The Rowland S. Howard interview

Last updated 09:45 21/10/2009

Pop Crimes is the name of the new album by Rowland S. Howard - it is released in New Zealand this Saturday. (Keep reading for a chance to win a copy - two lucky Blog on the Tracks readers will be chosen.)

Howard cut his teeth playing in teenage bands in Melbourne in the late 70s and then he helped form the band The Boys Next Door - the lead singer was Nick Cave. From The Boys Next Door on to The Birthday Party and travels to Europe where, Howard says, "we desperately did not want to be thought of as an Australian band abroad; we didn't like the other Australian bands that were in England and Europe, we thought they were terrible".

My conversation with Howard is all over the place - little surprise when, after telling him I love the sound of the new album, Pop Crimes, he informs me, "yeah, I'm pretty pleased with it, we had to record it quickly so the whole thing was done in a month".

Rowland S. HowardAh, why so quick?

"Well I'm just very sick, very, very unwell, so we couldn't f**k around. I contracted liver disease a while back and I've basically got liver cancer, I'm waiting for a transfer, if I don't get it things might not go so"

After that we jump back and forth, to discussions about time with Cave on the road ("We were so disappointed with all the Australian bands in England at the time, but it gave us something to rebel against"), to discussions of his love for Lee Hazelwood and The Shangri-Las ("The chorus to the first song on the new album is just me subverting that 1960s girl-group and country-pop sound; a bit of Phil Spector, a bit of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood") - to his love of the album format ("I still listen to albums, so I still want to make albums rather than release songs - it's really that simple").

When still a teenager Howard wrote Shivers (as recorded by The Boys Next Door). It's a song he has done his best to dissociate himself from ever since.

"Well, thankfully people have stopped calling for it in concerts," he says with a very lame attempt at a chuckle. "I have just tried, perhaps finally successfully, to divorce myself from the song. It's impossible for me to recreate what I was trying to do when I wrote that song so whilst I can see that people have an attachment to it, I don't. I feel like, when I did use to do it in shows, I was doing a cover of some song that had been around forever. That's how it felt. And I guess that is a strange way to feel about a song you wrote, so yeah, I am happy to not have to do it these days. I don't like to think about it."

(It's possible that having The Screaming Jets cover your song will do that to you.)

So, to the new album - Pop Crimes - recorded quickly (due to illness).

"I had lots of sets of lyrics and they changed a wee bit; since I mostly do solo shows with songs that can be done on just one guitar, I wanted to make this record a band record - so we worked on them a wee bit, very organically, just churning the grooves out and working out how to take the song along, building them from the bass-line up in a lot of cases."

At just eight songs Pop Crimes feels like a throwback to the 1980s. Howard explains, "I really like albums, especially the old four-songs-on-each-side vinyl and tapes. I think albums are often too long; I listen to a band like Tindersticks (who I love, by the way) but really I find myself struggling to get all the way through one album. And it shouldn't be that way. So I didn't want anyone feeling like that with Pop Crimes."

His trademark razor-lines of guitar are on display ("I just play the way I always play, there's no secret to it, turn the guitar on and go") and there is a laconic delivery to the vocals; one minute he's a Scott Walker-styled postmodern crooner, the next he's all the way forward to Mark Lanegan - in between there are traces of Leonard Cohen and some of the work his old friend and band mate went on to perform with The Bad Seeds.

Howard considers it both a blessing and a curse having the connection to Nick Cave.

"I've had people come up to me in the street and say 'we think you are better than Nick Cave, we really do!' and while I get that they're just trying to be nice - that that's a way to try to pay a compliment - I really don't understand it. Nick is good at doing what he does and I do what I do. I have to say that I've chosen to not work anywhere near as hard as Nick; Nick is great at what he does but he's always the same. I've done a lot of diverse things, from other bands and solo records to art and acting. Nick has followed his path and it has worked out incredibly well for him and I'm proud of him. But I'm doing my own thing now."

Some of those things have been very occasional. When we discuss Howard's acting sojourns he says, "What can I say: I was seduced by money." He doubts he'll ever head back for more from that area of the arts.

But he has remained close to the people from The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party - Mick Harvey still works with Howard ("we're friends, all of us, and we grew up together, had similar ideas, helped each other to realise these ideas, so there's a bond, yeah").

He hasn't made plans to tour the new record yet - saying that it depends on health first and foremost. He still favours the solo shows and despite Pop Crimes being a band album if he does head out and about ("I'd like to get to New Zealand, sure") then it will most likely be just Howard and his guitar ("I like it better, I feel in control these days doing the shows by myself").

