Mick Harvey Pt 2: ‘I Wasn’t Going To Pull Any Punches’
In the final installment of a two-part interview, RENÉ SCHAEFER talks to Mick Harvey about airing his dirty personal laundry in public, his decision to leave The Bad Seeds and the song he wrote about Rowland S Howard. Photos by ROBERT CARBONE. Part one here.
How will this [the personal subject matter of Sketches From The Book of Dead] translate into live performances? Are you going to play these songs exclusively?
When I looked at the list of songs on the album, I realised some of them weren’t going to work that well on stage. I’ve rehearsed about eight of them, but as I went back through my previous albums, it was really obvious which older songs would fit in the set. Even a song that I did ages ago, like ‘A Little Bit Of Rain’, is notionally similar to ‘How Would I Leave You’ for instance. Both are about someone projecting to a time when they won’t be here anymore. A song like ‘Photograph’ is really about loss. ‘Everything Is Fixed’ is a weird song about being on the brink of death. Actually I don’t know what that one’s about. I’ll have to think about that one again. ‘Planetarium’ fits in, as does ‘Bethel’, which is really about some horrendous, tragic, lost nirvana or something. I’ve just chosen a mixture of songs that fit together thematically and mood-wise. It would have made sense to just perform the album in its entirety, but I didn’t really want to do that. I’ve been doing that a bit with Polly, where we perform the whole album [Let England Shake], and that’s about two thirds of the show.
I actually prefer that with a lot of artists, rather than getting a “greatest hits” show.
Oh, I have no intention of doing a greatest hits night. I used to do a couple of Gainsbourg numbers as an encore, but that’s finished with, ancient history. I liked that about playing with Rowland – he wouldn’t dig up a lot of old songs, he’d just play stuff from the two solo albums. He could easily have said, “Let’s do a couple of These Immortal Souls songs and play a version of ‘Shivers’”. Well, we did actually play a version of ‘Shivers’ once, on Studio 22, a long time ago. People always want to hear the old stuff, but if they want that, they can just play the record.
Hearing an old song unexpectedly is a bit more meaningful than if it’s just a given that it will be wheeled out on a regular basis.
Hopefully that’s the case, and not just a token crowd-pleaser. It’s a dangerous world out there – everyone has opinions about everything you do. You can’t really buy into it; you just have to go with what you think is the right thing. Unfortunately there are chat rooms and all that kind of stuff these days. When you see what all these people are saying, it’s just, “Oh, God!” You just have to do what you believe in and not be swayed by all that.
Chat forums are mostly just entertainment for the people who participate in it. Artists are better off ignoring them.
Exactly! I never read [internet discussions], except one time when about four pages got handed to me recently when I was on tour with Polly. We were on the Eurostar [train] back to London and her management had printed it out and were showing her what people in chat rooms were saying. I was speechless. I got to the end of it and I said to Polly that this actually just made me feel more strongly that we had to stick with what we were doing and that we were doing the right thing. Why on earth would her management give us those printouts? It was an incredibly stupid thing to do.
Do you take much notice of the critical response to your own work?
No, I don’t really, but I got sent an email this morning from Mute Records, which had some press stuff about the album. The first thing I read was an interview I did with AOL Spinner, and the headline was something about me finally explaining why I left The Bad Seeds. They just grabbed the one line in the interview where I mentioned that whole thing and made that the headline. That’s why I don’t bother. That’s also why I just shouldn’t talk about it anymore, because people will just use it as if I’m mouthing off, and it’s not just part of a general assessment of where I’m up to.
And you talked about it in the press at the time already anyway.
People always think that more explanations are in order. This article pretty much said, “Finally we find out what the reasons were.” Well, are they really any surprise? [Laughs] It’s not any great secret, the kinds of things that go on in bands. So, if you’re dissatisfied with your part in a band and you think you should leave, it’s probably because you don’t feel you’re getting enough out of it, or you’re not getting enough say, or you’re not getting on with other members … it’s all pretty obvious, really.
Especially after such a long time with a band.
