feedback from all sorts of areas, and he could sense that there was a huge interest in the new record. Teenage Snuff Film hadn’t been available for a while and copies were selling for $500. He could see that there was a new level of interest in his work in general. So that was great. It was very gratifying for him. It was really, really good for his morale and helped him get the album done, really.”
Unfortunately, by this time, Howard’s illness had taken its toll, as his energy level waxed and waned – mostly the latter.
“Rowland wasn’t there a lot of the time,” explains Harvey. “He was just at home, and then we’d get a call at about four in the afternoon saying he had to go to the chemist on the way in or something, and then three hours later, he’d finally turn up. Then he’d stay for an hour and say he didn’t feel well, and go home again. Some days he didn’t come in at all. So JP and I did a lot of the overdubbing without him even there. We just kept working through ideas while we could and putting stuff together. Eventually I realized the best thing to do was just to tell him I was picking him up at 12:30, and drive over to his apartment and wait out the front. Then he would come downstairs and get in the car, and we got him into the studio and he’d be in there for four or five hours, and then have to go home because he was exhausted. He didn’t have a lot of energy or stamina.”
Howard played a handful of shows, including All Tomorrow’s Parties at Mount Buller and Fuji Rock in Japan. But the end, alas, was near.
“He was booked to play at this festival show in Sydney in early December,, 2009,” says Harvey. “He came round to my music room, where we’d usually rehearse, and we tried to run through the songs in preparation, so we could go off and do this show. He didn’t have the strength to press the strings down on the guitar anymore. We tried to play a couple of songs, and he was a few bars behind me and JP. He just stopped and said, ‘I can’t do it,’ and went out and called Genevieve [McCuckin, former Souls keyboardist and Howard’s closest confidant] on the phone and told her to cancel the show. He was pretty much in hospital after that.
“It’s a real shame. He just needed a liver transplant. He had a couple of little complications around that they had to get rid of before he could have the operation. He was at the top of the list. These complications were gonna take two or three weeks to clear, and it was just like, ‘Ah, he’s gone. He won’t make it through three weeks.’ And he didn’t. Now that’s really strange thinking of that. But then I suppose that’s just the nature of certain passings – they could have been avoided. The stars didn’t quite align, I suppose.
“If he’d got his energy back, he would have gotten right back into it. He would have been very enthused about exploiting the newfound interest in his material. I shouldn’t say something fatalistic about Rowland, but it was all a bit too perfect in a way – the final unraveling of the whole tragic affair of his life, in a funny way.”
Fortunately, Howard left behind music that continues to attract interest.
“Everybody takes something different out of it,” reflects Harvey on his old friend’s body of work. “I can understand people not being interested in it, or just hearing it and going, ‘Oh, I don’t like that, it sounds too depressing,’ or it’s too dark or whatever. That’s just personal taste, and a take on what people’s relationship with music is or what they want to get out of it. Most people just want music as a kind of confection, a soundtrack to life and a background thing, as opposed to a more challenging, invasive analysis of what does it all fucking mean? How do we fit in with this whole mad notion of existence anyway? Most people don’t want that from music – they don’t want something challenging in their living room, whereas that’s what Rowland presents.” As such, Howard’s reputation slowly continues to grow, and his music stands the test of time. “That’s what happens when you land some stuff out there that people want to keep listening to,” agrees Harvey. “Across time people who’ve got something of their own to offer, that tends to happen, and even if it isn’t picked up at first, quite often it stays the course.”