Howard enjoys covering songs if "I can personalise them". And Pop Crimes features personalised covers of Townes Van Zandt's Nothin' and Talk Talk's Life's What You Make It. He tells me, "I liked the idea of this apocalyptic version of Life's What You Make It; I guess you could say that it appealed to me."

It's one of the highlights of the album.

And Pop Crimes is an album I have been playing a lot over the last month; finding new favourite tracks, finding new lyrics to marvel at, new subverted blues and classic-pop grooves to enjoy.

Howard says "when I find a record I love - it's great. Do you know what that's like? Do you remember that feeling? Nothing else matters, you just play the record and you feel happy or sad or both while that record is playing. That's what I wanted to do with Pop Crimes; I wanted to make a record that I think is great; and hopefully people that listen to it will think so too."

I think you will feel like that.

To celebrate his first solo record in a decade this cult artist ("that's a term I absolutely loathe") has released the album on vinyl as well as CD.

Liberation Music has been kind enough to provide two copies of Pop Crimes - on vinyl! - for me to give away to lucky readers. (The vinyl copies come with a CD version of the album inside the sleeve. Best of both wPop Crimesorlds.)

So, if you would like to win a vinyl/CD copy of Rowland S. Howard's Pop Crimes you can write in and tell me why you would like to win. And you can choose to answer one of the following questions:

either - What is my favourite song (not counting Shivers) by The Boys Next Door?

or - What is my favourite song by The Birthday Party?

You cannot answer both questions and please offer some reason beyond an answer to the question as to why you should win: a fan story, your interest in Howard or his music from the past...this is a very special prize to be able to offer so I'd like to see two fans win.

And please do check out Pop Crimes when it hits stores. It's likely to end up on my end-of-year best-of list. Easily. Has anyone else heard it already? Any thoughts?

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Sylvian   #1   11:18 am Oct 21 2009

My favourite Birthday Party song ever is 'The Friend Catcher'. Howard's seering feedback was like a rite of passage for me and showed me that you can still be creative and intersting using non convential methods on your guitar. Cave's yelps are sublime- "Hee Haw Hee Haw"- both comical and pyschically disturbing. Howard started my love affair with the Fender Jaguar and Jazzmaster. Also, his Teenage Snuff Film album is the ultimate soundtrack to urban disenfranchisement and alienation. I can't wait to hear the new album and see him live.

Alan Perrott   #2   11:19 am Oct 21 2009

well I can't really say I'm bothered by what your favourite song is, but for mine, I've got a few...Release the Bats (natch), the Friend Catcher, Mutiny in Heaven and Deep in the Woods. I remember the night of Live Aid, there was a viewing party at a mate's place and we ended up opting for DITWs on constant rotate until we all lost our voices from dooming along to it - those lyrics are still burned into a backblock of my brain. Those bands had a huge influence on us by proving the power to be gained from slowing everything to a funerial crawl and winding melodies and noise around a locked down brass-drum groove. They also showed that you didn't need to be a post-punk Brit to craft something brain-shatteringly new. Their influence here can never be underestimated.

Grant McDougall   #3   12:18 pm Oct 21 2009

Simon, while there's a lot you and I don't see eye-to-eye about we most certainly agree on this singularly outstanding singer-guitarist.

Howard is that very rare musician - one with a style so utterly distinctive you know it's him the minute you hear it. Those serated, zig-zagging shards are compelling, visceral and direct. Vocally, he has a ragged croak inbued with a melancholy few more technically-perfect singrs possess. Yet it suits his songs so very, very perfectly.

I've been aware of Howard ever since I saw the Birthday Party's 'Nick The Stripper' clip in the early '80s. I was 15 and it frightened the hell out of me. Through the '80s he also had a band called These Immortal Souls, but their albums were often hard to track down. A mate saw them in London in the early '90s and said they were superb. I was jealous.

Back in January, I went to All Tomorrow's Parties on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. I was watching a young Melbourne trio called The Stabs, they pulverized us with a set of full-on, raw noise. After one song, their singer said "Make sure you see Rowland S Howard today, he was amazing last week at Mt Bremner". I was going to anyway, but it was good to know he was on-form.

At about 5.00pm some friends and I walked up to the Barracks stage. At last I was going to see someone I'd wanted to see live for over 25 years. I wanted it to be great and he did not let me down - 45mins or so of scorching, jagged, fervent songs from one of the most under-rated musicians ever. As a bonus, the drummer was his friend, one of the best sidemen of the past 30 years, Mick Harvey.