Yes. Things had changed and the balance wasn’t the same anymore, so I just felt it was time to move on. It’s allowed me to be really busy with other stuff and actually have some spare time as well.
Are you going to continue working on film soundtracks?
There were a couple of offers around, but it does actually become hard to fit that kind of thing in. I’ve got shows with Polly dotted all through the year and there aren’t any big gaps. I’ve already said no to a couple of big jobs. I must point that out to her management – while it might seem to them that I’m not very available, and saying that I don’t want to do this and that, I’m actually missing out on a lot of other work. So, the commitment is there.
Are you a permanent member of her band?
At the moment, yes. The current membership consists of the people who made the last album. We would have a hard time replacing anybody. It’s a small band, but there is a lot of stuff going on. Me and John [Parrish] do loads of different things, including singing all night. The recording was really collaborative and it was the first time that Polly had worked that way. It was very open, where it was thrown open to the band to elaborate on the songs a bit more and work out new versions of the songs. Most of the songs were recorded live, so there were only a couple of instances where she recorded the basis of the song by herself. It was great fun, so the live band is definitely a permanent thing for the time being.
Who have you got in your band to play the upcoming shows [Harvey played shows in Bulli, Melbourne and Sydney in mid-May]?
Just Rosie [Westbrook] at the moment. The idea is to just play as a duo with the double bass. I might bring in a pick-up drummer for four or five songs if I know someone in the city I am playing in.
You played most of the instruments on the album yourself?
Mostly. Rosie is on it, and JP Shilo came in and played something on just about every song, but that’s mainly background atmospheres.
Is performing solo daunting?
I’ve done a few shows like that and it was actually quite exciting, and quite successful, I thought. It’s something where you have to be careful of getting a bit samey, because it is just someone up there with a guitar and then it’s still just someone up there with a guitar 30 minutes later. There needs to be some variation in style and texture, so I’ve got these backing atmospheres that I’ve been developing, so occasionally there is a weird rhythm that I can play with. It’s not the main focus of the music though. Mostly it’s just acoustic guitar.
I want to ask you about ‘The Ballad Of Jay Givens’ [about Harvey’s father’s best man], which is a quite a striking song. Is that a true story?
To some degree it is. Insofar as that every song on the album has a true story behind it, they are all true. Insofar as my memory is correct, or the story that I was told is true. In the case of that song, it is entirely based on stories that I was told.
It seems like a courageous thing to me to unearth family history and put it out there.
Well, I don’t know how it’s going to go down with the family. There are no real names used. It’s not that I’m trying to disguise someone’s identity, but it seems more respectful and there was no reason to use their real name. If you wanted to be a private investigator and figure it out, there is accurate information in there. That’s the kind of stuff that gives it its weight, its meaning and context.
The balance between songs about family and songs about friends would be about 50/50. The songs about family are a lot more abstract for people outside the family, so they have a more universal application in a way. My family might find it a bit confronting, but that’s just too bad. It was my artistic decision to do it. There is no reason to not do it. People have to be able to deal with artists delving into their personal dirty laundry. Not that it’s necessarily dirty laundry, just laundry – that’s what you do. I wasn’t going to pull any punches, apart from not using people’s real names.
I guess people would be able to work out who certain songs are about.
Obviously, ‘October Boy’ is about Rowland, but that was quite deliberate, and that’s also why I chose it as the opening song. It introduces the idea behind the album. The chorus mentions the title of the album, because I actually talked to him about it. Some people have been asking me to tell them what particular songs are about, but it’s all in the lyrics. A song like ‘Two Paintings’ doesn’t spell out what it’s about, but if you pay attention to the lyrics, you can probably work out that it’s about a relation of mine … it’s not that hard to figure out.
I guess the song itself gives you everything you need to know about it.
Yes, supposedly I’ve said everything I wanted to say about it. Why would I tell more? If people recognise things in the songs, it’s because they are very common experiences.
‘How Would I Leave You’ is interesting in that regard.
The last two songs [on Book Of The Dead] really come from a different angle. It is like someone projecting forward, as opposed to looking back. Rather than thinking about things that stay with you, it’s thinking about what you will leave behind.