Afterwards, I walked down the hill to the main stage, very, very happy. The next day I bought Teenage Snuff Film and I can but agree with Sylvian's assessment of it.

During the show, he mentioned there was a new album in the pipeline. A month or so ago, Radio One started to play a few songs from it and clearly they were strong songs. I'd love to hear the whole album.

It is for all of these reasons above that I'd like to win a copy of Pop Crimes, please.

Alan Perrott   #4   01:15 pm Oct 21 2009

ummm, damn good attempt there Grant matey, but you seem to have forgotten to answer either question...

but I've been thinking on it...maybe there's a lost Dire Straits cover they did that we don't know about? I can just see young Nicholas Cave working up a rabid nightmare over something like Twisting by the Pool.

but one thing I do hold against Rowland et al is that the prospect of watching some live footage of them convinced me that sitting through Wim Wenders Wings of Desire might be worth the effort. I was in a dribbling coma by the time their scene came round, so I'd like that time back thanks. I get all stabby just thinking about it.

Darryl   #5   03:02 pm Oct 21 2009

Thanks Simon good write up.

This brought back great memories of getting utterly smashed on cheap lager (among other things) and blasting Junk Yard till all hours, along with the likes of Nirvana's Bleach and The Jesus & Mary Chain. I wasn't old enough in '82, so I took me until '90 to get The Birthday Party

I would like to hear the album but don't put me in the competition, as my turntable is in pieces (sob) and my LP's are in storage.

ben   #6   03:02 pm Oct 21 2009

gotta be deep in the woods: "the sidewalks are full of love's lonely children, the sidewalks are full of love's ugly children...". pure disenhcanted bliss. what an anachronism.

fiery jack   #7   03:09 pm Oct 21 2009

Remember checking out the Birthday Party, Paddo Town Hall, early 1981 after returning from a UK/Berlin sojourn.They were mesmirising, delivering everything I had hoped for but left wanting from the majority of UK bands.Must have seen the BP more than a dozen times over the years with Roland's hammering staccato chords ever presnet. A true iconoclast and no suprises when Nick brought Blixa permanently into the fold.Roland continued in a similar vein with Crime and the City Solution and Lydia Lunch. No idea of your favourite BP song Simon but I'll take a stab (with a nod to Alan #2)at Mutiny in Heaven one of the last great songs they recorded before the band imploded.If this is heaven I'm bailing out.

Philip Matthews   #8   03:28 pm Oct 21 2009

Good on you for featuring Roland S, Simon. There was also the band Crime and the City Solution, who appeared along with Cave and the Bad Seeds in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire. They were very good in that film from memory; they featured Howard, Mick Harvey and an Aussie singer named Simon Bonney. And there was that very unhealthy-sounding version of "Some Velvet Morning" he did with Lydia Lunch. Best Birthday Party songs? Jennifer's Veil, She's Hit, Dead Joe, Swampland and every second of The Bad Seed EP. There are times when I think Cave has never done anything better than Junkyard/Bad Seed/Mutiny. It's worth well checking out the Pleasure Heads Must Burn DVD as well.

Yeti   #9   05:09 pm Oct 21 2009

My fav song he is on is the cover of "Some Velvet Morning" with Lydia Lunch but thats not the one I wnat to pick I ll go with "Release The Bats" (hopefully the stories will clinch it this time?) There is just something that grabs me about the intensity of Release that gets me every time a punishing frenzied listen that was skull & bones better than anything they did & theses lots to like in the BP cannon to be sure. The never saw release in NZ & I was desperate after reading the NME review so knowing my 60yo parents were off to Oz that month I gave them specific instructions (& yes lied a little as they were worried about my "naughty"/"Wrong music" Punk Rock fetish I was going (& still am) thru. Anyway they go down to a store in melbourne & source a copy for me . Mum said there was an odd look on the sales guys face when she requested that "lovely Birthday Party song "Release the Cats" that would have been hilarious on thier return I had a lovely picture bag copy of said 7 inch which I proceeded to play loudly much to their horror ! Luckily they didnt look too closely as they might have picked up they had been "mislead" ! :0

The second was watching Birthday Party selfdestruct on stage at Mainstreet 1.30 am on a tuesday we got 4 songs! 4 so I rekon them BP guys owe me !;)

Grant McDougall   #10   07:25 pm Oct 21 2009

Simon, at a guess, you're favourite Boys Next Door song is 'After A Fashion', while your fave Birthday Party song is 'Big Jesus Trash Can'.

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