People don’t deal with mortality in that way very often.
But they think about it a lot.
Privately, for sure, but songs like that are rare.
A lot of people prefer to keep those kinds of thoughts private, I suppose. I was trying to put a positive spin on it [thinking of one’s own death]. The song follows after nine other songs about memories, and looking at how those memories affect you. Putting that song there makes the point that ultimately we have to be OK with all that.
In a way, it’s a great note to finish on, because it stops the album from being too morbid.
I was fully aware from the outset that there were certain dangers in making this album. It could be seen as wallowing in sadness and sentimentality. Getting a balance was going to be difficult, or even impossible, given the nature of the subject matter. To do justice to the material, it almost had to be a bit hard to take at times. It’s an occupational hazard. Whether people can cope with that or not is a very personal thing. I would completely understand if people found this a difficult album. For instance, I have no idea how my family will respond to it. They might be really positive about it, if they choose to speak to me about it.
“People have to be able to deal with artists delving into their personal dirty laundry.”
Does it worry you that listeners will learn really personal things about you?
I don’t think the songs are that specific in who or what they are about. They aren’t about presenting information that can be challenged, or analysed, or proven right or wrong. The point of the songs is about how you feel, what your memories are, and how those things come back to you.
Which makes it universal.
Yes. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any point for me. It would just be me running through a bunch of bleak moments in my life. Instead, I present it as an analysis of memory. It might seem like a song is telling a story, but the point is to get to the bit that is the memory. A song like ‘A Place Called Passion’ is not really about the events in it, but you have to tell all the events in order to get to what it’s really about - which becomes clear at the end - are all the things that I have around me in my life to remind me. But without the story, you don’t know the context. The narratives provide the practical skeleton for the themes. Even ‘The Ballad Of Jay Givens’ isn’t about what happens, but about unresolved feelings, or the incompleteness of the story. That’s the point. It’s really quite amorphous. [Laughs]
Right. I guess it comes back to what you were saying earlier – that you shouldn’t have to explain the song, because all you wanted to say is contained within it.
Not everybody gets that though. Often what I’m talking about in these songs isn’t really about my personal history with those people either. It’s about things that come back to me when I think about those people and the loss of them. That’s what the concept of the album was – to look at the things that keep coming back to me about certain people. I think everybody experiences this about people who are no longer with them. They are always odd and unexpected things that keep coming back. The songs aren’t about death as such. They are not about perfect memories, or making a perfect record of somebody. They are about the odd bits and pieces that keep floating around. The songs aren’t about the grieving process. They’re not even about loss. They are about continuing on and living with memories – those things which are still with you.
Is it accepting that death is a part of life?
Without wanting to get too Buddhist about it, that is partly what it’s about.
With the formal part of the interview concluded, we move into the studio’s cheerful kitchen, where we crack open some beers and a bottle of red wine. Soon we are joined by Harvey’s partner Katy Beale and his niece. To my surprise and delight, the conversation continues to flow for another hour before the three of them head off to have dinner at a local restaurant.
Ground covered in this undocumented conversation include his son’s Steiner school camp activities; the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky; the Jungian analysis of David Lynch films; Art school history lecturers; living in Germany; Einsturzende Neubauten’s early live shows; Cold War politics and visiting East Berlin in the 1980s; the protracted process of leaving The Bad Seeds; Nick Cave’s band Grinderman and “art as challenge” versus “art as entertainment”; Australian film maker Paul Cox’s liver transplant (no, he didn’t receive the organ that might have saved Rowland S Howard’s life); locally produced red wine; jazz pianist Paul Grabowsky; the photographs of Nan Goldin; the contents of Harvey’s fridge and his dislike of fridge magnets; the Melbourne Cinematheque; being re-united with childhood friends; John Zorn; Mr Bungle and Mike Patton’s new ’60s Italian pop album.
Somehow it’s apt the recorder remains safely tucked away in my bag.
PART ONE: Harvey on his Serge Gainsbourg tribute, working with PJ Harvey and his songwriting process.